search instagram arrow-down

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation”[1]

Romans 13:1-2

As American colonists found themselves increasingly at odds with their English King and his Parliament in the years leading to the Revolutionary War, they found themselves needing to justify their actions within the framework of their Christian faith. New Testament scripture, as noted in Romans above and also 1 Peter 2, calls for believers to submit themselves to their governments. As we know from history, the American colonies, made up of a diverse yet devout population, did not submit, declaring their independence from Britain in 1776. How did they reconcile their rebellion with their religion?

One place we can look to for answers is in the sermons of colonial church ministers. In 1750, as dissatisfaction with England was in its early stages, Boston Congregationalist minister Johnathan Mayhew gave a sermon that would influence Christian thinking on government authority. Mayhew believed that Christians living under a respected sovereign should “enjoy under his administration all the liberty that is proper and expedient for us.”[2] However, when a rightful ruler turned tyrant then God’s expectation for obedience changed, and it was no longer considered a sin to defy the will of an unjust man. Mayhew’s sermon was inspirational to Founding Father and future U.S. President John Adams, who later recalled its influence as being read and celebrated by everyone, and a contributor to the start of the Revolution.[3]

Despite their location in the colonies, Americans at the time still saw themselves as Englishmen and entitled to all the rights and responsibilities that were due to them under English Common Law. The violation of this law is what contributed to their dissatisfaction and continual appeal for relief up until the point of the American secession. In December 1775, minister David Griffith gave a sermon to the Virginia Convention in which he referenced the Apostle Paul’s arrest, imprisonment, and flogging at the hands of the Roman authorities in the book of Acts. Like the Americans appealing to their rights as English citizens, Paul appealed directly to Caesar under his rights as a Roman citizen. Griffith argues that event shows that the Apostle’s actions displayed that civil disobedience was sometimes justified.[4]

Just a month later, another Virginia minister would also make a claim for rebellion, but this time in a different manner. On January 21, 1776 Reverend Peter Muhlenberg arrived at his church in Woodstock, Virginia to preach a farewell sermon after being appointed by General George Washington to lead the 8th Virginia Regiment to war. Muhlenberg’s choice of scriptural justification came from the Old Testament. After he detailed his military service to his congregation and sufferings his people had endured at the hands of the British government, he threw off his religious robe to reveal his uniform underneath and cited the book of Ecclesiastes, stating that “there was a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times had passes away,” and that “there was a time to fight, and that time had now come!” [5]

Ultimately, despite scriptural prohibitions against rebellion, American Christians felt it necessary to throw off the yoke of the British government and establish their own constitutional republic. Christian ministers played a huge part in that decision, with one of their own in John Witherspoon even adding his signature to the Declaration of Independence. Whether they were right or wrong is up to God, and Witherspoon’s own words can sum up the sentiment of God’s providence through history, stating that “all the disorderly passions of men…shall, in the end, be to the praise of God.”[6]

This essay was written to fulfill requirements for a graduate level history course.

[1]Unless otherwise noted, all Biblical passages referenced employ the King James (Wheaton, IL: Crossway,  2008).

[2]Jonathan Mayhew, “A Discourse, Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” (Boston: 1750), 54-55.

[3]James P. Byrd. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 131-132.  

[4]David Griffith, “Passive Obedience Considered: In a Sermon Preached at Williamsburg, December 31st, 1775.” (Williamsburg: 1776), 15-16.

[5]Henry A. Muhlenberg. The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army, (Philadelphia: Cary and Hart, 1849), 53. It should be noted that Henry Muhlenberg was the nephew of Peter Muhlenberg and many question the historical accuracy of this story.

[6] John Witherspoon, The dominion of Providence over the passions of men. (Philadelphia: Printed and sold by R. Aitken, 1776), 534.

Leave a Reply
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: