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“No king but Jesus” and the American Revolution

Posted by sbh on Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Did John Adams and John Hancock reply to Major Pitcairn

We recognize no sovereign but God and no king but Jesus!

when the British officer called on the assembled minutemen to disperse on 19 April 1775? (source: Eads Home Ministries, by 16 January 2006)?

No. This is a recent (probably twenty-first century) concoction.

The Eads Home Ministries site tells the story like this:

Until then let me tell you a story: on april 18, 1775 John Adams and John Hancock were at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke, a Lexington Pastor and militia leader. That same night Paul Revere arrived to warn them of the approaching Redcoats. The next morning British Major Pitcairn shouted to an assembled regiment of minutement. “Disperse ye villians, lay down your arms in the name of George the Sovereign King of England. The immediate response of John Adams and John Hancock was “WE RECOGNIZE NO SOVEREIGN BUT GOD AND NO KING BUT JESUS!

The Eads Home Ministry site does not give a source for this tale, but does seem to be the earliest to give it in exactly this form. There are several difficulties with this account. First, John Adams and John Hancock weren’t present at the encounter between Major Pitcairn and the minutemen. John Hancock and Samuel (not John) Adams had indeed stayed the night at Jonas Clark’s house, but they had fled upon receiving Paul Revere’s warning. Second, while Jonas Clark was an agitator and involved in training the militia, the minutemen were in this case led by Captain John Parker.

Oddly, the Eads Home Ministry version of the tale is virtually word-for-word identical to an earlier (2001) relation by Charles A. Jennings, with only one telling detail (aside from a couple of misspellings) different:

On April 18, 1775 John Adams and John Hancock were at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke, a Lexington pastor and militia leader. That same night Paul Revere arrived to warn them of the approaching Redcoats. The next morning British Major Pitcairn shouted to an assembled regiment of Minutemen; “Disperse, ye villains, lay down your arms in the name of George the Sovereign King of England.” The immediate response of Rev. Jonas Clarke or one of his company was: “We recognize no Sovereign but God and no King but Jesus.

Note that the sole significant difference between the two lies in who gave the immediate response—“John Adams and John Hancock” in the Eads Home Ministry account has replaced “Rev. Jonas Clarke or one of his company” in the Jennings version. Why the historically impossible substitution was made is anybody’s guess, but it seems that it was one of the minutemen—Jonas Clark or one of his associates—who actually made the remark in question.

Or was it? Jennings gives sources (mostly non-scholarly narratives with a Christian Nationite bent) for some of his assertions, but not this one. Still, as this event has been told and retold innumerable times, we should have no trouble running it down. Let’s start with Jonas Clark’s own account. What does he have to say? Well, for one thing he does confirm that Samuel Adams (not John) and John Hancock were present at his house:

On the evening of the eighteenth of April, 1775 we received two messages; the first verbal, the other by express, in writing, from the committee of safety, who were then sitting in the westerly part of Cambridge, directed to the Honorable John Hancock, Esq; (who, with the Honorable Samuel Adams, Esq; was then providentially with us) informing, “that eight or nine officers of the king’s troops were seen, just before night, passing the road towards Lexington, in a musing, contemplative posture; and it was suspected they were out upon some evil design.”

As both these gentlemen had been frequently and even publicly, threatened, by the enemies of this people, both in England and America, with the vengeance of the British administration:—And as Mr. Hancock in particular had been, more than once, personally insulted, by some officers of the troops, in Boston; it was not without some just grounds supposed, that under cover of the darkness, sudden arrest, if not assassination might be attempted, by these instruments of tyranny!

To prevent any thing of this kind, ten or twelve men were immediately collected, in arms, to guard my house, through the night.

Some attempt was made to gather intelligence as to what the British were up to, and then

Between the hours of twelve and one, on the morning of the nineteenth of April, we received intelligence, by express, from the Honorable Joseph Warren, Esq.; at Boston, “that a large body of the king’s troops (supposed to be a brigade of about 12, or 1500) were embarked in boats from Boston, and gone over to land on Lechmere’s Point (so-called) in Cambridge: And that it was shrewdly suspected, that they were ordered to seize and destroy the stores, belonging to the colony, then deposited at Concord,” in consequence of General Gage’s unjustifiable seizure of the provincial magazine of powder at Medford, and other colony stores in several other places.

Joseph Warren had sent this intelligence, though Clark didn’t say so, through the now-famous midnight ride of Paul Revere. The militia assembled and sent out observers to collect intelligence on the British movements; after a while one of them returned and reported that all was quiet, at which point the militia dispersed. The result was that they were taken by surprise when the British troops actually appeared, and the militia had to be called hastily back by means of signals with drums.

