Rev. Jonathan Mayhew offers insight into this question with an essay written in 1750 entitled, "When is Resistance a Duty?" Rev. Mayhew examines biblical injunctions for citizens to submit to governing authority in the context of the extent of the governing authority's adherence to the divine purpose of "exercising a reasonable and just authority for the good of human society."
Mayhew's rationale for resisting a government that does not fulfill this good purpose helped lay the theological and rational groundwork for the American Revolution.
As former President John Adams wrote in 1818,
The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.Of Mayhew's particular contribution, Adams noted,
To elucidate the principles of submission and resistance to authority, Rev. Mayhew drew from the text of Romans 13:1-7 (in the King James Version he used):This divine had raised a great reputation both in Europe and America by the publication of a volume of seven sermons in the reign of King George II, 1749, and by many other writings, particularly a sermon in 1750 on January 30, on the subject of passive obedience and nonresistance, in which the saintship and martyrdom of King Charles I are considered, seasoned with wit and satire superior to any in Swift or Franklin. It was read by everybody, celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies.During the reigns of King George I and King George II, the reigns of the Stuarts (the two Jameses and the two Charleses) were in general disgrace in England. In America they had always been held in abhorrence. The persecutions and cruelties suffered by their ancestors under those reigns had been transmitted by history and tradition, and Mayhew seemed to be raised up to revive all their animosity against tyranny in church and state, and at the same time to destroy their bigotry, fanacticism, and inconsistency.To draw the character of Mayhew would be to transcribe a dozen volumes. This transcendent genius threw all the weight of his great fame into the scale of his country in 1761, and maintained it there with zeal and ardor till his death in 1766.
Some highlights of Mayhew's essay follow:
- 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.
- Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
- 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.
- 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 doth evil.
- Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath but also for conscience sake.
- For, for this cause pay you tribute also; for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
- Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
The apostle's [St. Paul] doctrine . . . may be summed up in the following observations, viz.: That the end of magistracy is the good of civil society, as such. That civil rulers, as such, are the ordinance and ministers of God; it being by His permission and providence that any bear rule and agreeable to His will that there should be some persons vested with authority in society, for the well-being of it.
That the true ground and reason of our obligation to be subject to the higher powers is the usefulness of magistracy (when properly exercised) to human society and its subserviency to the general welfare.
[I]f unlimited obedience and nonresistance be here required as a duty under any one form of government, it is also required as a duty under all other forms and as a duty to subordinate rulers as well as to the supreme.
[S]ince it is certain that there were persons [during the time Paul wrote Romans] who vainly imagined that civil government in general was not to be regarded by them, it is most reasonable to suppose that the apostle designed his discourse only against them. And agreeably to this supposition we find that he argues the usefulness of civil magistracy in general, its agreeableness to the will and purpose of God who is over all, and so deduces from hence the obligation of submission to it. But it will not follow that because civil government is, in general, a good institution and necessary to the peace and happiness of human society, therefore, there be no supposable cases in which resistance to it can be innocent.
---And if we attend to the nature of the argument with which the apostle here enforces the duty of submission to the higher powers, we shall find it to be such a one as concludes not in favor of submission to all who bear the title of rulers in common but only to those who actually perform the duty of rulers by exercising a reasonable and just authority for the good of human society.
This is a point which it will be proper to enlarge upon, because the question before us turns very much upon the truth or falsehood of this position. It is obvious then, in general, that the civil rulers whom the apostle here speaks of, and obedience to whom he presses upon Christians as a duty, are good rulers, such as are, in the exercise of their office and power, benefactors to society.
"Render, therefore, to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor" (Rom. 13:7). Here the apostle sums up what he had been saying concerning the duty of subjects to rulers. And his argument stands thus: "Since magistrates who execute their office well are common benefactors to society and may, in that respect, be properly styled the ministers and ordinance of God, and since they are constantly employed in the service of the public, it becomes you to pay them tribute and custom and to reverence, honor, and submit to them in the execution of their respective offices." ---It is to be hoped that those who have any regard to the apostle's character as an inspired writer, or even as a man of common understanding, will not represent him as reasoning in such a loose, incoherent manner and drawing conclusions which have not the least relation to his premises. For what can be more absurd than an argument thus framed? — "Rulers are, by their office, bound to consult the public welfare and the good of society; therefore, you are bound to pay them tribute, to honor and to submit to them, even when they destroy the public welfare and are a common pest to society by acting in direct contradiction to the nature and end of their office."Thus, upon a careful review of the apostle's reasoning in this passage, it appears that his arguments to enforce submission are of such a nature as to conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers as he himself describes, i.e., such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants and public oppressors are not entitled to obedience from their subjects by virtue of anything here laid down by the inspired apostle.
---For, please to observe, that if the end of all civil government be the good of society, if this be the thing that 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; and 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. And, therefore, in such cases, a regard to the public welfare ought to make us withhold from our rulers that obedience and subjection 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 to 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 that 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 argu¬ment 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.
---Those, therefore, who would from this passage infer the guilt of resisting kings in all cases whatever, though acting ever so contrary to the design of their office, must, if they will be consistent, go much farther and infer from it the guilt of resistance under all other forms of government and of resisting any petty officer in the state, though acting beyond his commission, in the most arbitrary, illegal manner possible.
For the apostle says nothing that is peculiar to kings; what he says extends equally to all other persons whatever, vested with any civil office. They are all, in exactly the same sense, the ordinance of God and the ministers of God; and obedience is equally enjoined to be paid to them all. For, as the apostle expresses it, there is no power but of God; and we are required to render to all their dues, and not more than their dues. And what these dues are, and to whom they are to be rendered, the apostle does not say, but leaves to the reason and consciences of men to determine.
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.
---It would be stupid tameness and unaccountable folly for whole nations to suffer one unreasonable, ambi-tious, and cruel man to wanton and riot in their misery. And, in such a case, it would, of the two, be more rational to suppose that they did not resist than that they who did would receive to themselves damnation. . . .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. 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.
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" (Prov. 8:15). 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.