Should Christians Have Fought in the U.S. War of Independence?

Research on Religion PodcastThat’s the question asked by political scientist Tony Gill on his podcast, Research on Religion, of three Christian scholars familiar with religion and politics in 18th century America: Gregg Frazer (The Master’s College), Jonathan Den Hartog (Northwestern College, MN), and Mark David Hall (George Fox University). More specifically, he asked each: “As a Christian in the American colonies, would you have picked up arms against King George in Britain to fight for independence following the battles at Lexington and Concord in April 1775?” Each was given twenty minutes and didn’t hear the others’ responses. Click here for Gill’s summary of the debate. (H/T Jonathan Rowe at American Creation)

Den Hartog, my opposite number at Bethel’s neighbor two miles down Snelling Ave., does historians proud as the designated “Yes,” not so much arguing his own personal opinion but seeking to help us empathize with the colonists as they experienced events in 1775. As Jonathan pointed out, the debate happened (not just in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, but in homes and pubs and churches) on a political level that was “previous to any type of biblical or scriptural engagement,” with the “Americans” trying to conserve traditional “English” rights (including religious liberties).

Pyle, Tory Refugees on the Way to Canada
Howard Pyle, “Tory Refugees on the Way to Canada” (1901) – Wikimedia

By the same token, of course, we ought to empathize with the large number of fellow colonists who pulled out their muskets and pointed them at the very Revolutionaries we’ll celebrate tomorrow. The cases of British dominions that later achieved autonomy without revolt come up in the other sections of the podcast, which reminded me (this will sound odd, but bear with me) of my honeymoon in Nova Scotia.

Not only did the colonies of English (and French) Canada refuse to join their thirteen southern neighbors  in rebellion (and suffered invasion as a result), but even before the British sued for peace, at least 20,000 American Loyalists relocated to Nova Scotia. Visiting one-time Loyalist settlements like Digby is like visiting a New England whose Minutemen never answered the call in 1775, with a very different vision of what it meant to be freeborn Englishmen being allowed to develop.

So, on an empathetic level, I tend to sympathize with Frazer’s “Definitively no” answer, though he appeals not to history or tradition but to Scripture: chief among other passages in the New Testament, Paul’s admonition not to rebel against secular authorities (Romans 13:1-2). I think Gill is right to push back on the nature of political authority at the time; Den Hartog notes that “self-government” was central to Patriot conceptions of British polity. (I’m also glad that Den Hartog — and Gill in his closing remarks — also took the conversation into the realm of just war theory, which I don’t recall coming up in the Frazer section.) And Hall not only offers a different read of Romans 13 (v 3 becoming very important), but stresses that the Reformation in Geneva and Scotland (and Hall points out that up to 75% of late 18th century Americans came from a Reformed background) offered Protestants a theological justification for rebellion.

But more important is Frazer’s point that it would take something far worse than the debatable tyranny of the British Crown and Parliament (Den Hartog and Hall help explain why some colonists might have viewed even small tax hikes as tyrannical) to release Christians from their obligation to obey the powers that be. And even in such a case (Gill, as I would have, asked Frazer about Hitler), the disobedience could not take the form of rebellion. Frazer argued that Christians should disobey (“robustly”) human laws contrary to the law of God, but then accept the punishment they would likely suffer from the unjust, but untoppled authority.

John Locke
John Locke (1632-1704)

This was the case I presented several times last year to students in Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture course, where students not only encountered Martin Luther’s opposition to the Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, but Thomas Aquinas suggesting (in Summa Theologica) that Christians might need to obey unjust laws if disobedience would cause “scandal or disturbance.” As we reached the Glorious Revolution, our proudly American students had to struggle with John Locke — who could justify rebellion by Christians (not that he did so on scriptural or theological grounds) because he saw governments as created by social contract rather than ordained by God. On their semester-ending essays, several students confessed themselves increasingly uneasy with a view of individual liberty that was so high as to perhaps require its protection by taking up arms against existing authorities.

One quibble with the podcast (which was wide-ranging as it was): there was no pacifist voice. After Gill suggested that Frazer was articulating such a position, Frazer clarified that there’s a difference between opposing warfare and opposing rebellion. Unhelpfully, Gill persisted in calling Frazer’s a “pacifist response to tyranny” in his closing remarks, but none of the commentators dismissed the possibility of Christians fighting for a just cause, with right intention, as a last resort, under proper authority, etc. Nor (unless I missed something — please let me know if I did!) was there discussion of the responses to the events of 1775 by Mennonites, Quakers, Moravians, et al.

Still, it was a fascinating, nuanced conversation, one well worth hearing as this country prepares to celebrate its Independence.

5 thoughts on “Should Christians Have Fought in the U.S. War of Independence?

  1. Hi, Chris,

    Thanks for the re-post. I do think the interview format turned out well.

    Good points throughout, but the final question you raise is interesting. My sense is that Quakers, because they had a long-standing and recognized commitment to pacifism were grudgingly left along and could therefore interact with both sides. Americans celebrated the Quakers who sided with them, especially Nathaniel Green, the “Fighting Quaker.”

    By contrast, Moravians fared less well, and their Indian missions suffered under the political controversy.

    Despite these witnesses, most Americans continued an establishment mentality, whether in Anglican, Congregationalist, or Presbyterian variety. As a result, although pacifist voices were present, few American Christians took them seriously.

    1. Thanks for the follow-up, Jonathan! It’s a small piece of the story, but an interesting one — I’m especially curious about the Brethren groups influenced by the Otterbein-Boehm movement, since it was happening concurrent with the events leading up to and following the beginning of the revolution.

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