Sunday, December 20, 2009

John Adams and Romans 13

In a series of posts I have attempted to ignite a discussion about whether Christian ideas helped shape America and bring us into the modern world with the following questions:

Which Christian ideas, if any, helped bring us into the modern world?


Which Christian ideas, if any, helped try to derail us from progressing toward the modern world? 

With that idea in mind, I re-produced an argument by Gary Amos from his book "Defending the Declaration" where he outlines his case that the Declaration of Independence was based on the "Doctrine of Interposition" in this post Gary Amos, the Declaration, and "Christian" Ideas?.  I followed that up with another post named John Calvin and Jim Babka on the "Doctrine of Interposition".  In the comments section of the second post, Tom Van Dyke seemed to have some doubts that theological arguments around Romans 13 were that relevant to the conversation back then with this comment, 

"I'd like to see some evidence that Calvin and "interposition" were discussed much. I do believe there was a strong undercurrent that revolt would have to be legally, ethically, and indeed theologically justified [with Romans 13 the Sword of Damocles, and we see it discussed often enough in that era].

However, it seems to me the level of strict Calvinist observance and depth of Biblical authority required for revolt, Othniel or what have you, can easily be an academic issue inflated into something much more than it was.

I realize that King is having a go at Dr. Frazer's thesis, but for the bigger picture, I'd like to see some quotes from the Founding era that gave much of a damn." 

Well I think that Adams quotes that Mayhew's sermon on Romans 13 were crucial to the revolution have been discussed here before and there is no need to reproduce them.  What I found is even more interesting.  The following is John Adams proclamation of prayer and fasting from 1799.  Most of it is irrelevant to this discussion but one thing stuck out to me when I read it.  The relevant part is in bold print:
[I took the liberty of making the proclamation a bit easier to follow with a bulleted format.]

Proclamation of March 6, 1799 A.D.
  • As no truth is more clearly taught in the Volume of Inspiration, nor any more fully demonstrated by the experience of all ages, than that a deep sense and a due acknowledgment of the governing providence of a Supreme Being and of the accountableness of men to Him as the searcher of hearts and righteous distributer of rewards and punishments are conducive equally to the happiness and rectitude of individuals and to the well-being of communities;
  • as it is also most reasonable in itself that men who are made capable of social acts and relations, who owe their improvements to the social state, and who derive their enjoyments from it, should, as a society, make their acknowledgments of dependence and obligation to Him who hath endowed them with these capacities and elevated them in the scale of existence by these distinctions; …
  • as it is likewise a plain dictate of duty and a strong sentiment of nature that in circumstances of great urgency and seasons of imminent danger earnest and particular supplications should be made to Him who is able to defend or to destroy; …
  • as, moreover, the most precious interests of the people of the United States are still held in jeopardy by the hostile designs and insidious acts of a foreign nation, …
  • as well as by the dissemination among them of those principles, subversive of the foundations of all religious, moral, and social obligations, that have produced incalculable mischief and misery in other countries; …
  • and as, in fine, the observance of special seasons for public religious solemnities is happily calculated to avert the evils which we ought to deprecate and to excite to the performance of the duties which we ought to discharge by calling and fixing the attention of the people at large to the momentous truths already recited, by affording opportunity to teach and inculcate them by animating devotion and giving to it the character of a national act:
  • For these reasons I have thought proper to recommend, and I do hereby recommend accordingly, that Thursday, the 25th day of April next, be observed throughout the United States of America as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens on that day abstain as far as may be from their secular occupations, devote the time to the sacred duties of religion in public and in private; …
  • that they call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions in time to come;
  • that He would interpose to arrest the progress of that impiety and licentiousness in principle and practice so offensive to Himself and so ruinous to mankind;
  • that He would make us deeply sensible that "righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people;"
  • that He would turn us from our transgressions and turn His displeasure from us; that He would withhold us from unreasonable discontent, from disunion, faction, sedition, and insurrection; that He would preserve our country from the desolating sword;
  • that He would save our cities and towns from a repetition of those awful pestilential visitations under which they have lately suffered so severely,
  • and that the health of our inhabitants generally may be precious in His sight;
  • that He would favor us with fruitful seasons and so bless the labors of the husbandman as that there may be food in abundance for man and beast;
  • that He would prosper our commerce, manufactures, and fisheries, and give success to the people in all their lawful industry and enterprise;
  • that He would smile on our colleges, academies, schools, and seminaries of learning, and make them nurseries of sound science, morals, and religion;
  • that He would bless all magistrates, from the highest to the lowest, give them the true spirit of their station, make them a terror to evil doers and a praise to them that do well;
  • that He would preside over the councils of the nation at this critical period, enlighten them to a just discernment of the public interest, and save them from mistake, division, and discord;
  • that He would make succeed our preparations for defense and bless our armaments by land and by sea;
  • that He would put an end to the effusion of human blood and the accumulation of human misery among the contending nations of the earth by disposing them to justice, to equity, to benevolence, and to peace;
  • and that he would extend the blessings of knowledge, of true liberty, and of pure and undefiled religion throughout the world.
  • And I do also recommend that with these acts of humiliation, penitence, and prayer fervent thanksgiving to the Author of All Good be united for the countless favors which He is still continuing to the people of the United States, and which render their condition as a nation eminently happy when compared with the lot of others.

    ---JOHN ADAMS, Second President of the United States of America
I am sure some are asking what all this has to do with the discussion of interposition?  Well, what makes this relevant is that the reason that one would do an interposition is based, at very least, in part on Romans 13.   Those that wanted to dispose a tyrant king used Romans 13 just like Locke did in his First Treatise.  The Lockean interpretation as recited by Mayhew in his sermon that Adams credited with helping the revolutionary cause is reproduced in the bold part above.  It is this interpretation of Romans 13 that states government has the right to punish evil doers AND the responsibility to not to mistreat those who do good.

It is the latter part that most that have a dogmatic view of Romans 13 ignore or explain off in their attempts to tell people to submit and obey government no matter what.  This view was actually the view of many loyalists at the time and is probably the common view in churches today.  The problem is that it was not the view the revolutionaries at the Founding.  Those that did care about what God thought did believe that government as an institution had been established by Him.  They also believed that tyrants could be rebelled deposed by lower magistrates.  The theological(some might say only legal since so much of common law reference Christianity and the Bible) argument and procedure available to them was interposition. I think Adams is alluding to this idea when he talks about all levels of magistrates in the first part of the the bullet point I bolded above.

Interposition was no doubt a "Christian Idea" based on a Lockean style reasoned interpretation of Romans 13.  This interpretation made it into Adams proclamation quoted above.  It must have been important to enough people for it to still be in the public dialogue 23 years later! What do 
you guys think?

More to come about "The Doctrine of 98" and Madison and Jefferson's thoughts about the states' right to use interposition to ignore the national government when it violated the spirit of the 9th and 10th amendments...

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