Religion and the American Revolution

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Religion and the American Revolution

RELIGION AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Historians of the military conflict of the Revolutionary era have paid scant attention to religion. While political and social historians argue that religious belief and affiliation were critical ingredients in the coming of independence and the forming of the new republic, major works on the Revolutionary War include few references to churches, creeds, clergy, denominations, religious movements, and even chaplains. At the same time, the war itself—the armies and navies, commanders, soldiers, spies, prisoners of war, campaigns, and civil violence—make barely an appearance in political and social histories. What accounts for this lack of connection between scholars' approaches to the war?

One simple answer is that ministers generally don't take up arms—though the Revolution provides numerous exceptions—and churches don't prosecute wars. But such assumptions of the separation of clerical and military spheres are themselves artifacts of the enlightened era in which the Revolutionary War took place. A more compelling explanation is that the relationship between religion and the war is far from unambiguous. For while religious ideology and affiliation served as an important, if not the main, inspiration for large numbers of Americans to become involved in, to oppose, or to ignore the war effort, and while the conflict produced a marked change in the direction of American religious culture, the military architects of the new American nation had no particular religious "policy" in mind, and many fighting men appeared to have been indifferent to the religious consequence of the war. The war was over the birth of a new nation, rather than a new nation-with-church, as had been the case in the past.

This was not surprising, since the prosecutors of the war on both sides needed to recruit Americans from every background; and for many Americans, the ecclesiastical tyranny of tax-supported religious establishments was another form of oppression they were fighting against. Anti-Catholicism and opposition to an Anglican bishopric in the colonies were long-standing manifestations of this resistance. At the same time, Loyalists, many of them Anglicans, bemoaned attacks upon "liberal" Christianity by those they considered to be religious fanatics and heirs to the Puritan Revolution. The "peace churches," in the meanwhile, aimed to keep government out of their lives entirely.

Ultimately, a people not only numerous and armed, to use historian John Shy's phrase, but also religious and armed would produce two religious outcomes in their fight with Britain: a more "liberal" form of church and state relations in the United States than existed either in the colonies or the mother country, and a national culture based on a unitary "civil religion" rather than one denominational identity. But the many religious conflicts that characterized the war suggest that these results were not entirely expected.


Pro-war polemicists, political activists, and Patriot clergy possessed what one historian, Robert Middlekauff, has described as "the moral dispositions of a passionate Protestantism" (p. 48). From the Commonwealth writers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they had inherited the political values of popular sovereignty, social contract theory, and the protection of life, liberty and property; and the religious virtues of frugality, hard work, and biblical faith. In the heated opening years of the conflict, it would not take much to persuade many Americans that the British had betrayed those shared ideals.

The British Parliament obliged by passing the Quebec Act, the religious Rubicon of the Revolution Legislated in the Spring of 1774 under the guidance of William Legge, Lord Dartmouth, the head cabinet officer for the colonies, the act provided toleration (along with some tax support) for Roman Catholicism and extended the boundaries of Quebec south to the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi River. In a stroke, the act effectively barred migration of Americans into the northwest, placing the region instead into the hands of Catholic settlers and a Catholic bishop—the very powers that British Americans had been fighting since the start of the Anglo-French Wars in 1689.

The reconstitution of Quebec and its religious implications formed the larger continental context of the war. It accounted for the misguided invasion of Canada by American forces in 1775 and Americans' persistent efforts to win victory on the frontier. Although Lord Dartmouth was a "low church" Anglican who favored a faith based on daily piety and evangelical conversion rather than the power of church officialdom, the statute persuaded large numbers of Americans that the British government aimed to institute a papal-style regency in North America. Many believed that, in this way, a corrupt British government would enslave Americans and enrich itself off the spoils of the continent. How did so many Americans and British come to such differing perspectives on the action of the British ministry?


