“[It] is the duty of all men to stand fast in such valuable liberty, as providence has confered upon them.”
One month after Parliament passed a tax on tea sold in the American colonies, Reverend Simeon Howard offered his thoughts on the justification of taking up arms to defend the colonies from further oppression by Great Britain. Howard’s sermon, which is sometimes called “A Sermon on Justifiable War to Defend Liberty,” states that although Christian tradition denounced violence, the New Testament provides grounds that allowed for the an armed defense of liberty. Howard’s sermon advocates a proportional response to oppression: after all other resources have been exhausted, he claims, the use of arms in self-defense is permissible according to Christian tradition.
By the 1760s and early 1770s, the relationship between the American colonies and the British Empire that held authority over them became increasingly strained. The French and Indian War, which ended in 1763, had largely drained Britain’s coffers. Parliament looked to the colonies for additional revenues. They first increased taxes on non-British goods imported to the colonies under the Sugar Act of 1764. A year later, the infamous Stamp Act was passed, requiring all official documents and newspapers in the colonies to be printed on specially sanctioned stationery that had an additional tax upon it. In 1767, the Townshend Acts imposed new taxes on such goods as glass, paper, and tea. In 1773, Parliament introduced the Tea Act, which reduced the tax on tea that was imported to America, thereby giving British tea a competitive advantage.
During this time, a number of noneconomic policies contributed to this strain as well. In 1765, a law called the Quartering Act required the colonies to provide barracks and supplies to British troops who were stationed there. In 1766, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which gave Parliament the authority to make binding laws for the colonies without restriction.
These policies, along with Parliament’s taxation initiatives, sparked a number of protests and incidents that only exacerbated the deteriorating transatlantic relations. The Stamp and Townshend Acts, as well as the Quartering Act, led to widespread protests and legislative shows of defiance. Although Parliament would repeal the Stamp Act in 1766 and all but the tea provision of the Townshend Act in 1770, Britain also imposed a heavier hand on the colonies. The legislatures of New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia, for example, were all suspended or dissolved for refusing to enforce the new taxes and troop quartering rules.
Meanwhile, colonial protests became more organized and significant. In 1770, a number of British soldiers fired into a crowd of agitated colonists in Boston, killing five civilians. In 1773, a group of colonists disguised as Mohawks dumped the entire tea cargo of several ships into Boston Harbor.
The colonists’ response to this growing strain was mixed. Some advocated reconciliation with Parliament, while others called for armed uprising, the full expulsion of the British from the colonies, and the creation of an independent nation. Meanwhile, Methodist minister Simeon Howard—one month after the passage of the Tea Act—offered his views on the range of possible colonial actions during a June 7 sermon to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts at the West Church in Boston.
Simeon Howard was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts (in what is now Maine), in 1733. In 1754, He traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard College, from which he graduated with honors in 1758. In addition to studying theology, Howard honed his oratory skills and developed an extensive knowledge of history and political philosophy. Upon graduation, he accepted a position as a preacher in Cumberland, Nova Scotia, where he remained for two years. Although he was offered a position as pastor there, he opted instead to return to Boston, where he became a tutor at his alma mater.
In 1766, the pastor of the West Church, Jonathan Mayhew, died, leaving a vacancy. Mayhew was considered revolutionary, preaching in favor of colonial independence and forging strong relationships with such Patriot leaders as John Hancock, James Bowdoin, and Samuel Adams. When Howard assumed the ministry of the West Church in 1767, he continued Mayhew’s line of preaching, speaking in favor of civil and religious freedom. However, Howard’s rejection of some central tenets of Calvinism—in particular, the idea that all earthly events and salvation from damnation were predetermined by God—put him at odds New England Congregationalists, who considered his teaching heretical and openly opposed him. He was also caught between two diverging forces in Boston—those in favor of independence and those supporting Britain.
When the American Revolution began, Howard and his followers evacuated Boston for Nova Scotia, where he was arrested and briefly detained. Meanwhile, the West Church, situated on one of the highest points in Boston, was leveled by British forces who suspected that its tower was being used as a signal for revolutionaries. In 1776, American troops, fortifying defenses around Boston, forced Britain’s troops to evacuate Boston, enabling Americans to return, Howard among them. At the time of his return, he found the church without any parishioners. He therefore set about the task of rebuilding the church—in terms of both structure and membership—with little to no pay.
