The Right to Resist Evil Leaders: Part 3 of 3

Right to Resist Evil LeadersIn this continuing study of the Right of Resistance against unjust authority, we now turn from the Continent, and the Lutheran and Huguenot stories, and examine the U.K.‘s additions. Given the times, and the fact that Europe arose and distinguished itself from Christian origins, it is unsurprising that the Right of Resistance would be justified by biblical arguments. Yet, all these arguments were buttressed by appeals to history, ancient societies, Roman law, and logical propositions.

While Americans tend to think of themselves as the innovators of all modern government doctrine, of course the roots of the American experiment were developed in Europe. America especially was affected by British developments in government, law and religion because of the fact the original Colonies were an English undertaking. John Locke was especially influential to the Founders because he was the most recent, and influential author to write upon government. Locke was also important because he was a philosophical writer, working from the Puritan tradition, who was also a leading authority in science and religion. In fact, Locke is considered the most important name in the history of religious tolerance, and the central figure in the history of the Enlightenment, a deeply influential intellectual movement around the world.

I. British Background of Liberty & the Ancient Constitution

Britain has long distinguished itself for its independent institutions and novel manner of assigning rights, notwithstanding the Continent. It is not clear how far back British liberties stretch in time. But a rather magnificent, if not somewhat apocryphal history developed of apocryphal laws which helped the process of liberty. Most famous of these were the Laws of Saint Edward. As described by Janelle Greenberg, in The Radical Face of the Ancient Constitution: St Edward’s ‘Laws’ in Early Modern Political Thought, the real historical figure of Saint Edward the Confessor, King and religious figure, had a set of falsified laws ascribed to him.

These laws of St Edward, the Leges Edwardi Confessoris, were especially important in the 17th century during the English Civil War and regicide. The protesting party, who included such luminaries as Lord Coke and John Milton, referred back to an “ancient constitution” of natural rights. These authors drew from this such elements as the antiquity of parliament, the contractual origins of government, the Right of Resistance, and conditions under which the king lost his standing as a sovereign.

II. John Milton & the English Revolution

John Milton (1608—1674) is regarded as the second greatest poet and writer in the English language. As both a man of letters, and also as a high government secretary, Milton boasts one of the most versatile lives ever lived. Raised in an Anglican household by a father converted from Catholicism, John was sent to seminary to become an Anglican priest. While in the seminary, Milton began to view the current politically-charged church environment with suspicion, and decided to become a poet instead.

Yet, the revolutionary times and the political environment were too intoxicating to young Milton, and he decided to join the fray, according to John Witte, Jr., in The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism. Upon pondering the situation, Milton penned these lines in The Second Defence of the People of England:

    “As long as the liberty of speech was no longer subject to control, all mouths began to be opened… I saw that a way was opening for the establishment of real liberty; that the foundation was laying for the deliverance of man from the yoke of slavery and superstition; that the principles of religion, which were the first objects of our care, would exert a salutary influence on the manners and constitution of the republic; and as I had from my youth studied the distinctions between religious and civil rights, I perceived that if I ever wished to be of use, I ought at least not to be wanting to my country, to the church, and to so many of my fellow Christians, in a crisis of so much danger; I therefore determined to relinquish the other pursuits in which I was engaged, and to transfer the whole force of my talents and my industry to this one important object.”

And so Milton decided to dedicate his whole life to helping his fellow Englishmen escape bondage. Between 1641—1660, Milton published 40 major tracts meant to improve society and government in England. He wrote specifically upon the Right of Free Speech, and the dangers of church and state relations, especially that of tyranny. It is remarkable the number of radical doctrines Milton espoused, mostly taken from the Calvinist and Puritan arguments of the day, that we now take for granted.

Milton’s understanding of authority was informed by his faith, his Reformed peers and the Puritan culture. Man was a social being, his relationships were based upon a covenant model, bearing equally rights and duties. Authority was established for the good of the subjects. Men had a right and duty to resist unjust leaders, but this should be done peaceably, until all other options are exhausted. He summed up his views in his essay The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates:

    “. . .all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God himself…It being thus manifest, that the power of kings and magistrates is…derivative, transferred, and committed to them in trust from the people to the common good of them all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their natural birthright. . .

