Apr 21, 2020 in History
Religion and the American Revolution

To assess the role of religion in the American Revolution, it is important to remember that Americans of the 18th century were religious and mainly Protestant. Many settlers had fled from religious oppression in the Old World, so dedication to Christianity, liberty of faith, and tolerance to other Christian denominations were key features of the religious life. Although economic and political factors were decisive, the American Revolution cannot be reduced only to secular terms. It is enough to remember that revolutionary appeals and declarations referred to the Bible, and even the American Constitution is the evidence of a true Christian devotion of the Founding Fathers. Though religious issues were not an immediate reason for the American Revolution, it was a mighty shaping force since it helped outline and ground the idea of independence, inspired people to fight for it, and became the cornerstone in the foundation of the new state.

 
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Religious Composition of the Pre-Revolutionary States

Settling of the America coincided in time with the process of reformation in the world. Catholicism failed to establish itself as a sole religion, and various Protestant denominations appeared throughout Europe in the 16-17th centuries. As new confessions suffered severe persecutions in the Old World, many Protestants fled to colonies hoping to gain the freedom of conscience there. As a result, the national and religious composition of the early American settlers was diverse. Major European nations founded their colonies alongside the Atlantic Coast of the North America as bases for their colonial expansion. Thus, English Jamestown was founded in 1607, French Quebec in 1608, and Spanish Santa Fe two years later. Soon, English Pilgrims founded Plymouth in 1620; the Scottish colony of Nova Scotia appeared in 1621; Dutch New Amsterdam (modern New York) emerged in 1626; the English Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay in 1630, Swedes built Fort Christina in 1638; and the French founded Montreal in 1642. The distribution of confessions followed the territorial principle. Although Catholic Church tried to expand its influence and imported its missionaries, they succeeded mainly in French Canada and the Spanish South. Protestant settlers brought their rigorous beliefs, literal adherence to the word of God, and sound ethics to the New World.

Reformed Church, the Church of England, and Lutheran Church were the first among Protestant churches to find the way to the New World. Soon Baptists, Quakers, and other radical Protestant groups followed. From the very beginning, the States were characterized by a great diversity of Christian denominations. Even each of the thirteen English colonies confessed Christianity in its own manner. Koester finds that Calvinism dominated American religious life for generations. Moreover, Calvinism, namely Calvinist priest Jonathan Edwards, was responsible for the origination of radical social and political ideology, democratic views, and the sense of belonging to the American nation.

The Great Awakening

The church has always sought for expansion and winning new adepts. Without exception, all Christian denominations saw such an opportunity in the New World. Hundreds of missionaries commenced their work with Native Americans and African slaves. They also tried to convert white settlers. Thus, in the early 18th century, Anglican priests envisaged Congregationalist communities as a target group, which inevitably led to conflicts. The official Church of England sought to reinforce centralized religious power and, respectively, the power of its head, the King. Lutheran, Moravian, and other missionaries were also active in British colonies in North America. At the break of the centuries, they searched for the ways to make the service more vivid and compelling and to revive the belief in God.

Due to the selfless labor of those missionaries, Calvinist Jonathan Edwards and Anglican George Whitefield in particular, New England saw a wave of adult conversions in the 1730s called the Great Awakening. Personal experience of new birth and salvation was the central point of this phenomenon. As Koester writes, “the Awakening made new Christians and renewed the faith of the existing ones.” Among other issues, the new movement challenged conventional church authorities and forms of service. Moreover, Pennsylvanian Congregationalist Samuel Davis was the person who linked the Awakening with religious freedom when he successfully proved that the British Act of Toleration of 1689 may be applied to colonies as well.