By the end of the Revolution, Howard was considered a highly influential figure in Boston. He was a senior leader of the Humane Society as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also remained active with Harvard, serving on that institution’s board of overseers, teaching there as a fellow, and speaking at its commencement ceremonies. He remained pastor of the West Church until his sudden death in 1804.
Reverend Simeon Howard begins his sermon by quoting from the book of Galatians in the New Testament. In Galatians 5:1, the apostle Paul, who was helping to establish the Christian church, wrote to the people of Galatia (a province of the Roman Empire in what is now Turkey), advising them to avoid the yoke of bondage espoused by the “Judaising teachers.” Howard sees the developing church as liberation from what he considers the outdated Jewish law.
As the Christian church was being formed, a number of Jewish leaders (at the time, most of the founding members of the church were Jews) tried to keep the various sects from straying from the Mosaic law. In Galatia, these teachers attempted to keep the Galatians within the authority of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Paul therefore encouraged the Galatians to avoid becoming snared under this form of governance, which Howard calls “burdensome and expensive service.” According to Howard, Christ had freed his followers from the demands of traditional Jewish law, a recommendation that Paul shared with others as the church gathered followers.
Howard draws a parallel between the Galatian experience and the ongoing issue between the American colonists and Great Britain, which, like the Judaizers, was attempting to establish a greater sense of authority in the colonies, particularly as it became clear that a growing number of colonists questioned their obligations to the Crown. Like Paul in Galatians 5:1, prodding the Galatians to become familiar with and adhere to the ideals of freedom espoused by Christ, Howard encourages the colonists to take note of the liberties to which they were entitled by civil government as well through divine Providence (the will of God). With this model in mind, Howard sets about defining the liberties to which all were entitled, how to ensure that they remained free and to defend this liberty, and the obligations they had with regard to those freedoms. Howard next moves into a discussion on the first component of this sermon—the liberties to which people should remain dedicated.
Howard states that, for the purposes of this sermon, the term “liberty” applies to that which exists in opposition to external force and restraint. Liberty, according to Howard, consists of everything that is opposed to “slavery,” and that which could be considered an advantage until altered by humans. Liberty, he states, is a blessing from God. As such, all have an equal and natural right to liberty. Howard adds that of all the natural blessings that God bestowed upon humankind, liberty was among the greatest humanity could enjoy.
According to Howard’s account, when in a natural state, people were subject to no civil form of government. Rather, God gave to humans the freedom to pursue happiness in any way an individual deemed necessary, without the need to consult with or gain consent from others. Of course, this pursuit was only permissible within the boundaries of natural law. In other words, one could own and sell property and behave however one wished without being punished or restrained by others as long as one did not cause destruction to others or their own property or commit suicide.
Although people would be free to act according to their own interests, Howard claims that the state of humanity under natural law was not one of “licentiousness.” In fact, natural law forbade all injustice and evil activity. The fact that people stayed within their own boundaries prevented such behavior from taking root.
Howard suggests that natural law would have remained the primary authority over humanity if everyone chose to adhere to it. However, some people—either through ignorance of its authority or in a willful manner—violated natural law by pursuing their own passions while negatively affecting those around them. By encroaching on the liberties of others, particularly the weak and defenseless, the violators of natural law injured others as well as the society as a whole.
Frequent violations of natural law gave rise to the need to form civil society and government, according to Howard. People came together to establish agreements regarding mutual defense and security. They established government systems that regulated the behavior of all members of society. Additionally, they selected from their numbers wise and upstanding people to become lawmakers, whose tasks would entail the establishment and enforcement of the law. Howard says that those who formed these institutions did so by sacrificing their own natural liberties for the sake of making the society a safer place to live.
Furthermore, Howard states that there were a wide range of natural liberties owed to all, but many of those liberties (which included self-governance and the disposition of property) were given up for the sake of the overall community. Each community was different from others, placing different degrees of value on certain liberties. Howard recognizes that these distinct communities would therefore judge differently, according to their own discretion, the amount of sacrifice that would be needed to aid the society at large.
