Justifying Revolution: The American Clergy’s Argument for Political Resistance, 1750-1766

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Justifying Revolution: The American Clergy’s Argument for Political Resistance, 1750-1766 by Gary L. Steward. Oxford University Press, 2021, 221 pp. 

It is safe to assume that for the average American today, the American Revolution was an unassailable good. In seeking to strip the American colonies of their rights and liberties, the British Crown justly reaped what they sowed.

But as historians have grappled with the American Revolution, particularly the role the American clergy played, not all consider the American Revolution as airtight ethically or theologically as some might assume. For instance, in the last couple of decades, notable Christian historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and John Fea have argued that American clergy in the colonies were swayed by secular notions of freedom and political resistance that are out of keeping with the teachings of the Bible and the Protestant tradition.

Into this fray steps Gary Steward, Colorado Christian University assistant professor of History with his new book, Justifying Revolution. With a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Church History and Historical Theology and his previous experience as a Baptist pastor in Canada, Steward comes well-prepared to make the case that many patriot clergy in the time of the Revolution have been deeply misunderstood.

Steward’s thesis is straightforward: “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” (p. 2).

Starting in 1750 and working his way to 1776, Steward shows how numerous American clergy reaffirmed a long-standing Protestant conviction of political resistance in the facing of unjust rulers. These ministers, like the Protestant tradition from which they emerged, believed that Biblical passages such as Romans 13 were not to be understand as demanding absolute submission to every ruler. Rather, as Steward notes, “If a civil authority abandons his duty to seek the public good and his role as a minister of God, he is no longer to be treated as such; rather, he is to be resisted” (p. 14).

As the book unfurls and time advances toward the Revolution, Steward shows how these long-held Protestant convictions in political resistance were articulated afresh by clergy on both sides of the Atlantic. As new crises arose, such as the Stamp Act of 1765, the threat of American Episcopal bishops or growing political absolutism and hostility from England in the 1770s, clergy from across the theological spectrum affirmed the fundamental rightness of self-defense and political resistance for the preservation of civil and religious liberties. Moreover, Steward repeatedly demonstrates how these clergy drew inspiration and guidance from their Protestant forefathers who also engaged in political resistance as far back as the time of the Reformation.

In summary, Steward firmly advocates for there being “no compelling evidence for interpreting the resistance thought of the American clergy during the American revolution as marking any sharp deviation in theological, philosophical, or ethical thought” (p. 129). Many of the American clergy, and even some British clergy, steeped in Protestant tradition and teachings, were simply applying old principles to new problems.

Steward’s thesis and argumentation is clear and repeatedly reinforced by his thorough use of primary sources. Early in the book, Steward states his aim was to “recreate the theological and intellectual context” of the American patriot clergy and allow the reader to “understand the clergy on their own terms” (p. 2). Steward largely accomplishes this by quoting from a wide array of American and British clergy, some well-known like John Witherspoon and others unknown to most today.

To his credit, Steward also deftly weaves in counterpoints to his arguments by quoting from clergy such as Thomas Bradbury Chandler and John Wesley who were not in favor of political resistance to England. Steward also provides a treasure trove of footnotes and bibliographic resources for those who would like to take a deeper dive.

Steward’s book is not without some weaknesses, though. For instance, Steward repeatedly references important events or figures in English history such as the Glorious Revolution of 1689 or the Stuart monarchs. But for the uninitiated, there is not enough explanation to fully grasp the dynamics of these critical turning points.

Justifying Revolution would benefit from a brief appendix giving the reader a crash course in pertinent British history. Also, while Steward quotes from many American and British clergy on the topic of political resistance, some readers may walk away wishing for more insight into how the colonial clergy exegeted the Biblical text to arrive at their conclusions. Yes, the political resistance they advocated for was in keeping with their Protestant tradition, but how specifically did they build a case for that from Scripture to shepherd their local churches?

Overall, Justifying Revolution is a well-researched, tightly argued, fascinating exploration of the doctrine of political resistance advanced by Revolutionary-era clergy. Readers interested in getting a deeper understanding of the religious motivations behind the American Revolution would do well to pick up this book.

Joshua Ortiz

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."