Tolbert Fanning — Advocate for Peace in 1861 (Part VIII)

Tennessee, a member of the Confederate States of America since July 1861, was now a full participant in an American bloody Civil War. Fanning had pursued every recourse to persuade disciples from joining the fight on either side.

Three disciples from Murfreesboro in Rutherford County penned a response to Fanning’s several articles, particularly his three articles in the July 1861 issue of the Gospel Advocate. William B. Lillard (a one time county official), G. S. Harding, and W. Ransome had been part of a group that had previously met with Fanning in Murfreesboro to discuss the war situation. They could not come to an agreement and now they, at Fanning’s request, submit their questions in the Advocate.

They ask Fanning why no Christian is justified in participating in the war when he himself had little doubt that the civil rights of the Southerners had been violated by the Northern aggression. They question Fanning’s position that Christians should refrain from defending the “frail institutions  of earth,” including civil governments. Though they, too, anticipate a time when kingdom of Christ will “break down all the kingdoms of the world,” they see the necessity of “good government” to protect lives, properties and rights. The Prince of Peace, they argue, has not yet overthrown governments and therefore Christians should participate in their just causes.

They argue that their “first duty is devotion to God, and next the improvement of our race and the world around us, and where we have a government…we should endeavor to sustain it.”  The ranking here is important:  God, race (!) and then government.  This ordering of priorities means that the good of the race is more important than government. Consequently, if a government oppresses or suppresses the race, then the race should overthrow the government by right of revolution. This is exactly the case with Northern tyranny, in their minds.

God gives good government to resist oppressors. This what the Confederate States of America are and they serve the just cause of God by preserving religious liberty and their race. Southern Christians should plead for peace but at the same time arm themselves for the defense of their homes and liberties, that is, for the defense of their race. Since God will not help those who do not help themselves, “every man should gird on his armor and assume the position which is most serviceable to his country” in “this her trying hour.”

****An Article Opposing Fanning****

William. B. Lillard*, G. S. Harding**, and W. Ransome***, “When the Duty of Christians to Shed Blood,” Gospel Advocate 7.9 (September 1861), 262-265.

Bro. Fanning: –In the July No. of the Gospel Advocate, after giving your views upon the duties of christians of the South in the present war, you express a willingness to “hear the arguments of any and of all upon this subject,” we therefore feel inclined to make a few comments upon the article referred to.

We are very much opposed to war, and think the circumstances must be very strong to justify it, and so far as your remarks go towards repressing the fanatical spirit of revenge which seems to animate the masses engaged in it, we are most happy to approve them, but in other points of view, we fear that their influence may be very undesirable. The design of your whole argument seems to be to show that although the people of the south not professing Christianity, are justified in resisting to the last extremity, the christian people should have nothing to do with it, nor indeed with the government at all, only so far as property extends. That we may not seem to misstate your position, I be leave [sic] to make a few quotations. You acknowledge on page 204, that “wars have been necessary,” and on page 211, you say, “if people were ever justified in resisting encroachments, we conscientiously believe the people of the Confederate States are.” Again on page 210, you say, “we have been asked again and again if we do not consider the people of the south fully justified in resisting the rule of the North?” You answer, “the right of revolution being admitted,” (we take this as an admission if you intend to answer the question at all) “we doubt not the civil rights of citizens South, to resist to the last extremity, but as religionists we should know neither North nor South.” While you think it right for citizens to resist to the last extremity, religious people should in all their actions even ignore the fact that war exists. Again, on page 211, you say “war in all its aspects is irreligious,” &c. So that whether it is an offensive or a defensive war, waged in defense of our lives and those of our families, no religious man can raise his hand in it. If a community of christians are not justifiable in taking up arms in defense of their lives and liberties, no christian man is justifiable in defending his own life; so that you seem here to be fully committed to the doctrine of non-resistance. He who advocates this doctrine, must also advocate the doing away with civil government, for the firs main design of government is to resist evil persons and consequently we were prepared to expect from you an argument endeavoring to prove the worthlessness of human government and that it is only a barrier to the reign of Christ on earth.

