Jonathan Mayhew, Romans 13, and the American Revolution
In the twilight years of his life, while writing from his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, John Adams had cause to reflect on those bygone years in which the play that was the American Revolution took center stage for the world to see. Writing to his fellow revolutionary sage, Thomas Jefferson, Adams expressed to his one-time friend, turned foe, turned friend anew, his innermost feelings on myriad of topics ranging from simple farming tips to complex theological debates. Aside from letters little more was ever exchanged between these two statesmen, with one major exception. Included in his July, 1818 letter to Monticello, Adams enclosed what he called “a curious piece of New England Antiquities” which had proven to leave a profound impact on a young John Adams. At the tender age of fourteen, Adams had digested a sermon which he claimed to have read “until the substance of it was incorporated into my Nature and indelibly engraved on my memory.” This sermon, along with the minister who delivered it, were credited by Adams for having destroyed the bigotry and fanaticism of all who remained loyal to England’s king, and served as a catalyst for the Revolution itself.
The sermon to which Adams referred was the now widely lauded A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers by Congregationalist Minister Jonathan Mayhew. Historians have recognized the brilliance of Mayhew’s sermon for literally generations, crediting Mayhew with leading public opposition to Britain long before the first shots at Lexington were fired. And while the acclaim is certainly justified, the crux of Mayhew’s contribution to the American Revolution often goes overlooked. In a world in which Biblical reasoning was needed for virtually every important question in life, the dilemma of justifying opposition to authority proved to be of paramount importance. The Apostle Paul’s admonition, found in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Romans, to “be subject unto the higher powers,” along with the reminder that “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation,” proved to be a formidable obstacle in America’s path to independence. In his quest to better comprehend heaven’s will as it related to scripture, Jonathan Mayhew established not only a framework for better understanding the critical admonitions of Romans, Chapter 13, but also developed the requisite rhetorical ammunition that would galvanize an entire generation of American colonists to the cause of revolution.
The Christian Paradox of the American Revolution
Colonial American society, particularly in Boston, was a world saturated in Christian and Biblical dogma. As acclaimed American Historian Mark Noll put it, “The Bible sanctified all manner of public speech…Once the Bible had achieved a place of honored distinction for selves and society, it became a lens through which believers perceived the external significance of temporal events, but also a torch that shone its illuminating rays on those events.” As the events leading up to the American Revolution transpired, American colonists were left to decipher God’s divine purpose for such trials. And since the Bible served as the proverbial Rorschach test through which all important decisions were assessed, it was only natural that ministers and parishioners alike would consult what the Good Book had to say on such matters.
Chief among these matters was the issue of opposition to authority. Historian Daniel Dreisbach supports this assertion when he writes, “Bible texts weighed heavy on the American mind during the conflict with Great Britain…Romans 13 was the single most cited…and on their face, these texts made little allowance for resistance to civic rulers.” The cognitive dissonance created by these two seemingly divergent desires – the aspiration to please God and the yearning for independence from Britain – meant that the colonists had arrived at a critical fork in the road. Would revolution imply an overt disregard for God’s holy warning as found in Romans 13?
The answer to that question proved to be anything but simple. If American Christians were to follow the admonitions of scripture, then they could not ignore the caution issued by Paul in Romans 13. At the same time, if these same colonists wanted to separate from Great Britain, a powerful and palpable biblical justification would be needed in order to rationalize their act of rebellion.
In the end the division would come down to personal interpretation of scripture, as Loyalists tended to embrace a more absolutist view of the Bible while Patriots took a more nuanced perspective. Historian Gregg Frazer’s work on this very issue supports this conclusion. Frazer writes:
In their sermons, as a general rule, the Loyalist preachers appealed more to the Bible and held to a more literal and contextual interpretation of the relevant tests of scripture than did the Patriot preachers. In addition, Loyalists typically took passages at face value without adding to or subtracting from the text, while the Patriot preachers adjusted texts to fit their purpose by adding qualifying language.