Immediately upon their appearing so suddenly, and so nigh, Capt. Parker, who commanded the militia company, ordered the men to disperse, and take care of themselves; and not to fire.—Upon this, our men dispersed;—but, many of them, not so speedily as they might have done, not having the most distant idea of such brutal barbarity and more than savage cruelty, from the troops of a British king, as they immediately experienced!—!—For, no sooner did they come in sight of our company, but one of them, supposed to be an officer of rank, was heard to say to the troops, “Damn them; we will have them!”—Upon which the troops shouted aloud, huzza’d, and rushed furiously towards our men.—About the same time, three officers (supposed to be Col. Smith, Major Pitcairn and another officer) advanced, on horse back, to the front of the body, and coming within 5 or 6 rods of the militia, one of them cried out, “ye villains, ye Rebels, disperse; Damn you, disperse!” —or words to this effect. One of them (whether the same, or not, is not easily determined) said, “Lay down your arms; Damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms!”—The second of these officers, about this time, fired a pistol towards the militia, as they were dispersing.—The foremost, who was within a few yards of our men, brandishing his sword, and then pointing towards them, with a loud voice said to the troops, “Fire!—By God, fire!”—which was instantly followed by a discharge of arms from the said troops, succeeded by a very heavy and close fire upon our party, dispersing, so long as any of them were within reach.—Eight were left dead upon the ground! Ten were wounded.—The rest of the company, through divine goodness, were (to a miracle) preserved unhurt in this murderous action!—

So, Jonas Clark made no mention of the “No king but Jesus” line—or the demand in the name of George the sovereign king of England that supposedly led to it. In fact, given the rapidity of events as Clark described them, it’s difficult to see where there would have been time to fit it in.

Frank Warren Coburn wrote an account of the battle early in the twentieth century, taking into account not only Clark’s narrative but a wide variety of other sources. Here’s how he narrated the encounter (notes omitted):

On came the British, almost on the run, the light companies of the Tenth Regiment in advance. At their head rode Major John Pitcairn and two other mounted officers.

“Stand your ground,” exclaimed Parker; “don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they want to have a war let it begin here!”

Major Pitcairn galloped up to within six rods of Captain Parker’s foremost line, and exclaimed:

“Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, and disperse.”

Captain Parker, seeing the utter hopelessness of armed resistance, gave the order to disperse and not to fire. He did not, however, order his men to lay down their arms. Evidently Pitcairn wished to disarm them, for while they were dispersing he shouted again:—

“Damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms?”

But no answer came back, and each one of Capt. Parker’s little band retiring from the field, carried his gun with him.

Then one of the other mounted officers, about two rods behind Pitcairn, name unknown, brandished his sword and the regulars huzzaed in unison. He then pointed his pistol towards the minute-men and fired.

Pitcairn was back to that officer, so did not see him fire. He heard the discharge, and easily might have mistaken it as coming from an enemy, for he had not authorized it himself. Furious with passion he gave the order:


There was hesitation to obey from his men, for he repeated:

“Fire, damn you, fire!”

The first platoon of eight or nine men then fired, evidently over the heads of the minutemen, for none were killed or wounded. Pitcairn saw the effects of that volley and realized that his men did not aim to kill. Then came his next order:

“G-d d—n you, fire at them!”

The second volley surely was fired to kill.

From the notes we see that Coburn used in addition to Clark’s narrative depositions of Captain John Parker, William Wood, Thomas Fessenden, John Robbins, William Draper, William Munroe, Simon Winship, John Munroe, and John Bateman (a British soldier). Besides these he used Paul Revere’s narrative and a handful of British sources. And there’s still no mention of “George the Sovereign King of England” or “no king but Jesus.”

It’s beginning to look as if not only did John Hancock and John Adams not say it, but neither did Jonas Clark or any of the men with him.

So who did say it?

Well, No king but Jesus was a slogan of the Fifth Monarchy men a century before the American Revolution. These were opponents of the monarchy during the Interregnum who justified their opposition to monarchy by claiming to believe that the second coming of Jesus was imminent, bringing the Fifth Kingdom prophesied by the prophet Daniel that would be ruled by Jesus himself. One of them went so far as to write a future history of Europe based on this belief, and while the Fifth Monarchists themselves were crushed by the return of the British monarchy, this idea was still kicking around, ready to be used by anybody needing a justification for throwing off the shackles of tyranny. It’s quite conceivable that that some during the American Revolution employed this concept, and there is at least a shred of evidence in its favor. The British parliamentary records include this item (22 April 1774):

SIR RICHARD SUTTON read a copy of a letter relative to the Government of America, from the Governor of America to the Board of Trade, shewing, that at the most quiet times, that the disposition to oppose the laws of this country were strongly ingrafted in them, and that all their actions conveyed a spirit and wish for independence. If you ask an American who is his master, he will tell you he has none, nor any Governor but Jesus Christ. I do believe it, and it is my firm opinion, that the opposition to the measures of the Legislature of this country, is a determined prepossession of the idea of total independence.

So here we have No governor but Jesus, but how on earth did it mutate to No king but Jesus? Well, this item did turn up in a number of places over the years, among them William J. Federer’s America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations, and it may well be from some such place that Senator John Ashcroft (later to be Attorney-General) dredged up his misremembered account in May 1999 in a short speech at Bob Jones University:

A slogan of the American Revolution which was so distressing to the emissaries of the king that it was found in correspondence sent back to England, was the line, “We have no king but Jesus”. Tax collectors came, asking for that which belonged to the king, and colonists frequently said, “We have no king but Jesus”.

