On the Right to Rebel against Governors

“An enemy to good government is an enemy not only to his country, but to all mankind.”

Summary Overview

In late May 1776, Reverend Samuel West appeared before an election-day crowd and offered a theological perspective on the growing pro-independence movement. In this political sermon, West echoed the idea that there was but one king—God—and all people, regardless of rank, remained God’s subjects. Meanwhile, he said, natural law, the foundation of civil government, ran contrary to the notions of tyranny or a singular political authority. West’s sermon, which has been dubbed the Election Sermon of 1776, also suggested that it was acceptable for the people to take up arms against Great Britain in self-defense, as allowing a tyrannical presence to take the lives of the colonists amounted to a sin against God’s law.

Defining Moment

By 1776, it had become clear to many American colonists that the relationship they shared with King George III and Parliament had deteriorated to a point beyond reconciliation. The colonists’ increasingly overt indignation (which manifested itself most daringly in the Boston Tea Party of 1773, wherein protesters disguised as Mohawks dumped an entire shipment of tea into Boston Harbor) was rooted in three main political issues. The first was the introduction of a number of new taxes on colonial goods and services. The second was the continued presence of British troops in the colonies despite the fact that the French and Indian War had come to a close (this presence had already led to another iconic prerevolutionary incident, the Boston Massacre of 1770). Third, Britain continued to override colonial government and, in several cases, dissolved colonial legislatures who failed to adopt and enforce laws to which the colonists were opposed.

Immediately following the Boston Tea Party, Parliament introduced a set of punitive measures known to Britain as the Coercive Acts, which the colonists later dubbed the Intolerable Acts. Among the provisions of this series of regulations were safeguards for British troops from colonial laws, harsh restrictions on colonial trade and commercial activities, and the virtual abolition of a fair judicial process. During the fall of 1774, delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies (Georgia was the lone standout) arrived in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. The purpose of the gathering was to develop a collective colonial response to the British actions to date. The delegates resolved to boycott British-made goods and reconvene if Parliament did not desist.

In 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The congress sent an appeal to King George III, asking the sovereign to intercede and assist in the ongoing dispute; the message was dismissed, however, and the relationship between the two parties continued to deteriorate. Among the actions resulting from this second meeting were the raising of a Continental Army and taking additional steps toward secession from Britain, including drafting a declaration of independence, which was penned and signed a year later.

Much of the growing pro-independence movement was considered political and not based on theological ideals. Few of the key documents and speeches delivered by 1776 were steeped in religious ideology. However, by this time, a number of religious leaders, including Boston’s Samuel West, saw justification in rebelling against British rule. West’s sermon, presented just one month before Jefferson began writing the Declaration of Independence, delivered further justification for rebellion based on religious traditions.

Author Biography

Samuel West was born on March 3, 1730, in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, to Sackfield West and Ruth Jenkins. His father was a physician by trade, although he also preached to the Mashpee Indians who lived nearby. Young Samuel West captured the attention of his minister, Joseph Green, and would work for him as a farm hand. Green assisted in West’s education, teaching him biblical history at the age of seven and later helping him enter Harvard College in 1750. There, West made the acquaintances of John Hancock and John Adams and, in 1754, graduated first in his class.

West spent the first few years of his career teaching and preaching in southeastern Massachusetts communities including Martha’s Vineyard, Falmouth, and Plymouth. In 1760, he became the minister of the First Congregational Society in Dartmouth (now New Bedford), where he was ordained in 1761 and remained for the rest of his career. West married Experience Howland of Plymouth in 1768. With a meager salary, the couple and their six children lived a modest life. However, West continued to educate himself on a wide range of topics, including science, history, law, and even politics.

An early Unitarian, West was a strong advocate of religious tolerance and believed that all people had free will to choose their own faiths. West was known to support his sermons not only with religious rhetoric but also with historical and scientific facts. His independent thinking contributed to conflicts with other religious leaders, notably prominent Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards and his son, Jonathan Edwards Jr.

West was also an ardent Patriot. Immediately after the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, he became a volunteer chaplain. In 1776, he presented the Election Sermon, in which he called upon the people to throw off the yoke of British oppression and become independent. In 1777, he appeared before a crowd celebrating the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth, stating that America would become the place where more disenfranchised and oppressed peoples would come to escape tyranny.

