Andrew Fuller Friday: Thoughts on Obedience to Government

[Written in March, 1808.]

The question proposed for discussion is,—Whether the obedience to civil government required in the Scriptures, includes attachment.

It certainly does not include attachment to any thing but what is declared to be “an ordinance of God;” nor to any person or persons, but as officers executing that ordinance. It does not necessarily include an attachment to the constitution of a country, which, when compared with others, may be very oppressive and unjust; nor to particular measures, which may be equally so. But even in such cases there is an “honour” due to government, which in its worst forms is preferable to anarchy; and which, notwithstanding the most unjust procedures, is still in itself the ordinance of God. It is thus in parental authority. The duty of a child to obey a parent who may be harsh and unkind is not obliterated; nor is it enough for him to yield the obedience of fear, out of regard to his own interest. He ought to do it from a conscientious regard to the will of God, who has made him his parent. A violent father once fell foul upon his son, a young man about twenty years of age. The son made no other resistance than to ward off the blows, and said, “I could do what I please with you; but you are my father!” Such is the spirit which ought to be cherished towards the worst civil government. The young man not only conformed to those orders which his father might give him, but felt an attachment to him as a father; and was not to be driven from his duty because the other had forgotten his.

All this proceeds upon the supposition of our living under the worst of governments, which is so far from being the truth that almost any one would think it the best in Europe, if not in the world. A large proportion, of those who have left their country, under a contrary impression, have seen cause to repent of their folly and ingratitude. The civil liberty contained in the British government is the very cause of its being worse thought of and spoken against, by one part of its subjects, than that of any other country. Were one of these in France, and even a member of the legislature, he must not open his mouth in the manner he does in England. It is a part of our civil constitution to admit of free debate; and an opposition to the administration of the day, though generally conducted on mere party principles, is considered upon the whole as a salutary check on men in power. It is a mode of balancing evils, by suffering one set of them to weigh against another. Hence it is that a Tory administration in England, being watched by Whigs, would not be materially unfriendly to liberty; and Whigs, if not watched by Tories, would soon become as bad as the other. But while these parties are invariably assailing their rivals, in hope of supplanting them, it is not for the wise and the good to enlist themselves under their respective standards, or to believe half what they say. If, within my remembrance, only a tenth part of what has been foretold by the opposition interest had been true, we should ere now have ceased to be a nation.

Oh but, says one, we are going fast to ruin! Provisions rise, farms let for double and treble what they did, and taxes are enormous. And what does the rise of provisions and of land prove, except that the country is full of money? All buying and selling is only an exchange of commodities; and according to the quantity and demand for any article such is the price. To say that provisions are dear is only saying that money is cheap. Oh, but it is not money, it is paper. So long however as the nation is solvent, and can pay its debts, paper is the same as money. With respect to the amount of taxes, it is not of much account so long as we have the means of paying them. A London tradesman might say, My rent and taxes are so high in the city, I’ll go and take a farm or a house in the woodlands! Such in effect has been the reasoning of some of our emigrants. Yet, it may be asked, do we not live better, wear better clothes, and occupy more comfortable dwellings than our forefathers did? and whether, where one fortune was gained a century ago, there be not six or seven now? These things may seem nothing to those who are complainers by profession; for if God should have determined for our ingratitude and other sins to bring us under a foreign yoke, as he has brought the continent of Europe, we shall then know our present advantages by the loss of them.

To form our opinion of the measures of government, by daily reading one class of the opposition papers, is much the same as judging of them from the philippics of the French Moniteur; or making up an opinion of the mission to the East, by purchasing and reading all the pieces of Major Scott Waring! If we choose to be deceived, deceived we shall be and ought to be. If I am attached to government as government, irrespective of the men who administer it, I shall be willing to find their measures right, and unwilling to find them otherwise, unless compelled so to think by evidence. I shall never take pleasure in traducing it, nor in hearing it traduced. If in any case I think it in the wrong, I shall speak of it, if at all, with regret. But if I choose to enlist under the banners of a systematic opposition, and to learn all that occurs from their report, I shall presently enter into their prejudices, and become their dupe. They are fighting for a substance indeed, but I for a phantom. So when these patriots get into power, I wonder and admire, and am then attached to government, not because the New Testament enjoins it, but because my favourites bear rule; and thus, both when they are out of office and when they are in, I am out of the way of Christian obedience.

How can I be said to honour magistrates, while I view all their actions through the representations of men whose interest it is to supplant them; discrediting every thing good, and believing every thing evil? “Buonaparte,” said one of the opposition prints, “is conciliating people of all religions; but our government is going to convert the Hindoos to Christianity!” Is not such a suggestion sufficient to show what these men are? It is well enough known that our government are not going to convert the Hindoos, and that if they let those men alone who would endeavour to convert them, it is all that can be said or hoped of them. How utterly unprincipled and base therefore must such a writer be! Yet from these men some people form their ideas of the government that protects them. If I must judge of public measures, let me judge righteously, and not by appearance, or from personal regards, John 7:24.

Government may have done wrong in pursuing certain measures, but it is not from their being accused of it by interested men that we ought to believe it. Those who are now in power were lately in opposition, and then they were patriots, and every thing was going to ruin. There never was a period in British history when, in the opinion of what is called the opposition, let that opposition be on which side it might, the nation was not going to ruin; and when its humble adherents did not think so. The New Testament tells us, “they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” Now a small acquaintance with things will enable us to perceive that they who attend continually to one thing may in a hundred instances have reasons for their conduct of which those who only attend to it as an occasional amusement are very incompetent to judge. Let a disaffected member of a Christian church judge of the measures of its officers, and he will find them all wrong. Should he also be desirous of gaining an ascendency, and can persuade a few others to judge of those measures through the medium of his representations, it is easy to imagine what sort of treatment the pastor and his colleagues would be likely to receive at their hands. The minister might feel indignant, and say to his friends, This man wants to be in power, and the rest are his dupes. We attend continually upon this very thing, and do to the best of our ability. But these men neither know our reasons, nor wish to know them; but, having set us down as bad, conclude that nothing we do can be right.

