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McDowall's Defense of Biblical Sensationalism

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Journalists who exposed corruption sometimes had to defend themselves against arguments that exposure of wrong-doing would increase its incidence or corrupt general discourse. In August 1834, the Reverend J. R. McDowall, editor of a hard-hitting New York monthly appropriately titled McDowall’s Journal–his motto was, "The world is our field, prevention is our aim"–printed a spirited justification of the biblical sensationalism he practiced. McDowall’s discussion, more thorough than any others I have seen, provides valuable insights into the logic of some early crusading journalists, but to my knowledge it has never been reprinted. A few excerpts follow; for easier modern reading I have re-paragraphed some of McDowall’s material and deleted some italics and other overly used attention-getting devices of the time.

Shall Licentiousness Be Concealed, or Exposed?
This I apprehend is one great question before the community; and the final decision of it will doubtless constitute an interesting and important era in the history of this vice. It is assumed that the Bible is our only rule of Faith and Practice, and is a competent arbiter of the question.

First,–I propose for decision the general questions: Shall Vice and Sin be concealed, or exposed? In deciding this question, I inquire, What does the Bible TEACH? and What does the Bible PRACTICE?

What does the Bible TEACH?
(1) Cry aloud and spare not; lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and SHOW MY PEOPLE THEIR TRANSGRESSIONS, AND THE HOUSE OF JACOB THEIR SINS (Isaiah 58:1). Show my people their transgressions.–He must tell them how very bad they really were . . . He must deal faithfully and plainly with them . . . God sees sin in his people, in the house of Jacob, and is displeased with it. They are often unapt and unwilling to see their own sins, and need to have them showed them, and to be told, Thus and thus thou hast done.

He must be vehement and in good earnest herein, must cry aloud, and not spare; not spare them, nor touch them with his reproofs, as if he were afraid of hurting them, but search the wound to the bottom, lay it bare to the bone; not spare himself or his own pains, but cry as loud as he can; though he spend his strength, and waste his spirits, though he get their ill will by it, and get himself into an ill name; yet he must not spare . . .

(2) Son of Man, CAUSE JERUSALEM TO KNOW HER ABOMINATIONS (Ezekiel 16:2). God not only commands Ezekiel to expose abominations, but details minutely the abominations to be made known. It will be recollected that we are now investigating the general precept of the Bible in regard to concealing, or exposing vice and sin. . . .

(5) The Lord said moreover unto me, son of many wilt thou judge [plead for] Aholah and Aholiba? Yea, DECLARE UNTO THEM THEIR ABOMINATIONS (Ezekiel 23:36). Please examine the whole chapter. In the 33d Chapter of Ezekiel is pointed out the duty of watchmen to blow the trumpet and warn the people of approaching danger. But is it in vain for a watchman to shout "Danger!" unless the people are distinctly told what the danger is? Certainly that was the uniform practice of the ancient prophets. . . .

(6) "If thy brother, son of thy mother, or thy son or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying Let us go and serve other gods . . . neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou CONCEAL him . . . And all Israel shall hear, and fear and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you" (Deuteronomy 13:6—11). Hence it appears such idolators were to be made public examples, for the good of all.

(7) And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them (Ephesians 5:11). . . . Endeavor to expose their wickedness, and make the perpetrators ashamed of them . . . If it should be said that the perceptive duties that have been cited to expose vice and sin have special or sole reference to the sins of the church, and not to those of the world, then I reply both the church and the world are under the same moral government of God–both are amenable to the same laws–both will stand at the same final Tribunal–and both will be either condemned or acquitted by the same general principles.

Moreover, St. Paul, particularly in the first chapter of the Romans, and the other apostles did expose and denounce the sins and vices of the gentiles as well as those of the church. And finally, it would be hard indeed to charge upon the church all the sins, and vices, and abominations that are exposed and condemned in the Bible. The precept therefore, has as much respect to the abominations of the world, as to those of the church. And as there is nothing in the Scriptures of an opposite spirit and import to the general scope of the passages quoted, we are forced to the conclusion that the BIBLE PRECEPT is, to DETECT, EXPOSE, and PUNISH VICE and SIN.

What does the Bible PRACTICE?
When Adam and Eve had eaten of the forbidden fruit and thus transgressed the commands of God, they hid themselves, as vice and sin are wont to do. Then what did God do? He went into the garden and sought for them saying, "Adam where art thou?" And detected, exposed, and punished them.

(2) When Cain committed fratricide, the Lord suffered him not to escape, but detected him, saying unto Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?" "What has thou done?" And thus did the Lord expose and severely punish Cain. Genesis 4:8—14.

(3) In like manner, was the wickedness done by Jacob’s sons to their brother Joseph in selling him into Egypt, and then in lying to their father about his death–detected and exposed.

(4) Another interesting illustration of the Bible practice is found in the case of Achan, whose theft so seriously troubled the armies of Israel. Showing very clearly God’s utter abhorrence of concealed vice and sin, and his determination to have it detected, exposed, and punished. . . .

(20) In the book of Esther is a very interesting narrative of Haman’s wicked devices against the Jews, and of his detection, exposure and punishment. "And when Haman saw that Mordecai: wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai." (Esther 3:5, 6) But when the plot had advanced so far that the destruction of the people of Mordecai seemed inevitable, then the Lord saw fit to detect and expose the machinations of Haman. And cold indeed must be the heart that can read this story and not rejoice at the developments of the 7th chapter. And colder and harder still must be the heart that would advocate the concealment and protection of vice and crime, and sin. . . .

(27) The 16th of Ezekiel is not the only chapter that exposes vice and sin. Among other chapters of the same character, we may mention–the fifty-ninth of Isaiah, the fourth of Hosea–see also the 1st, 2d and 3d.), the twenty-second of Ezekiel, and the Prophets generally, the twenty-third of Matthew, the first of Romans.

