Christianity and the Revolutionary War

by Esther Pavao

I was at Colonial Williamsburg last week with my family, and I asked my mom, 

"Do you think, if you lived in Colonial times, you would have been a Loyalist or a Patriot?"

"A patriot," she responded without hesitation. We had just completed a tour of the Governor's mansion and were wandering in the gardens.

"I wouldn't mind being the governor of the colony if I could live in this house," I'd said, only half jokingly.

"Yeah, but then you would have been a Tory," my sister pointed out.

"I probably would have been anyway," I said thoughtfully. "If you think about it, when the war started, the 'patriots' were actually 'rebels' and 'traitors.'" Which led me to ask my mom and all my siblings, "Patriot or Loyalist?"

I had never considered it before, but as the day wore on, the thought wouldn't leave me. I have studied our founding fathers and the American Revolution for years, but never considered which side of the war I would have been on.

Putting Things in a Historical Perspective

I sat down and considered. If President Obama, the current leader of our nation, sent our men into a war, and we won, but were severely in debt, wouldn't we consider it within his right to raise funds to pay off the war? Our nation's deficit is upwards of $18 trillion.[1] I, for one, would be okay paying a little more in taxes to reduce some of that debt. I'm sure our whole nation be upset over his raising the debt ceiling even further than it is now to pay for a war, but would we try to separate our nation from Washington D.C.? 

Some people might, but would I join them? Wouldn't I consider those people radicals, rebels, and even traitors? If import/export companies began smuggling their products into the country to avoid these taxes, wouldn't they be breaking the law? No matter how upset they were with our leader, would I condone their breaking the law? Would I condone them destroying a million dollars worth of merchandise? No matter how understanding I am of the tension in Missouri, I don't condone the violence and vandalism taking place in the name of Michael Brown.

And aside from my own feelings on the matter, many of the men who established this revolution were Christians. Or rather, they attended church regularly, read their bibles to their families, and tried to live their lives in an upstanding, moral way.[2]

What would Jesus' disciples (who have been granted the spiritual authority of Jesus)[3] have to say about the American Revolution?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7. NIV. Emphasis mine.)

That seems pretty clear to me, in regards to both respecting the authority of the King, the ruler of the colonies, and even mentions paying his taxes. Or, how about this?

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. ...  But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. (Titus 3:1-2 & 9-10. NIV. Emphasis mine.)

Need more?

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God's slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

   Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:13-21. NIV. Emphasis mine.)

Note here, that he specifically mentions harsh masters, not just kind ones. He calls their suffering unjust. For non-Christians, this means nothing. But for George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, there ought to have been pause before joining a Revolution that completely contradicted the religion they were part of.

And there's this:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2. NIV.)

Okay, praying for your authority figures isn't crazy. Nor is there anything to suggest that our Founding Fathers didn't pray for King George III before starting a full-fledged rebellion. I know for a fact they wrote several petitions for his attention before the war ever began. It was, in part, his lack of response that led to their actions.

There's more to it, you might think. It wasn't about the taxes; it was about an oppressive government.

That's fair. What about the oppression?

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. ... Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. (Romans 12:14-19. NIV.)

And, go back and look at the verse about harsh masters again.

Historical Relevance

Jefferson bible

Thomas Jefferson made his own bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, constructed by cutting and pasting parts of the New Testament (except for the miracles and "supernatural" bits, including the healings and resurrection).

In regard to this, C.S. Lewis argues that "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic ... or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice."

That's all very well, you might think, but these verses aren't historically relevant. They were written hundreds of years before the Revolutionary War was even conceived of, and to completely different people.

That is also a fair argument, but if you hear me out, I think you'll agree that these commands are not only applicable to our Christian founding fathers, but that their circumstances were far less harsh than their Christian forbearers.[4]

The letters I've quoted above were all written between 57 and 68 AD. The beginning of Christian persecution can be traced to the summer of 64 AD, where the culmination of tension between the Christians, the Jews, and the Pagans broke loose after a weeklong fire decimated parts of Rome. The Roman people blamed then-emperor Nero (see below).

