Justifying Revolt: Protestant Clergy and the American Revolution


Preface: I have often been asked for my thoughts on the American Revolution, especially given a Christian worldview:  “Was the Revolution just?  Is rebellion ever just?  Did the Protestant clergy of the time believe it to be just?”  (et cetera..).  As with most things worth knowing (in more than a superficial manner) it takes time, development of themes, and context to give a proper answer to such questions.  After reading numerous sermons and pamphlets, it becomes clear that (most) of the clergy wanted to be careful in their own answer to these questions.  They did not advocate rushing headlong into insurrection, nor did they believe that only the British were at fault, but they did believe they had certain unassailable (God-given) rights that it was proper for them to defend if need be.  This paper does not necessarily give a positive answer to the questions, however it presents the arguments of those clergymen, leaving it for all of us to decide what is right and what is wrong when presented with such circumstances.  And remember, it is easy to cast judgment when you have no fear of your money, wife, or life being taken from you.. 

This is a paper written for a graduate research seminar, and was submitted to Oklahoma State University (December 13, 2013) by myself.  This blog post has been transposed (copy/pasted) from its original word document; while an attempt was made to edit the distortions caused by such a move, I am reasonably sure that I missed something (or many things), please inform me if there is any difficulty in determining my meaning, or if it is a mere distraction. 

I’ve included section titles for easier skimming (I know the paper is long (28pgs), and some of the historiographical material may be difficult for those unfamiliar with it); here is a quick Table of Contents of the sections:

I. Introduction/Historiography (Thesis and Previous Scholarship)

II. The Protestants’ Dual Citizenship (How Protestants viewed themselves in politics, history, etc.)

III. Natural Law/Natural Rights Argument

IV. Reformed Resistance Theory Argument

V. The Moral Imperative

VI. Conclusion



I. Introduction/Historiography

Several studies have attempted to discern the religious origins of the enthusiasm that motivated the colonists into armed conflict with Great Britain.  Some scholars suggested that the continuation of religious zeal and New Light disestablishmentarianism borne amidst the Great Awakening contributed to revolutionary enthusiasm; others maintained that the enthusiasm took shape during the intervening wars with the French and Indians; still others believed that it originated as far back as the Puritan founders.  According to the latter two interpretations, the sacred cause of the Massachusetts Puritans (namely, the “city upon a hill”) was realized in the sacred cause of the American Patriots, and the war with the French and Indians gave rise to end times speculation, believing the conflict with Britain would culminate in the millennial reign of Christ.[1]

This subject has preoccupied historians for several decades.  These studies often transformed the war for independence into a veritable crusade, making the religiously minded Patriots appear rather like zealots, all too ready to throw off restraint and fanatically support a crusade to rid the world of evil.  In many of these interpretations the idea of “tailoring” language is prominent, that is, the promulgation of political agendas was achieved by tailoring religious dialect in a way that would appeal to the religious population.  In so doing, notions of Popery became synonymous with tyranny, and redemption synonymous with liberty.  The focus for these historians has been on the conjoining of liberty and tyranny with doctrines of original sin and salvation in colonial sermons, ignoring the fact that the colonial ministers often—if not more so—chastised and warned the colonists for the same sins as the British.  As a result, the conflict became deeply religious, and was defended as a cause not only authorized by God, but a holy war led by him against the forces of Antichrist.[2]

Not persuaded by the whole spectrum of evidence, Melvin Endy argued that an overuse of particular preachers—whose sermons were taken out of context and atomized—was the cause of “overgeneralized interpretation[s].”  By distinguishing between a “holy war” (one authorized by God and fought for religious causes) and a “just war” (one given authorization from political authorities), he concluded that the war was “more political than religious.” Endy meant that the clergy provided less of a religious millennial justification “than arguments harmonizing religion with the Real Whig legitimations of the Revolution and with warnings of the adverse consequences that a British victory would have for religious liberty.”  Instead of a holy war, it often fit “the just war tradition of the Christian church”.[3]

The debate over religious influence, and justifications espoused by the clergy of New England, has been a topic of ever-changing opinion.  To the casual student of American history the justification for Revolution hardly seems to need this type of examination, for what greater justification was needed than the most virtuous cause of liberty?  But for Protestants engrained with religious principles, and thoroughly influenced by their Reformed heritage, it was far from an irrelevant subject.  It was one thing to resist the king’s orders, and something far different to actively fight against him.  Questions of rebellion would require answers: was it ever proper to rebel against the magistrate, what were the prerequisites for this action, and who could do it?  This is why theologians across the colonial map published and preached numerous treatises and sermons defending the justness of the cause.  The war became a cause requiring persuasion from both pulpit and pen.[4]

The objective of this paper is twofold.  First, rather than dichotomizing the motivations for war, and insisting that either religion or politics had a greater influence in bringing about support, it should be viewed as both religious and political, or politically religious.  By religious it is not meant that the war was regarded as a crusade, or holy war, but as given divine authorization by both temporal and supernatural institutions (i.e., the magistrate and the Bible).  The righteousness of the cause, and the extent to which God would give success, was determined, in part, by obedience to his moral law and the gospel, making it a deeply religious affair.  Second, the political and religious arguments used to garner support were not altogether derived from Awakening enthusiasm, millennial expectations, or Enlightenment philosophies, but had a long tradition among Protestant theologians.  Protestants had historically perceived themselves as dual citizens of heaven and earth, with an obligation to both realms, and this manifested itself in rationalizations for political policies derived from religious arguments.  What the manuscript evidence displays is a consistent stream of thought regarding resistance and the relation of politics to religion.[5]

By utilizing many of the same sources as previous historians, this paper endeavors to examine them from a less-than-cynical approach, accepting them for what the writer or speaker had to say rather than importing any underlying skepticism about their true intentions.  Utilizing this approach, the New England clergy are seen to have had several motivating factors in their treatises or sermons, and offered justifications that were as much religious as they were political.  While Endy was correct that millennial thought was not as ubiquitous as some scholars had contended, the cause was nevertheless seen as having the support and approval of God—assuming they lived righteously—to ultimately achieve his purposes.  An attempt was made to draw upon sources from a wide range of individual clergymen, from north to south, liberal to conservative, and spanning the revolutionary years; the purpose is not to delve into the individual theologies of each minister, but to display a common thread of Protestant influence—found in the common apologetic for resistance—throughout the colonies.[6]

In determining how politics and religion were of equal import in developing religious support, it becomes useful to analyze the method of persuasion in the writings or sermonizing of the clergymen who had the greatest influence.  The justifications were usually developed in three ways.  (1.) An appeal to natural law, political pragmatism, and their rights as English citizens provided political justification for the cause.  The ministers often appealed to reason and natural rights to prove that the tyranny of Great Britain was a threat in need of resistance, because it threatened to quash their liberties and rights as humans; these rights were ultimately derived from, and guaranteed by, God.  (2.) The appeal to their unalienable natural rights was often accompanied by Protestant resistance theories.  The clergy had to deal with the objections Loyalists leveled against the colonists, who insisted that they ought to passively obey their magistrates, always.  Their rights as humans and citizens, could never give their cause proper authorization, because those that could rightfully be considered Protestant Evangelicals still believed that ultimate authorization must be given from God, in the Scriptures, in order for success to be possible.  (3.) The conclusion of most sermons involved the combining of the two to develop a moral imperative, exhorting all true Protestants to defend this righteous cause because of its support from God, the civil government, and reason.[7]

Because the war was given authorization in so many ways, both religious and political, it was incumbent upon all true Protestants to wage the virtuous cause.  It was not always pitched as the mechanism by which the millennium would be ushered in, but rather, as the mechanism by which the true worship of God would be maintained and the Great Commission fulfilled for them, their posterity, and their nation.  The religious ramifications—affected and influenced by temporal political actions—were of the utmost importance.


II. The Protestants’ Dual Citizenship

Before examining the characteristics of the sermons, it is important to understand how Protestants of the time would have understood the role of religion in politics, or vice versa.  The fact that the spheres were so often indistinguishable from one another is partly to blame for why so many historians have confused the language of the clergy for a religious crusade, with millennialism as the rhetorical vehicle by which to advance its arrival.

The Revolutionary War, while not a crusade, was nevertheless religious for one crucial reason: because it was the duty of all Christians to improve the world around them by sacred and secular means in order that God might be glorified and pleased.  This was done through inward reform (individual repentance and faith) resulting in outward moral reform (political measures that concurred with God’s law and advanced His kingdom).  This is why so many of the clergy’s sermons belabor the point that if the colonists hoped for God to support them in their cause, they must first look to their own moral behavior (individually and corporately), and “if [their] cause is just—[they] may look with confidence to the Lord and intreat [sic] him to plead it as his own.”  Politics and religion interacted in such a way that good political actions and good citizens were viewed as the outward manifestation of inward reform.  It was the Protestants’ insistence on measures that would please God, and extend the kingdom of Christ through the church, that motivated them to political action.[8]

When Presbyterian minister, John Carmichael, preached his sermon, A Self-Defensive War Lawful, two months after the outbreak at Concord, he proclaimed:

It is but reasonable to suppose, that even the Minister of the Prince of Peace, whose business for ordinary is neither war or politicks, in such a situation, being member of civil society, and intersected like other men would improve the times, by adopting their public instructions, to the best service of the people, and not offensive or displeasing to God; whose holy word is a blessed directory in every emergency.

