The American Revolution: Unholy Rebellion Or Holy Disobedience? (III)

The American Revolution

The Whigs’ View

With the rise to the throne of Charles I, the Puritan/non-Catholic/non-conformist cause in England seemed to be dead. Under Queen Elizabeth and then King James, there was hope that the English Church might abandon its Romanized hierarchical structure. But with the ascent to the throne of Charles I, all hope was lost. To protect the Church-State relationship that vested in the British monarch all-encompassing power, Charles directed Archbishop William Laud to purge England of all those who attacked the “stately grandeur of his royal church” (op. cit., p. 86). The result was a terrible reign of terror. For criticizing the church, one could be branded and put in prison for life. In fact, these were the usual penalties. Also, one could have his or her ears cropped and nostrils slit. There were also heavy fines, long prison terms in rodent-infested dungeons, all of which depended on just how egregious the offense was perceived to be. Because the Puritan/non-Catholic/non-conformist preachers were usually the more eloquent speakers, all sermons were outlawed. Innovative preachers took to calling their sermons “lectures,” but these, too, were also banned. It was such persecution that caused these folks to seek relief in the New World. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Laud purge and persecution in England (cf. a history of Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, 1633) had helped to bring to Massachusetts Bay and other places along the eastern shores of the American continent a group of people who were looking for the freedom to exercise themselves religiously as their consciences dictated. It matters not that these Pilgrims established their own State churches, for one was not forced to live within these jurisdictions but was, in fact, free to move and live where one wanted.

So, it can be seen that Puritans and those of their ilk pressed upon our shores to establish commonwealths in accordance with the understanding they had of the precepts found in God’s word. Because the truths taught in the Bible and democratic institutions are compatible, Puritans and Whigs would eventually and easily coalesce into a formidable alliance that would stand against the Crown and those aligned with it, like the Tories/Anglicans.

Factor into all this the writings of John Locke et al., along with the pamphleteering that was so prevalent in Colonial America, and you have a very well-read citizenry that rejected Thomas Hobbes’ divine right of kings philosophy in favor of the Lockean concept of a government that exercises itself with the consent of the governed. Although this was a revolutionary idea for the time, it was a concept that, surprisingly, had been taught in God’s word all along. I say “surprisingly,” because what the Bible actually taught on this subject had been skewed by several things.

One of these was the Hobbesian/Machiavellian justification of the government’s right to exercise absolute power. The other was the misinterpretation of Romans 13:1-7, which believed that the actual ordaining of a specific, particular government is what these verses are all about—rather than the idea that government in general, a government that would have certain God-ordained qualities, is what was under discussion. From these mistakes evolved the so-called “Divine Right of Kings” doctrine that prevailed in England, at least in the minds of the monarchs and those who supported them (e.g., the Tories/Anglicans).

The Divine Right Of Kings

The Divine Right of Kings is a doctrine of political absolutism and is the general term used for the ideas surrounding the authority and legitimacy of a Monarch. It broadly holds that a monarch derives his right to rule from the will of God, and not from any temporal authority, including the will of his subjects. Directly chosen by God, a monarch is accountable only to Deity, and answers only to Him for his actions. As King James I of England said in the Basilikon Doron, a manual printed in Edinburgh in 1599 and London in 1603 vis-à-vis the duties of a King, which was written in the form of a private and confidential letter to his eldest son, Henry, Prince of Wales:

Just as no misconduct on the part of a father can free his children from obedience to the fifth commandment, so no misgovernment on the part of a King can release his subjects from their allegiance (cf. C. V. Wedgwood, The King’s Peace, 1956, p 63).

This, then, along with his The True Law of Free Monarchies, which was published in 1598, is the best articulation extant of The Divine Right of Kings and shows the mistake King James I and the Stuart kings who followed him made when it came to the exercise of their delegated authority. In The True Law, James wrote:

A good King will frame his actions to be according to the law, yet he is not bound thereto but of his good will.

King James also caused to be printed his book entitled Defense of the Right of Kings, which was designed to counter those who questioned the King’s alleged God-given right to exercise absolute power. In it, he claimed the King was the supreme authority on earth and therefore not subject to any so-called “inferior” powers. In making these claims, King James was trying to put to rest the thinking of Puritans, those pesky non-conformists who viewed the King as a servant of God on the people’s behalf and therefore subject to them as well as to God.

