The previous article on civil obedience and disobedience considered the topic in general and stated the Christian argument for obedience to just or neutral commands from the powers-that-be:

The article also stated the obligation to refuse active cooperation and to disobey passively commands to do something clearly unjust or sinful.  On those points the theological tradition is generally unanimous.  The article concluded by stating a problem concerning which Christian theologians disagree:  that is, in addition to passive refusal to do something sinful, may Christians also actively resist a sinful command?  May Christians even actively resist a thoroughly evil magistrate or tyrant, who systematically demands wickedness, by engaging in revolution or tyrannicide?  This article will deal with this question concerning active, as opposed to passive, disobedience.

In the Western Church the medieval scholastics held varying positions on this last question.  In considering a case in which ‘a tyrant’s excesses grow intolerable’, Aquinas (or his disciple, Ptolemy of Lucca) notes in Concerning Princely Rule some cases when the problem may be dealt with by what might be called constitutional and lawful means.  If, for instance, the people have the right to institute or remove a ruler, then if the ruler becomes tyrannical the people may exercise their right to remove him.  Likewise, if a ruler is himself under a higher authority (for example, if a king exercises authority under an emperor), then the higher authority may act.  Finally, God may act to put down a tyrant as he put down Pharaoh in Exodus.

Aquinas also develops an argument that might, in combination with others, provide a foundation to support active resistance or tyrannicide.  That is, Aquinas in his theory of law argues that a positive law which contradicts the divine or the natural law in fact lacks the form of law and is therefore null (S.T. I‑II, 95.2; 90.1).  A tyrannical regime that maintains an outward semblance of lawfulness, as by legislating its enormities, is in fact lawless if it acts against higher laws.  For example, a ruler cannot make directly willed abortions ‘lawful’, because such killings are contrary to natural and divine law.

Nonetheless, apart from cases involving constitutional or divine remedies, Aquinas is not very encouraging for those considering active resistance to a ruler, tyrannicide, or what he calls ‘private presumption’.  Aquinas notes that under tyrannical Roman emperors many Christians ‘suffered cheerfully and without resistance’.  He further notes, ‘How harmful to the community and civil authority if private presumption could plot the death of rulers, even when they were tyrannical:  more often than not, it would be bad citizens, not good ones, who would embark on these dangerous courses.’ (De Regimine Principum, i.7).

John Finnis argues that Aquinas was more open to tyrannicide than might first appear and that his path to this openness lies through the right to self-defense:

..[I]f one is about to be arrested or in some other way unjustly attacked by the tyrant…one has the right to defend oneself (and others in like danger), meeting force with force – if need be lethal in its effects….Here then is a private right which might extend as far as a kind of tyrannicide….[[1]]

John of Salisbury, though like Aquinas a papalist ecclesiastic of the high Middle Ages, is much more clearly and unambiguously open to tyrannicide and active resistance to evil commands or laws.  John himself at times was exiled by Henry II when, like Thomas Becket, he opposed royal encroachment on Church power and clerical immunities.

This medieval debate is reflected in the English world of the 16th and 17th centuries by opposing parties on the question of the legitimacy of active disobedience.

On the one hand, Roman Catholics and Reformed (or Calvinist) Christians tended to permit active disobedience and, in extreme cases, tyrannicide.  In this period a ‘tyrant’ was particularly likely to be so labelled due to his or her religious policy, as when in 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I and claimed to depose her and to absolve Englishmen of their duty of obedience to her.  The bull of excommunication, Regnans in excelsis, was provocatively nailed to the palace of the bishop of London on the feast of Corpus Christi, June 2nd. [[2]]  This papal invitation to revolution and, indirectly but foreseeably, to invasion by foreign powers, tainted Roman Catholicism in England with the brush of disloyalty and treason for centuries.

John Calvin comments briefly on political matters in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter xx.  In general Calvin demands obedience to the civil rulers.  Calvin, however, also advocates checks on absolutizing tendencies and, particularly, urges lesser magistrates (such as the Spartan ephors), where they exist, to exercise their right to resist a tyrant.  In going so far Calvin is not far from the position of Aquinas.  As often was (and is) the case, however, Calvinists took brief comments by Calvin and developed them heavily.  The French Huguenot magnates, who tended also to be the Huguenots’ political writers and theoreticians, in particular took Calvin’s hints in this matter and ended by both asserting their right actively to resist injustice and also even asserting a right to tyrannicide.  Scots Calvinists, such as George Buchanan, John Knox, and Samuel Rutherford, took the argument further still.  Anglican apologists naturally enjoyed tweaking both the Romanists and the Reformed with their practical agreement on this issue:  the ‘Puritan-Papist’ or ‘Jesuitical-Calvinistical’ alliance.

