Religion and Revolution
RELIGION AND REVOLUTION
Although the American War for Independence (1775–1783) was not a war of religion, religion played a significant though often subtle role in the events leading to that conflict, in sustaining the rebel cause against the British government, and in shaping the new nation. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1831, "For Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other" (Democracy in America, Book 1, Chapter 9). Many viewed the war as part of a universal struggle to secure human rights and liberty. With independence, they made new laws aimed at limiting the power of government over freedom of religion. Then as now, Americans used the legacy of that war and the principles from the Revolution to build their society and culture and to define the nation's ideals and identity.
war for independence
In the decades prior to the battle of Lexington, April 1775, British colonists in North America represented a variety of religious denominations, including the Church of England (Anglican), Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, Methodist, Quaker, Catholic, German Reformed, and Jewish, to name only the most prominent. Most colonies had an established church, meaning that public taxes were used to pay ministers' salaries. Generally, taxpayers in the south supported the Anglican Church and those in New England, the Congregational Church, regardless of whether they were members. Prayers to God on behalf of the crown were part of the ritual observed by most colonists.
The outbreak of war in 1775 divided congregations, as it did most Americans, particularly those of the Church of England. Its ministers were bound by oath to defend the crown. With the Declaration of Independence nearly half the Anglican ministers resigned their posts rather than renounce their allegiance to the king. Religious division accentuated political division as congregations split between patriots and loyalists. Once independent, patriot congregations left the Church of England to form the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States. They revised their Book of Common Prayer to replace prayers for the king and royal family with prayers for the president and "all in civil authority," and adopted a constitution and canons to conform to new democratic ideals.
In New England, on the other hand, while some congregations divided over the war, the combination of principles supporting civil and religious liberty created a powerful bond. In these instances religion fueled resistance and revolution. When the Reverend John Cleaveland of Chebacco, Maine, learned of the battle of Lexington and Concord he roused his congregation to oppose British rule. He declared that the king had "DISSOLVED OUR ALLEGIANCE" because he had failed to protect the colonists from "the oppressive, tyrannical and bloody measure of the British Parliament" (Jedrey, p. 138). Ministers supporting resistance and rebellion preached that Americans were fighting a righteous cause. Even pacifist denominations, such as the Quakers, were divided by the war. While the majority of Friends remained neutral, drawing the ire of both sides, a group called the Free Quakers renounced pacifism to fight against England.
More than a war to separate from Great Britain, the War for Independence created the opportunity to fashion a new political culture, in particular an altered relationship between government and religious institutions. Government-supported churches, religious loyalty oaths, and exclusion of non-Christians from political office were customary in most European nations and in most American colonies. Embracing the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideal of individual freedom of conscience, Revolutionary leaders departed from that practice and rule. They rejected government use of taxes to fund religious institutions because they believed that political tyranny and religious repression went hand in hand. Between 1776 and 1784 most state constitutions disestablished tax-supported churches by incorporating a new principle of separation of church and government. Full religious freedom, in the form of removing religious tests and oaths aimed at keeping non-Christians and Catholics from holding political office and according equal protection of the law to people of all faiths, began in earnest after the adoption of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom in 1786.
Thomas Jefferson, a leading anticleric and drafter of the Declaration of Independence, wrote the Virginia Statue. That statute, drafted in 1779, was later incorporated in other state constitutions and its principles were applied in the Constitution of the United States. In the statue's preamble Jefferson declared that God "had created the mind free." He wrote that state-supported churches are based on the "impious presumption" that "fallible" legislators know the "true and infallible" faith and are empowered "to impose" it on others. Jefferson called this "sinful and tyrannical." Denouncing religious loyalty oaths and tests for holding political office, Jefferson concluded that civil rights should not be violated because of a person's religious belief. Attacking laws enforcing religious conformity and censorship, he stated that the truth will prevail if left to "free argument and debate." Virginia's law ensured that "no man" would be compelled to pay taxes to support a church or suffer infringement of civil rights "on account of his religious opinions or belief." Freedom of religion and opinion was declared one of the "natural rights of mankind."
The United States Constitution (1788) applied these principles to the federal government by banning religious tests for holding political office (Article VI). While not prohibiting states from supporting churches with tax money, in 1791 the first amendment in the Bill of Rights prohibited the federal government from doing so. The amendment declared that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." When questioned in 1801 about the meaning of this provision, Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association that the Constitution had built a "wall of separation between church and State," a concept that remains controversial. Created during a time of war and revolution, that wall and the principles it represents continue to be a defining feature of American society and culture.
Gross, Robert A. The Minutemen and Their World. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.
Hoffman, Ronald, and Albert, Peter J., eds. Religion in a Revolutionary Age. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Jedrey, Christopher M. The World of John Cleaveland: Family and Community in Eighteenth-Century New England. New York: Norton, 1979.
Marty, Martin E. Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.
Jefferson, Thomas. "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" (1779). Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. Available from <http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=23>.
John P. Resch