The combatants on both sides of the Revolution shared the political heritage of civil and religious liberty from Puritan and Enlightenment sources, but Whigs and Patriots especially emphasized that relationship. Altogether, New England Congregationalists and Presbyterians, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, many Baptists, and many low church Anglicans in the South—all in one way or another heirs of the Puritans or Puritan values—probably encompassed nearly half (fifty percent) of the church-attending population in America. The great majority sympathized with or overtly supported the Patriot cause. Speaking interchangeably in the language of Old Testament prophets and the discourse of enlightened, rational religion, their ministers exhorted Americans to love liberty, imitate virtue, reverence their pious but bold ancestors, and resist passive obedience to British political and clerical authorities. Their listeners were not always aware of these multiple sources. Captain Levi Preston, a participant at Lexington and Concord, had never heard of the great Commonwealth writers James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, or John Locke; instead he knew his Bible, church catechism, and almanacs, and sang the psalms and hymns of Isaac Watts. Yet his explanation for fighting in the first skirmish of the war was clearly Commonwealth-inspired: "[W]hat we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should."

At the same time, Americans' understanding of religious liberty would undergo a significant transformation in the crucible of the war, from a condition "tolerated" by government to a one existing by natural right. Consequently, New England Baptists led by Isaac Backus and John Leland supported independence in the expectation that it would not only rid Americans of British control but also produce the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, and the Anglican Church in the lower counties of New York and the southern states. In Virginia, they were joined by Presbyterians, who described church establishments as a form of religious bondage no worse than civil bondage and petitioned the Virginia state legislature to eliminate tax support for the Church of England.

The demand for freedom of conscience—the other element of religious freedom—also inspired figures like the commander of the Green Mountain Boys, Ethan Allen, to reject traditional Christianity entirely, in favor of Deism. The Franco-American Alliance in 1778, bringing thousands of French troops onto American soil, likely also exposed American soldiers to advanced forms of freethinking and anticlericalism, although the evidence is sketchy. At the least, the alliance dramatically modified the "No King, No Popery" rhetoric of many leading Patriots, and prompted General Washington to outlaw anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes Day celebrations in the Continental Army. This rejection of anti-Catholic antipathy and the new commitment to freedom of conscience for American Catholics was surely one of the more remarkable reversals of the war.


Many historians have argued that the Patriots' powerful convictions regarding the justice of their cause, their ability to attract a wide and popular following, and their endurance through eight years of violent conflict can only be understood as a byproduct of biblical millennialism—a far more powerful form of theological worldview than Enlightenment-influenced forms of theology. American millennialists indeed believed that Great Britain was the new Anti-Christ, Americans were the chosen people, and North America would be the scene of Christ's Second Coming. But Americans were also attracted to a "secular millennialism" that combined biblical predictions of America's destiny with rationalist attacks on established authority in the manner of Thomas Paine's enormously influential Common Sense. The pamphlet's millennial-style passages are well known. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again,…" Paine wrote, adding: "The birth-day of a new-world is at hand." In Paine's view this new world would be far from a theocracy, grounded not on ecclesiastical authority, but on the principles of a democratic republic and equal rights. Secular millennialism like Paine's marked the beginnings of an American "civil religion," although it would be some years before Americans recognized its ingredients as a commonly shared national faith.


The Whigs and more radical Patriots did not have a monopoly on religious culture, and one of the ironies of the Revolutionary conflict is how often Loyalists and pacifists saw the pro-independence party as the one which was oppressing Americans' religious and civil liberties. If there was a significantly "liberal" religious group outside the early Unitarian-leaning Congregationalists of Boston, it was the "high church" Anglicans, whose attachment to the enlightened ideals of reasonable Christianity was unmatched. Concentrated in the North, the high church Anglicans epitomized the Anglicizing preferences of many wealthy Americans. They favored the advancement of gentility, British culture and literature, missionary outreach to the "heathens" throughout the empire, elegant ecclesiastical architecture, and other features of the Anglican "Renaissance" of the eighteenth century. They also supported the establishment of an episcopacy in America in order to expedite the ordination of ministers, a position opposed by most southern, "low church" Anglicans and increasingly excoriated by other Protestants. Joining them in enlightened religious practice were the moderate Scottish Presbyterians (as opposed to the strenuously Calvinist Scotch-Irish Presbyterians), Scottish Anglicans like William Smith, Provost of the College of Philadelphia, and Scottish highlander immigrants concentrated in North Carolina. But altogether these groups likely represented less than ten percent of the churchgoing population on the eve of the war.