In 1788, he was appointed a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention to ratify the US Constitution. His friend and former classmate John Hancock was the chair. When Hancock took ill, West played a prominent role in crafting a series of amendments that would facilitate ratification. Many of those provisions were ultimately incorporated into the Bill of Rights.

After his political career, West fostered the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, while he continued to preach in his home congregation. He retired in 1803 and went to live with one of his sons in Tiverton, Rhode Island. He died there in 1807.

Document Analysis

Reverend Samuel West’s sermon on Election Day in 1776 brings together religious tradition and political science as he seeks to provide justification for rebellion against British rule. West links the notions of natural law and Judeo-Christian values in an attempt to frame what he believed were the philosophical underpinnings of society. Within this framework, he then attempts to outline how the ideal system of government and law would be forged. Finally, he uses this ideal condition to criticize the efforts of tyrants whose governance ran counter to the best interests of humanity.

West begins his sermon by stating that God had designed humans in such a way that they would join into societies. Each person depends on others for happiness, thus it is in the individual’s best interests to seek the common good by building better relationships with one another and promoting others’ well-being. God, he says, gave humanity “generous and benevolent” principles with regard to each other. When a person sees another in distress, he or she feels the other’s pain. If that person helped the other overcome that distress, the former would derive satisfaction from the act and pleasure from having projected “happiness” to someone in need.

West next claims that God instilled in humans the moral ability to discern right from wrong. This attribute could be gauged by the emotional response that results from performing good and bad actions. When a person performs a good deed, he or she experiences a personal feeling of “approbation” (approval). Likewise, when a person performs or witnesses an evil deed, he or she feels a sense of remorse, as that act runs counter to the positive moral ideals that are part of one’s conscience. West states that this human characteristic plays an important role in society.

The ability to tell right from wrong (and to experience a positive or negative emotional response thereto), West explains, is an indication of humanity’s connection to God. All people, he says, are created subject to divine law and government, with God (“the Deity”) serving as humanity’s ultimate authority. God, West says, wrote divine laws in the heart of every person, including an understanding of the benefits of submission to those commands. Should an individual obey them, he or she would be rewarded; if the individual disobeyed, God would provide a suitable punishment on Judgment Day. West comments that punishments for immoral behavior are nevertheless necessary. Although all humanity might have God’s commands clearly ingrained in its conscience, individuals do not necessarily follow those commands without fail.

As it is for the individual, West asserts, so too for all members of a society. Penal laws were not created in the absence of illicit behavior. Rather, they serve as an acknowledgement of the poor choices made by those not adhering to natural and divine law, but instead committing unholy and profane acts that ran contrary to the teachings of the Bible. Such people killed others, stole, lied, and committed other immoral acts against their fellow humans. It is for them, West contends, that laws are necessary.

According to West, the same ideals hold true for the governments established by people. The fact that humanity exists in what West calls a “fallen and degenerate state” necessitated the formation of political institutions and legal systems. The people placed their trust in their chosen leaders, whom the members of society expected to enact laws that protected the innocent from the negative elements of society by enforcing the laws with proper punishments.

Thus, West sees it as important that those officials selected to lead the government would themselves be religiously and conscientiously upright. “An enemy to good government is an enemy not only to his country, but to all mankind,” he argues. Such a person has lost touch with such positive social characteristics of humanity as benevolence, generosity, and an even temper. Someone who demonstrated such behavior was degraded to a level beneath acceptable members of society, West adds. For this reason, government and religious institutions should consist of the wisest and most upright members of society. Such individuals instilled within themselves the ideals of good government. They also made a vow to take a stand against people who upset the social order.

West provides an example from the history of early Christianity. Jesus Christ, he says, advised his followers to adhere to the laws of the Roman Empire, directing them to “render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s.” He adds that the apostles (specifically Peter, Paul, and Jude) themselves demonstrated deference to the magistrate (judges and other officers of the legal system), showing “submission to civil government.” West’s point was that, while it was true that Christ distinguished himself from Jewish authorities (much to the consternation of the religious leadership in Jerusalem), he did not disobey the civil laws handed down from Rome through the local magistrates, nor did he ask others to do so.

