Romans 13 and the American Revolution

People have mistakenly linked democracy and political freedom to Christianity. That’s why many contemporary evangelicals believe the American Revolution was completely justified, both politically and scripturally. They follow the arguments of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are Divinely endowed rights. . . . But such a position is contrary to the clear teachings and commands of Romans 13:1-7. So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the Founding Fathers.1

    Was the American Revolution an act of sin? Was it in clear violation of Romans13? Did the founders ignore the clear teaching of scripture and create a brand new understanding of it? John MacArthur and a host of others have criticized the American Revolution as being in violation of scripture. They have claimed that the founding fathers had no clear biblical data to stand upon and thus were mainly influenced by the enlightenment and deist material. The founding fathers are accused of at least ignoring scripture and at worst with changing it so suite their fancy. But what if this was not the case? What if the founding fathers were standing on the shoulders of theologians from the protestant reformation? What if the principles that gave birth to the American Revolution were not in themselves new but were the result of careful exegesis of Romans 13? The truth is that the founding fathers were not in violation of Romans 13 and neither were they ignorant or creative with scripture. The American Revolution was influenced by a theological understanding of Romans 13 developed during the protestant reformation.

In 1579, a Huguenot author going under the pseudonym of “Stephen Junius Brutus wrote a tract called Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos or in English The Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants. The Huguenots were French Calvinists who by the end of the 17th Century fled France because of persecution at the hand of the Roman Catholic Church. In the wake of a targeted group of assassinations in 1572 that would be eventually called the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Stephen Junius Brutus wrote this tract that would later influence the writings of John Locke and eventually the American Revolution. In Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Brutus would seek to establish the responsibility of the People to the King and the King to the People. Brutus asks and answers four questions :

1. Whether Subjects are bound and ought to obey princes if they command that

which is against the law of God?

2. Whether it is lawful to resist a prince who infringes the Law of God to ruin the


3. Whether it is lawful to resist a Prince who oppresses or ruins a public state?

4. Whether foreign princes can support an uprising against a King?2

Using scripture as his support, Brutus had much to say about the role of government and the king. Brutus wanted to be faithful to scripture and to biblical teaching throughout his writing. It was important to him to show where Kings derived their power. He first establishes that God reigns supreme by God’s own power and nature. It is through this power that God gives Kings their authority.

First, the Holy Scripture doth teach, that God reigns by his own proper authority, and kings by derivation, God from himself, kings from God, that God hath a jurisdiction proper, kings are his delegates. It follows then, that the jurisdiction of God hath no limits, that of kings bounded, that the power of God is infinite, that of kings confined, that the kingdom of God extends itself to all places, that of kings is restrained within the confines of certain countries.3

Working through the Old Testament, Brutus shows that the biblical Kings were not established by their own power but “that Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord, or on the throne of the Lord’s kingdom.”4 Brutus also points out that even pagan kings receive their authority from God.

But what shall we say of the heathen kings? Certainly although they be not anointed and sacred of God, yet be they His vassals and have received their power from Him, whether they be chosen by lot or any other means whatsoever. If they have been chosen by the voices of an assembly, we say that God governs the heart of man, and addresses the minds and intentions of all persons whither he pleases.5

While kings receive their authority from God, Brutus also writes that the authority comes from God through the people to the king.

We have shewed before that it is God that does appoint kings, who chooses them, who gives the kingdom to them: now we say that the people establish kings, puts the scepter into their hands, and who with their suffrages, approves the election. God would have it done in this manner, to the end that the kings should acknowledge, that after God they hold their power and sovereignty from the people, and that it might the rather induce them, to apply and address the utmost of their care and thoughts for the profit of the people. . . .6

 The kings were given for the good of the people and not people given for the good of the king. Brutus was contending against the idea that the people exist to further the king’s wishes and desires. Once again going through the historical record in the bible, Brutus points to specific accounts that prove this idea. “Then by the consent of all the people Saul was declared king.”7 It was with the consent of the people and by the authority of God that each of the kings through the biblical record were appointed. It was only by the people’s call that God gave the nation of Israel a king. “Briefly, for so much as none were ever born with crowns on their heads, and scepters in their hands, and that no man can be a king by himself, nor reign without people, whereas on the contrary, the people may subsist of themselves, and were, long before they had any kings, it must of necessity follow, that kings were at the first constituted by the people.”8

After showing that kings receive their power from God through the people, Brutus sets out to describe the purpose for which a king exists. He points out the responsibility that a king has when he says, “the only duty of kings and emperors is to provide for the people’s good. The kingly dignity to speak properly, is not a title of honour, but a weighty and burdensome office.”9 The king then exists to provide for the public good which is to provide for the defense of the nation and for the exercise of justice within. This is shown in the way in which the Israelites asked God for a king.

