“By election… by descent… by the sword”: Francis Vinton and ‘The Christian Idea of Civil Government’

The American Civil War ignited the pens of Protestant clerics, particularly when it came to writing political sermons. Sermons and discourses on war and politics proliferated in both the North and the South. George Rable noted in his God’s Almost Chosen People that “ministers of various stripes held forth often and at length on the ripening sectional conflict and war. The published sermons alone are staggering in quantity and diversity, if not profundity.” In the South, Harry Stout noted that three quarters of all “printed sermons would be public fast or Thanksgiving sermons or similar political and war related sermons preached on other days.” Unlike their Northern counterparts, , Southern ministers—particularly Presbyterians—often shied away from political sermons, but even devotees of the so-called spirituality of the church doctrine preached politics after 1860. Stout rightly observes that although political sermons were an antebellum “rarity…these sermons became a staple religious product of the confederate press. Religious publications as a whole, excluding periodicals, would amount to more than 4 percent of the unofficial imprints appearing in the Confederacy.”[i]

Given the proliferation of political sermons in the Civil War Era, it is unsurprising that the subjects of those same sermons ranged widely. Antebellum political sermons, when they were preached, often celebrated the American order’s wedding of Christianity and republicanism. The nature of American Christian republicanism was however, as Obbie Tyler Todd notes, “more assumed than defined.” Evangelical scholars have tended to highlight the synthesis between the United States, Christianity, and particularly liberal republicanism in the era between the Founding and the Civil War, but this obfuscates how many American clerics viewed liberal and democratic commitments on church and state and the religious order broadly as adiaphora.[ii]

One example of this indifference to unquestioned liberal democratic norms among Protestant clerics was popular and prolific Rhode Island rector and sometimes historian in the Episcopal Church, Francis Vinton. In an 1861 sermon Vinton proposed that apostolic injunctions regarding the relationship of the Christian to the civil-religious order were more interested in the power of government than in the mode of government.

“Civil Government is a Divine institution, and is administered by Divine authority. The mode of appointment is indifferent. It may be by election; it may be by descent; it may be by the sword. At the time when the New Testament was written, every sort of municipal government prevailed within the circuit of the despotic rule of the Roman Empire. Yet ‘the powers that be are ordained of God,’ was a truth alike of all, exacting the same loyalty for ‘conscience sake.’ The mode of appointment is indifferent; but the administration of the government is ‘of God.’”[iii]

He added an interesting qualification to how his listeners understood the phrase “powers that be.” St Paul “does not say the persons that be, but the ‘powers that be are ordained of God.’” Vinton noted that John Chrysostom made a similar distinction. The Fourth Century archbishop of Constantinople wrote that St Paul “does not say, for there is no ruler but of God; but it is the thing he speaks of, and says there is no power but of God. And the powers that be are ordained of God.”[iv]

Vinton’s sermon probably addressed Northern dissidents who saw Abraham Lincoln’s administration as illegitimate and undemocratic and who saw the Civil War as a vehicle for burgeoning tyranny. How the government came to power, Vinton proposed, was less important than if a specific government functionally governed in a manner in accordance with the divine specifications for good government. He noted that at various times the Hebrews elected their rulers, and at other times lived under an outright theocracy. “The Government,” argued Vinton, “becomes, in either case, the Government of God; and the people are at once made ‘subject’ under the ‘powers and principalities,’ established and instituted as Divine ordinances, in fundamental principles and laws.” No matter whether government was theocratic or elective, the people of God “are, thenceforth, bound by religious obligations, to ‘obey the magistrates,’ as ‘the ministers of God to them, for good.’”[v]

[i] Rable, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 5; Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Penguin, 2006), 51.

[ii] Obbie Tyler Todd, “What Republicanism Is This? An Introduction to Christian Republicanism (1776–1865),” Themelios 49 (April 2024): 108-127.

[iii]. Francis H. Vinton, The Christian Idea of Civil Government: A Sermon (New York: George F. Nesbitt and Co., 1861), 4-5; Italics in the original

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Vinton, 6.


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