Does the Bible Prohibit Revolution?

My graduate students and I recently read James Byrd’s terrific Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. This book is a treasure trove of information about how the Patriots and Loyalists actually used the Bible during the Revolution. The most surprising fact I learned from the book is that Romans 13 – in which Paul commands submission to the “higher powers” – was the most commonly cited biblical text in Revolutionary America. This passage, alongside a similar passage in I Peter 2, are precisely the texts I might have imagined that Patriots would have avoided. How does one “honor the king” while engaging in revolution?

These passages would seem, on a plain reading, to have prohibited Christians from participating in the American Revolution. Indeed, some former Patriot leaders such as Savannah pastor John Zubly withdrew when they realized that the protests against British taxes were likely to morph into violent revolution, which Zubly believed was not an option for Christians.

But instead of avoiding Romans 13 and I Peter 2, Patriot pastors (to their credit) took them on frequently and directly. They usually replied to Loyalist critics that the command to submit was never unconditional – just as it is not unconditional in marriage, in church, or in any other social setting. The Bible was replete with stories of resistance against unjust rulers. Even Peter and Paul routinely confronted and flouted the authority of Jewish and Roman officials, saying that they must obey God rather than man.

Perhaps the key sermon on resistance used by the Patriots was Jonathan Mayhew’s Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, originally preached in 1749. During the Revolution, John Adams claimed that the reprinted sermon was “read by everybody.” Mayhew insisted that submission was contingent upon a ruler being just, or being “the minister of God to thee for good,” as Paul put it. Wicked, oppressive rulers were better designated “messengers of Satan” than ministers of God, Mayhew thundered. Patriot ministers insisted that if the command to submit to authorities was absolute, then Peter and Paul should have stopped preaching the gospel, Christian martyrs throughout history should have denied their faith, and the Reformation should never have happened.

Logically, the idea of contingent submission seems correct: given Peter and Paul’s own behavior, they cannot plausibly have meant that Christians should passively acquiesce to any and every government directive. But still, any Christian should pause at Romans 13 and I Peter 2 when considering the justice of the Patriot cause. Can we wholeheartedly accept Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is [the people’s] right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government”? Resisting patently ungodly commands is one thing. Resisting unjust taxes on consumer goods is another. But “throwing off” a government for such taxes, and for a lack of effective representation, is hard to square with the stance recommended by Scripture. Maybe John Zubly had a point?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • steve burdan

    Good article! Yes, I would agree – questions must be raise about this “biblical” revolution – simply because the majority ended up supporting it, even in churches, does not mean that Peter and Paul were wrong in their teaching. The straw men of extremes come out and the actual teaching, and it is risky and counter-world intuitive, becomes obscured in a cloud of “patriotism.”

  • Jim Woychuk

    Is there any discussion about whether early Americans justified their rebellion by prioritizing their submission to local state governments over their duty to the government in London?

  • meansvillemom

    From what I understand, with my limited studies while homeschooling my children, the King had actually lobbed American cities along the shore with cannon. It would be interesting to see what more the colonists objected to and whether this and other things I have read are actually true. Do you think when the government begins attacking its own citizens that the citizens should revolt?

  • Tom Van Dyke

    “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”

    D of I.

    BTW, when the British forced out King James II in 1688 and brought in William and Mary, they claimed Charles “abdicated.” We would think Jefferson uses “abdicated” here quite purposefully.

  • kierkegaard71

    Could the problem be that people first identify their preferred political position and then head to the Bible for confirmation or justification? This is how “any position imaginable” can be confirmed by the Bible. The very title of this column suggests this approach. In essence, the position is “revolution seems like the right thing to do – does the Bible say I shouldn’t”? Unless you’re in the very uncommon position where you are allowed to peacefully secede by a referendum vote (very unusual), when we talk about revolution, we are talking a situation with some amount of violence. I would say that the person who doesn’t have a problem with Christians overthrowing governments, for consistency, should be the same person who could easily see Jesus leading an armed revolt against Rome. But I don’t see that Jesus in the Gospel accounts.

  • cken

    Just because your hypothetical doesn’t exist doesn’t make your thesis correct..

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    Thanks for proving what I always suspected- that Protestant prooftexting and avoidance of the hard commands of Christendom, was the cause of the liberty which has become so incredibly abused in our day, on both sides of the political spectrum.

    The revolution failed. It created a tyranny worse than that which it fought against, it just took 200 years to do it.