Now, when the people of God began to be a-weary of the injustice of the sons of Samuel, on whose old age they dare no longer rely, they demanded a king after the manner of other people, saying to Samuel, “Give us a king as other people have, that he may judge us.” There is touched the first and principal point of the duty of a king, a little after they are both mentioned. “We will have” (said they) “a king over us like other nations. Our king shall judge us, and go in and out before us, and lead our armies.To do justice is always set in the first place, for so much as it is an ordinary and perpetual thing; but wars are extraordinary, and happen as it were casually.10

 Brutus quotes Paul, “The prince is ordained by God, for the good and profit of the people, being armed with the sword to defend the good from the violence of the wicked, and when he discharges his duty therein, all men owe him honour and obedience.”11 Brutus also quotes from Augustine to further demonstrate the purpose of the king.

Let us then conclude, that they are established in this place to maintain by justice, and to defend by force of arms, both the public state, and particular persons from all damages and outrages, wherefore Saint Augustine said, “Those are properly called lords and masters who provide for the good and profit of others, as the husband for the wife, fathers for their children.”12

 Finally, Brutus argues that not only are kings given their power from God through the people for a specific purpose but that the king is also beholden to follow the law.

These may be sufficiently verified by examples. Before there was a king in Israel, God by Moses prescribed to him both sacred and civil ordinances, which he should have perpetually before his eyes; but after that Saul was elected and established by the people, Samuel delivered it to him written, to the end, he might carefully observe it; neither were the succeeding kings received before they had sworn to keep those ordinances.13

Brutus there introduces into his logic the theology of covenants. Kings have sworn a covenant with the people to enforce and obey the law.

After that Saul was established king, the royal law was given him, according to which he ought to govern. David made a covenant in Hebron before the Lord, that is to say, taking God for witness, with all the ancients of Israel, who represented the whole body of the people, and even then he was made king. Joas also by the mouth of Johoiada the high priest, entered into covenant with the whole people of the land in the house of the Lord. And when the crown was set on his head, together with it was the law of the testimony put into his hand, which most expounds to be the law of God; likewise Josias promises to observe and keep the commandments, testimonies, and statutes comprised in the book of the covenant: under which words are contained all which belongs to the duties both of the first and second table of the law of God.14

 Now that Brutus has shown the purpose for which the king exists, he goes about answering his four questions. First, are Christians bound to follow a king who demands that they violate the laws of God? This question is the easiest to answer. He first says that, “Christians have endured so many afflictions, but that they were always persuaded that God must be obeyed simply and absolutely, and kings with this exception, that they command not that which is repugnant to the law of God.”15 A Christian’s duty is first and foremost to God, thus unlimited obedience applies only to God. Obedience to kings then is dependent upon the commands of God. Brutus points to the book of Acts when the apostles defied the commands of men when they were told they could not share the gospel.

After the coming of Jesus Christ, it being forbidden the apostles to preach the gospel, Judge ye (said they), whether it be reasonable as in the sight of God to obey men, rather than God; according to this, the apostles, not regarding either the intendments or designs of the greatness of the world, addressed themselves readily to do that which their master, Jesus Christ, had commanded them.16

 Once again it is cut and dry that,

if God calls us on the one side to enroll us in His service, and the king on the other, is any man so void of reason that he will not say we must leave the king, and apply ourselves to God’s service: so far be it from us to believe, that we are bound to obey a king, commanding anything contrary to the law of God, that, contrarily, in obeying him we become rebels to God.17

 The second question is similar to the first and answered in a similar manner. The question is if it be lawful to resist a prince violating the law of God? On the surface it may seem like the same question as the first but the difference is between not obeying and resisting. He first informs the reader that “If then Saul, although he were a king, ought to obey God, it follows in all good consequence that subjects are not bound to obey their king by offending of God.”18 He again reminds that the authority of kings comes from God through the people. So if the king begins to violate the law of God then it is the people who are responsible to check the king. “But who may punish the king (for here is question of corporal and temporal punishment) if it be not the whole body of the people to whom the king swears and obliges himself, no more nor less, than the people do to the king?”19 Who are the “people” and who is authorized to check the king? Brutus does not answer here but will answer that question fully in the next section.

