Romans 13 and the Patriots

RevisedCheck out Lincoln Mullen‘s recent piece at The Atlantic on the use of Romans 13 in American history.  He correctly notes that Romans 13 was not only used by Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution, but also by patriots who tried to interpret the verse to justify rebellion against George III.

Here is what I wrote on this subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

The patriots used phrases such as “passive obedience” and “unlimited submission” to describe this Anglican view of the relationship between Christians and civil authority.  They spend hundreds of pages trying to counter it.  The most outspoken defender of such a patriotic interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 was Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church.  Mayhew was a liberal Congregationalist and forerunner of the Unitarian movement in New England.  He was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason.  His sermon on Romans 13, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” was preached in 1750 on the celebration of the one-hundreth anniversary of the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War.  Despite the fact that Mayhew’s sermon was published a quarter-century prior to the outbreak of revolutionary hostility in Boston, John Adams, reflecting on the causes of the Revolution, wrote in 1818: “If the orators on the fourth of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they out to study…Dr. Mayhew’s sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance.

Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government, regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy.  But the real issue at hand was the extent to which such “subjection to higher powers” should be practiced.  Mayhew concluded that sometimes resistance to civil authority might be justified.  According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason.  Paul’s primary audience in this passage was those in the first-century Roman church who did not show proper respect to civil authority and were of a “licentious opinion and character.”  Moreover, Romans 13 could not conceivably require submission to all rulers, but only to those rulers who were “good.”  Rulers who “attend continually upon the gratification of their own lust and pride and ambition, to the destruction of the public welfare,” were not worthy of a Christian’s submission.  Mayhew argued, “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief.”  It is “blasphemy,,” he continued, to “call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.”  It follows that when a ruler becomes tyrannical, Christians “are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage.”  Perhaps the most ironic think about Mayhew’s argument is the way he managed to transform Romans 13 from a verse teaching submission to authority into a verse justifying the execution of Charles I and, for that matter, all rebellion against tyrannical government.  Charles I, he concluded, had failed to respect the “natural and legal rights of the people,” against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.”  As a result, resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from “slavery, misery, and ruin.”

For Mayhew, it was “obvious” to any rational person exercising common sense that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 did not teach submission to a government perceived to be tyrannical.  How could God require his people to live under oppression?  God has promised his people freedom.  But such an interpretation required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond a plain reading of these texts.  In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong does of the idea of political philosophers such as John Locke. In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), a pamphlet designed to explain why the Glorious Revolution (the removal of English monarch James II from the throne) was justified.  Locke taught that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property.  His justification of resistance to government had a profound influence on the leaders of the American Revolution, but it ran counter to the teachings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.  This tension did not stop clergy from interpreting these passages through the grid of Locke’s revolutionary teachings.

Let’s be clear.  Romans 13 teaches that Christians should submit to government,  but it does not seem to require unconditional submission.  It is not an easy verse to apply and we must be very careful about applying it universally.

Were high taxes (Stamp, Townsend, etc.), “no taxation without representation,” the Coercive Acts, or British military presence in the  American colonies (“standing armies”) so atrocious that Christians had a legitimate reason to violate Romans 13?   I don’t think so, but others, like Mayhew, disagree.  (Let’s remember that Romans 13 also tells Christians to pay their taxes).

Is the stripping of children from their families at the Mexican border atrocious enough for Christians to violate Romans 13?  I would say yes.  Of course this entire point is moot because, as far as I understand it, there is no American law requiring ICE officials to take children away from their parents.

Why Luke 18:16?

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The New York Sun, March 21, 1915.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

Last night I noted that the most popular Bible verse cited in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16. Read my post here.

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Several of you have asked why Luke 18:16 was so popular.   On Twitter I asked Lincoln Mullen, the man behind America’s Public Bible, why Luke 18:16 appears so many times. in newspapers during this period.

Here is his answer:

Here is my section on Sunday Schools in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

Evangelicals concerned with moral reform of American life concentrated much effort on the religious education of children and young people through Sunday Schools.  Some of the earliest Sunday Schools in America were formed in the eighteenth century to provide biblical instruction to the children of the urban poor, many of whom spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble.  Children would gather in churches to sing hymns, pray, read the Bible, and hear a short sermon.  They were rewarded for regular attendance and their hard work memorizing Biblical passages.  If records of enrollment in Sunday school classes are any indication, the efforts of these schools were successful.  By 1832 there were over 300,000 boys and girls attending Sunday schools in the United States, or about 8 percent of the young people eligible to attend such classes.  The numbers were even higher in urban areas.  For example, in the same year, close to 28 percent of Philadelphia children were attending Sunday Schools.  Because these schools focused on reading and writing, many of them drew large numbers of free blacks–both children and adults.  Starting in 1824 a benevolent organization called the American Sunday School Union was formed to stimulate the movement across denominations and provide literature for Sunday Schools operating around the country.  (See Anne Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of An American Institution, 1790-1880).

