Should Christians be “Resistants” to unjust acts of their government, or “Non-Resistants”? Those were the terms under which a spirited debate about Christians’ obedience to government was undertaken in the pages of the Vermont Telegraph in 1842.1 Whenever the government acted or legislated unjustly, that debate was repeated and Romans 13:1 was brought to bear.2 “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” the verse read, for “the powers that be are ordained of God.” The powers that be and their supporters usually found that part of the passage more congenial to their side of the argument. But “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil,” the passage went on to read, which gave critics of unjust power a toehold in the argument.
Romans 13 played a critical role in the American Revolution. Loyalists who favored obedience to King and Parliament quoted Romans 13 on their behalf. Law, order, and loyalty to an imperial government were all bound up in the phrase “the powers that be.” But surprisingly, political and religious leaders who favored the American Revolution were just as eager to quote Romans 13. Their reasoning turned on the justification that Paul gave for obeying government. In a study of how the Bible was used in the American Revolution, the historian James Byrd argues that “American patriots” rejected the notion that Romans 13 required unconditional obedience. Instead, he wrote, they preached from the text “to deny that Paul gave kings the right to be tyrants.” As the Anglican priest and regimental chaplain David Griffith said in a sermon on Romans 13, Paul “never meant … to give sanction to the crimes of wicked and despotic men.”3
The Protestant clergy who favored the American Revolution were heirs to an interpretation of Romans 13 that went back to the Reformation. Reformation theologians often used Romans 13 to bolster support for law and order, most notoriously when Martin Luther justified the violent suppression of a peasant uprising. But in a long exposition of the passage, John Calvin argued that all the powers that be were ordained by God, including not just the king but also all the lesser magistrates. Those lower ranked officials were expected to resist kings “when they tyrannise and insult over the humbler of the people,” and Calvin listed the people in the Bible who had resisted “slavish obedience to the depraved wishes” of lawfully constituted authority.4 Where Loyalists invoked the law-and-order interpretation of Romans 13, Patriot clergy argued that only just authorities were to be obeyed.
Once those supporters of the Revolution had to turn to governance, though, the law-and-order version of Romans 13 had more appeal. Massachusetts pastor Zabdiel Adams, citing another passage of Scripture to explain why Romans 13 supported rule by Congress (1 Corinthians 14:33), argued that God was a “God of order and not of confusion.” Even for proponents of government authority, the text sat uneasily with the American impulse for democracy. Bishop William White of the recently founded Protestant Episcopal Church, preaching on a national fast day, found it prudent to first defend the right to censure the government before he could criticize those who criticized the beleaguered Federalist administration.5
By the 1830s, the verse was solidly within the realm of discourse about many political and social issues, especially as evangelicals increasingly managed to bring their moral concerns about Sabbath-keeping, drinking, gambling, and slavery into the public sphere. As Americans figured out a system of government in which the federal government was disestablished, and in which privileged churches like the Church of England and the Congregationalists lost their state support, the verse was a helpful bolster for the idea that both churches and the government had their own separate roles and duties.6
A primary fear among American Protestants was that Roman Catholics would overstep those bounds of government, drawing on longstanding Protestant conceptions of Catholics as subjects of a Pope with absolute authority who were thus unfit for self-government. Catholics and Protestants often engaged in epistolary exchanges of views. But while Protestants might themselves cite Romans 13, when a Catholic cited that verse it raised worries among their Protestant readers. When Pope Gregory XVI wrote against European revolutions, Protestants seized on that as an example of papal authority in the civil state and believed that Catholics were “instructed to oppose liberty of every kind” and to oppose the separation of church and state.7
Such understandings of Catholic political theology, and thus of Catholics’ interpretation of Romans 13, were mostly paranoid parodies. Archbishop John Baptist of Cincinnati, for instance, addressed the “grievous and utterly false charge of disloyalty to this free government” by arguing that “the Catholic religion exists and flourishes under all forms of civil government,” and that the Catholic church “unceasingly tells all her children to be subject to the higher powers.”8 There were, however, Catholics who were willing to make a stronger claim for the supremacy of faith over government, should the government fail to work towards the ends described in Romans 13. The convert to Catholicism Orestes A. Brownson argued forthrightly that “the Pope is the proper authority to decide for me whether the Constitution of this country is or is not repugnant to the laws of God.”9
But by far the key issue that Romans 13 was made to speak to was the question of slavery. The moral and theological questions about whether holding people in bondage was sinful were mostly fought over other biblical texts that mentioned slavery directly. As sentiment grew among some Christians that slavery was contrary to the teachings of Christianity, and as Southern slaveholders began to articulate a positive defense of the institution and practices of slavery, Romans 13 became a touchstone of the debate on both sides. Though the verse did not speak directly to slavery, it did raise the question of whether one should obey a government that acted unjustly. For slaveholders, the verse became part of a phalanx of verses cited to defend slavery. The argument they made was that denying the Bible’s command that slaves should obey masters was tantamount to destroying government altogether.10 Yet even apologists for slavery, like those at Princeton University, had to explain how the power of the slaveholder over the enslaved was not a despotic power forbidden even to governments in the common interpretation of the chapter.11
Likewise, those opponents of slavery who wished to remain within what they regarded as the orthodox view of a Christian’s obligation to government had to contend with the duty for obedience they felt from Romans 13. Take as an example Asa Donaldson’s “Bible Anti-Slavery Catechism,” published in 1845. Donaldson argued that slavery was contrary to the Declaration of Independence and “at variance … with the spirit, and general maxims of scripture.” Furthermore, slavery was sinful both individually and for the body politic. But since the Constitution was lawful and permitted slavery, he cited Romans 13 as a reason that Christians could not work to “abolish slavery with the sword.” Recognizing that the hotter sort of abolitionists might charge him with being “pro-slavery,” Donaldson claimed that such charges in that case would have to be laid “against the scriptures.” Due to Romans 13, Donaldson would admit only lawful measures to repeal an unjust institution.12
Romans 13 erupted into the public debate in 1850 with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. That law gave teeth to an existing provision in the Constitution by requiring that state officials and even “all good citizens” aid in returning people who had escaped slavery to bondage. Though the theoretical implications for white Christians of resistance to government over slavery had long been discussed, those provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act made the debate theoretical no longer.