Having first answered in the affirmative that subjects may disobey the king when he gives ungodly commands, Brutus now turns his attention to the pressing question of tyrants. Is it lawful to resist a prince who oppresses the people? Brutus reminds the reader again that the king receives his authority from God through the people and is beholden to the law. The king then is not above the law that he should abuse his powers or his people.

Let us then reject these detestable, faithless, and impious vanities of the court-marmosites, which make kings gods, and receive their sayings as oracles; and which is worse, are so shameless to persuade kings that nothing is just or equitable of itself, but takes its true form of justice or injustice, according as it pleases the king to ordain: as if he were some god, which could never err nor sin at all. Certainly, all that which God wills is just, and therefore, suppose it is God’s will; but that must be just with the king’s will, before it is his will. For it is not just because the king has appointed it; but that king is just, which appoints that to be held for just, which is so of itself.20

 Going against the conventional thought of the day, Brutus shows that kings were not divine nor served by some kind of divine right that made their will the supreme law. God’s will is always just and always the supreme law. If God declares something to be just it is just. The king on the other hand must look to the law and find that which is just. The king therefore is beholden to the law. “For, if the welfare of the kingdom depends on the observation of the laws, and the laws are enthralled to the pleasure of one man, is it not most certain, that there can be no permanent stability in that government?”21 The law then is not dependent upon one’s man will. Therefor, the king then is not the sole maker of laws but is the enforcer of laws. Continuing with the purpose of the king, Brutus declares:

that the prince is but as the minister and executor of the law, and may only unsheathe the sword against those whom the law has condemned; and if he do otherwise, he is no more a king, but a tyrant; no longer a judge, but a malefactor, and instead of that honourable title of conservator, he shall be justly branded with that foul term of violator of the law and equity.22

 The king is only a king when he obeys the law and carries out his purpose which according to Romans 13 is to provide justice against evil. When the king disobeys the law, he is no longer king but a criminal to be punished.

But if a prince purposely ruin the commonwealth, if he presumptuously pervert and resist legal proceedings or lawful rights, if he make no reckoning of faith, covenants, justice nor piety, if he prosecute his subjects as enemies; briefly, if he express all or the chiefest of those wicked practices we have formerly spoken of; then we may certainly declare him a tyrant, who is as much an enemy both to God and men.23

 A tyrant then has no lawful claim to be obeyed because a tyrant has no lawful claim to authority.

Who should resist a tyrant then. The simple answer is “the people” however, Brutus is quick to define “the people.” First of all, it is not a private or particular individual.

Is it too a mere private person to present the bonnet to slaves, put arms into the hands of subjects, or to join battle with the prince, although he oppress the people with tyranny? No, certainly, the commonwealth was not given in charge to particular persons, considered one by one; but, on the contrary, particulars even as papists are recommended to the care of the principal officers and magistrates; and therefore they are not bound to defend the commonwealth, which cannot defend themselves. God nor the people have not put the sword into the hands of particular persons; therefore, if without commandment they draw the sword, they are seditious, although the cause seem never so just.24

 It is not up to lone individuals to resist a tyrant. Pointing to Jesus, Brutus says that Christ was obedient to a tyrant even unto death. “Saint Paul, teaching of the duty of particular Christian men, and not of magistrates, teaches that Nero must be obeyed.”25 This obedience that individuals have extends only as far as they are not commanded to disobey God.

Who then may then lawfully resist a tyrant then? It is the body of the people through their representatives who hold this responsibility. It is the other magistrates who have been called by the people.

 The body of the people must needs be the sovereign of those who represent it, which in some places are the electors, palatines, peers; in other, the assembly of the general estates. And, if the tyranny have gotten such sure footing, as there is no other means but force to remove him, then it is lawful for them to call the people to arms, to enroll and raise forces, and to employ the utmost of their power, and use against him all advantages and stratagems of war, as against the enemy of the commonwealth, and the disturber of the public peace.26

 It is up to the local authorities who also receive their authority from God through the people who must force the tyrant to obey the law. If there are no local authorities or representatives then the people are free to form representation. Brutus shows that in this case it is not individuals breaking Romans 13 but instead the Romans 13 command does not apply because in effect this is lawful government ie. the people versus unlawful government.