Carmichael concisely propounded several elements of Protestant understanding rooted more in Protestant tradition than any civil millennialism or Real Whig ideology.  The idea of being a “member of civil society” conveyed the dual citizenship that Protestants throughout history agreed upon; unlike the Quakers or the monks of Roman Catholicism, Reformed Protestants abhorred the idea of withdrawing from society into secluded cloisters where they could ignore worldly affairs and develop piety.  As one influential Puritan forefather made clear:

Within the society men are to serve each other in the mutual duties of justice and love…The solitary life which some hermits have chosen as angelic and others embrace for different reasons is so far from perfection that it is wholly contrary to the law and will of God…Human society provides the foundation to all the office of justice and love commanded in the second table of the law.  Transgressions which lead directly to the disturbance, confusion, and overthrow of this society are more grievous sins than breaches of individual commandments.

Instead, Protestants believed they were to “improve the times” that they inhabited.  They must therefore support causes “best” for the people and not “offensive or displeasing to God.”  And those actions must be approved by the “blessed directory [for] every emergency.”  In turn, they must wage battle against anything that would prevent the improvement of their world.  These ideas were not developed at the eve of Revolution, nor were they created by New Light enthusiasm borne out of the Enlightenment, but they had a long history in the tradition of the Reformed church.  It was this same belief that initiated the Protestant Reformation, provided motivation for the Puritan mission in the New World, and aroused enthusiasm in the Great Awakening; now it became the justification for fighting against the British.[9]

In May, 1776, John Witherspoon, president of Princeton University and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, preached one of his only political sermons: The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men.  After exhorting his listeners to look within their own hearts and to repent of any known sin in order that God may favor their cause, he laid out several improvements that stressed the necessity of Christian involvement in worldly affairs.

It is therefore your duty, in this important and critical season, to exert yourselves to every one in his proper sphere to stem the tide of prevailing vice, to promote the knowledge of God, the reverence of his name and worship, and obedience to his laws.

And then, in order to make the point more forcefully, he proclaimed:

Industry, therefore, is a moral duty of the greatest moment, absolutely necessary to national prosperity, and the sure way of obtaining the blessing of God.  I would also observe, that in this, as in every other part of God’s government, obedience to his will is as much a natural mean, as a meritorious cause of the advantage we wish to reap from it.

The forcefulness of the argument must not be understated; it was a “moral duty” to improve the times, to remain industrious, to submit cheerfully to proper magistrates, to love your neighbor, and to promote the true religion of Christ.  The importance of personal piety had everything to do with political measures.  God could not be expected to bless a cause that was advanced by an unholy people, no matter its noble intentions.[10]

The Revolutionary manuscripts are replete with calls to repentance, to do their duty as Christians, and to be involved in the defense of truth so that God might support their undertaking.  “Awake, therefore,” wrote John Cleaveland—under the penname Johannes in Eremo—in The Essex Gazette, “Let us all repent and turn every one from his Sins—his Provocations against Heaven, and God Almighty will awake to our Help as in ancient Times.”  Another minister echoed the thought: “Exert…your utmost effort, strain every nerve, do all you can to promote this cause—plead earnestly with God, in its behalf, by continual prayer and supplication, by repentance and reformation, by forsaking every vice, & the practice of universal virtue.”[11]

The colonial ministers concerned themselves with the spiritual condition of the Patriots as much as they concerned themselves with the character of the British.  This was a common practice for all Christians, who believed that the coming of Christ was perpetually imminent and often took Jesus’s words to heart: “and you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.”  If it were true that the clergy expected to see the coming of Christ in His kingdom, it is reasonable to expect more sermons with that as the primary subject.  As it is, not many have been cited to support that understanding.  Instead, the sermons are appeals to conduct themselves in such a way that they would not be ashamed if Christ were to return—including service in a war for their neighbor’s wellbeing and God’s glory.[12]

The cause so combined political and religious rhetoric that at some point it becomes frivolous to separate them, but simply to consider their appeals politically religious.  Again, this was no new innovation, as if it were a recent development that Protestants would see themselves as now having a divine directive to get involved in political actions more than the religious ones they once cared more about.  One historian remarked: “Religious aims rapidly became indistinguishable from political ones” during the Great Awakening.  But was this really the case?  Did the Great Awakening act as the catalyst for Protestants to begin utilizing their religion to promote politics?  The answer is a resounding no, because religion was often “indistinguishable” from politics for the Reformed Protestants, and there is no need to go far to find proof of this.[13]

The most relevant and convincing example of the Protestant involvement in worldly or political affairs for a cosmic purpose can be traced back to the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  In speaking about the Puritans—specifically in the context of the New England Puritans—Edmund S. Morgan summarized their task in the world:

Every nation or people, the Puritans believed, existed by virtue of a covenant with God, an agreement whereby they promised to abide by His laws, and He in turn agreed to treat them well.  To help carry out their part of the bargain, people instituted governments, and the business of government was to enforce God’s laws by punishing every detachable breach.  Government in this view had a sacred task and enjoyed divine sanction in carrying it out.  The institution of government, however, did not absolve the people from responsibility.  As long as the government did its job, the people must give it all the assistance in their power.  But if the governors failed in their sacred task and fell prey to the evils they were supposed to suppress, then the people must rebel and replace the wicked rulers with better ones.  If they did not, God would descend in fire and brimstone to punish the whole nation.

This belief led to the throwing off of their government in the Old World in order to start afresh in the New; this idea led John Winthrop to conclude that they must establish a “due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical,” to follow the commands of God, lest He “break out in wrath” against them, and make them know “the price of the breach of such a covenant.”  Furthermore, this belief provided the motivation behind later revolutionary talk; so far from this being a new belief, it was an old one, rooted in Puritan, Protestant, and Reformed tradition.  To throw off a wicked government was not only politically advantageous, it was religiously justified, and ultimately a sacred duty.[14]

There is truly little difference in the ideologies between the seventeenth-century Puritans and eighteenth-century Protestant Evangelicals; the former required harmless separation, while the latter required bloodshed.  In both cases it was necessary to provide justification for what they were doing, and it did not require as much for a cause that required no war.  Once war seemed unavoidable—or already underway—the justifications became more intricate, exhaustive, and prevalent.  The justifications for separation from Great Britain would appeal to all parts of the Christian: their political and religious sentiments, their dual citizenship in this world and in the next, their belief in a divine Governor, and their insistence on political measures having a cosmic importance.

Having shown that it was the duty of all Protestant believers to improve the world around them and to treat all things in a cosmic sense, attention turns toward the clergy and how they would stimulate widespread support from Protestant Evangelicals through their sermons.  Because of the Christian’s duty to be a member of civil society in order to influence the world for the good of Christ’s kingdom, and because it was a matter of both political and religious significance, the arguments to gain support would have to appeal to both spheres that Christians saw themselves operating within.

As stated before, the sermons of the colonial clergy often contained three important themes.  These themes have been noticed by most historians, but are sometimes misunderstood.  If it is observed that the clergy appealed to their natural rights as citizens of England—and employed reason or common sense as support—it is assumed that they were influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, and shrouding their true political intentions in religious rhetoric.  If it is observed that they utilized Reformed resistance theories, the point is often elided.  If it is observed that the clergy appealed to the sacredness of the cause, its cosmic importance, and concluded that it was morally imperative that they fight, then they were likely religious fanatics, obsessed with signs of the millennium, or—as is more commonly asserted—they began to blend the lines between religion and politics at this particular time.  As will be observed, each of the above conclusions is flawed in some way.  For each of the themes expressed in the sermons there was a long tradition of Protestant belief that preceded it, making it unnecessary to insert Great Awakening enthusiasm, growing millennialism, or the secularization of religion.[15]


III. Natural Law/Natural Rights Argument

The supposition of many commentators on the American Revolution has been that the Enlightenment had the greatest influence on the Founders and even the prominent ministers.  While that conclusion may have an element of truth to it, there is no reason to not as easily assume that the Enlightenment itself was influenced by the Protestant Reformation, thus the colonial ministers could be expected to share a common rhetoric with Enlightenment liberals.  In other words, it was circular: Protestants drew many principles from the Enlightenment, which drew many principles from Protestantism.  After all, it was John Locke who quoted extensively from the famed theologian Richard Hooker throughout his Second Treatise of Government, an influential treatise in New England.  In discussing the limits of the legislative arm of government Locke appealed to the idea of natural law, which, to him, was nothing more than the revealed will of God in his created order:

…the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others.  The rules that they make for other men’s actions, must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, i.e. to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good, or valid against it.