Dr. Dreisbach seems to agree with Frazer’s conclusion when he states, “Many Americans came to believe there were nuanced interpretations of these proof texts for submission and passive obedience which permitted a righteous disobedience of civil authorities.”
While it is certainly the case that most Patriot ministers adopted a nuanced approach to Romans 13 and other scriptures, which may have appeased a portion of the colonists, the fact remains that a viable, concrete solution to the Romans 13 problem was not to be found among the Patriot clergy. Loyalist preachers still occupied the moral high ground from the perspective of allegiance to Bible teachings. As Anglican Bishop Charles Inglis reminded his fellow colonists, “I feel inclined to think that Paul did not believe that Government of kings was an invention of the devil. ‘I exhort,’ says the same apostle, in another place, ‘that first of all supplications and prayers be made for all men and for Kings, and for all that are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty.” Simply put, Paul’s words were to be taken at face value. There was no wiggle room with Romans 13, and those who played fast and loose with such revelation were doomed to the damnation Paul had promised. For Patriot ministers, simply twisting the words of Paul would only go so far with a very small minority of colonial Christians. Finding a way to both uphold the Apostle Paul’s original admonition of submission to authority, while at the same time opposing that authority, was the defining paradox of the American Revolution.
Setting the Stage
This change in Mayhew’s theological beliefs was foundational to how he would come to understand the concept of submission to authority. The shift from strict Calvinist beliefs to a more Arminian (and some even thought Unitarian) theology did not always resonate with Mayhew’s Boston neighbors. As Historian Chris Beneke points out, “Mayhew represented a small, but outspoken, liberal faction within New England Congregationalism. Shunned by strict Calvinists, he was known early on as an ‘amiable heretic.’” Despite the labels, Mayhew established for himself a reputation for being a thoughtful and sincere pastor. Mayhew’s liberal leanings as a pastor were not simply the creation of his mind but were deeply influenced by the men he studied and came to admire. In turn, these same figures would shape Mayhew’s understanding of how resistance to authority could be both biblically justified and even divinely mandated.
The person most responsible for shaping Jonathan Mayhew’s views on resistance theory is John Locke. Locke’s contributions to the development of classical republicanism have been well known to historians for centuries. For a young Mayhew, however, it was Locke’s treatise on the Bible that would leave the greatest impact. As a child of seventeenth century, Locke was aware of the political upheavals that had captivated England, culminating in the English Civil War and eventual execution of Charles I. As such, Locke had seen the good and the bad that had happened when a people chose not to submit to their leaders as Paul had admonished. What had emerged, for Locke, from all this bloodshed and upheaval was a simple truth that would come to define not only his life but also the world view of Mayhew a century later. The simple truth was that “the doctrine of Christ was a doctrine of liberty…Christians were exempt from subjection to the laws of heathen governments.”
What these heathen governments looked like was something Locke never answered. Instead, Locke concluded his treatise on Romans 13 with a quasi-rebuking of the Apostle Paul, who “is wholly silent and says nothing” with regards to “how men come by a rightful title to this power.” In other words, Locke could see in Christianity a religion based on human liberty, but was not able to provide the context in which one should assert that same liberty.
Locke was not unique in this dilemma. Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who also esteemed the Christian faith to be a religion of liberty, were unable (or unwilling) to contradict Paul’s admonition to “be subject unto the higher powers.” For Luther, Romans 13 was “truly the most important piece in the New Testament” but was also an example of how God’s laws and man’s laws deserve different treatment. Luther writes:
You must not understand the word law here in human fashion, i.e., a regulation about what sort of works must be done or must not be done. That's the way it is with human laws: you satisfy the demands of the law with works, whether your heart is in it or not. God judges what is in the depths of the heart. Therefore his law also makes demands on the depths of the heart and doesn't let the heart rest content in works; rather it punishes as hypocrisy and lies all works done apart from the depths of the heart.
Along with Luther, fellow Reformer John Calvin did not remain silent on the words of Paul in Romans 13:
[Paul] calls them the higher powers, not the supreme, who possess the chief authority, but such as excel other men…And it seems indeed to me, that the Apostle intended by this word to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are wont often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord’s hand. And by mentioning every soul, he removes every exception, lest any one should claim an immunity from the common duty of obedience.