Finally, Brutus gives some good advice. He acknowledges that kings and leaders are people. People are prone to make mistakes and sin, therefore one mistake does not make a king a tyrant. He also teaches that it is wise to exhaust all available options before resorting to warfare. It is only when a long line of abuses follow that one can be sure they are dealing with a tyrant and not just a human prone to mistakes.

In Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, several principles can be extracted. First, that the king receives his authority from God through the people. This covenantal theory of government will play a huge role in the American Revolution. Another principle is that kings must follow the rule of law. Finally, it is the duty of the people through their representatives to resist tyrants. The principles developed from biblical exposition will be championed by the founders of the American Revolution but before then they will be reworked in John Locke’s Two Treatise On Government.

 The great question which in all ages has disturbed mankind, and brought on them the greatest part of those mischiefs which have ruined cities, depopulated countries, and disordered the peace of the world, has been, not whether there be power in the world, nor whence it came, but who should have it.27

 John Locke, an English theologian, philosopher and physician whose influence can be seen in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, published in 1689 a two piece essay on the nature of government and its beginnings. As mentioned in the quote above, although Locke wrote much about the origins of government, he was most concerned with who should have the power of government. Using the principles from Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Locke goes deeper into the origins of government.

The First Treatise is a sentence by sentence refutation of Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia, a work on the divine rights of Kings. Filmer like other loyalist authors of the time wrote to advance an idea that Kings were born with a divine right from God to rule. Filmer attempted to use scripture and in particular the account in Genesis to prove his point. John Locke, often considered a champion of the Enlightenment, was very much a theologian in The First Treatise concerned with the scriptural record of government and careful exegesis as shown in the first treatise. He was concerned that scripture not be misinterpreted as was done by Filmer. In The First Treatise, Locke lays out two important principles of sound exegesis. First, scripture should be read in a way that best agrees with the plain construction of the words, “indeed is best, for our author to be understood, which best serves to his purpose; but that truly may best be understood by any body else, which best agrees with the plain construction of the words, and arises from the obvious meaning of the place.”28 Second of all, one must be careful to not develop a doctrine based upon a small passage of scripture that may have different interpretations, “It is too much to build a doctrine of so mighty consequence upon so doubtful and obscure a place of scripture, which may be well, nay better, understood in a quite different sense, and so can be but an ill proof, being as doubtful as the thing to be proved by it; especially when there is nothing else in scripture or reason to be found, that favours or supports it.”29

With those two exegetical principles in place, Locke goes to work to show that Robert Filmer’s argue for the divine right of kings is built upon a faulty interpretation of scripture. Filmer as other supporters of the idea of divine right, taught that when God created Adam, God gave him the right to be Monarch over all other humans that would exist. Filmer cites Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” as proof for an individual mandate to Adam from God. This passage of scripture often called the cultural or dominion mandate is then used by Filmer to show that Adam was first in the line of Kings who pass down by their blood a divine right to rule. Accordingly, all other men are never born free but are by nature subjects. “Men are not born free, and therefore could never have the liberty to choose either governors, or forms of government. Princes have their power absolute, and by divine right; for slaves could never have a right to compact or consent. Adam was an absolute monarch, and so are all princes ever since.”30 Locke however will not stand for such a faulty interpretation of scripture that would apply the cultural mandate to only one person.

First, It is false, that God made that grant to Adam, as soon as he was created, since, tho’ it stands in the text immediately after his creation, yet it is plain it could not be spoken to Adam, till after Eve was made and brought to him. . . In opposition therefore to our author’s doctrine, that Adam was monarch of the whole world, founded on this place, I shall shew, 1. That by this grant, i. Gen. 28. God gave no immediate power to Adam over men, over his children, over those of his own species; and so he was not made ruler, or monarch, by this charter. 2. That by this grant God gave him not private dominion over the inferior creatures, but right in common with all mankind; so neither was he monarch, upon the account of the property here given him.31

 The mandate therefor is not given to Adam solely but is for all humans. The importance of this mandate being held in common is that it shows that all people are created in an equal state of freedom, that all people are given the command to pursue dominion over the earth, and that all people have the freedom to pursue property.

Continuing with the common mandate, God has given man the things required for man’s preservation and has given man the “right to make use of those (things), which by his reason or senses he could discover would be serviceable thereunto. And thus man’s property. . . was founded upon the right he had to make use of those things that were necessary or useful to his being.”32 The right to personal property then is bound up in God’s gift to man for man’s self-preservation. Locke laying the foundation for the right to property begins to channel Stephen Julius Brutus on the role of government.