In turn ministers, such as Elisha Williams, felt comfortable quoting Locke’s work to prove their theological points, and justify resistance against unsuitable governments.

There are too many arbitrary Governments in the World, where the People don’t make their own Laws.  These are not properly speaking Governments but Tyrannies; and are absolutely against the Law of God and Nature.  But I am considering Things as they be in their own Nature, what Reason teaches concerning them: and herein have given a short Sketch of what the celebrated Mr. Lock in his Treatise of Government has largely demonstrated; and in which it is justly to be presumed all are agreed who understand the Rights of Mankind.

Unlike the countless historians who have imported meaning into the sermons, surmising that the ministry had become increasingly secular, there was no true deviation from previous theologians.  Instead, as one historian concluded, there was no “right asserted in the Declaration of Independence”, or by the Black Regiment, “which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763;” the contention of this paper is for an even earlier date.[16]

The point made by the Reverend Williams would become the common rallying cry of the colonial clergymen.  The government of Great Britain, a government increasingly perceived as ruling arbitrarily, would eventually be labeled no government at all, but a tyranny.  Scripture alone was not the sole source for proving this argument, so was the natural reason and common sense endowed to all men by virtue of their creation in the image of God.  These natural rights were considered codified in their rights as citizens of England, and so any violation of rights against the colonists was considered not only an assault against their rights as citizens but their rights as human beings and as Christians.  In a 1775 address to ministers in North Carolina several clergymen argued:

That we have no Representatives in Parliament is evident beyond contest—and if we must give our money as oft as it is demanded by them, where is our English liberty?  To take any man’s money, without his consent, is unjust and contrary to reason and the law of God, and the Gospel of Christ; it is contrary to Magna Carta, or the Great Charter and Constitution of England; and to complain, and even to resist such a lawless power, is just, and reasonable, and no rebellion.

To Protestant Evangelicals natural rights were synonymous with the rights given by God; natural and revealed rights were both instituted, or decreed, by a sovereign deity operating providentially in his creation.  “Hence,” concluded one minister, “tyranny and arbitrary power are utterly inconsistent with and subversive of the very end and design of civil government [which God ordained], and directly contrary to natural law, which is the true foundation of civil government and all political law.”  Therefore, these governments warranted resistance.[17]  

Most ministers recognized the civil and the religious as distinct spheres, but it was also recognized that there was one divine Governor of both.  An assault on their civil liberties was considered as great a threat as an assault on their religious liberties (and often one begot the other).  A recent historian, recognizing the close relationship between religious and civil liberties, commented, “Patriot clergymen made almost indistinguishable arguments for religious and political liberty.”  The extent to which the British government was considered legitimate—and thus able to tax the colonies—was proportional to the manner in which they performed their role as the magistrate, which always included protecting both their civil and religious interests.  Jonathan Mayhew, in his popular Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission (1750), described the purpose of the civil government and how far it was the duty of Christians to submit:

…If we attend to the nature of the argument with which the Apostle here inforces the duty of submission to the higher powers, we shall find it to be such an one as concludes not in favor of submission to all who bear the title of rulers, in common; but only, to those who actually perform the duty of rulers, by exercising a reasonable and just authority, for the good of human society.

The “good of human society” included both civil and ecclesiastical protections. [18]

Mayhew’s argument gained further support as events unfolded in upcoming years.  In the 1760s, deliberations—and conspiracies—began over the institution of an Anglican Bishop in America, with talks of levying taxes for the privilege, only furthering paranoia regarding British innovations to enslave the colonists to the Church of England again.  Mayhew spearheaded the opposition, claiming it violated both their religious right to free worship and their civil rights as delineated in their charter. In 1765, British Parliament introduced the Stamp Act, requiring that printed materials be produced on taxed and stamped paper, in order to pay back debts for the Seven Years’ War.  Following its repeal the next year, Mayhew described the Act as “very hard…justly grievous…[and] oppressive,” concluding that it stripped the colonists of their rights and robbed them of their hard-earned profits, but he was grateful for Great Britain’s retraction of the measure.  Nevertheless, the seeds of resistance were sown in the event that any further laws—or taxes—should seek to hinder their God-given rights to life, property, or religion.  “To many, attacks on political liberty—such as the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties—were just the secular version of the threats they faced against their right to worship God as their Bibles instructed them to do;” which was considered a deeply religious transgression against men and God.  The Tea Tax and Intolerable Acts in the next decade would succeed in sending the colonists over the proverbial edge.[19]

This type of political religion, and natural rights rhetoric, has commonly been attributed to Old Light theologians, however the theme was ubiquitous among ministers.  The Old Light ministers certainly gave heavier treatment of natural law, but the ideas were so often present in New Light sermons that bifurcation between ministers becomes unnecessary. An “Evangelical” New Light, such as Jonathan Parsons, could say “all attempts to justify slavery, are but the feeble endeavors of selfishness to oppose the law of nature and divine revelation” as easily as a staunch Old Light, such as Charles Chauncy, could say “[rulers] should bring…proposed laws to a fair and impartial examination, not only in their reference to the temper, genius and circumstances of the community, but to that justice also which is founded in the nature of things, and the will of the supreme legislator.”  The practice of submitting all justifications to the rule of Scripture and nature is so prevalent in the sermons of the clergy that the question arises as to where this practice originates: whether from growing secularization borne out of declining religiosity and Enlightenment philosophies, or someplace else.  As Separatist minister, Israel Holley, would declare at the end of his sermon on the “unalienable rights” of men (i.e. life, liberty, and property): these rights were not now being advanced because of the “late religious commotion of the Land” or out of the “fruit of enthusiasm”, but had always been considered the “essential rights of Protestants.”[20]

In Protestantism’s youth, the problem of how far subjects ought to obey their magistrates had already presented itself.  John Calvin had offered little in the way of an answer, as most of his political thoughts had developed in Geneva, a place of relative peace between church and state.  But his Huguenot protégé, Theodore Beza, sought answers from the Lutherans in Magdeburg.  In 1550, the Magdeburg Confession had been drafted as a series of defenses for just resistance to a higher magistrate by a lower one; the language of the Confession could have as easily been inserted into any number of Revolutionary sermons:

If the high authority does not refrain from unjustly and forcible persecuting…the lives of their subjects…[and] their rights under divine and natural law, and if the high authority does not desist from eradicating true doctrine and true worship of God, then the lower magistracy is required by God’s divine command to attempt…to stand up to such superiors…The current persecution which we are suffering at the hands of our superiors is primarily persecution by which they attempt to suppress the…true worship of God and to reestablish the Pope’s lies and abominable idolatry.

The drafters of this confession would have found support from the founder of their movement: “A good and just decision,” said Martin Luther, “must not and cannot be pronounced out of books, but must come from a free mind, as though there were no books. Such a free decision is given…by love and by natural law, with which all reason is filled; out of the books come extravagant and untenable judgments.”  Luther’s colleague and successor, Philip Melanchthon, defined natural law as “a common judgment to which all men alike assent, and therefore one which God has inscribed upon the soul of each man.”  According to early Protestant theologians: reason, conscience, and nature bore enough witness to the unalienable and irrevocable rights and laws of all mankind, because it was “written on the hearts” of all men by the divine lawgiver.[21]

These rationalizations and appeals to natural law and natural rights would find their way into numerous prominent Protestants in the years to come.  By 1644—forty five years before Locke’s Second Treatise—Samuel Rutherford had already challenged the “Divine Right of Kings” in his controversial work, Lex Rex.  Rutherford asserted that while the office of magistrate was divinely appointed, “the power of creating a man a king is from the people.”  The people set the conditions by which the king would rule, and upon violation of those conditions they could rightfully take it back from the magistrate.  As the name of his book implied, law is king, and not the opposite.  To Rutherford, people were created as equals, and only given titles and authority by the society into which they were born.  Therefore the safe keeping of any government was not solely entrusted to the magistrate, but also to the people.  “As God in a law of nature hath given to every man the keeping and self-preservation of himself and of his brother,” Rutherford argued, “so hath God committed the keeping of the commonwealth, by a positive law, not to the king alone, because that is impossible.”  If the magistrate were to threaten the natural, God-given rights of the people, then it was proper to resist and take back what they gave in the first place.  Few historians are prepared to say Rutherford was a product of liberalism, republicanism, or a patriotism that only concerned itself with national, political benefits.  He was a Puritan of the first order, and his thoughts were developed from his extensive use of Scripture and authorities in the Protestant vein, for the ultimate purpose of accomplishing religious ends.  More importantly, his thoughts were a major influence in the Protestants yet to come, including prominent American theologians like Jonathan Edwards, Witherspoon, and Mayhew.[22]

The rationalizations of previous theologians had so much been developed by the eighteenth century that Lockean or Hobbesian theories of individual rights should be viewed as expansions or modifications of political theories already thoroughly engrained in the mind of many Protestants.  Alan Heimert made the point, that “the evangelical ministry [was] not dependent on Locke for their political and social philosophy.”  If true—and it should be plain from the previous examples—then the following words of John Adams were as attributable to Protestant theology as any later Enlightenment philosophy:

Although there is a natural equality and independency among men yet they have voluntarily combined together, and by compact and mutual agreement, have entered into a social state, and bound themselves to the performance of a multitude of affairs, tending to the good; and to the avoiding of a multitude of injuries tending to the hurt and damage of the whole.  And hence arises order and government, and a just regulation of all those matters which relate to the safety of the persons, lives, liberties, and property of individuals.

