How Reformed Political Thinkers Defended Popular Sovereignty from the Bible

April 13, 2017

The people of Israel ask the Prophet Samuel for a king, as found in 1 Samuel 10 and 11 in the Bible.

Following Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin who indirectly supported the idea of popular sovereignty, the people’s rule, based on the Bible and the early church; the political thinkers of the Reformation era—including pseudonymed “Stephen Junius Brutus” and Samuel Rutherford—more directly defended popular sovereignty in the civil state, also based on the Bible.

In his well-known 1579 Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos), the anonymous Brutus supports the people’s authority from God to choose a ruler based on Deuteronomy 17 and 1 Samuel 10 and 11.  In Deuteronomy 17:14-15, Moses prophesies that the Israelites will set over themselves a king when they enter the land of Canaan:  “You shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses, one from among your brethren.”  In 1 Samuel 10 and 11, the people of Israel ask God for king via the prophet Samuel.  In response, Samuel anoints Saul following God’s direction, but Saul does not become king until he is confirmed by the people.  First, the king is nominated by the people, and then he is voted in by the people.  In these verses, Brutus says, God grants the people sovereignty in selecting their own king.  Brutus concludes that there is scriptural basis for popular sovereignty: 

In his 1644 Lex Rex, Rutherford similarly espouses the principle of popular sovereignty and bases his argument on the practice of the Israelites.  In addition to citing 1 Samuel 10, 11, and 12 like Brutus, he also cites numerous other verses to show how the people of Israel held political authority under God, including 2 Chronicles 22 and 23.  In Chronicles, Athaliah tries to kill the royal line of Judah, unlawfully usurps the throne, and makes herself queen without the people’s consent.  The people, in turn, overthrow her and crown the rightful king, Joash.  Rutherford concludes that “the power of creating a man a king is from the people.”

Athaliah Expelled from the Temple by Antoine Coypel, 1699.  The painting is based on 2 Chronicles 22 and 23 in the Bible.

The idea of popular sovereignty challenged absolute power in both the church and civil state, and the consent of the governed was recognized.  The corresponding view of the right to resist tyranny also emerged.  Subsequently, the idea of popular sovereignty impacted those in Europe and who came to America.  It became an important principle in American political thought.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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 Blogs/Videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
2.  How Protestant Religious Reformers Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
3.  How Catholic Churchmen Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
4.  The Context of the Protestant Reformation
5.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
6.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
7.  The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation Era
8.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation


The Principle of Popular Sovereignty: The Consent of the Governed

Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 7:  Biblical Basis of Popular Sovereignty, p. 57, 329.  HS.
See also Miracle of America text, p. 47.

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

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Published by: The Founding

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