How Religion Sparked the American Revolutionary War

How Religion Sparked the American Revolutionary War

Gary Steward’s book on the role of clergy in the Patriot cause is not only the most helpful overview to date, he demonstrates their ideas to be rooted not in skeptical iconoclasm or cynical calculation, but in a sincere desire to carry forward the political theology of their predecessors.

In Matthew 24, Jesus says that in the last days there will be “wars and rumors of wars.” As Americans increasingly trade the old virtues of patriotism for the vices of revisionism and iconoclasm, one is tempted to tweak the words of the Gospel. We hear rumors about wars and other defining moments in our nation’s history.

Since the dawn of Progressive historiography, many rumors circulated about the American Revolution. Charles Beard, for example, famously argued that the Revolution was motivated to secure economic privilege. Now debunked, the argument has morphed to exploit racial disparities: the American Revolution was supposedly fought to secure slavery. Even the venerable Second Amendment, owed to a tradition stretching from the ancient world to Anglo-American constitutionalism, has now been slandered as a shibboleth of slaveholders.

Likewise, we have been told that orthodox religion could have made little difference in 1776. Everyone knows that the eighteenth century was an era of Enlightenment—the Age of Reason, as Thomas Paine famously called it. What’s more, a growing number of American evangelicals and evangelical scholars tell us that the Bible isn’t about politics at all, but only about grace and peace and heavenly things. Only a cynical rogue, now and then, would use the Bible to affect political ends.

Such a thesis can be entertained, of course, only if one ignores the earliest historical accounts of the Revolution itself. Patriot historian David Ramsay and Loyalist historian Joseph Galloway, two of the earliest historians of the Revolution, agreed that religious complaints were an important catalyst for war. What’s more, the revolutionaries themselves credited the Reformation with enabling ideas of liberty. The Protestantism John Adams credited upon reflection was not some newfangled hybrid of skepticism and piety, but the Old Time Religion of the first century of Protestantism: polemical tracts in England and France, one written by a bishop, defending liberty against royal absolutism. But while the guns of the war have cooled, the pens (or rather, keyboards) have not. Scholars continue to debate religion’s role in the War of Independence.

Enter Gary Steward’s Justifying Revolution: The American Clergy’s Argument for Political Resistance 1750-1776, an essential contribution to the debate. Steward’s book on the role of clergy in the Patriot cause is not only the most helpful overview to date, he demonstrates their ideas to be rooted not in skeptical iconoclasm or cynical calculation, but in a sincere desire to carry forward the political theology of their predecessors. What’s more, Steward presents the ideas of the clergy without tedious summary, theological minutiae, or trendy academic methodology.

Steward begins by briefly surveying the historiography of the war, focusing on its ideological origins. In 1967, Bernard Bailyn famously cast the war’s origins as both radical and libertarian. Ten years later, Mark Noll, followed by Nathan Hatch and George Marsden, advanced the argument in evangelical circles. Following Bailyn’s lead, their suggestion that ministers were adherents of radical ideology rather than practical piety or sincere readings of scripture would become important as culture war battles heated up about whether or not America was a “Christian nation.”

Steward then turns to Rev. Jonathan Mayhew. Mayhew’s sermon/pamphlet “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission” is arguably the most famous sermon of the Revolution even though it was preached twenty-five years before the first shot was fired, and Mayhew would not live to see his “political catechism” (as John Adams called it) deployed along with grapeshot and bayonets. Bailyn was right to see Mayhew’s ideas as relevant for the Revolution, but Steward demonstrates that Noll et. al. were wrong to cast it as a radical departure from previous Christian ideas about government. Here and elsewhere, Steward demonstrates that theological orthodoxy or heterodoxy (Mayhew was heterodox) was no determinant of political conservatism or radicalism. What’s more, he chronicles that not only was Mayhew drawing on a long hermeneutical tradition interpreting Romans 13:1-7 as commanding conditional obedience, but was also responding to controversies in Britain from the 1689 Glorious Revolution and the 1714 Hanoverian Succession about what came to be called “passive obedience and non-resistance”—an idea so loathsome to Americans that condemnation of it still exists in some state constitutions.

Steward then turns to the most significant catalyst for the Patriot cause, the 1765 Stamp Act. Colonial Americans had longer memories than ours. Their tracts and sermons of protest hearkened back not only to the Glorious Revolution but also to what was arguably the first “American Revolution” that same year—the arrest of English governor Edmund Andros in 1689. These revolutions could not have been influenced by so-called Lockean radicalism or the English Commonwealthmen (John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon) of the 1720s—another supposed influence on the Revolution’s clerics. The colonists and their ministers were instead informed by both earlier Anglo-American constitutionalism and Protestant protests against spiritual and political tyranny.

Steward’s attention to the “Bishop Controversy” further demonstrates how questions of taxation, however important, have eclipsed religious controversies in revisionist depictions of the war. Not only were efforts to establish an Anglican bishop in America the revival of longstanding rivalries in Congregationalist New England (a hotbed of revolutionary rhetoric), but those efforts threatened to make Anglican notions of “passive obedience and non-resistance” more influential. However much some Anglican ministers in Britain supported the revolution, episcopal Anglicanism became for too many Americans synonymous with tyranny. What’s more, insofar as Anglican ecclesiastical courts had power over family property (Islamic courts try to assert similar powers in Anglo and continental European nations today), the religious question became a question of legal jurisdiction. The Stamp Tax was even feared by some as a vehicle for funding those courts. The revolution thus became a means for dissenting denominations to secure a decisive victory against religious intolerance.

Steward’s work should remind historians and political scientists of the clever adage “They could fill a book with what you don’t know.” What too many scholars of the Revolution or the period generally don’t know, quite simply, is how American Protestants of the eighteenth century thought. Informed by a rich intellectual tradition going back two centuries, connected through theological and humanist continuity to the medieval and classical worlds, colonial Americans—especially educated clergy and theologians—did not think in dichotomous terms. They were neither “fundamentalists” nor “biblicists” who privileged revelation to the exclusion of reason. Nor did they create neatly separated categories of the secular and the sacred. Hence, jurisprudential or philosophical ideas about just warfare (particularly self-defense) or de facto (if not de jure) abdication of legal authority could be articulated in pulpit or pamphlet as readily as the command of Acts 5:29 to “Obey God rather than men.” To use a famous case in point, Steward demonstrates that John Witherspoon did not become Thomas Paine by defending the Revolution. Through a chronology of Witherspoon’s work, Steward demonstrates that he did not become (as some have alleged) “philosophically schizophrenic.” Witherspoon was conserving a tradition, not abandoning it.

Though Steward provides another step forward in a long study begun by Alice Baldwin in 1928, it is not without its omissions. Much more remains to be done with the relevant cultural, social, international, denominational, or military context. Steward’s focus is Patriot clergy, not the Loyalist ones, and does not presume to consider Protestant arguments against revolution or declaring independence. One could also protest the cherry-picking of artillery or election sermons, for example, but that is more of a missed opportunity than a calculated omission. Though Steward prudently avoids making too much of the Great Awakening, he should make more of the French and Indian War. Like other studies of early America, he focuses too much on New England. This is unavoidable, however, not only because of its prodigious publication of sermons but also its role in whig historiography: William Van Engen’s City on a Hill maps the pitfalls laid for anyone studying early America. Another understandable flaw is sometimes losing track of his main thesis, a flaw made more forgivable by the overwhelming task of summarizing so much sermonizing and circumstance. For what it intends to be, Steward’s book is remarkably efficient and readable.        

Dr. Glenn Moots is a Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Northwood University and a Research Fellow at Northwood University's McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship.

Image: Reuters.