American Revolution Debate: Proper Submission to Authority

Jonathan Mayhew, 1885, in The History: American Episcopal Church 1587-1883 by William Stevens Perry.  Mayhew preached on resistance to tyranny based on the Bible during the revolutionary era.

Prior to and during the American Revolution, American colonists of the 1700s intensely debated whether it was biblical to go to war with Britain and defend their rights and freedoms.  Those who opposed revolution were called “loyalists” or “Tories” of King George III and Britain.  Those who supported revolution were often called “patriots” or “Whigs” after the pro-reform political party in England.  What both sides agreed on was that the Bible was central to this discussion.

While many colonists believed the Bible commanded obedience to authority and opposed resistance, many others believed resistance was consistent with the Bible and Christian teaching.  Both loyalist and patriot Americans used biblical themes to oppose or defend revolution.  Many voices in the colonies contributed to the debate over revolution including loyalist and patriot clergy, political leaders, and colonists.  They largely debated over justification of war based on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 with regard to the biblical mandate to submit to civil authority.  Incidentally, German reformer Martin Luther had presented these verses in his 1523 treatise during the Protestant Reformation, titled Secular Authority:  To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, as the basis for civil government.  French reformer John Calvin had also presented these verses in his work on reformed Christian doctrine, his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, to indicate the honor and obedience that men are to afford to their governors.

The Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-5 writes:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.  Do you want to be unafraid of the authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.  Therefore, you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience sake.

The Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17 writes:

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.  Honor people.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the king.

The Loyalist Position

To loyalists, Romans 13 taught unlimited submission to lawful civil authority and government, almost without exception.  Such was the historical view of the church.  Loyalists supported obedience to authority regardless of the government’s form or actions.  Finding the British government lawful (according to English law), they opposed revolution and resistance to Britain.

Loyalists pointed out that the early Christians in the Bible remained subject to authorities even when those authorities were evil or tyrannous.  For the early Christians did not speak of or arrange political rebellion.  Such was the submission, they believed, that all Christians should properly take at all times.  One loyalist, Rev. Jonathan Boucher, alluding to Romans 13, reflected the loyalist view when he preached in 1763 to 1775 that resistance was inconsistent with the Bible and church doctrine, saying, “To resist against a lawful government is to oppose the ordinance of God, and to injure and destroy institutions most essential to human happiness.”  He pressed men to submit even if the authority was evil:

Kings and princes, evil as well as good, reign by God’s ordinance.  Subjects are bound to obey them and for no cause to resist, withstand, rebel, or make any sedition against them, though they be wicked men.  It is perilous to commit to subjects the judgment of which prince is wise, which government is good.  A rebel is worse than the worst prince.

Another loyalist, Samuel Seabury of New York, reiterated the loyalist view that the Bible supported submission to evil rulers:

When St. Peter and St. Paul wrote their Epistles, they were under the government of heathen emperors and magistrates who persecuted them and other Christians—depriving them of their possessions and beating, banishing, and killing them—without any crime proved against them but merely because they were Christians.  And yet it was to these emperors and magistrates—even to Nero and Caligula—that the apostles commanded honor and respect at all times; and duty and submission whenever it could be done consistently with obedience to God.

The Patriot Position

The patriots, on the other hand, opposed passive obedience and unlimited submission to civil authorities and government, based on the same Bible verses.  While they believed that good, moral civil authority and government is God-ordained and should be submitted to, as the Bible says, they did not believe the Bible supported total submission to evil, tyrannous authorities that violated God’s moral law and did not properly represent or benefit the people.  Romans 13, they pointed out, speaks of submission to an authority that is “not a terror to good works, but to evil” and is a “minister to you for good.”  1 Peter 2 likewise speaks of submission to a government that punishes evildoers and praises those who do good.  Therefore, these verses, they believed, clearly do not call for submission to immoral, unjust authorities.  In fact, in revealing the moral purpose of civil government, the verses actually support resistance to unjust governments.  As such, the patriots believed resistance to tyrannical authority is a natural, God-given human right.