John Adams declared that “liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator;” and that they “have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge,” namely, “the characters and conduct of their rulers;” and if they were to violate the trust of their people and betray them, “the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents.”  While Adams may have had a different meaning in mind than the common Protestant minister, the words would ring true and would conjure up traditional values Protestants had long maintained.  The truths were self-evident, based in natural law, which bore itself out in political measures (i.e. constitutional laws and governmental authority).  Cleaveland summarized the essential point in the Essex Gazette, informing the readers of the main reason for resistance: “the Rights of Men, the Rights of Englishmen belong to us…the King of Great Britain has pledged his royal Faith to protect us in the Enjoyment of all these Rights by solemn compact as our King;…no Man, nor Body of Men under Heaven, has any just Right to impose of our Properties without our Consent.” [23]


IV. Reformed Resistance Theory Argument

Closely bound to the justifications from natural law—and often acting as the overarching framework—were the Reformed resistance theories that provided greater credibility to armed resistance.  An appeal to natural rights, apprehended by common sense and recognized in their constitutions, would doubtless add weight to the argument for political resistance against the crown; but no self-respecting Protestant would think that a Biblical exposition for resistance was not needed.  The Bible made clear statements regarding a subject’s duty to the magistrate.  The Apostle Paul exhorted his readers to “be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  He went on to say: “because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God…Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”  Likewise, Peter urged his readers to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…as sent by [God] to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”  Jesus himself told his disciples to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  These injunctions could not be flippantly dismissed, the opposition would not let them, and their God would not approve.  The arguments for political resistance by temporal authorities required religious exegesis for approval and success from God, thus confirming the religiously political nature of the Revolution.[24]

There are a few things to understand before looking at the resistance theory specifically.  First, like the natural law arguments, there is no reason to interject a liberal tradition into the sermons at every turn; the rationalizations were two sides of the same argument, both deriving their origins from God.  Furthermore, the arguments from Scripture make the Revolution a political and religious affair.  Perhaps it is correct to say the liberal pamphleteers and statesmen like Jefferson or Paine used religious rhetoric for the purpose of manufacturing and achieving political support, but for the Protestant population, faithfulness to God in the Scriptures was not a means to an end, but the end itself; God’s support was paramount.  Last, there is no deviation from previous Protestant theologians in this regard; resistance theories were not sparked by antiauthoritarianism from the Great Awakening or the brainchild of civil millennialism, it was the norm in Protestantism since the sixteenth century.

Historians generally accept that Reformed resistance theories began to truly develop with two groups of Protestant Christians: the “Marian” exiles from England and the French Huguenots.  In the 1550s, British Calvinists fled the persecution of the Catholic “Bloody” Mary.  Known to history as the Marian exiles, they produced several individuals influential in the formation of early resistance theories: John Knox, John Ponet, and Christopher Goodman.  French Huguenots, due to persecution in the sixteenth century, and especially following the atrocities of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, produced a slew of their own theologians, including Theodore Beza, Francois Hotman, and the pseudonymous author of the Vindciae contra Tyrannos.  The substance and radicalism of their works is diverse, but similar themes run through them all.  The intricacy of the particular arguments is too much for the current paper, but the use of three major points would remain consistent from the earliest theorists to the Patriot clergy under consideration.  (1) Redefinition of a true magistrate.  If the Apostles commanded obedience to the authorities placed over them, then they must have meant those who could rightfully be considered a true magistrate.  (2) The case of the lower magistrate against a higher magistrate.  Perhaps it was not lawful or Biblical for a single individual to resist the authorities, but if the lower magistrate (i.e. Continental Congress) were to rightfully resist the higher (i.e. Parliament or king) then it became lawful.  (3) Individual self-preservation or self-defense gave just cause for resistance against oppressive governments.[25]

In order to undermine the authority of a particular authority, Protestants throughout history spent time explaining, in great detail, what the role of the magistrate was.  The implication was that if a magistrate did not fulfill these functions, then he was not a true magistrate.  The Belgic Confession (1561), one of the first continental Reformed confessions, described the role of the magistrate as being invested “with the sword, for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the protection of them that do well.”  This was the reason the Apostle Paul gave for their appointment in Romans 13.  It followed for most Protestants that if the magistrate were emplaced for the furtherance of good and the suppression of evil, then when those roles were not fulfilled they no longer retained their rightful title and were no longer worthy of submission.  Beza argued:

…if [a king] should…plunder the territory of which they have undertaken the government, that cunningly and without self-control they set themselves against law and reason and wantonly break their sworn promises, they can and should be forced, compelled and brought to their duty even by armed force, if it cannot be otherwise, by those who upon special conditions have raised them to this high office.

Rutherford concurred in answering the question of whether absolute and unlimited power was immediately derived from God: “Not at all…An absolute power is essentially a power to do without or above law, and a power to do ill, to destroy; and so it cannot come from God as a moral power by institution, though it come from God by a flux of permissive providence.”[26]

The Revolutionary ministers interpreted the magistrate in a similar manner.  Far from being radical revolutionaries, the colonial ministers were careful in explicating the role of the magistrate and advising obedience among all true Christians.  However, if a ruler or regime became “oppressive,” wherein “compliance would bring on inevitable ruing and destruction,” it “may justly warrant the few to refuse submission to what they judge inconsistence with their peace and safety.”  Samuel West deduced this rationale from the Apostle Paul’s statement that the authorities ought to preserve the good and carry out “God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  West reasoned further:

If magistrates are no farther ministers of God than they promote the good of the community, then obedience to them neither is nor can be unlimited; for it would imply a gross absurdity to assert that, when magistrates are ordained by the people solely for the purpose of being beneficial to the state, they must be obeyed when they are seeking to ruin and destroy it.

Mayhew was equally adamant about defending this opinion.  After expositing the words of the same Apostle, he summarized:

…it appears that [Paul’s] 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 to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of any thing here laid down by the inspired apostle.

Even Jacob Duché, a Patriot turned Loyalist, once defended the American interpretation of the passage, saying:

Inasmuch as all rulers are in fact the servants of the public, and appointed for no other purpose than to be a “terror to evil-doers, and a praise to them that do well;” whenever this Divine order is inverted, whenever these rulers abuse their sacred trust, by unrighteous attempts to injure, oppress, and enslave those very persons, from whom alone, under God, their power is derived – does not humanity, does not reason, does not Scripture, call upon the man, the citizen, the Christian of such a community to “stand fast in that liberty wherewith Christ….hath made them free!”[27]

Another prevalent argument in the resistance theories was the notion that a lower magistrate, rightfully instituted, had the authority to stand up to a higher magistrate if that higher magistrate should become injurious to its subjects.  According to the ministers drafting the Magdeburg Confession, Paul had commanded obedience to the “governing authorities”, implying that there existed a plurality of authorities.  If a lower magistrate were to err then it was the duty of the higher magistrate to correct or remove those in authority; similarly, if the higher magistrate usurped authority not given him, it was the duty of lower magistrates to correct or control him, and “may make use of their rights to defend themselves.”  Beza, using Magdeburg as a guide and defending the rightful authority of the subordinate magistrate, concluded: “if they are reduced to such unavoidable compulsion, they are certainly bound, even by means of armed force if they can, to protect against manifest tyranny the safety of those who have been entrusted to their care and honor.”  The words of the ministers at Magdeburg, Beza, and the majority of Protestant theologians through the centuries, could as easily fit in most sermons of revolutionary America.[28]

The colonists considered the Continental Congress a legitimate subordinate authority.  If it were agreed in Congress that war and resistance were appropriate, then Christians had all the authority needed in order to assuage their political and religious concerns (i.e. it was God honoring and could therefore expect he would judge their cause as righteous and support them in it).  It is a well-understood truth that the colonists were opposed to taxation without representation, it was for that purpose that the Continental Congress was formed, in order to act as a representation for the people in order to petition the king.  Witherspoon, a member of said Congress, wrote that it was their purpose to act as the “representative of the great body of the people of North America.”  If representation from Britain was not forthcoming, reasoned the colonists, then they would establish their own.  Whether the British recognized it as a legitimate authority was beside the point, for the colonists it represented them, and, according to all parties involved (i.e. Protestant theologians, Rutherford, Locke, Adams, the Black Regiment, etc.), it could legitimately voice grievances and ultimately declare independence.[29]

In 1775, Witherspoon wrote a pastoral letter to the Presbyterian ministers of the Synod of New York encouraging them in the purpose and legitimacy of the Continental Congress: “…as the Continental Congress, now sitting in Philadelphia, consist[s] of delegates chosen in the most free and unbiased manner, by the body of the people, let them not only be treated with respect, and encouraged in their difficult service…but adhere firmly to their resolutions.”  Ultimately, Witherspoon succeeded in drawing all the principles of reason, Scripture, and Protestant authorities together to form a coherent and forceful argument for resistance.

