Speaking in 1750 on the anniversary of the death and execution by Cromwell’s Parliament for Constitutional treason of Charles I. Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, a Church of England minister; at Boston’s West Church, affirmed the right of people to resist a tyrannical government. He speaks here to the duty of individual citizens to preserve their rights in the face of despotic rulers. “It is universally better to obey God than Man when the laws of God and Man clash and interfere with one another,” he said in an earlier sermon.
[Excerpt: CHAPTER IV: The New England Historical Conscience - Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience 1965] Mayhew was probably the most outstanding of New England’s politically minded clerics. A “transcendent genius” according to John Adams, Jonathan Mayhew was an early advocate of “the principles and feelings” for which the Revolution was undertaken. The problems of religion and life were one and the same to Mayhew. At Harvard he wrote in his notebooks that he was determined to discover “the Affairs, Actions and Thoughts of the Living and the Dead, in the most remote Ages and the most distant Nations.” He carefully studied “the Characters and Reign etc of King Charles I” for a better understanding of the origins of the Puritan migration. To this end he studied Whitelocke’s Memorials (“an exquisite scholar”) and read the Memoirs of “honest Ludlow” the regicide. He admired Milton’s account of the English Commonwealth and noted that the rebellion came because “Charles the first had sinned flagrantly and repeatedly” against “the ancient form of Government” in England.
The use to which Mayhew put such studies is best seen in his controversial Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, (referred to above) a sermon delivered on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the execution of Charles I on January 30, 1649/50. Taking vigorous issue with recent Anglican efforts to portray Charles as a martyred monarch, Mayhew began his refutation with some remarks on the antiquity of English liberties. The English constitution, he asserted, “is originally and essentially free.” Roman sources, such as the reliable Tacitus, made it clear that “the ancient Britains … were extremely jealous of their liberties.” England’s monarchs originally held title to their throne “solely by grant of parliament,” which meant the ancient English kings ruled “by the voluntary consent of the people.”
If Mayhew’s history showed him a familiar pre-Norman political utopia in England, it also proved the right of all men “to vindicate their natural and legal rights.” On this principle Tarquin was expelled from ancient Rome; on this principle the conquering and tyrannical Julius Caesar was “cut off in the senate house”; and on this principle Charles I “was beheaded before his own banqueting house,” and James II had to flee from the country “which he aim’d at enslaving.” All men had rights; but Englishmen had a record for maintaining theirs despite the tyrannical efforts of misguided kings like Charles I.
The vigor of Mayhew’s presentation established his political reputation. His sermon was published not only in Boston, but in London as well—in 1752 and again in 1767. In Boston, John Adams remembered long afterward, Mayhew’s sermon “was read by everybody. Among others who joined the newspaper controversy over Charles I were Mayhew supporters who wrote to the Boston Evening-Post citing Burnet: Charles I “had a high Notion of Regal Power, and thought that every Opposition to it was Rebellion.” The same newspaper also published a definition of a good king: such a monarch “has imprison’d none against the law, granted no Monopolies to the Injury of Trade, collected no Ship-Money, rob’d none of their Religious Liberties … all which … were flagrant in the Tyrannical Reigns of the Steward-Family,” so well known for their “violent Attachment to Popery and Arbitrary Power.”
Mayhew had indeed (as John Adams noted) revived Puritan “animosities against tyranny.” In his Election Sermon before Governor William Shirley in 1754, Mayhew returned to his theme that “loyalty and slavery are not synonymous.” “Monarchical government,” he declared, “has no better foundation in the oracles of God, than any other.” In 1765, with the provocation of the Stamp Act to consider, Mayhew delivered another moving discourse on the virtues of liberty and the iniquity of tyranny. The essence of slavery, he announced, consists in subjection to others—“whether many, few, or but one, it matters not.”
Mayhew’s case against England was essentially conservative. He wanted to preserve the constitutional rights belonging to all Englishmen. During the decade preceding his untimely death in 1766, Mayhew read widely on the legal rights of Englishmen in America. His happy correspondence with Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn brought a steady stream of handsome history books to his Boston home. Hollis also arranged for his literary friends to send Mayhew their productions. Catherine Macaulay supplied Mayhew with volumes of her History of England; Mayhew read her treatment of the Stuarts “with great pleasure.” As Mayhew exclaimed to Hollis, Mrs. Macaulay wrote “with a Spirit of Liberty, which might shame many great Men (so called) in these days of degeneracy, and tyrannysm and oppression.”
Although this sermon came more than a decade before relations between the colonies and England started to deteriorate in earnest, the principles he describes foretell the basis of the American revolution. His sermon from The Pillars of Priestcraft and Orthodoxy Shaken by Richard Baron, part of the sermon based upon Romans 13 follows…….
