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Jonathan Mayhew: Conservative Revolutionary
Unformatted Document Text:  Introduction Jonathan Mayhew’s place in American revolutionary thought revolves principally around three sermons he delivered from his pulpit in Boston’s West Church: his 1750 Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, an August 1765 sermon on the Stamp Act crisis, and his May 1766 The Snare Broken. The Discourse earned him a reputation for political radicalism and was, according to John Adams, “read by everybody; celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies.” 1 The 1765 sermon was perceived as a call for action based on the principles he had espoused in the Discourse and established Mayhew’s reputation as an advocate for violent resistance to perceived tyranny. Finally, the 1766 sermon, which he preached less than two months before he died, struck a demonstrably humbler and seemingly more conservative tone. Reconciling these sermons, and more generally determining whether Mayhew’s political thought embodied a coherent core, is the subject of this essay. The Discourse is Mayhew’s defense of the doctrine of resistance to tyranny based on his interpretation of Romans xiii, 1-8, which he read to permit—and even to require—resistance to oppressive authority. Preached on the anniversary of the regicide of Charles I, Mayhew’s sermon contested the standard Anglican sermon admonishing passive obedience to political authority. 2 Mayhew’s August 1765 sermon, delivered to a “crowded audience,” took for its 1 The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston: 1850-56) x, 288. The printing of the Discourse sparked a six-month newspaper war on the question of resistance to government and it was quickly reprinted and widely distributed throughout the colonies. It was reprinted in the colonies in 1775. On the influence of the sermon and the controversy surrounding it, see Patricia Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (Oxford, 1986), 197; Charles W. Akers, Called unto Liberty: A Life of Jonathan Mayhew, 1720-1766 (Harvard, 1964), 89-91. On the influence of Mayhew’s rhetoric on other Revolutionary patriots, see Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford, 1986), 240-244. 2 Anglican clergy were required on the anniversary to preach the Oxford “homily ‘against disobedience and wilful rebellion’ or to preach a sermon against that sin.” C. H. Van Tyne, “Influence of the Clergy, and of Religious and Sectarian Forces, on the American Revolution,” The American Historical Review 19 (October 1913), 51. See John W. Thornton, Pulpit of the American Revolution (Da Capo Press, 1970), 42. While the doctrine of passive obedience was not prevalent in the colonies, it was kept alive by preachers like Mayhew and in popular publications like Trenchard and Gordon’s the Independent Whig, which drew on the high-Anglican priests like the Reverend Doctor Henry Sacheverell, who, after 1688, continued to be a voice “for Jacobites, divine right dogmatists, and 2

Authors: Lubert, Howard.
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Introduction
Jonathan Mayhew’s place in American revolutionary thought revolves principally around
three sermons he delivered from his pulpit in Boston’s West Church: his 1750 Discourse
Concerning Unlimited Submission, an August 1765 sermon on the Stamp Act crisis, and his May
1766 The Snare Broken. The Discourse earned him a reputation for political radicalism and was,
according to John Adams, “read by everybody; celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies.”
The 1765 sermon was perceived as a call for action based on the principles he had espoused in
the Discourse and established Mayhew’s reputation as an advocate for violent resistance to
perceived tyranny. Finally, the 1766 sermon, which he preached less than two months before he
died, struck a demonstrably humbler and seemingly more conservative tone. Reconciling these
sermons, and more generally determining whether Mayhew’s political thought embodied a
coherent core, is the subject of this essay.
The Discourse is Mayhew’s defense of the doctrine of resistance to tyranny based on his
interpretation of Romans xiii, 1-8, which he read to permit—and even to require—resistance to
oppressive authority. Preached on the anniversary of the regicide of Charles I, Mayhew’s
sermon contested the standard Anglican sermon admonishing passive obedience to political
authority.
Mayhew’s August 1765 sermon, delivered to a “crowded audience,” took for its
1
The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston: 1850-56) x, 288. The printing of the Discourse sparked
a six-month newspaper war on the question of resistance to government and it was quickly reprinted and widely
distributed throughout the colonies. It was reprinted in the colonies in 1775. On the influence of the sermon and the
controversy surrounding it, see Patricia Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in
Colonial America
(Oxford, 1986), 197; Charles W. Akers, Called unto Liberty: A Life of Jonathan Mayhew,
1720-1766
(Harvard, 1964), 89-91. On the influence of Mayhew’s rhetoric on other Revolutionary patriots, see
Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford, 1986),
240-244.
2
Anglican clergy were required on the anniversary to preach the Oxford “homily ‘against disobedience and wilful
rebellion’ or to preach a sermon against that sin.” C. H. Van Tyne, “Influence of the Clergy, and of Religious and
Sectarian Forces, on the American Revolution,” The American Historical Review 19 (October 1913), 51. See John
W. Thornton, Pulpit of the American Revolution (Da Capo Press, 1970), 42. While the doctrine of passive
obedience was not prevalent in the colonies, it was kept alive by preachers like Mayhew and in popular publications
like Trenchard and Gordon’s the Independent Whig, which drew on the high-Anglican priests like the Reverend
Doctor Henry Sacheverell, who, after 1688, continued to be a voice “for Jacobites, divine right dogmatists, and
2


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