Clearly, then, the Whigs/Puritans were conscientious objectors to the Divine Right of Kings. They believed that Romans 13:1-7 was speaking of government in general, namely, a government consisting of qualities that would cause it to support the doing of Justice and Righteousness, a government that would serve the people. I believe the Whigs/Puritans were right, and it was precisely this kind of thinking that motivated the colonists to cut ties finally with the English Crown. (Note: For those interested in a better understanding of this development, they must spend some time studying the events that led up to Magna Carta and the profound influence this compact had on the development of the legal system in England and America. Two excellent books on this are Louis Wright’s Magna Carta and the Tradition of Liberty, 1976, and A. E. Dick Howard’s The Road From Runnymede: Magna Carta and Constitutionalism in America, 1968. Wright’s book is a condensed treatment of Professor Howard’s more detailed work.)

Thus, what started in 1776 in America was the continuation of a struggle that had been going on for quite some time.

In an effort to make short the long and complicated journey to 1776, I’ve neglected many important developments, like the rise of the mislabeled Holy Roman Empire and the development of the apostate Roman Catholic Church which, along with its popes, wholeheartedly endorsed the line of emperors beginning with the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius, later the Eastern Roman emperors, and finally the Western Roman emperor, Charlemagne. To counter the unchecked authority of the emperor/king, the Catholic Church developed the theory of “Two Swords.” This taught that the only authority that could depose a monarch was the pope. This was not just an idea that lived in theory alone. It was, in fact, a power popes effectively exercised on more than one occasion. But with the rise of Protestantism, kings were left with nothing to check their power and therefore, if inclined, could be despots. As a result, the people suffered, and it was the realities of this suffering that caused some to begin to closely examine what God actually said about these things in His word. So, although I haven’t gone into all of this in great detail, such should be interesting to those wanting to study these things in depth.

King James writings were intended to be critical of both Papists and Puritans, for both, for very different reasons, were rightly viewed as threats to his absolute power. Not only was he the King, but he was head of the Church of England as well, and he didn’t intend to have his authority questioned by the Roman Catholic Church nor the Puritan/Protestant non-conformists. These differences would lead to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Revolution of the 1640s, a Revolution in which King James’ son, Charles I, was beheaded in 1649, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and finally the American Revolution of 1776.

Government, according to Romans 13:1-7, is ordained by God. But this pericope is not teaching that God specifically sets in place particular governments (although He could have, and has, done so), but that He has ordained the purpose of government. It is important to understand the apostle Paul is not saying every government is specifically ordained by God, as some have supposed. On the contrary, what he is telling us is precisely what type of government (viz., its character) that God has ordained. If one understands this, then the difficulties Christians face in reconciling their obedience to God and the State are somewhat mitigated. For example, although many Christians believe that the teaching of the Bible demands they be obedient and supportive of both good and evil governments, no matter what the circumstances, this is not the teaching of Romans 13; nor do I believe it to be the teaching of other scriptures dealing with this subject.

The Bible teaches that the kind of rulers who have been ordained by God are not a “terror to good works, but to evil” (Rom. 13:3). They are described as “God’s ministers” who have been ordained by Him for the good of those they govern, and a part of that good is to “execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). Christians should be subject to civil government and its authorities not just because the government has the power to inflict punishment for wrongdoing, but because Christians’ consciences, properly instructed by God’s Word, tell them that to do otherwise would be a violation of His will. It is quite clear that God has ordained the higher powers and has placed responsibilities both on them and on those to whom they minister. If either the State or the citizens it governs conduct themselves contrary to the obligations and responsibilities God has placed upon them, then both lose their legitimacy in those specific matters.

This does not jibe with the Calvinists’ view of things, nor even with what many Christians believe about these verses. Nevertheless, I am convinced that, according to Romans 13:1-7, it is the purpose of government that is ordained by God and not the particular government, as so many believe. It must be remembered that God is not addressing in His word people with no free-will. On the contrary, He is speaking to people who will know that God has ordained government for their general welfare and, for this reason, they are willing to submit themselves to it.

At the same time, and this has been a much-neglected subject among those who believe God specifically ordains particular governments and that men are duty bound always to obey such governments, the Bible teaches that a particular government is the creation of men. For example, in 1 Peter 2:13-14, we are told to “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” It is the “every ordinance of man” that I want us to think about for a moment, for it is in this expression that we understand that although government has been ordained by God, particular governments are the creation of men. I’ll have more to say about this in what follows.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *