September 4, 2012

Whittier: Woe to the priesthood!

People in Charleston, South Carolina staged a pro-slavery gathering on September 4, 1835.  The turnout was strong, and the local newspapers particularly reported that the local clergymen and religious leaders came out in full force to support the cause in question. Anti-slavery poet John Greenleaf Whittier was appalled and responded with a poem, "Clerical Oppressors":

     Just God! and these are they
Who minister at thine altar, God of Right!
Men who their hands with prayer and blessing lay
     On Israel's Ark of light!

     What! preach, and kidnap men?
Give thanks, and rob thy own afflicted poor?
Talk of thy glorious liberty, and then
     Bolt hard the captive's door?

     What! servants of thy own
Merciful Son, who came to seek and save
The homeless and the outcast, fettering down
     The tasked and plundered slave!

Whittier saw not only hypocrisy from those who should be morally sound, but also the frightening correlation between them and leaders from the Bible like Pontius Pilate and Herod who were equally in the wrong. If his words weren't already strong enough, Whittier also calls them "paid hypocrites," "locusts," and people who "barter truth" for "robbery and wrong." The poem continues:

     Woe, then, to all who grind
Their brethren of a common Father down!
To all who plunder from the immortal mind
     Its bright and glorious crown!

     Woe to the priesthood! woe
To those whose hire is with the price of blood;
Perverting, darkening, changing, as they go,
     The searching truths of God!

     Their glory and their might
Shall perish; and their very names shall be
Vile before all the people, in the light
     Of a world's liberty.

     Oh, speed the moment on
When Wrong shall cease, and Liberty and Love
And Truth and Right throughout the earth be known
     As in their home above.

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