Wednesday, May 15, 2013

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

R.B.C. Howell (1801-1868)
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, demanding ideological conformity, micro-managing personal affairs, 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 have been 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 government's?

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 Federal government 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,  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 Federal 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 Archives to study the handwritten history of FBC Nashville. 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 procession 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 (a PDF of the letter can be found here).


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


Eric said...

Thanks for posting this very important and relevant piece of our history, Wade.

More and more, I find myself in agreement with the political thought of my Restoration movement predecessor David Lipscomb. My duty to God comes first, and I can not abridge that duty with any oath to construction of the world.

Jason Sampler said...


If memory serves me, I have a footnote in my dissertation on Howell's imprisonment, but I've never actually seen the letter before. Thanks for posting the actual text of the letter.

Wade Burleson said...



Wade Burleson said...


You are welcome! Thank you for commenting!

Paul Burleson said...


This is a profound and particularly insightful illustration on being both a citizen of our wonderful country AND a Christian, with the two never being the same, and the one ALWAYS being a priority over the other where there is a need. No need to explain which is which. We know!


Aussie John said...


Very timely words, even for our country, and especially in the light of what is happening at the behest of the present government.

Your comment in the second paragraph regrading the United States Government readily applies to our political scene, "It seems that" the Australian government "is acting like a bully, infringing on personal freedoms, demanding ideological conformity, micro-managing personal affairs, 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".

It is not by chance that this Big Brother style of government is happening world wide.

Our nations need to stop allowing themselves to be sidetracked with government red herrings.

Rex Ray said...

I’d suggest an eighth reason for Howell not to take the oath.
‘I will not sign an oath so poorly written such as:

“…and, further, that I will well and faithfully perform all the duties…." should be ‘…and, further, I will faithfully perform well all the duties…’

Wade, aren’t you afraid you will be identified as a ‘leaker’ and a threat to National security for the things you wrote that Aussie John brought out?

What oath do you think you may be made to sign? Maybe something like: ‘I pledge allegiance to Obama…’

I hadn’t heard that “Franklin Graham has written a poignant letter to President Obama asking why the Billy Graham Association was targeted.”

In your defense you could argue that you omitted the Benghazi terrorist attack and the Association Press recorded phone calls.

I think there could be good money made in giving Congress neck massages for ‘whip-lash’ in wondering what’s next.

Grace Baptist Church, Somerset, KY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wade Burleson said...

Grace Baptist,

I'm sorry, but I couldn't find it anywhere on the Internet. It will need to be retyped in PDF form somewhere.

Mike rasberry said...

Very informative and productive letter. Something I can enthusiastically endorse. Thanks for doing the research to make this available.

Will D said...

Wise and profound words from Howell. Thank you, Wade. I'm reminded of McCarthy and his "House Un-Americam Activities Committee" going after peaceful American citizens, trying to destroy their careers and lives, just because their political beliefs were unusual.

I find it even scarier these days how often large, corporate interests seem able to co-opt the government to use it against peaceful citizens who try to stop corporate pillaging and theft. Look at how quick the government was to arrest and discredit protesters in favor of the fossil fuel industry, even in our own homeland of Oklahoma, or on Wall Street in favor of the global banking consortium after they'd almost destroyed our economy. The entanglement of large, super-monied, corporate interests and government at all levels is profoundly disturbing. And that's to say nothing of the oppression carried out by the government on behalf of private wealth-interests against American Indians and American blacks and, generally, the poor for centuries now.

Thank you so much for bringing these issues into the public sphere. We need to be thinking about these things much more than we are. Thank you.

Ramesh said...

I tried to cut and past the letter to a Word doc for my files, but can't get rid of the background when I paste.

Paste Special -> Paste as Text


Paste in a text only Notepad (windows) or similar in other systems.

Anonymous said...

When the 'thought police' are able to do that to an honourable citizen, who needs Sharia law ? How can we send our troops to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight with any sense of moral conviction, if we operate under certain totalitarian ways ourselves ? Keep up the vigilance to protect our civil rights to freely proclaim the Gospel in the public arena. And also protect the right of others in our society to similarly do their thing.


