1754-1783: Religion: Overview
1754-1783: Religion: Overview
Changing Hearts. Looking back on America’s War for Independence from the perspective of 1818, former president John Adams commented that the “Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” Adams’s idea was that establishing the United States was more than just a matter of military victories or even establishing new political institutions. Rather, the experience of revolution went much deeper, and this era involved significant changes in how the American people looked at their world. This was as true for religion in the revolutionary era as for politics or society. As Adams added, the colonists’ revolution included a “Change in their Religious Sentiments of their Duties and Obligations.” In religion as in politics and society, Americans in this period struggled to balance new ideas and new institutions against the ways that had served them at least since the beginning of European settlement more than 150 years earlier. People changed their minds, as they experimented with new religious ideas, and also changed their hearts, as the emotional experience of God’s grace became the center of what religion meant to more and more Americans.
Variety. The revolution in religious culture was not easy, however. The hearts and minds of the people changed slowly and unevenly. At the beginning as well as the end of the period, Americans held a wide range of religious beliefs and engaged in an equally wide range of religious practices. The weakness of colonial religious and political institutions made this possible, as did the vastness of the land that early Americans populated. Religious variety also grew with immigration, which increased quickly after 1750 and made America one of the world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse places. Philadelphia was a major entry port, and the city and its surrounding countryside filled as the settled Quakers mixed with emotionally pious Germans of many sects. A large migration of Scots-Irish arriving in the 1760s and 1770s was especially important. They brought with them a set of traditions similar to those brought over by the Puritans of the seventeenth century. Their arrival helped revitalize that tradition, especially as they participated in revivals promoted by the Presbyterians on the western frontier of the Middle colonies. Those revivals had their beginnings in the 1730s and continued sporadically throughout the revolutionary period, spreading from group to group. Soon, Baptists and Methodists challenged Presbyterian power, especially as the revivals moved to the Southern colonies. There were also small, independent groups started by individuals who had intense religious experiences and tried to bring others to their views. Even New England, with its well-established Congregationalism, experienced increasing variety in religious life, as liberal and revivalistic wings of Congregationalism competed for converts, and Baptists and independents made significant inroads. In the cities small groups of Jews and Roman Catholics began to make their presence felt. Finally the forced migration of Africans brought still other forms of religious beliefs to the new nation even though their practices were often severely restricted as efforts were made to make slaves conform to Christianity.
Religious Disaffection. Despite the forces tending to make variety the hallmark of American religion in the revolutionary period, a number of general characteristics were part of the experience of nearly all religious Americans in this time. One was that relatively few Americans actively practiced religion in a formal sense during these years. Rates of church membership and attendance in these years were probably lower than at any other point in American history. One obvious reason is the disruption in all aspects of life that the Revolutionary War caused. In those uncertain days numerous pulpits were empty for at least a part of the time. Many important ministers were directly affected by the war. Timothy Dwight became a chaplain for the Continental Army while Samuel Seabury ministered to British soldiers. Some were even soldiers themselves. Henry Muhlenberg, credited by many as a founder of the Lutheran denomination in America, became a general and led a brigade against Lord Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania. Aside from the loss of their pastors’ attentions, many congregations were further weakened with the death or departure of lay members. The Anglican Church suffered particularly, since so many of its members were Loyalists and left for Canada or England as the war ended. Other groups struggled with dissension over the conflicting political goals of their members. The decline in religious affiliation was all the more striking given the religious revivals that characterized the early years of the revolutionary era. Ironically, the religious fervor of the early years may have contributed to the fallow years of the war, as people were unable to sustain the intensity of the revivals. The period as a whole was a paradoxical time of both growth and loss of vitality.
Challenge of Reason. More fundamentally, the new republican ideals that became prominent in this period challenged the existing religious order and drew many away from their old churches. Some people were too preoccupied with the pressing political and social concerns of a new nation to spend much time on religious matters. Others were engaged with religion but found themselves interested in new ideas. Rationalist, liberal groups emerged in New England Congregationalism especially, stressing the large scope of human reason, the freedom of human will, and the importance of human moral reasoning as the centers of their religious lives. These liberals saw themselves as continuing the development of the Puritanism that English settlers brought with them, but their opponents saw them as dangerously unorthodox. Others left religion for deism, a religious rationalism related to the ideals of the European Enlightenment that were so important in the development of American republicanism. Others simply turned away from organized religion to more-private forms of worship and belief, translating the emerging democratic confidence in the dignity and authority of each individual into the realm of religion. Whatever the reason, the traditional churches found themselves pressured to adapt to new conditions, which some groups did more successfully than others.