Property, whose original is from the right a man has to use any of the inferior creatures, for the subsistence and comfort of his life, is for the benefit and sole advantage of the proprietor, so that he may even destroy the thing, that he has property in by his use of it, where need requires: but government being for the preservation of every man’s right and property, by preserving him from the violence or injury of others, is for the good of the governed: for the magistrate’s sword being for a terror to evil doers, and by that terror to inforce men to observe the positive laws of the society, made conformable to the laws of nature, for the public good, i. e. the good of every particular member of that society, as far as by common rules it can be provided for; the sword is not given the magistrate for his own good alone.33

 Locke agreeing with Brutus says that government is given not for the good of the governors but for the good of the people.

Locke having laid waste to Filmer’s argument that some men are just born with the natural right to rule others, sets his sights on discovering who then has the right to govern. Locke thus begins his second treatise with an explanation of man in his natural state, as he would be before the formation of governments. It is in this natural state that Locke finds the rights of man given to them by God. Man naturally was free to provide for himself and his family. This natural man was meant to follow the natural law that God had implanted in them.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s.34

Before Locke can be accused of having too high a regard for man, Lock understood the depravity of man. Locke with the reformed view of depravity writes that man is also given the right to protect himself from others who will do harm. Pointing to the bible, Locke uses the story of Cain to prove this point. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. And Cain was so fully convinced, that every one had a right to destroy such a criminal, that after the murder of his brother, he cries out, Every one that findeth me, shall slay me; so plain was it writ in the hearts of all mankind.”35 Locke then says that anyone who designs to take away these natural rights from someone has begun to wage war against them.

It is for the protection of their rights that men entered into societies. “To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature.”36 Man then creates governments to not take away freedom but to preserve it. This is the foundation of government and is the reason why God has given government the sword.

So that, however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law: but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: (for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?) but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.37

 This definition of liberty will be the definition of liberty that the American revolutionaries will fight for.

Locke having laid the foundation for government, stresses over again that government exists to protect the property and liberty of those it governs. Locke also says that government only works by the consent of those it governs. He once again seems to be repeating Brutus’ appeals that government receives its authority from God through the people. “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”38 There are several principles for government that Locke wants to be made known. First, no one in a civil society is above or immune to the rule of law. Second, government does not exist to arbitrarily rule over those under it. Third, that men did not create government just so that government could take away their rights and property. Fourthly, those who have been given the position to govern can not just arbitrarily give that authority to others. Because the people have given their consent to the government, the people also owe allegiance to it when it is fulfilling its God-given role.

After having shown that man owes allegiance to a lawful government, Locke takes on the mantel of Brutus to show that man owes no allegiance to an unlawful ruler.

Allegiance being nothing but an obedience according to law, which when he violates, he has no right to obedience, nor can claim it otherwise than as the public person vested with the power of the law, and so is to be considered as the image, phantom, or representative of the common-wealth, acted by the will of the society, declared in its laws; and thus he has no will, no power, but that of the law. But when he quits this representation, this public will, and acts by his own private will, he degrades himself, and is but a single private person without power, and without will, that has any right to obedience; the members owing no obedience but to the public will of the society.39

 This principle is of the utmost importance. When a ruler has disregard for the law and begins to act contrary to the purpose of government, that person is no longer to be considered a ruler. Therefor, allegiance is no longer required for that person. In fact, that person has placed himself in a state of war against the people.

How then should citizens react to tyrants. The people should appeal to God who will then help them unite to shake off the shackles of an unlawful ruler. Like Brutus wrote, private individuals do not have this right but the lawful representatives of the people do. The people have the right to make sure that its government abides by the law. In this way, the people through their elected representation (whether chosen by God or by vote) act as a check on the power of government. The relationship between people and government is a two-way relationship. The government checks that the people are obedient to the law and the people check that those that govern are also obedient to the law.

Finally, Locke again like Brutus reminds people that rulers are human and that the bonds of society should never be broken lightly. The people must be sure that they are not rebelling against Godly authority.