Wade Burleson said...

Thy Peace,


Wade Burleson said...

I would like to thank Bill Nettles who sent me a PDF that I linked to the article.

Appreciate his help!

Rex Ray said...


Congress didn’t have long to wait for the next ‘outrageous’ even in Obama’s administration—the sex scandal in the military which Obama is Commander-in-chief.

Wonder if Obama will follow the actions of the Chief of IRS, Steven Miller?

Miller said, “I resigned because as the acting Commissioner what happens in the IRS whether I was personally involved or not STOPS AT MY DESK, so I should be held accountable for what happens. Hmmmm

I believe there’s so much on Obama’s desk, he’s added steel legs.

Anonymous said...

Great letter! I am going to keep a copy in case I have to articulate the same sentiments given that our present culture continues to antagonize the church. In that event I won't plagiarize but use it only as a guide!

(P.S. I wonder if our President breaks his oath of office when he openly refuses to enforce certain laws in which he disagrees??)

Anonymous said...

I understand that "The Biblical Recorder", North Carolina's Southern Baptist State Convention paper, also reported that it was targeted by the IRS who audited them for the first time since they began publication back in the 1800's. They attribute that to their running the Billy Graham ad encouraging people to vote according to their Biblical principles just prior to being notified they were to be audited.

Rex Ray said...

I think this is a fair question: Would Howell have signed the BF&M 2000?

I believe his hand would have signed only by being severed.

On the subject of being a target by the Government; what about this?

The lawyers on both sides agree on the facts of over a year long lawsuit. The Government has charged the brothers of taking advantage of loopholes. The real reason; (Government hasn’t mentioned) they’re angry for the brothers giving millions to the Republican Party.

Even though the lawsuit is not over, the Government has won by smearing their names so bad their last contribution was turned down.

This has an interest to me because one brother’s wife is the best friend of my daughter. They played volleyball together in high school and college. Besides my daughter receiving a new car for her wedding, my granddaughter is sponsored in club volleyball. They are soon to play for the national championship.

Hey! I wasn’t left out—we received free a wild cat to tame. :)

Rex Ray said...

Military orders come from higher up. Who gave the order to “Stand Down” to the military as they were in position to aid 4 Americans about to be murdered by the terrorists attack on Benghazi?

Probably more than one person knows the answer, but are they afraid because there’s no one higher to protect them than the guilty person?

BTW, why has Rex Ray made the last comment on the last 7 post?

Rex Ray said...

“Listen! You smell something?” Dan Aykroyd

Listening to the News, if you don’t smell something …need I say more?

As more facts are known, Wiley Drake’s prayer that Obama be impeached doesn’t sound so impossible does it?

Rex Ray said...

Are these Muslims in the White House for real?

1. Arif Alikhan - Assistant Secretary for Policy Development for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

2. Mohammed Elibiary - Homeland Security Adviser.

3. Rashad Hussain - Special Envoy to the (OIC) Organization of the Islamic Conference.

4. Salam al-Marayati - Obama Adviser – founder Muslim Public Affairs Council and its current executive director.

5. Imam Mohamed Magid - Obama's Sharia Czar – Islamic Society of North America.

6. Eboo Patel - Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood partnerships.

Rex Ray said...

I’ll research my question.
“Obama appoints 2 devout Muslims to Homeland Security” Kareem Shora and Arif Aukhan.

1. Kareem Shora
Obama Team adds adviser with ties to terror backers by Aaron Klein Worldnetdaily: “Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano swore in [Kareem Shora] to her official advisory council the head of an Arab American organization whose officials have labeled deadly anti-U.S. jihadists as “heroes” and opposed referring to Hamas as a terrorist organization.”

