Knox Quote

“Resistance to tyranny [or tyrants] is obedience to God.”

Does anyone have a specific reference in Knox’s works for this statement often attributed to him?

I have always heard that quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson. I have no idea if Knox said it.

Right. Or, Jefferson stole it from Benjamin Franklin. But it is often attributed to Knox, and I’d love to see it in context.

Looks like the phrase is from or was inspired by a sermon by unitarian congregational patriot pastor Jonathan Mayhew.

The closest I found was this quote from “The Political Theory of John Knox” by John R. Gray (1939):

"In his dispute with Lethington in 1564, he concludes, “that subjects not only may but also ought to withstand and resist their princes whensoever they do anything expressly repugning to God, his law or holy ordinance.”

The text referenced: Knox, Works, II, 450

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Maybe that exact phrase, but the one Benjamin Franklin used, and attempted to have put on the U.S. seal, is essentially the same: “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God,” and it certainly predates Mayhew. It’s from the epigraph of John Bradshaw (the British judge who presided over the trial of King Charles I) when his body was re-interred by Bradshaw’s son following the restoration of the monarchy. There is some disagreement over whether it was actually used in the epigraph, or was only a legend, but Franklin and Jefferson certainly attributed it to that, and it certainly predates the 1700s.

Here’s a pretty thorough look at the direct influences on the Founders’ view of civil resistance, and the Declaration of Independence. Nearly all of them are Christian pastors/theologians, and Knox is conspicuously absent, especially considering that it begins with the quote in question.

I did find this from Knox at Wikiquote, which certainly seems to express everything found in the quote you’re trying to find, as well as context, although again the quote in question is absent.

If their princes exceed their bounds, Madam, no doubt they may be resisted, even by power. For there is neither greater honor, nor greater obedience, to be given to kings or princes, than God hath commanded to be given unto father and mother. But the father may be stricken with a frenzy, in which he would slay his children. If the children arise, join themselves together, apprehend the father, take the sword from him, bind his hands, and keep him in prison till his frenzy be overpast: think ye, Madam, that the children do any wrong? It is even so, Madam, with princes that would murder the children of God that are subjects unto them. Their blind zeal is nothing but a very mad frenzy, and therefore, to take the sword from them, to bind their hands, and to cast them into prison, till they be brought to a more sober mind, is no disobedience against princes, but just obedience, because it agreeth with the will of God. John Knox interview with Queen Mary I, History of the Reformation in Scotland. (Edited by William Croft Dickinson, D.Lit.). Philosophical Library, New York, 1950

But it doesn’t really. The statement, “Resistance to Tyranny is obedience to God,” at least insinuates that it is a Christian duty to disobey unjust authority simply because it is unjust. But context is key. Even in the actual quote provided, from Knox to Bloody Mary, Knox is dealing with the extreme situation of a magistrate who systematically put Christians to death. Which is to say, it’s not just about opposing whatever we feel like calling “tyranny.”

That being said, I do think Knox comes pretty close in some of his writings to enjoining a general Christian duty to rebel against ungodly authorities. I say “some,” because I think it’s important to realize that Knox was pretty inconsistent in his approach to dealing with magistrates, depending on where and when and to whom he was writing/speaking. The article by John R. Gray cited by @bcwalker makes that case and is quite fascinating.


Absolutely. If Knox said the quote in question (I have never heard a source for it, and for such a popular quote Google can’t seem to either) than a lot would depend on his definition of tyranny, as opposed to run of the mill sin of civil leaders and the injustice that would result.

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