On page 197, you say, “and so soon as men shall complete” (it we presume is a misprint for forsake,) “their folly in originating and defending their frail institutions of earth, they will gladly admit the sovereignty of the Redeemer.” By “institutions of earth” you can only mean law and establishments pertaining to organized society, and therefore you think civil government is but the result of human folly, and should be forsaken. Further, in support of your argument against civil government, you object to Paul’s instructions to the saints in the 13th chapter of Romans, being so construed, as to recognize the authority in civil rulers to enforce obedience to law by the sword, for it is admitted that Paul recognized the necessity of civil government, and the duty of his brethren to sustain it, then your position, releasing Christians from any obligations to defend and sustain the “frail institutions of earth,” becomes untenable; therefore in reply to a question as to who were the “Powers that be,” and the rulers to whom the saints were instructed to be subject, and pay tribute, and to be afraid of, “for they bear not the sword in vain.” You said they were the deacons and elders of the church! Our greatest objection to popery has been that, the heads of the church held the laity in subjection, and we confess our surprise, Bro. Fanning, in hearing you, whom we have always supposed so much opposed to church castes, counseling us to be subject to, and hold in fear and terror the Elders and Deacons of our church, and we are sure that we have never seen any exercise of a authority on your part, which that sober minded apostle could have thought to represent as a ruler, exacting tribute of his subjects, and bearing a revenging sword to execute wreath upon evil doers.

You have quoted many prophecies that the kingdom of Christ is to break down all the kingdoms of the world, and we all agree in our desire for that happy state of things, but you have failed to show that anarchy would bring about that desired and sooner than good government. On the contrary—Christ and his apostles never advised his followers against government, but recognized the necessity of law and rulers, “law is made for the lawless and disobedient,” said Paul. The very idea of law and government, supposes thet [sic] its subjects must sustain it. It is idle to make laws, unless they are to be enforced even by the sword if necessary. A mere paper government amounts to nothing, and the success of the government depends upon the willingness of its subjects to assist in enforcing tis laws, and therefore, Paul instructs his christian brethren as subjects of the government, to be subject to the “the powers that be.” If the time had not then arrived when the Apostle thought the world could do without human institutions for the protection of society, upon what grounds can it be assumed that it has now! If the Prince of Peace is now ready to overthrow the governments of the earth and assume a direct sovereignty over the world, with the consent of the church, was he not them? and [sic] if so, would not his Apostles have advised his followers to leave the institutions of earth to take care of themselves? On the contrary, they enjoined upon them the necessity of sustaining these institutions.