2. Mohamed Elibiary

Mohamed Elibiary, Homeland Security Adviser, Allegedly Leaked Intel, Shopped Classified Info to Media, PS Director: "We Know He has Accessed DPS Documents and Downloaded them.” Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“Elibiary publicly defended the late Muslim Brotherhood jihad ideologist Sayyid Qutb as a positive spiritual influence. Qutb, understand, called for global holy war to subjugate the planet — including dissenting Muslims — for radical Islam.”

3. Rashad Hussain

“President Obama has chosen Rashad Hussain to be his special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a post originally created by the Bush Administration in 2008. Hussain’s past association with Muslim Brotherhood-connected entities raises major questions about the type of outreach he envisions for the Muslim world.”

4. Salam Al-Marayati

It was, unfortunately, no surprise when the Obama Administration selected Salam Al-Marayati to join the U.S. delegation at a human rights conference being held in Warsaw by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). No surprise, because Marayati, the director of the Islamist Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), had already been dispatched by the Obama Administration in 2010 to speak on human rights on behalf of the U.S. to UNESCO in Paris and at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Geneva… Following the 9/11 attacks, he argued that Israel had carried out this slaughter of thousands of Americans: “I think we should put the state of Israel on the suspect list, because I think this [the 9/11 attacks] diverts attention from what’s happening in the Palestinian territories so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies.” “If all this isn’t enough, Marayati has openly supported the Lebanese Shia terrorist group, Hizballah, and defended members of the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas.”

5. Imam Mohamed Magid

Obama’s shariah czar Mohamed Magid hands diversity award to Jew-hater Dawud Walid. Walid is popular with the Obama administration, taking two taxpayer financed trips overseas on behalf of the State Department.

6. Eboo Patel

He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House. He wrote a book: The Story of an American Muslim.

Rex Ray said...

“Little evil would be done in the world if evil never could be done in the name of good.” Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

How far has the Government gone in the name of ‘National Security’ to establish ‘FEAR’ in its people?

By ‘fear’, I mean the dread to speak their minds because they’ve seen what happens to those that have.

There are many ways a person can speak their minds besides talking. They can join political parties, give money to their choice, and even make comments on the internet. That’s right—nothing on the Internet is secret.

For example; what’s happened to the comments on Wade’s blog?

It’s been said the IRS has made more liars out of Americans than golf and fishermen combined.

That’s supposed to be funny, but who wants to go through the ordeal of being investigated?

Today, I got the impression Rush Limbaugh implied the ‘leak’ about the IRS was by someone who wanted to show Americans if they didn’t agree with the government what a powerful ‘weapon’ that could be used against them.

That’s control by fear. Hitler did the same with the Gestapo.

Rex Ray said...

Mouths don’t expose the Mafia; nor do they expose Obama for Bengozie, phone records, IRS etc. Hmmm

Where is Pastor R.B.C. Howell when we need him?

Christiane said...

praying for Oklahoma

Rex Ray said...

I’ve heard radio, but not TV until now. Seeing the people and damage in Moore, Ok makes my ranting pale in comparison. I don’t know of anyone that could watch without tears,

Rex Ray said...

Just read your comment.
I believe it to be the best/shortest ever made on Wade’s blog.

Christiane said...


I've seen the heart-breaking video . . . the school devastation, the frightened children, the reunions with parents, the elderly finding their pets . . . hard not to cry over the sadness and loss

when there are no words,
'may He come along side with strength'

Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting this. Not sure you'll get my comment at this late date, but I'll leave it anyway.

I just learned, shortly before reading your post, that a man who had a significant role in leading me to Christ is the great, great, great grandson of R.B.C. Howell. He sent me a birthday card, and in the card he mentioned his relation to Howell. Then I read your post.

What a coincidence.


Wade Burleson said...

Wow, Louis, that's wonderful! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Howell could not have written in January 1862 that he was being called before Military Governor Andrew Johnson. Tennessee was then still under Confederate control, and Johnson did not arrive and require his oath until well after Union victories in February 1862. said...

I did not know this important story, though I am directly descended from RBCH. I have an original portrait of him and two hand-written volumes of his sermons. Thank you for writing this!