But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected.40

 Locke through his Two Treatise On Government attempted then to elaborate on the principles established early by Brutus. The first principle is that the power of rulers comes from God through the people for the protection of liberty and property. Man freely entered into societies to preserve himself from those who would cause harm. Government therefore only exists to further the liberty of the people. The second principle is that man owes obedience to the law and lawful rulers. It is not scriptural for man to rebel against this lawful authority that God has set in place through the people. Lastly, when a ruler seeks to subvert the rule of law and begins to arbitrarily do for his own good instead of the good of the people, that person is no longer a lawful ruler. The unlawful ruler has no right to expect obedience because he has lost the right to rule and has set out to wage war against the people. This gives the people through their representatives a reason to defend themselves against a tyrant and to establish new rulers.

Armed with these principles from Brutus and Locke, the American founders set out to show that they were not in rebellion and in violation of Romans 13. Instead they were upholding Romans 13, while defending themselves against a tyrant. To prove that this was the reasoning of the founding fathers, four examples from that time period will be put forward. These four examples are in no way exhaustive of the theological or philosophical reasoning behind the American Revolution but instead offer a cross-section of different sources that were influenced by Brutus and Lock and also where influential in the American Revolution.

First, we will look at what may be considered the most influential philosophical document for the American Revolution, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Of all of the founding fathers, Thomas Paine is often considered the most hostile to Christianity. After writing Common Sense, Paine wrote Age of Reason in which he denies orthodox Christianity. Many of the founding fathers were upset with Paine including Samuel Adams who said, “[W]hen I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States.”41 But before turning against orthodox Christianity, Paine wrote Common Sense which shares a Christian worldview. In this pamphlet, the influence of Brutus and Locke’s theology can be seen.

Paine like Brutus and Locke works to show that in man’s natural state, man is free. Using the biblical record Paine shows that kings were first created by pagans and clamored for by the people of God. “In the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology, there were no kings; the consequence of which was, there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion.”42 Paine takes a harsher view of kings than both Brutus and Locke but he uses the same biblical references to show that kings were set up by God through the people at the request of the people.

Now three thousand years passed away from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases, where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts.43

 Paine also works to show that kings do not receive a right to rule by being born with a right to rule.

Paine then from a view-point that men are naturally free but also naturally evil, writes that government is a necessary evil itself to protect the freedom and property of others.

For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least.44

 As both Brutus and Locke before him, Paine is sure that government exists by the authority of God through the will of the people to protect their freedom. Thus the people stand as a check against the rulers. Therefor, the people also have the right to change the government when those that govern cease to do that which the government was created for. Paine explains that the first colonialists came to the new world to seek liberty and freedom from tyrannical government. This patience shown by leaving their own countries for a new world is now worn thin by someone who would claim to be king waging war against the colonialists by placing himself above the law. Therefor:

setting forth the miseries we have endured, and the peaceable methods we have ineffectually used for redress; declaring, at the same time, that not being able, any longer, to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the British court, we had been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her; at the same time, assuring all such courts of our peaceable disposition towards them, and of our desire of entering into trade with them.45

 Thomas Paine makes it clear then that first the colonialists were not rebelling against a lawful authority but were in fact defending themselves and finally separating from a tyrannical government. Therefore, Paine has shown that the colonialists were not in violation of Romans 13 but were following the theologically understanding of Brutus and Locke.

While Thomas Paine provided a philosophical extension to the theological arguments of Brutus and Lock, the second example will show a direct theological argument from the time of th American Revolution. One sermon that perhaps made the biggest impact was by the pastor of the West Church in Boston, Jonathan Mayhew entitled Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Power with some Reflections on the Resistance Made to King Charles I. The sermon delivered on January 30, 1749 was set to commemorate the anniversary of the death of King Charles who had been tried for high treason for attempting to subvert parliament and to declare himself absolute monarch by divine right. The sermon owing much to Brutus and Locke directly set out to answer the Romans 13 question. John Adams when president said of Dr. Mayhew that he was, “a clergy man equalled by very few of any denomination in piety, virtue, genius, or learning; whose works will maintain his character as long as New England shall be free, integrity esteemed, or wit, spirit, humor, reason, and knowledge admired.”46

Dr. Mayhew begins his sermon by saying that the affairs of government does fall under the authority of the bible. He acknowledges that “although there be a sense, and a very and important sense, in which Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, his inspired apostles have, nevertheless, aid down some general principles concerning the office of civil rulers, and the duty of subjects, together with the reason and obligation of that duty.”47 Mayhew’s sermon will then attempt to lay out these principles by examining Romans 13. He makes an observation about the text regarding the nature of the audience and the reason that Paul wrote the passage.

