Civil Obedience.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  Submission to government is involved in the very idea of the institution. None can govern if none submit: and hence is derived the duty of submission, so far as it is independent of Christianity. Government being necessary to the good of society, submission is necessary also, and therefore it is right.

  This duty is enforced with great distinctness by Christianity:—“Be subject to principalities and powers,”—“Obey magistrates.”—“Submit to every ordinance of man.”—The great question, therefore, is, whether the duty be absolute and unconditional; and if not, what are its limits, and how are they to be ascertained?

  The law of nature proposes few motives to obedience except those which are dictated by expediency. The object of instituting government being the good of the governed, any means of attaining that object is, in the view of natural reason, right. So that, if in any case a government does not effect its proper objects, it may not only be exchanged, but exchanged by any means which will tend on the whole to the public good. Resistance,—arms,—civil war,—every act is, in the view of natural reason, lawful if it is useful. But although good government is the right of the people, it is, nevertheless, not sufficient to release a subject from the obligation of obedience, that a government adopts some measures which he thinks are not conducive to the general good. A wise pagan would not limit his obedience to those measures in which a government acted expediently; because it is often better for the community that some acts of misgovernment should be borne, than that the general system of obedience should be violated. It is, as a general rule, more necessary to the welfare of a people that governments should be regularly obeyed, than that each of their measures should be good and right. In practice, therefore, even considerations of utility are sufficient, generally, to oblige us to submit to the civil power.

  When we turn from the law of nature to Christianity, we find, as we are wont, that the moral cord is tightened, and that not every means of opposing governments for the public good is permitted to us. The consideration of what modes of opposition Christianity allows, and what it forbids, is of great interest and importance.

  “Let every soul be subject unto the higher power. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. For rules are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.—He is the minister of God to thee for good,—a revenger, to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.”1—Upon this often—cited and often-canvassed passage, three things are to be observed:—

  1. That it asserts the general duty of civil obedience because government is an institution sanctioned by the Deity.

  2. That it asserts this duty under the supposition that the governor is a minister of God for good.

  3. That it gives but little other information respecting the extent of the duty of obedience.

  I. The obligation to obedience is not founded, therefore, simply upon expediency, but upon the more satisfactory and certain ground,—the expressed will of God. And here the superiority of this motive over that of fear of the magistrate’s power is manifest. We are to be subject, not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake,—not only out of fear of man, but out of fidelity to God. This motive, where it operates, is likely, as was observed in the first essay, to produce much more consistent and conscientious obedience than that of expediency or fear.

  II. The duty is inculcated under the supposition that the governor is a minister for good. It is upon this supposition that the apostle proceeds: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil;” which is tantamount to saying, that if they be not a terror to evil works but to good, the duty of obedience is altered. “The power that is of God,” says an intelligent and Christian writer, leaves neither ruler nor subject to the liberty of his own will, but limits both to the will of God; so that the magistrate hath no power to command evil to be done because he is a magistrate, and the subject hath no liberty to do evil because a magistrate doth command it.”2 When, therefore, the Christian teacher says, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers,” he proposes not an absolute but a conditional rule,—conditional upon the nature of the actions which the higher powers require. The expression, “There is no power but of God,” does not invalidate this conclusion, because the apostles themselves did not yield unconditional obedience to the powers that were. Similar observations apply to the parallel passage in 1st Peter:—“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king as supreme, or unto governors as unto them that are sent by him, for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well.” The supposition of the just exercise of power is still kept in view.

  III. The precepts give little other information than this respecting the extent of the duty of obedience. “Whosoever resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God,” is, like the direction to “be subject,” a conditional proposition. What precise meaning was here attached to the word “resisteth” cannot, perhaps, be known; but there is reason to think that the meaning was not designed to be precise,—that the proposition was general. “Magistrates are not to be resisted,”—without defining, or attempting to define, the limits of civil obedience.

