Religion played a major role in the American Revolution by offering a moral sanction for opposition to the British--an assurance to the average American that revolution was justified in the sight of God. As a recent scholar has observed, "by turning colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies, ministers did the work of secular radicalism and did it better."
Ministers served the American cause in many capacities during the Revolution: as military chaplains, as penmen for committees of correspondence, and as members of state legislatures, constitutional conventions and the national Congress. Some even took up arms, leading Continental troops in battle.
The Revolution split some denominations, notably the Church of England, whose ministers were bound by oath to support the King, and the Quakers, who were traditionally pacifists. Religious practice suffered in certain places because of the absence of ministers and the destruction of churches, but in other areas, religion flourished.
The Revolution strengthened millennialist strains in American theology. At the beginning of the war some ministers were persuaded that, with God's help, America might become "the principal Seat of the glorious Kingdom which Christ shall erect upon Earth in the latter Days." Victory over the British was taken as a sign of God's partiality for America and stimulated an outpouring of millennialist expectations--the conviction that Christ would rule on earth for 1,000 years. This attitude combined with a groundswell of secular optimism about the future of America to create the buoyant mood of the new nation that became so evident after Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801.
Religion as Cause of the Revolution
Joseph Galloway (1731-1803), a former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and close friend of Benjamin Franklin, opposed the Revolution and fled to England in 1778. Like many Tories he believed, as he asserted in this pamphlet, that the Revolution was, to a considerable extent, a religious quarrel, caused by Presbyterians and Congregationalists whose "principles of religion and polity [were] equally averse to those of the established Church and Government."
An eloquent proponent of the idea that civil and religious liberty was ordained by God, Jonathan Mayhew considered the Church of England as a dangerous, almost diabolical, enemyof the New England Way. The bishop's mitre with the snake emerging from it represented his view of the Anglican hierarchy.
Jonathan Mayhew, D.D. Pastor of the West Church in Boston . . . Etching by Giovanni Cipriani, London: 1767. The American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (82)
Resistance to Tyranny as a Christian Duty
Jonathan Mayhew delivered this sermon--one of the most influential in American history--on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I. In it, he explored the idea that Christians were obliged to suffer under an oppressive ruler, as some Anglicans argued. Mayhew asserted that resistance to a tyrant was a "glorious" Christian duty. In offering moral sanction for political and military resistance, Mayhew anticipated the position that most ministers took during the conflict with Britain.
Revolution Understood in Scriptural Terms
Thought to have been created soon after the Boston Massacre of 1770, this needlework is an excellent example of how many colonists understood political events in terms of familiar Bible stories. The creator of the work saw Absalom as a patriot, rebelling against and suffering from the arbitrary rule of his father King David (symbolizing George III). The king, shown at the top left, is playing his harp, evidently oblivious to the anguish of his children in the American colonies. The figure executing Absalom--David's commander Joab in the Old Testament story--is dressed as a British red coat.
The Hanging of Absalom. Silk, Weft-silk fabric, foil wrapped threads, paper, watercolor, attributed to Faith Robinson Trumbull (1718-1780) c. 1770. Lyman Allyn Art Museum at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut (84)
The Plot to Land a Bishop
The supposed British plot, to impose Anglican bishops in the colonies, aroused atavistic fears that Americans would be persecuted for their religious convictions and further poisoned relations between Britain and the colonies. In this cartoon an indignant New England mob pushes a bishop's boat back towards England, frightening the prelate into praying, "Lord, now lettest thou thy Servant depart in Peace." The mob flings a volume of Calvin's Works at the bishop, while brandishing copies of John Locke and Algernon Sydney on government. The crowd shouts slogans: "Liberty & Freedom of Conscience"; "No Lords Spiritual or Temporal in New England"; and "shall they be obliged to maintain bishops that cannot maintain themselves."
An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America. Engraving from the Political Register. London: September, 1769. John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Providence, RI (86)
Revolution Justified by God
Many Revolutionary War clergy argued that the war against Britain was approved by God. In this sermon Abraham Keteltas celebrated the American effort as "the cause of truth, against error and falsehood . . .the cause of pure and undefiled religion, against bigotry, superstition, and human invention . . .in short, it is the cause of heaven against hell--of the kind Parent of the Universe against the prince of darkness, and the destroyer of the human race."
A Minister in Arms
This satire expresses the British view that the American Revolution was inspired by the same kind of religious fanaticism that had fueled Oliver Cromwell's establishment of the Commonwealth of England more than a century earlier. Among the ragtag American soldiers is a clergyman holding a flag with a Liberty Tree on it and claiming " Tis Old Olivers Cause no Monarchy nor Laws."
The Yankie Doodles Intrenchments Near Boston 1776. Etching. Copyprint. British Museum, London, England (88)
A Fighting Parson
Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807) was the prime example of a "fighting parson" during the Revolutionary War. The eldest son of the Lutheran patriarch Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, young Muhlenberg at the conclusion of a sermon in January 1776 to his congregation in Woodstock, Virginia, threw off his clerical robes to reveal the uniform of a Virginia militia officer. Having served with distinction throughout the war, Muhlenberg commanded a brigade that successfully stormed the British lines at Yorktown. He retired from the army in 1783 as a brevetted major general.
John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg. Oil on canvas, by an unidentified American artist. Nineteenth century. Martin Art Gallery, Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania (89)
A Revolutionary Chaplain
James Caldwell (1734-1781), a Presbyterian minister at Elizabeth, New Jersey, was one of the many clergymen who served as chaplains during the Revolutionary War. At the battle of Springfield, New Jersey, on June 23, 1780, when his company ran out of wadding, Caldwell was said to have dashed into a nearby Presbyterian Church, scooped up as many Watts hymnals as he could carry, and distributed them to the troops, shouting "put Watts into them, boys." Caldwell and his wife were both killed before the war ended.
