Rev. Jonathan Mayhew gives his Famous Sermon titled, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers”

In his 1818 analysis of the Revolution, John Adams said,

But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.

The key word here is religious. In Adams’ analysis, he said a sermon delivered by Reverend Jonathan Mayhew on January 30, 1750, was “read by everybody” and was crucially important in leading to revolution.

Robert Treat Pain, a signer of the Declaration and former attorney general, spoke of Mayhew as “The Father of Civil and Religious Liberty in Massachusetts and America.” John Adams also ranked him on par with Otis and Samuel Adams, and stated, “To draw the character of Mayhew would be to describe a dozen volumes.” In addition, according to Frederick L. Weis, Mayhew was regarded as the top New England preacher. Born 1720 as the son of Rev. Experience and Remember Mayhew, missionaries amongst the Indians, Mayhew was the son of distinction. He graduated from Harvard with honors at age 24, speaking of the influence as having been extensive on studying the “doctrines of civil liberty … as they were taught by, Plato, Demosthenes, Cicero. Sydney and Milton, Locke and Hoadley. And having learnt from the Holy Scriptures that wise, brave virtuous men were always friends of liberty. This made me conclude freedom was a great blessing.

Rev. Jonathan Mayhew (who coined the phrase “No taxation without representation.”) has been called the Father of Civil Liberty in America for several reasons. He was the first clergyman to begin preaching resistance to England’s tyranny in 1750. In his Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission he said, “Although there be a sense…in which Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, His inspired apostles have, nevertheless, laid down some general principles concerning the office of civil rulers and the duty of subjects….It is 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.” After the passage of the Stamp Act, Mayhew became even more influential. Historian B.F. Morris wrote:

Whoever repeats the story of the Revolution will rehearse the fame of Mayhew. He spent whole nights in prayer for the dangers of this country. Light dawned on his mind on a Sabbath morning of July, 1766, and he wrote to Otis saying, ‘You have heard of the communion [i.e. unity] of the churches; while I was thinking of this…[the] importance of the communion of the colonies appeared to me in a striking light. Would it not be decorous in our Assembly to send circulars to all the rest (of the colonies) expressing a desire to cement a union among ourselves?…It may be the only means of perpetuating our liberties.’ ‘This suggestion,’ said Bancroft, ‘of a more perfect union for the common defense, originating with Mayhew, was the first public expression of the future Union which has been the glory of the American republic; and it came from a clergyman, on a Sabbath morning, under the inspiration of Heaven.’”

Mayhew’s most famous and widely read sermon, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, is a case in point regarding the influence and atmosphere of New England preaching. Given at the West Church in Boston, on January 30th 1750, Mayhew outlined a case of the People’s right to resist. It should also be noted that such a sermon, written twenty-six years prior to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, contains many of the various themes used to justify and exhort rebellion. Nearly a quarter century before revolt broke, “Mayhew argued it was unreasonable for any people to grant unlimited submission to a civil authority.” For this sermon, Mayhew was known as the “Morning Gun of the American Revolution,” and made it evident that before the work of Jefferson and others, congregants were already actively hearing “declarations of independence,” and sermons focused on “natural rights of life, liberty, and property,” long before their secular counterparts. This role of the Pulpit, as seen in Mayhew’s work, was essential in prepping the mindset of divine-sanctioned liberty.

His influence is further seen in his relationship with James Otis, John Adams and Samuel Adams, where upon Mayhew’s suggestion in a letter dated June 8th 1766 to Otis, led to the eventual addition of Committees of Correspondence. These are but few examples of the power of both the Pulpit in setting the public’s mind on liberty, as well as the influence role such preachers played in the atmosphere and leadership of the American Revolution.

In his 1750 sermon Mayhew argued that there is a Higher Law than any government’s law. The people, he said, are required to obey their government’s law only when it is in agreement with Higher Law. Indeed, he argued, if the government violates Higher Law, “we are bound to throw off our allegiance” and “to resist.

What was this Higher Law? The ancient Common Law, which most colonists understood and obeyed faithfully even though they ridiculed and ignored the laws and taxes enacted by politicians.

Common Law had evolved from two basic principles: 1) do all you have agreed to do, and 2) do not encroach on other people or their property. These are the two principles on which all major religions and philosophies agree. Each expresses them a bit differently, but all agree on these two laws and not much else).

These two laws are the source of all our essential prohibitions against theft, fraud, murder, rape, etc. “Do all you have agreed to do” is the basis of contract law; “do not encroach on other people or their property” is the basis of criminal and tort law.

Common Law was the law to which the American colonists were dedicated, and it was the law the politicians and bureaucrats were breaking—they were encroaching. So the colonists overthrew their government; they committed treason.

This is what the American Revolution was all about—treason. And this treason was regarded as moral, ethical, and right in every way. It was derived straight from Common Law which was based on the people’s religious beliefs. Wrote the great legal scholar Sir William Blackstone, “This law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other…no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this.”

Contrary to what we so often read, the Americans were not fighting the British. The Americans were British. The war broke out at Lexington in April 1775, fifteen months before independence was declared. Therefore, for the first fifteen months of the war, America was still a part of Britain and Americans were still Englishmen fighting their own government. As their many pamphlets and speeches explained, they were fighting for “The Rights of Englishmen!”

They were enforcing Higher Law. This eternal and immutable law said the politicians and bureaucrats were as human as anyone else and they had no special rights or privileges; they could not encroach on others. “All men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson.

So, the most important and praiseworthy fact about the Founders which is rarely discussed is that they believed in a Higher Law than any government’s, and they did something about it. They evaded their government’s taxes and regulations. They delivered speeches and wrote pamphlets informing others, and they eventually overthrew their government and set up a new one more closely in agreement with Higher Law.

The highly advanced, prosperous civilization we now enjoy was the direct result of their enforcement of Higher Law, and this civilization will continue only if Higher Law is reapplied, soon. Tell others.

“The sermon was widely read and quoted throughout the colonies and in Great Britain. It doubtless won for him his degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Aberdeen in 1751.”

Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of IndependenceJonathan Mayhew: A Discourse Concerning Unlimited

Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers

Jefferson’s Declaration: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the governed.”Mayhew’s Sermon: “The only reason for the institution of civil government, and the only rational ground for submission to it, is the common safety and utility.”
Jefferson’s Declaration: “Prudence, indeed will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light or transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”Mayhew’s Sermon: “Now, as all men are fallible, it cannot be supposed that the public affairs of any state should be always administered in the best manner possible, even by persons of the greatest wisdom and integrity. Nor is it sufficient to legitimate disobedience to the higher powers that they are not so administered, or that they are in some instances very ill-managed; for upon this principle it is scarcely supposable that any government at all could be supported.”
Jefferson’s Declaration: “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 a government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”Mayhew’s Sermons, 1750: “Those in authority may abuse their trust and power to such a degree that neither the law of reason nor of religion requires that any obedience or submission be paid to them; but on the contrary that they should be totally discarded and the authority which they were before vested with transferred to others, who may exercise more to those good purposes for which it is given.”
Jefferson’s Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”Mayhew’s Sermon, 26 years prior: “Nothing can well be imagined more directly contrary to common sense than to suppose that millions of people should be subjected to the arbitrary, precarious pleasure of a single man… so that their estates and everything that is valuable in life, and even their lives also, shall be absolutely at his disposal, if he happens to be wanton and capricious enough to demand them.”

Here is the full text of the sermon which Jonathan Mayhew preached January 30, 1750. For another example of Mayhew’s influence on the America Revolution read his May 23, 1776 sermon, The Snare Broken.

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