A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission by Jonathan Mayhew, 1750

One outspoken clergyman who represented well the patriot view, Congregationalist preacher Rev. Jonathan Mayhew of Boston, believed resistance to tyranny was a Christian duty.  His 1750 Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission was one of the most widely-read sermons of the revolutionary era in support of resistance based on the Bible.  Reflecting reformed political thought, it set off a public debate in Boston newspapers on the issue of Christian obedience to authority.

Mayhew argued from Romans 13 that Christians are called to submit to just governments regardless of their form—monarchy, aristocracy, or republic.  However, tyrannous, oppressive governments that ruin nations and lives are not to be absolutely submitted to because they contradict the Law of Nature, reason, and the purpose of government in the Bible.  “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief,” Mayhew argues.  “It is blasphemy to call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.  They are more properly ‘the messengers of Satan to buffet us’ [2 Corinthians 12:7].”  He elaborates:

No rulers are properly called God’s ministers but such as are “just, ruling in the fear of God” [2 Samuel 23:3].  Once magistrates act contrary to their office—when they rob and ruin the public, instead of being guardians of its peace and welfare—they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen.  So whenever the argument for submission fails, then the other argument, that they are the ordinance of God, must also fail. 

When no good end can be answered by submission, there remains no argument to enforce it.  If a contrary end is brought about, and the ruin and misery of society effected by it, here is a plain and positive reason against submission.

Mayhew asserted that contrary to the idea that people should submit to evil authorities, people have a duty to defend against tyranny and injustice for the good of society and to guard the people’s God-given freedoms.  For God does not desire His people to live under oppression.

American Founder John Adams commented that Mayhew’s sermon revealed “the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution.”  One early historian called it the “morning gun of the revolution,” and modern historians affirm that it was an impetus of the American Revolution.

Americans on both sides of the Revolutionary War debate held to arguments that centered on the Bible.  With their different interpretations of scripture, loyalists believed war with Britain was unbiblical while patriots believed God supported their liberty cause.  Ultimately, the colonists were compelled to fight for their freedom, declared their independence from Britain based on God-given equality, natural rights, and consent of the governed, and founded one of the freest nations in history, the self-governing nation of the United States.

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.

Related posts/videos:
1. When the People Rule:  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty in the Declaration and Constitution
2. Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Ancient Israelites
3. The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as a Covenant
4. The Puritans in America Identified with the Ancient Israelites and Practiced Covenants
5. The Puritans in America Elected Representatives to Govern in their Colonies
6. Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government
7.  Thomas Hooker as the “father of American Democracy”
8.  Why Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
9.  Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
10.  The Great Awakening Affected Unity, Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution 
11.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
12.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
13.  American Revolution Sometimes called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
14.  American Revolution Debate:  Submission to Authority
15.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
16.  How the American Revolution Shed Light on the Moral Problem of Slavery
17.  American Revolution Debate:  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
18.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New Republic
19.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
20.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
21.  American Revolution Debate:  Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression & Divided Kingdom
22.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War
23. 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 1, Activity 4:  Sermons on the Revolution Debate, p. 207, 358.  MS-HS.

Sermons on the Revolution Debate

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the historical context of the American Revolution, the influence of the Bible during the Founding era, and the Bible-centered debate on revolution between loyalists and patriots.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 6 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 6.1 and 6.3 in particular.
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).

Debate Comparison Chart:
Review with students sermons excerpted in Chapter 6.3 of the Miracle of America sourcebook as well as other primary sources in the chapter.  These may be copied and distributed to the class.  Have students read them either aloud, to themselves, or alone.  Then discuss.  Other primary sources in the chapter should also be studied and discussed as time permits.  These primary sources will give students firsthand knowledge of some of the arguments and interpretations of colonists.  Students may create a comparison chart to outline and organize arguments from the two opposing viewpoints.  This activity may be completed from part 2 of this unit after examining the patriots’ arguments in depth.  See the “Bible-Centered Debate on Revolution” Comparison Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 388.

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