Justifying Revolution

Gary L. Steward, Justifying Revolution: The American Clergy’s Argument for Political Resistance, 1750-1776(New York, NY; Oxford University Press, 2021), 232 pages, Hardcover. $74

The subject of submission and resistance to political authorities is an evergreen issue. No matter where one stands on the political spectrum today, it seems that someone on "their side" is subtly (or not so subtly) calling for political resistance. I for one hope that America will never again find itself embroiled in a revolution, but I do hear whispers from others who yearn for it on some level — even those who come from a Christian perspective.

To what extent must Christians submit to those in authority? There are few periods in history that strained and struggled over this question more than the years 1750–1776 in the American colonies.

Gary L. Steward's Justifying Revolution is intended as an overview of the arguments for resistance from colonial clergy in the mid-1700s. Steward is convinced that American clergy have been misunderstood as setting aside their Christian and biblical convictions in place of a convenient series of loose justifications that were more in keeping with John Locke than with the Apostle Paul. As Steward puts it,

“This work discusses the arguments used by the American patriot clergy to justify and promote political resistance to the British in the long build-up toward American independence…The overall argument of this book is that the patriot clergy justified political resistance in continuity with the long-standing tradition of Protestant resistance activities and arguments asserted by their theological predecessors on both sides of The Atlantic…[they] did so in ways that were consistent with their own theological tradition” (2).

In arguing this thesis, Steward seems to be primarily engaging with those such as Mark Noll, Gregg Frazer, and George Marsden, who see the American Revolution seemingly as a triumph of the enlightenment over the biblical thinking that would have been the prior status quo in England.

Steward demonstrates that resistance thought not only had a long history in continental Europe, but even in England itself, going back at least to the execution of Charles I. This episode in English history required British clergy to reckon with how one can submit to a king, and if so, to what extent. For some, there is no end to the submission owed (the “absolutist” position). That stream of thought was championed by those such as King James I who argued for a type of submission called passive resistance. For James, if a king gave an unbiblical command, it was acceptable to refuse to obey, but not to actively work to overturn the ruler. This school of thought persisted at least from the time of James up until and beyond the American Revolution. For many, this was the default approach one was to take to the ruler. Yet even before the American Revolution there were some in England who argued publicly against this view.

Defenders of resistance theory argued that though Paul uses a seemingly absolute language of submission in Romans 13, he is really only stating a general principle of limited submission. They also argued that verses 3-4 of Rom. 13 offer qualifications that if a ruler should violate them, he is to be resisted. In other words, in order to be a proper “magistrate,” they have to fulfill the calling of a “minister” of God. This means defending freedom, righteousness, and biblical fidelity. So the resisters argued, one who fails in his calling may be a “magistrate” without being a “minister,” at which point a ruler may be resisted without violating Paul’s words. 

The question is, does Paul say that a magistrate should be a minister, or that the magistrate is a minister of God? I would have appreciated the author going a step deeper with this biblical discussion, but Steward pulls back at this point in his overview of the exegetical arguments. This was disappointing for me. Steward quotes from the clergy in both England and America arguing against passive resistance and against an absolutist reading of Romans 13, yet without going further into their exegesis. For my money, the exegetical discussion was set to be the most interesting aspect of the book, and the area of greatest challenge to those advocating Resistance Theory.

Yet, an in-depth discussion of Romans 13 would not have been necessary for Steward’s case — his thesis is more narrow than that. All Steward has to do really is show that the clergy did reckon with Romans 13, and to show that they didn’t see themselves as innovators in how they interpreted the text. Steward makes this case well, and so it is left to the reader to do some of his own homework. In that respect, Steward’s book brings the ingredients right to the reader. All one would have to do is follow up the footnotes and I suspect there would be an exegetical feast for those like myself who are intrigued more by the exegesis than in seeing Steward’s narrow thesis proven.

Much of the book is spent by Steward showing that the American clergy in the 1750s were neither inventors of novel ideas, nor were they copying from John Locke. Rather, Steward persuasively shows that a position justifying revolution existed throughout the Reformation era with seeds going as far back as Calvin, Beza, and Luther. The revolutionaries were drawing arguments from more than enlightenment thinkers. The seeds of resistance were indeed deeper than Locke.

One area of weakness is Steward’s discussion of the interplay between the ideas of Locke and the American clergy. Steward effectively makes the case that resistance thought was present in the Protestant stream — and especially that of the Reformed — before Locke. He is interested in defending American clergy from the charge that they were simply drawing from secular sources. However, in nearly the same breath Steward rejects the idea that there is a dramatic disjunction between Locke and the best representatives of the American revolutionaries on the question of resistance to authority. I expected at this point in the book for Steward to quote from Locke and from the Reformed before him to show that they were on the same page when it comes to resistance and the subject of liberty. Instead, Steward asserts Locke’s positions but does not argue for their specifics. Apparently, the charge that American clergy agreed with Locke doesn’t seem controversial to Steward, so long as it is acknowledged that Locke didn’t come first with these ideas. I expected to see this argued rather than asserted, and was disappointed by the absence of Locke’s political and philosophical thought at this point.

This book is not designed to settle the debate between the absolutists and the revolutionaries. If you come to the book persuaded of the absolutist interpretation of submission, you will likely remain persuaded of it. However, you may be more careful about charging the American clergy and thinkers with being revolutionary innovators. If you come to this book looking for a compendium of biblical arguments you will instead find a number of helpful sources to do your own research from, but not a comprehensive overview.

At the end of the day, Steward succeeds, in my opinion, at arguing his thesis that “the patriot clergy justified political resistance in continuity with the long-standing tradition of Protestant resistance activities and arguments asserted by their theological predecessors on both sides of The Atlantic.” Undoubtedly there would have been exceptions to this in the colonies, but Steward demonstrates well that there were stalwart defenders of biblical resistance thought (such as John Witherspoon) who intentionally did so in keeping with the Reformed tradition. He shows that the best representatives of the revolutionary clergy made biblical arguments that seemed to be in keeping with prior Reformed thought. I suspect that this book’s thesis will have to be reckoned with in the future by any who wish to engage on the subject of Christians and government resistance.

Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon. He is the husband of Arryn and a father of four. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.

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