In short, Luther encapsulated his understanding of Romans 13 into the framework of his emerging theology on grace vs. works, while Calvin left absolutely zero wiggle room at all. For these important Reformers, the question of absolute authority was just that: absolute. There was no arguing with Paul’s divine declaration, which meant Jonathan Mayhew had to look elsewhere to find the requisite reconciliation.
Mayhew would find all the theological ammunition he needed in two powerful sources. First, the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), written at some point in the middle of the sixteenth century, was an anonymous treatise which defiantly suggested that a people were not bound to obey a king who had disobeyed divine law. Appealing to biblical examples in which opposition to authority was warranted by God himself, the Vindiciae portrayed the relationship between king and subordinate as a covenant in which all honor and reverence to God’s laws was promised by the monarch, who in turn received the adoration and allegiance of his subjects. Any violation of this arrangement was a breach of the covenant and merited the wrath of God’s vengeance.
The second source upon which Mayhew drew inspiration was the Scottish Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford, who in the 17th century began to challenge to concept of divine right kingship. His bombshell work, entitled Lex Rex; or the Law and the Prince (Lex Rex meaning “the law is king” was a play on words, since its reverse “the king is law” had served as the traditional creed for all monarchical government up to that point), refuted the notion that a king deserved absolute loyalty but instead was subject to the laws of God, for God had chosen them to serve as his agents on earth. As Rutherford put it, “The people have power over the king by reason of his covenant and promise. — Covenants and promises violated, infer co-action, de jure, by law.”
The Sermon that Changed a Nation
For Jonathan Mayhew, the teachings of natural law, supported by men like Locke and Rutherford, served as the principal lens through which he would decipher the true message of Paul as found in Romans 13. Instead of trying to justify or twist the words of scripture, as had been done by many of his predecessors, Mayhew took Paul at face value. As J. Patrick Mullins reminds us, Mayhew “reconciled the natural right of resistance with the Christian duty of obedience in light of scripture, history and real Whig political philosophy.” In other words, Mayhew’s hermeneutics adopted many of the same beliefs as those of his predecessors, but ignored the notion that one had to twist the words of Romans 13 in order to support an agenda. Mayhew believed he could have his cake and eat it too.
The year 1750 marked the debut of Jonathan Mayhew’s landmark sermon. As opposed to so many of his predecessors, Mayhew didn’t look to twist words of scripture or to double down on their absolute significance. Instead, Mayhew let prudence dictate the interpretation of scripture. Appealing to other Bible examples in which an absolutist tone is rarely if ever assumed, Mayhew wrote:
But who supposes that the apostle ever intended to teach, that children, servants and wives, should, in all cases whatever, obey their parents, masters and husbands respectively, never making any opposition to their will, even although they should require them to break the commandments of God, or should causelessly make an attempt upon their lives ? No one puts such a sense upon these expressions, however absolute and unlimited. Why then should it be supposed, that the apostle designed to teach universal obedience, whether active or passive, to the higher powers, merely because his precepts are delivered in absolute and unlimited terms?
Such was the tone of Mayhew’s entire sermon. He was quick to rebuke the standard practices of both the Loyalists and the Patriots and instead turned Romans 13 from being a warning for the subjects of a king into a divine admonition that put the king himself on alert. Emphasizing Paul’s reminder that a king was to be a “minister of authority to thee for good,” Mayhew wrote, “They are to consult the good of society as such; not to dictate in religious concerns; not to make laws for the government of men’s consciences; and to inflict civil penalties for religious crimes.”
Mayhew went even further with his condemnation of evil leaders, stating that Paul’s message rebuked those who “use all their power to hurt and injure the public,” adding that “such as are not God’s ministers, but Satan’s.” In so doing, Mayhew had successfully shifted the burden of Romans 13 to God’s chosen leaders and off of the masses. In Mayhew’s mind, it wasn’t the American colonists who needed to worry about God’s wrath but rather the King of England, who was “acting in an illegal and oppressive manner.”
