Chapter 7: Obedience

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 7: Obedience

One of our most venerated and farseeing citizens recently remarked that in his eighty years of active life, associated with some of the most stirring events in the commonwealth, he had never seen such an orgy of lawlessness as that through which we are living now. Startled into thoughtfulness by this assertion, I made some interesting discoveries: that I could not recall ever having preached a sermon on obedience; that I could not recall ever having heard a sermon on obedience; that, when I searched volume after volume of modern addresses and sermons, I did not run upon any that dealt with respect for and obedience to authority. There were plenty on freedom, on the emancipation of the individual, on the outgrowing of old restraints, but few, if any, upon the necessity and glory of being mastered by what rightfully masters us. The impression began to sink in that our orgy of lawlessness is not an accident, nor merely a postwar psychological reaction, but that it is the natural fruitage of deep-rooted tendencies in our thinking which have affected alike our religion and our law.

That lawlessness is rampant needs no long demonstration. Consider the fact that in the United States in the last thirty-five years we have lynched over three thousand people, shooting them, hanging them, burning them, and sometimes distributing pieces of their charred bones for souvenirs. If one wishes to get the full effect of that fact let him not take it sitting comfortably in a peaceable suburban home; let him imagine himself in Tokyo giving good Christian admonition to a liberal Japanese about the cruel mistakes of Japan in Korea. When this admirable advice has been delivered, the Japanese, with inimitable courtesy, has his answer ready. "You are entirely right," he says. "We all have lamentable mistakes to regret. By the way, I have forgotten how many people you lynched in your own Christian country last year." What shall we say? We should like to fall back upon the lame excuse that lynching is swift vengeance for one unspeakable crime, but the fact is that scores of people are being lynched who are not even suspected of that special iniquity. We should like to plead the difficulty of dealing with the color line in this country, but the fact is in the last thirty-five years over a thousand white people have been lynched. There is no excuse. Lynching is cruel, uncivilized lawlessness.

Or consider our criminal record. In 1916 -- it was not an unusual year -- Chicago with its two millions and a half of inhabitants had twenty more murders than the whole of Great Britain and Wales with their thirty-eight million people, and in the same year the city of New York had exactly six times as many culpable homicides as the city of London. In the United States in 1916 there were 8372 culpable homicides and 115 executions; in 1917, 7803 culpable homicides and 85 executions; in 1918, 7667 culpable homicides and, once more, 85 executions.

We have heard a great deal about the breakdown of the church, but no breakdown so threatens the foundations of social order today as the collapse of our law. Ex-President Taft is of a judicial and cautious mind, yet even he uses this strong and urgent language: "It is not too much to say that the administration of criminal law in this country is a disgrace to our civilization, and that the prevalence of crime and fraud, which here is greatly in excess of that in European countries, is due largely to the failure of the law and its administration to bring criminals to justice."

The movies, our most popular recreation, are a weather vane to show which way the wind is blowing in the thinking of our people, and, so far as lawlessness is concerned, the direction is obvious. The representatives of the law are habitually at a disadvantage on the screen. The judge, the detective, the policeman come off badly in the plot, and the mere husband is often in ill repute with the audience. But ah! The attractive murderers, the high-minded robbers, the noble crooks, the gracious courtesans! The church is often accused of sentimentality. After watching the cinema, however, one suspects that in this regard it is fairly safe to risk the church. It is clear, however, that outside the church we are having a veritable debauch of public sentimentality expressing itself in silly exaltation of crime.


In the United States today probably the most obvious lawlessness with which we deal is the breaking of the Eighteenth Amendment and its enacting laws. If someone insists that the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment was not wise the answer may be assent. One may hate the liquor traffic and desire its obliteration, and yet may feel sure that had we gone on for a decade more with our local-option campaigns and their associated programs of education we should have been further on toward real temperance and ultimate prohibition than we are now.

Nevertheless, the attempt summarily to put down the liquor traffic at one stroke is on our statute books. It is the law, and no man can convincingly maintain that the majority of the people did not want it there. To say that is to vest our senators and representatives with ideal virtues quite beyond their just desert. It involves picturing them as men of such valiant and sacrificial devotion to total abstinence that in the face of a popular majority, at the risk of losing their seats, they insisted, out of their own impatient idealism, on passing the prohibitory laws and keeping them on the books against all protests. One who believes that must have the innocence of an infant. The truth is that many votes were cast for prohibition, not because our senators and representatives believed in it themselves, but because they well knew that a majority of the people did.

