The church in Murfreesboro was divided over the war. Previously Fanning had published a letter from Lillard, Harding and Ransome, and he had printed an article by “Disciple” who responded to that letter from within the same church. Fanning now feels compelled to comment on their exchange. He uses the occasion to clarify his position.
Fanning has every intent to obey civil authorities as long as he does not thereby disobey God. The present circumstances, he believes, has made it difficult “to tell who are Christians and who are not, or to define clearly the line between the church and the world” since so many professed disciples are compromised by their participation in “worldly powers.” It is not surprising, according to Fanning, that he is charged with disloyalty and thus “perverting the nation” because Jesus himself was so charged (Luke 23:2) “for maintaining that his kingdom was not of this world.”
Fanning, nevertheless, encourages discussion because “there is no subject of greater moment to Christians” than their relationship to “worldly powers.”
Fanning would not be able to continue that discussion, however, because mail service in the South was disrupted by the war. The Gospel Advocate would cease publication with the December 1861 issue but it would have a new birth in January 1866 under the editorship of Tolbert Fanning and his favored mentee David Lipscomb. At that year, Lipscomb would take up the challenge Fanning laid down in December 1861 and thoroughly study the subject of “worldly power.” That series would ultimately issue in his book Civil Government.
Tolbert Fanning, “Subjection to Worldly Powers,” Gospel Advocate 7.12 (December 1861) 356-357.
Whilst we feel no disposition to interfere in the controversy of Brethren Lillard, Harding and Ransome with “Disciple,” we find ourself [sic] involved in so singular a manner, that we consider it proper and necessary to briefly notice a few points in the following article:
1st. We would willing suppress the names of our brethren, were we not satisfied that by publishing their communication from “Murfreesboro,” some might conclude that all the members of that congregation, entertain similar opinions, when we are conscious there are some who differ widely. We, however, feel responsible for the name of Disciple, and suggest to him that we would prefer giving it to any remarks he may desire to make. This is the only proper mode of procedure.
2d. Our reason for giving the remarks of Disciple without comment was, that we considered that there was no question of scripture involved. Disciple’s effort was to show the supposed inconsistency of our brethren, and no positive ground was taken by him.
3d. We are sorry to witness the effort of our brethren to place Disciple as well as ourself [sic] in a position we never occupied. Neither has Disciple or ourself [sic] intimated a doubt as to the Scriptures requiring disciples of Christ to live in subject to magistrates and any civil government in which their lot may be cast, so long as they are permitted to enjoy the liberties of the kingdom of God. Unfairness in representing those from whom we differ is not calculated to add to the honor of the Lord’s cause. While we doubt, not our brethren at Murfreesboro, as well as Disciple, are all loyal to Caesar, we see not the propriety of any of them becoming Caesar or of occupying his chair. Hence we find no authority for the charge that some of us oppose worldly governments for the world. We would respectfully suggest to our correspondents, that our controversy gives the strongest evidence that there is urgent necessity for us all to study the scriptures with more care. The times may not be the most favorable for examining the true characteristics of the spiritual kingdom in comparison with worldly institutions, but it strikes us the period may not be very far distant when the servants of God will look at the Bible and the church without the interference of the heavy and dark veil of worldly wisdom which has so long obscured the light of truth. Religious teachers must soon open a new chapter or desist from their profession. It would require one of some discrimination, judging from surroundings, to tell who are Christians and who are not, or to define clearly the line between the church and the world. When Jesus claimed to be head of a spiritual empire, the people said, “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute unto Caesar.” (Luke xxiii, 2.) He was not only charged with disloyalty, but lost his life for maintaining that his kingdom was not of this world.
Will our brethren pardon us for requesting them to exercise a little more cautiousness in their wholesale charges of disloyalty to human authority, against their friends who perhaps may be as well read in the institutions of the world as themselves, and are as tenacious to respect all proper human authority as any men living. A little more time and patience, with a good degree of careful examination of the Sacred Oracles, we trust will bring us all to the full measure of the truth. We hope brethren L, H, and R. will continue to furnish us with their views. There is no subject of greater moment to Christians.