Should Christians Have Fought in the US War of Independence?
Date: July 2nd, 2012
Please visit our Facebook Fan Page (and “like” us) to get a glimpse of the results of the hatchet throwing contest that determined the order of our participants and to voice your opinions on the question we pose to our three scholars!
Should Christians have picked up arms during the American War of Independence following the first salvos at Lexington & Concord in April, 1775? We pose that question to three Christian academics — Gregg Frazer, Jonathan den Hartog, and Mark David Hall — who offer different perspectives on this subject. Prof. Gregg Frazer, professor of history and political studies at The Master’s College (Santa Clarita, CA), argues for the “no” position by noting that The Bible unequivocally teaches participation in any revolution are wrong. Prof. Frazer also notes that the situation of the colonists were hardly in a tyrannical situation in 1775, but even if it was tyrannical he clearly states that biblical teachings forbids rebellion against secular authority. Gregg cites Romans 13:1-2, John 19:11, and (later on) Acts 4 and Acts 5. Tony presses Gregg about whether or not the American War of Independence (a.k.a. The Revolutionary War) was a revolution or a war. Our discussion continues to explore whether or not there is a level of tyranny that could justify a rebellion against secular authority, and Prof. Frazer holds strong to his argument that there is no such instance. Gregg notes that you are to obey the government until the government asks you to disobey God, but then you rely upon a sovereign God to remove the authority and only engage in civil disobedience accepting the consequences. The discussion also encompasses issues of free will and what would history have looked like had he colonists never rebelled. We then turn to Prof. Jonathan den Hartog, associate professor of history at Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN, who gives us the “yes” position by practicing the historian’s trade and getting into the head of the patriot colonists of the day. (It should be noted that Prof. den Hartog is not an unambiguous “yes” vote in this debate from his personal position.) We begin by noting the political imperative for rebellion in 1775 and Jonathan notes how the “squishy middle” disappeared quickly, specifically after John Jay’s Olive Branch Petition was rejected by King George shortly after Lexington & Concord. Jonathan then connects these political issues to the moral concerns of Christians at the time, noting that many pastors (e.g., Whitefield, Witherspoon) gave the issue of independence a great deal of thought and debate. Concern over the erosion of religious liberties was of major concern to many preachers of this era, and we explore whether this was a real concern or a threat merely whipped up to further a political agenda. Prof. den Hartog provides a telling anecdote of a colonial militiaman (Levi Preston) who noted his inspiration to fight came from The Bible and catechism. We talk about other justifications offered by Christians via “just war theory” wherein ministers like John Carmichael and David Jones conceive of the conflict as a defensive war to protect hearth and home. The “squishy middle” position is then taken up by Prof. Mark David Hall of George Fox University in Newberg, OR. Prof. Hall first answers the specific question by examining a more abstract position of whether or not Christians can rise up in rebellion against secular authority, essentially examining what Romans 13:1-3 says and what “legitimate” government means in light of various Catholic and Protestant theologians such as John Knox. (It should be noted that Prof. Hall did not have knowledge of our discussion with Prof. Frazer, but these two have argued these points in the past.) Tony then prompts Mark to put this into the context of the American colonies of the middle-late 18th century, arguing that the level of tyranny experienced by the colonists really wasn’t all that tyrannical. Tax levels were low and the colonists did exercise a degree of self-governance that was not available to their peers in English towns. Mark responds by noting how the Reformed tradition, of which encompassed about 75% of all religious believers in the colonies at the time, is particularly sensitive to the possibility of tyranny. He then details the threats that the patriot forces perceived in the 1760s and ’70s, which makes Tony think that Mark would be quick to join the militia after Lexington & Concord. Thus, Tony prompts Mark about why he agreed to take a “wait-and-see” position. Prof. Hall responds that based upon hindsight regarding various “threats” during the Revolutionary era (e.g., the Quebec Act) there seems to have been much more room for reasoned negotiation. However, he also cautions against “presentism,” the intellectual tendency to view history from our current position. As such, Mark does argue that the colonists may have felt sufficiently threatened such that war may have been the most prudent option at the time. Tony finishes up the questioning by asking Mark what would have happened had the patriots not have picked up arms, whereupon Mark speculates that the commonwealth option that may have arisen, just as Gregg Frazer did earlier. Tony finishes off with his brief thoughts on the debate and listeners will have to get to the end of the podcast to see if he changed his position at all. Recorded: Mid-June 2012.
Prof. Gregg Frazer’s biography at The Master’s College.
The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution, by Gregg Frazer.
Prof. Jonathan den Hartog’s biography at Northwestern College.
James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions (Princeton University).
Prof. Mark David Hall’s biography at George Fox University.
America’s Forgotten Founders, by Gary L. Gregg II and Mark David Hall. For other books by Prof. Hall, please see his earlier interviews on our podcast series.
Mark David Hall on Roger Sherman, Puritan Patriot.
John Fea on Religion & the American Founding.
Mark David Hall on Religion & the Founding Fathers.
Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era.
Thomas Kidd on the Great Awakening.
Leave a Reply