Church-State Relations. One of the most significant of these new conditions was the formal relationship between the churches and the state. Going into the Revolutionary War, most colonies had an established church, an official church that received support from the government although in no colony was membership in that church required. The war and the ideas linked to it made people reevaluate these connections. As Americans began drafting their state constitutions after 1776, many included in them a list of fundamental, protected human rights, and nearly all included some notion of freedom of religion. No American in 1776 contemplated a nation with the religious pluralism that the United States has today. But nearly all early Americans valued the right of individuals to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs without interference from the state. The exact form that religious tolerance should take was hotly debated in the revolutionary era. American churches were divided on this topic, and the conflicts over this issue, as well as the new religious choices that came with increased explicit protection for religion, challenged the older, established religions to keep pace.
Voluntary Denominations. Probably the most successful response to the combination of religious diversity, religious apathy, and religious freedom was the gradual emergence of the idea of religious denominations that would exist side by side in the new nation. By the end of the Revolution most Americans had abandoned any idea that all citizens needed to be included in any one church, as was still the rule in much of Europe. Instead the governments established in the states during the Revolution and the federal government established in the 1780s created an equality among the various religions, or at least among the forms of Protestantism. Instead of relying on the state for support, the denominations slowly embraced the idea that a stronger church comes from the voluntary support of individuals. This was truer to the ideals of biblical Christianity and more practical in the context of early American society. It also corresponded to the emphasis placed by many revivalistic groups on intensely individual conversion experiences. This system took a long time to develop fully. Massachusetts was the last state to end its support for an established religion, in 1833. Yet the pattern of free access to all religions and of general respect for them all was established in the revolutionary period and persists as the most distinctive feature of American religion to this day.
A Religious Nation. Despite the formal separation of church and government, the Revolution forged close links between religion and the nation. The patriotism of many Americans for the independence movement corresponded to the enthusiasm many had for Christ as well. Many took their surprising success against the far-more powerful British forces as a sign of God’s special favor. They remembered that some of their ancestors had come to America at least partly on God’s mission, whether to secure religious freedom for themselves or to bring Christianity to America. They saw the Revolution as a continuation of that sacred task and the new nation as a sign of purity in a fallen world. Some groups were fascinated with the idea of the end of the world and the second coming of Christ and thought winning the war was a sign of the imminence of those events. The union of states became a kind of religious object. In the first stirrings of what we now call America’s “civil religion,” religious imagery and nationalist imagery merged in speeches and sermons throughout the era. Congregationalist Ezra Stiles spoke for many when, in a sermon preached in 1783, he painted a rosy picture of the future strength and prosperity of the United States, based on the liberty that Americans enjoyed as the main blessing of God.
A Religious Culture. In the end it is too simple to say that religion caused the American Revolution or that revolutionary feelings caused the changes in America’s religious landscape in these years. The relations are more complex and indirect. Religion was important in the American Revolution, however, because America’s distinctive culture in the period was fundamentally religious. Despite low rates of formal church membership, religious themes and conflicts were at the center of most Americans’ lives. As the Revolution progressed, the kind of religion most Americans experienced, in whatever different ways, was beginning to be more closely related to the political and social changes taking place at the same time. The religion of the American Revolution took various forms, but by 1783 there were several unifying elements that connected it to the goals of the new nation. Lay people were important, and the status of the clergy was declining. The power located in church pews rather than in pulpits was a tribute to the dignity of individual believers. The religion of most Americans of the 1780s attached great significance to individuals’ ability to read and interpret the Bible for themselves even though that offered the chance that unusual or disruptive ideas might come forward. Individual behavior was important too, and more and more Americans were stressing religion as an ethical system of justice and brotherhood rather than focusing on obscure theological controversies. Religion was also on the move, just as the American population was. Revivals and itinerant ministers accompanied settlers to the frontiers and helped to establish culture and morality in those areas. All these features corresponded to the political ideas at the Revolution’s heart. Distrust of executive powers, decentralized political authority, and republican moral order were analogues to experiences many Americans had in their churches and private spiritual lives. Religious Americans of all kinds were revolutionary Americans as well.