It is to be observed, then, that there were some persons amongst the Christians of the apostolic age, and particularly those at Rome, to whom St. Paul is here writing, who seditiously disclaimed all subjection to civil authority; refusing to pay taxes, and the duties laid upon their traffic and merchandise; and who scrupled not to speak of their rulers without any due regard to their office and character.48

 These converts from Paganism or Judaism mistook the liberty given to them by the gospel so that they were convinced that they were free from subjection to any civil power. It is to these people that Paul writes that they must be subject and pay taxes. God has ordained government to punish evil and protect property and therefore Christians are to be subject to these governments. If a Christian resists these lawful governments then he is guilty of resisting God.

Here the 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?49

 This is where like Brutus and Locke, Dr. Mayhew points to Romans 13 to find the purpose of government. It is to protect freedom and punish those who break the law. It is to better the society. Christians owe their allegiance to this government but when those that govern do not live up to their purpose they cease to be rightful governors. The people are not required to submit to an unlawful authority.

Like Brutus and Locke before him, Dr. Mayhew says that it is not the duty of the private individual to resist but instead this is left up to the people through their representatives.

But by whom was this resistance made? Not by a private junta;–not by a small seditious party;–not by a few desperadoes, who, to mend their fortunes, would embroil the state;–but by the LORDS and COMMONS of England. It was they that almost unanimously opposed the king’s measures for overturning the constitution, and changing that free and happy government into a wretched, absolute monarchy.50

 In this way, it is not a rebellion against a government, but one government checking itself. The people should also be careful not to resist too quickly because kings are people and will make mistakes. The people should endure mistakes to make every opportunity to live peacefully but when a king or governor has resorted to tyranny then the people have every right to defend themselves. It is only then that the people can be sure they are not in violation of Romans 13. Dr. Mayhew ends his sermon with a call to yield allegiance to lawful authorities and most importantly to Jesus.

For which reason I would exhort you to pay all due Regard to the government over us; to the King and all in authority; and to lead a quiet and peaceable life.–And while I am speaking of loyalty to our earthly Prince, suffer me just to put you in mind to be loyal also to the supreme ruler of the universe, by whom kings reign, and princes decree justice. To which king eternal immortal, invisible, even to the only wise God, be all honor and praise, dominion and thanksgiving, through Jesus Christ our LORD.51

 The third and fourth example, an autobiography of Thomas Jefferson and finally the Declaration of Independence, are so closely related that they will be discussed together. Both of these documents written by Jefferson show influence from the theological work by Brutus, Locke and Mayhew. In his autobiography, Jefferson gives some insight into the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the most important piece of writing during the American Revolution. In the autobiography, Jefferson is sure to make it known that the people behind the American Revolution were the lawful representatives of the people. Because they were the representatives of the people, they were the ones who had the lawful authority to act on the people’s behalf. They also worked hard to make sure that they were truly following the will of the people.

That the conduct we had formerly observed was wise and proper now, of deferring to take any capital step till the voice of the people drove us into it: That they were our power, and without them our declarations could not be carried into effect.52

 Jefferson here is echoing Brutus, Locke, and Mayhew. That the government exists to protect the liberty of the people. To the founders, they were sure that they were defending themselves against a tyrant and government that had decided to go outside its jurisdiction. The founders were of the understanding that they owed allegiance to the king but not to parliament because parliament did not have jurisdiction over them. Instead their own local representatives and legislatures had the right to govern them. When the king and parliament’s representatives begin dismissing the local legislatures of the colonies, the founders understood this as an act of war to place the colonialists under tyranny. When the king finally declared the colonies free from his protection, in all respects the colonialists were free from allegiance because the king was also now an unlawful ruler over them by the kings own decision.

