Monday, March 09, 2009

Jonathan Mayhew Lays Theological Groundwork for American Revolution

In his famous A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers: with Some Reflections on the resistance Made to King Charles I, the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew laid an important corner stone in the foundations of the American Revolution. Indeed, John Adams credited Mayhew's sermon as having "great influence in the commencement of the Revolution."

The Legacy of "The Divine Right of Kings"

The causes of the American Revolution are varied, and have been substantially discussed all over the Internet, including of course at this blog. The main theme undergirding all those causes was the issue of authority.

And for hundreds of years, Britain had rested its authority on a concept known to many as "the Divine Right of Kings." While the theory had been largely rejected in the "Glorious Revolution" of England (1688-89), it still heavily influenced the Church of England and gave many in the colonies pause as they considered their relationship with the Mother Country.

Significant to the "Divine Right of Kings" concept was the Apostle Paul's exhortation in his letter to the church at Rome that "every soul be subject unto the higher powers" and that the "powers that be are ordained of God" (see Romans 13:1-7).

Loyalists during the American Revolution often cited Romans 13 as reason to stand with King George III and Parliament. Indicative of this position was Loyalist minister Jonathan Boucher, who declared:

"Obedience to government is every man's duty, because it is every man's interest; but it is particularly incumbent on Christians, because (in addition to its moral fitness) it is enjoined by the positive commands of God; and, therefore, when Christians are disobedient to human ordinances, they are also disobedient to God. If the form of government under which the good providence of God has been pleased to place us be mild and free, it is our duty to enjoy it with gratitude and with thankfulness and, in particular, to be careful not to abuse it by licentiousness. If it be less indulgent and less liberal than in reason it ought to be, still it is our duty not to disturb and destroy the peace of the community by becoming refractory and rebellious subjects and resisting the ordinances of God. However humiliating such acquiescence may seem to men of warm and eager minds, the wisdom of God in having made it our duty is manifest. For, as it is the natural temper and bias of the human mind to be impatient under restraint, it was wise and merciful in the blessed Author of our religion not to add any new impulse to the natural force of this prevailing propensity but, with the whole weight of his authority, altogether to discountenance every tendency to disobedience."

Is the "Divine Right of Kings" Scriptural?

Medieval theologican John Calvin, one of the most influential biblical scholars in Christian history, certainly thought so. Calvin, known for his theological views on the sovereignty of God, argued that rebellion against God's ordained rulers was never justified.

**See John Calvin's "On Civil Government"**

The late Bible scholar William R. Newell, in his commentary Romans Verse-by-Verse, argues that Romans 13 is a clear, explicit stand against "lawlessness." And if the rulers are bad ones, that doesn't change a thing, says Newell. In Romans Verse-by-Verse, he writes:

"Never mind if they are bad ones, the word still stands, 'There is no power but of God.' Remember your Savior suffered under Pontius Pilate, one of the worst Roman governors Judea ever had; and Paul under Nero, the worst Roman Emperor. And neither our Lord nor His Apostle denied or reviled the 'authority!'"

Nineteenth century biblical scholar William Kelly echoed similar sentiments regarding Romans 13. Kelly declared:

"‘Authorities in power’ is an expression that embraces every form of governing power, monarchical, aristocratic, or republican. All cavil on this score is therefore foreclosed. The Spirit insists not merely on the Divine right of kings, but that ‘there is no authority except from God.’ Nor is there an excuse on this plea for change; yet if a revolution should overthrow one form and set up another, the Christian’s duty is plain: ‘those that exist are ordained by God.’ His interests are elsewhere, are heavenly, are in Christ; his responsibility is to acknowledge what is in power as a fact, trusting God as to the consequences, and in no case behaving as a partisan. Never is he warranted in setting himself up against the authority as such."

Clearly, there are strong exegetical arguments for the "Divine Right of Kings" - at least on the surface. That the theory has been so persistent is also beyond dispute. But was Paul really endorsing the "Divine Right of Kings"? Was he endorsing unlimited submission to any authority?

