Lost Episode for January 30

On January 30, 1750, Jonathan Mayhew delivered a sermon titled “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers” based on Romans 13:1-7, which was printed, bound, and widely distributed. In this seminal message that caused John Adams to remark that it helped spark the Revolution, Mayhew declared:

“It is evident that the affairs of civil government may properly fall under a moral and religious consideration…

The apostle enters upon his subject thus: ‘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.’ Here he urges the duty of obedience from this topic of argument that civil rulers as they are supposed to fulfill the pleasure of God are the ordinance of God. But how is this an argument for obedience to such rulers as do not perform the pleasure of God by doing good but the pleasure of the devil by doing evil, and such as are not therefore God’s ministers but the devil’s?…

[T]he apostle argues that those who resist a reasonable and just authority, which is agreeable to the will of God, do really resist the will of God himself and will therefore be punished by him. But how does this prove that those who resist a lawless unreasonable power, which is contrary to the will of God, do therein resist the will and ordinance of God? Is resisting those who resist God’s will the same thing with resisting God?…

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.”

Though Jonathan Mayhew was a well known theological liberal, his biblical arguments for resisting an unrighteous authority swayed the opinions of many in the colonies and laid the groundwork for resistance to British tyranny. Mayhew’s influential sermon is another lost episode in American history.

*Source Citation: John Wingate Thornton, ed., The Pulpit of the American Revolution: or, The Political Sermons of the Period 1776, with a Historical Introduction, Notes and Illustrations (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1860), 53-78.

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