That, as to the King, we had been bound to him by allegiance, but that this bond was now dissolved by his assent to the late act of parliament, by which he declares us out of his protection, and by his levying war on us, a fact which had long ago proved us out of his protection; it being a certain position in law, that allegiance and protection are reciprocal, the one ceasing when the other is withdrawn.53

 One thing that Jefferson makes abundantly clear in his autobiography a later in the declaration is that the colonialists have been patient not willing to separate the bonds of government lightly. In his autobiography he writes,

And that they may be the better informed of our sentiments, touching the conduct we wish them to observe on this important occasion, we desire that they will express, in the first place, our faith and true allegiance to his Majesty, King George the Third, our lawful and rightful sovereign; and that we are determined, with our lives and fortunes, to support him in the legal exercise of all his just rights and prerogatives. And, however misrepresented, we sincerely approve of a constitutional connection with Great Britain, and wish, most ardently, a return of that intercourse of affection and commercial connection, that formerly united both countries, which can only be effected by a removal of those causes of discontent, which have of late unhappily divided us.54

 The Declaration of Independence is the seminal document for the American Revolution. While Romans 13 is not stated in the document, the theological work of Brutus, Locke and others can be seen all over it. The principles developed by Brutus, Locke, and others can be summarized as: God made humans free. This freedom consists of the right to property. In order to protect that property, man joined together to form governments. God gave authority to governments through the people. The governments exist for the people and thus can be checked by the people. Godly authority should always be obeyed where as rulers who do not obey the law forfeit any authority they have. Individuals do not have the right to resist but the people as a whole through their representatives do. The people should not resist governments over small or light matters but should bear patiently until tyranny can be shown to exist. Using these principles the Declaration begins,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.55

 Right from the beginning, it uses the language of the laws of nature which Brutus and Lock use eloquently to describe the authority God has given to government through the people. Government exists for the people and to protect their rights, therefore it is beholden to the people. The founding fathers wanted to be sure that they were being true to God and thus the document serves more to show why they have chosen to separate than as a document that says they are separating.

The Declaration of Independence then goes on to show that the colonialists were not taking separating lightly but instead using almost the same wording of Brutus and Locke, they were enduring under many abuses.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.56

 The Declaration takes great pains to list the many abuses of power that the king had done. It was because of these abuses that the king had given up his right to be a lawful authority for the colonialists. Because the king no longer could be considered a lawful authority, the colonialists were not in violation of Romans 13 but instead were being obedient to it. They were one government checking the others encroachment. The founders never said they were in rebellion and in fact when out of the way to prove otherwise.

Walking through various theological and philosophical documents, this paper has shown that the American Revolution was not really a new understanding nor an ignorance of Romans 13. The founding fathers were not in violation of Romans 13 but instead had went to great pains to show that they were not in violation. They understood that government was given to men for man’s benefit. They understood that Romans 13 calls for Christians to be obedient to lawful rulers who complete the purpose that God had given government. They did not see a blind commitment to follow ever person who would claim authority but only to those authorities which were lawfully in place. The American Revolution was not a resistance of a lawful government but instead a defense against an unlawful person or persons claiming authority that it no longer had over them.

1John MacArthur, “The Christian’s Responsibility to Government, Part 1,” Grace To You, (accessed July 28, 2012).

2Junius Brutus, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (defense of Liberty Against Tyrants) (n.p.: Constitution Society, March 8, 2009), Amazon Kindle edition.

























27 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (n.p.: MacMay, June 19, 2009), Amazon Kindle edition.



30Ibid. This is Locke’s paraphrase of Filmer’s argument.











41William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1865), Vol. III, pp. 372-373,

42 Thomas Paine, Common Sense (n.p.: Amazon Digital Services, n.d.), pageNr., Amazon Kindle edition.




46 John Wingate Thorton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, or the Political Sermons of the Period of 1776, with a Historical Introduction, Notes, and Illustrations (n.p.: Amazon Digital Services, Inc, 2012), pageNr., Amazon Kindle edition






52 Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1 (n.p.: Thomas Jefferson Randolph, 1829), Amazon Kindle edition.



55 Thomas Jefferson “The Declaration of Independence,”, (accessed July 30, 2012).


4 thoughts on “Romans 13 and the American Revolution

  1. Interesting read. I just started a blog – check it out.

  2. Interesting, and you might find Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex helpful. We also have John Witherspoon, professor of theology at Princeton, and signer of the Declaration of Independence; he has been identified as the reason for some one saying that the King’s colonies had run off with a Presbyterian Parson. A friend of mine was a descendant of Elijah Craig, the Baptist minister who led the Committee of Virginia that met with the colonial legislators and made the agreement that in exchange for their freedom to practice their faith, the Baptist ministers would go back to their communities and encourage their young men to enlist in the Patriots Cause. In that they were a success. One whole regiment of the Virginia Militia had the last name of Craig. Likely some were my relatives and my Grandmother was a Craig.

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