A Preacher’s Take on The Boston Tea Party
Connecticut separatist minister Israel Holly, just weeks after the Boston Tea Party, drew parallels from scripture to the times the American colonists found themselves in.
On December 27, 1773 (eleven days after the Boston Tea Party), Connecticut separatist minister Israel Holly delivered a sermon comparing Parliament’s oppression of the American colonists to King Solomon and King Rehoboam’s oppression of the people of Israel. Holly urged his American listeners toward resistance but also to introspection about religious oppression committed by their own local authorities. Historian Thomas S. Kidd points out that the sermon was representative of the evangelical fervor that was so widespread at the period and that animated the vanguard of the rebellion in the early days of Revolution.
The sermon’s long, 45-word title, reads as follows:
“God brings about his holy and wise purpose or decree, concerning many particular events, by using and improving the wicked dispositions of mankind in order thereto; and often improves the present corruptions of sinners, as the means to chastise and punish them for former wickedness.”
The first two-thirds of the sermon made no explicit mention of Parliament or the struggle at hand, but the parallels he was trying to draw would have been obvious to his audience. Holly expounded upon 1 Kings chapters 11 and 12, describing how God used Jeroboam to punish King Solomon for his idolatry and for placing his many wives as a higher priority over obedience to Him. King Solomon had laid “a heavy yoke” on the people (taxes and forced labor) to support his lifestyle and opulent building projects beyond the temple. God told Solomon that as punishment, He would divide his territory and give rule over the new kingdom to a servant, yet, for the sake of his father David, the punishment would not be carried out until after his death. Importantly, Holly emphasized that the people of Israel would not escape punishment for their own participation in Solomon’s idolatry.
Upon Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam became king and continued imposing heavy burdens on the people. The people demanded that the new king lighten them. Holly opined that the demands were presented in a needlessly provocative way “not very likely to be granted, but rather likely to iritate [sic] the spirits of an ambitious and aspiring prince.”
The king’s older, wiser advisors (“the old men” as the King James Version puts it) counseled him to grant the requests of the people, but his younger advisor counseled the opposite, that he punish the people for their insolence. Rehoboam followed this harsher advice. This refusal to heed cries against oppression would soon have consequences.
The people revolted, led by Solomon’s former servant Jeroboam. In response, Rehoboam sent the slave master Adoniram to attempt to calm the people, but they stoned him to death. Upon learning of his servant’s death, the now-furious king prepared an army of 180,000 to attack the people.
However, before the attack was executed, a “man of God,” Shemaiah, intervened and informed King Rehoboam that it was God who had inspired the revolt to punish Solomon (now deceased) for his sins. The king relented to God and called off the attack. Nevertheless, the punishment was fulfilled, and Jeroboam would rule over the new Kingdom of Israel in the North, leaving King Rehoboam to rule over Judah in the South, as prophesied.
Holly noted, “Here we see, the people demanded peremptorily, the prince answered tyrannically, which was the means of their own punishment, mutually. O! the tremendous wisdom and justice of God in his conduct toward obstinate sinners! He can make sin its own punishment, and sinners their own executioners and tormenters!”
In the last third of the sermon, Holly made the comparison explicit, connecting the “heavy yoke” imposed by Parliament to that imposed by King Rehoboam. He warned that Great Britain was at risk of suffering a similar fate to that of the Old Testament king, including loss of territory, national diminution, and the possibility of bloodshed. Holly cautioned Parliament, as King Rehoboam had been cautioned regarding the rebellion of his people, “the cause [of the Americans] is from the Lord.”
Holly implored his fellow colonists to be vigilant against Parliament’s economic tyranny because it could very well be a sinister preparation for religious tyranny. In his words, “It may be, that their claims and their authority won't stop at temporal property; but when they have got the colonies all subjected, and fast bound as to that, so that they can make but feeble or no resistance at all, then perhaps our religious privileges and liberties will be call'd for next …” Holly went so far as to warn, absurdly, that the colonists might even be forced to “pray to the Virgin Mary, worship images, [and] believe the doctrine of Purgatory.”
Yet Holly didn’t let his fellow colonists off the hook and laid out their own misdeeds: failure to properly care for the poor and oppression of religious dissidents, Baptists, and Separates. Specifically, he objected to the fact that the government of Connecticut had been using tax funds to support a religious establishment, forcing dissidents to “support another worship than their own, a worship they have no connection with.” This was a violation of the purpose of the colonies, as he explained:
“One of the natural rights of mankind is, a liberty to choose, in matters of religion, that way, mode, form and worship which a man in his conscience thinks most is agreable [sic] to the word of God, and most acceptable to God. And the constitution of the gospel confirms this natural right unto man, by bidding individuals search the scriptures, &c. And the design of the original constitution of New-England was the same. For our fore-fathers came into this land, to enjoy and grant liberty of conscience.”
Here, Holly asserted, with generous whitewashing, that the original British settlers of New England had come for the purpose of establishing “liberty of conscience.” A more accurate statement would be that those settlers came primarily to establish their own interpretation of what a godly society would look like, which involved aggressive policing of dissident religious views and expulsion of heretics like Anne Hutcheson and Roger Williams. However, it is true that the original settlers acted boldly in defiance of what they understood as ungodly tyranny. Subsequent generations reinterpreted God’s purposes in a way that eventually enshrined respect for conscience in New England and throughout the rest of the colonies.
Perhaps God, according to Holly, was giving the colonists a taste of their own oppression. “But how righteous would it be in God to punish such law-makers, and those who are hardy enough to put the same into execution, by bringing them under arbitrary laws of the same nature? How just would the retalation [sic] be, if God should pay them in their own coin?” (Holly missed the opportunity to mention slavery while he was on the topic of hypocrisy.)
Holly confessed that he did not know what the consequences of conflict with Great Britain would be. At that point, it was impossible to tell how Parliament would react to the rebellion. Nevertheless, the possible consequences of meekly submitting to tyranny were so severe in his estimation that the colonists had no other choice but to “let the risque [sic] be what it will.” Colonists must “be willing to sacrifice much of their private interest for the sake of the public good.” According to historian James P. Byrd, “Holly hoped that the destruction of the tea would signal the beginning of a consistent patriotism in the colonies, an embrace of both civil and religious liberty.”
The themes in Holly’s sermon would remain central to America’s narrative about itself for at least the next century and a half: the need for courage in the face of tyranny, the need for introspection, openness to the idea that a higher power is not indifferent to worldly affairs, and a recognition that historical actors necessarily suffer from extremely limited foresight of dangers and developments ahead.
Nathan Brown is an immigration attorney in Fresno, CA. He received a BA in Economics and History from Brigham Young University and his Jurist Doctorate from Emory University School of Law. @nathankblbrown
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