Even though his sermon was delivered two decades before independence was even debated in Philadelphia, Mayhew’s perspective on Romans 13 reveals an important truth about how many Americans came to view the American Revolution. The American Revolution was not a coup d’etat. There was no removal of the King of England. Instead, the American Revolution was a separation due to the perceived wickedness and illegitimate reign of the King. This perspective, of a separation of Britain, can be traced, in large part, to Mayhew’s unique interpretation of Paul’s declaration in Romans 13, and this view was later canonized by Jefferson in the very words of the Declaration of Independence when he wrote, “"He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us" and, “For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies” and finally, “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.”
For Mayhew (and Jefferson?), King George, III was in clear violation of Paul’s reminder to all in authority: “For he [the king] 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.” The King had violated the laws of God by infringing, in an evil manner, upon the laws of man. He had neglected to live up to his end of the bargain, or as Jefferson put it, “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here” and, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” There is no demand to remove the King, nor was any act of violence ever attempted on his life. Instead, the colonists simply removed themselves from the source of the problem.
Such a remedy was precisely the purpose of Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon. The goal was not to usurp a ruler but to arm a people with the necessary language and understanding that would keep them safe from the usurpation of a selfish monarch. As Mayhew stated:
For a nation thus abused to arise unanimously, and to resist their prince, even to the dethroning him, is not criminal ; but a reasonable I way of vindicating their liberties and just rights ; it is making use of the means, and the only means, which God has put into their power, for mutual and self-defense. And it would be highly criminal in them, not to make use of this means.
Mayhew not only gave his countrymen the justification they needed to move forward with independence, but he also clothed Paul’s message in a quasi-divine mandate which suggested that independence was the very will of heaven. As a result, Mayhew was able to achieve something that Martin, Luther, John Calvin, John Locke, etc. were never able to accomplish. Jonathan Mayhew had made a divine mandate to obey God’s leaders a heavenly directive to insist that one’s leaders live in accordance with God’s laws, first and foremost, otherwise no allegiance was merited. Such a revelation may not seem dramatic to those in the modern world, but it was revolutionary for a community that continued to pray for their king.
Now, more than any time before, Paul’s words of warning, in Romans 13, did not seem as daunting. Instead, Jonathan Mayhew had made them a liberating cry of freedom from any leader who would not live up to their end of the bargain. The spirit of his message not only galvanized a people but found its way into the very founding charters of a new nation; a nation which Mayhew never got the privilege of seeing but whose soul will forever be etched in its collective character.
 John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 18, 1818. In Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson & Abigail & John Adams (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 527.
 John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818. From Founders Online, National Archives website.
 Romans 13:1-2. The Holy Bible: The King James Version (World Wide Bible Assoc.: 2019).
 Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016). Pp. 326.
 Daniel Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 110.
 Gregg Frazer, God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution. University of Kansas Press: 2018. Pp. 36.
 Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, 110.
 Charles Inglis, The True Interest of America: Impartially Stated in Certain Structures on a Pamphlet Entitled Common sense, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Printed and sold by James Humphreys, June, 1776. Sabin Americana, 1500-1926.
 J. Patrick Mullins, Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution (University of Kansas Press: 2017). Pp. 20.
 Chris Beneke, "The Critical Turn: Jonathan Mayhew, the British Empire, and the Idea of Resistance in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Boston." Massachusetts Historical Review 10 (2008). Pp. 40
 John Locke, A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians (1717; reprinted Boston, MA: Hilliard, Gray and Company: 1832). Pp. 367.
 Ibid, 367.
 Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1954), p. 164.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Romans (1539; reprinted for the Calvin Translation Society, 1849). Online edition. Pp. 478
 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, (Basel, France: 1579).
 Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex; or the Law and the Prince (1644). Online edition.
 J. Patrick Mullins, Father of Liberty, 52.
 Jonathan Mayhew, A Discourse Concerning the Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Power. (Boston, MA: 1750). Pp. 12.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 34.
 Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, 1776.
 Romans 13: 4
 Jefferson, Declaration of Independence.
 Mayhew, Discourse, 40.