Like all major historical events, there were many factors to consider, but, at the risk of dangerously generalizing whole religious groups, two major contributing factors are these: one, the Jews were threatened by this new religious offshoot, and two, the pagans were worried that the disrespect towards their gods would bring divine wrath upon them all.

"The growth of a bitter feeling of hostility between the Jews and the new Christian sect which had sprung up out of their midst was in this sixth decade of the first century becoming more accentuated. The men of the synagogues hated this new faith, which had for a number of years found shelter under the protection of the privileges accorded to Judaism, as a religio licita, throughout the empire, but which by its principle of universalism struck a blow at the very foundations of Judaic exclusiveness."[5]

This tension and mistrust towards the Christians made them an easy scapegoat for Nero. He arrested several leading Christians, and tortured them until they gave up the names of their compatriots.

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. ... Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.[6]

Washington in prayer

This image is from an event that did not technically take place, since Washington kept his faith a private matter. But he was a semi-regular attendee at several churches, both at home and when traveling.[7]

Other people happily carried on this persecution. Paul, the writer of most of these New Testament letters, took part in persecuting Christians before his own conversion. Afterwards, he was present at the crucifixion of Peter, was later imprisoned for active participation in the Christian faith, and stoned and left for dead. These were regular occurrences, as well as mobs and other acts of violence.

Ephesus (where the Timothy letters were sent and the home of the Ephesians) had a history of oppression and even having their taxes raised to obscene levels.[8] Still, Paul tells the Ephesians "pay your taxes and respect your leaders."

The persecution of the Early Church, in my opinion, far outweighs the inconveniences of the early Americans. Which leads me to conclude that the commands left for the early Christians are equally applicable to any Christian undergoing oppression.

These Letters Were Written By the Apostles, Not Jesus

There are a lot of excuses people use for overlooking or discounting certain biblical commands. I won't address all of them now, but the one I expect people would use to discredit the case I'm making is that the commands I'm referencing are made by the apostles, not Jesus, so they don't count.

I won't spend a lot of time on this one, except for this quote from one of the earliest pastors of a Christian church:

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ, therefore, was sent by God, and the apostles by Christ. [9]

(For more on Apostolic authority, see Christian-history.org by historian Paul Pavao, where there are more thorough references and research.)

When This Doesn't Apply

What about Hitler? He was in a position of authority, and supporting him isn't even an option. Here's my take on that. As Christians, we are not subject to the laws of this world. We are to obey the laws of our King and Master. When the laws of this world contradict the laws we have been given to obey, it is our Christian duty to disregard the laws of the land in favor of the laws of our King.  Take, for example, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3), who defied King Nebuchadnezzar's command to worship a false idol and were sentenced to death. God saved their lives, but they were willing to make their stand even if He did not.

"If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." (Daniel 3:17-18. NIV.)

The commands of King George III, while inconvenient, and even unfair, were not contrary to the laws of Heaven. He was not demanding the colonists break their religious vows nor do anything immoral or illegal.

Conclusion

So, given all of this, here is my conclusion: there is no reason that the Christian colonists should have taken part in the American Revolution. They not only took part in open rebellion against their King, but against their God.

The American Revolution, based on smuggling, refusal to pay taxes, and destruction of property, while ultimately successful, was not a Christian endeavor.

Don't get me wrong. I would never call America a Christian nation. Not all of the founding fathers were Christian, and thus not all were under obligation to obey the Bible. But if I had lived in the 18th century, I believe that I would have had to be a Loyalist, or be a total hypocrite in regards to my faith.

Sources:

  • Chernow, Ron. Washington, A Life. p. 131. Back.
  • Clement of Rome. 1 Clement. Par. 42. AD 95-96. Cited from Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Copyright 1993-2015 Harry Plantinga. Accessed August 26, 2015. Back.


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