Today would be the 300th birthday of colonial pastor Jonathan Mayhew. John Adams, the Atlas of Independence and US president, said that “everyone in the colonies” read Mayhew’s famous 1750 sermon on colonial rights and that Mayhew was a “transcendental genius… who threw all the weight of his great fame into the scale of the country in 1761, and maintained it there with zeal and ardor till his death.”

Today we commemorate a pastor, citizen, and prophet who articulated a rationale for self-defense by British citizens in North America. Mayhew, alongside John Tucker, Samuel West, and others, understood biblical passages like Romans 13 to support the right of resistance to tyranny, but they also took great pains to make clear that these passages imposed duties of obedience on subjects.[i] A typical example of this is Samuel West’s claim that “the same principles which oblige us to submit to government do equally oblige us to resist tyranny” (Hyneman & Lutz 1983: 412).[ii] As scholar Steven M. Dworetz demonstrates, these interpretations were not driven by revolutionary ideology but were, in fact, the result of a long exegetical tradition rooted in the Reformation.[iii]

What was the basis of this resistance theology? In brief, the clergy followed Romans 13, which said the state’s foremost purpose was to provide political order. At that time this was a widely accepted view in the Lutheran, Anglican (of all stripes), and Reformed traditions. It is the Reformed tradition, however, that was most influential on this point in the colonies, whether in the Congregational churches in the North or among diverse religious constituencies (such as Presbyterians) in Virginia. The basic question for many was, What is the appropriate response of citizens to a king who neglected his responsibility to provide political order because the regime had become a tyranny? This Reformed thinking on resistance—citing John Calvin but far more developed in Peter Martyr Vermigli (who advocated resistance), John Ponet’s A Short Treatise on Political Power (he supported tyrannicide), John Knox, and those who followed—argued that resistance was justified, even morally required in some cases, if the national political authority became corrupt and tyrannical.

The appropriate body to take such action, colonists argued, was intermediate political authorities (e.g., chartered colonial governments) acting within the rule of law to preserve the security, rights, and freedom of the citizens.[1] By 1776, many understood the provincial governments of the colonies as providing the authority necessary to protect citizens from red-coated German mercenaries.

The most potent of these sermons was Jonathan Mayhew’s 1750 “Discourse Concerning the Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to Higher Authorities.” This sermon was printed and reprinted numerous times in the colonies and London. Mayhew begins:

Let us now trace the apostle’s reasoning in favor of submission to the higher powers, a little more particularly and exactly. For by this it will appear, on one hand, how good and conclusive it is, for submission to those rulers who exercise their power in a proper manner: And, on the other, how weak and trifling and unconnected it is, if it be supposed to be meant by the apostle to show the obligation and duty of obedience to tyrannical, oppressive rulers in common with others of a different character.

Mayhew distinguishes between the moral duty of the Christian to submit to lawful authority and the citizen’s duty toward “lawless, unreasonable” tyranny:

Those who resist a reasonable and just authority, which is agreeable to the will of God, do really resist the will of God himself; and will, therefore, be punished by him. But how does this prove, that those who resist a lawless, unreasonable power, which is contrary to the will of God, do therein resist the will and ordinance of God?

Consequently, Mayhew argues:

Thus, upon a careful review of the apostle’s reasoning in this passage, it appears that his arguments to enforce submission, are of such a nature, as to conclude only in favor 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 entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of anything here laid down by the inspired apostle.

This lays the groundwork for action against “tyrants and public oppressors.” Mayhew’s argument goes on at length but clearly articulates a rationale that became increasingly part of the colonial consciousness: the purpose of government was the common good, and citizens, working with established political authorities at the local and state level, had a moral duty to resist tyranny.

The “Stamp Act Congress” exemplified the colonists’ moderation. The delegates’ solutions were defensive in nature: a boycott of British goods, a declaration, and petitions protesting Parliament’s taxes, all to be sent to Britain. These documents made clear what the colonies had maintained since their founding: the colonies were subordinate to Britain, and accepted Parliamentary authority over their external affairs as they had for over a century of trade regulations. However, they maintained that no power could justly deprive them of their rights as Englishmen to be tried by a jury of their peers and to be exempt from taxation without representation (Morgan 1992: 26-27).

In sum, it was a member of the black-robed regiment, America’s clergy, who provided one of the earliest and most sophisticated theological rationales for the American War for Independence. Jonathan Mayhew prophetically provided this argument in 1750, before the conclusion of the French and Indian War resulted in massive taxes on the colonists, before the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, and before the shots heard round the world at Lexington and Concord. Mayhew was a great patriot, and his faith informed a view of active citizenry, republicanism, and good government.

Some of the material in this essay is derived from Eric Patterson and Nathan Gill, “The Declaration of the United Colonies” in Journal of Military Ethics (2015) and Eric Patterson, Just American Wars (2019).

[i] See Dworetz (1990: 156): “The clergy did not treat St. Paul as a radical simply as a matter of Revolutionary exigency. Jonathan Mayhew in 1750, and Samuel West in 1776, offered the same ‘liberal’ interpretation of Romans 13. Even before Mayhew this interpretation appeared in a number of pamphlets and sermons… The ‘liberal’ reading of Romans 13 was not, in fact, an American innovation. Quentin Skinner traces the prototype to John Colet, a fifteenth-century English humanist.”

[ii] Samuel West, “On the Right to Rebel Against Governors,” Boston, 1776, in Hyneman and Lutz, p. 412.

[iii] Steven M. Dworetz, The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism and the American Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 156.