Before and during the Revolutionary War, Christian faith played a political role for patriots on two levels. It contributed to the content of the period’s dominant political ideology, and it was a significant force in the actual outworking of the war. Most significant was the relationship between the Puritan tradition, which was evolving into a uniquely American form of evangelical Protestantism, and the ideology that justified a break from Britain.
Two crises dominated the political history of this era. The first was a crisis of the British Empire, which was resolved by the American Revolution. The second was a crisis of government in the new United States, which was resolved by the delegates who convened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to write the Constitution. In simplest terms, both crises involved efforts to preserve the virtues of republican government.
Christians and the Christian faith played a substantial, if ambiguous, role in the shaping of republicanism. In eighteenth-century Britain and America, republicanism was an ideal rather than a sharply defined system. It arose with the political theorists of the Italian Renaissance, among whom Machiavelli is the best known. It took on a special British cast during the English civil wars of the seventeenth century. While the Puritan Oliver Cromwell and the armies of Parliament waged war against King Charles I for corrupting and oppressing the English people, philosophers of public life struggled to define how government should support the well-being of society.
In simple terms, the republicanism of this period embodied the conviction that the exercise of power defined the political process and that unchecked power led to corruption even as corruption fostered unchecked power. Furthermore, the arbitrary exercise of unchecked power must by its very nature result in the demise of liberty, law, and natural rights. Republicans, therefore, tended to favor separation of power in government rather than its concentration. They usually held that a good government should mix elements of popular influence, aristocratic tradition, and executive authority rather than be simply democratic, simply aristocratic, or simply monarchical.
The evolution of republicanism involved numerous individuals and groups over a long period of time, but Christian believers contributed their fair share. The Puritans who supported Cromwell and the Scottish Calvinists who agitated for the independence of their Presbyterian Kirk linked republican values with Scripture. They felt that republicanism represented a political recognition of the Bible’s realistic teaching about human sinfulness and the ongoing struggle between Christ (who promoted true liberty) and Satan (who represented the worst possible tyranny). Other influences, however, were deistic or agnostic, including some of Britain’s “real whigs” of the early eighteenth century, who had given up traditional Christian faith for a religion of nature that had no place for miracles, the incarnation, or special revelation.
Republicanism was critical for the relation of religion and politics in the Revolutionary era because the beliefs of American Christians paralleled republican principles in many particulars. This confluence in turn led to the widespread assumption that republican principles expressed Christian values and hence could be defended with Christian fervor.
Together, the republican and the Puritan heritages shared many formal similarities. Both held to a view of human nature that recognized the human capacity for evil as well as for good. Puritans dwelt at length on the natural tendency toward evil that arose as a consequence of Adam’s fall. Republicans dwelt at length on the natural tendency to abuse official power as a consequence of the corrupting nature of power itself.
Puritans and republicans also defined virtue, freedom, and social well-being in similar terms. Both saw virtue primarily as a negative quality: Puritans as the absence of sin, republicans as the absence of corrupt and arbitrary power. Puritans looked on freedom as liberation from sin, republicans as liberation from tyranny. The Puritans defined a good society as one in which sin was vanquished and in which people stood vigilantly on guard against its reappearance. Republicans defined a good society as one in which political freedom from tyranny was preserved and in which citizens resolutely resisted any tendencies toward the corruption of power.
With similar views on virtue, freedom, and social well-being, it is not surprising that republican and Christian points of view began to merge. It was only a small step, for example, to expand concern for the glorious liberty of the children of God into concern for the glorious freedoms imperiled by Parliament.
Republicans and the evangelical heirs of the Puritans also shared a common view of history. Both regarded the past as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. To American believers, good and evil were represented by Christ and anti-Christ; to republicans, by liberty and tyranny. Both republicans and Puritans longed for a new age in which righteousness and freedom would flourish. Both hoped that the Revolution would play a role in bringing such a golden age to pass.
A lively tradition of millennialism also forged a link between political freedom and Christian liberty. Speculation of this sort encouraged the notion that the great conflict between God and Satan was somehow being played out in the struggle with Britain, and that a victory over Parliament might signal the near approach of God’s rule on earth, the millennium. During the war, several ministers preached sermons pointing out how closely British oppression resembled the beast described in the thirteenth chapter of Revelation. At least one New Englander thought that America might be the stone from the book of Daniel that struck “the image of the beast,” became “a great mountain” filling all the earth, and led to the time when “discord shall cease, and Tyrants be no more.”
This millennial speculation fit comfortably with many shades of theology, from Samuel Hopkins’s orthodox Calvinism to the biblical universalism of the Philadelphia minister Elhanan Winchester. It was also embraced by some of those who promoted a more radical restructuring of American society and some who backed a conservative revolution. Throughout the Revolutionary period, millennial speculation usually remained spiritual. Only in the most heated moments did ministers and lay theologians apply their millennial theories directly to political events. Nevertheless, during this era an established tradition of millennialism, hitherto largely apolitical, may have become the most important vehicle for melding evangelical Christianity and republican political theory into the morally charged ideology that fueled the War for Independence.
These Christian ideas grew closer toward republican ideals during the French and Indian War (1755–1763) as British colonists rallied against their enemies. To them the French represented the epitome of evil both because they accepted absolute monarchy and because they supported the Roman Catholic Church. After that conflict, when the British Parliament began to tighten its control of the colonies, a shift in interpretation occurred. Tyranny promoted by Parliament and the Church of England replaced the tyranny represented by France and Roman Catholicism as the great terror in many colonial eyes. Republicanism and this variety of evangelicalism became virtually inextricable as the crisis with the British Parliament grew more intense.
