June 11: Election Day Sermon Series

“Defensive Arms Vindicated”
by Stephen Case (June 17, 1782)

Stephen Case’s 1783 “Defensive Arms Vindicated” alluded to John Knox, even citing specific page numbers.[1] In  Case’s same sermon, Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex was cited twice (once with reference to Rutherford’s original Question 32 about warrant for popular revolt), as was the later Jus Populi.[2]

At the outset, Case pays tribute to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for having had some value; however, he did not believe that a sufficient apologetic had been proffered for resistance, armed if necessary. As a first principle, he believed that “self preservation and defence is right and lawful, because it is congenite [ed., consistent] with, and irradicated in every nature that hath a self which it can preserve.” The battles on American soil would not have been as protracted, he thought, had it not been for “monsters in nature [who] are malignant in religion; and as great perverters of the law of nature as they are subverters of municipal laws, and everters of the laws of God.”

He defended the patience of Americans, but asserts that when they finally took up arms—after many petitions and peaceful efforts—they merely followed the patterns of other nations. To buttress this line of argument, he drew upon the well-known political disciples of Calvin. Case (although the original oration was delivered in June 1782 and unsigned, except by “a Moderate Whig”) esteemed Rutherford’s work as “unanswerable,” and viewed these Scottish authors as “learned patrons and champions for this excellent privilege [armed resistance] of mankind.” He also cited Westminster Assembly member Stephen Marshall’s “Meroz Cursed” sermon.[3]

He thought it a duty—unless his peers were “Passive slaves”—to resist tyranny whenever one is “by a good providence of God, called thereunto; and this we must do, if we would not be found betrayers of the liberties of our country and brethren, together with the ruin of our poor posterity, which, if we should neglect to do, we shall be instruments of delivering up these inestimable blessings into the devouring jaws of tyranny; which if we should be tame enough to do, shall we not bring on us the curse of Meroz and the curse of our brethren’s blood, crying for vengeance on the heads of the shedders thereof, and upon all who being in a capacity came not to their rescue.”

He outlined his argument as below—interestingly, in a fashion typical to the Reformers. One may see the fine distinctions in this as logically similar to a Just War argument.

  • I do allow that the ordinance of majestracy, which is of God, is not to be resisted; no, not so much as by disobedience or non-obedience; nay, not so much as mentally, by cursing in the heart, Eccles. x. 20. But a person clothed therewith, abusing his power, may be so far resisted; but tyrants, or magistrates turning tyrants, are not God’s ordinances; and there is no hazard of damnation for refusing to obey their unjust commands; but rather, the hazard of that is in walking willingly after the commandment, when the statutes of Omri are kept . . .
  • I do allow that rebellion is a damnable sin, except where the word is taken in a lax sense, as Israel of old is said to have rebelled against Rehoboam, and good Hezekiah against Senacherib, which was a good rebellion and a clear duty. Being taken there for resistance and revolt, in this sense, the Americans rising in arms may be called rebellion, for it is right and lawful, to all intents and purposes, to rebel against tyrants, as all are who offer, or attempt, to govern contrary to the laws of the land; for where law ceases, tyranny begins. But because the word is generally taken in an evil sense, many do not make the proper distinction between a lawful rebellion against tyrants, and an unlawful one against lawful authority.
  • I do allow passive subjection, in some cases, even to tyrants, when the Lord lays on that yoke; . . . but I do not say passive obedience, which is a mere chimera, invented in the brains of such sycophants and jack asses as would make the world slaves to tyrants. Whosoever suffereth, if he can shun it, is an enemy to his own being, and is a first cousin to a self-murderer; for every natural thing must strive to preserve itself against what annoyeth it; and also, he sins against the order of God who, in vain, hath ordained so many lawful means for the preservation of our being, if we suffer it to be destroyed, having power to help it.
  • I do abhor all war of subjects, professedly declared against a lawful king, who governs and rules according to law; as also all war against lawful authority, founded upon, or designed for maintaining principles inconsistent with government, or against policy and piety; . . .
  • I do disallow all war, without real necessity and great wrongs sustained; and that it ought not to be declared or undertaken upon supposed grounds, or pretended causes; and so the question is impertinently stated by the tories, whether or not it be lawful for subjects, or a party of them, when they think themselves injured, or to be in a capacity, to resist or oppose the supreme power of a nation?
  • I condemn all rising to revenge private injuries, whereby a country may be covered with blood, for some petty wrongs done to some persons great or small. I also abhor all revengeful usurping of the magistrates sword, to avenge ourselves for personal injuries . . .
  • I do also disclaim all rising in arms for trifles of our own things, or small injuries done to ourselves, but in a case of pure necessity, for the preservation of our lives, religion, laws, and liberties, when all that is dear to us as men and christians, are in hazard. So I am not for rising in arms to force any people to be of any particular religion, but to defend my own, and my country’s religion and liberties, from unjust force and violence, against kings and tyrants, that may encroach thereon.
  • Further from the rules of government it may be argued several ways. First. That power which is contrary to law, evil and tyrannical, can tie none to subjection; but if it oblige to any thing, it ties to resistance. But the power of a king against law, religion, and liberty, is a power contrary to law, evil and tyrannical, therefore, &c.
  • From the very end and true design of government, which must be acknowledged by all to be the glory of God and the good of mankind; yea all that have been either wise or honest have always held that the safety of the people is the supreme law
  • From the obedience required to government it may be argued thus: First. If we may flee from tyrants then we may resist them; but we may flee from tyrants therefore we may resist them.
  • From the resistance allowed in all governments, it may be argued thus: If it be duty to defend our religion, lives and liberties, against an invading army of cut throats, Turks, Tartars, &c. without or against the king’s warrant, then of course, it is and must be duty to defend the same against home bred tyrants, except we would subscribe ourselves home born slaves;
  • The 12th point, with 18 subpoints may be considered, if the reader wishes to see more of this sermon. Available online at: http://www.consource.org/document/defensive-arms-vindicated-by-stephen-case-presumably-1782-6-17/