If government is necessary, is not good government, better calculated to promote the spread of Christianity than bad, and are we not as Christians bound to “seek to control,” it in such manner as to most prosper our Master’s cause? By this we would not be misunderstood as advocating any civil interference to give shape or direction to church government, but a great deal may be done by removing the trammels, with which wicked governments impeded the church of Christ, as well as by organizing society in such a way as to protect us iu [sic] the enjoyment of religious liberty. The rapid spread of Christianity in our own country is greatly due to the protection which it has been given to our freedom of conscience. On the other hand, where in the history of the reign of anarchy has the cause of Christ been thereby prospered? We cannot regard man’s duties as a christian as being disconnected from the world from which he lives. Our first duty is devotion to God, and next the improvement of our race and the world around us, and where we have a government, giving us protection in property and life and religious liberty, and given free scope to the spread of christianity, we should endeavor to sustain it—and when because we refuse to assist in trampling under foot the principles upon which it is built, we are threatened with extermination by an invading foe, we should stand ready, as men and Christians to “resist to the last extremity.” How stands the case with us to-day? Our constitution has been broken, the clashing arms of a merciless invader are heard on our border, the handcuffs have been already forged for southern freemen, and you have well said that, “if a people were ever justified in resisting encroachments, the people of the Southern Confederacy are,” and yet you say to religious men, “employ none but spiritual weapons.” “You doubt whether the righteous can shed the blood of their fellows with impunity. “Peace must b secured by moral means alone.” What sort of moral means must be employed? When our houses are on fire must me [sic] stop to sing songs and pray, to the neglect of means which are at hand to extinguish it!? You say that “God strengthens the oppressed to resist the oppressor,” but while we pray to God to help us in tis our time of need to resist the oppressor, shall we fold our arms and disregard the promptings of our avenging helper? But when you reply that He “will put it into the hearts of the wicked to make this resistance,” we ask you, upon what authority you can assume that He makes such selections to accomplish His holy purposes? Our lives and liberties are at stake, and while we pray to God for His help and use all moral means in our power, we should remember that He will will [sic] never help those who refuse to help themselves. Every man should gird on his armor and assume that position which is most serviceable to his country iu [sic] this her trying hour. We have cryingly plead [sic] with the North for peace, and now we should put forth all our powers of defense and appeal to God to strengthen our arms. If we have misstated your position we should b glad to be corrected. We should be glad to hear your voice in these perilous times, when the cause of humanity and morality are involved, and when you say, “no good man has a right to silence.” Justifying us not only as citizens, but as religious citizens, in defending our homes and firesides.

Respectfully, Yours,
Wm. B. Lillard,
G. S. Haridng,
W. Ransome.

7 Responses to “Tolbert Fanning — Advocate for Peace in 1861 (Part VIII)”

  1.   Gardner Hall Says:

    These men could not foresee that their this-worldly reasoning was leading to destruction and desolation on a staggering scale. I cannot help but feel that those who advocate that Christians participate in “military solutions” today are equally misguided. Though the consequences may not be as immediate and dramatic as the Civil War, they do lead us away from trust in the Prince of Peace.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      We are all blind, aren’t we? Seeing the blindness of others in the past helps us see more clearly today. That is one purpose for retelling the stories…and particularly the story of Jesus.

  2.   Clark Coleman Says:

    If Tolbert Fanning interpreted the authorities of Romans 13, to whom we were to be subject, as elders and deacons, I have to agree with his critics on at least this one narrow point. That is an exceptionally weak interpretation of scripture.

    As for the general argument, every man, Christian or not, must prudently weigh alternatives in the balance. The “oppression” of federal forts being maintained in the South (as at Fort Sumter) has to be weighed against the killing of 600,000 Americans to try to be rid of it. That is not a difficult matter to weigh correctly.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Fanning will defend his interpretation in the next piece I will post–his response to these brothers. I agree with you, Clark, that Fanning misses the mark on Romans 13. I think Lipscomb and Yoder do a much better job of handling that text than does Fanning.

      If only they could have foreseen the loss in 1861, perhaps it would have made a difference. Perhaps not.

  3.   Darryl Willis Says:

    A question regarding context and culture. When the authors say “race” are they speaking of the white race as opposed to black or are they speaking of the human race? I wouldn’t want to misinterpret their intention any more than mistaking Fannings’ intention when he agrees that “if people were ever justified in resisting encroachments, we conscientiously believe the people of the Confederate States are.”

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      You raise an important question. It seems to me, and all we have is this document for their meaning, that they are referring to their own race which I take to mean the white race. I could be wrong and it is possible they mean “human race.” We need more context from them in particular to be more certain. Thanks for raising the point.

      Fanning will respond to their point in my next post. Given worldly wisdom, he will say, he sees the point of resistance. But as a disciple of Jesus, he cannot participate in such violence resistance. His own words are coming in the next post.

      •   Clark Coleman Says:

        It might even be the case that he meant “the Southern race,” i.e. their own people as viewed in a time when Americans were more apt to identify themselves regionally rather than nationally.


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