  Upon the whole, this often-agitated portion of the Christian Scriptures does not appear to me to convey much information respecting the duties of civil obedience; and although it explicitly asserts the general duty of obedience to the magistrate, it does not inform us how far that duty extends, nor what are its limits. To say this, however, is a very different thing from saying, with Dr. Paley, that “As to the extent of our civil rights and obligations, Christianity hath left us where she found us; that she hath neither altered nor ascertained it; that the New Testament contains not one passage which, fairly interpreted, affords either argument or objection applicable to any conclusions upon the subject that are deduced from the law and religion of nature.”3 Although the 13th chapter to the Romans may contain no such passage, yet I think it can be shown that the New Testament does. Indeed, it would be a strange thing if the Christian Scriptures, containing, as they do, manifold precepts for the regulation of human conduct, manifold precepts of which the application is very wide, not to say universal,—it would, I say, be a strange thing if none of these precepts threw any light upon duties of such wide embrace as those of citizens in relation to governors.

  The error (assuming that there is an error) in the statement of Dr. Paley results, probably, from the supposition, that because no passage, specifically directed to civil obedience, contained the rules in question, therefore no rules were to be found in the volume. This is an error of every day. There are numberless questions of duty which Christianity decides, yet respecting which, specifically, not a word is to be found in the New Testament. These questions are decided by general principles, which principles are distinctly laid down. These three words, “Love your enemies,” are of greater practical application in the affairs of life than twenty propositions which define exact duties in specific cases. It is for these exact definitions that men accustom themselves to seek; and when they are not to be found, conclude that Christianity gives no directions upon the subject.

  Thus it has happened with the question of civil obedience. Now, in considering the general principles of Christianity, I think very satisfactory knowledge may be deduced respecting resistance to the civil power. Those precepts to forbearance, to gentleness, to love, to mildness, which are iterated as the essence of the Christian morality, apply, surely, to the question of resistance. Surely there may be some degrees and kinds of resistance which, being incompatible with the observance of these principles, Christianity distinctly forbids. If indeed the reader has given assent to our reasonings respecting self-defence (especially if he shall give his assent to the reasonings on war), he will readily admit that Christianity forbids an armed resistance to the civil power. Let me be distinctly understood. It forbids this armed resistance, not in as much as it is directed to the civil power, but in as much as such violence to any power is incompatible with the purity of the Christian character.

  Concluding, then, that specific rules respecting the extent of civil obedience are not to be found in Scripture, we are brought to the position, that we must ascertain this extent by the general duties which Christianity imposes upon mankind, and by the general principles of political truth. In attempting, upon these grounds, to illustrate our civil duties, I am solicitous to remark, that the individual Christian who, regarding himself as a journeyer to a better country, thinks it best for him not to meddle in political affairs, may rightly pursue a path of simpler submission and acquiescence than that which I believe Christianity allows. Whatever may be the peculiar business of individuals, the business of man is to act as the Christian citizen,—not merely to prepare himself for another world, but to do such good as he may, political as well as social, in the present. And yet, so fundamentally, so utterly incongruous with Christian rectitude, is the state of many branches of political affairs in the present day, that I know not whether he who is solicitous to adhere to this rectitude is not both wise and right in standing aloof. This consideration applies, especially, to circumstances in which the limits of civil obedience are brought into practical illustrations. The tumult and violence which ordinarily attend any approach to political revolutions are such, that the best and proper office of a good man may be rather that of a moderator of both parties than of a partisan with either.—Nevertheless, it is fit that the obligations of civil obedience should be distinctly understood.