[begin excerpt quote] I will add the entire book chapter including all of the sermon when I have the time.
A DISCOURSE CONCERNING UNLIMITED SUBMISSION AND NON-RESISTANCE TO THE HIGHER POWERS: With some Reflections on the Resistance made to King CHARLES I. And On The Anniversary of his Death: In which the Mysterious Doctrine of that Prince’s Saintship and Martyrdom is Unriddled:
The Substance of which was delivered in a Sermon preached in the West Meeting-house in Boston the Lord’s Day after the 30th of January, 1749-50. Published at the Request of the Hearers. By Jonathan Mayhew D. D. Pastor of the West Church in Boston.
Fear GOD, honor the King, ~ Saint Paul
He that ruleth over Men, must be just, ruling in the Fear of GOD. ~ The Prophet Samuel,
I have said ye are Gods.—but ye shall die like Men, and fall like one of the PRINCES.” King David.
Quid memorem infandas caedes, quid facta tyranni effera? di capiti ipsius generique reseruent! Nec non Threicius longa cum veste sacerdos
Obliquitur— Rom. Vat. Prin
First Printed in Boston, New England in 1750
T’HE ensuing discourse is the last of three upon the same subject, with some little alterations and additions. 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, that is preaching politics, instead of CHRIST. However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembered, that “all scripture is profitable for doctrine; for reproof, for CORRECTION, for instruction in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) Why, then should not those parts of scripture, which relate to civil government, be examined and explained from the desk, as well as others? Obedience to the civil magistrate, is a christian duty: and if so, why should not the nature, grounds and extent of it be considered in a christian assembly? Besides, if it be said, that it is out of character for a christian minister to meddle with such a subject, this censure will at last fall upon the holy apostles. They write upon it in their epistles to christian churches: and surely it cannot be deemed either criminal or impertinent, to attempt on explanation of their doctrine.
It was the near approach of the Thirtieth of January, that turned my thoughts to this subject: on which solemnity the slavish doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance, is often warmly asserted, and the dissenters from the established church, represented, net only as schismatics, (with more of triumph than of truth, and of choler than Christianity) but also as persons of seditious, traitorous and rebellious principles—GOD be thanked one. may, in any part of the British dominions, speak freely (if a decent regard be paid to those in authority) both of government and religion; and even give some broad hints, that he is engaged on the side of liberty, the BIBLE and common sense in opposition to tyranny, PRIEST-CRAFT and non-sense, without being in danger either of the Bastile or the Inquisition :—though there will always be some interested politicians, controlled bigots, and hypocritical “zealots for a party, to take offence at such freedoms. Their censure is praise: “Their praise is infamy—A spirit of domination is always to be guarded against both in church and state, even in times of the greatest security; such as the present is amongst US; at least as to the latter. Those nations who are now groaning under the iron scepter of tyranny, were once free. So they might, probably, have remained, by a seasonable precaution against despotic measures. Civil tyranny is usually small in its beginning, like “the drop of a bucket,” (Isaiah 40:15) till at length, like a mighty torrent, or the mighty raging of the sea, it bears down all before it, and deluges whole countries and empires. Thus it is as to ecclesiastical [religious] tyranny also,—the most cruel, intolerable and impious, of any. From small beginnings, “it exalts itself above all that is called GOD and that is worshipped.” (2 Thessalonians 2:4) People have no security against being unmercifully priest-ridden, but by keeping all imperious BISHOPS, and other CLERGYMEN who love to “lord it over God’s heritage” from getting their foot into the stirrup at all. Let them be once fairly mounted, and their “beasts, the laity,” (Mr. Leslie) may prance and flounce about to no purpose; and they “will, at length, be so jaded and hacked by these reverend jockeys, that they will not even have spirits enough to complain, that their backs are galled; or, like Balaam’s ass, to “rebuke the madness of the prophet.” (2 Peter 2:16)
“The mystery of iniquity began to work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7) even in the days of some of the apostles. But the kingdom of Antichrist was then, in one respect, like the kingdom of heaven, however different in all others.—It was “as a grain of mustard seed.” (Matthew 17:20) This grain was sown in Italy, that fruitful field: And tho’ it were “least of all seeds,” it soon became a mighty tree. It has long since overspread and darkened the greatest part of Christendom, so that we may apply to it what is said of the tree which Nebuchadnezzar saw in his vision—”The “heighth thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof the end of all the earth—And THE BEASTS OF THE FIELD have shadow under it.” Tyranny brings ignorance and brutality along with it. It degrades men from their just rank, into the class of brutes. It damps their spirits. It suppresses arts. It extinguishes every spark of noble ardor and generosity in the breasts of those who are enslaved by it. It makes naturally strong and great minds, feeble and little; and triumphs over the ruins of virtue and humanity. This is true of tyranny in every shape, There can be nothing great and good, where its influence reaches. For which reason it becomes every friend to truth and human kind; every lover of God and the christian religion, to bear a part in opposing this hateful monster. It was a desire to contribute a mite towards carrying on a war against this common enemy, that produced the following discourse. And if it serve, in any measure, to keep up a spirit of civil and religious liberty amongst us, my end is answered. There are virtuous and candid men in all sects; all such are to be esteemed: There are also vicious men and bigots in all sects; and all such ought to be despised.