  • Andrew Dowling

    What an absurd comment.

  • cken

    You are absolutely correct about the current tyranny we live under. When cap and trade is passed and there is a CO2 tax and the UN treaty takes our guns away we will be completely enslaved to our government.

  • RustbeltRick

    Somehow everyone reads the Bible and ends up in different camps, forever and always. One devout person follows General Washington into battle, another remains a loyalist and eventually flees to Canada. A century later, believers held very different views on the great issues of the day, slavery most of all. We’re still doing it today. We seem to be very much products of our culture, even when we think we aren’t.

  • John Hutchinson

    Most Loyalists, who came to Canada, did not flee to Canada. They were pushed/expelled there.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Calvin (whom all the New England Congregationalists, Hudson Valley Dutch Reformed, and Middle States and back country Presbyterians and even Baptists would have turned to for guidance) provided a partial out. He said that there were cases when those who are subordinate governing authorities could and should rebel against a superior governing authority. The responsibility of the subordinate authorities for those under their care took precedence over their duty of loyalty and obedience to the sovereign in cases where the sovereign was doing something that was harmful to the people. I am very sure that many of the most fervent “patriots” would have been looking to this teaching of Calvin as being a primary justification for their actions. Only the pacifist Quakers and Anabaptists, and the Loyalist Anglicans, would have been unmoved by Calvin’s arguments, and of course these are also the ones who were in fact least likely to join in with the rebellion.

    Was Calvin right? Partially so, I think. If one has the responsibility for someone under one’s care, then one does have the responsibility to first do no harm. If orders come from above to do harm to those underneath, then those orders must be disobeyed. There can be a high cost to this, however, and the person with the integrity to do the right thing must be willing to pay the consequences, no matter how severe. One should therefore count the cost before accepting the responsibility.

    If there is a criticism to be leveled at the “founding fathers” and those who followed their lead, it was that they wanted to avoid the cost of disobeying the crown by getting out from under it altogether. A good case could be made that the pacifist civil disobedience that started out so well was abandoned prematurely. It was actually producing good results, and with more patience, better leadership, and further effort, London might have eventually relented and negotiated a settlement that would have been acceptable to all except the few rabble-rousing firebrands. We might then very well have ended up with an entire British North America becoming a mostly-independent dominion decades earlier than Canada finally achieved it. It is also interesting to speculate that slavery might have been legislated away decades earlier, and without the loss of 600,000 lives. The American revolution thus looks to be much more of a mixed bag from a moral perspective than is commonly thought.

  • Charles Carter

    In this regard, the Act of Abjuration (1581) should be required reading.
    It’s breathtakingly radical, intensely conservative, and Calvinist to
    the core. It begins with these stirring words: “As it is apparent to all
    that a prince is constituted by God to be ruler
    of a people, to defend them from oppression and violence as the
    shepherd his sheep; and whereas God did not create the people slaves to
    their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather
    the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no
    prince), to govern them according to equity, to love and support them as
    a father his children or a shepherd his flock, and even at the hazard
    of life to defend and preserve them. And when he does not behave thus,
    but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunities to infringe
    their ancient customs and privileges, exacting from them slavish
    compliance, then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant, and the
    subjects are to consider him in no other view.”

    CC.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Sacred War: too funny. The extraordinarily lengths the mind can go to rationalize and justify gruesome or ideological excess for a so-called “higher calling” or to fulfill someone’s beliefs is a true wonder.

    Several points:
    -You will know a tree by its fruit: take a look at America today (and follow it back objectively through this country’s history to the state of its inception).
    -Romans13 was written under Nero, who was “the minister of God to thee for good”? Israel was ruled by an occupying army that looked out for the best interest of the Jews? Submission is only to and completely to spirit and grace: this will teach and guide our way in all righteousness.
    -The Jews were literally being taxed into ruin. Any Messiah expected by the Jews would end this heinous and unjust practice by military might. On this very serious question of severely oppressive taxation, Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” This unsympathetic and unpatriotic response no doubt helped to seal the fate of Jesus. (Tell the Tea Party not to worry their little heads about Obamacare or Welfare and you get the picture.)
    -Patriotism played a role in the crucifixion. Which is why I can say that any degree of patriotism will always diminish commitment to the kingdom of God and increase the lure of the world. This is unavoidable! A Christian cannot serve two masters. There is no possibility of dual citizenship with heaven and an earthly kingdom; this is a house divided.
    -Patriotism is unnecessary. Paul gave clear instructions on how to be an inhabitant of any country: love of neighbor. In any nation, we are strangers in a strange land, aliens, foreigners, citizens solely of heaven, and as such ambassadors of his kingdom.