  Referring then to political truth, it is to be remembered that governors are established, not for their own advantage, but for the people’s. If they so far disregard this object of their establishment, as greatly to sacrifice the public welfare, the people (and consequently individuals) may rightly consider whether a change of governors is not dictated by utility; and if it is, they may rightly endeavour to effect such a change by recommending it to the public, and by transferring their obedience to those who, there is reason to believe, will better execute the offices for which government is instituted. I perceive nothing unchristian in this. A man who lived in 1688, and was convinced that it was for the general good that William should be placed on the throne instead of James, was at liberty to promote, by all Christian means, the accession of William, and consequently to withdraw his own, and to recommend others to withdraw their obedience from James. The support of the Bill of Exclusion in Charles the Second’s reign was nearly allied to a withdrawing of civil obedience. The Christian of that day who was persuaded that the bill would tend to the public welfare was right in supporting it, and he would have· been equally right in continuing his support if Charles had suddenly died, and his brother had suddenly stepped into the throne. If I had lived in America fifty years ago, and had thought the disobedience of the colonies wrong, and that the whole empire would be injured by their separation from England, I should have thought myself at liberty to urge these considerations upon other men, and otherwise to exert myself (always within the limits of Christian conduct) to support the British cause. I might, indeed, have thought that there was so much violence and wickedness on both sides, that the Christian could take part with neither; but this is an accidental connexion, and in no degree affects the principle itself. But, when the colonies were actually separated from Britain, and it was manifestly the general will to be independent, I should have readily transferred my obedience to tile United States, convinced that the new government was preferred by the people; that therefore it was the rightful government; and, being such, that it was my Christian duty to obey it.

  Now the lawful means of discouraging or promoting an alteration of a government must be determined by the general duties of Christian morality. There is, as we have seen, nothing in political affairs which conveys a privilege to throw off the Christian character; and whatever species of opposition or support involves a sacrifice or suspension of this character, is, for that reason, wrong. Clamorous and vehement debatings and harangues,—vituperation and calumny,—acts of bloodshed and violence, or instigations to such acts, are, I think, measures in which the first teachers of Christianity would not have participated; measures which would have violated their own precepts; and measures, therefore, which a Christian is not at liberty to pursue. Objections to these sentiments will no doubt be at hand: we shall be told that such opposition would be ineffectual against the encroachments of power and the armies of tyranny,—that it would be to no purpose to reason with a general who had orders to enforce obedience; and that the nature of the power to be overcome dictated the necessity of corresponding power to overcome it. To all which it is, in the first place, a sufficient answer, that the question is not what evils may ensue from an adherence to Christianity, but what Christianity requires. We renew the oft-repeated truth, that Christian rectitude is paramount. When the first Christians refused obedience to some of the existing authorities,—they did not resist. They exemplified their own precepts,—to prefer the will of God before all; and if this preference subjected them to evils, to bear them without violating other portions of His will in order to ward them off. But if resistance to the civil power was thus unlawful when the magistrate commanded actions that were morally wrong, much more clearly is it unlawful when the wrongness consists only in political grievances. The inconveniences of bad governments cannot constitute a superior reason for violence, to that which is constituted by the imposition of laws that are contrary to the laws of God. And if any one should insist upon the magnitude of political grievances, the answer is at hand,—these evils cannot cost more to the community as a state, than the other class of evils costs to the individual as a man. If fidelity is required in private life, through whatever consequences, it is required also in public. The national suffering can never be so great as the individual may be. The individual may lose his life for his fidelity, but there is no such thing as a national martyrdom. Besides, it is by no means certain that Christian opposition to misgovernment would be so ineffectual as is supposed. Nothing is so invincible as determinate non-compliance. He that resists by force may be overcome by greater force; but nothing can overcome a calm and fixed determination not to obey. Violence might, no doubt, slaughter those who practised it, but it were an unusual ferocity to destroy such persons in cool malignity. In such inquiries we forget how much difficulty we entail upon ourselves. A regiment which, after endeavouring to the uttermost to destroy its enemies, refuses to yield, is in circumstances totally dissimilar to that which our reasonings suppose. Such a regiment might be cut to pieces; but it would be, I believe, a “new thing under the sun,” to go on slaughtering a people of whom it was known not only that they had committed no violence, but that they would commit none.

