Vol I No. 7
The Christian Year

King Charles I and the American Revolution

by Roberta Bayer

Charles_I_of_England_and_Henrietta_of_FranceJanuary 30, according to the Book of Common Prayer, is the Feast of Charles the Martyr. On that day in 1649, Charles Stuart, Charles I, monarch of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, was beheaded after a short trial. Afterwards, the country was subjected to the rule of Parliament and then to the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. So began the Interregnum or Commonwealth, during which various experiments at Parliamentary governing were attempted and failed, and then, after Cromwell’s death, Charles I’s son returned to England from France and was crowned Charles II.

The Restoration of 1660 legally restored the Church of England and the use of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, formerly outlawed by the Parliament, and in subsequent years January 30 became the date on which the execution of Charles I, sometimes called martyr, was remembered, and not infrequently accompanied by fasting and acts of humiliation.

This day in the liturgical calendar also gave excuse for preachers to speak to the vexed political question of passive obedience and non-resistance to a monarch. Well into the late eighteenth century, in Great Britain and in the North American colonies, those with Whig or Tory sympathies would preach very different sermons. A Whig would preach in favor of parliamentary sovereignty and against the tyranny of kings, while a preacher with Tory sympathies would exhort obedience to kingly and divine authority from the pulpit.

Interestingly, then, a person can learn much about American history by reading pre-revolutionary sermons preached on January 30. Church attendance in the eighteenth century and standards of preaching were superior to those of today. An excellent sermon would have been printed and circulated throughout the colonies and in Great Britain, and would have become a topic of debate and discussion in salon and pub.

The most famous and influential of Whig sermons preached in the colonies was entitled A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers. Authored by the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), it was delivered at the West Church in Boston in 1750. John Adams was in congregation on that day and later noted that it gave him reason to favor American independence from the crown. This sermon was so widely read over the next two decades that it was more influential than Paine’s Common Sense in justifying rebellion in the cause of independence.  It was so significant to Adams that he sent a copy of it to Jefferson in the early 1820s to explain the development of his political ideas.

Mayhew argued that obedience to the higher authorities commended by St. Paul in Romans 13 did not and could not extend to a tyrant, and that Charles I was rightly put to death, having acted tyrannically against laws duly ordained by Parliamentary statute and court. In an exercise of interesting Biblical exegesis on this passage, the cause of popular sovereignty and the execution of Charles I was vindicated against the idea of divine right, laying a foundation for revolution in the colonies.

Many a Tory cleric took the opportunity to defend divine right and the impropriety of rebellion against a monarch in response to Mayhew. Among those who had sympathy for the Tory cause and the cause of monarchy in the colonies was the Reverend Jonathan Boucher (1738-1804), a loyalist, Episcopal minister, and tutor to George Washington’s stepson.  He preached On Civil Liberty, Passive Obedience and Non-resistance to a congregation which included George Washington on January 30, 1775. Taking as his text Galatians 5. iStand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free — Boucher stated that on a strict interpretation of the treatment of liberty in Scripture, Christ has offered us liberty from sin, not liberty from political rulers we dislike. He concluded that there was absolutely no justification for revolution against George III — to no avail one might add.

Today American Episcopalians and Anglicans ought to remember the anniversary of the execution of Charles I not simply as a quaint moment in ecclesial history on which to drink a toast to the Stuart cause and lament the excesses of republicanism, but to study the sermons of pre-revolutionary America that date to that anniversary. These sermons reveal much about the politico-theological context in which the colonists came to terms with their situation under British Crown and Parliament, and one might easily draw the conclusion that the American Revolution was a continuation of the Commonwealth and the rebellion against monarchy in 1649. On the note of personal reflection, the study of these texts might also encourage one to ponder the ways in which Scripture may inadvertently serve to support political ends today.