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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)

Posted in Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, John Adams, John Hancock, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Adams and the General Principles of Christianity

Posted by sbh on Saturday, 8 May 2010

Did John Adams write:

The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principals of Christianity… I will avow that I believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God

as he has been quoted on many blogs and websites—here, here, here, and here, for example?

No, not really. This is a patchwork of three phrases taken from a letter (28 June 1813) to Thomas Jefferson juxtaposed to give a misleading impression of Adams’ meaning:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were …

… the general principles of Christianity …

I will avow, that I … believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God….

The omissions here are easily significant enough to give this extract the red designation.

Understanding this passage involves going back to the year 1798, when John Adams was president of the United States. While the nation attempted to maintain neutrality in the ongoing war between Great Britain and revolutionary France, the French started seizing American vessels, leading to an undeclared war. It was in this context that a group of young men from Philadelphia wrote to Adams to express their support for his actions:

The youth of the American nation will claim some share of the difficulty, danger, and glory of its defense; and although we do not hold ourselves competent to form an opinion respecting the tendency of every measure, yet we have no hesitation in declaring that we place the most entire confidence in your wisdom, integrity, and patriotism; that we regard our liberty and independence as the richest portion given to us by our ancestors; that we perceive no difference between the illegal and oppressive measures of one government and the insolent attempts now made to usurp our rights by another; that as our ancestors have magnanimously resisted the encroachments of the one, we will no less vigorously oppose the attacks of the other; that at the call of our country we will assemble with promptitude, obey the orders of the constituted authorities with alacrity, and on every occasion act with all the exertion of which we are capable; and for this we pledge ourselves to you, to our country, and to the world.

John Adams returned a polite reply, in which he ventured to give some paternal advice:

It would neither be consistent with my character, nor yours, on this occasion, to read lessons to gentlemen of your education, conduct, and character; if, however, I might be indulged the privilege of a father, I should with the tenderest affection recommend to your serious and constant consideration, that science and morals are the great pillars on which this country has been raised to its present population, opulence, and prosperity, and that these alone can advance, support, and preserve it.

Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity, or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction, that, after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity, than those you have received from your ancestors.

Thomas Jefferson was then vice-president under Adams, and he favored policies entirely at odds with his. Something about this seemed to sum up for him a basic difference between the Federalists’ view and his own, and years later (on 15 June 1813) he wrote to Adams about it:

One of the questions, you know, on which our parties took different sides, was on the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, etc. Those who advocated reformation of institutions, pari passu with the progress of science, maintained that no definite limits could be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, denied improvement, and advocated steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they represented as the consummation of wisdom, and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance. Although in the passage of your answer alluded to, you expressly disclaim the wish to influence the freedom of inquiry, you predict that that will produce nothing more worthy of transmission to posterity than the principles, institutions and systems of education received from their ancestors.

Adams, in his reply (28 June 1813), disclaims any such general application of his words. He limits the “principles … received from their ancestors” to two areas: “the general principles of Christianity … and the general principles of English and American liberty”. What did he mean by “the general principles of Christianity”? He doesn’t spell them out in the letter, but they are principles held in common by a diverse range of beliefs, including “Roman Catholics, … Presbyterians, Methodists, … Universalists, … Deists and Atheists ….” In other words, Adams had in mind the common system of morals held by all humankind throughout history. And far from giving it the unique status implied by the patchwork quotation, he couples “the general principles of Christianity” throughout with “the general principles of English and American liberty”.

Here is what Adams wrote to Jefferson, with the selected passages in bold:

Now, compare the paragraph in the answer with the paragraph in the address, as both are quoted above, and see if we can find the extent and the limits of the meaning of both.

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

If the passage as given above can really be considered a fair summary of the entire passage, then so can this version, emphasizing the other elements Adams gave as the “general principles on which the fathers achieved independence”:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were … the general principles of English and American liberty … I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that … those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system.

Obviously neither version is a fair representation of the original. Each leaves out one essential element in the original mix so that even though these extracts are made up of Adams’ own words, the overall quotation (particularly sans ellipses) is as dishonest as the Patrick Henry “religionists” misattribution or the Washington “impossible to govern without the Bible” concoction. One of the sites given above promotes all three of these fake quotations, and has the gall to attempt to justify them as follows:

And yes, there are the detractors who would say that the quotes are wrong or taken out of context. That will be argued for generations. But to deny that faith has played an integral part in this nation’s history is simply to show an ignorance of that very history.