On the other hand, Anglicans and Lutherans argued that active disobedience was always ungodly, sinful, and contrary to all New Testament examples.  In England this line of argument ran consistently from Cranmer and the Tudor Homilies, through the writings of Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes, into the Caroline supporters of Charles I such as William Laud and Henry Hammond, and so down to the Non-Jurors and later High Churchmen.    The Anglican position was and is usually called ‘the doctrine of passive obedience’, but the term is somewhat misleading.  The argument was not for passive obedience to all commands of the magistrate, including his unjust commands, but only for passive rather than active resistance.  Disobedience in the sense of refusal to do something sinful or clearly immoral was part of the theory, but after such refusal of active obedience, the Christian was prohibited from any active resistance, rebellion, or tyrannicide.  A more accurate name for the theory, therefore, would seem to be the theory of passive disobedience, rather than passive obedience.  The older name for Anglican non-resistance is, however, too well-established to be dislodged now.

The Anglican position was so deeply and widely held that, as late as the mid-18th century, John Wesley could write that he was ‘an High Churchman, the son of an High Churchman’.  The grounds on which Wesley claims this title for himself were not his Eucharistic or sacramental doctrine or his ecclesiology.  Instead Wesley writes:

I am an High Churchman, the son of an High Church man, bred up from my childhood in the highest notions of passive obedience and non‑resistance. [[3]]

John Wesley here identifies the doctrine of passive obedience as the most noteworthy element of the high churchmanship with which he was brought up.  The same political theory ensured that most Anglican clergy in the American colonies were royalists and loyalists at the time of the American Revolution.  Wesley’s position was not eccentric, but mainstream:  from the point of view of virtually all Anglican and Lutheran theologians, the American Revolution was a clear violation of the duties established by Romans 13.

Because this position is almost never encountered among modern Anglicans, the evidence for its ubiquity in earlier centuries should be reviewed.  Here I will quote a sample of Anglican authorities on the subject.

The Elizabethan Homilies clearly teach passive obedience.  Two of the Homilies are devoted to the subject of obedience, An Exhortation to Obedience and An Homily against Disobedience and wilful Rebellion.  These two homilies dwell in great detail on the miseries and evils that attend rebellion.  ‘Is not rebellion the greatest of all mischiefs?’, one of them asks.   Indeed, ‘rebellion [is] worse than the worst government of the worst prince….’ [[4]]

On this last assertion the modern reader should recall the immediate background to the Tudor dynasty:  the confusion, bloodshed, and national misery of the Wars of the Roses.  Henry VIII was motivated, no doubt, by self-will, greed, and lust.  A confused royal succession, however, was a recipe for national disaster, and Henry’s desire to avoid that was perfectly reasonable.  In any case, the assertion that the worst king is better than rebellion was illustrated for Tudor men and women by their recent history.

Other passages in the Homilies assert that all men are obliged to obey the magistrate, even if he is evil [[5]]; that no one may obey an ungodly command but that such a command may only be resisted passively [[6]]; that to suffer patiently under an evil magistrate is only to follow David under Saul, Christ under Pilate, Saint Mary as she went to pay a tax, and the early Church under evil persecuting emperors [[7]].

On this issue, the Homilies have the status of an authoritative formulary, which subsequent (and preceding) Anglicans followed.  In the later part of Elizabeth’s reign, the profoundly influential Richard Hooker argued that if the prince offends, then

…there is Heaven, a tribunal, before which they shall appear:  on earth they are not accountable to any.  [[8]]

Hooker’s fuller political theory is not absolutist.  Hooker idealizes the English constitution, which requires a consensus of monarch, Lords (spiritual and temporal), and commons for legislation and which annexes to the monarch in parliament the Convocation of the Church for legislation in ecclesiastical affairs.  This consensus system is the ideal.  When the ideal is not met, however, Hooker’s politics do not allow for active resistance to an offending prince.

If any theologian of the 17th century approaches the authority of Hooker for subsequent Anglican thinking, he would be Lancelot Andrewes.   A significant number of Andrewes’s sermons were preached on the anniversaries of the Gowries and Gunpowder plots, and in these sermons and elsewhere Andrewes teaches passive obedience and exalts the anointed monarch.

Consider, for example, Andrewes’s sermon on I Chronicles xvi.22 (‘Touch not Mine anointed’) [[9]].  Andrewes argues that ‘The persons concerning whom, whom He styleth His Anointed, will fall out to prove the princes of the earth.’ (Page 49)  The prince is anointed by God, not by the pope (pp. 51f.), nor by the people.  Any claim that princely authority comes from popular choice is rejected as a ‘claim…of late begun to be buzzed of, as if they were christi populi’ (p. 52) rather than God’s Anointed.  In particular Andrewes rejects a right to rebellion or tyrannicide when he says that

If after [a prince] is ‘anointed’ he grow defective…prove a tyrant, fall to favour heretics, his anointing may be wiped off, or scraped off; and then you may write a book De justa abdicatione, make a holy league, touch him, or blow him up as ye list.  This hath cost Christendom dear…. (Page 57)

Andrewes in this matter writes primarily against Roman Catholics, with an occasional glance towards radical Protestants.  In either case, however, the rejection of a right to active disobedience is the same.