Contributions to the Cause
During the actual conflict with Britain, Christian political action played a leading role in the achievement of independence. On the most general level, a broadly Puritan ethic set the tone for the patriots’ political exertions. In the Puritan heritage, patriots found a seriousness about the vocation of “public servants,” individuals who sacrificed private gain for the public good. The same source provided an example of perseverance in the face of adversity—just as the earliest American settlers had continued to work hard and trust God when their enterprise was threatened by the forces of nature, so too patriots could labor on and pray when the tide of battle ran against them. Similarly, the Puritan link between personal virtue, the exercise of frugality, and the enjoyment of liberty served as a model for how the same qualities could be joined together in an independent United States. On this level, Christian values shaped political behavior quite generally, but still with telling effect.
Other strands of Christian influence also served to justify the patriot cause. In the middle colonies, ministers of the various Reformed churches (Dutch, German, Presbyterian) drew on a theological tradition stretching back to the Reformation and into the Middle Ages. It was a tradition occupied with questions about the application of natural law, the Bible’s commentary on equity, and the proper criteria for a just war. In these terms a case could be made that British impositions created a situation justifying military self-defense. During the war itself, some of these Reformed voices from the middle colonies also took up the theme of a “chosen nation” more common in New England. But the fact that they were also employing another strand of theological reasoning suggests something about the fluidity of religious patriotism.
Despite these contributions from the middle colonies, New England set the pace for Revolutionary Christian patriotism. Preachers in this region had long stressed the special relationship between God and “his people.” As war approached, many of them cast the conflict with Great Britain in cosmic terms. God had called “his people” to religious and political freedom in the New World; certainly he would now sustain them as they fought off the tyrannical Parliament. New England was the scene of the sharpest early tensions with Britain. Boston patriots led in resisting parliamentary efforts to sustain a tax on tea (the Boston Tea Party); the first actual battles of the war took place in Massachusetts (Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill). It was thus of great significance for the whole American effort that a long New England tradition had recognized God as the Lord of Battles actively intervening on behalf of his people.
Sermons encouraging a defense of political liberty were, however, by no means restricted to New England. Presbyterians in New Jersey and the South preached a similar message, as did representatives of the Baptists and other smaller denominations. Even some clergymen of the Church of England, contradicting the allegiance of their denomination, denounced the grasp of Parliament. One of the most notable of these patriotic sermons came from Presbyterian John Witherspoon at Princeton on May 17, 1776. Witherspoon had emigrated from Scotland eight years before to become the president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Now he was calling on his fellow Scottish immigrants to realize that the time to choose had come. The title of his sermon was “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men.” Its twin themes stressed the propriety of resisting unjust tyranny and the necessity of trusting God to bring good out of evil: “the ambition of mistaken princes, the cunning and cruelty of oppressive and corrupt [parliamentary] ministers, and even the inhumanity of brutal soldiers, however dreadful, shall finally promote the glory of God, and in the meantime, while the storm continues, his mercy and kindness shall appear in prescribing bounds to their rage and fury.” Less than two months after preaching this sermon, Witherspoon, as a delegate from New Jersey, became the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.
The services of believers to the patriot cause were great and multiform. Ministers preached rousing sermons to militia companies as they met for training or embarked for the field. Many ministers served as chaplains. Ministers joined Christian laymen on the informal committees of correspondence that preceded the formation of the new state governments. Other ministers served gladly as traveling agents of the new governments who hoped to win over settlers in outlying areas to the patriot cause. Throughout the conflict, common soldiers were urged to their duty by the repeated assertion that Britain was violating divine standards.
Surprisingly enough, the patriot cause also received support from the small Catholic community in the English-speaking colonies. Such support was surprising because of the hostility toward Roman Catholicism that prevailed widely in the colonies. One of the leaders of a prominent Catholic family in Maryland, Charles Carroll, was reminded in 1773 of how thoroughly the deck was stacked against Catholics in British America. In a newspaper exchange with the loyalist Daniel Dulany Jr., Carroll defended the rights of Americans that then seemed threatened by Parliament. For his pains, Carroll was reminded that “he is disabled from giving a vote in the choice of representatives, by the laws and constitution of the country, on account of his [religious] principles, which are distrusted by those laws.… He is not a Protestant.” Yet Carroll steadfastly stuck to his convictions. He eventually signed the Declaration and during the war served his state and new national government in several important posts. In Carroll’s mind, current laws against Catholics were not most important; he invested in the hope of a better day to come. “When I signed the Declaration of Independence,” he wrote, “I had in view not only our independence of England but the toleration of all sects, professing the Christian religion, and communicating to them all great rights.” In Quebec, Catholic sentiment was different, as Carroll discovered when he accepted an appointment to serve on a committee charged with drawing French Canada to the side of the patriots. But for many Catholics in the colonies, the prospect of independence promised more good than harm.
The direct political activity of Christians had consequences. Opponents recognized the importance of the Christian element immediately. A Hessian captain in Pennsylvania wrote, “call this war … by whatever name you may, only call it not an American Rebellion, it is nothing more or less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.” Joseph Galloway, a moderate opponent of Parliament who eventually chose loyalty to Great Britain over colonial independence, wrote that the colonial insurrection was led by “Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Smugglers.” From the patriot side the connotations were different, but the message was largely the same.
Noll, M. A. (2019). A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.