The (Protestant) American Revolution

On Gary Steward’s Justifying Revolution

Was the American Revolution a righteous patriotic war in which a Christian people threw off the shackles of tyranny to build a government based on the protection of rights, or was it a sinful rebellion against God’s duly-appointed magistrates for which Christians should repent? The answer to this question is surprisingly contested among evangelical historians.

Fortunately, we have Gary Steward’s new book, Justifying Revolution: The American Clergy’s Argument for Political Resistance, 1750-1776, to help us think the question through with greater nuance and precision.

Steward is among a cohort of Christian historians studying the theology of the American founding era in context, and his book provides helpful correctives to the mistakes of a previous generation of Christian historians. Perhaps more significantly, it provides a detailed history of the clergy who believed that resistance and even open warfare against one’s established government could be permissible.

In a nutshell, Steward argues that for at least a generation, American Christians have been misled about the role of the American clergy in the Revolutionary period. Leading historians including George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and Gregg Frazer have claimed repeatedly that the ideology adopted by colonial clergymen was secular, not biblical: “It is commonly asserted that the clergy deviated from clear scriptural teaching and their own theological heritage in supporting the patriot cause” (127). Rather than teaching traditionally orthodox Christian doctrines, the Patriot clergy were “co-opted . . . by radical political thought” informed by a mix of Lockean, radical Whig, or Enlightenment ideas about human rights and liberty. These secular philosophies welded themselves to biblical ideas to create a pseudo-Christian justification for America’s rebellion against King George. In other words, according to these scholars, the inspiration for the American Revolution was anything but biblical.

Steward shows how erroneous this interpretation is. Throughout the book, Steward’s major aim is to document that the American clergy’s position in the 1770s was traditional, not novel – demonstrating constitutional and religious continuity with their forebears, not rupture. By carefully documenting the arguments of clergy in the Revolutionary period, then tracing the roots of their ideas back chronologically, Steward proves that the religious leaders of the Revolution were in fact true to the Bible as exposited by their Reformation fathers.

For example, one common claim is that Patriot pastors took their ideas from Jonathan Mayhew, a heterodox New England pastor who in 1750 preached fiercely against the doctrines of unlimited submission and passive obedience to tyrants. His (acknowledged) heterodoxy thus becomes the heterodoxy of all patriot pastors in the 1760s and 1770s. Steward disputes this. Further, many historians allege that Mayhew’s conclusions were a result of applying Lockean presuppositions to the text of Romans 13 – presuppositions that created new space for Christian resistance to God’s appointed magistrates.

Steward spends a great deal of time flipping this interpretation on its head. For starters, Steward points out that Mayhew’s 1750 sermon had so closely followed British Bishop Benjamin Hoadly’s earlier sermons that Mayhew was accused of plagiarism. Hoadly, in turn, was charged by contemporaries with simply imitating the arguments of the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos and various 16th-century political theologians. These theologians, in their turn, had only promoted the same theological arguments made by the likes of John Knox, John Ponet, Martin Bucer, and other early reformers. From Knox to Mayhew, these theologians maintained essentially the same interpretation of Romans 13: a magistrate who betrays his trust through tyrannical action ceases to be a minister of God, and the people (or inferior magistrates) may rightfully defy him.

Steward also argues that Locke’s theories of political resistance to tyranny in his Second Treatise of Government are deeply indebted to the Protestant theological tradition. Instead of interpreting the ideas of the Patriot clergy as a baptized Lockeanism, we ought to understand Locke as a secularized version of the traditional Reformed position (Steward quotes J.G.A. Pocock on this, who called Locke’s Second Treatise “the classic text of radical Calvinist politics” [25]).

Additional evidence for this theological continuity was the 1779 publication of Defensive Arms Vindicated and the Lawfulness of the American War Made Manifest. Did it make novel, Lockean-inspired arguments for rebellion and warfare? To the contrary – this pamphlet was actually a reprinting of a Scottish defense of political resistance from 1687. The ability simply to reprint an argument 90 years later and have it fit the context demonstrates a remarkable continuity of American and earlier Reformed religious thought on politics.

Another common error of Christian historians has been to mischaracterize the political thought of John Witherspoon, a leading figure among clergymen who called for independence from British rule in the 1770s. Various evangelical historians, including luminaries such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, Gregg Frazer, John Fea, and Daryl Cornett, have asserted that Witherspoon replaced biblical teaching on submission to authority with Lockean or Enlightenment resistance theories. Steward again disagrees: “the assertion of Witherspoon’s so-called abandonment of scripture and conversion to secular philosophy is a serious misunderstanding of both Witherspoon and the theological tradition of which he was a part” (118).