The Congress is, properly speaking, the representative of the great body of the people of North America.  Their election is for a particular purpose, and a particular season only…It is an interruption or suspension of the usual forms, and an appeal to the great law of reason, the first principles of the social union, and the multitude collectively, for whose benefit all the particular laws and customs of a constituted state, are supposed to have been originally established.[30]

The final defense from the resistance theory that this paper addresses, is the notion of self-preservation or self-defense.  Self-defense is the most basic element of the aforementioned justifications, and was believed to be an obvious natural right.  In 1643, an assembly of prominent Protestant theologians in Westminster began drafting a Confession—with appended Catechisms—that was later widely accepted among Protestants in the Old and New World.  On the question of what duties the sixth commandment (“thou shalt not murder”) required was a statement that defined well the prevailing Protestant conviction:

The duties required…are all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence…

The implication was that life was a precious thing to not only preserve for oneself, but for the sake of others, including taking measures to prevent the unlawful taking of their neighbor’s life.  The taking of life included both physical harm to their persons or the taking of property that would leave them destitute, thus effectively killing them.  Rutherford, again, spoke a truth long held by Protestants, when he said, “if a robber invade me, to take away my life and my purse, I may defend myself by re-action.”  He reiterates: “If my neighbor come to kill me, and I can by no means save my life by flight, I may defend myself; and all divines say I may rather kill ere I be killed, because I am nearer, by the law of nature, and dearer to myself and my own life than to my brother.”  Rutherford was asserting a point that had greater implications, because his end was to apply the same to a king if he should seek to take life or properties, something Americans were accusing the magistrate of doing with their taxes and acts.[31]

Samuel Langdon, President of Harvard, and a staunch supporter of the Patriot cause, was a leading voice in garnering Protestant support.  In a sermon to the Massachusetts Congress (1775) he spoke about the many abuses of the British:

…they have not only endeavored to terrify us with fleets and armies sent to our Capital, and distressed and put an end to our trade [New England Restraining Act of 1775]…but at length attempted…to seize and destroy one of our magazines, formed by the people merely for their own security…By this…a skirmish was brought on [Lexington and Concord]…they [the British] acted the part of Robbers and Savages, by burning, plundering, and damaging almost every house in their way…murdering the unarmed and helpless, and not regarding the weaknesses of the tender sex.

The accuracy of Langdon’s account is entirely irrelevant for the purpose of this paper; the forcefulness of his rhetoric is not.  As the President of Harvard, there is little doubt that he wielded great influence over the ministers and laypersons in the New England area.  So when he used such emotive and provocative examples of Britain’s assault upon the colonies, it was likely heeded, as was his point for outlining these examples of British tyranny: “…he that arms himself to commit a robbery, and demands the traveler’s purse, by the terror of Instant death is the first aggressor, though the other should take the advantage of discharging his pistol first and killing the robber.”[32]

One thing that the Protestant clergy agreed upon was the idea of an individual’s right to self-preservation and self-defense.  Separatist minister, Isaac Backus, declared, “Indeed we apprehend that we have the same right to have our persons and properties protected by authority as our neighbour have.”  Carmichael, in his sermon regarding the justness of a self-defensive war: “[If] rulers of the people should give way to the many temptations their high stations will lead them to…then the people are under a disagreeable, but pressing necessity, rather than be crushed by an iron rod, to re-ascertain their own just rights; and stand forth all of them to oppose such tyranny.”  Samuel West asserted, “When a people find themselves cruelly oppressed by the parent state, they have an undoubted right to throw off the yoke, and to assert their liberty…by the law of self-preservation, which is the first law of nature.”  Jonathan Parsons drew the inference to national self-defense: “…if one man may defend himself and his rights against an assailant, much more may a whole country defend themselves when their rights are invaded, because the concern is greater.”  This justification for conflict is so recurring in the manuscripts that these few should suffice, but it serves the purpose of showing the consistent message of resistance theory throughout Protestant history.[33]

If these defenses were derived from Real Whig ideology or growing liberalism, then it should be assumed that those things had their origination as early as the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent resistance theories.  The dispute is not whether a particular minister intended to secularize his message for a more “rational” populace, but whether such a manipulation of preexisting Protestant defenses was needed.  Resistance theories had historically been defended by inferences—such as natural law—drawn from the Scriptures.  Natural rights were derived from natural law, natural law was derived from the Scriptures, and the divine lawmaker revealed himself in both.  Thus the previous two justifications (natural law and resistance theories) worked conjointly in bringing about a political defense for the war (drawn from religious principles), now it would be incumbent upon the colonial clergy to press the point further and garner widespread Christian support, turning from political actions with religious backing, to making it a religious, God-commanded obligation.


V. The Moral Imperative

Because it was the duty of all Christians to improve their times by being industrious and proactive, because their natural rights were unassailable and divinely given, and because the Scriptures gave them due authorization from God, it was therefore imperative that all true Protestants take part in the fight.  The exhortation, therefore, became: “awake, arise, and stand for your life: You have a grant to do so, against all that assault you, from the King of Heaven; from Nature and from Nature’s God.  To repel armed force, by force of the same kind, is Lawful by Heaven’s decree.”  Indeed anything less was, by intimation, against the moral, religious obligation they had to defend civil and religious liberty where it was theirs to defend.  As Declaration signatory, Francis Hopkinson, would state in answer to the question “Is even defensive war justifiable in a religious view?”, from his political catechism of 1777:

The foundation of war is laid in the wickedness of mankind… God has given man wit to contrive, power to execute, and freedom to will to direct his conduct…some, from a depravity of will, will abuse these privileges, and exert these powers to the injury of others: and the oppressed would have no safety or redress but by exerting the same powers in their defence: and it is our duty to set a proper value upon, and defend to the utmost, our just rights, and the blessings of life: otherwise a few miscreants would tyrannise over the rest of mankind, and make the passive multitude the slaves of their power.  Thus it is that defensive is not only justifiable, but an indispensable duty.

The matter of resistance did not simply stop at the political or religious justifications, but it was made into a religious necessity, a proof of one’s loyalty to the truth and to God.  The fact that Protestants were so adamant about the necessity of fighting for their freedoms, the truth, or God, is probably why so much of the clergy’s words have been viewed as those of a crusading spirit.[34]

To say that the clergy did not elevate the importance of the war to a conflict of religious significance, but instead relied primarily upon arguments of the just war tradition (and the practical consequences of losing; i.e. the loss of religious liberty), is tantamount to saying that Protestant Evangelicals detached actions in history from God’s providence and ultimate objectives in redemptive history.  This is not a prospect many Protestants would have openly entertained.  As one Presbyterian minister concluded in his attempt to merge the religious and the political into a coherent justification for war:

We have all the true friends of virtues; of liberty and righteousness on earth on our side [that is, the political or civil]—we have all the angels of heaven on our side—for we have truth and justice on our side—therefore we have the God of truth and justice on our side [that is, the divine favor of God on their side]…God will never forsake his own side of the question—Courage then! courage my brave American soldiers, if God be for, who can be against you?[35]

There never existed a sharp line between where the religious ended and the political began, it was blurred, because these ministers were not intent on parsing the two; especially not the religiously political Presbyterians and Congregationalists.[36]

To the theologians of the day, and especially those of the Calvinistic brand, there was no boundary to limit God’s sovereign hand, so a war—especially one that eventually began to favor the Americans—was inevitably seen to have God’s blessing in it; all actions, whether good or ill, were perceived as the sovereign will of God, and ultimately he would turn all things to his glory.  Yet, so clear did some apprehend God’s approval of their just and righteous cause, that one pastor rhetorically asked, “…can we suppose that the God who created us free agents, and designed that we should glorify and serve him in this world that we might enjoy him forever hereafter, will suffer liberty and true religion to be banished from off the face of the earth?”  The answer was no, and it was the belief that God was for them—proven from both Scripture and nature—that gave many colonists hope in an unsure future.  This war was one of not only political or pragmatic importance, but of cosmic significance, because to the Protestant Evangelical of the time, everything had cosmic significance.[37]

The colonial ministers implored their congregations to take their Christian faith seriously (repent of their own sin), and to then put it into action (fight against those spreading tyranny and sin).  The first duty of all Protestants was to love their neighbor as themselves; the way to truly do this was to take action when their neighbor’s safety was threatened.  Isaac Story conveyed that meaning in his call for action, in 1775:

As to the duty, it is founded on the grand law of love.  The command is, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself…and that shall prompt thee to wish his welfare and pursue it, as opportunities permit…If this be our love to an individual, how great must be our regard to a community.  If we are to love a neighbour as ourselves, we ought to love the public better than self.  And, of consequence, we ought to be ready, when the exigencies of the State require it, to expose our reputation, our interest, and our live for its good.