Anglican Samuel Seabury (later to be anointed as the first Protestant Episcopal Bishop in America) accurately defined the Revolution as a civil war, and forcefully argued that the Continental Congress itself was tyrannical, especially in its arbitrary armed resistance against the British authorities. Seabury insisted that the Patriots were bringing about the very conditions that they claimed to oppose and would soon be forced to support a permanent British military establishment. British officers, Hessian observers, and Loyalists alike believed the Patriots were carrying on the Puritan fight against king and episcopacy from the 1640s into the 1770s. An American Loyalist surgeon communicating with the British command described the men encamped around Boston in 1775 as heirs to Oliver Cromwell's army. A British major expressed the point more succinctly: "It is your G-d damned Religion of this Country that ruins the Country; Damn your Religion" (Royster, p. 19). The American rebellion, the British believed—lumping together Congregationalists and their fellow former Puritans—was a "Presbyterian war." In the view of many of their clergy, the Patriot attack on enlightened religion and English culture was proof of the conflict's perversity.


The certainty of High church Anglicans of their own liberty-loving rectitude was undercut by their persistent opposition to republican government and by their conservative social mores. This was not the case for the many religious pacifists in the states, including some Baptists, the "Peace Germans" (Amish, Brethren, Dunkards, Mennonites, and Moravians), and experimental groups like the Shakers and Universal Friends. Most important among these was the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, at one time (with Congregationalists and Anglicans) one of the three largest denominations in the colonies. Altogether, the peace churches probably comprised more than fifteen percent of the American population, and they were concentrated in key strategic areas, including the Hudson River Valley, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. They were distinguished by a pietist theology focusing on conformity to Christian simplicity and spiritual mysticism; by long experience of government harassment; by democratic church polities; and by unparalleled advocacy of gender equality. Although largely unexamined by historians, this last attribute, including the degree to which pietist women bore the burden of persecution equally with pietist men, may have been a central reason for the groups' long-standing abstention from the bearing of arms.

The Quakers' "peace testimony" was forged in the previous century of conflict between Puritans and Anglicans. The Quakers blocked the formation of a Pennsylvania militia before the French and Indian War drove them from power, and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting likewise opposed the general militia law at the start of the Revolutionary war. The Patriot leadership alternatively viewed the Friends as a "mischievous" threat and likely Tories or as uncooperative nuisances. But a significant minority of Quakers (more than 750) in the new states, nicknamed "Fighting Quakers," believed that the Quaker doctrine of the inner light—and the millennial destiny of America—necessitated support for the enlightened American cause. Key Patriot Quakers were Thomas Paine (a lapsed English Friend), Betsy Ross (disowned, along with other important Patriot radicals, by the Philadelphia Friends), and Continental Army General Nathanael Greene, the indispensable man of the southern campaigns.

The German sects were universally pacifist, but the Baptists were divided between those who were confident in the future of religious freedom in America and those less convinced of this outcome: the former became Patriots, the latter—much smaller in number—became noncombatants. These groups were joined as well by John Wesley's "connexion" of unordained Methodist preachers, only recently arrived from Britain and comprised of increasing numbers of Americans. For all of these groups, the greatest tests of their faith came with state laws requiring loyalty oaths and militia service. Non-associators (that is, those who did not comply with the laws) were to be barred from public preaching or teaching, fined, or jailed. As a result, the war produced the first religious arguments in favor of resistance to the draft (for militia duty). And, once state authorities realized that their efforts to punish non-associators were counter-productive, the conflict also produced the first informal but state-sponsored recognition of conscientious-objector status based on religion.