In the next generation of theologians, those who lived through the reign of Charles I and into the days of the civil wars and Interregnum, Henry Hammond (1605-1660) is representative on the issue of non-resistance.  Between 1644 and 1649 Hammond produced seven small works directly concerned with what he called ‘the grand State‑question of the times.’[[10]]  These works are:  Of Resisting the lawfull Magistrate under colour of Religion; Of the word KPIMA; Of the Zealots among the Jews; Of taking up the Cross; A Vindication of Christ’s reprehending St. Peter; Address to the Lord Fairfax; and, A Vindication of the Address. [[11]]  This question, actually a set of related questions, concerns the obedience due to the magistrate.  The question of obedience was the grand question of the times because of its direct bearing on the English civil wars that raged through the 1640s.  Hammond’s position on this question is neither surprising nor original:  he supports the doctrine of passive obedience held by all Laudian churchmen.  For Hammond ‘taking up the Cross’ means humbly accepting the consequence of conscientious disobedience.  Rebellion and active resistance to the magistrate are strictly condemned as sinful.

On this issue Jeremy Taylor agrees with older Anglican authorities and in this respect is representative of them.  Taylor goes so far as to argue that the duty of non‑resistance is

…but matter of fact, and the matter in Scripture being so plain that it needs no interpretation, the practice and doctrine of the church, which is usually the best commentary, is now but of little use in a case so plain.  But this also is as plain itself, and without any variety, dissent or interruption, universally agreed upon, universally practiced and taught…. [[12]]

It would be easy to multiply passages of this sort from other Anglican supporters of passive obedience, including notably William Laud.  There is in fact a clear continuity in teaching that takes the theory from older Christian sources and the era of the Elizabethan Homilies and the late Tudors and early Stuarts, through the Interregnum, into its heyday of the Restoration, and then through the disaster of James II, into the 18th century.  After the ‘Glorious Revolution’ the theory became something of a party position, held by High Churchmen and Tories and mightily inconvenient to William of Orange, the Hanoverians, and Americans.  It is an irony of history that George III, the dynastic beneficiary of one revolution against the doctrine of passive obedience, was himself spurned by another set of revolutionaries against the same.

Despite its limited appeal now, the theory represents one of the two main possible answers to the problem posed by a wicked civil authority.  In the history of Christian theology, the rejection of active disobedience and tyrannicide is the majority position.

[1] Aquinas.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1998.  Page 289.  Finnis presents the evidence on tyrannicide in Aquinas on pp. 287-91.

[2] Penry Williams.  The Later Tudors:  England 1547-1603.  Oxford:  Clarendon, 1995.  Page 258.  The bull can be found at:

[3] The Letters of  the Rev. John Wesley, A.M.   London:  Epworth, 1931.  Eight volumes ed. by John Telford.  Volume VI, p. 156.  This passage prefaces a discussion of the American Revolution, in which Wesley shows considerable sympathy for the American side, despite his ancestral principles.

[4] Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to Be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth of Famous Memory.  London:  S.P.C.K., 1908.  Pages 593f.

[5] Ibid.  Pages 113ff. and 597f.

[6] Ibid.  Pages 117f.

[7] Ibid.:  on David, pp. 601‑6; on Christ, pp. 608f.; on Saint Mary, pp. 607f.; on the early Church, p. 597.

[8] Laws of the Ecclesiastical Polity, VIII.ix.2.

[9] Volume IV in The Works of Lancelot Andrewes. New York:  AMS Press, 1967 (1854).  Page number of this volume cited in the text.

[10]  A Vindication of Dr. Hammond’s Addresse etc. from the Exceptions of Eutactus Philodemius in two Particulars etc. together with a brief Reply to Mr. John Goodwin’s  Hubristodikai as far as concerns Dr. Hammond (in Works, volume I, pp. 336‑350), p. 350.  ‘Vindication’ or ‘Vindicated’ appears in the titles of seven of Hammond’s works.

[11] The full title of Of Resisting recalls a phrase from the Elizabethan Homilies:  ‘religion now of late beginneth to be a colour of rebellion…’  (see Certain Sermons or Homilies, op. cit., p. 621).  The full title of the second to last work listed here is To the Right Honourable the Lord Fairfax and his Council of War, the humble address of Henry Hammond.

[12]  Heber‑Taylor, Volume X, p. 190.  Taylor, who generally tries to limit the body of dogmas, argues that the number and clarity of Biblical passages on non‑resistance are so great that one may ‘dogmatically…establish the doctrine of the rule.’  (Ibid., p. 186.)  A later Stuart convocation of the University of Oxford  declared the ‘most necessary doctrine’ of passive obedience to be ‘in a manner…the badge and character of the church of England….’  (‘The Judgment and Decree of the University of Oxford, Passed in Their Convocation, July 21, 1683, against Certain Pernicious Books and Damnable Doctrines, Destructive to the Sacred Persons of Princes, Their State and Government, and of All Humane Society’ in Divine Right and Democracy:  An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986], edited by David Wootton, p. 126.)

2 thoughts on “Civil Obedience and Civil Disobedience: Part 2, The Anglican Tradition

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