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American Revolution Debate: The Principle of Civil Covenants

July 12, 2018
July 12, 2018
July 12, 2018

Proclaiming Joash King by Edward Bird, 1815, Royal Academy of Arts

Before and during the American Revolution, American colonists asserted several Bible-based reasons to support their revolutionary cause and independence from Britain.  One reason they justified resistance was based on their understanding and value of “civil covenants.”

A civil covenant is an oath or solemn promise, often made before God as witness or guarantor, between the people of a civil state and their rulers.  The people elect a ruler, legitimizing the ruler’s authority, and the ruler takes an oath to rule justly and lawfully, doing good and not evil.  The people, in turn, promise to honor and submit to their ruler.  If the ruler becomes tyrannical or unjust, he breaks the covenant, and the people are released from their duty to submit.

Civil covenants were derived from the practice of covenants by the ancient Israelites in the Bible.  The principle was then picked up by the Christianized kingdoms of Europe where, as it were, many of Jewish descent also migrated.  In the late 1000s and early 1100s, for example, an Alsatian monk named Manegold of Lautenbach argued from the Bible in his Liber Ad Gebehardum (Letter to Gebehard) that Emperor Henry IV could be deposed because he broke his oath with the people to rule justly.  Manegold based this covenant on … 

Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants) presented two political covenants from the Bible for the civil state – between God and nation, and king and people.

The principle of civil covenants was further developed during the Reformation era of the 1500s and 1600s in Europe among French Huguenots who also cited the Bible, just as Manegold, to justify resistance to tyrants.  For example, the anonymous Stephen Junius Brutus wrote a widely-read 1579 political tract, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants) that identified two civil covenants practiced by the Israelites. … 

In 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 23, Joash is crowned king by covenant by Jehoiada the Priest and the people.

Not long after, British pastor Rev. Samuel Rutherford wrote his well-known 1644 Lex Rex (The Law and the Prince) acknowledging the two political covenants in the Bible between God and nation, and king and people.  With his work, Rutherford built on the covenant principle from Vindiciae and ultimately impacted the English Civil War.  Lex Rex also influenced British philosopher John Locke’s “social contract” idea which appeared in Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government.  This idea became important to the American Founders.

The relationship between the British Crown and the American colonies was based on a civil covenant as indicated by the colonial charters.  Colonists, however, believed that Britain, with its intrusive policies in the 1700s, had violated its promise to rule in favor of their rights, protection, preservation, and well-being (though King George III thought the colonists were the ones who had seditiously breached the covenant).  To Americans, Britain’s breach of covenant meant that Britain lost authority over the colonies, and the colonies had a right to defend themselves.

In addition, many colonists believed that God had a special covenant with America as the New Israel, the “promised land” of God’s people, and thus desired America’s freedom.  This covenant, they believed, could not be practiced in an oppressive environment because it required God’s Word to be authoritative and His people to freely, voluntarily commit to its principles.  Drawing from Exodus where God leads the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt, many colonists and clergy believed that God would similarly defend America’s freedom.  Rev. Judah Champion of Connecticut preached, “The Most High has gloriously owned the cause of liberty in New England and will continue to own it, unless we so abuse, as to sin away our privileges.”  Rev. Edward Barnard of Massachusetts asserted in a 1776 sermon on Psalm 122:3 that the colonies, like Jerusalem, were “compacted” together.  He argued that God gave America just as Israel “political laws as well as religious institutions whereby their liberty was secured beyond the possibility of reversal by an arbitrary monarch.”  Colonists thus believed that with God’s help they could successfully resist Britain.

American colonists held to the principle of civil covenants to help guide and support their cause for freedom and independence during the Revolutionary War.  Originating in the Bible and passed down through Western Civilization, this principle ultimately became a realized defense and foundation for a free, just society in America.  It was, in fact, the basis for the New England Pilgrim’s Mayflower Compact of 1620 and for Locke’s more secularized “social contract” to which the American Founders looked when forming the new nation of the United States of America.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  The Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
3.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact was a Covenant
4.  The Puritans Identified with the Israelites and Practiced Covenants
5Great Awakening Effects:  Unity, Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution 
6.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
7.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
8.  American Revolution often called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
9.  American Revolution Debate:  Submission to Authority
10.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
11.  How the American Revolution shed light on the Moral Problem of Slavery
12.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
13.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
14.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
15.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
16.  American Revolution Debate:  Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression & Divided Kingdom
17.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War
18.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 6, Part 2, Activity 3:  Bible-Based Justification for Revolution, p. 219, 359.  MS-HS.

Bible-Based Justification for Revolution

Purpose/Objective:  Students examine the Bible-based arguments made by Patriot Americans in support of revolution against Britain.  Students learn about the influence of the Bible during the Founding era.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 6 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 6.1 to 6.12.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Patriot Revolutionary Chart:
In your own words, explain/describe the following biblical principles or arguments used by many patriot Americans to justify/support the American Revolution.  Students may include the sources/thinkers who promoted each argument.  Provide relevant scripture verse(s) for each argument.  See the “Bible-Based Justification for Revolution” Patriot Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 359.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

Published by: The Founding

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