Howard next discusses the civil government that formed after the boundaries of natural law were broken. When people formed government, they desired to limit the powers afforded to their chosen leaders. However, not all societies define these limitations in the law, giving those representatives the ability to pursue unlimited power. It was important, Howard maintains, that societies legally limit their rulers’ power for the sake of the common good. He criticizes those who would grant any more power than necessary to government officials, as such an action would be an indication that the people were “destitute” (lacking) of common sense. Still, even if the people unwittingly gave excessive power to the government, their natural liberty nevertheless enabled them to take away this power.
Howard next states that nature provided certain liberties from which no person could “divest himself.” For example, no one could give up the right to choose his or her own religious faith or tell others the manner of religious practice they should adopt. To remove religious freedom from a society, Howard claims, would amount to a “violation of the law of nature.” No one would be obliged to follow such a law or could allow such a policy to exist, lest he or she experience a crisis of conscience. Likewise, Howard asserts that no one should be allowed to grant power to others to govern themselves only in accordance with his or her direction. This action would automatically become void, as it was inconsistent with the submission that all people owed to God’s authority.
All people have certain rights that cannot be removed, declares Howard. Even if a legislature passed rules that made those who were subject to the law perform acts that were immoral, he says, the people still enjoy the liberty to refuse to obey those rules. They would know that the rules were destructive to the society and to the individual’s pursuit of happiness. Howard reminds his audience that the laws of society are not necessarily consistent with the goals of society, natural law, or even God’s law. Nevertheless, these three concepts could empower the people to retain their own natural liberties even in the face of oppressive rule.
Howard adds that just as individuals have been afforded certain liberties by nature, so too have states and communities. However, he cautions that the natural liberties of communities and states are restrained—limited by the “laws of nations,” which Howard defines an implied set of agreements among “the polite and civilized” nations not to interfere with one another’s interests. Each nation, state, or community consists of individuals who enjoy a number of natural liberties, and no other nation could undo those liberties, lest that state be in violation of the laws of nations.
Because natural liberties exist for all without interference from other nations, Howard urges the people to remain steadfast in retaining them. Howard was describing a three-part ideal: First, people living in accordance with natural law enjoy a wide range of natural liberties; civil government was developed in such a way as to be consistent with both the law of nature and the society’s ends; and no other nation could influence this domestic system or else be in violation of the highly regarded laws of nations.
Howard next asserts that Christ further empowered the people to retain their natural liberty. Christ, according to Howard, was the individual who taught humanity about the liberty afforded to them by heaven. In fact, Howard explains that Christ became the “head of God’s providential government” by virtue of his death, resurrection, and “exaltation” (ascension to heaven). Through Christ, Howard asserts, the liberties of nature (and along with them, the providence of God) were delivered to all. To strip away this liberty, or allow it to be stripped away, Howard suggests, is a violation of the laws of heaven and an affront to Christ, the chief overseer of that law.
Having defined the liberties due to all, Howard next presents the ways by these liberties should be defended. After all, “unreasonable and wicked men” had attempted to injure humanity’s natural liberty throughout history. Howard then boldly claims that if all of the books chronicling human history (beginning with Cain, who in the book of Genesis killed his brother Abel out of jealousy) were redacted to delete the actions of these wicked men, the books’ content would shrink considerably. Howard adds that encroachments on human liberty will likely recur in as great a frequency in the future, as long as human nature continues to show the capability to injure or seek to take away the liberty of others.
Howard insists that when these encroachments occur, the people should resist “in the best and most effectual manner” possible. The approaches Howard advocates are incremental and follow a course that he hoped would result in quick and peaceable resolution. First, he suggests that when a person’s liberties are attacked or endangered, an attempt should be made to convince the threatening party to stop. Otherwise, the party whose liberties were placed in harm’s way should seek a way to avoid further attacks. If the victim can convince the attacker to stop or can somehow “get out of [the aggressor’s] way,” the individual should use no other method of defense.
However, Howard states, those with a will to threaten or attack the liberties of others rarely acquiesce to such diplomatic or passive approaches. In fact, such individuals would likely continue their assaults in spite of the indignation of the victims, until their goals are met. Howard rhetorically asks his listeners what course of action remains when the initial “gentle methods” are ignored. He answers his own question by stating what he saw as the three remaining options. First, the people might attempt more forceful arguments (“remonstrance”) before taking flight from the aggressor. Second, the victims might simply submit, allowing the valued liberties humankind to be taken from them without fight. The third option is direct confrontation.
