The Catechism of the Revolution

By David Kopel

Liberty magazine, November 2006, pp. 26-28. More by Kopel on Protestantism and Freedom.

"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." So wrote John Adams, looking back on the American Revolution from the perspective of 1818. The date when the revolution of hearts and minds began was January 30, 1750, and the leader of the incipient revolt was the Congregationalist minister Jonathan Mayhew, who preached what was perhaps the most important sermon in American history. That sermon was only one highlight of a life dedicated to human rights.

Like most New Englanders, Mayhew (1720-1766) was a Congregationalist, an intellectual descendant of the English puritans. Because Congregationalists held that God's word, as contained in the Bible, is the supreme authority, they believed that a balance of powers within human government is essential, so that misuse of power can never interfere with the preaching of God's word. In their view, separation of church and state was critical, in the sense that the church must be free of control by the state.

In the rival Church of England, the state church, priests were under the authority of bishops, who were under the authority of the king and Parliament. By contrast, individual Congregational churches were accountable to no higher human power, not even an assembly of their fellow churches. Within a Congregational church there was a careful balance of power between the minister and the congregation, so that neither could dominate the other. The congregants knew the Bible very well, and could discipline ministers who misused it.

Three years after graduating from Harvard, the premier training ground for the Congregational clergy, Jonathan Mayhew was called to the pulpit by the congregation of the Old West Church in Boston. Right from the start, he was a theological liberal. Congregationalists had always emphasized the importance of the individual in religion. In "Seven Sermons," preached in 1748 and published thereafter, Mayhew took Congregational principles to their logical conclusion, arguing that everyone has the right and duty to make personal judgments in matters of religion and conscience.

Congregationalists were among the many intellectual heirs of John Calvin, the Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century who argued that a person's salvation or damnation was predestined by God, with salvation based solely on the person's God-given faith. Calvin agreed with the orthodox Roman Catholic theory of original sin--that man was inherently depraved.

Mayhew rejected these Calvinist principles in favor of modern, Enlightenment views. Indeed, he even rejected the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity (that the Godhead is composed of three persons--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Mayhew contended that God was One--which implied that Jesus was not God, but instead was simply mankind's mediator and advocate with God. He was one of the most influential forerunners of Unitarianism in America. Yet he always considered himself a Congregationalist, as did the members of the Old West Church, which could have dismissed him if they chose. They didn't. And Harvard was so impressed with Mayhew that he was named a lecturer in 1765. His insistence on the importance of the individual conscience became not only a Unitarian doctrine but also a cornerstone of broader American cultural beliefs about religious freedom.

Mayhew is most famous, however, for preaching the principles of political freedom. His preaching appealed to theological conservatives as well as theological liberals--indeed, to persons of all religious persuasions, all over America, and abroad.

January 30, 1750, was the centennial of the execution of Charles I of England, condemned by Parliament for treason and other crimes. He had repeatedly and infamously abused the rights of Englishmen, had attempted to destroy the checks and balances of England's government, and had claimed a divine right to rule with near-absolute powers.

Charles's son was later restored to power, and Charles was proclaimed a martyr by the Church of England. Although a second son was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in Mayhew's time the Church of England still promoted the cult of Charles with a major feast day every January 30. Each year, priests of the Church of England venerated Charles's martyrdom and propounded the duty of submission to government. The New England Congregationalist ministers--whose Puritans ancestors had helped to execute Charles I--generally tried to ignore this topic in their own January 30 sermons.

Mayhew did not. He took the pulpit and preached "A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers."The historian Bernard Bailyn declared this the "most famous sermon preached in pre-Revolutionary America." John Adams called it his personal "Catechism" of revolution. Adams remembered, "It was read by everybody; celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies... It spread an universal alarm against the authority of Parliament. It excited a general and just apprehension, that bishops, and dioceses, and churches, and priests, and tithes, were to be imposed on us by Parliament."