Those who spoke ill of the government and refused to adhere to the law were “self-willed sinners,” West says. Furthermore, West provides the example of Paul, who after the death of Christ set out to establish Christianity throughout the known world. During this mission, Paul was jailed for breaking civil laws in the name of Christ. Yet he wrote to his trusted assistant, Titus, and encouraged him to remain respectful of and true to local laws and regulations.

West’s point was that it was best for subjects of good government to follow the example of Jesus and his disciples, obeying the government that was formed out of natural law and serving the public good within that political system. Failure to obey government officials and magistrates (that is, being good subjects of civil government) prevents people from performing the good acts toward others that are central to Christianity; therefore, West argues, obedience to civil governments is essential to the character of any Christian.

In order to become better Christians within a civil society, West claims it is important for people to avoid the approach of the “self-willed sinners” and become familiar with the laws of nature. Natural law, after all, gave rise to the formation of civil society and civil government. No one could discharge their duty in this area if unaware of the natural laws under which they lived.

West next describes how the same principles that obliged humanity to obey civil government equally obliged individuals to resist tyrannical government rule, adding that tyranny is the complete opposite of an ideal civil government and its magistrates. With this distinction in mind, West next moves into a discussion on the “grand controversy” between Great Britain and the American colonies.

In this arena, West states that it was important to first identify the nature of civil government, the foundations of the authority given to the commanding magistrates and the duty of the government’s subjects to obey it. Here, West utilizes a mode of thought that was prevalent among colonists who advocated rebellion against the Crown. He references seventeenth-century political philosopher John Locke, a prominent figure of the Enlightenment, a period in which a number of intellectuals (such as Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Sir Isaac Newton) advanced the notions of democratic governments. Citing John Locke, West states that all individuals exist in a natural state of freedom, choosing their own actions with regard to their possessions and those with whom they interact. According to Locke, all individuals living in this state are equal, under the control of and opposed by no one, unless in defense of self or of someone who is being injured and is therefore in need of assistance.

This latter point was important, according to both Locke and West, as this natural state of freedom would persist if everyone remained in what West calls “a state of moral rectitude” (virtue). In such an environment, only the wisest and most experienced people would be called upon to lead, for these leaders would not attempt to assume any sort of superiority over others, but would instead embrace the equality of humanity. The wise leaders, or “advisers,” would not have the authority to force any subjects to obey their direction, however. If they did so, their constituents would find it difficult to comply with their laws, as such policies violated the natural freedoms of the people. West asserts that this notion of limited government would be beneficial to the people, provided that humans remained in their “primitive state,” adhering to the laws of nature.

West says that the primitive state of nature featured “perfect freedom,” wherein immorality and corruption did not exist. In fact, he claims that the law of nature prohibits licentious behavior, for such behavior is contrary to God’s will and injurious to other people. A state of nature such as that which West and Locke describe produces law and government, a system of governance based on the word of God. God’s law, West states, was as unchangeable as the Deity was, for God’s moral authority was unquestionable and perfect.

Unfortunately, it was clear in 1776 that the corruption and oppression absent in a state of nature were in fact quite evident in the world. West cautions his listeners that there would be those who claimed to be of strong moral grounding, “pretending to be from God,” but whose laws and form of government ran contrary to natural law. Here, West is indirectly referencing the British monarchy (although he does not specifically cite it), which received its power not from the people but through lineage and privilege. According to West, God could not make a law contrary to natural law, for doing so would be self-contradiction, an act of which God is incapable.

Therefore, the sort of authority assumed and the laws imposed by those pretenders were not derived from the divine. The people, he urges, should do away with such provisions and throw off the leaders themselves. West implies that those who advocate nonresistance and “unlimited passive obedience” as a response to such tyrannical pretenders are ignorant of divine and natural law and are therefore unable to escape it after a long period of submission.

Moving forward toward the future, West states that the people would be well advised to develop an understanding of the laws of nature and God. As a result of this study, the people would appreciate the rights and liberties due them, as well as their duties, under natural and divine law. They would thus be able to distinguish these principles from the tyrannical laws that were imposed upon them.

