Typically on this Fourth day of July we American Presbyterians tend to gravitate to the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, and the 11 other signers that were Presbyterian.
But near the start of the Second Continental Congress there was a second Presbyterian pastor present, the Rev. Dr. John Joachim Zubly. In the end he found himself “on the wrong side of history” as we might say today. But while branded as a loyalist and traitor, and even today not always viewed kindly, taking a closer look at his complicated position and the theology behind it is worth a few minutes of our time.
Hans Joachim Zublin was born in St. Gallen (or St. Gall), Switzerland, on August 27, 1724. (That is in the very northeast corner of Switzerland is you are curious.) His family immigrated to South Carolina in 1736 but he remained behind to complete his education. He was ordained in the German Reformed Church in London in 1744 and moved to the colonies to minister to other German and Swiss immigrants. He went first to South Carolina and then in 1760 moved to the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savanna, Georgia. His early life is well documented by Roger A. Martin in his 1977 paper “John J. Zubly Comes To America.”
In his ministry he was well regarded, the church in Savanna grew and by the end of his first decade there Nichols (2001) describes him as “the most influential minister in Georgia in pre-revolutionary America.” He later says that the congregation became “the largest and most popular in Georgia.” The New Georgia Encyclopedia tell us:
Zubly was known as a man of “lively cheerfulness” whose sermons were described as being “full, clear, concise, searching, and comfortable,” lighting the hearers’ souls, warming their hearts, and raising their affections. Zubly was known to preach in the morning in English, in the afternoon in French, and in the evening in German. His strict Calvinist theology was very suitable to life in the multicultural environment of the American colonies in the eighteenth century.
Zubly also became known for his criticism of the British government and how it was governing the colonies. He preached a sermon in 1766 in response to the then repealed 1765 Stamp Act arguing that the imposed restrictions were ill-conceived and against the natural rights of the colonists. New restrictions in 1769, including the Dependency Act, caused him to write a political tract called An Humble Inquiry.
His expressed opinions and respected position got him elected to the Georgia Provincial Congress. Perkins (1931) describes the opening of the Congress:
A Provincial Congress was organized at Tondee’s Long Room in Savannah on July 4, 1775. Every district was represented, and Dr. Zubly was one of the twenty- five from Christ’s Church Parish. After electing officers, the Congress proceeded in a body to the meet- ing-house of Dr. Zubly, who preached a sermon on “the alarming condition of American affairs,” using as his text the twelfth verse of the second chapter of James’ gospel : “So speak ye and so do as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.” His sermon made a profound impression, and he was later to be publicly thanked for it. How differently was he to be judged just one year later! How his fellow-men were to forget the judgement of any law of liberty save their own!
The Congress also declared a day of fasting and elected five representatives to the Second Continental Congress, including John Zubly. The Continental Congress had began on June 14, 1775 and Zubly arrived, presented his credentials and was seated on September 13.
However, his tenure was short-lived. As Nichols writes:
As a delegate to the Continental Congress the following month, Zubly initially cooperated fully with the Congress. However, as it became clear that the tenor of the gathering was shifting toward preparation for military offensives and ultimate separation from England, Zubly became increasingly uncomfortable. He was prepared to go along with defensive military preparation, but never entertained the idea of separation. Although Zubly never stated why he was unwilling to separate, it seems clear from his sermons and pamphlets that he believed that the rule of law dictated obedience to England even during times of oppression and that the king was the agent of God even if the king was unsympathetic to the colonists’ pleas. Zubly left the Continental Congress less than two months after its inception, although the circumstances of his departure are somewhat unclear.
To put this in perspective consider the lines from Perkins:
[Zubly] seems to have had no slightest thought of independence. Nor was this astonishing. Every school boy should know that the Revolution was not begun for independence. Witness Franklin’s statement to Pitt in 1774, “I have never heard from any person, drunk or sober, the wish for separation.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “There is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britian than I do.” Washington was not an advocate of independence when he took command of the Continental Army. Virginia had sent her delegates to the Congress instructed to uphold the rights of Englishmen, but not to break with Britian. Only Paine, the firebrand, had first preached the doctrine of separation. No human trait is queerer than this; we change our course and then condemn all who do not change with us. Dr. Zubly was in good company when he strove for justice, not separation.
Yet Zubly was remembered by the members of the Continental Congress. In a letter John Adams wrote on July 1, 1776 to another delegate from Georgia, Archibald Bulloch, he regrets that Bulloch could not be present due to other matters but informs him:
This Morning is assigned for the greatest Debate of all. A Declaration that these Colonies are free and independent States, has been reported by a Committee appointed Some Weeks ago for that Purpose, and this day or Tomorrow is to determine its Fate. May Heaven prosper, the new born Republic,—and make it more glorious than any former Republic has been.
But at the beginning of the letter he refers to an atmosphere “enjoying the Satisfaction of Seeing a Temper and Conduct here, Somewhat more agreable to your Wishes, than those which prevailed when you was here before.” (A possible reference to Zubly’s dissent early in the term of the Congress.) Adams concludes the letter with “Tell [Mr. Houstoun] the Colonies will have Republics, for their Government, let us Lawyers and your Divine Say what We will.” The reference to “your Divine” being understood as a comment about Zubly and his non-separation arguments.