This was a forceful argument, and it embodied every point previously mentioned: the law of love (natural law), improving the times, the command of Scripture for self-defense, and the sacredness of such a mission.[38]

The clergy had an objective in each of their justifications for conflict.  The point was not to merely prove the righteousness of their cause, nor was it to simply gain prayers from the religious, it was to prompt direct action, and pitch it in such a way that inaction was to commit sinful neglect.  Samuel West, upon proving that a magistrate who abuses their power and authority “are no magistrates”, declared that resistance “not only becomes lawful, but an indispensable duty.”  Again, he said, “the principles of self-preservation, the affection and duty that we owe to our country, and the obedience we owe the Deity, do all require us to oppose tyranny.”  In the same sermon, West would conclude his arguments with a moral imperative: “Under God, every person in the community ought to contribute his assistance to the bringing about so glorious and important an event.”[39]

Anything less than action in this conflict was considered a grave transgression.  Reverend John Hurt, an ardent supporter of the Patriot cause, delivered a sermon in 1777 before three Virginian battalions in New Jersey, in which he warned them of neglect for their brethren:

 …to be unmindful of the public, is not only an argument of an ungrateful, it is a proof also of a dishonest temper of mind.  God has assigned each of us our station, and a part which we are obliged to discharge in carrying on the great work of social happiness.  If then I neglect the part appointed me, I am highly unjust; because I take share of the benefits of society, and yet leave the burden to be borne by others.  A greater injustice than this can scarcely be conceived.

Other ministers resorted to guilt as a means of achieving support from their followers.  John Carmichael charged individuals with “cowardice” and “sloth” if they would not support the cause, saying, “it is easy to stay at home and earn money… to what it is to be slain in battle…if these people will not be convinced of their duty…they are to be pitied…”; those who would take part “should be well satisfied…that [they are] called of God to do so…[they] may rely on God for strength and protection.”[40]

Rather than this being a call to immediately usher in the kingdom by the sword, it was considered a cause worthy of fighting because it concerned all true Christians that cared for their world (specifically their country), the advancement of truth, and the suppression of evil.  The advancement of the kingdom, for many theologians, was part and parcel of their postmillennial belief that circumstances would get better before the end.  “Be therefore of good courage,” said New Light minister, Abraham Keteltas, “it is a glorious cause: It is the cause of truth against error and falsehood; the cause of righteousness against iniquity; the cause of the oppressed against the oppressor; the cause of pure and undefiled religion, against, bigotry, superstition, & human inventions.”  To Keteltas, the cause was not ultimately the harbinger of the millennium, but simply the advancement of the truth they all held dear.  For this reason it was said that “God [would] effectually plead…by his almighty word, his all conquering spirit, and his over ruling providence” because America was projected to become a land where freedom of knowledge and religion would reign, for them and for the “millions yet unborn.”  If the objective was anything, it was the prospect of a new country, where the worship of God would prosper uninhibited.  To the majority of the clergy, the millennium may or may not come at the end of the conflict, but the cause in which they surrendered themselves was certainly a step towards it.[41]


VI. Conclusion

Perry Miller, in speaking about the colonial ministers, observed that “a ‘pure rationalism’ might have declared the independence of the American people, ‘but it could never have inspired them to fight for it.’”  This statement is effective in its pithiness, but displays a misconception.  A ‘pure rationalism’ is too often understood as the foundation for all the liberties declared by the colonists.  Locke is the most oft-cited of all rational thinkers, yet his works are so often recognized as being influenced by Protestantism and natural law arguments rooted in Biblical and classical thought, that it is difficult to say a pure rationalism declared independence while the ministers contingently supported and molded it to their theology, then turned it into a holy war and radicalized the whole event.  A more precise statement might be: Protestant ministers inspired people to fight for something that had long been declared by their beliefs, and was simultaneously secularized for an increasingly secular culture.  Liberty, natural rights, representation, and justice had long been a mainstay in Protestant theology; the American Revolution merely reintroduced those sensibilities.  Surely it was secularized and rationalized by a number of prominent individuals, but it as surely suited a Protestant sermon—and often more fittingly.[42]

It is important to note again the misunderstandings by previous historians.  Many have seen the Protestant clergy’s exhortation that it was their Christian duty to fight, as proof that they believed this war was the culmination of all events (i.e. the millennium).  Alan Heimert and Nathan Hatch were two influential scholars who disagreed on where these ideas came from, but ultimately agreed that religious rhetoric was becoming so synonymous with republicanism or Real Whig ideology, that it essentially became the same thing.  Ruth Bloch, a supporter of that conclusion, went so far as to say, “[the revolutionaries had the] conviction that history was drawing to its glorious conclusion, when the world would be transformed into a paradise for the righteous, predisposed large numbers of American Protestants to throw themselves behind the Revolutionary cause with a fervency that is otherwise hard to explain.”  This conclusion denotes a slight misconception in the way Protestants viewed God working in all things; this has already been proven in this paper.  To say, as Bloch, that it is “hard to explain,” creates a problem when trying to explain the Protestant history of rebellion (i.e. Scottish Covenanters, Parliament in the English Civil War, the Reformation, Puritan defection to the New World, etc.).[43]

For the Protestant Evangelical, the importance of fighting for such liberties was not merely the temporal benefits of political actions, but had everything to do with the advancement of Christ’s Gospel, church, and kingdom on earth.  The cause was defended by an argument that was as much political as it was religious because of the close relationship of the two.  The fact that it was a war authorized by all authority in the Protestant’s life, it was not only worth fighting for, but it was a true testament of their religious commitment: to the truth, the Gospel, and the kingdom of heaven.  To not defend their “‘birthright’ of freedom” was to be “a violator of the law of nature” and unwilling to love their neighbor—and by implication their country—as themselves.[44]

The dichotomy between the political and religious presents an obvious either-or fallacy.  Political legitimations, which had an appearance of republicanism and relied on just war theories, were undoubtedly present, but the Protestant clergy went further than simple justifications from politics or moral principles.  They also introduced religious zeal into the fray, making the War for Independence as much a sacred cause as it was a Patriotic cause.  Thus the war, according to the clergy of Protestant persuasion, was both political and religious, because they were—in essence, and in doxology—politically religious.


[1]  See Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), who believed that the issues between the Awakening and independence were, for the most part, insignificant.  Instead he believed the enthusiasm from the Great Awakening was directly responsible for the revolution; pp. 80-85; and for the revision of Heimert’s argument, see Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977); Hatch rather bluntly repudiated the conclusion of Heimert, arguing, “if the roots of civil millennialism are to be found primarily in New Light enthusiasm, it is strange that its rhetoric was employed by Old Lights such as Belknap, Langdon, and Samuel West, as well as the rationalist John Adams”; pp. 26-27.

[2]  These studies include, but are not limited to: Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975); Mark A. Noll, Christians in the American Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Christian University Press, 1977); Ruth H. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986); Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2012).  The idea of “tailoring” is that of Mark A. Noll in “The American Revolution and Protestant Evangelicalism,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (Winter, 1993), pp. 615-638.

[3]  Melvin B. Endy, Jr., “Just War, Holy War, and Millennialism in Revolutionary American,” William and Mary Quarterly (Jan, 1985), pp. 3-4, 8-11; also revising the previous works was Mark Valeri, “The New Divinity and the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 46 (Oct, 1989), pp. 741-769; Bernard Bailyn also challenged Heimert’s conclusions early on in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967).  Valeri, in his article “The New Divinity and the American Revolution,” draws out some important points.  “Previous studies”, he says, “have not recognized that the Edwardseans [New Divinity]…distanced themselves from more fervently nationalistic patriots.  Their ideas should be distinguished from those of republican preaches who, reading the hand of God in political events, began to claim divine favor or to anticipate the fulfillment of covenantal promises given to America” (769).  Valeri thus distanced himself from Stout, who claimed that preachers saw America as a covenant nation, and from Hatch, who concluded that preachers saw the cause as given divine favor; not all saw it this way, but certainly some did.