Ezekiel was among the Jews, what Juvenal was among the Romans; a ROUGH REPROVER OF THE MOST ABOMINABLE VICES. THEY BOTH SPOKE OF THINGS AS THEY FOUND THEM; STRIPPED VICE NAKED, AND SCOURGED IT PUBLICALY. THE ORIGINAL IS STILL MORE ROUGH THAN THE TRANSLATION.

(29) See how God speaks of Licentiousness.–Will you denounce God as indecent? As collateral evidence and illustration of the Bible method of dealing with vice and sin, especially of speaking upon the subject of Licentiousness, let us examine some of the laws which God gave to Israel . . . "Moreover thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbor’s wife to defile thyself with her. And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination. Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith . . ."

At this time when so many honest Christians are anxiously inquiring and seeking for light, and truth, and correct principles, and for the proper mode of speaking and conversing upon the subject of licentiousness, it is peculiarly interesting and important to know how God spake upon this subject: for true Christians will never hesitate to follow an example set by their Father in heaven. God’s mode and style of speaking upon the subject I have exhibited in the selections indiscriminately made from all the sacred writings . . . It would be well for us not to become "wise above what is written." Shall we be "wiser than God?" "Shall any teach God knowledge?" (Job 21:22)

TAKE NOTICE: Not only did the allwise Jehovah speak in this style, and give these laws and statutes on the subject of Licentiousness, but he gave commandment, saying "Thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up." (Deuteronomy 6:6—9) . . .

And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children. Under all the Divine dispensations from the beginning, no duty is set higher, or more insisted on, than that of instructing children in the knowledge of religion. [and what is "the knowledge of religion," but the knowledge of vice and virtue, of sin and holiness, of evil and good, of wrong, and right?] . . . Christian parents are most expressly enjoined to "bring up their child in the nature and admonition of the Lord"; and to the praise of young Timothy, as well as of those relations who had been his instructors, it is said, "that from a child he had known the Holy Scriptures, able to make him wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ."

Now is it to be supposed that "young Timothy" was taught to omit, in his reading of the Scriptures, all those chapters that relate to licentiousness? Must "young Timothy" be kept in profound ignorance of this vice against which the Bible thunders so loudly? Is only a part of the Bible "profitable for doctrine, for reproof and for instructions in righteousness?" . . .

No concealment of vice at the final Judgment . . . O, the developments and disclosures of that awful day! "When God shall judge the SECRETS of men." (Romans 2:16) When every disgusting abomination shall be stripped naked, and vice in all its horrid deformity and odiousness shall be exposed to the assembled universe! Ah! whither will fastidiousness then flee–and how shall squeamishness veil her face? Will the rocks and mountains afford a hiding place?

Let us think, speak, and act with sole reference to our final account. We are to give account of ourselves to God, and not to man. If duty requires the detection, exposure, and punishment of vice, we are not to inquire or regard what the world will say; our only concern is to know what God thinks, and what he will say. Hear the Lord Jesus–"What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:27, 28)

Conclusion of the argument
Having adopted the Bible as our only Rule of Faith and Practice, and having ascertained that it is both the Doctrine and Practice of the Bible to expose vice and sin, and having also ascertained that licentiousness, which is one of the most flagrant and abominable of all vices, is not recognized by the Bible as an exception to the general rule of exposing vice and sin–It necessarily follows, THAT IT IS OUR DUTY TO EXPOSE LICENTIOUSNESS.

The code of criminal law proscribed by every civilized and Christian government, requires the most diligent and energetic efforts to detect, expose, and punish vice. Look at all the combination of wisdoms and power in the Legislative, the Judicial and the Executive departments of all our governments, both superior and subordinate, to effect these objects. It is only upon the detection and punishment of vice, that the peace and safety of society depend. Banish from the community the vigilance of a Police by day, and of a Watch by night–Deprive the constable of his staff, and the sheriff of his power–Demolish Bridewell and Jail, Penitentiary and Prison–Paralyze the strong arm of the law–Close every court of Judicature–in short, abolish the whole system of means and measures, or powers and function, organized for the detection, exposure, and punishment of vice–And then shall you see commence the Reign of Terror and the Misrule of Anarchy. Then shall the assassin plunge the dirk and the dagger at noon-day, and blood shall deluge the land. . . .

Burglary and Burning, Riot and Rain, Pillage and Plunder, Death and Destruction shall become the watchwords of an infuriated mob. The domestic fireside, that sacred retreat of innocence and virtue, shall be invaded by Lust and Rape, and the dwelling place of a mother’s purity and of a daughter’s chastity, shall be converted into the Brothel and the House of Death. Order, Temperance, and Sobriety, shall be ingulfed in the whirlpool and confusion of bachanalian revelry, and midnight debauchery. The Sabbath shall no longer be sanctified by the church-going bell, by the prayers, and praises, and precepts of God’s Holy Sanctuary, by the quiet devotions of the social circle, or the aspirations of calm retirement: but the Lord’s Day shall become the grand Jubilee of Tumult and Banqueting, of Horse-racing and Gambling, of the Parade of Military and the Pageantry of Pride and Folly, of the Desolation of Error and the Havoc of Infidelity.

And yet all these horrors are but the inauspicious beginning of that Reign of Terror, and the Misrule of Anarchy, consequent upon the abolition of Penal Law, and the concealment and protection of vice. Those therefore who oppose the detection and exposure of vice, must see that they are acting in opposition to the best interests of society, and to the collective wisdom and experience of legislators in every age of the world, But this is not all: Such opposers must find themselves acting in fearful opposition to the Precept and Practice of the Bible, and of the Bible’s God.


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