American Revolution Debate: Obedience to God Over Man

Peter Preaching in Jerusalem by Charles Poerson, 1642.  In Acts 5, Peter and the apostles are brought before the religionists for violating a restriction prohibiting the preaching of the Christian Gospel.  When questioned, Peter replies, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Before and during the American Revolution, early American colonists argued a number of Bible-based principles to support their revolutionary cause and independence from Britain.  One principle taken up by patriot Americans to defend their cause was the principle that all people and man-made laws are subject to the Law of Nature, also understood as God’s universal moral law.  As such, tyrannical or unjust civil laws that are contrary to the Law of Nature should not be obeyed.

Up until the mid-1700s, colonists had generally relied on British law and their colonial charters for the protection of their rights in the American colonies.  They initially cited these laws when the British government began to impose intrusive policies in their colonies.  However, when the British Crown rejected their petition for certain rights as Englishmen, they could no longer defend themselves by British law.  So instead, they turned to the Law of Nature to defend their natural rights and freedoms.

Early Americans recognized the Law of Nature, a universal moral law identified for centuries in Western Civilization, that applies to all mankind.  Often understood as originating from the Creator God, this law existed before man-made or civil laws.  It sets down standards of right and wrong and of just governance in society.  It includes the idea of not harming others but of treating others, as oneself, with love.  It supports the idea, as British philosopher John Locke articulated, that man has natural rights of life and liberty.  This law is naturally revealed in a person’s right reason, conscience, and/or common moral sense, and it aligns with God’s moral law in the Bible.  Colonists believed that just civil laws that abide by God’s moral law should lead to freedom from oppression, not tyranny, for the people.

Colonists drew a defense for the Law of Nature and their natural rights largely from Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government.  In his work, Locke asserted that based on the Law of Nature, man possessed certain natural rights of “life, liberty, and estate.”  If these rights were violated, the people had a right to resist.  Locke thus developed a natural rights and revolution theory.  Because patriot colonists saw British policies as oppressive and unjust violations of the Law of Nature and their natural rights, they believed they had no obligation to submit to such policies or the British government.

What many Americans may not know is that Locke’s secular ideas reflected and were influenced by earlier Bible-based, Reformation-era ideas and writings on the Law of Nature and resistance theory.  The idea that Law of Nature is above man-made law, for example, reflected a Judeo-Christian, Bible-based view that one should obey God’s moral law over man’s law, or God over man.

The principle to obey God over man emerged during the Protestant Reformation in Europe in writings such as Martin Luther’s 1523 Secular Authority:  To What Extent It Should be Obeyed, John Calvin’s 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Ponet’s 1556 Short Treatise of Political Power, and Stephen Junius Brutus’s 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants).

These early European writings argued that while men should generally submit to their governors, men should not make or obey laws or commands when they are contrary to God’s moral law or the Law of Nature, requiring one to do evil.  Luther made this point based on Acts 5:29, posing, “When a prince is in the wrong, are his people bound to follow him?  I answer, No, for it is no one’s duty to do wrong.  We ought to obey God, who desires the right, rather than men.”  Calvin similarly asserted, “If man’s rulers command anything against God, it ought not to have the least attention.”  He also cited Acts 5:29, saying, “Since this edict has been proclaimed by…Peter, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men,’ let us console ourselves…that we truly perform the obedience which God requires of us when we suffer anything rather than deviate from piety.”  Ponet argued from Romans 13:1-5 and Acts 5:29 that civil governors are ordained by God to do good, not evil, and so if they command evil, they should not be obeyed.  He writes,

Christian men ought well to consider and weigh men’s commandments before they be hasty to do them, to see if they are contrary or repugnant to God’s commandments and justice, which if they be, are evil and cruel, and ought not to be obeyed.  …  Saint Paul (the teacher of obedience) teaches [from Romans 13:1-5] that civil power and princes are not ordained to be a terror to those who do well but to those who do evil….  Therefore, the power is ordained that evil might be taken away.  …  But if the ministers of the civil power command you to dishonor God, to commit idolatry, to kill an innocent, to fight against your country, to give or lend what you have to the mind of subversion and destruction of your country, or to maintain them in their wickedness, you ought not to do it, but to leave it undone.  For it is evil, and God (the Supreme and Highest Power) will not have you do it.  The apostles in time of persecution did not only give us an example of what to do when the worldly powers would have them follow their proceedings, but also left us a lesson.  God must be obeyed (they say) rather than men [Acts 5:29].  This lesson, even from the beginning before it was written, was by the Holy Ghost printed in man’s heart [Romans 2:14-15].