Due to the Awakening, thousands of people experienced a new birth that revived their faith. It also formed greater demand for the liberty of conscience and desire to defend it. Despite the controversies within the movement, it changed the lives of people dramatically. Salvation or spiritual rebirth filled their lives with a new meaning. What is the most important, official church and priests lost their monopoly in terms of divine revelation. Active Christianity became a religion of common Americans. The Great Awakening crossed the boundaries of geography, denomination, social status, race, age, and gender. It reshaped American religious life and prepared fertile soil for the ideas of independence and liberty.

Influences of the Enlightenment

While the Awakening addressed common people, the Enlightenment was the intellectual movement in aristocratic circles. In most aspects, the Enlightenment was contrary to the Awakening for its proclaiming the greatness of mind, the progress of humanity, and the power of reason. However, there was one common thing, which was the desire and will for liberty. Though the Enlightenment philosophers thought mainly in political and civil terms, “liberty, equality, and fraternity” was its basic ideal. While American Puritans dreamed of a nation of God, the upper-class philosophers and idealists dreamed of building a free and fair society. The philosophers of the Enlightenment differed in their views on religion from recognizing the existence of God and approval of Christian moral to complete denial of the divinity and church. However, the Americans generally accepted moderate and didactic approach and rejected militant atheism. Educated priests influenced by the Enlightenment tried to reconcile reason and revelation preaching “reasonable religion” with a strong accent on Christian moral.

The fathers of the American Revolution were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment to a different extent. In any case, they judged religious issues from the viewpoint of reason. Most of them believed in God, Creator, and Supreme Being, but they rejected the constraints of religious dogmas and institutions. Nevertheless, they were all determined to defend the freedom of conscience.

Thus, Benjamin Franklin was close to Deists of the moderate branch. As he expressed his creed, “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting his Conduct in this”. Franklin believed that those were the fundamentals of all religions. Although he doubted the divinity of Christ, he adopted the moral teaching of Jesus.

Thomas Jefferson partially shared Franklin’s views. He believed that the religion provided guidelines for moral behavior. However, he considered that Christianity deviated from the original teaching of Jesus and became the religion “about Jesus”.

Thomas Paine was a revolutionary who rejected religion and church institutions. In his book The Age of Reason written in 1794 that glorified the French Revolution, Paine connected Christian religion with monarchy that had to be overthrown. Paine wrote, “I believe in one God and no more … I do not believe in the creed professed … by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church”. Since he also attacked the Bible and Christian beliefs, he wakened fury of the religious Americans. Ironically, Paine used his pamphlet that had made him famous as a patriot before (Common Sense of 1774) in typical religious rhetoric to prove the necessity of the Revolution.

Religious Argumentation of the Necessity of Liberty

Prior to the colonial war with France, the colonists did not have to pay special taxes. The metropolis provided military protection to Americans for the trading possibilities. However, seven years of war exhausted the treasury and boosted the national debt. To cover the expenses, Britain decided to introduce several taxes and duties in its American colonies. Dissatisfaction with the new taxes ignited the protests against tax collectors, customs officers, army, and colonial rule in general. As the taxes multiplied and increased, the yoke became almost intolerable and damaged businesses. After introduction of stamp tax, John Adams warned Americans that the stamp tax was a planned step in the attack on the American liberties. He argued, that defending those liberties was the right “derived from our Maker”. Moreover, the colonists believed it was an unfair encroachment upon their rights. Though they continued thinking of themselves as loyal subjects of the British monarch, they felt that George III had just abandoned his duty of taking care of his subjects.

Although the immediate reasons for the uprising were economic and political, it would not be possible without the specific vision of Christianity that developed in America under the influence of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment. According to Paul Johnson, “the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event”. The fear for ecclesiastical oppression was also real for the missionary efforts of the Church of England peaked in the 1760–1770s. Many colonists were ready to rise against the violation of their consciences. William Penn wrote in 1670 that human authorities have no right to dictate, restrain, or persecute for the matters of conscience”. The freedom of conscience mattered a hundred years after as much as in Penn’s times.

