The American Right to Revolt Against Tyranny: Part B—Colonial Pulpits
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Posted by Kelly OConnell
Does it seem plausible that the true spark of the American Revolution was the religion of peace—Christianity? In fact, how could it be any other way in a country expressly founded to establish Christian religious liberty?
Colonial America was one of the most intensely evangelized and churched societies in history. For example, according to Harry Stout in The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England, the typical colonists probably listened to 7,000 hours of sermons in their lifetime. For many colonists, their instruction in religion, science, history, politics and most other subjects were delivered only by the pulpit. And the first wave of American ministers were Harvard trained.
Early American society was so influenced by the Bible, church, and preaching that it took on many of these traits by exposure and lack of other influences. Many colonists lived isolated existences, and counted only a few books, the Bible being chief in most homes. And weekly church meetings would have filled the role of religious instruction, social gathering and information exchange with neighbors. As the States grew and began to struggle for an independent voice from mother England, especially after mad King George pressed America for increasing funds, pulpits began to ring with protests, as detailed in James P. Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote,
It was the clergy who made the Revolution meaningful for most common people,” because “for every gentleman who read a scholarly pamphlet and delved into Whig and ancient history for an explanation of events, there were dozens of ordinary people who read the Bible and looked to their ministers for an interpretation of what the Revolution meant.
In a land dominated by Christianity, it is inevitable that the plans to resist tyranny, fight for liberty and form a new nation were at first advanced in the form of sermons across the colonies.
I. Understanding the Colonial American Mindset
The colonies were an offshoot of a British society remarkable for its piety and seriousness of Christian focus. The colonies, being built upon a Christian mission, were even more devout. And because they were an outpost, without much infrastructure, the church dominated society. Stout writes,
In Revolutionary New England, ministers continued to monopolize public communications, and the terms they most often employed to justify resistance and to instill hope emanated from the Scriptures and from New England’s enduring identity as an embattled people of the Word who were commissioned to uphold a sacred and exclusive covenant between themselves and God. The idea of a national covenant supplied the “liberties” New Englanders would die protecting, as well as the “conditions” that promised deliverance and victory over all enemies. It also provided the innermost impulsion toward radical thought and violent resistance to British “tyranny” in New England.
Ultimately, resistance became necessary the minute England declared the colonies’ duty of “unlimited submission” in “all cases whatsoever” and, in so doing, set itself alongside God’s Word as a competing sovereign. Such demands were “tyrannical” and left New Englanders no choice but to resist unto death or forfeit their identity as a covenant people. As explained from the pulpit, New Englanders’ revolution was first and foremost a battle to preserve their historic identity and unique messianic destiny.
II. Overview of Colonial Vision: Putting Kingdom First
As Harry Stout explains, it would be impossible for the average modern person to imagine how completely dominated by church was colonial society. Their entire goal was to first establish a righteous church, and then let that be a model for the rest of society so that the Lord might then be able to bless them. Stout writes,
The Puritan founders devoted so much creative energy to the church because the entire New World experiment hung on its design. As they fashioned axioms and rules to uphold pure churches, they were defining the social assumptions and the division of power that would undergird every other institution. Boston’s “teacher” and most famous minister John Cotton, in his classic sermon—God’s Promise to His Plantation—warned that God’s promises of blessing and peace to a professing people hinged on a due regard for the “ordinances” of worship, including biblical preaching, discipline, and the sacraments. If the proper rules governing the organization and running of the church were not set from the start, then other institutions would fail or be corrupted, and the divine commission would lapse as it had in the Old World.
III. Godly Rule & Limited Government
The task the early colonists set for themselves was to create a church which God would bless. This meant a church based upon a biblical model, which limited power. The colonists sought to limit secular power, as well. Stout writes,
The immediate requirement before everyone’s eyes was that the churches be pure according to the pattern of the New Testament apostolic church. In determining how that purity could be institutionalized, the founders unavoidably confronted the corollary question of power. If God’s Word was sovereign, what did this mean for human authority both in the church and outside? Sovereignty, by its nature, was unitary and indivisible. If God’s Word was sovereign then all human powers and authorities would have to be limited.
