Should Christians have participated in the American Revolution or fought in the American Revolutionary War? Anthony Gill takes up this question with three Christian scholars of the American Revolution at his latest Research on Religion podcast.
Gregg Frazer, professor at The Master’s College and author of the recently released The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution argues that “the Bible unequivocally teaches participation in any revolution is wrong.” I find Frazer’s view the most interesting.
First, he argues that Christians should not have tried to overthrow Hitler unless Hitler required them to do something that violated the teachings of the Bible. In other words, if Hitler commanded a Christian to kill a Jew, the Christian should passively disobey (without rebelling) because murder violates the teachings of the Bible. If God wanted to overthrow Hitler, he would have done it without Christians (such as Bonhoeffer). The key for Frazer is God’s sovereignty. If God wanted the United States to separate from England in 1776, he would have made it happen without a rebellion. (Much in the same way that Canada or Australia gained their independence from England). Rebellion is sin, but sometimes God uses sin to advance his purposes. The American Revolution was a sinful act, but it was part of God’s plan because it happened.
Second, Frazer teaches at an evangelical college that is quite conservative in theology. Faculty at the Master’s College uphold the inerrancy of the Bible and a dispensational view of the end times, including a belief in a “pre-tribulational” rapture. The founder of the Master’s College and its current president is John MacArthur, a very popular conservative evangelical preacher. I find this so interesting because MacArthur has many followers who would probably be surprised that one of his professors believes that the American Revolution was a sinful event. In fact, MacArthur himself has said that the patriots violated the New Testament when they founded America.
Jonathan Den Hartog of Northwestern College treats the question historically. He tries to answer the question from the perspective of a colonist and does not dabble in his own personal convictions. (Good job, Jonathan!) He defends the view that the Revolution was justified or at least tries to explain why a colonist would take this view.
Like, Frazer, Mark Hall also begins by treating the question theologically and then analyzes it in terms of the history of political and Reformed religious thought.
I address this question in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I should also note (as Den Hartog does) that it is not really a historical question. Frazer does not respond to the question as a historian, but as a theologian or Biblical scholar. Hall examines the question historically, theologically, and politically. This podcast reveals the different ways that scholars from different disciplines tackle the past.
Here is a snippet of my “take” on this question in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation:
Christians today who want to argue that the Revolutionary War was “just” must offer concrete evidence to suggest that this war was indeed a “last resort.” They must also make a compelling case that the colonists’ grievances against the Crown merited military resistance. Here are a few questions that one might ask in this regard: Do high taxes justify a military rebellion against the government, even if such a rebellion is conducted in direct violation of passages such as Romans 13 that command Christians to pay their taxes? Was the English government as “tyrannical” as the colonists claimed? And if it was, did the level of tyranny justify armed conflict? After all, Great Britain offered more freedom to the inhabitants of their empire than any other nation in the world. Did the revolutionaries have a moral case to make for their own freedom when many had denied freedom to the slaves in their midst? (Perhaps, as Mark Noll has argued, it was only the enslaved African Americans who could legitimately “justify taking up arms to defend themselves.”).