It is wrong to assume that American clergy was unanimous in the strife for independence. Depending on the church, political views and understanding of liberty differed a lot. For example, the Church of England that was mainly loyal to the British monarchy had large parishes in the South; hence, the South was under the spiritual influence of the Tories. On the contrary, the majority of Congregationalists and Presbyterians as well as more radical Protestants were convinced Whigs; they settled in Massachusetts and other northern territories that became foci of resistance to the colonial rule.

The attitude to the Revolution depended largely upon the confessional belonging. While the Church of England generally supported the monarchy, many Anglicans, especially those from South Carolina and Virginia, were also inspired by the idea of independence. Half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglicans. Quakers and Mennonites did not take arms for religious reasons irrespective of their political views. Most Catholics, though being a minority group, ardently supported the Revolution.

“Tory propaganda spoke directly to Christian values. Those who supported the war, especially the rebel ministry, had, as a primary task, relieving the consciences of those parishioners, who, having accepted literally the teachings of the Scripture, believed that “a rebel … indeed, is a monster in nature, an enemy not only to his country, but to all mankind.” Whereas Tory ministers sought to create guilty consciences insisting that “Christianity was the religion that encouraged submission … even to tyrants,” those Congregational and Presbyterian ministers sympathetic to the war responded by identifying political liberty with spiritual and moral liberty, freedom from the tyranny of George III with freedom from the tyranny of the sin”.

Congregational preachers compared the tyranny of George III with the yoke of the Pharaoh that was imposed by God for the sins of New Englanders. Respectively, liberation from the sin was linked to the liberation from the British rule. This sharp rhetoric challenged the connection between the patriarchal and civil authority while drawing parallels between civil and divine freedoms (Fliegelman, 1986). This attitude was reflected in the design of the State Seal offered by Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams. They allegorically portrayed the American nation as new Israel being saved by God. The revolutionary motto on the seal ran: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”.

Another Christian concept that justified the revolutionary ideas was the one of Christian family and adoption. Generally, the physical parents as well as monarch were the projection of God the Father. Puritans envisaged adoption as the next step after the receipt of grace. Adoption freed the believers from the family of sin and granted “the perfect law of liberty” to them. Puritan rhetoric provided possibility for the transfer of projection from one “father” to another. Moreover, the abandonment of the filial piety to the British King was easier since his rule was associated with the tyranny of the sin. Furthermore, the Enlightenment had already spread its views on education and parental authority. A good parent has to be loving, caring, instructing, fair, and forgiving; moreover, the father had to serve an example for his child. Thus, King George III had lost his patriarchal authority since he ceased to be a good father for his subjects.

The original Puritans dreamed of building godly society on earth. They had moved to the colonies hoping to complete the Reformation. After the Great Awakening, when many Americans experienced a new birth, liberation from sin, and divine adoption, they believed that such society became possible. In this case, Old England, with its luxury, hedonism, and corruption, was the opposite to the virtue, simplicity, integrity, and public spirit preached and practiced by Americans. John Adams summed up a common opinion by arguing that England had lost its virtue, so it had lost its right to rule as well. Therefore, the possibility of independence revived the hopes for godly society. The Founding Fathers influenced by the Enlightenment envisaged highly moral society as well. They considered it to be useful in encouraging and promoting Christianity for the cause of moral education.

Conclusion

The analysis of historical facts and documents proves that the American Revolution was not a purely secular phenomenon. The very fact that the prevalent majority of Americans of the 1770s were devoted Christians means religious implications of ideas and actions. Moreover, the revolution that occurred in the States became possible due to the Great Awakening and religious diversity and liberty. Next, the protection of religious freedom was one of the reasons of the uprising. Patriots as well as loyalists widely used the Holy Scriptures to support their arguments. Finally, Christianity became the foundation of a new state. Therefore, beyond any doubt, the American Revolution was shaped, conditioned, and supported by Christian moral, worldview, and experience of the 18th-century Americans.

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