This meant a New Testament style church, of an independent structure. Says Stout,
In New England the churches would be “independent.” As formally codified in The Cambridge Platform of 1649, this meant that civil magistrates ordinarily were forbidden to “meddle” in the selection and appointment of church officers, in the administration of church discipline, or in the determination of correct doctrine. Nor could the state “compell” church membership or regulate the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments.8 These crucial functions were left to the churches alone.
IV. Colonial Sermons Fighting Against Tyranny
A. Foundation of the Right to Resist Tyranny
The average colonist had a literal belief in the Bible, and therefore found the use of the text to support principled rebellion highly persuasive, when delivered from the pulpit. They believed God blessed the American Revolution. The Americans were justified in using force to resist evil, just like the ancient Israelis. John Barnard preached, The Presence of Great God in the Assembly of Political Rulers, in (Boston, 1746), saying:
For one person alone to have the Government of a people in his hands, would be too great a Temptation. It tends to excite and draw forth the Pride of man, to make him unsufferably haughty; it gives him too much libery to exert his corruptions and it encourages him to become a Tyrantand an oppressor, to dispense with Laws and break the most solemn oaths. To proceed so far in his unrighteous Practices, that his Subjects weary of the doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance, are necessitated to plead their own cause and vindicate Their Rights by Measures which for a long time they were loth to make use of… [The English people] armed themselves in defense of their Religion and Liberties; the Consequence of which was the Kings’ abdicating the Throne.
Colonial Minister Samuel Sherwood preached a sermon regarding the right to resist tyranny, a week after Thomas Paine published his immortal pamphlet Common Sense. Atheist Paine, himself once a Methodist minister, did not forget to cite the Old Testament in support of the holy Revolution. Byrd writes,
Sherwood, by contrast, looked to the New Testament to defend the patriotic cause, specifically, to the book of Revelation. As the only apocalyptic book in the New Testament, Revelation was, in the view of many colonists, a symbolic description of the end of the world, climaxing in the final victory of Christ over the powers of Antichrist. The American Revolution, Sherwood believed, was a climactic event in this apocalyptic scenario, and the American cause was the cause of Christ against the tyrannical influences of Antichrist. “God Almighty, with all the powers of heaven, are on our side,” Sherwood preached. “Great numbers of angels, no doubt, are encamping round our coast, for our defense and protection. Michael [a mighty angel of God] stands ready; with all the artillery of heaven, to encounter the dragon, and to vanquish this black host.”
B. Main Biblical Themes Championed by Colonists
The colonists believed in republicanism as a fence against corruption, as seen in both the ancient Jewish covenantal model and classical worlds. Writes Byrd,
Revolutionary patriotism was therefore both classical and biblical, and a variety of patriots, from founders to preachers, drew liberally from ancient Rome and ancient scripture to defend the American Revolution. Whether they were citing classical or biblical sources, patriots often read these sources through a political ideology known as “republicanism.”
The Christian colonists had developed the notion that suffering was integral to their faith, and to sacrifice for one’s country was the essence of patriotism. Byrd writes,
In his dramatic sermon after the war—America Saved, or Divine Glory Displayed, in the late War with Great Britain, Connecticut minister Thomas Brockway preached that American soldiers had “nobly died martyrs to liberty.” As such, all Americans should celebrate the memory of these revolutionary martyrs, Brockway preached. Shame on any “unfeeling wretch that refuses to drop a tear upon the urn of” these “officers and brave soldiers, that have spilt their blood in the cause of liberty.” Let the memories of these martyrs “be held dear to posterity, and the liberties of our country” and let “the price of their blood, be ever treated as sacred,” Brockway asserted.
3. Military & Spiritual Warfare
In America, the godly call to arms was joined with salvation. This was an important development because of the peaceful tenor of much of Christ’s teachings. Byrd writes,
Even when preaching on war or summoning troops to battle, ministers connected their martial zeal to a higher priority: salvation. Understandably, therefore, the ideas of sacrificial martyrdom and Christian republicanism gained coherence alongside a third conviction, the belief that biblical warfare integrated spirituality and violence, the spiritual struggles of the soul with military struggles on the battlefield. That is, biblical warfare was waged on two fronts. The Bible’s most fundamental war was spiritual warfare, a struggle for salvation that pitted Christ versus Satan, virtue versus vice—a conflict that entangled every human soul. But biblical warfare was not merely a metaphor for spirituality. Many clergy connected spiritual and military warfare, violent conflicts between God’s chosen people and their enemies. Biblical wars were both military and spiritual, and the two were mutually reinforcing.
