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Monday, July 4, 2011

To Submit or Not to Submit? The 1776 Question

In 1776 my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Christian Yoder, Jr., moved his family by team and wagon from Berks County, Pennsylvania, to the far western frontier of the state. A man now in his early fifties, he had emigrated to this country in 1742 at age sixteen with his widowed father, and was now ready to make another major move that would forever change his life.

It is likely that his father, Christian Sr., undertook the hazardous transatlantic journey that brought him to the new world for two reasons. One was to avoid having his young son conscripted into the Swiss army, the other was to enjoy the level of religious freedom and tolerance William Penn promised religious minorities in the New World.

These immigrant ancestors, having endured intense persecution and one bloody European war after another (often over religious conflicts), in 1776 faced another set of trials. Their new found place of refuge of 30-some years had become a land of turmoil, with Christian, Jr.,’s own sons now being in danger of being conscripted to help overthrow the British.

This created a serious dilemma for members of their Anabaptist community. To them, King George’s rule seemed anything but tyrannical in comparison to all they had experienced in the past. Besides, they read their Bibles as commanding them to submit to constituted authority in every way that didn’t violate their conscience.  As three Mennonite bishops in Pennsylvania wrote in 1773, "Through God's mercy we enjoy unlimited freedom in both civil and religious matters."

Ironically, once the fight for liberty started, the freedom of nonviolent Christians to live by their religious convictions became much more limited. By 1777 colonists were being forced to sign a pledge of loyalty to the revolutionary government, which incidentally never represented a full majority of its citizens, many of whom either remained Loyalist throughout the Revolutionary War or were neutral.

So what were the Quakers, Brethren, Mennonites and their Amish cousins to do? Not given to making political protests, some just moved west.

Here are some of the principles outlined in their Bibles that shaped their response:

Romans 12:14, 17 “Bless those who persecute you... Do not repay evil for evil.”
If this was to be the stance of first century Christians toward a Roman emperor like Nero, they reasoned, shouldn’t the same apply toward a far less malevolent King George III, whose authority was greatly limited by the English Bill of Rights (forerunner of our own) adopted in the prior century?

Romans 12:18 “If it is possible, as far as it is depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

In November 1775, Mennonite and German Baptist ministers sent "A Short and Sincere Declaration" to the Pennsylvania assembly. In it they suggested that as an alternative to militia duty they donate money and otherwise help any families left destitute because their husbands and fathers were off fighting. Instead Pennsylvania passed a law levying a special war tax on all non-associators. Later the state agreed nonresistant Christians could hire substitutes or pay a fine, which most felt they could not do, because as their Declaration stated, they found "no freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in anything by which men's lives are destroyed or hurt." As a result, Patriot officials confiscated their property to pay the taxes and fines.

Romans 12:19 “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

The 1775 Declaration also said, "We have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in everything that can be helpful to the preservation of their lives, but... we are not at liberty in conscience to take up arms to conquer our enemies, but rather to pray to God, who has power in heaven and on earth, for us and them."

Romans 12:20-21 “”If your enemies are hungry feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The Continental Congress made it illegal to provide lodging or food to any Loyalists, and illegal to even market food in Philadelphia while it was under British control. Three men from the Weaverland Mennonite Church were charged with treason for giving lodging and food to some escaped British prisoners, and a 70-year-old Susannah Longacre was sentenced to 117 lashes on her bare back (fortunately, this sentence was reduced to a lesser punishment) for offering food to some men who claimed to be British soldiers but were really American soldiers who were going up and down the Philadelphia Pike to see who would be willing to feed their enemies. These people did not offer hospitality to others because they were British or revolutionaries, of course, but simply because they were hungry or in need of shelter, enemies or not.

Romans 13:1-7 “We must submit ourselves to governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established....Give everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenues, then revenue; if respect, then respect: If honor, then honor.”
To these simple believers, armed resistance to authority was out of the question. They believed God wanted stability and order, not chaos or bloody conflict. On this point they were in agreement with John Wesley, whose widely circulated tract, “A Calm Address to the American Colonies,” sought to dissuade Christians from taking up arms against the Crown. Not that Wesley so much favored either the monarchy or the Anglican church, but  because he believed an imperfect peace was far better than a bloody war. And John Dickinson, a respected Quaker lawmaker from Delaware, made the same argument to his colleagues prior to their signing the Declaration of Independence (which he refused to do).

In the end, the more militant members of the Continental Congress won out. But could there have been a better way to achieve greater independence, liberty and freedom than through war, as in the case of Canada, Australia, Poland, Egypt and countless other countries over the past centuries?

What do you think?

Documentation for some of the above can be found in MacMaster, Horst and Ulle, "Conscience in Crisis" (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979), pp. 266-7 and 515-6. Thanks, John Ruth, for your help!
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