Again and again, Steward makes an essential point clear: when we understand the theological tradition to which men like Witherspoon belonged, we can no longer maintain the claim that they rejected biblical teaching for secular philosophies. The best interpretation of the political theology of the American Revolution sees its continuity with the past.

Another major topic that Steward addresses is the practical legitimacy of the American Revolution. Did the Patriot clergy act precipitously in supporting the Revolution? Or did their circumstances as well as their spiritual heritage bear out their actions?

Steward’s historical discussion of the American revolution and its key predecessors sheds a great deal of light on this subject, and he presents the American clergy’s case for resistance in several parts.

Some of this is familiar ground, as in the controversy over an American bishop. American Christians looked with growing suspicion on British efforts to plant a bishop of the Church of England on American soil in the 1760s. The suspicion was grounded in religious fears – a long history of conflict with Roman Catholic France informed the opposition to creating an American bishop, a position too hierarchical and Romish-looking for most colonial Americans to accept. Steward also points to their political motives for the opposition to an American bishop, for in England as throughout Europe, bishops wielded political authority as temporal lords. An American bishop appeared to be the first step towards creating an American nobility.

Moreover, Steward adds a twist to Russell Kirk’s “revolution not made, but prevented” view by drawing attention to a simple but often-overlooked point: lots of Englishmen on the far side of the Atlantic supported the American cause. In Steward’s words, “The American clergy’s arguments for political resistance during the Revolution era were not distinctly American or unique to the American clergy.” (91). The significant feature here is that American “clergy were not deviating from their British heritage in justifying resistance to novel and oppressive actions of the British government,” (92) but rather were consistently upholding the principles of 1689, as their British supporters recognized. The true revolutionaries, as British and American Whigs recognized, were the King and his supporters in Parliament.

Finally, Steward documents how American clergymen viewed revolution as necessary on grounds of self-defense. In Steward’s words, “Their arguments for resistance on the ground of self-defense were also in line with previous arguments found in the Protestant tradition” (72). British actions, from abridging the right to trial by jury of one’s peers in 1772 to the Coercive Acts of 1774, generated new energy for political resistance.

But by 1775 the circumstances changed. Steward points out that “By 1775, British ships were firing incendiary shot into civilian populations, burning whole towns to the ground as acts of retaliation for resistance” (72). American clergy had a wealth of earlier religious literature explaining the lawfulness of defensive wars, and the 1770s saw an outpouring of sermons on the topic. It was under these circumstances that the Protestant American clergy called for armed resistance to British rule based on a biblically-grounded right to self-defense.

Steward has a great deal to teach American Christians in this book. From the scholarly perspective, one of the most obvious lessons is to beware of partisan historiography, even from highly-respected evangelical historians. Rather than to accept Mark Noll’s word on secularized thought of John Witherspoon, or Gregg Frazer’s take on Jonathan Mayhew, it is always best to examine the primary sources themselves. By debunking so many of the myths perpetuated by Christian historians, Steward has performed a great service to students of American religious history.

On a larger scale, Steward’s book does a great deal to advance our understanding of the American argument for independence as a whole. The religious context to the Revolution that he documents helps to illuminate the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the rationale for so many ordinary Americans to take up arms against King and Parliament. Understood in the long heritage of resistance thought developed by Protestant political theologians, the basic claims of the Declaration of Independence sound not Lockean, but Protestant. Certainly one reason for its resonance among Americans in 1776 is due to its familiar logic: the prince who betrays his trust to the people and becomes a tyrant forfeits his right to rule over them. Colonial American Christians had been hearing this theme preached their whole lives.

Most importantly, Steward’s historical labors have contemporary relevance. In our own times, the Christian’s degree of submission due to the magistrates remains a lively and debated question. As long as Romans 13 and related Scriptures are read and revered, Christians will argue over their application to their own political circumstances. The American tradition, which is the Reformed political tradition documented and explained so clearly by Steward, is not to surrender tamely, nor meekly to obey every dictate and edict issued by a civil magistrate simply because it comes from the magistrate. Steward’s work helps to remind us that apologists for tyrants will always find these verses to be a useful tool for controlling sincere Christians. The doctrines of unlimited submission and passive obedience did not disappear at the conclusion of the Revolution.

God commands us to obey the authorized rules issued by our lawfully-established magistrates. God does not command unlimited submission to them, not when they become demonstrably tyrannical, subvert our Constitution, undermine our laws, or criminalize true religion. In such cases, American Protestants today would do well to remember our origins.

*Image Credit: Pixabay

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Thomas Tacoma

Thomas Tacoma Thomas Tacoma (PhD, Hillsdale College) is a school leadership fellow at Ascent Classical Academies in Colorado. Formerly an Assistant Professor of History & Political Science at Blue Mountain College, he is the author of The Political Thought of Calvin Coolidge: Burkean Americanist.

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