In any case the furor over that speech popularized this form of the saying, and it’s after that that we start seeing the saying grafted onto the account of the opening moments of the Battle of Lexington. Internet sites like Eads Home Ministry and Truth in History seem to have taken the lead; according to Google Books the first time the John Adams and John Hancock version of the story turns up in print was in 2007, and the Jonas Clark version doesn’t turn up in print until 2008.

  • To review: John Adams seems to have been included in the narrative by mistake for Samuel Adams.
  • Neither John Adams nor John Hancock (nor for that matter Samuel Adams) was present at the time the alleged statement was supposed to have been made.
  • Jonas Clark, who was there, and according to an earlier version of the story, may have actually made the statement, says nothing of it in his account.
  • Nobody seems to have written anything of this statement until John Ashcroft misquoted the No governor but Jesus line in a 1999 speech at Bob Jones University.
  • In 2001 it turns up grafted onto an account of the opening of the Battle of Lexington at the Truth in History website. John Adams is mistakenly substituted for Samuel Adams in this version, but the No king but Jesus slogan is attributed to Jonas Clark or one of his associates.
  • In 2006 the same account turns up word-for-word at the Eads Home Ministries website with John Adams and John Hancock substituted for Jonas Clark or associate.
  • The next year the story starts turning up in printed books. (At least one of them credited the Truth in History website as its source for the story.)

The sequence of events seems relatively clear. Not only did John Adams and John Hancock not say it, nor Jonas Clark nor an anonymous minuteman, it is quite possible that nobody said it at all in connection with the American Revolution until John Ashcroft threw it into a short speech at Bob Jones University.


Summary of American Governor’s Letter Read in Parliament (by Sir Richard Sutton)

Opening of the War of the Revolution (Jonas Clark)

The Battle of April 19, 1775 (Frank Warren Coburn)

Speech at Bob Jones University (John Ashcroft)

No King But King Jesus (Charles A. Jennings, 22 April 2001 cache at Internet Archive)

Tutorial: explaining Founding Fathers quotes that seem to show they weren’t Christian (Eads Home Ministries)

Further Reading

Barton is At It Again (Jim Allison)

Not a Nation of Christians! (W. D. Clabaugh)

English Dissenters: Fifth Monarchists or Fifth Monarchy Men (ExLibris)

Battles of Lexington and Concord (Wikipedia)

2 Responses to ““No king but Jesus” and the American Revolution”

  1. […] […]

  2. Stuart said

    The origins of the phrase goes back to at least the early 2nd century. In the Babylonian Ta’anit (Talmud), in the section on fasting, the prayer by Rabbi Aqiba (Akiva ben Joseph רבי עקיבא‎, died c. 137 CE) which was attributed as successfully ending a drought goes like this

    “Father and King! We have no other king but Thee. Only for Thy sake have mercy upon us!”

    The prayer’s source is probably Psalm 47:2, 47:6 (LXX 46:3, 46:7)
    – note: Matthew 5:35 quotes Psalm 48:2, with the above association of God as the great king from the immediately prior Psalm.

    Akiva was also associated with the Star prophesy from Numbers 24:17 given to Simon Bar Kosiba, ‘This is the king Messiah!’ (Ta’anit 4.5, Rabbah Lamentations 2.2.4). This quote seems to be in conflict with the above prayer. It also appears to be against historical facts, as Simon merely called himself Nasi or prince, not King. Possibly revisionist history, as Jewish leaders wished to distance themselves from the revolt (notice that Jonathon Ben Torta replied “Aqiba, grass will grow in your cheeks and he will still not have come!”), and discredit the prophecy.

    This phrase by Aqiba is turned in an ironic way in John 19:15 when the Jews are said to cry out, “We have no King but Caesar!” in rejecting Jesus as King, and thus God as King (cf, John 19:21 also), hence making them hypocrites. The also implication being a Christian would have Jesus/God as King. The quote by Sutton is something of a paraphrase then of John 19:15.

    That is the origin then, John 19:15. But even this phrase perhaps derives from Appian, Civil Wars, 2.16.108, quoting Julius as saying “I am no king, I am Caesar,”

    Appian CW 2.16.108 οὐκ εἰμὶ Βασιλεύς ἀλλὰ Καῖσαρ
    John 19:15 οὐκ ἔχομεν Βασιλέα εἰ μὴ Καίσαρα

    The quote from Sir Sutton you give, no doubt is the origin of the revolutionary lore. But as Sutton’s quote is itself a quip built on a paraphrase of John 19:15, there seems little doubt that the phrase was likely not uncommon among Protestant English in the era. I imagine it could have been used during Cromwell or by his Puritan supporters in the wake of the restoration of Charles II as King. But there is no evidence of this, just my speculation.

    Good article, fun to research this back to the Julius Caesar and the Bible.

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