To exit or remain? The July 4, 1776, question

Jul 4, 2016 by

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In 1776 my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Christian Yoder, Jr., moved his family by team and wagon from Berks County, Pa., to the far western frontier of the state. A man now in his early 50s, he had emigrated to this country in 1742 at age 16 with his widowed father, and now felt he needed to make another major move.

It is likely that he and his father, Christian Sr., had risked the hazardous transatlantic journey 32 years earlier for two reasons. One was to avoid having Christian Jr. conscripted into the Swiss army; the other was to experience the kind of religious freedom and tolerance William Penn promised religious minorities in the New World.

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

This created a serious dilemma for the members of their Anabaptist community. To them, King George’s rule seemed anything but tyrannical in comparison to all they had experienced in western Europe. Besides, they understood 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 independence began, 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 Amish to do? Not given to making political protests, some just moved west.

Here are some of the principles 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 routinely 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 Mennonite 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. 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 going up and down the Philadelphia Pike to see who would be willing to feed their enemies. Mennonites insisted they were not offering hospitality to others because they were either British or revolutionaries, but simply because they were hungry or in need of shelter.

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 always 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, and after contentious debate, the more militant members of the Continental Congress persuaded the colonies to cut their ties to the British crown and to leave.

Could there have been a better way to achieve greater independence, liberty and freedom than through a revolutionary war, as in the case of Canada, Australia, Poland and countless other countries in the past?

This is a revised version of something I posted five years ago. 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 and in historian John Ruths The Earth is the Lord’s, a Narrative of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.

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