It is undoubtedly justifiable at times to break the law. My grandfather broke one -- the Fugitive Slave Law. He deliberately transgressed a Federal enactment which made it illegal to assist an escaping slave to liberty. On stormy nights, aroused by a signal on the windowpane, he would rise and go out to row boatloads of fleeing slaves across the Niagara River into Canada. He conscientiously broke a Federal law because he thought that he ought to obey God rather than men.

Does anyone maintain, however, that bootlegging represents any such self-denying devotion to Christian principles, that folk are drinking hooch as a sacrificial libation to their high ideals? Recently I saw a man breaking the law. He was proclaiming aloud his right to personal liberty. He had had so much of it that he was not lucid and logical in his argument, but it was obvious that he was endeavoring to cloak transgression of law under the sacred right to personal freedom. One who watched him. however, labored under the strong suspicion that he broke the law, not really for conscience’s sake, but for appetite’s sake!

It is one thing to put God above law. Once in a great while that may be solemnly, sacrificially necessary. But to put appetite for hard liquor above law is another matter. And the shame of the present situation is that the law is not being chiefly outraged by poor people; it is not they who are supporting half the population of the West Indies. Our lawlessness is mainly the work of men of means, prestige and influence, who ought to know better.

The following is suggested as a necessary element in the loyalty of a good citizen just now:

I hate the liquor traffic and all the damnation that it brings on human life; I recognize the right of the Government, when the majority so wills, to put down the liquor traffic, as it does a contagious disease, even though that involves the right to invade my home and take my child to an isolation hospital; I claim the right to agitate for the law’s rephrasing and amendment, where I think it needs it, that it may be more reasonable and enforceable; but in the meantime I will keep the law.


As to the sources from which our personal lawlessness springs, one of them is obviously to be found in the breakdown of authority in the state and the rise of a rampant and selfish individualism. Indeed, this excessive individualism has often been taken as the sign manual of a true American. Mr. John Graham Brooks tells of a dairyman in New Hampshire who, irritated by the strict requirements of cleanliness on which the state milk inspector insisted, broke out in righteous indignation. "Yes," he said, "I have read a good deal in the agricultural paper about this foolishness; but I am an American, and I propose to stay on bein’ an American." A very popular idea of one hundred per cent Americanism is involved in such a claim that one must have individual liberty to sell the public milk just as unclean as one feels like selling it. Unless Americanism, however, can be made to mean less individual liberty and more social obligation, the republic is headed in for perilous times.

Across the front of the courthouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, runs in great letters the inscription: "Obedience to Law is Liberty." That truth is the foundation of the democratic experiment. Long ago our fathers dared to believe in and to undertake a great venture of faith -- no greater idea ever dawned on the political consciousness of the race -- that not the king but the whole body of the people should make the laws, which then the whole body of the people gladly would obey. That idea, not a wild and wayward individualism, is the true basis of democracy, and the success of it demands loyalty, self-denying devotion and obedience. There is no magic by which the democratic experiment can be saved if mad insistence on individual liberty continues to crowd out sober recognition of social obligation.

If the readers of this article were likely to be economically rebellious against the present social system, tempted to Bolshevism as a philosophy and to physical violence as a method, warnings about the futility of TNT as an agency for social betterment might be in order. But since most of us, so far from being red, are not even pink, we need to recognize that lawlessness is not simply a matter of physical violence. When lawlessness emerges in connection with a strike, rising at times to the dimensions of a massacre, we are shocked. The outrage is visible, violent, murderous. Yet it is worth our while to listen to the excuse which the perpetrators of such lawless deeds offer, even if we do not easily sympathize with it. "Millions of us," they say, "have nothing to fight with except our fists. Our own combined physical force is the only weapon we possess. The men above us do not need to fight with their fists because they have so many other instruments of warfare -- money, influence, soldiers, lawyers, corporations that can control and evade law. How can you blame us when, driven into a corner, we fight with the only thing we have to fight with?"