On his return to Georgia things did not go well for him. Branded a traitor he was briefly arrested and later fled to South Carolina. His house was plundered and his library thrown in the river. He was able to return when the British took control of Georgia and died there on July 23, 1781, almost two years before the end of the war. As all accounts agree, to use the words of William Pauly (1976):
Tragically, he could not or would not, alter his principles to include the possibility of political separation from the mother country. He was consistent to the end and died a broken and rejected man.
In looking at his consistent position it is important to consider his theology. Nichols considers this in detail and begins with this summary:
Zubly’s sermons and pamphlets often reveal his close theological ties to Calvin’s conceptions of the sovereignty of God, natural law, and human nature. To be sure, Zubly’s political writings clearly bear the marks of Enlightenment writers, social contract theorists, legal thinkers, and historians. But we miss the depth of the man if we overlook the role theology played in informing his political ideas concerning the democratic process and the rule of law.
Nichols goes on to show how Zubly’s arguments regarding Democracy and the Rule of Law can be traced back to Calvin’s thinking. Regarding the Rule of Law Nichols writes, in part:
For Zubly, as for Calvin, the rule of law had its foundation in the duties of rulers and subjects. Zubly’s greatest complaint against the British was that they were not acting in accordance with the British constitution-that they were not fulfilling their duties as rulers. Like many Americans, he was very critical of England’s treatment of the rights of the colonists, whether through the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, the Boston massacre, continued increases in taxation without representation, or other actions. Zubly proffered both theological and legal arguments in protest of British oppression.
The journey to revolution took different paths for different people and the two Presbyterian pastors, John Zubly and John Witherspoon, ultimately come to different conclusions. The two gentlemen knew each other and had met at least twice before the Continental Congress when the College of New Jersey had conferred honorary degrees on Rev. Zubly in 1770 and 1774. Nichols concludes with a section comparing and contrasting the two of them using their sermons. For Witherspoon it is his sermon preached in May 1776 titled The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. Nichols says this about the two sermons:
The two sermons share many similarities. They both focus on a single passage of biblical text. They both call each listener to look inwardly to ensure “his own soul’s salvation.” They both ask their listeners to confess their sins and turn humbly to God. They both speak of the need for good government and seek freedom from oppression. They both advocate looking to God for assistance and approbation. Yet they part company on how the listeners should respond.
Zubly reminded his listeners that “our interest lies in a perpetual connection with our mother country.” He advised his listeners to “think cooly, and act deliberately,” for rash counsel and decisions are rarely good ones.” Zubly continued to advocate obeying the laws of the land; this would bear witness to the colonists’ faithfulness to Britain. “Every government must be supported, and what is necessary for the support of government, is also justly due, and ought to be given with readiness and willingly.” Zubly’s main concern still seemed to be the protection of property-which had been taken away through improper taxation without representation-and he did not at all discount the necessity of continual obedience to the magistrate by the subjects.” Thus, although Zubly did not direct his hearers how to act in response to British oppression, he fell on the side of deliberate action in response to improper taxation and remained committed to submission to the magistrate. His purpose was to call the magistrate (the Parliament) to look to the public welfare of the subjects and abide by the rule of law. Put differently, the duty of the magistrate to govern had been translated into the right of the subject to good government but Zubly did not advocate enforcing that right through force, but only through petition.
Witherspoon was more willing than Zubly to see God’s design and plan in the circumstances of the colonies. Rather than focusing only on the duty of the subject to submit to the magistrate, he juxtaposed that duty with a concomitant duty of every Christian: “In many cases it is the duty of a good man, by open reproof and opposition, to wage war with profaneness.” Witherspoon equated the current state of affairs in Britain with this “profaneness,” and his logic thus led to the need to exercise one’s duty to oppose Britain. Witherspoon rationalized that the cause of America was a cause of religion, thereby implicitly (though weakly) invoking Calvin’s “exception” to the rule against rebellion. He was thus willing to make the bold proclamation that “the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”
Not surprisingly it is Nichols’ conclusion:
A strict reading of Calvin’s Institutes seems to support Zubly’s stance rather than Witherspoon’s. From the perspective of history, however, Witherspoon’s stance looks to be the correct one.
So what is the place of a conscientious objector, of someone with a principled, consistent and reasoned dissent? Consideration of this in the long view of history or in light of current developments – governmental and ecclesiastical – is left as an exercise for the reader or for another time. As for me, I and my family are off to a parade, barbeque and fireworks.
And may you all enjoy this fourth day of July, whether you think there is something to celebrate today or not.
Martin, Roger A., 1977, John J. Zubly Comes To America, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), pp. 125-139.
Nichols, Joel A., 2001, A Man True to His Principles: John Joachim Zubly and Calvinism, Journal of Church and State, Vol. 43, pp. 297-317.
Pauly, William E., Jr.,1976, Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985), Vol. 54, No. 1, in PRESBYTERIANS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: AN INTERPRETIVE ACCOUNT (SPRING 1976), pp. 61-71, 73-81.
Perkins, Eunice Ross, 1931, John Joachim Zubly: Georgia’s Conscientious Objector, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4 (DECEMBER, 1931), pp. 313-323.