Nice distraction—and typical of many who manufacture and distribute these counterfeit wares. Ideology trumps fact—and who can really know the truth about the past? Actually, it is not all that difficult to run down a quotation to its source—it just takes time and effort. Nothing about these fakes “will be argued for generations”—unless by ideologues who choose to stubbornly ignore the facts. As Adams went on to observe to Jefferson

I might have flattered myself that my sentiments were sufficiently known to have protected me against suspicions of narrow thoughts, contracted sentiments, bigoted, enthusiastic, or superstitious principles, civil, political, philosophical, or ecclesiastical.

Apparently not.


1798 Exchange between Adams and Philadelphia Young Men (Anonymous and John Adams)

Letter to Adams (15 June 1813) (Thomas Jefferson)

Letter to Jefferson (28 June 1813) (John Adams)

Posted in Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, John Adams | 5 Comments »

John Adams and the Awful Blasphemy

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 25 April 2010

Did John Adams say

God is an essence that we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world

in 1820?

No. The two sentences given above were both written by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, the first in 1820 and the second in 1825, but (as the dates show) they were not joined together, not written on the same topic, and not even part of the same letter.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, fellow firebrands in the American Revolution, became bitter political rivals in the early constitutional period, Adams being of the Federalist party and Jefferson of the Antifederalist. The election of 1800, in which Jefferson defeated Adams to become the third president of the United States, was extremely divisive, and left lasting wounds. Nonetheless, when the sound and fury had died, the two ex-presidents resumed their friendship and exchanged what has become a classic series of letters on a wide variety of topics. One of those topics was religion. Neither man believed in the orthodox doctrine of the trinity, that desperate fourth-century compromise that tried to insist that the deity could be both tripartite and unitary. And neither bought into the doctrine of the incarnation, either. In a letter of 22 January 1825 Adams expressed his dismay about Jefferson’s plan to staff his college with European scholars because

The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices, both ecclesiastical and temporal, which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds, and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton’s universe and Herschell’s universe, came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.

The bolded section will be recognized as the source for the second sentence in the frankenquote as given above. As for the first, in a discussion of matter and spirit suggested by a book the two had recently read, Adams wrote on 17 January 1820:

When we say God is a spirit, we know what we mean, as well as we do when we say that the pyramids of Egypt are matter. Let us be content, therefore, to believe him to be a spirit, that is, an essence that we know nothing of, in which originally and necessarily reside all energy, all power, all capacity, all activity, all wisdom, all goodness.

He followed this by signing off with “Behold the creed and confession of faith of your ever affectionate friend.” Again, the portion in bold is obviously the source for the first sentence of the alleged quotation. Had this been quoted

…God is … an essence that we know nothing of…

it could be said to be a fair quotation, though it would have been better to be a bit fuller, say

… God is a spirit … that is, an essence that we know nothing of, in which originally and necessarily reside all energy, all power, all capacity, all activity, all wisdom, all goodness.

Something like that, anyway. But following it with the 1825 sentence makes it seem as though the “awful blasphemy” is the concept of god, rather than the specific doctrine of the incarnation. (Which is why it earns the red designation, even though the words are all those of Adams himself.) The source for this misleading combination seems to have been a BBC program entitled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief (later shown in the US as A Brief History of Disbelief) that first aired in 2004. Google Books shows it appearing in a 2008 book entitled The Quotable John Adams, compiled by Randy Howe.

It looks as though the editing of the 1820 quotation was done in the interest of making John Adams appear to have atheist leanings, something that would have been harder to maintain with a fuller quotation. However, I haven’t seen the program, or how the quotations were used, and the context might explain a lot. In any case, this quotation, as usually given, is bogus.


Letter to Thomas Jefferson 17 January 1820 (John Adams)

Letter to Thomas Jefferson 22 January 1825 (John Adams)

A List of Quotations Used in A Short History of Disbelief


Jonathan Rowe and Tom Van Dyke have more information about the “awful blasphemy” quotation and other matters related to John Adams at American Creation. It may be more than you want to know, or maybe less. But it’s worth taking a look at.

Posted in Fake quotation, John Adams, Quotation, US Founding Fathers | 3 Comments »