The Pulpit and the American Revolution: Jonathan Mayhew

Leonard O. Goenaga

Article Series: The Pulpit and the Patriots

WEEK 2: The Pulpit and the American Revolution: Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766)

Jonathan Mayhew is one such example of these Pulpit Patriots.1 Robert Treat Pain, a signer of the Declaration and former attorney general, spoke of Mayhew as “The Father of Civil and Religious Liberty in Massachusetts and America.”2 John Adams also ranked him on par with Otis and Samuel Adams, and stated, “To draw the character of Mayhew would be to describe a dozen volumes.”3 In addition, according to Frederick L. Weis, Mayhew was regarded as the top New England preacher.4 Born 1720 as the son of Rev. Experience and Remember Mayhew, missionaries amongst the Indians, Mayhew was the son of distinction. He graduated from Harvard with honors at age 24, speaking of the influence as having been extensive on studying the “doctrines of civil liberty … as they were taught by, Plato, Demosthenes, Cicero. Sydney and Milton, Locke and Hoadley. And having learnt from the Holy Scriptures that wise, brave virtuous men were always friends of liberty. This made me conclude freedom was a great blessing.”5

 Mayhew’s most famous and widely read sermon, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, is a case in point regarding the influence and atmosphere of New England preaching.6 Given at the West Church in Boston, on January 30th 1750, Mayhew outlined a case of the People’s right to resist. It should also be noted that such a sermon, written twenty-six years prior to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, contains many of the various themes used to justify and exhort rebellion.7 Nearly a quarter century before revolt broke, “Mayhew argued it was unreasonable for any people to grant unlimited submission to a civil authority.”8 For this sermon, Mayhew was known as the “Morning Gun of the American Revolution,” and made it evident that before the work of Jefferson and others, congregants were already actively hearing “declarations of independence,” and sermons focused on “natural rights of life, liberty, and property,” long before their secular counterparts.9 This role of the Pulpit, as seen in Mayhew’s work, was essential in prepping the mindset of divine-sanctioned liberty.10

His influence is further seen in his relationship with James Otis, John Adams and Samuel Adams, where upon Mayhew’s suggestion in a letter dated June 8th 1766 to Otis, led to the eventual addition of Committees of Correspondence.11 These are but few examples of the power of both the Pulpit in setting the public’s mind on liberty, as well as the influence role such preachers played in the atmosphere and leadership of the American Revolution.


Jonathan Mayhew’s A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers and the Declaration of Independence Compared

“The sermon was widely read and quoted throughout the colonies and in Great Britain. It doubtless won for him his degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Aberdeen in 1751.”12

Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of Independence Jonathan Mayhew: A Discourse Concerning Unlimited

Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers

Jefferson’s Declaration: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the governed.” Mayhew’s Sermon: “The only reason for the institution of civil government, and the only rational ground for submission to it, is the common safety and utility.”
Jefferson’s Declaration: “Prudence, indeed will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light or transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Mayhew’s Sermon: “Now, as all men are fallible, it cannot be supposed that the public affairs of any state should be always administered in the best manner possible, even by persons of the greatest wisdom and integrity. Nor is it sufficient to legitimate disobedience to the higher powers that they are not so administered, or that they are in some instances very ill-managed; for upon this principle it is scarcely supposable that any government at all could be supported.”
Jefferson’s Declaration: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such a government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Mayhew’s Sermons, 1750: “Those in authority may abuse their trust and power to such a degree that neither the law of reason nor of religion requires that any obedience or submission be paid to them; but on the contrary that they should be totally discarded and the authority which they were before vested with transferred to others, who may exercise more to those good purposes for which it is given.”
Jefferson’s Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Mayhew’s Sermon, 26 years prior: “Nothing can well be imagined more directly contrary to common sense than to suppose that millions of people should be subjected to the arbitrary, precarious pleasure of a single man… so that their estates and everything that is valuable in life, and even their lives also, shall be absolutely at his disposal, if he happens to be wanton and capricious enough to demand them.”

For another example of Mayhew’s influence on the America Revolution read his May 23, 1776 sermon, The Snare Broken.


The Moral Liberal Research Writer, Leonard O. Goenaga, is a Baptist Associate Pastor (assigned to the Youth) at Glory of God Christian Fellowship, Raleigh, North Carolina; a Mentor (Computer Lab/Technology) at the Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club; a husband (to Katrina); and rugby coach. He holds a B.A. in Political Science (with a specific concentration in Political Theory, Social Contract, and Constitutionalism), a second B.A. in Religious Studies (with a concentration in World Religions and Early Christianity), a Master of Divinity in Christian Ethics, and an A.A. in Entrepreneurship. He has begun Ph.D with a concentration likely centered on an analysis of Locke’s Social Contract, H.L.A. Hart’s Legal System, American Constitutionalism, and Baptist Ecclesiology of Covenant. Visit his website at Leonardooh.com

Footnotes:

i See Figure 1 for portraits of the six Pulpit Patriots

ii Franklin Paul Cole, They Preached Liberty: 26

iii Ibid: 26

iv Frederick Lewis Weis. The Colonial Clergy and the Colonial Churches of New England. Baltimore Genealogical Pub. Co., 1977.

v Franklin Paul Cole, They Preached Liberty: 26-28.

vi A Second Sermon worthy of mention is his Thanksgiving discourse entitled, The Snare Broken. Occasioned by Parliament’s repeal of the Stamp Act, the sermon conveys a warning to William Pitt and other English readers that taking self-government into private hands in some circumstances must surely proceed from ‘self-preservation, being a great and primary law of nature.’ Sandoz Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, 2 Vols, 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998.

vii See Appendix I

viii Robert R. Mathisen, Critical Issues in American Religious History, 136

ix Franklin Paul Cole, They Preached Liberty: 33

x Ibid. 33

xi Ibid. 33

xii Franklin Paul Cole, They Preached Liberty 28, 29-33