Protestantism And The American Revolution

The historical roots of the American Revolution are complex, and it is difficult to assign priority to any one factor as the ultimate cause of the rebellion against British rule. The burdens of taxation, the lack of due representation, and the desire for freedom were unquestionably integral ingredients in the accumulation of grievances that drove many colonials to take up arms against the king.22 Yet religious issues also played their part, not least in intensifying a sense of injustice over the privileged status of the Church of England in the British colonies.23 The Church of England had become established by law in the southern states of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, and even in four counties of New York State. Although dissent was permitted, the situation rankled Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. Opposition began to grow.

In the early 1770s, Congregationalist ministers in New England regularly preached on the theme of religious and political freedom, linking both with resisting English tyranny. Throughout Puritan Massachusetts, pamphlets appeared offering a religious justification for the use of armed force against an oppressor and urging young men to join militias.24 The rhetoric and theology were not entirely unlike the rhetoric and theology that prevailed during the prelude to the English Civil War.

So was the American Revolution actually a war of religion? It is difficult to make the case for its being so. Religious elements were involved—above all a desire to ensure religious freedom and eliminate the privileges of the established church. Yet it would not be true to say that these concerns dominated the agenda of those driving the Revolution. The patriots came from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, only some of which were driven by the theological vision of the New England Congregationalists. The "black Regiment" of preachers such as Charles Chauncy, Samuel Cooper, and Jonathan Mayhew (so-called on account of their clerical dress) criticized the British from their pulpits. Yet the Great Awakening had renewed a sense of vision among Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists, and that renewal widened and diversified the theological base of the Revolution.25 George Washington himself appears to have been somewhat unorthodox religiously and may be best described as a deist—someone who believed in a generic notion of divinity rather than the distinctively Christian conception of God.26

Unsurprisingly, the backbone of Protestant resistance to any form of rebellion came predominantly—though by no means exclusively—from the Church of England. Isaac Wilkens, a New York Anglican layman, decided to leave America rather than be forced into a war against England. Other Protestants, significantly drawn primarily from Anabaptist and Quaker traditions, refused to get involved in the war on either side, regarding any form of violence as unacceptable.

It is important to note that a fundamental difference existed between the American Revolution of 1776 and its French counterpart of 1789. The French Revolution was partly inspired by an antireligious agenda, with a particular animus against Catholicism.27 While the French-language Protestant intellectual tradition may have done much to lay the foundations for the revolutionary idea of "justifiable regicide," the French Revolution appears to have harbored a generic hostility to Christianity, and many of its proponents pursed a program of "de-Christianization," which affected most churches.28

The American Revolution, in marked contrast, was undertaken with at least some degree of explicitly religious motivation. For many, it was a defining moment of religious purification in which the excesses and privileges of the established church could be eliminated. Yet there was no question of eliminating Anglicanism, still less Anglicans. Following the Revolution, the "Protestant Episcopal Church" was reconstituted in 1789 at Philadelphia as the successor to the Church of England in the American colonies. No Protestant denomination was designated as the "established church" in its place. The religious diversity of the newly established United States of America was such that any decision along these lines would have led to intense infighting. An alternative solution was therefore proposed.

In 1786 Thomas Jefferson's "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom" set out the separation of church and state and ended any legal oversight or enforcement of religious belief.29 The First Amendment to the Constitution ended the formal establishment of religion, although in terms that make its subsequent application problematic: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Constitution itself makes no reference to God, Christianity, or Protestantism. Where Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" famously invokes a "Creator" in setting out its vision of human rights, the Constitution consciously and conspicuously avoids any such references.

The new American Constitution opened the way to a radical reshaping of the nation's religious landscape by sweeping away established structures and creating new structures without parallel at that time. At one level, the constitutional separation of church and state could be seen as an attempt to marginalize religion in public life. This would, however, seem to be a mistaken perception. For many at the time, such as the Baptist minister Isaac Backus, this separation amounted to a virtual guarantee that America would be a Christian nation whose churches would be free from political interference and manipulation. And since the predominant form of Christianity was Protestantism, it seemed self-evident that the new American republic would be a Protestant bastion in the New World, like Calvin's Geneva in the Old.

But as time passed the situation began to change—and Protestantism changed with it.

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