The American Bible Society and the Sunday School Movement shared many of the same activist convictions.  In 1827 the ABS authorized the publication of a “small testament” for Bible Cause CoverSunday Schools with the goal of meeting the spiritual needs of the “thousands of poor children…in our large towns.”  From this point forward, the Society supplied Bibles to any Sunday School organization in need.  For example, in 1831, the ABS provided the American Sunday School Union with 20,000 copies of the New Testament in support of a massive effort to establish schools in the Mississippi Valley.  In the 1830s the ABS distributed over 14,300 Bibles and over 57,700 Testaments around the country, with most of them going to the American Sunday School Union and the Methodist Episcopal Church.  In the 1850s these numbers rose to 27,729 (Bibles) and 134,237 (Testaments).  Rev. Charles McIlvane of Brooklyn, in a message to the annual meeting of the ABS, compared the Society’s education outreach to Cambridge University in England.  The only difference was that “our University is in the business of benevolence.”

Through much of the antebellum period ABS headquarters in New York received constant reports from Sunday Schools in need of Bibles and moving letters from agents about their rapid growth.  One of the more sentimental requests came in 1847, when the ABS received a small tin savings bank filled with $2.17 in change.  It was sent by a small girl requesting three dozen Bibles for her Sunday school class.  The money enclosed in the bank did not cover the cost of the Bibles, but the ABS sent them anyway.  In 1854, H.W. Pierson, the ABS agent in Southern Kentucky ,visited all seven of the “Coloured Sabbath Schools” in Louisville.  He was impressed with slaves and free blacks of all ages attending these schools and noted that a great majority of the teachers were black, but he lamented the general lack of teachers and Bibles.

A couple of images:

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The day book. (Chicago, Ill.), 25 Dec. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

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New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 07 Sept. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

Mapping Early American Elections

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Check out Mapping Early American Elections, a brand new digital history project from the good folks at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Here is a description:

Mapping Early American Elections will offer a window into the formative era of American politics by producing interactive maps and visualizations of Congressional and state legislative elections from 1787 to 1825. The project makes available the electoral returns and spatial data underlying those maps, along with topical essays on the political history of the period and tutorials to encourage users to use the datasets to create their own maps.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016 to offer enhanced access to the early American election returns in the New Nation Votes collection at Tufts University. The New Nation Votes dataset is the only comprehensive record of elections in existence for the early American republic. Scattered in newspapers, state archives, and local repositories around the country, the election returns have been painstakingly gathered over the past forty-five years by Philip J. Lampi of the American Antiquarian Society.

Rosemarie Zagarri provides more information here.

Lincoln Mullen explains that difference between Mapping Early American Elections and A New Nation Votes.

 

Trump’s “Conversion” in Historical Context

 

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Check out Lincoln Mullen’s piece at The Atlantic on Donald Trump’s apparent conversion. Mullen, a professor of history at George Mason University, places James Dobson’s claim that Donald Trump became a born-again Christian in historical context.

Here is his conclusion:

All of which connects to Dobson’s claim about Trump’s supposed conversion. It is plausible that Paula White could have “led [Trump] to Christ” by reciting a sinner’s prayer while Trump remained oblivious to its meaning as a feature of evangelical conversion. Or Dobson and White could have made the conversion up. Regardless of its truth, the claim seems like an attempt to make Trump more palatable to conservative Christian voters and re-secure their now-tenuous grasp on political power. Many evangelicals will be unable to cast a vote for the Republican presidential candidate with an untroubled conscience. If trusted leaders like Dobson can convince them that Trump is born again, some may find it easier to vote for him in November.

Evangelicals sing of conversion as being “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” but Dobson’s attempt is more akin to a whitewashing. If the doctrine of new birth is the birthright of evangelicals, leaders like Dobson would have them trade it for a mess of pottage.

Mullen nails it.  I also used the “mess of pottage” metaphor in my debate with Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, another evangelical supporter of Trump.  And whether we call it “whitewashing” or “laundering,” Dobson’s reference to a Trump conversion is designed to clean Trump of his moral indiscretions so that he is more palatable to evangelical voters.

As Mullen’s article suggests, the experience of the new birth is what makes an evangelical an evangelical. It is a very personal rite of passage celebrated within a spiritual community.  Dobson and friends have taken this sacred ritual–one that evangelicals believe makes a person right with God, offers redemption, and provides them with hope–and has used it to promote an agenda in the profane world of politics.