As an excuse that is unconvincing; as an indictment it is searching. Probably the most perilous lawlessness in this country now is in high circles. There was an old type of lawyer whose glory was that he was a servant of the law. He devoted himself to that master with something of the chivalry which old knights felt for their feudal lords. He honored the law, and to see that it was respected and obeyed was his meat and drink. That kind of lawyer we still have with us and, as always, he is the glory of his great profession. But, like weeds in an untended garden, another kind of lawyer has sprung up. His business is not to interpret the law but to evade it; not to tell us what it means but to make it mean something else; not to show us where the highroad of legal honor runs but where are all the by-paths and crosscuts by which the highroad may be escaped. That kind of lawyer thrives in droves because other men make it abundantly worth his while. One does not need two eyes to see lawlessness that works, not with fists but with legal fictions, not with TNT but with technicalities, that evades law in ways too clever by a mile, plays ducks and drakes with law, and does it all smoothly and politely, as in Denmark "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."

No one who possesses any influence at all is likely long to escape this test of character. During the war, to be sure, we were very patriotic. The Government could ask of us nothing too hard. We felt a heavy sense of social obligation. The nation never needed that devotion more than she needs it now. These next years are likely to be critical in her history. We are skirting dangerous precipices. We need a new baptism of social obligation, disciplined living, loyalty to the common good, obedience to law.


Our prevalent lawlessness springs not simply from a breakdown of authority in the state, but from a breakdown of authority in the family. As another has put it, there is just as much authority in the family as there ever was, only the children exercise it. In saying this we do not need to make a weak and wistful appeal for the "good old times." The family life of older generations often had in it elements which we are fortunate to have escaped. Here, for example, is a letter written in 1803 by a Quaker lady, sending her brother Timothy to live with relatives in another town:

"Esteemed Friend: I send my brother Timothy to be under thy charge this winter, while he learns the store business. I know thee will be a faithful guardian, and though it grieveth me to unveil his faults, I must disclose them for thy friendly correction. I have discovered in the lad a worldly and evil spirit, having heard him imitate the unprofitable forms of the light folk of this town -- even saying "Mr. Jones" to old Friend Thomas Jones, and though only sixteen years old, he boldly and audaciously directed the woman who maketh his garments to alter their shape. These are bad signs, but I hope thee will prune away such sprouts of sin, and curb these longings after vanity. In other matters thee will find the lad obedient and correct.

"I send thee, Rufus, a present of a hat, which I hope thee will think good enough, as my deceased brother, Isaac, wore it for six years. Rebecca Ann was at meeting last First Day, with a red ribbon on her hat; this caused great excitement. Friends will deal with her, and try to uproot such evil spirit, which flames out of her heart. Everybody is sorry on account of her Aunt Tabitha, that strict model of righteousness, who will not let even a red rose grow in her garden.

"I shall be pleased to hear how thy family does, and also how brother Timothy conducts himself.

"We do not mean to put him upon thee without compensation, and we are willing to pay a liberal board -- say 1.50 a week, deducting .25 when he spends Sunday with his Uncle Caleb.

"Wishing thee well, and all thy family . . ."

Not many of us would care to go back to such "good old times." Yet in the best of those old homes, from which some of us came, there was a kind of spiritual authority which we shall lose at our peril. One Saturday morning my father, leaving the house, said to my mother: "You tell Harry that he can cut the grass today -- if he feels like it." Then after a few steps, he turned and added: "Tell him that he would better feel like it." Just so! The first part of those directions has had altogether too exclusive control of the training of the younger generation. They could do their duty if they felt like it. They could study, work, behave themselves -- if they felt like it. It will be a sad day for our families and for the nation if we cannot recover that second emphasis: they would better feel like it!

To be sure, that kind of authority in the home must be spiritually grounded. It can be no mere imposition of arbitrary will. I took that from my father and laughed over it all the while I cut the grass, because he was my closest chum, my best friend, and I had heard him pray for me when I was certain that he meant it. So Carlyle described the strongest spiritual influence of his youth --his mother’s praying. "The highest whom I knew on Earth," he wrote, "I here saw bowed down, with awe unspeakable, before a Higher in heaven: Such things, especially in infancy, reach inwards to the very core of your being."

We are coming closer home to the secret sources of our lawless times. No political maneuvering alone will get us out; nothing but the re-establishment of the spiritual authority of the American home.