V. Various Colonial Political Sermon Themes
A. Beauty of Liberty
John Allen, An Oration Upon the Beauties of Liberty, New London, 1773. Allen implies even insects are given freedom by God,
As a fly, or a worm, by the law of nature has as great a right to liberty, and freedom (according to their little sphere in life), as the most potent monarch upon the earth: And as there can be no other difference between your Lordship, and myself, but what is political, I therefore without any further apology, take leave to ask your Lordship, whether any one that fears God, loves his neighbour as himself (which is the true scripture-mark of a christian), will oppress his fellow-creatures? If they will, where are the beauties of Christianity? Not to be seen in this life, however they may be seen in the next.
B. Impossibility of Total Submission to Secular Authorities
Minister Jonathan Mayhew caused great concern amongst royalists when he challenged the idea of Divine Right, In a Discourse Concerning the Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the High Powers (1750),
But then, if unlimited submission and passive obedience to the higher powers, in all possible cases, be not a duty, it will be asked, “HOW far are we obliged to submit? If we may innocently disobey and resist in some crises, why not in all? Where shall we stop? What is the measure of our duty? This doctrine tends to the total dissolution of civil government; and to introduce such scenes of wild anarchy and confusion, as are more fatal to society than the worst of tyranny.”
C. Right to Battle for Freedom
Minister and Harvard graduate Samuel Langdon preached on the godly right of self-defense in the matter of freedom and tyranny, in Government Corrupted by Vice, in 1775:
Our late happy government is changed into the terrors of military execution. Our firm opposition to the establishment of an arbitrary system is called rebellion, and we are to expect no mercy but by yielding property and life at discretion. This we are resolved at all events not to do; and therefore, we have taken arms in our own defense, and all the colonies are united in the great cause of liberty.
D. Retribution Against the Wicked
Minister Jacob Cushing, in his sermon Divine Judgment Upon Tyrants (Boston 1778) calls the British “Mystic Babylon,” ie the source of all corruption. He preached,
Should it happen that, in times of persecution, bloodshed and war, the church may be reduced in its members, still the remnant may become more refined, holy and heavenly. The faith and patience of the saints be more exercised, their zeal and piety more eminent, and practical godliness more gloriously appear. And then, in due season, God raiseth his church and people from their afflicted and oppressed state, and rendereth vengeance to their adversaries and persecutors. Thus Babylon of old was punished for her cruelty and oppression of the Jewish church. And thus shall it likewise be in the case of mystical Babylon; which, after having been long suffered to prevail, and to “make war with the saints of the most High,” shall have a mighty downfall, wherein the vengeance and justice of almighty God, shall be illustriously displayed; of which we have a striking description in xviii. chap. of the Revelation.
E. Need for a Constitution & Civil Liberties
Calling for a constitution with civil liberties, Nathaniel Niles, Preacher, Physician, Legislator, and Vermont Supreme Court Judge. Ins a Sermon Excerpt, (1774), stated,
Civil Liberty consists, not in any inclinations of the members of a community; but in the being and due administration of such a system of laws, as effectually tends to the greatest felicity of a state. Herein consists civil liberty, and to live under such a constitution, so administered, is to be the member of a free state; and he who is free from the censure of those laws, may fully enjoy all the pleasures of civil liberty, unless he is prevented by some defect, not in the constitution, but in himself. If liberty consists in the being and administration of a civil constitution, different from such as one as has been mentioned, I must confess, my inference from the Apostle’s exhortation is not just. For certain it is, that so far as a constitution doth not tend, in the highest degree, to the greatest felicity of the state, collectively considered; it is a comparative evil and not a good.
If the Founders were driven by their preachers to defend liberty as illustrated by the Bible, it seems likely that is the only way to save our Republic, now. How else can we avoid tyranny and return America to freedom and prosperity without genuine piety? But who will lead the way?