“To virtue only, and her friends, a friend;
The world beside may murmur or commend.
Know, all the distant din that world can keep
Rolls o’er my grotto, and but soothes my sleep.” (Pope)
Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
IT is evident that the affair of civil government may properly fall under a moral and religious consideration, at least so far forth as it relates to the general nature and end of magistracy, and to the grounds and extent of that submission, which persons of a private character ought to yield to those who are vested with authority. This must be allowed by all who acknowledge the divine original of Christianity. For although there be a sense, and a very plain and important sense, in which Christ’s kingdom is not of this world; (John 18:36) his inspired apostles have, nevertheless, laid down some general principles concerning the office of civil rulers, and the duty of subjects, together with the reason and obligation of that duty. And from hence it follows, that it is proper for all who acknowledge the authority of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of his apostles, to endeavor to understand what is in fact the doctrine which they have delivered concerning this matter. It is the duty of christian magistrates to inform themselves what it is which their religion teaches concerning the nature and design of their office. And it is equally the duty of all christian people to inform themselves what it is which their religion teaches concerning that subjection which they owe to the higher powers. It is for these reasons that I have attempted to examine into the scripture account of this matter, in order to lay it before you with the same freedom which I constantly use with relation to other doctrines and precepts of Christianity; not doubting but you will judge upon every thing offered to your consideration, with the same spirit of wisdom and liberty with which it is spoken.
The passage read, is the most full and express of any in the new-testament, relating to rulers and subjects: and therefore I thought it proper to ground upon it, what I had to propose to you with reference to the authority of the civil magistrate, and the subjection which is due to him. But before I enter upon an explanation of the several parts of this passage, it will be proper to observe one thing, which may serve as a key to the whole of it.
It is to be observed, then, that there were some persons amongst the christians of the apostolic age, and particularly those at Rome, to whom St. Paul is here writing, who seditiously disclaimed all subjection to civil authority; refusing to pay taxes, and the duties laid upon their traffic and merchandize; and who scrupled not to speak of their rulers, without any due regard to their office and character.. Some of these turbulent christians were converts from Judaism, and others from pagonism. The Jews in general had, long before this time, taken up a strange conceit, that being the peculiar and elect people of God, they were therefore exempted from the jurisdiction of any heathen princes or governors. Upon this ground it was, that some of them, during the public ministry of our blessed Savior, came to him with that question—Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar or not? (Matthew 22:17) And this notion many of them retained after they were proselyted to the christian faith. As to the gentile converts,, some of them grossly mistook the nature of that liberty which the gospel promised; and thought that by virtue of their subjection to Christ, the only king and head of his church, they were wholly freed from subjection to any other prince; as though Christ’s kingdom had been of this world, in such a sense as to interfere with the civil powers of the earth, and to deliver their subjects from that allegiance and duty, which they before owed to them. Of these visionary Christians in general, who disowned subjection to the civil powers in being where they respectively lived, there is mention made in several places in the new testament: The Apostle Peter in particular, characterizes them in this manner—them that—despise government— presumptuous are they, self-willed, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities. (2 Peter 2:10) Now it is with reference to these doting Christians, that the apostle speaks in the passage before us. And I shall now give you the sense of it in a paraphrase upon each verse in its order, desiring you to keep in mind the character of the persons for whom it is designed, that so, as I go along, you may see how just and natural this address is; and how well suited to the circumstances of those against whom it is levelled.
The apostle’s doctrine, in the passage thus explained, concerning the office of civil rulers, and the duty of subjects, may be summed up. in the following observations.
That the end of magistracy is the good of civil society, as such:
That civil rulers, as such, are the ordinances and ministers of God; it being by his permission and providence that any bear rule; and agreeable to his will, that there should become persons vested with authority in society, for the well-being of it:
Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief…. It is blasphemy to call tyrants and oppressors God’s minister’s. They are more properly “the messengers of Satan to buffet us.” No rulers are properly God’s ministers but such as are “just, ruling in the fear of God.” When once magistrates act contrary to their office, and the end of their institution–when they rob and ruin the public, instead of being guardians of its peace and welfare–they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God, and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen.