A printed version is also available in Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991).

At one point, citing the massive On the Republic by Bodin, Case’s summary seems ineluctable: “If a king turn tyrant, he may lawfully, at his subjects request, be invaded, resisted, condemned, or slain by a foreign prince”—hence, if a “foreign prince may lawfully help a people, oppressed by their own sovereign, then people may resist themselves, if they be able; but the former is true, therefore the latter. The consequence cannot be denied, for foreigners have no more power or authority over another sovereign, than the people have themselves.”

Both full of Scripture and full of references to political history, this is one of the sturdiest messages of the period. And the relief behind this political sculpture is the history of Calvinistic political thought.

The panels of Geneva’s Reformation wall monument are all represented in this homily. This single sermon contained references to Knox (three times), George Buchanan (twice), William of Orange, Admiral Coligny, the French Huguenots;[4] and to cap off the Hall of Fame, Case even referred to one of Peter Martyr’s commentaries.[5] Thus, not only were the ideas of the Reformers still vital, but their writings were deemed authoritative enough to be cited in popular religious discourse several centuries later.[6]

Sounding very similar notes to Calvin’s earlier political melodies, Case asserted that private citizens were not justified in seeking revenge, but that self-defense was a “privilege of nature,” not an act usurping rightful jurisdiction. He summarized his thesis this way: “all laws permit force to be repelled by force; and the great and first law of nature allows self-defense.”[7] Case’s history of resistance holds forth many of the same examples as the works of Beza, Buchanan, and Knox. Case clearly knew Reformation sources very well. He brought up the 1550 Magdeburg Confession (relied upon by Knox, Calvin, Beza, and others) as teaching that resistance was permitted [meaningless] whenever Caesar should attempt “to root out religion, and subvert our liberties.”[8]

By Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church

Taken from Twenty Messages to Consider Before Voting

[1] Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 756, 673.

[2] Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 720, 755, 731, 758.

[3] Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 721, 759. Nathaniel Whitaker also drew on this text for his 1777 sermon (which was dedicated to George Washington), “An Antidote Against Toryism.” See Daniel C. Palm, ed., On Faith and Free Government (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), 154.

[4] Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 722, 724, 749.

[5] Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 756. The reference is to Martyr’s commentary on 2 Chronicles.

[6] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 259-281 provides an excellent survey of the impact of sermons during the critical 1764-1776 period.

[7] Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 726.

[8] Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 748.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *