A sermon preached on Jan. 30, 1750, led to the American Revolution. The Rev. Jonathan Mayhew changed minds in Boston, and eventually America, about the morality of resistance to tyranny.
When Mayhew took the pulpit, he knew what the British government wanted him to do: tell the congregation of their duty to submit to the government. Jan. 30 was the anniversary of the 1649 execution of Great Britain’s King Charles I, who had claimed a divine right to near-absolute rule and considered himself above the law. After he started the British Civil Wars, he was overthrown; he was executed when caught scheming to regain power by force.
A century later, in 1750, King George II didn’t want his subjects to think about resistance to illegitimate government. On the Jan. 30 anniversaries, the government church (the Church of England) venerated Charles’s supposed martyrdom. The government’s ministers propounded the duty of submission to government.
Mayhew, however, was a Congregationalist. Descendants of the American Puritans, the Congregationalists had split from the Church of England after failing to reform it from within.
The Church of England was run from the top down, by archbishops appointed by the king. Congregationalists were the opposite, as each congregation hired and fired its own minister. Local churches were autonomous, subject to no collective governance.
The members of the Boston’s Old West Church could hire whom they pleased, and they chose a recent Harvard graduate, Mayhew, who was a theological liberal.
Mayhew took Congregational principles to their logical conclusions, arguing in his 1748 “Seven Sermons” that everyone has the right and duty to make personal judgments in matters of religion and conscience.
On Jan. 30, 1750, he delivered a liberal blockbuster, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers.” Like other important sermons, it was reprinted and circulated throughout America. It became the “most famous sermon preached in pre-Revolutionary America,” according to historian Bernard Bailyn. “Indeed, the American Revolution itself” was the sermon’s “fulfillment and application,” he said.
John Adams called the sermon his personal “catechism” of revolution. Adams remembered, “It was read by everybody; celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies. … It spread a universal alarm against the authority of Parliament.”
As Mayhew explained, God had created hierarchies, and people were expected, under ordinary circumstances, to obey government, just as children were expected to obey their parents—for their own good. Conversely, if a father lost his mind and tried to slit his children’s throats, the children shouldn’t obey him. A tyrannical government was like a father trying to murder his children and must be disobeyed.
In Mayhew’s view, God was eminently rational and ruled according to natural law: “God himself does not govern in an absolute arbitrary and despotic manner. The Power of this almighty King is limited by law—by the eternal laws of truth, wisdom, and equity, and the everlasting tables of right reason.”
Because God was no arbitrary tyrant, no human tyranny could comport with God’s eternal laws. Therefore, “disobedience is not only lawful but glorious” against rulers who “enjoin things that are inconsistent with the demands of God.”
“Discourses Concerning Unlimited Submission” presented a popularly accessible version of 17th-century English philosopher John Locke’s analysis of Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans”: the Christian duty to submit to governments that govern justly creates a correlative duty to resist and overthrow governments that are tyrannical, because unjust government is the antithesis of true Christian government.
Some Christian authoritarians warned that a Christian who resisted tyranny would be damned. To the contrary, announced Mayhew, a people must make use of the means “which God has put into their power, for mutual and self-defense. And it would be highly criminal in them, not to make use of this means. It would be stupid tameness, and unaccountable folly. It would be more rational to suppose that they that did not resist, than that they who did, would receive to themselves damnation.”
In sum, to resist a just government was rebellion against God. To resist tyranny was self-defense, which was required by God, because tyranny was Satan’s government.
Kingdom of Liberty
Mayhew’s sermon drew from Protestants and Catholics, especially the 1705 sermon of Church of England Bishop Benjamin Hoadly. Challenging the authorities of the time, Bishop Hoadly argued for the right of individual self-defense, and extrapolated from that a national right of self-defense against a tyrant.
Mayhew brought the inspiration forward. In the 1760s, he was a leading critic of British attempts to control America—especially the Stamp Act.
Mayhew’s last great sermon was preached in celebration of the 1766 repeal of the Stamp Act. He warned that Americans must “oppose the first encroachments” on liberty, because “after a while, it will be too late.” He reminded his congregation of Jesus’ parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like to a man that soweth good seed, but while he slept, his enemy cometh, and soweth tares among the wheat.” (Matthew 13: 24–25). Because the man had slept, it was impossible to uproot the tares without also uprooting the wheat.
To Mayhew, it was obvious that the kingdom of heaven was a kingdom of liberty. He recalled that in his youth, he had studied great advocates of liberty such as Demosthenes, Cicero, John Milton, and John Locke. Mayhew’s father had taught him “the love of liberty” with “a chaste and virtuous passion.” At age 46, Mayhew was proud to say that he was unable “to relinquish the fair object of my youthful affections, liberty; whose charms, instead of decaying with time in my eyes, have daily captivated me more and more.”
Mayhew had grieved at the promulgation of the Stamp Act, when liberty “seemed about to take her final departure from America, and to leave that ugly hag slavery, the deformed child of Satan, in her room.”
Now, Mayhew rejoiced at “her speedy return, with new smiles on her face, with augmented beauty and splendor. Once more then, Hail! Celestial maid, the daughter of God, and, excepting his Son, the first-born of heaven!” Liberty was “the delight of the wise, good and brave; the protectress of innocence from wrongs and oppression, the patroness of learning, arts, eloquence, virtue, rational loyalty, religion!”
Mayhew’s scripturally informed view of history was optimistic. Although the Stamp Act had been dreadful, “God often bringeth good out of evil,” just as Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt had led to his rescue of his family. American liberties were like an oak tree that grows stronger roots and broader branches after being buffeted by “storms and tempests.”
“And who knows,” he said, “our liberties being thus established, but that on some future occasion, when the kingdoms of the earth are moved, and roughly dashed one against another … we, or our posterity may even have the great felicity and honor to ‘save much people alive’ and keep Britain herself from ruin.”
Mayhew was prophetic. In 1941, when Hitler bestrode Europe like a colossus, the United States entered World War II. In Churchill’s words, “the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington. His most recent book is “The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Perspective.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.