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Was the American Revolution a Biblically Justified Act?

Some today contend that the American Revolution represented a complete violation of basic Biblical principles and embodied rebellion or a spirit of anarchy. They argue from Romans 13 that since government is of God, then all government decrees are to be obeyed as proceeding from God. Yet, this is only one of two theological interpretations of Romans 13—interpretations representing a debate that has existed among American Christians for centuries.

On one side was the belief that when government speaks, God requires us to obey. Interestingly, it was this same theological position that resulted in the “Divine Right of Kings” philosophy which reasoned that since the King was Divinely chosen by God, God therefore expected all citizens to obey the King in all circumstances; anything less, they reasoned, was rebellion against God. Historically, this position was supported primarily and almost exclusively by the Quakers.

The other interpretation of Romans 13 was set out forcefully in a theological work first printed in 1579 by Frenchman Philippe du Plessis Mornay. Written originally in Latin, it was titled Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, but was later reprinted in English as “A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants” under the pen name “Junius Brutus.” This treatise took the position that government being ordained of God was referring to the general institution of government rather than to each and every distinct government.

That is, the institution of government was ordained by God, but that did not mean that God approved of every specific government. God ordained government in lieu of anarchy—He opposes anarchy, He opposes rebelliousness and lawlessness, and He opposes wickedness. Yet, there are clearly have been governments in recent years that promote anarchy, rebellion, and wickedness (e.g. Ghadaffi in Libya, Hussein in Iraq, Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Idi Amin in Uganda, etc.). Has God endorsed those specific governments that promote that which He hates? If so, He has contradicted His nature and is commanding submission and support to the very things that He hates—such is not possible.

The Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists, and most other Christian denominations during the American Revolution all believed that Romans 13 meant they were not to overthrow government as an institution and live in anarchy, but that this passage did not mean they had to submit to every civil law (note that in Hebrews 11, a number of those who made the cut in the “Faith Hall of Fame” as heroes of the faith were guilty of civil disobedience—including Daniel, the three Hebrew Children, the Hebrew Midwives, Moses, etc.). Furthermore, the Apostles in Acts 4–5 also declared their willingness to be civilly disobedient—they would obey God rather than their civil authorities.

The real key to understanding civil disobedience and Romans 13 under this latter view, then, is to determine if the purpose of opposition is simply to resist the institution of government in general (which would be anarchy and would promote a rebellious spirit), or if it is to specifically resist bad laws, bad acts, or bad governments. The American Founding Fathers understood and embraced the second interpretation of Romans 13, and therefore strongly opposed the “Divine Right of Kings” theology which was an outworking of the first interpretation of Romans 13.

For example, Founding Father James Otis (a leader of the Sons of Liberty and the mentor of Samuel Adams) in a 1766 work argued that the only king who had any Divine right was God Himself; beyond that, God had ordained power to rest with the people:

Has it [government] any solid foundation? any chief cornerstone …? I think it has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God, the Author of Nature whose laws never vary.… Government.… is by no means an arbitrary thing depending merely on compact or human will for its existence.… The power of God Almighty is the only power that can properly and strictly be called supreme and absolute. In the order of nature immediately under Him comes the power of a simple democracy, or the power of the whole over the whole.… [God is] the only monarch in the universe who has a clear and indisputable right to absolute power because He is the only one who is omniscient as well as omnipotent.… The sum of my argument is that civil government is of God, that the administrators of it were originally the whole people. 1

Even John Dickinson (not only a signer of the Constitution and the Governor of Pennsylvania, but also a devout Quaker and thus a member of a denomination favorably disposed toward the King) recognized the spiritual basis for the position taken by the Americans:

Kings or parliaments could not give the rights essential to happiness.… We claim them from a higher source—from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth. They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice. It would be an insult on the Divine Majesty to say that he has given or allowed any man or body of men a right to make me miserable. 2

Despite their rejection of the theory that the King spoke for God, a generally submissive attitude prevailed among the Americans. Stephen Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration and the Governor of Rhode Island, confirmed this in his work, The Rights of the Colonies Examined. Hopkins explained:

