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5/15/13 at 06:13 PM 1 Comments

Jailed for Your Ideas: R.B.C. Howell, Pastor of FBC Nashville, and His Imprisonment by the United States Government

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R.B.C. Howell (1801-1868)

By Wade Burleson

Patrick Henry once said, "The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government." Our Founding Fathers understood that a free country has a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Countries without freedom have governments over and separate from the people. This is why Thomas Jefferson once wrote "What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance?"

Recently, the government of the United States has admitted targeting certain political groups for IRS audits. Franklin Graham has written a poignant letter to President Obama asking why the Billy Graham Association was targeted. It seems that the United States government is acting like a bully, infringing on personal freedoms, micro-managing small business affairs, putting millions on government payrolls, burdening future generations with debt by borrowing more than half it spends, and acting as if the government is the final authority on all matters, including those moral and spiritual.

There are number of people who are expressing ideological differences with the present administration of the United States government, and it is now public that the government targeted some of those dissenters. Is there a precedence in America for anyone being imprisoned by Federal government for simply expressing ideological convictions different than the ideology held by the government?

Of course there is.

Robert Boyte Crawford (R.B.C.) Howell (1801-1868) was the Pastor of First Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1851 through 1858 (an unprecedented seven years), and according to Cathcart's Baptist Encyclopaedia  "one of the ablest and most learned men in the South." In 1862 the Union had declared Nashville part of a "military territory" and installed Andrew Johnson as territorial governor. Governor Johnson demanded every Nashville citizen, particularly prominent ones like Dr. RBC Howell, to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States government. The oath went like this:

"I do solemnly swear that I will support, protect and defend the Constitution and government of the United States against all enemies, whether domestic or foreign, and that I will bear true faith, allegiance and loyalty to the same, any laws, ordinance, resolution or convention to the contrary notwithstanding; and further, that I do this with a full determination, pledge and purpose without any mental reservation or evasion whatsoever; and, further, that I will well and faithfully perform all the duties which may be required of me by law. So help me God."

Pastor R.B.C. Howell refused to take the oath. The Union government disbanded his church and imprisoned Dr. Howell for several months. My great-great grandfather (F.T.D. Cherry) was imprisoned in Nashville with Howell for a few days before F.T.D. was transferred to Rock Island. Dr. Howell used the time he spent in jail to handwrite the history of First Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee. Last week Rachelle and I were in Nashville for couple of days and while she was at Vanderbilt, I went to the Tennessee State Capitol's Research Library to study the handwritten history of FBC. To my surprise, I came across a letter Dr. Howell wrote to Governor Andrew Johnson explaining the reasons why he would not take the oath of allegiance to the federal government, a letter that preceded his imprisonment. I have since discovered that Howell's letter has never been published via the Internet.

I am posting R.B.C. Howell's letter as an example of cogent, Christian thinking during times when people may be unable to swear their allegiance to a government. Dr. Howell died shortly after being released from prison and is buried in historic Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. The Nashville Banner described the funeral process of the venerable pastor as "the longest this city has ever witnessed." I would encourage you to read the following letter slowly and contemplate the principles stated, particularly those in numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7:

__________________________________________

Governor Johnson - Sir:

Summoned before you I am requested to take the following oath:

"I do solemnly swear that I will support, protect and defend the Constitution and government of the United States against all enemies, whether domestic or foreign, and that I will bear true faith, allegiance and loyalty to the same, any laws, ordinance, resolution or convention to the contrary notwithstanding; and further, that I do this with a full determination, pledge and purpose without any mental reservation or evasion whatsoever; and, further, that I will well and faithfully perform all the duties which may be required of me by law. So help me God."

I have ever scrupulously conformed myself to the government under which I have lived. I do this as a religious duty. I have never knowingly violated any law of the Federal Government, of the state government, nor of the military government now established. I am informed that no violation of the law is charged against me. My purpose is to pursue the same course hereafter. I intend not to resist "powers that be," but to comply with their requisition as far as they do not come in conflict with my duty to God. Respectfully I feel myself obliged to say that I cannot do it (take the oath) for several reasons, some of which I beg permission very briefly to state.

