"These blessings of the English Constitution": an Old High sermon on the duty to oppose the rebellion

In the parish of Croydon on 13th December 1776, East Apthorp entered his pulpit to preach the fast day sermon. Formerly a SPG missionary in Massachusetts and then vicar of Christ Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was forced to flee the province in 1764 amidst rumours that he was going to be appointed a bishop for the colonies. He then became vicar of Croydon.

Needless to say, this background gave added significance to Apthorp's fast day sermon.  He was well aware of the hostility to Church and Crown in Massachusetts, where the rebellion originated, a civil war (and note, again, the consistent use of this description in the fast day sermons) which he could only view as divine chastisement on Empire and colonies:

The rebellion in America, and the civil war which has raged in our colonies for two campaigns, cannot, by any thinking mind, be resolved merely into political causes. The real or supposed grievances, that might affect the liberty or property of the Americans, were not at all proportioned to such an effect, as the revolt of thirteen provinces, united in a rebellious association to assert an independency and establi┼┐h a republic. Such an astonishing enterprize can be resolved into nothing less, than the vindictive providence of God, justly chastising a corrupted nation, both in its seat of empire, and in its distant dependencies.

The restoration of civic peace and constitutional order was regarded by Apthorp as possible, necessary and - above all - a virtuous restoration of the Revolution Settlement's ordered liberty through the authority of Crown in Parliament:

The rebellion and declaration of independency, is, from the best judgment I can form, rather the wicked enterprize of some ambitious and bigoted individuals , than the genuine sense of all the colonies. Nor is the present contention a deadly feud, incapable of healing and of reconciliation. On the contrary, I venture to offer my honest conjecture, that our victories followed by lenient measures, worthy of English magnanimity, will be productive of a very speedy return to their duty and allegiance. And His Majesty will soon have the exalted pleasure, of bowing the hearts of all his revolted subjects, even as the heart of one man. Away then with those chimerical ideas of separation and independent interests, which would fatally dismember the noblest, because the most equitable, system of dominion that ever existed; and which derives all its greatness from being united in one invincible bulwark of civil freedom and protestant truth. Let us then ardently wish for the happy time, when these blessings of the English constitution shall be extended to the remotest regions of the East and West; when England and her Colonies shall be reunited in the golden chain of amity and love, by an equitable system of government and dependence, of reciprocal commerce, aid, and protection.

Frazer's superb study of the opposition of the Loyalist clergy to the rebellion notes:

the motto of resistance theology was the nonbiblical phrase "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."  In contrast, the catchphrase of the Loyalist ministers was "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers" - the direct text of Romans 13:1.

Apthorp's sermon demonstrates this by placing the rejection of rebellion in the context of traditional just war teaching and, distinguishing rebellion from the "necessary revolution" of 1688, reiterating the necessity of  obedience to the civil magistrate with a reference to Romans 13:

And here, perhaps, it may be expected that I should explicitly offer my sentiments on the civil war with our Colonies considered in a religious view. Christianity condemns offensive war; but it braces the soldier's arm in a just and honourable cause: such as the repelling an aggressor, the chastising and suppressing an unjust and causeless rebellion. I say, unjust and causeless, because a Christian state cannot, while administered on Christian principles, give just occasion to an invader or a rebel to take up arms against it. But because Christian policy is administered by and over fallible men, and therefore offences must arise; Christianity ever dictates moderate counsels, and the way of compromise, negotiation, and mutual concession. Nor does religion ever authorise the taking up arms on the part of the subject, except only in a case that cannot happen under a Protestant and free government, the case of extreme necessity: Such was the case, when England asserted herself against a despotic and intolerant tyranny, and fixed her civil and religious freedom by a necessary revolution ... So improperly are these examples alleged in vindication of the Americans in their recourse to arms; the most unnecessary and the most criminal, as well as the most calamitous measure they could have adopted. In cases short of extreme necessity, and scarce supposable under a Protestant government; if subjects take up arms, and assume an independent power, Christian sovereigns bear not the sword in vain, they are ministers of wrath to them that do evil.

The sermon concluded with a call for a renewed Christian charity in the polity ("in love and charity with your neighbours" comes to mind), a charity overturned and rejected by the rebellion and its pursuit of "impious and cruel war":

As [Christ] included all men in the gracious purpose of redemption, we are to exclude none from our love, on account of casual enmity or political partiality. Suspend but for a short interval the impulse of benevolence, society, deprived of a principle so essential to its well-being, languishes and declines; from polished or humane becomes barbarous and savage, and experiences every calamity that can result from hatred, fraud, and force, such has been and still is the unhappy condition of the American Colonies. Restore and revive the principle of benevolence, and, almost instantly, order will result from confusion, peace to a restless and a troubled world; law and justice will succeed to impious and cruel war.

Apthorp's sermon might be considered an extended meditation on the Litany's petition, "From all sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion ... from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and Commandment, Good Lord, deliver us". This, as Apthorp demonstrated in characteristic Old High fashion, was distinguished from the Revolution of 1688, an emphasis that would be central, of course, to Burke's response to the Revolution in France.  The political and moral duty to defend the goodly order of the 1688 Settlement, with its ordered liberty contrasting with both autocratic and democratic tyranny, flowed from the peace, justice, and concord it secured. Here, then, was a profoundly theological vision of civic peace and communal obligations underpinning the response of Church and Crown to the American rebellion.

(The painting, by an unknown artist, shows Crown forces landing at Kip's Bay, Manhattan, on 15th September 1776, an operation which led to Washington ending his occupation of New York and the authority of the Crown being restored in the city.)


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