We finally beg leave to assert that the first planters of these colonies were pious Christians; were faithful subjects; who, with a fortitude and perseverance little known and less considered, settled these wild countries by God’s goodness and their own amazing labors [and] thereby added a most valuable dependence to the crown of Great-Britain; were ever dutifully subservient to her interests; so taught their children that not one has been disaffected to this day; but all have honestly obeyed every royal command and cheerfully submitted to every constitutional law; … have carefully avoided every offensive measure … have never been troublesome or expensive to the mother country; have kept due order and supported a regular government; have maintained peace and practiced Christianity; and in all conditions and in every relation have demeaned themselves as loyal, as dutiful, and as faithful subjects ought; and that no kingdom or state hath, or ever had, colonies more quiet, more obedient, or more profitable, than these have ever been. 3

The Founders pursued peaceful reconciliation and entreaty; it was Great Britain who terminated the discussions. After the separation had occurred—following years of peaceful entreaties—some British leaders specifically accused the Americans of anarchy and rebellion. To this charge, John Quincy Adams forcefully responded:

[T]here was no anarchy.… [T]he people of the North American union, and of its constituent States, were associated bodies of civilized men and Christians in a state of nature, but not of anarchy. They were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of the Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledged as the rules of their conduct. 4

As a confirmation of this fact, Samuel Adams, in 1772 in one of the most famous of his writings, urged Americans to study the Scriptures to understand the basis of the struggle to preserve their God-given rights. He declared:

The Rights of the Colonists as Christians. These may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institutes of the great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament.5

The spiritual nature of the American resistance became so clear that even in the debates of the British Parliament:

Sir Richard Sutton read a copy of a letter relative to the government of America from a [Crown-appointed] governor in America to the Board of Trade showing that.… If you ask an American, “Who is his master?” He will tell you he has none, nor any governor but Jesus Christ. 6

Therefore, under the Framers’ understanding of Romans 13, the American Revolution was not an act of anarchy or rebellion; rather it was an act of resistance to a government which violated the Biblical purposes for which God had ordained civil government. In fact, so cognizant were the Founders that they would account to God for what they had done and be justified in His eyes, that the flag of the Massachusetts Army proclaimed “An Appeal to God,” and the flag of the Massachusetts Navy likewise declared “An Appeal to Heaven.” 7

Additionally, the Framers were so opposed to anarchy in general, that immediately upon their separation from Great Britain, great care was taken to reinstitute government immediately so anarchy would not prevail. And the original State constitutions were overtly Christ-centered in their wordings and appeals. Quite simply, the Framers and most American Christians of that day—except the Quakers—believed they had conducted themselves in a manner in which they were not in rebellion to God or the Scriptures.

The second factor which the Framers believed gave them Biblical justification for their actions was the fact they did not initiate the conflict. The Framers had been fully committed to peaceful reconciliation and had pursued that course for 11 consecutive years before the separation from Great Britain. There was no desire to raise arms against England, their mother country and the land of their birth. Nevertheless, in the last two years of their peaceful reconciliation attempts (e.g., as in May 1776 with their Olive Branch Petition), their entreaties and appeals were met solely by military force. In fact, King George III dispatched 25,000 British troops to invade his own Colonies, enter into the homes of his own citizens, take their private possessions and goods, and imprison them without trials—all in violation of his own British common law, English Bill of Rights, and Magna Carta.

When their peaceful entreaties were met with armed attackers, the Framers cited full Biblical justification to defend their own homes, families, properties, and possessions—an important point to them. In their understanding of the Scriptures, God could bless a defensive war but not an offensive war. This was their great point of spiritual appeal: they had not attacked Great Britain; they had never fired the first shot—not in the British Massacre of 1770, nor in the Lexington and Concord engagements of 1775, nor in the bombing of Boston in 1774. Yet, now fired upon, they could defend themselves. In fact, so reticent were they to separate from Great Britain that it was a full three years after King George III had drawn the sword and sent armed troops against his own citizens in America before they announced their separation. As signer of the Declaration John Witherspoon confirmed:

On the part of America, there was not the most distant thought of subverting the government or of hurting the interest of the people of Great Britain; but of defending their own privileges from unjust encroachment; there was not the least desire of withdrawing their allegiance from the common sovereign [King George III] till it became absolutely necessary—and indeed, it was his own choice. 8