First - I cannot take this oath, because there are some parts of it which I do not understand. When I am requested to swear that I will "bear true faith, allegiance and loyalty to the Constitution and government of the United States, any law, ordinance, resolution or convention to the contrary notwithstanding", I am at a loss as to the meaning. What law, ordinance, resolution or convention is referred to, I know not. I cannot tell whether reference is had to some existing law, ordinance, resolution or convention which I am likely to suppose obligatory upon me, or to something of the kind which may hereafter be inaugurated. Nor do I know who is to be the judge, I myself, or someone else, whether such laws, ordinances, resolutions or convention, if there be any such, are or are not in conflict with the Constitution and government of the United States.

And further, when I am called upon to swear "that I will well and faithfully perform all duties which may be required of me by law," I perceive no conditions nor limitations. What laws may be adopted by the United States and by the State of Tennessee, who knows? They may be laws in conflict with my duty to God; they may be laws in collision with the Constitution; they may be laws in antagonism with other laws claiming my obedience. Such compliance with them is impossible, yet it is demanded of me to swear that "I will well and faithfully perform all duties required of me by law" without condition and without limitations.

An oath so vague, indefinite and impracticable respectfully I must decline to take.

Second- I cannot take this oath because once having sworn to support the Constitution of the United States, and having up to this hour faithfully complied with the obligation, and receiving now no office nor privilege of any kind under the government of the United States nor of the State of Tennessee there is nothing known to me in the Federal Constitution, nor in the constitution of this state, nor in the laws made in the pursuance of either which requires me to repeat that oath. The demand that I shall do so under the circumstances in which I am placed implies that I am offender against the Constitution or the laws, or both. That implication I respectfully decline to countenance by taking the oath.

Third - I cannot take this oath because, since the present government of the United States, and the Constitution of the United States, are in some respects at least confessedly in antagonism, to "support, protect and defend" both is clearly impossible.

To support, protect and defend the one is necessarily to oppose and resist the other. To keep this oath, therefore (I speak for myself only) is impracticable. Perjury is inevitable. From taking it, therefore, I must be excusable.

Fourth - I cannot take this oath because it binds me to support and protect and defend the "government of the United States," by which doubtless is meant the government of the United States as at present administered. Already the administration has done many things which I cannot support and defend, and which I cannot conscientiously swear that I will support and defend: what it may do hereafter, and what its successors may do, I cannot tell. This oath makes me swear without conditions and without limitations "that I will support, protect and defend the government of the United States."

To do this would be to "resign my right of thought" and to renounce my liberty as a free citizen of my country.

Fifth - Nor can I take this oath as a measure of expediency. By expediency I refer to the fact that since an oath taken under duress is not binding then on those who resort to save their families from suffering and themselves from punishment. I have a large, helpless and dependent family; I am myself not indifferent to the ease and comforts of life, but I cannot avail myself of this plea for several reasons, one only which need be mentioned. This oath makes me swear that I will take upon me these obligations "without any mental reservations or evasions whatever:" that is as I understand it, that I do not avail myself of this expedient, but take the obligation heartily and in good faith. In me, who cannot disregard its moral binding force, this would be perjury.

Sixth - I cannot take this oath because it would be a violation of my duty to God. My duty to God requires that I shall take no oath the entire import of which I do not fully understand, that I shall not swear unless there be good and sufficient reason for it, that I swear to do contradictory things, that I shall not do impracticable things, and that if I do swear that I shall not swear falsely, but shall truly and fully perform my oath. To take this oath would therefore be to violate my duty to God.

Seventh - Without an oath I shall in future, as I have heretofore, perform as a religious duty every just obligation to the "powers that be," but this oath I cannot take. I cannot take it as a measure of expediency; I cannot take it at all. I most respectfully decline it and take the consequences.

R.B.C. Howell
January 28, 1862


Wade Burleson is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma and blogs at WadeBurleson.org.

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