July 4, 2017, marks 241 years since the American colonies declared independence from the British Empire. For the American colonists, the after effects of the expensive French-Indian War of 1754-63 brought about the need for separation, as the British exploited increasing ways to make the colonists pay their fair share of wartime expenses.
Today, few churchgoers think much about whether the colonists had any biblical grounds to go against the king in 1776, especially since the United States is a story of success. But, as with any war, it is good wrestle with what Scripture instructs and allow God to shape us through his Word and not our own. This is certainly true as we approach Independence Day celebrations.
Independence Day: Perspectives Of Revolutionary Era Pastors
On the subject of earthly authority, Romans 13:1-8 is unsettling. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” Paul says. “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 goes on to tell us that we must be, “in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
How did pastors in mid-18th century America justify the ensuing war? In his introduction to Political Sermons of the Period of 1776, written in 1860, John Wingate Thornton says, “To the pulpit, the Puritan pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence.” After reading several sermons from in and around the time of the Revolutionary War, I agree with Thornton. The pulpit became the place that bred righteous rebellion. And, everyone knew that the church was the central place for community. In the instructions included in the Declaration’s dissemination, the Congress sent it first to church ministers with the requirement that it be read as soon as services ended on the closest Sunday it was received (July 4, 1776 was a Tuesday, so some nearby churches may have read it as soon as July 9.)
Here are three pastors from the era that might offer perspective for your private study as well as points to share with your congregation as we celebrate the Declaration of Independence… and everything such a separation means for us today.
Jonathan Mayhew: Tyranny Brings Ignorance And Brutality
Jonathan Mayhew, pastor of the West Church in Boston is a celebrated preacher of whom John Adams writes, “[He] seemed to be raised up to revive all the animosities against tyranny, in church and state, and at the same time to destroy their bigotry, fanaticism, and inconsistency. …This transcendent genius threw all the weight of his great fame into the scale of his country in 1761, and maintained it there with zeal and ardor till his death, in 1766.” (It is actually in a sermon at West Church that Mayhew introduces the phrase “no taxation without representation.”)
Mayhew prefaces his sermon of January 1749 that questions the king’s supremacy with, “It is hoped that but few will think the subject of it an improper one to be discoursed on in the pulpit, under a notion that this is preaching politics, instead of Christ.” It appears that few people did.
Romans 13:1-8 is unsettling.”Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” Paul says. “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.”
The focus for Mayhew is on the distinct definition of tyranny. “Tyranny brings ignorance and brutality along with it,” he says. “It degrades men from their just rank into the class of brutes… .This is true of tyranny in every shape; there can be nothing great and good where its influence reaches.” If colonists were to take the advice of British pastors, Mayhew says, “we must not pretend to right ourselves, unless it be by prayers, and tears, and humble entreaties.” Is that what Scripture suggests? Are we not able to protest more openly and vehemently? “If these methods fail of procuring redress,” Mayhew asks, “we must not have recourse to any other, but all suffer ourselves to be robbed and butchered at the pleasure of the ‘Lord’s anointed,’ lest we should incur the sin of rebellion and the punishment of damnation! —for he has God’s authority and commission to bear him out in the worst of crimes so far that he may not be withstood or controlled.”
The defense for revolution is based not on an absolute reading of Romans 13, but arguing it must be, “understood with certain restrictions and limitations,” much like loving the things in the world or laying up treasures in heaven or taking no thought of tomorrow. We must obey “in good conscience,” as verse 5 says, not blindly or without question. Mayhew goes on to reference passages about children obeying parents, wives their husbands, and slaves their masters, asking, “Who supposes that the apostle ever intended to teach that children, servants, and wives, should, in all cases whatever, obey their parents, masters, and husbands respectively, never making any opposition to their will, even although they should require them to break the commandments of God, or should causelessly make an attempt upon their lives?”
Charles Chauncy: See What Firmness And Resolution Will Do
In 1766, Britain decided to heed to the pressures of the colonists as repeal the Stamp Act in put in place only a year earlier. On July 24, Charles Chauncy, paster of the First Church in Boston, gave a thanksgiving sermon, a discourse on, “the good news from a far country.” His thanksgiving would not be longwinded nor echoed by many because, as we know, other acts followed.