According to Mayhew, God had created hierarchical authorities, and people were expected, under ordinary circumstances, to obey the government, just as children were expected to obey their parents--for their own good. On the other hand, if a father lost his mind and tried to slit his children's throats, the children should not obey him. A tyrannical government was like a father trying to murder his children, and must not be obeyed.

Mayhew expounded the natural law theory of government: "God himself does not govern in an absolute arbitrary and despotic manner. The Power of this almighty King is limited by law--by the eternal laws of truth, wisdom, and equity, and the everlasting tables of right reason." Because God is no arbitrary tyrant, no human tyranny can comport with his eternal laws. Therefore, "disobedience is not only lawful but glorious" if it is against rulers who "enjoin things that are inconsistent with the demands of God."

The "Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission "presented a popularly accessible form of John Locke's analysis of Paul's epistle to the Romans. Its central idea is that the Christian duty to submit to governments that govern justly creates a correlative duty to resist and overthrow governments that are tyrannical, since unjust government is the very antithesis of true Christian government. Like most other Congregationalist ministers, Mayhew had studied Locke at Harvard, and considered him a Christian intellectual ally.

Particularly among adherents of the Church of England, there were some Christian authoritarians who warned that a person who resisted tyranny would be damned. To the contrary, Mayhew announced, a people must use the 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. It would be stupid tameness, and unaccountable folly…" It would "be more rational to suppose that they that did NOT resist, than that they who did, would receive to themselves damnation."

In sum, to resist a just government was "rebellion" against God. To resist tyranny was "self-defense," which was required by God, because tyranny was not real government. This was a premise for revolution.

In eighteenth-century America, notable sermons were often printed and sold all over the colonies, and overseas. The publication of Mayhew's January 30 sermon added to his already significant international prestige. As Adams recalled, Mayhew "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 the Second, 1749, and by many other writings, particularly a sermon in 1750, on the 30th of January."

In Adams' opinion, the January sermon deserved its fame; it was "seasoned with wit and satire superior to any in Swift or Franklin." He believed that in the period 1760-1766, the person most influential in arousing the American spirit of liberty was "James Otis; next to him was Oxenbridge Thacher; next to him, Samuel Adams; next to him, John Hancock; then Dr. Mayhew… 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." It was in 1760-1761 that the British government began a serious attempt to "rais[e] a national revenue from America by parliamentary taxation."

Mayhew was alive to that threat. Five years later, he was a staunch advocate for American interests during the Stamp Act crisis. It was then that he coined the phrase "no taxation without representation." He was also active in a closely-related political crisis: the threat of the appointment of an Anglican (that is, Church of England) bishop for America.

Although most American Anglicans (who comprised most of the American ruling élite) lacked the protesting spirit of the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians, the Church of England had never exported its hierarchy to America. As a result, local Anglican churches tended to be controlled by wealthy land-owners, who enjoyed their independence from British oversight. Fears that the King was preparing to send bishops to America, to administer the Anglican church and interfere with other Protestant churches, sent Americans into an ecumenical rage. Adams said that no issue was more important in making common people question the authority of Parliament than the controversy over American bishops.

As he explained, "The objection was not merely to the office of a bishop, even though that was to be dreaded, but to the authority of Parliament, on which it could be founded." If Parliament had the authority to appoint a bishop for America, Parliament would also have the authority to "introduce the whole hierarchy, establish tithes, forbid marriages and funerals, establish religions, forbid dissenters, make schism heresy…" Americans who favored the appointment of a bishop for America promised that this official would exercise power only on spiritual matters, not temporal ones. But the promise had little credibility, because bishops in England exercised extensive temporal power and were plainly agents of the government.

