Colonial Submission and Resistance to Higher Powers

Jonathan Mayhew of Massachusetts on January 30, 1750 published a sermon called: Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers with Some Reflections on the Resistance Made to King Charles I. The American colonies were abuzz with discord and debate against mother England for her oppressive rule. Mayhew's sermon text was taken from Romans 13:1, in which he said, “It is the duty of Christian magistrates to inform themselves what it is which their religion teaches concerning the nature and design of their office. And it is equally the duty of all Christian people to inform themselves what it is which their religion teaches concerning that subjection which they owe to the higher powers.”
In expounding the passage, he continued, “Since, therefore, magistracy is the ordinance of God, and since rulers are by their office benefactors to society, by discouraging what is bad and encouraging what is good, and so preserving peace and order amongst men, it is evident that ye ought to pay a willing subjection to them…Ye are under an indispensable obligation, as Christians, to honor their office, and to submit to them in the execution of it…And here is a plain reason also why ye should pay tribute to them, - for they are God’s ministers, exalted above the common level of mankind, - not that they may indulge themselves in softness and luxury, and be entitled to the servile homage of their fellow-men, but that they may execute an office no less laborious than honorable, and attend continually upon the public welfare.”
Mayhew, a Tory, went on to stress that civil disobedience to appointed rulers was not merely a political sin, but a heinous offense against God and religion. Obedience was required under all forms of government, which has been instituted for the good of society. The question Mayhew then asked was this, “To what extent is that subjection.”  Some have said disobedience is authorized under certain conditions, such as great oppression when humble remonstrance fails to have beneficial effect; and when the public welfare cannot be otherwise provided for and secured because of tyranny.  Others have said that Scripture in general and the Romans 13 passage in particular makes all resistance to princes a crime.
Colonial America at the time had debates over the meaning of Romans 13. The “argument by comparison” that some colonials presented in order to prove that blind obedience to government statutes and sovereign rule is not biblical stated the following reasons:
(1)    If Scripture commands children, wives, servants to obey, it is not in total submission, but in accordance with the principles of God.  Obedience is never blind, but in concurrence with the Word of God.
(2)    Servants are told to render good service to the Lord, and not to men (Eph. 6:7) and masters are to do likewise and to give up threatening their servants (Eph. 6:9). Civil magistrates and kings are masters and are to rule for the Lord, especially if they claim Christianity. Violating scriptural principles leaves them open to correction.
(3)    The apostle Paul never intended to teach children, servants, and wives to blindly submit in all cases.  Although Eph. 5:24 tells wives to submit in everything, Paul did not intend for them to break commandments in so submitting. If this argument could be made in the case of family authority, then it should also apply in the case of governmental authority.
Mayhew also commented on absolute statements, “The use of absolute expressions is no proof that obedience to civil rulers is in all cases a duty, or resistance in all cases a sin.  I should not have thought it worthwhile to take any notice at all of this argument, had it not been much insisted upon by some of the advocates for passive obedience and non-resistance; for it is in itself perfectly trifling, and rendered considerable only by the stress that has been laid up it for want of better.”
Other colonials offered what was called an “argument in opposition” to complete subjection to the British authorities. They qualified the directive of Peter to submit to every ordinance (1 Peter 2:13) by saying that if the statement was an unequivocal decree, then the same could be said of wives submitting to their husbands in everything (Eph. 5:24). Submission, however, is qualified by submitting as to the Lord. Peter in the next verse says that the reason governors are sent by the king is for punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right (1 Peter 2:14).  This qualification puts a restriction on “every ordinance.”  Submission must be consistent with the ordinances of God.  Obedience and non-resistance therefore is not an absolute duty of a citizen.
The rulers of whom Peter speaks are rulers whose laws and enactments benefit society. They deserve the complete submission of the people. Therefore, Peter says to act as freemen, and not to use freedom to cover evil. Freedom suggests that the people live under a beneficent ruler who has the common good in mind. Mayhew compared a worthless preacher to a worthless magistrate.  “Suppose,” he says, “that the preacher doesn’t do anything, but demands thousands per annum, should he not be told plainly that he is low-esteemed and will not be given the just reward of a faithful minister of the gospel? Should he not be removed?  In like fashion, a civil magistrate who performs counter to the design of his office in that he is injuring and oppressing his subjects when he should be defending their rights and doing them good should not be honored, obeyed, and rewarded.”  He then confirmed that Paul’s exhortation to submit to leaders was “built wholly upon the supposition that they do, in fact, perform the duty of rulers.”
Mayhew reasoned that it was blasphemy to call tyrants the ministers of God.  Whether they know it or not, they are appointed to their position by God and therefore rule under His hands.  God may use magistrates as an instrument of judgment, but to say that the evil ones sit as God’s ruler for evil is to say God is the creator of evil. “Rulers have no authority to do mischief,” he declared. If rulers do evil, they are serving the devil and not pleasing God.  To interpret Paul as saying that resisting authority opposes the ordinance of God, bringing condemnation on oneself (Rom. 13:2) was akin to saying that serving the Devil is what God wants when the rulers are evil.
Mayhew asked, “Is resisting those who resist God’s will the same thing with resisting God?”  The qualification comes in verse 3 of Romans 13 in which Paul says that “rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.”  The inference is that the rulers are fair and just and are serving the common good, thereby serving God. Verse 4 says that the magistrate is a minister of God for good.  If he is doing evil, he is not God’s minister, but Satan’s.  God may still be sovereign and in control, but a distinction must be made between the evil ruler pleasing Satan and the good ruler pleasing God.  To submit to evil would be serving Satan.  So submission is not absolute, but rather conditional. Submission is first to the Lord and secondarily to those appointed as our rulers.
Much of the American pulpit prior to the American Revolution was known as the "Black Regiment" because while draped in black, they preached their congregations to resist the tyranny of King George. They were a formidable cadre of  men preparing their sheep for the struggle that lay ahead.