Lawlessness has its source not simply in the breakdown of authority within the state and the family, but within the individual as well. When lawless citizenship and lawless homes have been properly assayed we must get back to the root of the matter in lawless character. Dwight L. Moody made famous his definition of character as "what a man is in the dark." What a man is in the dark, however, depends altogether on whether he has something inside his life whose right to command him he acknowledges, and whose commands, even in the dark, he stands ready to obey. Some men we trust absolutely; to know such men is life’s most reassuring experience. As Emerson says: "The world is upheld by the veracity of good men; they make the earth wholesome." And always in such men, as the secret of their reliability, we find an inward sense of honor, sense of duty, sense of God, to which they would subscribe themselves, as our fathers signed their letters: "I am, sir, your most obedient servant.’’

Obedience is the core of character.

The most tragic sight in the world is young men and women who do not discover that until it is too late. They begin, as youth so often begins, with unspoiled characters and unsmirched reputations and, utterly failing to appreciate their opportunity, by lawless living they throw their chance away. They fail to see that it is far easier to keep character when you have it than to recover it when it is lost.

Much talk about character is taken up with the sins that have been committed, the evil that has been done, and with the pardon and restoration that are waiting for the returning sinner. There ought to be more emphasis on the sins that never have been committed, the impurities that have not yet stained the life, and on the greatness of the opportunity which belongs to a fine youth on that account. Recovery from sin is a terrific process. When the gospel of pardon for the penitent prodigal has been fully appreciated, it still remains true that recovering lost character and lost reputation involves an appalling struggle. Sin has binding power, and the grip of its habits is tremendous. Sin has blinding power, and eyes once perverted by it do not easily regain the grace of seeing straight. Sin has multiplying power, and each sin spawns other sins like fish in the sea until it seems impossible to be rid of them. Sin has hardening power; it callouses the soul until the spiritual touch which once would have roused us leaves us dead. To get out of sin, when once you are in it, is a terrific process.

When, therefore, one sees a youth, not yet caught, not yet mastered by evil habit, walking at large, a moral freeman, one wonders if he half appreciates the splendor of his opportunity. So many sermons have been preached on the glory of the Prodigal’s return; so few upon the glory of his chance before he went away at all.

The most desirable thing in the world is not the home-coming of a prodigal; the most desirable thing is a youth who keeps his character by obedience to the highest that he knows, and never has the bitter struggle of coming back.

It is a great deal easier to use an opportunity when you have it than to regain it when, by lawlessness, it has been thrown away.


Religion has an indispensable function to perform in this building of obedient character. For what ever else God may mean, he certainly means that in this universe and in our own lives there is Somebody who ought to be and who proposes to be obeyed.

Almost every aspect of God’s significance for human life has been pushed to the fore in our generation, except this. We have made him very amiable, very approachable, even affectionately maternal, and we often have forgotten that, whatever else God means, he represents moral order. He is no friend of undisciplined living.

They say that the Bolsheviks in Moscow held high celebration on last Christmas Day; that they marched through the streets with a stuffed figure marked "Almighty God," at the head of the procession, and then burned "Almighty God" in effigy. Whether the story is true or not, this certainly is clear: if anybody wishes to live an undisciplined life he would better start in by getting rid of God; for so long as he is here the Eternal Right exists which ought to be obeyed.

Nor is this a hard gospel. It is a glorious gospel. The secret of all our material progress has lain in our discovery that the physical universe is a law-abiding system. All scientific advance depends on obedience to law.

And all high character depends on inward obedience to moral law. It is just here that we often miss the substance of Jesus’ character. We are touched by his gentleness, pity, compassion, kindness, but the core of his character lies underneath. "Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth"; "I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me"; "Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother"; "Not my will, but thine, be done." At the center of the Master’s life was a glad but tremendous obedience to his Father’s will.

Indeed, one of the chief services which the Master has rendered his followers is to redeem obedience from forbidding severity and to make of it a glad and winsome loyalty. He has so exhibited the moral life at its best as to make men fall in love with it. He has said, not "Go! Obey duty, ‘Stern Daughter of the Voice of God,"’ but "Come! Follow me." He has aroused in men a devotion to himself and a patriotism for his cause which have put into following him the kind of thrill and adventurous joy which soldiers have felt in campaigning with a general for whom they would gladly die. At infinite cost men have obeyed him, as the highest that they knew, but they have thought of him as one, "whose service is perfect freedom."