West next discusses punishment and reparation for unjust actions. In the state of nature, he says, people had the right to punish those who committed injury or damage against them. Furthermore, West proposes that punishment could also be used as a deterrent. The severity of such punishment would be extreme enough to prevent the guilty party and others from committing any similar misdeeds in future. However, he warns, excessive punishment should be avoided when it is based not on justice but on cruelty and revenge.

According to West, people by nature enjoy life when they are part of a society and not alone. Within the community, people help one another when the need arises (as it often did). In fact, he says, without the help of others within the framework of a society, individuals would surely perish. Thus, it is the responsibility of the society to promote the “general good” and ensure that the connection between people is maintained. This goal was achieved by acting justly, showing mercy and submitting humbly to God’s teachings and laws.

West adds that people should proceed in life with others in mind—they would, as the Christian tenet dictates, do unto their neighbors as they would have done unto themselves. Every person was subject to these ideals. Those who violated these laws would themselves be subject three distinct forms of suffering: first, from their own guilt of conscience; second, the “resentment of mankind”; and third, the judgment of God.

West equates obedience to Christian values with submission to natural law, which he identified as the “most perfect freedom.” An individual who acts contrary to or exceeds these principles gives in to worthless and evil pursuits, eventually bringing misery and destruction to himself or herself. While this individual fate is unfortunate, more significant is the fact that the person also negatively influences the society at large, causing confusion and disorder therein. Here, West is speaking specifically of tyrants, who create for the society not a state of freedom, but one of sin, corruption, slavery, and “dreadful bondage.” He argues that “where licentiousness [of tyranny] begins, liberty ends.”

Essential Themes

A popular view of the American Revolution was that it had no theological roots. Rather, a wide range of factors contributed to its occurrence, according to this perspective. Events such as the Boston Massacre, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and the Boston Tea Party are among the more prominent of the incidents cited. Parliament’s dissolution of several colonial legislatures, the application of several new taxes and the Intolerable Acts are among the policy-related factors contributing to the increase in colonial–British tensions. Even the Enlightenment, in which political and philosophical intellectuals introduced the idea of democracy and personal liberty in the century, is believed to have played a major role in the ideologies of many of the Founding Fathers.

Samuel West’s sermon “On the Right to Rebel against Governors” nonetheless added a theological element to the pro-revolutionary movement. West, an unabashed Patriot, found through an analysis of Judeo-Christian traditions and history the justification for casting off British rule. In this sermon, he stresses the Christian values of serving one another as integral to a peaceful society. He combines the notion of God’s law with John Locke’s concept of the natural state of man to support an argument that an ideal society is characterized by respect for one another’s freedom and best interests. His modified framework of this natural state of humankind stood in stark contrast, in his opinion, to the political leadership imposed by the British monarchy and other supposedly tyrannicalgovernments.

West’s sermon was not simply an observation or interpretation, but served as a call to action as well. While he does not specifically cite the British in this section of his sermon, West does indicate that tyrannies were replete with wickedness, corruption, and immorality that threatened the society. As such, he urges that they be cast off in favor of more amenable institutions that would respect the rights and liberties of the people. In order to do so, however, the people should first understand the nature of human beings and of human society and the threat that the acts of tyrants posed to their interests.

Further, he offers the people the grounds for combating tyranny. Society, he suggests, had every right to defend its people from attacks by the wicked, punish the attacker, and deter others from committing similar acts of oppression. Tyranny, West argues, is an affront to the perfect freedom offered through God’s law.


  • Kellaway, Richard. “Samuel West.” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, 2012. Web. 17 June 2012.
  • Kopel, David B. “The Religious Roots of the American Revolution and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.” Journal on Firearms and Public Policy 17 (2005): 167–85. Print.
  • Morrison, Jeffry H. “Political Theology in the Declaration of Independence.” The Declaration of Independence, April 5–7, 2002. Princeton: Princeton University, 2008. PDF file.

Additional Reading

  • Heimert, Alan. Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution. 1966. Eugene: Wipf, 2006. Print.
  • Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. New York: Basic, 2012. Print.
  • Koetsier, L. S. Natural Law and Calvinist Political Theory. Bloomington: Trafford, 2006. Print.
  • May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.