Jonathan Mayhew on the Apostle Paul and Romans 13

Jonathan Mayhew's position on Romans 13 was that Paul was calling for "submission to those rulers who exercise their power in a proper manner," not those who abuse their power. And that the apostle made this clear by describing the purpose of government. Mayhew writes:

"...upon a careful review of the apostle’s reasoning in this passage, it appears that his arguments to enforce submission, are of such a nature, as to conclude only in favour of submission to such rulers as he himself describes; i.e. such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not intitled [sic] to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of any thing here laid down by the inspired apostle."

If Mayhew's interpretation of Romans 13 is correct, then the "Divine Right of Kings" is better understood as the "Divine Right of Just Government."

Was the American Revolution Biblically Justified?

Blogger Gary Manning says no, at least not insofar as the Bible is concerned. In a "Just War" series he did for his readers last year, Manning wrote that, while Paul kept the door open for civil disobedience of "unjust laws," the apostle "did not allow armed revolt."

Libertarian commentator Jonathan Rowe also argues that the weight of Scripture was on the side of the Loyalists in colonial America. The Bible, writes Rowe, was "insufficient for establishing the principles upon which we declared independence and constructed the Constitution."

**Visit American Creation for a series of blog posts on biblical arguments, including Romans 13 and the American Revolution**

David Barton, a notable (and controversial) Christian commentator on the founding era, argues that the Revolutionary War was indeed justified. Answering the question "Was the American Revolution a Biblically Justified Act?," Barton writes that Romans 13 argues for a general ordination of government, not every single official who sits in a government position. Sounding much like Mayhew of old, Barton explains:

"God ordained government in lieu of anarchy – He opposes anarchy, He opposes rebelliousness and lawlessness, and He opposes wickedness. Yet, there are clearly have been governments in recent years that promote anarchy, rebellion, and wickedness (e.g. Ghadaffi in Libya, Hussein in Iraq, Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Idi Amin in Uganda, etc.). Has God endorsed those specific governments that promote that which He hates? If so, He has contradicted His nature and is commanding submission and support to the very things that He hates – such is not possible."

So....who is right? What's the answer?


Perhaps the answer is found in Psalm 75, written long ago by Asaph. In this psalm, Asaph writes that "exaltation comes neither from the east, nor from the west nor from the south," but that God "is the Judge: He puts down one, and exalts another" (Psalm 75:6-7).

From this passage (as well as others of course), we draw the principle that government is determined by God. He raises up government and He takes it down.

So, what happens when a government is in place that is contrary to the Bible's principles for government? What happens when an unjust ruler is in power?

The Bible counsels God's followers, in similar cases, to seek wisdom from God. We are to submit ourselves to God's direction and guidance and we are to "trust in the Lord....in all our ways" (Proverbs 3:5-6).

And, in some cases, this may mean revolution. God led Moses to free the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. He called on Gideon to liberate Israel from Midianite oppression. Indeed, the Old Testament (especially the book of Judges) is full of God raising up leaders.

What about the American Revolution? Many of the Founders believed that God was raising them up to build a new nation. They believed they were doing God's work as well as their own in declaring independence from Great Britain and establishing the United States of America.

Whether this is true or not, it is true that the Founders beseeched God for guidance and wisdom in the months and years leading up to the Revolutionary War. The First Continental Congress (1774), for example, opened with a prayer by the Rev. Jacob Duche on behalf of the American colonists who "have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee."

And it was to the "Supreme Judge" that the Second Continental Congress appealed for "the rectitude of our intentions" when passing the Declaration of Independence.

Ultimately, only God can answer authoritatively whether the American Revolution was biblically justified. But the Founding Fathers believed that it was. And their appeals to Almighty God for His blessing and protection were not mere rhetorical devices, but sincere prayers for God's wisdom and provision. Our nation today could learn something from their example.

4 comments:

Sarah Eriksen said...

Brian and Brad, you write one of the most interesting blogs I've seen in a long time! Thanks. On that note, you might be interested in reading The American Revolution or Intellectual Roots of the American Revolution. I work for the company that publishes this; based on what I've seen on your blog, I think they might be interested in partnering with you.

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Elliott Broidy said...

This is a great new look into history. You obviously have a huge love for it!