The voice of clergymen in promoting and opposing American independence, the fate of their congregations and church buildings, and the experience of army chaplains illustrate further the ways in collective groups of religious believers shaped the course of the war and experienced its consequences. American clergy were compelling figures on both sides of the military conflict. Called the "black regiment" after their clerical garb, American Patriot clergy in particular included liberal Congregationalists like Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncey in Boston; moderate Congregationalists like Samuel Cooper in the same city; revivalist Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College in Connecticut; moderate Scottish Presbyterian John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey; Jacob Duche at Christ Church in Philadelphia (before the cause of independence forced him into the Loyalist camp); and many Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in New York, New Jersey, and the southern states, and on the western frontier. In Virginia, "Fighting Parson" John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, for just one example, left his Lutheran congregation in the Shenandoah Valley to join the Virginia militia and was ultimately commissioned as a brigadier general in the Continental army. The British correctly blamed American ministers for whipping up the rage militaire in the first year of the war, and the Continental Congress and state legislature relied on them to communicate with the larger American public to the end of the conflict.

Such partisanship had its price. The British never intruded far enough into New England to wreak havoc on dispersed congregations, burn church buildings, or silence the meetinghouse bells that called out the minutemen time and again. But to the south of New England the Patriot clergy faced significant threats to life and limb, and their churches were frequently desecrated or destroyed. In New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina, the British regularly burned Patriot meetinghouses or turned their copious spaces into horse stables and military hospitals. The main focus of both the British and Loyalist militias were the meetinghouses of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, the largest non-English group in rebellion. Judging by the speed with which one Presbyterian pastor in western North Carolina responded to the threat of British incursion—stopping mid-sermon to form a company, which he then led against the invading forces—the British had reason to fear the popular strength of this particular denomination.

On the other side, high church Anglican clergy complained of their treatment at the hands of the Sons of Liberty, Committees of Observation, Committees of Safety, and less respectable groups. In New York they faced arrest and jailing, conscription for militia duty, and then fines for non-attendance. Their homes and offices were broken into by Patriot crowds and militia. The low church clergy of Virginia and the rest of the South were protected by their powerful vestries: more than half supported the American cause and a good number of their ministers joined the armed forces. But most of the northern Anglican clergy emigrated to Canada or returned to Britain, leaving their churches abandoned and shuttered. On the eve of 19 April 1775, one such sanctuary, the Old North (Christ) Church in Boston, provided the literal and figurative scaffolding for the start of the war.

The Quakers, "Peace" Germans, and other pacifists, although not providing any fighting parsons, were still affected by the military conflict. In 1777, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania accused the Philadelphia Quaker leadership of Toryism, and sent fifteen prominent Quakers to a prison camp in Virginia. Non-associator Methodist preachers were fined and jailed on a regular basis and were frequent objects of abuse by Patriot mobs. Their British-born leader, Francis Asbury, went into seclusion in loyalist Delaware.


The other significant service provided by clergy on both sides was as army chaplains. Military chaplains were first recruited for service in May 1775, by the new Massachusetts state government. With Washington's encouragement, the Continental Congress quickly established the office of the regimental chaplaincy in the Continental Army. In 1777 Congress elevated the office into a brigade chaplaincy. The chaplain received a colonel's pay as an incentive for enlistment and facilitate the expansion of the work of a relatively small numbers of ministers over greater numbers of troops. Washington delayed the establishment of this new office in order to prevent a reduction in the ministers' effectiveness. The brigade chaplain was expected to be an experienced clergyman with an established public reputation for piety, virtue, and learning. His duties included administering two Sunday services weekly and attending the sick and dying. Many also sought the advice of commanders in providing the appropriate martial content to their sermons.