When the decision for a separation was finally made, however, the Founders continued to maintain their strong entreaty to God for the justness of their actions. For example, in a letter to British officials, Samuel Adams, the “Father of the American Revolution,” declared:

There is One above us who will take exemplary vengeance for every insult upon His majesty. You know that the cause of America is just. You know that she contends for that freedom to which all men are entitled—that she contends against oppression, rapine, and more than savage barbarity. The blood of the innocent is upon your hands, and all the waters of the ocean will not wash it away. We again make our solemn appeal to the God of heaven to decide between you and us. And we pray that, in the doubtful scale of battle, we may be successful as we have justice on our side, and that the merciful Savior of the world may forgive our oppressors. 9

Adams also authored a manifesto for the Continental Congress which reflected a similar tone of submission to God:

We, therefore, the Congress of the United States of America, do solemnly declare and proclaim that.… [w]e appeal to the God who searcheth the hearts of men for the rectitude of our intentions; and in His holy presence declare that, as we are not moved by any light or hasty suggestions of anger or revenge, so through every possible change of fortune we will adhere to this our determination. 10

It was the fact that they had been attacked which—in their understanding of the Bible—completely changed their status in the eyes of God, for the Bible clearly authorized and justified self-defense against an aggressor as righteous before God. But some object that the American Revolution resulted in a loss of life, and therefore cannot be justifiable in the eyes of God. This position demonstrates a lack of Biblical understanding about life.

Clearly, protecting innocent life is a key and recurring theme in the Bible. Life is God-given; He formed us, made us, and breathed life into us. Therefore, He gave clear commands both on preserving innocent life and on punishing those who take it (See, for example, Exodus 23:7, Deuteronomy 27:25 & 21:8–9 & 19:10, Proverbs 6:16–17, 2 Kings 24:4, Psalm 10:2, 8, et al.) Since God is the author of life, and since He alone holds the keys of death (see 1 Samuel 2:6), He—not man—is to determine when life is to end.

However, the taking of life is not always the taking of innocent life. God allows man justifiably to take human life on three occasions.

The first occasion is for the cause of civil justice (e.g., Deuteronomy 19:11–13, Numbers 35:16–27, 2 Samuel 4:11, etc.). The shedding of blood in such cases is not the shedding of innocent blood. The second justifiable cause is general military conflict (e.g., Numbers 32:27, 2 Chronicles 32:8, 1 Samuel 4:1). The third cause is in defense of one’s life, family, or property (e.g., Nehemiah 4:13–14 & 20–21, Zechariah 9:8, 2 Samuel 10:12). In these three situations, the taking of life is not viewed by God as the shedding of innocent blood.

Similarly, Jewish scholars point out that the prohibition in the Sixth Commandment is not against killing but rather is against murder. That is, they assert that the proper translation from the Hebrew is not “Thou shalt not kill,” but rather “Thou shalt not murder.” Murder is the taking of innocent life, while killing may not be (e.g., the three Biblically justified examples given above).

Therefore, the fact that the American Revolution was a defensive rather than an offensive war made all the difference in whether it could be a righteous war before God. The Framers’ writings emphasized this fact. For example, Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (and a church choir leader, musician, noted poet and literary figure), made this clear in his 1777 work “A Political Catechism”:

Q. What is war?

A. The curse of mankind; the mother of famine and pestilence; the source of complicated miseries; and the undistinguishing destroyer of the human species.

Q. How is war divided?

A. Into offensive and defensive.

Q. What is the general object of an offensive war?…

A. [F]or the most part, it is undertaken to gratify the ambition of a prince, who wishes to subject to his arbitrary will a people whom God created free, and to gain an uncontrolled dominion over their rights and property.…

Q. What is defensive war?

A. It is to take up arms in opposition to the invasions of usurped power and bravely suffer present hardships and encounter present dangers, to secure the rights of humanity and the blessings of freedom, to generations yet unborn.

Q. Is even defensive war justifiable in a religious view?

A. The foundation of war is laid in the wickedness of mankind .… God has given man wit to contrive, power to execute, and freedom of will to direct his conduct. It cannot be but that some, from a depravity of will, will abuse these privileges and exert these powers to the injury of others: and the oppressed would have no safety nor redress but by exerting the same powers in their defence: and it is our duty to set a proper value upon and defend to the utmost our just rights and the blessings of life: otherwise a few miscreants [unprincipled individuals] would tyrannize over the rest of mankind, and make the passive multitude the slaves of their power. Thus it is that defensive is not only justifiable, but an indispensable duty.

Q. Is it upon these principles that the people of America are resisting the arms of Great Britain, and opposing force with force?

A. Strictly so.… And may Heaven prosper their virtuous undertaking!

Q. But it has often been said, that America is in a state of rebellion. Tell me, therefore, what is Rebellion?

A. It is when a great number of people, headed by one or more factious leaders, aim at deposing their lawful prince without any just cause of complaint in order to place another on his throne.

Q. Is this the case of the Americans?

A. Far otherwise. 11

James Wilson (a signer of the Declaration and the Constitution, an original Justice on the U. S. Supreme Court and the father of the first organized legal training in America), explained in to his law students more about defensive rights:

I here close my examination into those natural rights, which, in my humble opinion, it is the business of civil government to protect, and not to subvert, and the exercise of which it is the duty of civil government to enlarge, and not to restrain.… The defence of one’s self, justly called the primary law of nature, is not, nor can it be abrogated by any regulation of municipal law. This principle of defence is not confined merely to the person; it extends to the liberty and the property of a man: it is not confined merely to his own person; it extends to the persons of all those, to whom he bears a peculiar relation—of his wife, of his parent, of his child, of his master, of his servant: nay, it extends to the person of every one, who is in danger, perhaps, to the liberty of every one, whose liberty is unjustly and forcibly attacked. It becomes humanity as well as justice.… As a man is justified in defending, so he is justified in retaking, his property, or his peculiar relations, when from him they are unjustly taken and detained.… This long investigation concerning natural rights and natural remedies, I conclude by answering the question, with which I introduced it: Man does not exist for the sake of government, but government is instituted for the sake of man. 12

A final indication that the Framers believed they were engaged in a defensive war was the fact that throughout the course of the struggle, the conflict was often described by the Americans as a civil war rather than a revolution. Only in later years was it consistently called a revolution rather than a civil war. Very clearly, the Framers did not view the American Revolution as an act of anarchy or of rebellion against God, the Bible or any of its teachings. Under the view of Romans 13 as understood by the Framers, the American Revolution was indeed a Biblically-justifiable act.

1 James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston: J. Williams 1766), pp. 11, 12, 13, 98.

2 John Dickinson, The Political Writings of John Dickinson (Wilmington: Bonsal and Niles, 1801), Vol. I, pp. 111–112.

3 Stephen Hopkins, The Rights of Colonies Examined (Providence: William Goddard, 1765), pp. 23–24.

4 John Quincy Adams, An Address Delivered at the Request of the Committee of Arrangements for the Celebrating the Anniversary of Independence at the City of Washington on the Fourth of July 1821 upon the Occasion of Reading the Declaration of Independence (Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1821), p. 28.

5 Samuel Adams, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, William V. Wells, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1865), Vol. I, p. 504.

6 Hezekiah Niles, Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America (Baltimore: William Ogden Niles, 1822), p. 198.

7 House Journals, 1775. A Journal of the … House of Representatives (Watertown, MA: 1776), pp. 196–197, April 29, 1776.

8 John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. IX, p. 250, “The Druid,” Number III.

9 Samuel Adams, The Writings of Samuel Adams, Harry Alonzo Cushing, editor (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), Vol. IV, p. 38, to the Earl of Carlisle and Others on July 16, 1778.

10 Samuel Adams, Writings, Vol. IV, p. 86, “Manifesto of the Continental Congress” on October 30, 1778.

11 Francis Hopkinson, The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings of Francis Hopkinson, Esq. (Philadelphia: T. Dobson, 1792), Vol. I, pp. 111–116.

12 James Wilson, The Works of the Honorable James Wilson, Bird Wilson, editor (Philadelphia: Bronson and Chuncey, 1804), Vol. II, pp. 495–497.

David Barton, The Articles of David Barton (2007).

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