The American Revolution: Just War or Holy War?

You may think it absurd to suggest that the American Revolution was a Holy War. The term conjures up images of wild-eyed religious fanatics seeking the glory of martyrdom. However, in view of the historical revisionist tactics of the Christian Right, the question should be asked plainly: Was the American Revolution a holy war?

The most objective indication of the motivations of those early Americans in separating from England is the Declaration of Independence. This document states that all men are given certain rights by God that cannot be revoked, and it is only when a government becomes destructive of those rights that the people then have the right to oppose it.

The Declaration of Independence listed the “long train of abuses” that justified their revolt, for this was a decision they did not take lightly. It stated that the king “plundered [their] seas, ravaged [their] coasts, burned [their] towns, and destroyed the lives of [their] people.” It accused England of inciting violence between Americans, as well as stirring up the natives against them, along with many other acts of cruelty.

The American war for independence represented the struggle of men who had endured under great tyranny until their consciences would no longer permit them to remain passive. If ever there was a just war, they were persuaded that this was it. Certainly there were Christian zealots on both sides who pounded the pulpits claiming that God was on their side, but on America’s side it was a resistance to tyranny, not a war of conquest in the name of Christ.

Today there are those who claim that America was established as a “Christian Nation” founded on “Christian values” and are lobbying for its return to that foundation. Using carefully selected quotations apart from their historical and cultural context, they imply that those who fought the revolution were fighting for a Christian cause. However, the leading statesmen of that day declared explicitly the opposite. For example, the Treaty of Tripoli, drafted and signed under President Adams in 1797, put it quite bluntly: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion...” It was intended to assure the Muslims of Tripoli that they had no need to fear American aggression or prejudice due to religious conviction.

One of the foremost revisionists of the Christian Right, David Barton, was forced to admit the use of fraudulent quotations in his book, The Myth of Separation , to strengthen his case that the founding fathers of America never intended there to be a wall of separation between church and state. He asserts that what they really intended was a semi-permeable barrier that would keep the state from controlling the church, but allow the church to influence the state. His argument merely illustrates the fact that Christianity cannot be trusted to stay within the boundaries established by Christ Himself.

If it actually were a Christian cause that the early Americans were fighting for -- that is, a war compelled by the teachings of Christ -- they would certainly not have been fighting with physical weapons, but rather spiritual . 1 For Christ taught His followers to “love their enemies” and to “turn the other cheek.” 2 If they were fighting for His cause they would have to remember that He said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but my kingdom is not of this realm.” 3

Benedict Arnold was a famous traitor of the war whose action led to the king’s advantage. However if America was truly establishing itself as a holy nation, then Benedict Arnold should have been applauded for his service to the king. For the New Testament scriptures say, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority... not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh... if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” 4

Now obviously Benedict Arnold deserves no such honor. Clearly he was not motivated by such noble ideals. But the high standards of Messiah’s teachings are not binding upon natural men. The writings of the New Testament are addressed to the followers of the Messiah -- those who have fully surrendered and devoted themselves to Him. Such men and women are fully persuaded that God will protect them from their enemies if they are doing His will; or if it pleases Him to allow their death, they are content to die rather than defend themselves.

But natural men are accountable to natural law -- the instinctive law of the conscience. As the Apostle Paul said, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” 5

The founding fathers of America were God-fearing “Gentiles” who understood the natural laws of conscience. Their heart-wrenching decision to fight for their independence from England was borne of their conviction in their conscience that their cause was just, not from a religious zeal that demonized their enemy. Whether they waged a “just war” in the eyes of God is not for us to say, but clearly it was not a “holy war” such as Christians had waged for nearly fifteen centuries. The founding fathers of America would have no part of that.

During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.6

  • 1. 2 Corinthians 10:4
  • 2. Matthew 5:39,44
  • 3. John 18:36
  • 4. 1 Peter 2:13,18,19
  • 5. Romans 2:14-15
  • 6. James Madison, A Biography in his Own Words , edited by Joseph Gardner, p. 93

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