    It follows, lastly, that since the king or magistrate holds his authority of the people, both originally and naturally for their good in the first place, and not his own; then may the people…either choose him or reject him, retain him or depose him. . .

    We may…determine what a tyrant is, and what the people may do against him. A tyrant…reigns only for himself…And because his power is great…accompanied with innumerable wrongs…of the people, murders, massacres, rapes, adulteries, desolation, and subversion of cities and whole provinces…so great a mischief is a tyrant; as he the public father of his country, so this the common enemy. Against whom what the people lawfully may do, as against a common pest, and destroyer of mankind, I suppose no man of clear judgment need go further to be guided than by the very principles of nature in him. . .”

III. Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex: Masterpiece of Resistance

Scottish divine Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) was a passionate minister and theologian who held the chair at Saint Andrew’s, and was to be seen as father of the Scottish nation before his death. Rutherford’s Lex, Rex, or Law, the King—may be the finest biblical defense of the Right of Resistance penned by a theologian, according to John Coffey in Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford. Rutherford wrote not just to defend his own Scottish Covenanter Revolution, but also to defend his nation’s cause with the English.

Rutherford combines biblical, historical and philosophical elements in his attack against tyranny. For example, he quotes Roman law on the right to resist unjust force with equal force. He also writes, in Lex, Rex, Question XXXI,

    “God hath implanted in every creature natural inclinations and motions to preserve itself, and we are to love ourselves for God, and have a love to preserve ourselves rather than our neighbour; and nature’s law teacheth every man to love God best of all, and next ourselves more than our neighbour; for the law saith, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Here is one set of quotes from Lex, Rex, Question XXVIII, which gives a further sense of Rutherford’s style and its biblical foundation:

    Argument 1: That power which is obliged to command and rule justly and religiously for the good of the subjects, and is only set over the people on these conditions, and not absolutely, cannot tie the people to subjection without resistance, when the power is abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and the subjects. But all power of the law is thus obliged, (Rom. xiii. 4 ; Deut. xvii. 18-20 ; 2 Chron. xix. 6 ; Ps. cxxxii. 11, 12 ; lxxxix. 30, 31; 2 Sam. vii. 12 ; Jer. xvii. 24, 25,) and hath, and may be, abused by kings, to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects. The proposition is clear.

    1.For the powers that tie us to subjection only are of God.

    2.Because to resist them, is to resist the ordinance of God.

    3.Because they are not a terror to good works, but to evil.

    4.Because they are God’s ministers for our good, but abused powers are not of God, but of men, or not ordinances of God ; they are a terror to good works, not to evil ; they are not God’s ministers for our good.

    Argument 2: That power which is contrary to law, and is evil and tyrannical, can tie none to subjection, but is a mere tyrannical power and unlawful; and if it tie not to subjection, it may lawfully be resisted. But the power of the king, abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects, is a power contrary to law, evil, and tyrannical, and tyeth no man to subjection : wickedness by no imaginable reason can oblige any man. Obligation to suffer of wicked men falleth under no commandment of God, except in our Saviour. A passion, as such, is not formally commanded, I mean a physical passion, such as to be killed. God hath not said to me in any moral law, Be thou killed, tortured, beheaded ; but only, Be thou patient, if God deliver thee to wicked men’s hands, to suffer these things.

Rutherford was influenced by the legendary John Knox’s teaching on the right to revolt against unjust leaders. Knox lead the Covenenter revolt, the first successful Protestant attack against an unjust kingdom. In fact, Knox eventually came to believe that resistance to evil leaders was not just an option, but a duty. Knox’s evolution against unjust leaders is captured here, from the site:


Knox asked Calvin whether is was permissible to resist by force a monarch who was “idolatrous.” Calvin maintained that individuals might refuse to obey commands contrary to God’s Law, yet he could not accept revolt. However, Knox was coming to believe that Christians had the obligation to revolt against a tyrannical monarch. A ruler’s highest obligation was to preserve pure faith and worship. In Knox’s “A Godly Letter” (1554) he taught that the nation could incure corporate guilt for tolerating evil…


Since the Law of God never changes, He must respond to sin in Scotland as He did in ancient Israel, e.g. raising up a Jehu to slay an idolatrous ruler. Knox demanded that God’s Law be upheld in Scotland. If the people obeyed the unjust commandments of evil rulers, they would receive a far more terrible punishment from God than any ruler could inflict upon them for treason. Not to revolt against an idolatrous ruler was “plain rebellion against God.”