The British army, of course, also included military chaplains, with many of the same duties as the Americans. But in both cases, although receiving commissioned rank and providing indispensable spiritual and medical assistance to fighting men, the work of regimental and brigade chaplains was of a different order of difficulty from their civilian work. British regimental chaplains frequently paid substitutes to take their places. These men, and those connected with them, faced genuine danger, even when not engaged in conflict. One example of this is found in the tragic killing of Presbyterian chaplain James Caldwell's wife in their New Jersey home by a British officer, who apparently singled out the minister's family for punishment. Caldwell's later murder by a disgruntled American soldier, makes clear that the threat came not only from the enemy.

Chaplains also came face to face with the real spiritual state of enlisted men. The British chaplains were specifically instructed to monitor the soldiers' behavior, from cursing and profanity to gambling and resorting to prostitutes. British commanders spoke glowingly of the piety of the Hessians who, in contrast to often indifferent British troops, broke into hymn-singing spontaneously and regularly, including before combat. As the rage militaire of the start of the war subsided, the regiments of the Continental army were filled with poor farmers, laboring men, and former slaves—more typical of British enlisted men than were the minutemen at the start of the war. The recollections of wartime participation by many of these soldiers contain almost no religious content. In a notable exception, black veteran Jehu Grant implied that religious education, might have deterred his enlistment since, had he "been taught to read or understand the precepts of the Gospel, "Servants obey your masters,'" he might not have joined the military. Instead, his inspiration came from popular songs of liberty that "saluted my ear, thrilled through my heart" (Dann, p. 28).

One Baptist chaplain, Ebenezer David, was dismayed by the irreligious attitudes of the enlisted men in Rhode Island. But David was witnessing a new world, in which religious provincialism was fading fast. He worked with John Murray, a Universalist, who preached salvation for all believers—heretical doctrine to most Calvinists like David. He became fascinated with better ways of practicing medicine, a new professional outlet. He was surely familiar with some of the 200 black men who comprised the First Rhode Island Regiment, a new population of fighting men. Before he died of a fever at Valley Forge in the Winter of 1778, David was freely using soldiers' slang like "pilcocke" to refer to doctors and "camp geniuses" to describe camp followers, and he may have thought of himself as a "pulpit drum." Perhaps he came to better understand the earthy point of view of enlisted men like Joseph Plumb Martin. Recollecting his long service with the Continental army, Martin mordantly paraphrased Tom Paine: "I often found that those times not only tried men's souls, but their bodies too; I know they did mine, and that effectually."


Ultimately, for both American and British military commands, perhaps the biggest challenge in dealing with the religious implications of the war was determining who was reliably on which side. Historian Kevin Phillips has demonstrated how consistently regionally or ethnically defined denominational identity led to political allegiance in the war (The Cousins' Wars), as described above. But Phillips also confirms the importance of the divided or neutral (as opposed to pacifist) denominations. Various sources suggest that as many as twenty-five percent of church-attending Americans fit this description: including Huguenots, "Church Germans" (Lutherans and German Reformed), Dutch Reformed, Methodist laypeople (as opposed to their frequently pacifist ministers), Roman Catholics (English, Irish, and Canadian), and Jews. Added to these were as many as one-third of all Anglicans, if the affiliations of Anglican ministers is taken as an indicator of their parishioners' views. British and American contenders alike were eager to have these populations on their side, making the regions south of New England not only militarily but also culturally contested terrain.

Phillips also correctly argues that the allegiance of blacks and Indians was of utmost importance in winning the war. Although conclusions are inevitably tentative with these far less well documented populations, the choices made by slaves, free blacks, and frontier tribes were likely to be as strongly influenced by denominational allegiance or religious conviction as were the choices made by whites in the conflict. So Lemuel Haynes, a Connecticut Congregationalist and later the first ordained African American minister of any denomination, joined the Continental Army immediately upon his emancipation. Phillis Wheatley, an evangelical Christian, was the first African American published author, and among her many poems was a paean to General Washington. James Forten, Philadelphia sailmaker and Anglican, was also an early abolitionist: he joined the liberty-loving Patriots.