This latter approach, Howard suggests, was somewhat problematic for Christians. On one hand, nature forbade the idea of simple submission when a person’s liberties were placed at risk. Nature “loudly calls to a more vigorous defence” of liberty, says Howard. Consequently, the powerful notion of self-preservation is ingrained in each person—force required a forceful response, and violence necessitated a violent response.
However, Howard acknowledges the fact that the notion of using violence seemed to some contrary to the peaceful teachings of Jesus Christ. To be sure, he suggests, the idea of taking up the sword against any other person appeared to advocate violence in some circumstances. He therefore briefly offered his views of whether a “defensive war,” such as that being proposed in the American colonies, would be allowable under Christian tradition.
Howard reminds his audience that the idea of violence for the sake of self-preservation was different from the simple use of violence. Should dialogue and avoidance fail to produce a peaceful resolution, and the attacking party continued its efforts, the victims did retain the natural right for self-defense, Howard asserts. He then turns to examples in the New Testament (the latter half of the Bible, containing the central Christian values and ideals) to support his claim. These passages, he claims, suggested that the Christian church would not take away the “natural right” of people to defend their liberty, even if doing so entailed resorting to violence.
Next, Howard cites the story of John the Baptist and a group of Roman soldiers. According to the story, the soldiers had heard John’s preaching and taken them to heart. As a result, they began to question the occasionally violent measures they were ordered to take in service to the empire. To help them reconcile the conflict they were experiencing, the Romans approached John to see if he believed they should lay down their arms (and thus, their careers). John’s reply suggests that he believed their positions to be lawful and righteous. He advised them that as long as they did not use their status as members of the military to steal from others or accuse anyone unjustly, they should continue to act (and receive pay) as officers of the empire. Howard claims this story is significant because John, despite his pacifism, was granting his approval of a force of people dedicated to protecting the liberties and well-being of the civil society.
Howard also acknowledges that on numerous occasions, Jesus himself advised his followers not to commit violence against those who would arrest them. Then again, Howard suggests that Jesus’s words were meant to advise the people not to respond to the evil actions of others with evil actions of their own. The religious institution for which Jesus was laying the foundation, Howard says, would not frown upon the use of proportional violence in defense of natural liberty.
Howard argues that liberty, a gift of nature and God, should be protected in steadfast manner. Humans are therefore obligated to defend it, showing the proper restraint in response to an oppressor but also demonstrating the will to use force in its defense when necessary.
In the study of the American Revolution, a great deal of attention has been paid to the secular roots of this event. Such a focus is not unreasonable, as the Revolution was largely spurred by political and philosophical ideals and intensified by incidents and parliamentary actions. Reverend Simeon Howard was among the few religious figures at the time to propose theological grounds for the colonists’ eventual rebellion against British rule.
In his 1773 sermon, Howard’s approach to this analysis came in three parts. First, he defines the types of liberty to which all of the human race, in his opinion, were entitled. This liberty was, he says, based on natural law. In his estimation, a state of natural law was ideal, being based both on human nature and the will of God and leading to a limited form of government that was administered by the society’s most capable and upright citizens. Howard acknowledges, however, that humanity did not exist in a state of natural law because so many people violated it and thus injured others. Humanity therefore needed to create a set of laws that safeguarded against such attacks.
This issue leads Howard to his main point—that people should remain steadfast in protecting liberty. Howard comments on the value of liberty, a blessing from God, and advises that the victims of such attacks first appeal to or escape from the attacker. If such a course of action was unsuccessful, Howard suggests that the victims carry out a more demonstrative protest against the intrusive party. Thereafter, if the attacker persisted (as they commonly did, Howard adds), self-defense was allowable.
Howard emphasizes the obligation of all people to protect liberty when such attacks took place. While he acknowledges that there were those who believed that the peaceful ideals of Christianity prohibited the colonists from taking up arms against the British, Howard counters by citing the fact that neither Christ nor his predecessor, John the Baptist, took issue with the institutions dedicated to the protection of the people within the state in which they lived. Howard uses these examples to underscore his point that although peace is the ultimate goal of any decent society, humans are obligated protect the liberty that God and nature bestowed upon them, even if this defense comes by use of the sword.
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