If magistrates are unrighteous,…the main end of civil government will be frustrated. And what reason is there for submitting to that government which does by no means answer the design of government? “Wherefore, ye must needs be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.” Here the apostle[Paul] argues the duty of a cheerful and conscientious submission to civil government from the nature and end of magistracy, as he had before laid it down; i.e., as the design of it was to punish devil-doers, and to support and encourage such as do well;…if the motive and argument for submission to government be taken from the apparent usefulness of civil authority–it follows, that when no such good end can be answered by submission, there remains no argument or motive to enforce it;…And therefore, in such cases, a regard to the public welfare ought to make us withhold from our rulers that obedience and submission which it would otherwise be our duty to render to them. If it be our duty, for example, to obey our king merely for this reason, that he rules for the public welfare (which is the only argument the apostle makes use of), it follows, by a parity of reason, that when he turns tyrant, and makes his subjects his prey to devour and destroy, instead of his charge to defend and cherish, we are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage. Not to discontinue our allegiance in this case would be to join with the sovereign in promoting the slavery and misery of the society, the welfare of which we ourselves, as well as our sovereign, are indispensably obliged to secure and promote, as far as in us lies. It is true the apostle puts no case of such a tyrannical prince; but, by his grounding his argument for submission wholly upon the good of civil society, it is plain he implicitly authorizes, and even requires us to make resistance, whenever this shall be necessary to the public safety and happiness….
[Objection]: But, then, if unlimited submission and passive obedience to the higher powers, in all possible cases, be not a duty, it will be asked, “How far are we obliged to submit? If we may innocently disobey and resist in some cases, why not in all? Where shall we stop? What is the measure of our duty? This doctrine tends to the total dissolution of civil government, and to introduce such scenes of wild anarchy and confusion as are more fatal to society than the worst of tyranny.”
[Answer]: But…similar difficulties may be raised with respect to almost every duty of natural and revealed religion. To instance only in tow, both of which are near akin, and indeed exactly parallel to the case before us: It is unquestionably the duty of children to submit to their parents, an of servant to their master; but no one asserts that it is their duty to obey and submit to them in all supposable cases, or universally a sin to resist them. Now, does this tend to subvert the just authority of parents and masters, or to introduce confusion and anarchy into private families? No. How, then, does the same principle tend to unhinge the government of that larger family the body politic?…Now, there is at least as much difficulty in stating the measure of duty in these two cases as in the case of rulers and subjects; so that this is really no objection–at least, no reasonable one against resistance to the higher powers. Or, if it is one, it will hold equally against resistance in the other cases mentioned.
We may very safely assert these two things in general, without undermining government: One is, that no civil rulers are to be obeyed when they enjoin things that are inconsistent with the commands of God. All such disobedience is lawful and glorious;…All commands running counter to the declared will of the Supreme Legislator of heaven and earth are null and void, and therefore disobedience to duty, not a crime. Another thing that may be asserted with equal truth and safety is, that no law is to be submitted to, at the expense of; which is the sole end of all government–the good and safety of society….
[Qualifications:] Now, as all men are fallible, it cannot be supposed affairs of any state should be always in the best manner possible, even by greatest wisdom and integrity. Nor is it sufficient to legitimate disobedience to the higher powers that they are not so administered, or that they are in some instances very ill-managed; for, upon this principle, it is scarcely supposable than any government at all could be supported, or subsist. Such a principle manifestly tends to the dissolution of government, and to throw all things into confusion, and anarchy. But is equally evidenced, that those in authority may abuse their power to such a degree, that neither the law of reason, nor of religion requires that any obedience or submission should be paid to them; but, on the contrary, that they should be totally discarded, the authority which they were before vested transferred to others, who may exercise it to those good purposes for which it is given. Nor is this principle, that resistance to the higher power is in some extraordinary cases justifiable, so liable to abuse as many persons seem to apprehend it…. Mankind in general have a disposition to be as submissive and passive and tame under government as they ought to be…. ‘While those who govern do it with any tolerable degree of moderation and justice, and in any good measure act up to their office and character by being public benefactors, the people will generally be easy and peaceable, and be rather inclined to flatter and adore than to insult and resisting People know for what end they set up and maintain their governors, and they are the proper judges when the execute their trust as they ought to do it…. Till people find themselves greatly abused and oppressed by their governors, they are not apt to complain; and whenever they do, in fact, find themselves thus abused and oppressed, they must be stupid not to complain. To say that subjects in general are not the proper judges when their governors oppress them and play the tyrant, and when the defend their rights, administer justice impartially, and promote the public welfare, is as great treason as ever man uttered. It is treason, not against one single man, but the state against the whole body politic; it is treason against mankind, it is treason against common sense, it is treason against God….
“There is a day coming when proud tyrants will be punished, not only for the cruelties they have been guilty of, but for employing those about them in their cruelties, and so exposing them to the judgments of God.”
Rev. Matthew Henry