On the Right To Rebel Against Governors
An Election Sermon preached to the Council and House Of Representatives of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
(The complete text is contained in
May 29, 1776
by: Rev. Samuel West, A.M. (1730-1807)
|From hence it follows that tyranny and arbitrary power are utterly inconsistent with and subversive of the very end and design of civil government, and directly contrary to natural law, which is the true foundation of civil government and all politic law. Consequently, the authority of a tyrant is of itself null and void...
from Rev. Samuel West's Election Sermon
Preface by Peter Kershaw: This election sermon preached by Rev. Samuel West has come to be known by the title of, "On The Right To Rebel Against Governors."
This is a most unfortunate title, and it is not a title that Samuel West himself used to describe his sermon. The terms "rebel" and "rebellion" were commonly used by the British king and parliament to characterize the actions of the American Colonists. However, many of the most noteworthy patriots were often quick to challenge "rebellion" as a complete mischaracterization:
Resistance to tyranny does not constitute rebellion. As John Adams noted, "Resistance to lawful authority makes rebellion."
None of the Colonies had violated their charters with the king of England. However, the king had repeatedly violated his charters with the American Colonies. Furthermore, the king permitted to British Parliament to impose laws and collect taxes on the Colonies when they had no lawful jurisdiction to do so. As such, it was the king who became a law unto himself (rex lex) and, thusly, who became the real rebel.
Patriot pastors, such as Samuel West, served the Colonies in courageous fashion by articulating from the Word of God their duty to obey all lawful authority and to resist any and all tyrannical rulers, even to the point of taking up arms to defend their God-given rights and duties.
As was typical of election sermons, Rev. West's election sermon was published by the Massachusetts Assembly and widely distributed throughout the Colonies. Copies of it were even sent to King George III and the British Parliament to serve as a remonstrance against their tyrannies. Samual West was, thusly, marked out as a member of the "Black Regiment" by King George and a bounty put on his head.
Titus 3:1 Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work.
The great Creator, having designed the human race for society, has made us dependent on one another for happiness. He has so constituted us that it becomes both our duty and interest to seek the public good; and that we may be the more firmly engaged to promote each others welfare, the Deity has endowed us with tender and social affection, with generous and benevolent principles. . .
The Deity has also invested us with moral powers and faculties, by which we are enabled to discern the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. . .
This proves that , in what is commonly called a state of nature, we are the subjects of the divine law and government, that the Deity is our supreme magistrate, who has written his law in our hearts, and will reward or punish us according as we obey or disobey his commands. Had the human race uniformly persevered in a state of moral rectitude, there would have been little or no need of any other law besides that which is written in the heart,-for every one in such a state would be a law unto himself.
The necessity of forming ourselves into politic bodies, and granting to our rulers a power to enact laws for the public safety, and to enforce them by proper penalties, arises from our being in a fallen and degenerate state.
It is certainly a matter of the utmost importance to us all to be thoroughly acquainted with the nature and extent of our duty, that we may yield the obedience required; for it is impossible that we should properly discharge a duty when we are strangers to the nature and extent of it.
In order, therefore, that we may form a right judgment of the duty enjoined to our text, I shall consider the nature and design of civil government, and shall show that the same principles which oblige us to submit to government do equally oblige us to resist tyranny; or that tyranny and magistracy are so opposed to each other that where the one begins, the other ends.
The law of nature gives men no right to do anything that is immoral, or contrary to the will of God, and injurious to their fellow-creatures; for a state of nature is properly a state of law and government, even a government founded upon the unchangeable nature of the Deity, and a law resulting form the eternal fitness of things.
It is our duty to endeavor always to promote the general good; to do to all as we would be willing to be done by were we in their circumstances; to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God. These are some of the laws of nature which every man in the world is bound to observe, and which whoever violates exposes himself to the resentment of mankind, the lashes of his own conscience, and the judgment of Heaven. This plainly shows that the highest state of liberty subjects us to the law of nature and the government of God. The most perfect freedom consists of obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law.
Men of unbridled lusts, were they not restrained by the power of the civil magistrate, would spread horror and desolation all around them. This makes it absolutely necessary that societies should form themselves into politic bodies, that they may enact laws for the public safety, and appoint particular penalties for the violation of their laws, and invest a suitable number of persons with authority to put in execution and enforce the laws of the state, in order that wicked men may be restrained from doing mischief to their fellow-creatures, that the injured may have their rights restored to them, and that the virtuous may be encouraged in doing good, and that every member of society may be protected and secured in the peaceable , quiet possession and enjoyment of all those liberties and privileges which the Deity has bestowed upon him. This shows that the end and design of civil government cannot be to deprive men of their liberty or take away their freedom; but on the contrary, the true design of civil gover
As magistrates have no authority but what they derive from the people, whenever they act contrary to the public good, and pursue measures destructive of the peace and safety of the community, they forfeit their right to govern the people.
Though magistrates are to consider themselves as the servants of the people, seeing from them it is that they derive their authority, yet they may also be considered as the ministers of God ordained by Him for the good of mankind.
When a people have by their free consent conferred upon a number of men a power to rule and govern them, they are bound to obey them. Hence, disobedience becomes a breach of faith.
Such conduct discovers so base and disingenuous a temper of mind, that it must expose them to contempt in the judgment of all the sober, thinking part of mankind.