“The Bible Cause” Symposium at Religion in American History Blog

Bible Cause CoverAs many of you know, I got my start as a blogger writing for Religion in American History.  I was there in the early days. Actually, I was Paul Harvey’s first regular contributor to what has become a must-read-blog for American religious historians.  (Here is my first post–written on July, 7, 2007).

So needless to say I was thrilled when Lincoln Mullen, one of the many contributors to the Religion in American History blog, informed me that he would be facilitating an on-line symposium on my new book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  Mullen recruited three scholars to write reviews of the book.  After those reviews are published, and I get a chance to read and process them (I have not seen them in advance), I will write a response.

The first review comes from Elesha Coffman, a church history professor at Dubuque Theological Seminary and the author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline.

Here is a taste of her review:

Institutional histories are tricky to write. I know this because I wrote one, and also because John Fea admits as much in his new book The Bible Cause: A History of American Bible Society. Institutions are not people, about whom page-turning biographies can be written, or ideas, with which a writer can wrestle. The sheer mass of them, and of their archives, limits the writer’s mobility. “It is extremely difficult to write popular reading material about the ABS,” noted ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor, who commissioned a one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary history of the society that was slated for 1966 but never completed. Fifty years later, having hit the deadline for the society’s two-hundredth anniversary, Fea concurs, observing that “institutions do not usually make for the most thrilling reading” (5).

This is not to say that The Bible Cause lacks drama. Weaving the tale of a venerable benevolent institution with two hundred years of American and, in several chapters, overseas history means covering many conflicts big (e.g., war) and small (e.g., divided responses to the line drawings in Good News for Modern Man). Fea also highlights personalities as much as possible. In the latter task, Fea is aided by the zest for adventure exhibited by ABS colporteurs and published in ABS periodicals. John Thorne, for example, recalled being pelted by peanuts and assailed by chickens while distributing Bibles in China in the 1870s and 1880s. When Chinese opposition to Western imperialism produced the Boxer Rebellion a few years later, white ABS officials managed to flee the country, but many Chinese colporteurs died, some crucified on trees (140). Fea’s is by no means a bloodless story.

Read the rest here.

Picking Your Religion

Lincoln Mullen, an assistant professor of history at George Mason University, calls our attention to a recent Pew Research Center poll reporting that nine percent of Americans of people claim that they are Catholics, but that Catholicism is not their religion.  Pew calls these people “cultural Catholics.” 

Mullen writes:

There is a basic assumption about religion at work in the claims cultural Catholics make about their identity. Even though about 13 percent of them occasionally attend Mass, they do not consider that practice sufficient for them to claim Catholicism as their religion. Instead they say they are Catholic “because of their Catholic background,” which mostly means that they were raised in Catholicism as children. They feel they have inherited a Catholic identity, but have made a conscious choice not to embrace Catholicism as their religion.

When asked what it means to be a Catholic, some people say that it is “a matter of religion,” others that it is a matter of “ancestry or culture.” Religion and religious identity are seen as distinct from the cultural identity. It is not simply an assemblage of beliefs and practices, but the fact that one has chosen to believe and practice, that marks something as religious to Americans. One basic assumption that Americans make about religion, then, is that it is something they actively choose, not something that they simply inherit.

As Mullen points out, the idea of picking one’s religion instead of inheriting it is a distinctly American phenomenon dating back to the early nineteenth-century:

The idea that people must pick their religion is by no means natural. Americans came to think of religion as a matter of choice because of a long historical process. When religion was disestablished in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the removal of state encouragement for religion had the effect of encouraging people to decide matters of religion for themselves.

The 19th-century expansion of evangelicalism into the Protestant mainstream intensified conversion as a live option, as evangelists preached revivals and traveling pitchmen brought tracts and Bibles to people’s doors. Irreligion, whether in the occasional growth of real atheists or agnostics or in the constant fears of imagined “infidels,” also played an important role.

And he concludes:

Plenty of Americans have picked their religion, and so they think of religion as something to be picked. Americans have developed this distinction, which would not have made sense centuries ago. As the Pew report shows, American Catholics hold onto the identity that they have inherited, but they don’t think of that identity as religious unless they have chosen it for themselves.

We are bombarded by these religious reports put out by Pew and other polling organizations.  What I like most about Mullen’s piece is his attempt to bring some historical context to these contemporary trends.  Of course his piece echoes scholarship about religious consumerism and democratic religion made popular by scholars such as R. Laurence Moore, Nathan Hatch, and others.