    I have a great deal more but this seems sufficient.

    Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2014/10/does-the-bible-prohibit-revolution/#ixzz3GRStecmH

  • modoccus1

    Recorded history is largely a depressing repetition of the same old story that drives history. It’s about the intoxication of power that drives the will to power with the development of a belief system that justifies authoritarian centralized power (To be the alpha of primal instinct). It is these belief systems that allow men to become as gods among men — controlling the lives of millions.

    The playbook is always the same: history is full of ruling hierarchy merging church and state into one religious, political unit. The Egyptian pharaohs claim descent of the sun god. Even as late as in the 20th century the Emperor of Japan was obliged to renounce divine lineage after World War II., Every society has that priestly class who feel at the bottom of their dark little hearts that their destiny is to rule others and they have to develop a rationale for authoritarian rule because any authoritarian system cannot last only by being the big man of the ruling mob.

    Radical socialism had their “cult of personality” which essentially means they were god on earth to people; indeed when they control your destiny of life and death they are — and if you read the prose and poetry extolling these human “gods” it was worship. And when we thought the autocracy of divine right to rule was in the historical dustbin, behold, it resurrected with Islam. They really believe they are the emissaries of God giving them license to behave as God on earth.

    Jesus was truly revolutionary, which is why he warned his followers of being hated because he separated church and state. He clearly stated his kingdom is not of this world. In the temptations of Christ the devil takes him to the high pinnacle and said that if Christ would worship him he could have all the kingdoms of the world, which Jesus rejected.

    The spiritual kingdom of Christ is where God is love and the creator of life and all that is good, which ultimately led to the foundation of the greatest civilization this world has ever seen, America. 

    The kingdom of Christ should never be compromised with a political system.
    It would appear most authoritarians apparently have made their deal with Beelzebub and they are infatuated with their power to kill and destroy.

  • Tom Van Dyke

    “Usurpations.”

    An important word–since at least Aquinas, usurpers were acknowledged as illegitimate rulers to whom no loyalty or obedience was owed.

    “but “throwing off” a government for such taxes, and for a lack of effective representation”

    The Declaration, and docs such as Hamilton’s The Farmer Refuted, make the American position clear, that Parliament held no rightful authority. The colonies’ charters were from the crown, before Parliament subjugated the monarchy in 1688.

    [BTW, Mark David Hall has found no other Zublys among the Calvinists. There are no “such as-es”.]

    ;-D

  • BillFortenberry

    Dr. Kidd,

    Your question is actually one that Christians have always answered in the negative. In my article, “We the People: The Biblical Precedent for Popular Sovereignty,” I provide quotes in support of revolution from leading Christian philosophers ranging from Irenaeus in the second century to Robert Persons in the sixteenth. For example, here are two statements from Aquinas that I found particularly interesting:

    “A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5; Ethic. viii, 10). Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Indeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude.”

    And a short while later, Aquinas further argued that a tyrant is:

    “like the violence of robbers, according to Ezech. 22:27, ‘Her princes in the midst of her are like wolves ravening the prey to shed blood.’ Wherefore even as it is lawful to resist robbers, so is it lawful, in a like case, to resist wicked princes; except perhaps in order to avoid scandal, whence some grave disturbance might be feared to arise.”

    By the way, I would also recommend Samuel West’s sermon “On the Right to Rebel Against Governors” in addition to Mayhew’s.

    Additionally, as Tom noted in his comment, the Americans were justified in resisting Parliament because that body had no authority over them. This was explained exceptionally well by James Wilson in his 1774 speech “
    Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament
    .”

  • cmann34

    I see a difference in what Jesus, John, Peter, Paul and other teachers did in the first century and a revolution. The command is to teach and suffer if the teaching brings that about. 1 Peter the 3rd chapter goes on to explain further. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught a new way of life – one that is about our lives being on a personal spiritual mission to save ourselves and others, nothing about changing governments or leaders. I will have to say that I have to work on my heart about this subject – my earthly desire is to fight back and overlook that I’m a spiritual being since I died to my old self and put on Christ. Jesus told Peter to put up his sword when he was trying to protect Him. He said those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.