It important to note that Britain’s move to repeal the Stamp Act is at a time when the Sons of Liberty are openly resisting the King’s authority. “See what firmness and resolution will do,” they said at the time the repeal. This is an important moment as we lead into 1776 because it helps unify the colonies. Reports at the time suggest that there had never been such rejoicing.
Chauncy summarizes the good news about the repeal in three points: (1) it shows consideration and kindness to the colonies; (2) it removes the “grievous burden we must have sunk under” if the act continued; (3) it provides, “hopeful prospect it gives us of being continued in the enjoyment of certain liberties and privileges, valued by us next to life itself.”
There is a gravity with the American cause that Chauncy brings to bear in his sermon as he infuses the Exodus narrative with the angst against the British. He compares the Stamp Act to Pharaoh’s demand that production of bricks be increased, and its repeal to the freedom from slavery’s bondage. It’s clear that Chauncy is preaching to the common understanding of the repeal to be a right of the colonists restored and not a mere favor from a benevolent monarch.
What would happen if the Stamp Act stood and the British defended it by force? Chauncy says, “There would have been opened on this American continent a most doleful scene of outrage, violence, desolation, slaughter, and, in a word, all those terrible evils that may be expected as the attendants on a state of civil war.” It’s a prophetic statement, knowing what would transpire just a few years later.
He concludes his sermon asking his parishioners to be ever thankful to the Lord for his goodness, that he alone directs our paths, and it is our duty to pray. “It would also be a suitable return of gratitude to God if we entertained in our minds, and were ready to express in all proper ways,” he says, “a just sense of the obligations we are under to those patrons of liberty and righteousness who were the instruments employed by him, and whose wise and powerful endeavors, under his blessing, were effectual to promote at once the interest of the nation at home, and of these distant colonies.”
Samuel Cook: Let Nothing Divert Us From The Paths Of Truth And Peace
Samuel Cook, pastor of Second Church in Cambridge, gave a sermon on May 30, 1770. It was a contentious election day for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Much had occurred between the repeal of the Stamp Act and this time including additional tariffs levied on all sorts of goods and the installation of four thousand British troops in Boston alone to see to it that taxes were collected and the peace kept. It was felt that a, “cannon [was] pointed at the very door of the State House.” It was on March 5, 1770 that the infamous Boston Massacre took place, a collision of British troops and citizens, that the Sons of Liberty used to their political advantage.
The sermon is framed around the last words of King David in 2 Samuel 23: “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me:
When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth” (2-3).
Ahh, but what about those rulers who do not fear God? How about George III? Cook says,”The laws of nature, though enforced by divine revelation, which bind the conscience of the upright, prove insufficient to restrain the sons of violence, who have not the fear of God before their eyes. A society cannot long subsist in such a state… The remedy in this case is solely in the hands of the community.”
Cook wants the colonists to remain focused around why America exists. “Let nothing divert us from the paths of truth and peace, which are the ways of God, and then we may be sure that he will be with us, as he was with our fathers, and never leave nor forsake us.” For the colonists in Boston and elsewhere in the colonies, “fathers” does not refer to anything close to the British Crown. Rather, they were those who, because of religious persecution, came to settle on the shores of a new world. “They were but as sojourners here,” he says, “and have long since resigned these their transitory abodes, and are securely seated in mansions of glory. They hear not the voice of the oppressor. We also are all strangers on earth, and must soon, without distinction, lie down in the dust, and rise not till these heavens and earth are no more. May we all realize the appearance of the Son of God to judge the world in righteousness, and improve the various talents committed to our trust, that we may then lift up our heads with joy, and, through grace, receive an inheritance which cannot be taken away, even life everlasting!”
There are many other examples of pastors who spurred on the declaration of independence from the British Empire. They include William Gordon of the Third Church in Roxbury, Samuel Langdon who served as President of Harvard College at the time, Samuel West of Dartmouth Church, Phillips Payson who ministered to the county of Walpole, and many others.
The United States is a country built on the promise that liberty can indeed blossom a home to virtue, grace and peace. The Revolutionary War ended on September 3, 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, but it would be hard row to hoe through the Articles of Confederation, the ratification of the Constitution, and finally the establishment of the style of government we recognize. During this season of celebrating independence, let’s be dependent always in the “invisible hand,” as Washington says in his inaugural address of April 30, 1786. Here’s the fuller quote from Washington:
“It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man more than the people of the United States.”