What is that “honour” and “obedience” due to government, and that prayer to God “for all who are in authority,” which the Scriptures enjoin, (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Tim. 2:1, 2; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–17,) but an attachment to them as magistrates, irrespective of their party? We cannot pray for them as we ought, unless we feel a sincere attachment. There needs not a greater proof of this than the base perversions of God’s word which have been made on this subject by some disaffected men. I pray for kings and rulers as men, says one, the same as I pray for other men. Yes, but you are required to pray for them as men in authority. Well, says another, I can pray that God would restrain their iniquity, and prevent their doing mischief, that good people may lead quiet and peaceable lives, in all godliness and honesty. Would you then presume thus to pervert the oracles of God? Can you say that the exhortation in 1 Tim. 2:2, proceeds on the supposition that civil governors are the parties which you are to pray God to restrain? Does it not rather suppose, what is manifestly true, that the great body of wicked men around you would persecute and destroy you as Christians, were they not prevented by the civil power? The exhortation is to intercede for kings, and for all that are in authority; but this would be interceding against them.

Without attachment there is no such thing as obedience, whether to parents, husbands, masters, ministers, magistrates, or to God. A disaffected person may abstain from conspiracies and seditious conversation from mere prudential motives; but in all this there is not a grain of honour or obedience. He who thinks otherwise, and imagines that an outward compliance with the laws is all that ought to be required of him, only proves himself to be given up in a great degree to a mind void of judgment. Let such a one ask himself as a father, a husband, a master, or a minister, whether a mere outward compliance with his directions would satisfy him. By the same means he may find an answer to all his other objections. What! says an undutiful child, you think, I suppose, every thing is right that my father does.—No, you reply, your father is a man like other men, and has his faults; but it is not for you to expose them. He is your father, and you are commanded of God to honour and obey him in all his lawful commands.—What! and am I bound to esteem him, and to feel attached to him, when he has all along been my enemy, doing every thing for my hurt? The answer is, such a supposition is as unnatural as it is undutiful. Have you not contracted this prejudice by associating with persons who have an end to answer by supplanting him in your esteem?—For me to esteem or be attached to him would be the same thing as to be attached to what is wrong.—Surely this objection can arise from nothing but perverseness. You know there is no necessity for this, and no one wishes it. You seem to forget that he is your father, and to think of him only as a bad man; but these thoughts arise from your listening to evil counsel, intended for sinister ends to lower him in your estimation.—Well, I cannot help it.—Such also might be the answer of the worst of beings.

A disaffected heart will lead men to talk of Providence, so far as it favours their wishes, but renders them blind to it in every other view: some have pleaded that Providence has favoured the arms of France, and they have subdued their enemies before them; it is folly, therefore, to resist them. But if it be true that Providence has favoured the military power of France, it is no less true that the naval power of England has been equally favoured and destined of Providence to check the inordinate ambition of our rival and our enemy; and, but for this, liberty would find no asylum upon earth. Yet, were I a subject of the French government, I should think it my duty, while I experienced its protection, to cherish a sincere attachment, and to pray for its prosperity in all its lawful undertakings, whatever I might think of the private character of those by whom the government is administered. I should think it wrong to magnify the faults of such a government, even though I could do it with safety to myself, or to read only those accounts of it which came from a quarter where a systematic opposition was carrying on against it. How much more then ought I to be attached to a legitimate government, under whose protection the church of God, for more than a century, has had an opportunity to live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty!

Surely you cannot account for my imbibing these sentiments, but by supposing that I have learned them from the Scriptures. You know me too well to impute to me a spirit that would cringe to any man. You know also that I have no temporal interest to serve, and no prejudices to gratify. If I have any political predilections, they are on the side of Whiggism. It is true, I have lately perceived some infidels amongst them, giving in to a persecuting spirit against evangelical religion, and have denounced them in my Letter to the Chairman of the East India Company. And I should not be surprised to find the greater part of them holding these principles when it comes to the trial; but if it be so, it would be a mortification to me as belonging to the Whig interest. On this account, as well as others, I have said nothing against them as a political party, but have contented myself with attacking the principle.

It is a fact, of which few will doubt, that great numbers are attached to government because they are hired, both in church and state. It is no less a fact that great numbers are disaffected because they are not hired. I accuse neither the one nor the other by the lump; but who can doubt that the cause of disaffection in thousands is that they are not treated in all respects as their fellow subjects; and that, in the present reign especially, the political party which has been used to favour Dissenters and the cause of religious liberty has been kept out of power? this party has ever maintained a war, as all parties do, against their opponents. They have their newspapers, by which they give their own representations of every thing done by the other. They are not scrupulous to state things as they are, but as they appear to their own prejudiced and violent minds. If any person forms his ideas according to these statements, he will soon become an inconsiderate partisan, laying aside not only the Christian, but the man of sober sense, who views both these parties as aiming to supplant the other; and therefore, though he may hear what both advance, and may think it necessary on the whole that the one should watch the other, yet, in forming his own judgment of men and things, will take neither of them for his guide.

Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 670–674). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.

By |October 30th, 2020|Categories: Andrew Fuller Friday, Blog|

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