On May 23, 1766, Mayhew celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act by preaching a sermon ("The Snare Broken. A Thanksgiving Discourse Preached at the Desire of the West Church in Boston") that recalled American fears that Stamp Act revenues were "partly intended to maintain a standing army of bishops, and other ecclesiastics." Fear of oppressive standing armies was part of the right-to-bear-arms ideology, and would eventually become one of the ideological foundations of the Second Amendment. Mayhew borrowed the proto-Second Amendment philosophy to make a point about freedom of religion that would later become part of the First Amendment: a government-controlled corps of bishops and their minions could trample the freedom of the people, just as a government-controlled corps of professional soldiers could. A standing army of soldiers and a standing army of bishops threatened liberty in the same way, by centralizing and monopolizing power.

"The Snare Broken" is one of many examples of the way in which pre-revolutionary Americans identified connections between religious rights and other rights. It is not a coincidence that the constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion was placed adjacent to the constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms.

In gratitude for repeal of the Stamp Act, Mayhew praised King George and extolled William Pitt, the British Prime Minister who had urged a policy of moderation and conciliation with America. He warned, however, that Americans would always need to be vigilant about their liberties, for "Power is of a grasping, encroaching nature…Power aims at extending itself, and operating according to mere will, where-ever it meets with no balance, check, controul, or opposition of any kind." Americans must "oppose the first encroachments" on liberty, because "after a while, it will be too late." He reminded his congregation of Jesus' parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like to a man that soweth good seed, but while he slept, his enemy cometh, and soweth tares among the wheat" (Matthew 13: 24-25). Because the man had slept, it was impossible to uproot the tares without also uprooting the wheat.

To Mayhew, it was obvious that the kingdom of heaven was a kingdom of rights and liberty. He recalled that in his youth he had studied Plato, Demosthenes, Cicero, and other ancients, and among the moderns, had liked Algernon Sidney, John Milton, and John Locke, all advocates of individual freedom. The Bible taught Mayhew that the Israelites angered God when they asked for a king, and that "the Son of God came down from heaven, to make us 'free indeed'." Mayhew's own father taught him "the love of liberty" with "a chaste and virtuous passion." In middle age, he was proud to say that he was unable "to relinquish the fair object of my youthful affections, liberty; whose charms, instead of decaying with time in my eyes, have daily captivated me more and more."

Mayhew had grieved at the promulgation of the Stamp Act, when liberty "seemed about to take her final departure from America, and to leave that ugly hag slavery, the deformed child of Satan, in her room." Now, however, he was "filled with a proportionable degree of joy in God, on occasion of her speedy return, with new smiles on her face, with augmented beauty and splendor. Once more then, Hail! Celestial maid, the daughter of God, and, excepting his Son, the first-born of heaven!" Liberty was "the delight of the wise, good and brave; the protectress of innocence from wrongs and oppression, the patroness of learning, arts, eloquence, virtue, rational loyalty, religion!"

Mayhew's scripturally-influenced view of history was optimistic. Although the Stamp Act had been dreadful, "God often bringeth good out of evil," just as Joseph's enslavement in Egypt led to his rescue of his family. American liberties were like an oak tree that grows stronger roots and broader branches after being buffeted by "storms and tempests." "And who knows," he said, "our liberties being thus established, but that on some future occasion, when the kingdoms of the earth are moved, and roughly dashed one against another…we, or our posterity may even have the great felicity and honor to 'save much people alive' and keep Britain herself from ruin."

"The Snare Broken" was Mayhew's last great sermon. He died six weeks later, at the age of 46, an inspired and devoted servant of Liberty.

Further reading:

Alice M. Baldwin, "The New England Clergy and the American Revolution," 1928 (New York: Ungar, 1958).

Nathan O. Hatch, "The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

Jonathan Mayhew, "Sermons," ed. Edwin S. Gaustad (New York: Arno Press, 1969).

Jonathan Mayhew, "A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission . . ."

Jonathan Mayhew, "The Snare Broken," Ellis Sandoz, ed., "Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805"(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991).

Harry S. Stout, "The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

David B. Kopel is Research Director of the Independence Institute, in Golden, Colorado. His website is

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