IV. John Locke & Right to Revolution

John Locke (1632-1704), according to The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (edit. Paul Edwards), came from a liberal Puritan family, with an attorney father who fought for the Parliament side against Charles I. Locke studied at Oxford, was trained in medicine, and later became the close confidant and physician of Ashley Cooper, first Lord of Shaftesbury, himself one of the great men of the age.

A. Locke’s Political Philosophy

Locke develops a sophisticated version of the Natural Law to undergird his political philosophy. All men live in a State of Nature, where survival dictates the need to cooperate with others. Man leaves the State of Nature to enter into society, exemplified by the Social Contract. In entering the contract, men only give up legislative and executive rights which they had under the State of Nature. These rights are still held in abstract by citizens, who merely loan them to government, which must then not misuse them.

Locke takes the Reformed covenant model which gives a tripartite agreement between man, government, and God, and removes the latter. The contract is a relationship between equals, based upon consent and liberty. The legislative and executive powers are owned by the people, so an absolute tyranny is wholly incompatible with Locke’s state. When a leader raises himself up and denies his subjects freedom, he becomes a tyrant, and enters into a war against his fellow citizens. These can then revolt to regain their stolen liberty.

Locke, in the Second Treatise of Government, writes in Chapter 18: Tyranny :

Sec. 202. Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.

B. Right to Rebel Against Unjust Leaders

When the leaders became tyrants, Locke believed the people had an innate right to rebel. But the best states would include a parliamentary body which should attempt to find remedies short of rebellion. Julian Franklin, in John Locke and the Theory of Sovereignty: Mixed Monarchy and the Right of Resistance in the Political Thought of the English Revolution, says Locke opposed revolt except in extreme cases.

But according to Locke, in Treatise 2nd, Chapter 19, Of the Dissolution of Government, many factors could excuse or necessitate a popular uprising, such as the rise of a tyrant instead of law, the arbitrary change of election laws, where the people are delivered to foreign subjugation, where the executive stops the legislative function, or when the potentate abandons leading or protecting the people. Overall, the people have a right to depose the government when it has lost their Trust. Yet the rebellion cannot be used to justify a return to the State of Nature, but the reconstruction of the Social Contract. Locke writes,

    “Sec. 229. The end of government is the good of mankind; and which is best for mankind, that the people should be always exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should be sometimes liable to be opposed, when they grow exorbitant in the use of their power, and employ it for the destruction, and not the preservation of the properties of their people?”

Locke lays claim to the classic Catholic Conciliar Theory, and the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant positions where a truly unjust king reduces himself to private citizen. Therefore the people have a right of self-defense, just with any attack by another person. Locke quotes William Barclay, a 17th century Scottish jurist, and ironically, a defender of the Divine Right of Kings, who still writes:

    “Sec. 237. What then, can there no case happen wherein the people may of right, and by their own authority, help themselves, take arms, and set upon their king, imperiously domineering over them? None at all, whilst he remains a king. Honour the king, and he that resists the power, resists the ordinance of God; are divine oracles that will never permit it, The people therefore can never come by a power over him, unless he does something that makes him cease to be a king: for then he divests himself of his crown and dignity, and returns to the state of a private man, and the people become free and superior, the power which they had in the interregnum, before they crowned him king, devolving to them again.”


While the British used the Right of Resistance to great effect in the revolt against James II, in the Glorious Revolution, according to Tim Harris in Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720. The future of principled revolution would see its zenith during the American Revolution. In the next article, we will examine how the colonists adapted Resistance Theory to their own circumstances.

Written by Kelly OConnell.

CLICK HERE for The Right to Resist Evil Leaders: Part 1 of 3.

CLICK HERE for The Right to Resist Evil Leaders: Part 2 of 3.

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