How many of the black men in the First Rhode Island Regiment were native Baptists, inclined to the Patriots' side, cannot be known; but southerners must have regretted their unwillingness to accustom their slaves to the advantages of low church Anglicanism and fidelity to Whig mores when thousands escaped and fled behind British lines during "Lord Dunmore's War" in 1775. As many as 20,000 slaves in South Carolina alone were estimated to have joined the British. Many were betrayed by the British command and re-enslaved in the West Indies or impressed as "military slaves" into British regiments. Others were more fortunate—black Loyalist men and women alike escaped to new lives in Nova Scotia, where they joined Methodist and Baptist churches, membership so frequently denied them by slavemasters.

Similarly, victory in the West depended on the constancy of hundreds of potential Indian allies and French Catholic settlers. The Mohawks, including Chief Joseph Brant, an Anglican convert, allied with the British. So did the Cherokees and Creeks, working through Superintendent John Stuart, a moderate Scot and Loyalist. But the Stockbridge Indians, educated at the Presbyterian Mission in that Massachusetts town, were on the American side, and Superintendent Sir William Johnson feared the effect that Calvinist missionaries might have among the Iroquois. American commander George Rogers Clark promised political and religious freedom to French settlers and Indian tribes in Ohio Country, smoothing the way for American acquisition in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Pietist Indians, on the other hand, like the ninety-six Moravians Indians, men, women and children massacred by American soldiers in northern Pennsylvania near the end of the war, were caught in the middle.

Here the story of religion and the Revolutionary war comes full circle. The depradations and displacements experienced by so many Indians during the conflict led to the revival of a quiescent nativism among northwestern and southwestern tribes. Aiming to rebuild Indian unity and to drive the whites back to the Appalachians, the new nativism was advanced by Chief Tecumseh and his brother, Shawnee Prophet, in the very same territory that had been assigned to Quebec in 1774. The Revolutionary war continued here in altered form for another thirty years.


Religious culture had an impact on the character, course, and consequences of the war. Without the anti-papal propaganda, the wedding of religious and political liberty, and the millennial expectations that formed the great triad of religious inspiration throughout the war, it is difficult to imagine the conflict lasting long beyond the arrival of the Howe brothers (George, Richard, and William) in 1776. Without the British conviction that the rebellion was a recurrence of Puritan treason against an anointed king, the British army's hatred of New England and violence against Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches would be inexplicable. And without the long historical experience of brutal religious warfare and persecution in their own histories, not least of all against women in these faiths, the rejection of the virile world of military service by German sects and Society of Friends might seem less worthy than they were.

The war also prompted a series of dramatic reversals in what might otherwise have been the natural progression toward Anglican cultural and institutional dominance, living in unquiet but tolerable coexistence with Calvinist adherents on the one hand and pietist pacifists on the other. Instead it produced the collapse of Anglican authority; New Englanders' abandonment of both anti-Catholicism and strict Calvinism; the rising popularity, even during the war, of emerging pietist—rather than scrupulously Calvinist—evangelical movements like the Methodists and Baptists, not least of all among African Americans. And finally, the war contributed to the initiation of new forms of tribal religious unity among Indians.

Most critically for the nation state, freedom of conscience and freedom from church establishments, though far from fully institutionalized, were increasingly espoused as aspects of American civil religion. So was the millennial-style conviction, expressed by General Washington in his Circular to the States in June 1783, that the future happiness of millions depended upon the favorable outcome of the great experiment in republican government, now that the war was won. Americans have come to adhere to this understanding of the special character of the Revolution, but for many combatants and noncombatants recovering from the political and religious enmities of the war, such a consensus was yet to be built.

SEE ALSO Associators; Methodists; Presbyterians; Quakers; Roman Catholics; Stuart, John.


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Religion and the American Revolution

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Religion and the American Revolution