Reverend James Caldwell at the Battle of Springfield. Watercolor by Henry Alexander Ogden. Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia (90)
Revolutionary Battle Flag
Like this one, many battle flags of the American Revolution carried religious inscriptions.
Gostelowe Standard No. 10, c. 1776. Watercolor once in possession of Edward W. Richardson. Copyprint. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution and Its Color Guard (91)
John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was the most important "political parson" of the Revolutionary period. He represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782, in which capacity he signed the Declaration of Independence and served on more than one hundred committees. As president of Princeton, Witherspoon was accused of turning the institution into a "seminary of sedition."
John Witherspoon. Oil on canvas, by Rembrandt Peale after Charles Wilson Peale, 1794. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (92)
A Quaker Schism
Some Quakers were conscientiously convinced that they could, despite the Friends' peace testimony, take up arms against the British. Calling themselves "Free Quakers," they organized in Philadelphia. The majority of Quakers adhered to the denomination's traditional position of pacifism and disowned their belligerent brethren. This Free Quaker broadside declares that although the "regular" Quakers have "separated yourselves from us, and declared that you have no unity with us," the schism does not compromise the Free Quakers' rights to common property.
Free Quaker Meeting House
The Free Quakers built their own Meeting House in Philadelphia.
The Problems of the American Anglicans
The American Revolution inflicted deeper wounds on the Church of England in America than on any other denomination because the King of England was the head of the church. Anglican priests, at their ordination, swore allegiance to the King. The Book of Common Prayer offered prayers for the monarch, beseeching God "to be his defender and keeper, giving him victory over all his enemies," who in 1776 were American soldiers as well as friends and neighbors of American Anglicans. Loyalty to the church and to its head could be construed as treason to the American cause. Patriotic American Anglicans, loathe to discard so fundamental a component of their faith as The Book of Common Prayer, revised it to conform to the political realities.
Maryland's Revised Book of Common Prayer
The Maryland Convention voted on May 25, 1776, "that every Prayer and Petition for the King's Majesty, in the book of Common Prayer . . . be henceforth omitted in all Churches and Chapels in this Province." The rector of Christ Church (then called Chaptico Church) in St. Mary's County, Maryland, placed over the offending passages strips of paper showing prayers composed for the Continental Congress. The petition that God "keep and strengthen in the true worshipping of thee, in righteousness and holiness of life, thy servant GEORGE, our most gracious King and Governour" was changed to a plea that "it might please thee to bless the honorable Congress with Wisdom to discern and Integrity to pursue the true Interest of the United States."
Book of Common Prayer. England: John Baskerville, c. 1762. Washington National Cathedral Rare Books Library (95)
Christ Church, Philadelphia's Revised Book of Common Prayer
The problem was handled differently by Christ Church, Philadelphia. The rector, the Reverend Jacob Duché, called a special vestry meeting on July 4, 1776, to ask whether it was advisable "for the peace and welfare of the congregation, to shut up the churches or to continue the service, without using the prayers for the Royal Family." The vestry decided to keep the church open but replace the prayers for the King with a prayer for Congress: "That is may please thee to endue the Congress of the United States & all others in Authority, legislative, executive, & judicial with grace, wisdom & understanding, to execute Justice and to maintain Truth."
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Book of Common Prayer. London: Mark Basket, 1766. Courtesy of the Rector, Church Wardens, and Vestrymen of Christ Church, Philadelphia (96)
Book of Common Prayer. [left page] - [right page] Here is a facsimile of the page from the Book of Common Prayer, containing the prayers for the king, that were altered in various ways. Oxford: Printed by Mark Basket, printer to the University, 1763. Copyprint. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (95a)
A Tory Preacher on the Attack
More than half of the Anglican priests in America, unable to reconcile their oaths of allegiance to George III with the independence of the United States, relinquished their pulpits during the Revolutionary War. Some of the more intrepid priests put their loyalty to the Crown at the service of British forces in America. One of these, Jonathan Odell (1737-1818), rector at Burlington, New Jersey, became a confidant of Benedict Arnold and scourged the Patriots with a sharp, satirical pen. This long, rhymed attack on John Witherspoon contains the clumsy couplet, "Whilst to myself I've humm'd in dismal tune, I'd rather be a dog than Witherspoon." Odell blasted his fellow Anglican ministers, who supported the American cause, for apostasy.
An Argument for an American Episcopal Church
In the years following American independence, Anglican ministers who had remained in the colonies began planning for an independent American church. One of the publications that focused discussion on the issue was this volume by William White. A series of conferences in the 1780s failed to bridge the differences between two parties that emerged but, at a convention in 1789, the two groups formed the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States. A church government and revised Book of Common Prayer believed to be compatible with a rising democratic nation were adopted.
The Establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Church
The independence of the United States stimulated American Methodists, as it did their brethren in the Church of England, with whom the Methodists had considered themselves "in communion," to organize themselves as an independent, American church. This happened at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore in 1784, where Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke were elected as superintendents of the new Methodist Episcopal Church. Asbury was ordained as deacon, elder, and superintendent. American Methodists adopted the title of bishop for their leaders three years later.
Reforms in the Presbyterian Church
Like the Anglicans and Methodists, Presbyterians reorganized their church as a distinctly American entity, thereby reducing some of the influence of the Church of Scotland. From debates at the synods of 1787 and 1788 emerged a new Plan of Government and Discipline, a Directory of Public Worship, and a revised version of the Westminster Confession, which was made "a part of the constitution." In the proceedings of the 1787 and 1788 synods, shown here, the Presbyterian Church, along with other contemporary American churches, took a stand against slavery, recommending that Presbyterians work to "procure, eventually, the final abolition of slavery in America."