Jonathan Mayhew on Resistance Theory
Another important resistance thinker:
As an American I greatly value Independence Day. And it so happens that I write this piece on the eve of July 4. While Americans will enjoy their national holiday, as a resident of Australia I will actually spend a part of the day dealing with some faceless and inflexible government bureaucrats. Thus I can perhaps understand in a small way what the early American patriots felt as they dealt with an oppressive overseas government!
Why am I reminded of the words of Thomas Sowell: “You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing”? But I digress. In my series on resistance thinking I have been looking at numerous individuals who made important contributions to the notion of how we might respond to tyrannical governments.
Their writings began in Europe and England, and then made their way into the New World. Much of the impetus for the American Revolution came from the many Puritans who had previously come over from England. They were seeking religious freedom, and they wanted the new land to be a ‘City built on a hill,’ free of statist dictates about Christianity.
One such person of Puritan stock was Jonathan Mayhew, a Congregational minister (1720-1766). Born in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, he entered Harvard College in 1744. In 1747 he was ordained a minister of the West Church in Boston. Sadly he was a theological liberal, but he was an important voice in why tyranny had to be withstood. He solidly resisted the attempts of the English to control America – especially the widely-hated Stamp Act.
One of his most important and enduring sermons was “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the High Powers.” Mayhew delivered this sermon on January 30, 1750. It was a message based on Romans 13:1-7, and given on the occasion of the 101st anniversary of the execution of King Charles I.
John Adams said of his sermon that it was a “catechism” for the American Revolution, and that everyone had read it. The sermon was widely disseminated, and even published in England two years later. The full text of his sermon can be downloaded here: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/44/
David Kopel offers us some background to this famous sermon:
When Mayhew took the pulpit, he knew what the British government wanted him to do: tell the congregation of their duty to submit to the government. Jan. 30 was the anniversary of the 1649 execution of Great Britain’s King Charles I, who had claimed a divine right to near-absolute rule and considered himself above the law. After he started the British Civil Wars, he was overthrown; he was executed when caught scheming to regain power by force.
A century later, in 1750, King George II didn’t want his subjects to think about resistance to illegitimate government. On the Jan. 30 anniversaries, the government church (the Church of England) venerated Charles’s supposed martyrdom. The government’s ministers propounded the duty of submission to government.
Mayhew, however, was a Congregationalist. Descendants of the American Puritans, the Congregationalists had split from the Church of England after failing to reform it from within. The Church of England was run from the top down, by archbishops appointed by the king. Congregationalists were the opposite, as each congregation hired and fired its own minister. Local churches were autonomous, subject to no collective governance. https://www.theepochtimes.com/mayhew-liberty-and-the-resistance-to-tyranny_2769186.html
While you can read the entire sermon for yourself, allow me to offer a few excerpts from it here. One key portion says this: “The only reason of the institution of civil government, and the only rational ground of submission to it, is the common safety and utility. If, therefore, in any case, the common safety and utility would not be promoted by submission to government, but the contrary, there is no ground or motive for obedience and submission, but for the contrary.”
Here are some further quotes:
Those nations who are now groaning under the iron scepter of tyranny were once free. So they might probably have remained by a seasonable caution against despotic measures. Civil tyranny is usually small in its beginning, like “the drop of a bucket” till at length, like a mighty torrent or the raging waves of the sea, it bears down all before it and deluges whole countries and empires…
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 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….
I now add, farther, that the apostle’s argument is so far from proving it to be the duty of people to obey and submit to such rulers as act in contradiction to the public good, and so to the design of their office, that it proves the direct contrary. For, please to observe, that if the end of all civil government be the good of society; if this be the thing this is aimed at in constituting civil rulers, and 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; if instead of this good end’s being brought about by submission, a contrary end is brought about, and the ruin and misery of society effected by it, here is a plain and positive reason against submission in all such cases, should they ever happen….
To conclude: Let us all learn to be free, and to be loyal. Let us not profess ourselves vassals to the lawless pleasure of any man on earth. But let us remember, at the same time, government is sacred and not to be trifled with. It is our happiness to live under the government of a PRINCE who is satisfied with ruling according to law, as every other good prince will. We enjoy under his administration all the liberty that is proper and expedient for us. It becomes us, therefore, to be contented and dutiful subjects. Let us prize our freedom, but not use our liberty for a cloak of maliciousness. There are men who strike at liberty under the term licentiousness. There are others who aim at popularity under the disguise of patriotism. Be aware of both. Extremes are dangerous. There is at present amongst us, perhaps, more danger of the latter than of the former. For which reason I would exhort you to pay all due Regard to the government over us; to the KING and all in authority, and to lead a quiet and peaceable life. And while I am speaking of loyalty to our earthly Prince, suffer me just to put you in mind to be loyal also to the supreme RULER of the universe, by whom kings reign and princes decree justice. To which king eternal immortal, invisible, even to the ONLY WISE GOD, be all honor and praise, DOMINION and thanksgiving, through JESUS CHRIST our LORD. AMEN
As can be seen, like most Christian thinkers, he taught that the general norm is to obey government authorities. But this is not an absolute. Only obedience to God Almighty is an absolute, and when there is a conflict between the two, God always takes priority over the state.
As I have written elsewhere, there are good and bad sorts of rebellion. We are never to rebel against God and his Word. But there can be a time and a place to rebel against unjust laws, immoral decrees, and tyrannical rulers. Of course determining when these things are occurring, and what form any resistance might take needs to be prayerfully and carefully considered: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/05/22/on-rebellion/
Mayhew and other resistance thinkers spent a huge amount of time and effort seeking to do just that. Given that just yesterday I wrote about some North American churches and pastors who suffered greatly in resisting the coercive secular state as it sought to regulate the church because of the Covid scare, the need for this is just as urgent as ever.
5 Replies to “Jonathan Mayhew on Resistance Theory”
As an American I admit that I often feel conflicted when I even consider the matters of resistance and rebellion. As I consider this article and the many other excellent articles concerning resistance that you have written, I recognize that it is good and proper to feel that conflict as it underscores the weighty considerations that should always accompany the very thought of standing up to civil authority. In these changing times, may our Lord give wisdom to his church. Your website is one of the best sources available to the common believer for understanding what godly men have written about the topic. Thank you.
Many thanks indeed Mike.
Great Bill, thank you for this timely word once again. Where there is civil disobedience it’s always as a last resort, otherwise we obey the authorities God has set over us.
Pdf of Mayhew’s work, for those who might find it expensive.
Thanks, Bill for that article.