  Refer, again, to America.—The Americans thought that it was best for the general welfare that they should be independent; but England persisted in imposing a tax. Imagine, then, America to have acted upon Christian principles, and to have refused to pay it, but without those acts of exasperation and violence which they committed. England might have sent a fleet and an army. To what purpose? Still no one paid the tax. The soldiery perhaps sometimes committed outrages, and they seized goods instead of the impost; still the tax could not be collected, except by a system of universal distraint.—Does any man, who employs his reason, believe that England would have overcome such a people? does he believe that any government or any army would have gone on destroying them? especially does he believe this, if the Americans continually reasoned coolly and honourably with the other party, and manifested, by the unequivocal language of conduct, that they were actuated by reason and by Christian rectitude? No nation exists which would go on slaughtering such a people. It is not in human nature to do such things; and I am persuaded not only that American independence would have been secured, but that very far fewer of the Americans would have been destroyed,—that very much less of devastation and misery would have been occasioned, if they had acted upon these principles instead of upon the vulgar system of exasperation and violence. In a word, they would have attained the same advantage, with more virtue, and at less cost. With respect to those voluble reasoners who tell us of meanness of spirit, of pusillanimous submission, of base crouching before tyranny, and the like, it may be observed that they do not know what mental greatness is. Courage is not indicated most unequivocally by wearing swords or by wielding them. Many who have courage enough to take up arms against a bad government have not courage enough to resist it by the unbending firmness of the mind,—to maintain a tranquil fidelity to virtue in opposition to power; or to endure, with serenity, the consequences which may follow.

  The Reformation prospered more by the resolute non-compliance of its supporters, than if all of them had provided themselves with swords and pistols. The most severely persecuted body of Christians which this country has in later ages seen, was a body who never raised the arm of resistance. They wore out that iron rod of oppression which the attrition of violence might have whetted into a weapon that would have cut them off from the earth; and they now reap the fair fruit of their principles in the enjoyment of privileges from which others are still debarred.

  There is one class of cases in which obedience is to be refused to the civil power without any view to an alteration of existing institutions,—that is, when the magistrate commands that which it would be immoral to obey. What is wrong for the Christian is wrong for the subject. “All human authority ceases at the point where obedience becomes criminal.” Of this point of criminality every man must judge, ultimately, for himself; for the opinions of another ought not to make him ober when he thinks it is criminal, nor to refuse obedience when he thinks it is lawful. Some even appear to think that the nature of actions is altered by the command of the state,—that what would be unlawful without its command is lawful with it. This notion is founded upon indistinct views of the extent of civil authority; for this authority can never be so great as that of the Deity; and it is the Deity who requires us not to do evil. The Protestant would not think himself obliged to obey, if the state should require him to acknowledge the authority of the pope. And why? Because he thinks it would be inconsistent with the Divine will: and this, precisely, is the reason why he should refuse obedience in other cases. He cannot rationally make distinctions, and say, “I ought to refuse obedience in acknowledging the pope, but I ought to obey in becoming the agent of injustice or oppression.”—If I had been a Frenchman, and had been ordered, probably at the instigation of some courtesan, to immure a man whom I knew to be innocent in the Bastile, I should have refused; for it never can be right to be the active agent of such iniquity.

  Under an enlightened and lenient government like our own, the cases are not numerous in which the Christian is exempted from the obligation to obedience. When, a century or two ago, persecuting acts were passed against some Christian communities, the members of these communities were not merely at liberty, they were required, to disobey them. One act imposed a fine of twenty pounds a month for absenting one’s self from a prescribed form of worship. He who thought that form less acceptable to the Supreme Being than another ought to absent himself notwithstanding the law. So, when, in the present day, a Christian thinks the profession of arms, or the payment of preachers whom he disapproves, is wrong, he ought, notwithstanding any laws, to decline to pay the money or to bear the arms.

  Illegal commands do not appear to carry any obligation to obedience. Thus, when the apostles had been “beaten openly and uncondemned, being Romans,” they did not regard the directions of the magistracy to leave the prison, but asserted their right to legal justice by making the magistrates “come themselves and fetch them out.” When Charles I. made his demands of supplies upon his own illegal authority, I should have thought myself at liberty to refuse to pay them. This were not a disobedience to government. Government was broken. One of its constituent parts refused to impose the tax, and one imposed it. I might, indeed, have held myself in doubt whether Charles constituted the government or not. If the people had thought it best to choose him alone for their ruler, he constituted the government, and his demand would have been legal,—for a law is but the voice of that governing power whom the people prefer. As it was, the people did not choose such a government: the demand was illegal, and might therefore be refused.


  Promises of oaths of allegiance to governors do not appear easily reconcileable with political reason. Promises are made for the advantage or security of the imposer; and to make them to governors seems an inversion of the order which just principles would prescribe. The security should be given by the employed party, not by the employer. A community should not be bound to obey any given officer whom they employ; because they may find occasion to exchange him for another. Men do not swear fidelity to their representatives in a senate.—Promising fidelity to the state may appear exempt from these objections, but the promise is likely to be of little avail: for what is the state? or how is its will to be discovered but by the voice of the governing power? To promise fidelity to the state is not very different from promising it to a governor.

  If it be said that promises of allegiance may be useful in periods of confusion, or when the public mind is divided respecting the choice of governors,—such a period is peculiarly unfit for promising allegiance to one. The greater the instability of an existing government, the greater the unreasonableness of exacting an oath. If an oath should maintain a tottering government against the public mind, it does mischief; and if a government is secure, an oath is not needed.

  The sequestered ministers in the time of Charles II. were required to take an oath, “declaring that they would not at any time endeavour an alteration in the government of the church or state.”4 One reason of their ejection was, that they would not declare their assent to every thing in the Book of Common Prayer. Why should these persons be required to promise not to endeavour an alteration in church government, when, probably, some of them thought the endeavour formed a part of their Christian duty? Upon similar grounds, it may be doubted whether the Roman Catholics of our day ought to declare, as they do, that they will no endeavour any alteration in the religious establishments of the country. To promise this without limitation is surely promising more than a person who disapproves that establishment ought to promise. The very essence of peculiar religious systems tends to the alteration of all others. He who preaches the Romish creed and practice does practically oppose the Church of England, and practically endeavour an alteration in it. And if a man thinks his own system the best, he ought, by Christian means, to endeavour to extend it.

  And even if these declarations were less objectionable in principle, their practical operation is bad. Some invasion or revolution places a new prince upon the throne,—that very prince, perhaps, whom the people’s oath of allegiance was expressly designed to exclude. What are such a people to do? Are they to refuse obedience to the ruler whom, perhaps, there are the best of reasons for obeying? Or are they to keep their oaths sacred, and thus injure the general weal? Such alternatives ought not to be imposed. But the truth is, that allegiance is commonly adjusted to a standard very distinct from the meaning of oaths. How many revolutions have oaths of allegiance prevented? In general a people will obey the power whom they prefer, whatever oaths may have bound them to another. In France; all men were required to swear “that they would be faithful to the nation, the law, and the king.” A year after these same Frenchmen swore an everlasting abjuration of monarchy! And now they are living quietly under a monarchy again! After the accession of William III. when the clergy were required to take oaths contrary to those which they had before taken to James, very few in comparison refused. The rest “took them with such reservations and distinctions as redounded very little to the honour of their integrity.”5

  Thus it is that these oaths, which are objectionable in principle, are so nugatory in practice. The mischief is radical. Men ought not to be required to engage to maintain, at a future period, a set of opinions which, at a future period, they may probably think erroneous; nor to maintain allegiance to any set of men whom, hereafter, they may perhaps find it expedient to replace by others.

1 Rom. xiii. 1—5.
2 Crisp: “To the Rulers and Inhabitants in Holland, &c.” Abt. Ann. 1670.
3 Mor. and Pol. Phil. b.6, c.4.
4 Southey’s Book of the Church.
5 Smollett’s History of England.

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