Defenders of the slave system dismissed the abolitionist argument that the act was “opposed to the Divine Law.” The Richmond Daily Dispatch was sure that there were “hundreds” of “passages from Scripture proving the slavery has the divine sanction,” among them Romans 13, which justified cooperation with the return of fugitive slaves.13 A North Carolina paper railed that “these Christians in the free States set up their judgments against that of the Almighty, and blindly strike against all law, order, and right!” It bluntly called down Paul’s threat of “damnation” as “Divine vengeance upon their evil deeds.”14
There were at least three other commonly held interpretations of Romans 13 as it related to the Fugitive Slave Act. Asa Donaldson reappeared in print taking the view that “the scriptures everywhere treat the worst of human governments as better than anarchy,” and that because no one was forced to participate in “buying and selling slaves” everyone was bound to avoid “all acts of hostility against the laws of the land, however corrupt.” Though no supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act, he could only maintain his earlier views by limiting the sphere of what he considered complicity with slavery to buying or holding slaves. Many anti-slavery activists, by contrast, held that the moral law God had ordained took precedence over the government leaders he had ordained. So without threatening to dissolve the union, they refused to participate in bringing “the fugitive slave back to the master and the bondage” and were willing to “suffer the penalty” for civil disobedience rather than “commit the crime” of helping to re-enslave a person. One Vermont author, for example, argued that the United States, “with its enslavement of the Africans and its extermination of the Indians,” stood outside Paul’s command to obedience.15 The most radical of abolitionists came in a way to agree with Southern slaveholders that the Bible did justify slavery, and rejected the Bible on precisely those grounds.16
Black Christians were accustomed to hearing from white slaveholders a bowlderized Gospel that emphasized texts like Romans 13 and Colossians 3:22 (“Servants, obey in all things your masters.”) But their own readings of the Bible emphasized the book’s themes of deliverance from bondage. The Exodus narrative was a more central text than Romans 13.17 The black abolitionist David Walker compared the United States to slaveholding Egypt and enslaved African Americans to the children of Israel. “All persons who are acquainted with history, and particularly the Bible,” he wrote, and “who can dispense with prejudice long enough to admit that we are men … and believe that we feel for our fathers, mothers, wives and children, as well as the whites do for theirs” could see plainly that the Bible was on the side of the oppressed and not the oppressor.18 As Maria Stewart put it in an 1831 address suffused with Scripture, “You may kill, tyrannize, and oppress as much as you choose, until our cry shall come up before the throne of God.”19
The debates in the 1850s over whether Romans 13 required obedience or resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, and more broadly over whether the Bible supported enslavement or abolition, fractured the Bible’s authority in the public sphere, as Mark Noll has argued.20 Americans’ allegiance to Romans 13 in a democratic society grew even more tenuous. While southern Christians did keep defending slavery from the Bible even after the Civil War was over, slaveholders could no longer claim that they were “the powers that be”—at least, not until Jim Crow. The text never entered the public discourse again the way that it had in the 1850s.
And yet the text had an afterlife in American history past the Fugitive Slave Act. Its significance as a text for reasoning about the obligations of citizenship to a government that acted unjustly became decidedly muted, but the text was sure to be brought out whenever law and order needed a defense.
To give a prominent recent example, in 2018 Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration by referencing the New Testament. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13,” Sessions said, “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” What was Sessions defending with his garbled quotation of Romans 13? A policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border and imprisoning them.
Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, 123–129. ↩︎
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 4, ch. 20, sec. 31–32. ↩︎
Cf. Eddie S. Glaude, Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2000). ↩︎
Valerie C. Cooper, Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans (University of Virginia Press, 2011), ch. 1. ↩︎
Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), ch. 3. ↩︎