[4]  For examples of these types of objections to the colonists’ rebellion see Joseph Galloway, Historical and Political Reflections on the Rise and Progress of the American Rebellion (London: G. Wilkie, 1780); John Wesley, A Calm Address to Our American Colonies (1775); and for one of the seminal works on the issue, George Berkley’s A Discourse on Passive Obedience (1712); the Protestant clergy were often referred to as “The Black Regiment”, because of the black robes they wore, and the influence on the Revolution that they were believed to possess, even by the enemy.  The persuasion of ministers upon the spiritual lives of the common citizen may be contested, but the degree of influence they had on the argument for war is hardly objected to.  Bernard Bailyn displayed the power of the pamphlet during the Revolution, and many were written by the clergy.  Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).

[5] The influence of Protestant thought (especially Calvinism) on the American Revolutionaries is not new.  For previous studies on the subject see David W. Hall, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (New York, NY: Lexington Books, 2003); Keith Griffin, Revolution and Religion: American Revolutionary War and the Reformed Clergy (St Paul, MN: Paragon House Publishers, 1998).  Hall traced the ideas of the Founders back to the Reformation itself, and while I am inclined to agree, this paper is directed more at tracing the revolutionary enthusiasm of the clergy.  Griffin challenged Heimert and Bailyn, who gave so much credit to New England clergy that it imbalanced the approach to the clergy.  Instead he focused his attention on the middle colonies, especially the Presbyterians there, and how their beliefs were not the brainchild of Harvard’s growing liberalism, but were found in Calvinist theology throughout history.  If anything, this paper is indebted to that approach, but rather than going to the other extreme (focusing specifically on the middle colonies) it is important to understand the inter-colonial relationship of the same Protestant thought patterns.

[6] This cynicism can be seen in several historians, but as one put it: “Of course most scholars would agree that political issues, however shrouded in religious language, lie at the core of eighteenth-century American discourse;” reasoning that latent political ideas were “shrouded” in religious language; Donald Weber, Rhetoric and History in Revolutionary New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 8; Weber essentially generalized the clergy on an issue that cannot logically be dealt with generally, namely, the underlying motive of each minister.

[7]  The fact that Scripture was still needed for final authorization was true despite the decline of sola scriptura and heterodox beliefs gaining popularity in the eighteenth century.

[8]  For many, this was the essence of their postmillennial beliefs, a belief that viewed the millennial kingdom as presently unfolding, and that the world would continue to get better before the end; John Witherspoon, Sermon, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men (Philadelphia: May 17, 1776), p. 27; for a thorough analysis of this “moral reform” and the interplay between “genuine religion” and “social morality” see Valeri, “The New Divinity.”

[9]  John Carmichael, Sermon, A Self-Defensive War Lawful, June 4, 1775 (Lancaster), 6; William Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, trans. and ed. John D. Eusden (Philadelphia, 1968), 308, quoted in John Corrigan’s The Hidden Balance (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press,1987), 24 (emphasis added).

[10]  Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence, p. 34-35, 36-37.

[11]  Johannes En Eremo (John Cleaveland), in The Essex Gazette, April 18, 1775.

[12]  Matthew 24:6; All Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[13]  Patricia Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 186.

[14]  Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (New York, NY: Pearson Education, 2007), 15-16; John Winthrop, Modell of Christian Charity (1630), in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1838).

[15]  Lest the meaning of the argument become unclear, it is important to make a qualification here; obviously the Awakening, Seven Years’ War, Enlightenment, Real Whig ideology, and republicanism influenced the clergy in different ways.  Some may have been more influenced by one more than the other, and some may have abandoned Protestant orthodoxy more than others.  The point here is that the ideas given in the sermons were not “new” innovations, in the sense that they had never appeared in the writings of Protestant theologians prior to the American Revolution.

[16]  John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. McPherson (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980; 1690), 78, ch. XI, section 135; Elisha Williams, The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants.  A Seasonable Plea for the Liberty of Conscience (Boston: 1744), 5; deviations from orthodoxy varied among Protestant ministers, but taking their body of work generally, there was no need for deviation from Protestant orthodoxy to secular politicizing in order to confirm their arguments; Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1928), 170.

[17]  Francis Alison, et al., “An Address to the Ministers and Presbyterian congregations in North Carolina,” The State Records of North Carolina, Vol. 10 (Raleigh: 1800), 222-228; For discussion of the codification of natural law into the rights of English citizens (i.e. compacts, charters, common law, the Magna Carta) see Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 50-55; Samuel West, Election Day Sermon, Natural Law: The True Principles of Government (Boston: 1776), in The Pulpit of the American Revolution: or, the Political Sermons of the Period of 1776, ed. John Wingate Thornton (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1860).

[18]  Kidd, God of Liberty, 77; Jonathan Mayhew, Sermon, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers (Boston: 1750), in American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr., ed. Michael Warner (New York, NY: Library of America, 1999), 398.

[19]  Jonathan Mayhew, Observations on the charter and conduct of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (Boston: 1763), 1-158; Jonathan Mayhew, Sermon, The Snare Broken (Boston: May 23, 1766), 5; Kidd, God of Liberty, 63.

[20]  Jonathan Parsons, Sermon, Freedom from Civil and Ecclesiastical Slavery (Newburyport: March 5, 1774), 10; Charles Chauncy, Election Sermon, Civil Magistrates must be Just, ruling in the Fear of God (Boston: May 27, 1747), 18 (emphasis added); to observe more of the same, simply look at the popular revolutionary sermons of Old Lights (Ezra Stiles, Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel Langdon, etc.), New Lights (Abraham Keteltas, Elisha Williams, Lameul Haynes, etc.), and moderate New Lights like John Witherspoon.

[21]  Magdeburg Confession, A1v, quoted in John Witte, Jr. “Rights, Resistance, and Revolution in the Western Tradition: Early Protestant Foundations,” Law and History Review (Fall, 2008), 549; Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed (Wittenberg: 1523) in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 458; Philip Melanchthon, The “Loci Communes” of Philip Melanchthon, ed. and tr. Charles L. Hill (Boston, MA: Meador, 1944) 112; The list of Protestant theologians who utilized natural law argumentation to prove their points is so large that this paper could not address them all.  For a comprehensive look at Reformers and their use of natural law in their resistance theories see David VanDrunen, “The Use of Natural Law in Early Calvinist Resistance Theory,” Journal of Law and Religion (2005/2006), 143-167, and his book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study of the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[22]  Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex (Edinburgh: Robert Ogle and Oliver & Boyd, 1843, 1644) 6, 97; see especially Questions I-IX; It is interesting to note that Heimert’s massive work on “religion and the American mind”, which tries to distinguish the roots of resistance (among other things), never references Rutherford; Hatch, Bonomi, and Bloch’s works are also devoid of much mention of Rutherford or any Protestant theologian prior to the Puritan founders of the Bay Colony.  As regards the colonial clergy by these writers, more political influence is attributed to Locke or Hobbes than those in their own heritage.  I believe this is a mistake if one purports to speak about the Protestant “mind”; For a helpful work on the life and influence of Rutherford, see John Coffey, Politicals, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997); one reviewer of the book echoes the sentiment expressed above, “Dr. Coffey’s introduction shows how Scottish Puritans have been neglected by modern historiography while American Puritans have not; and what historiography neglects is unlikely to bulk large in the popular imagination.” John M. Simpson in The Scottish Historical Review (Oct, 1999), 268.

[23]  Heimert, Religion and the American Mind, 18; Ebenezer Bridge, A Sermon Preach…May 27th, 1767.  Being the Anniversary for the Election (Boston, 1767), p. 14, in Heimert, Religion and the American Mind, 16; John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (Boston: 1765), in The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams, ed. C. Bradley Thompson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 28; Johannes En Eremo (John Cleaveland), in The Essex Gazette, April 18, 1775.

[24]  Romans 13:1-2, 6-7; 1 Peter 2:14; Matthew 22:21.

[25]  For the works of the Marian exiles see John Ponet, A Short Treatise on Politique Power, and the True Obedience which Subjects Owe to Kings and Other Civil Governors (1556); Christopher Goodman, How Superior Powers Ought to be Obeyed (1558); John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558); and for the works of the Huguenots see Francois Hotman, Franco-Gallia (1573); and Theodore Beza, De jure magistratuum [Right of Magistrates] (1574).

[26]  The Belgic Confession, Article 36 (Antwerp: 1566); Beza, Right of Magistrates; Rutherford, Lex Rex, 228.

[27]  Samuel West, Sermon, Natural Law; Romans 13, The Holy Bible; Jonathan Mayhew, Concerning Unlimited Submission, 402; Jacob Duche, The Duty of Standing Fast in our Spiritual and Temporal Liberties, A Sermon Preached in Christ Church, July 7, 1775. Before the First Battalion of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: James Humphreys, Jr., 1775), 13-14.

[28]  Magdeburg Confession, J4r-K1r, K2r-L1r, M1r-M2r, P2r-P3r, quoted in John Witte, Jr. “Rights, Resistance, and Revolution,” 551; Beza, Right of Magistrates.

[29]  Witherspoon, “Thoughts on American Liberty,” Works (Edinburgh, 1805), 73.