It is also necessary that the minor part should submit to the major; e.g. when legislators have enacted a set of laws which are highly approved by a large number of the community as tending to promote the public good, in this case if a small number of persons are so unhappy as to view the matter in a very different point of light from the public, though they have an undoubted right to show the reasons of their dissent from the judgment of the public, and may lawfully use all proper arguments to convince the public of what they judge to be an error, yet, if they fail in their attempt, and the majority still continue to approve of the laws that are enacted, it is the duty of those few that dissent peaceably and for consciences sake to submit to the public judgment, unless something is required of them which they would judge to be sinful to comply with; for in that case they ought to obey the dictates of their own consciences rather than any human authority whatever.
The only difficulty remaining is to determine when a people may claim a right of forming themselves into a body politic, and assume the powers of a legislation.
. . . [H]ence comes the necessity of appointing delegates to represent the people in a general assembly. And this ought to be looked upon as a sacred and inalienable right, of which a people cannot justly divest themselves, and which no human authority can in equity ever take from, viz., that no one be obliged to submit to any law except such as are made either by himself or by his representative.
A wise and good man would be very much loth to undermine a constitution that was once fixed and established, although he might discover many imperfections in it; and nothing short of the most urgent necessity would ever induce him to consent to it.
. . . [T]he same principles that oblige us to submit to civil government do also equally oblige us to , where we have power and ability, to resist and oppose tyranny; and that where tyranny begins government ends. For, if magistrates have no authority but what they derive from the people; if they are properly of human creation; if the whole end and design of their institution is to promote the general good, and to secure to men their just rights, it will follow, that when they act contrary to the end and design of their creation they cease being magistrates, and the people which gave them their authority have the right to take it from them again.
As our duty of obedience to the magistrate is founded upon our obligation to promote the general good, our readiness to obey lawful authority will always arise in proportion to the love and regard that we have for the welfare of the public; and the same love and regard for the public will inspire us with as strong a zeal to oppose tyranny as we have to obey the magistracy. Our obligation to promote the public good extends as much to the opposing every exertion of arbitrary power that is injurious to the state as it does to the submitting to good and wholesome laws. No man, therefore, can be a good member of the community that is not as zealous to oppose tyranny as he is ready to obey the magistracy.
If magistrates are ministers of God only because the law of God and reason points out the necessity of such an institution for the good of mankind, it follows, that whenever they pursue measures directly destructive to the public good they cease being Gods ministers, for forfeit their right to obedience from the subject, they become the pests of society, and the community is under the strongest obligation of duty, both to God and to its own members, to resist and oppose them which will be so far resisting the ordinance of God that it will be strictly obeying his commands. To suppose otherwise will imply that the Deity requires of us and obedience that is self-contradictory and absurd; e.g., while He commands us to pursue virtue and the general good, He does , at the same time require us to persecute virtue, and betray the general good, by enjoining us obedience to the wicked commands of tyrannical oppressors. Can any one not lost to the principles of humanity undertake to defend such absurd sentiments a
If men have at any time wickedly and foolishly given up their just rights into the hands of the magistrate, such acts are null and void, of course.
And as nothing tends like religion and the fear of God to make men good members of the commonwealth, it is the duty of magistrates to become the patrons and promoters of religion and piety, and to make suitable laws for the maintaining public worship, and decently supporting the teachers of religion.
But for the civil authority to pretend to establish particular modes of faith and forms of worship, and to punish all that deviate from the standard which our superiors have set up, is attended with the most pernicious consequences to society. It cramps all free and rational inquiry, fills the world with hypocrites and superstitious bigots - nay, with infidels and skeptics; it exposes men of religion and conscience to the rage and malice of fiery, blind zealots, and dissolves every tender tie of human nature; in short, it intrduces confusion and every evil work.
From this account of civil government we learn that the businesss of magistrates is weighty and important. It requires both wisdom and integrity. When either are wanting, government will be poorly administered; more especially if our governors are men of loose morals and abandoned principles; for is a man is not faithful to God and his own soul, how can we expect that he will be faithful to the public?
But though I would recommend to all Christians, as a part of the duty that we owe the magistrates, to treat them with proper honor and respect, none can reasonably suppose that I mean that they ought to be flattered in their vices, or honored and caressed while they are seeking to undermine and ruin the state; for this would be wickedly betraying our just rights, and we should be guilty of our own destruction. We ought ever to persevere with firmness and fortitude in maintaining and contending for all that liberty that the Deity has granted us.
To save our country from the hands of our oppressors ought to be dearer to us even than our own lives, and, next the eternal salvation of our own souls, is the thing of the greatest importance, - a duty so sacred that it cannot justly be dispensed with for the sake of our secular concerns.
My reverend fathers and brethren in the ministry will remember that, according to our text, it is part of the work and business of a gospel minister to teach his hearers the duty they owe to magistrates. Let us, then, endeavor to explain the nature of their duty faithfully, and show them the difference between liberty and licentiousness; and, while we are animating them to oppose tyranny and arbitrary power, let us inculcate upon them the duty of yielding due obedience to lawful authority. In order to the right and faithful discharge of this part of our ministry, it is necessary that we should thoroughly study the law of nature, the rights of mankind, and the reciprocal duties of governors and governed. By this means we shall be able to guard them against the extremes of slavish submission to tyrants on one hand, and of sedition and licentiousness on the other. We may, I apprehend, attain a thorough acquaintance with the law of nature and the rights of mankind, while we remain ignorant of many technical terms of law, and are utterly unacquainted with the obscure and barbarous Latin that was so much used in the ages of popish darkness and Superstition.
To conclude: While we are fighting for liberty, and striving against tyranny, let us remember to fight the good fight of faith, and earnestly seek to be delivered from that bondage of corruption which we are brought into by sin, and that we may be made partakers of the glorious liberty of the sons and children of God: which may the Father of Mercies grant us all, through Jesus Christ. AMEN.
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