Brutus maintained this same argument, expressing, “If God is in the position of superior lord, and the king in that of vassal, who would not decree that the lord should be obeyed rather than the vassal?  …  So not only are we not obliged to obey a king commanding something contrary to God’s law, but also if we should obey we would be rebels [to God].”

Such influential writings asserted that civil governors are ordained by God for justice and the prosperity and benefit of the people, not for injustice or the state’s ruin.  As such, the legitimate authorities, representatives, and people of a state have a responsibility to check and resist evil, corruption, and tyranny among their governors.  If a ruler or ruling body violates God’s natural, moral law, the ruler’s law should be checked and resisted.  Governors, called to uphold justice and restrain evil, should be corrected or punished if they themselves commit evils.  For “next after God, men are born to love, honor, and maintain their country,” says Ponet, and “where justice is not executed…there cannot be but a most corrupt, ungodly, and vicious state.”  Brutus likewise says, “Natural Law teaches us to preserve and protect our life and liberty—without which life is scarcely life at all—against all force and injustice.  …  So he who disputes whether it is lawful to fight back seems to be fighting nature itself,” and “If someone should try to infringe this [natural] law by force or deceit, we are all obliged to resist him because he violates the society to which he owes everything, and because he undermines the country to which we are bound by nature, laws, and oath.”

The principle to obey the Law of Nature or God over man emerged in American founding-era writings including Jonathan Mayhew’s 1750 sermon, Discourses Concerning Unlimited Submission, Samuel Adams’s 1772 Rights of Colonists, and the Declaration of Independence of 1776.  Mayhew observed that “no civil rulers are to be obeyed when they enjoin things that are inconsistent with the commands of God.”  Adams expressed that “just and true liberty…is a thing that all men are clearly entitled to by the eternal and immutable laws of God and nature” and that such rights are best understood by studying the teachings “found closely written and promulgated in the New Testament.”  Our Declaration of Independence ultimately states that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and that men are entitled by the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” to govern themselves.

Drawing upon the Law of Nature, American patriots defended their natural rights of life and liberty and of self-government during the American Revolution.  Their defense was heavily influenced by Locke’s work, which, in turn, reflected a Bible-based idea that God’s moral law is above man’s law.  Because colonists viewed Britain’s rule in the colonies as oppressive, unjust, and violating their rights, they believed British power and policies should not be obeyed but actively resisted for the benefit of the people and to maintain a free, just country. Their views supported the American cause of liberty.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Sources:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

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4. The Puritans in America Identified with the Ancient Israelites and Practiced Covenants
5.  Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
6.  The Great Awakening Affected Unity, Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution 
7.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
8.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
9.  American Revolution Sometimes called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
10.  American Revolution Debate:  Submission to Authority
11.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
12.  How the American Revolution Shed Light on the Moral Problem of Slavery
13.  American Revolution Debate:  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
14.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New Republic
15.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
16.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
17.  American Revolution Debate:  Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression & Divided Kingdom
18.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War
19. Freedom:  The First Most Important Characteristic of America

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 6, Part 2, Activity 3:  Bible-Based Justification for Revolution, p. 219, 359.  MS-HS.

Bible-Based Justification for Revolution

Purpose/Objective:  Students examine the Bible-based arguments made by Patriot Americans in support of revolution against Britain.  Students learn about the influence of the Bible during the Founding era.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 6 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 6.1 to 6.12.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Patriot Revolutionary Chart:
In your own words, explain/describe the following biblical principles or arguments used by many patriot Americans to justify/support the American Revolution.  Students may include the sources/thinkers who promoted each argument.  Provide relevant scripture verse(s) for each argument.  See the “Bible-Based Justification for Revolution” Patriot Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 359.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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