[30]  Witherspoon, “Pastoral Letter,” Works (1775), 5:171-73; “On the Contest Between Great Britain and America,” Witherspoon to unnamed correspondent, September 3, 1778, in Works, 9:169-70; For a full explanation of Witherspoon’s utilization of Reformed resistance theory see Jeffry H. Morrison, John Witherspoon: And the Founding of the American Republic (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2005); Morrison is in agreement with this paper that Witherspoon and others like him were heavily influenced by Locke and resistance theorists.  Moreover, he agrees that Locke was probably greatly influenced by Reformed Protestants in developing his own thoughts (82).

[31]  Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 135 (Edinburgh: 1648); The Confession and Catechism were accepted among most Reformed Protestant denominations: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists.  Baptists would later draft the Baptist Confession of 1689 and Congregationalists the Savoy Declaration (1658), which were essentially word-for-word reprints with modifications to their specific polity and practices; Rutherford, Lex Rex, 156-160.

[32]  Samuel Langdon, Sermon, Government Corrupted by Vice, and recovered by Righteousness (Watertown: 1775), 7-8.

[33]  Isaac Backus, Sermon, Government and Liberty Described; and Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed (Boston: 1778); Carmichael, Self-Defensive War Lawful, 11-12; West, Natural Law (Boston: 1776); Parsons, Freedom from Civil and Ecclesiastical Tyranny (1774), 16.

[34]  Oliver Noble, Some Strictures upon the Sacred Story recorded in the Book of Esther (Newbury: 1775), 28, Reiner Smolinksi, ed. (Georgia State University: 1998);  Francis Hopkinson, The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings of Francis Hopkinson, Esq. (Philadelphia: T. Dobson, 1792), Vol. I, 114.

[35]  John Carmichael, Sermon, A Self-Defensive War Lawful, June 4, 1775 (Lancaster), p. 33.

[36]  The idea of the blurred line between politics and religion for Protestants of the Reformed tradition has been developed, in part, by Keith L. Griffin’s Revolution and Religion, wherein he described a “Reformed political ideology” that arose from classical principles revived by Jonathan Edwards.

[37]  Samuel West, Natural Law (Boston: 1776).

[38]  Isaac Story, The Love of Our Country Recommended and Enforced. In a Sermon from Psalm CXXII. 7 (Boston: 1775), 7, in Heimert, Religion and the American Mind, 468.

[39]  West, Natural Law (Boston: 1776).

[40]  John Hurt, Sermon, The Love of our Country (Philadelphia: 1777), 9-10; Carmichael, Self-Defensive War Lawful, 20.

[41]  Abraham Keteltas, Sermon, God Arising and Pleading His People’s Cause (Newbury-Port: 1777), 31ff.

[42]  Perry Miller, “From the Covenant to the Revival,” The Shaping of American Religion, Religion in American Life, vol. I, James W. Smith and A. Leland Jamison, eds. (Princeton: 1961), 343.

[43]  Bloch, Visionary Republic, xiii-xiv; The point was proven in the industriousness that all Protestants believed was essential to their faith, as well as the historical background of every Protestant justification for this war.

[44]  Heimert, Religion and the American Mind, 468.


~ by TSL on January 19, 2014.

2 Responses to “Justifying Revolt: Protestant Clergy and the American Revolution”

  1. You claim that “In Protestantism’s youth, the problem of how far subjects ought to obey their magistrates had already presented itself. John Calvin had offered little in the way of an answer…”. This is simply not true. It is widely acknowledged that Calvin wrote plenty on the civil magistrate. In 4.20.31 of the Institutes Calvin writes:

    “But we must, in the meantime, be very careful not to despise or violate that authority of magistrates, full of venerable majesty, which God has established by the weightiest decrees, even though it may reside with the most unworthy men, who defile it as much as they can with their own wickedness. For, if the correction of unbridled despotism is the Lord’s to avenge, let us not at once think that it is entrusted to us, to whom no command has been given except to obey and suffer.”

    and again:

    “But rulers, you will say, owe mutual duties to those under them. This I have already confessed. But if from this you conclude that obedience is to be returned to none but just governors, you reason absurdly. Husbands are bound by mutual duties to their wives, and parents to their children”…”Wherefore, if we are cruelly tormented by a savage, if we are rapaciously pillaged by an avaricious or luxurious, if we are neglected by a sluggish, if, in short, we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake by an impious and sacrilegious prince, let us first call up the remembrance of our faults, which doubtless the Lord is chastising by such scourges. In this way humility will curb our impatience. And let us reflect that it belongs not to us to cure these evils, that all that remains for us is to implore the help of the Lord, in whose hands are the hearts of kings, and inclinations of kingdoms.”

    Institutes 4.20.29.

    For Calvinist ministers to justify the participation of their church members in the American Rebellion would certainly not be in line with what Calvin taught.

    Second you attribute willingness to justify rebellion to the Reformed Natural Law tradition?

    Natural law in the Reformers had reference to the moral law being written on the conscience of all men in order to render them inexcusable before God’s Judgement. But you lump in the enlightenment rhetoric of natural rights and social contract (granted it was influenced by protestantism, but they are not the same thing).

    The colonial justifications certainly do draw from “natural law/natural rights” arguments, But they are ENLIGHTENMENT ideas. Cromwell and the Puritans accepted Locke’s Ideas so its not surprising that the New England Puritans would do the same, thus giving them a way to justify their rebellion ( If the King infringes upon life, liberty, or property we can rebel). The Enlightenment/ Republicanism/ Real Whig explanations seem to hold a lot more weight than than trying to attribute their justifications to the Reformed Protestant tradition (which would include the pre-enlightenment Reformed like Calvin).

    All this coming from a Calvinist (not a secular historian) who understands the religious arguements of the colonial ministers, but understands them to be at odds with orthodox Reformed Protestantism. It was self-interested Civil Religion which required them to twist or ignore passages like Rom 13.

    • Sooo…I wrote a reply…then deleted it…there’s no way I can replicate the brilliance of the first :P lol.

      Thank you for your reply.

      You: “This is simply not true. It is widely acknowledged that Calvin wrote plenty on the civil magistrate.”

      I read the Institutes; but I would hardly consider his comments as well-developed or even practical for those who were suffering persecution in France or Scotland. Especially to those suffering; it did not provide an adequate understanding. If you believe that the 2 paragraphs you cited are a full-orbed understanding, that is fine, I’m not saying they aren’t…I’m just telling the reader that they didn’t believe it was—so a more satisfactory “Reformed resistance theory” was developed over time.

      “For Calvinist ministers to justify the participation of their church members in the American Rebellion would certainly not be in line with what Calvin taught.”

      If that’s your opinion, stick to it. I’m not telling you that it isn’t correct. I’m rather certain I never claim that they were fully in line with Calvin’s teaching on this…but they were in line with later “resistance theories” that had developed. That’s the point. This isn’t an opinion paper, it’s just telling it how it was.

      “Second you attribute willingness to justify rebellion to the Reformed Natural Law tradition?”

      No. I attribute part of it to that. It was 1 of 3 or 4 that I cited.

      “But you lump in the enlightenment rhetoric of natural rights and social contract (granted it was influenced by protestantism, but they are not the same thing).”

      I don’t think I “lumped” it in…I think I said they influenced one another (something you granted in your parentheses).

      “The colonial justifications certainly do draw from “natural law/natural rights” arguments, But they are ENLIGHTENMENT ideas.”

      No. They aren’t. You can’t grant it in one breath then reject it in the next. What is the “colonial justification”? This is something I refused to do in my paper: to broadly categorize all colonists in one group; as though they all fought for the same reasons, ends, etc. and that they all used the same arguments to defend it. Ministers drew on several ideologies, that is never denied. They influenced one another and created a justification that was as much Protestant as it was Enlightenment.

      “The Enlightenment/ Republicanism/ Real Whig explanations seem to hold a lot more weight than than trying to attribute their justifications to the Reformed Protestant tradition (which would include the pre-enlightenment Reformed like Calvin).”

      No. The “Reformed resistance tradition.” Nevertheless, Calvin, contrary to popular belief, is not the whole of “Reformed Protestantism”/tradition; that is why I cite the Marian exiles (Knox), Huguenots (Beza), Lutherans, and Rutherford…not really what I would consider the “Enlightened Reformed.”

      “All this coming from a Calvinist (not a secular historian) who understands the religious arguements of the colonial ministers, but understands them to be at odds with orthodox Reformed Protestantism. It was self-interested Civil Religion which required them to twist or ignore passages like Rom 13.”

      If that’s your position, go with it. I’m not trying to defend my specific convictions; nor am I defending any individual’s convictions at that time (that’s why I wrote the note at the beginning); I’m just trying to tell the reader what influenced them, and how it came to be justified by both spiritual and civil justifications mixed together. You have the right to disagree, and write your own… ‘Merica.

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