Selfish, Ungrateful Rebels

As the rhetoric for independence heated up, so did the anxieties of many Christians, who were not convinced that independence, let alone armed rebellion, was justified biblically.

One such person was John Wesley, whose Methodist movement was taking root in America. He was concerned about what he believed were unchristian attitudes of Americans. In A Calm Address to Our American Colonies (1775) he tried to push Americans toward a different course.

One writer asserts twenty times, “He that is taxed without his own consent, that is, without being represented, is a slave.”

I answer, no. I have no representative in Parliament, but I am taxed, yet I am no slave. Yea, nine in ten throughout England have no representative, no vote, yet they are no slaves; they enjoy both civil and religious liberty to the utmost extent.

He replies, “But they may have votes if they will; they may purchase freeholds.” What! Can every man in England purchase a freehold [property that entitled one to vote]? No, not one in an hundred. But be that as it may, they have no vote now; yet they are no slaves, they are the freest men in the whole world.

Who then is a slave? Look into America, and you may easily see. See that Negro, fainting under the load, bleeding under the lash! He is a slave. And is there no difference between him and his master? Yes. The one is screaming, “Murder! Slavery!” the other silently bleeds and dies!

But wherein then consists the difference between liberty and slavery? Herein: You and I, and the English in general, go where we will and enjoy the fruit of our labors: this is liberty. The Negro does not: this is slavery.

Is not then all this outcry about liberty and slavery mere rant, and playing upon words? . . .

But whence then is all this hurry and tumult? Why is America all in an uproar? If you can yet give yourselves time to think, you will see the plain case is this:

A few years ago, you were assaulted by enemies [in the French and Indian War], whom you were not well able to resist. You represented this to your mother-country and desired her assistance. You [were] largely assisted, and by that means wholly delivered from all your enemies.

After a time, your mother country, desiring to be reimbursed for some part of the large expense she had been at, laid a small tax (which she had always a right to do) on one of her colonies.

But how is it possible that the taking of this reasonable and legal step should have set all America in a flame? . . .

Can you hope for a more desirable form of government, either in England or America, than that which you now enjoy? After all the vehement cry for liberty, what more liberty can you have? What more religious liberty can you desire than that which you enjoy already?

May not every one among you worship God according to his own conscience? What civil liberty can you desire which you are not already possessed of? Do not you sit without restraint “every man under his own vine?” Do you not, every one high or low, enjoy the fruit of your labor? This is real, rational liberty such as is enjoyed by Englishmen alone and not by any other people in the habitable world.

Conflict of Loyalties

Emotions ran perhaps highest in Anglican churches. In their ordination vows, Church of England clergy had promised to not only pray for England’s king but to acknowledge him head of their church. After independence was declared, many American Anglican clergy remained faithful to their vows, which led to some heart-rending consequences. An excerpt from Philip Reading’s letter to his superiors (1776):

Ever since I entered into the ministry, I had made it a constant rule to read over at proper intervals my ordination vows, the Articles of Religion and canons [regulations] of our church, but on the present occasion I read them more attentively than ever. The more I considered them, the more I was confirmed in my opinion of the strict obligation I was under to adhere inviolably to what they enjoined . . . to maintain the King’s supremacy in Church and State. . . .

Such being my sentiments on this subject, I determined for the sake of keeping up the church in its full visibility, agreeably to my obligations, to continue reading the public service entire as usual—notwithstanding independence had been declared by the Congress. And for one or two Sundays, [I] prosecuted my purpose without interruption.

But on the 21st day of July, immediately after the first [Scripture] lesson, our senior church warden (out of pure kindness to and friendship for me), [came] up to the reading desk, [and] earnestly advised me to omit the prayers for the king and royal family, as the temper of the prevailing party was such that they would no longer bear the reading if those prayers should be continued.

I told him that the present was not a fit season nor the place a proper one for discussing so interesting a subject: that I should for that day at least proceed with the service as usual because whenever I was compelled to desist from using the prayers for the king and the royal family I should desist likewise from using any other part of the public service-and that consequently the church would be shut up [closed].

Being now assured on all hands of the danger with which I was threatened if I persisted in complying with my oaths, vows, and subscriptions, I thought it high time to consult my own and my family’s safety. And therefore on the Sunday following (July 28), when the people were assembled for public worship, before I began the service, I explained to them the obligations the clergy of the Church of England are under to assert the king’s supremacy in their public ministrations, and [I] acquainted them that as I could not read the liturgy agreeably to the prescribed form without offending against our government and incurring the resentment of the people, I should on that day declare the church shut up for six weeks.

Accordingly, after [the] Nicene Creed, I declared . . . that as I had no design to resist the authority of the new government on one hand, and as I was determined on the other not to incur the heavy guilt of perjury by a breach of the most solemn promises, I should decline attending on the public worship for a short time from that day. . . .

I proposed to say more on the subject, but the scene became too affecting for me to bear a farther part in it. Many of the people present were overwhelmed with deep distress and the cheeks of some began to be bathed with tears. My own tongue faltered, and my firmness forsook me. Beckoning therefore to the clerk to sing the Psalm, I went up into the pulpit and having exhorted the members of the church to hold fast the profession of their faith without wavering, and to depend upon the promises of a faithful God for their present comfort and future relief, I finished this irksome business, and Apoquiniminck Church [Delaware] from that day has continued shut up.

The Great Contradiciton

John Allen, an obscure Baptist minister recently arrived in Boston from England, preached at Second Baptist Church in 1772 on “An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty.” Even though Allen spoke eloquently for liberty, he did not flinch from addressing the great contradiction he saw in America. 

Every tie of nature, every sensation of humanity, every bowel of pity, every compassion as a Christian, engages me to speak for the personal liberty and freedom of those who are the most distressed of all human beings, the natives of Africa. Were they thus distressed by Indians, Mahometans [Muslims], or Turks with respect to their liberty, they would have a right to be redressed and set free. But for mankind to be distressed and kept in slavery by Christians, by those who love the gospel of Christ, for such to buy their brethren . . . and bind them to be slaves to them and their heirs for life!—be astonished, ye Christians, at this!

And what is more shocking even to the tenderness of nature is to export them for filthy lucre into the hands of men—tyrants. But what is more alarming yet, and exceeds all bounds, is for one Christian and member of a church to export another and banish her to be a slave when in full communion in the church. Was ever such a thing heard of in the house of God before!

Tell it not in Gath! Publish it not in the streets of Boston! Shall no plea be heard? Shall no argument prevail to let these oppressed ones go free? Have Christians lost all the tenderness of nature, the feelings of humanity, or the more refined sensations of Christianity? Or have the ministers in silence forgot to shew their people this iniquity? O could they bear to see—to see, did I say?—nay to feel their children rent from their arms and see them bound in irons and banished to be slaves! O killing thought! . . .

This unlawful, inhuman practice is a sure way for mankind to ruin America and for Christians to bring their children, and their children’s children, to a morsel of bread. Much has been wrote, and well wrote, to dissuade the Americans from the practice of so great an evil. Many begin to listen to the laws of humanity and the force of the argument. But surely what the prophet Isaiah says will be sufficient with every true minister of the gospel, and with every Christian and Son of Liberty in America—Isa. 58:6: “Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, let the oppressed go free, that ye break every yoke.”

By the

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #50 in 1996]

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