The talented historians on this blog have made it abundantly clear that religion played an active role in the intellectual life of our “Founding Fathers.” I’m not particularly interested in the individual faith of particular men, but I am fascinated by the ways in which religion contributed to the development of imagined communities within the new nation.
Recently, I read Fred Anderson’s A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War (more here), in which Anderson argues that Massachusetts soldiers’ piety and providential thinking encouraged them to think of themselves as a distinct group. By the 1750s, most Massachusetts men (other than those who worked in shipping industries) had very little contact with ordinary non-American Britons. When volunteers from Massachusetts came into contact with hard-drinking, hard-fighting, foul-mouthed British regulars, they were horrified. For their part, British officers and men found the Americans undisciplined, sanctimonious, disrespectful, and old-fashioned. Many factors, including recruiting practices and military discipline, contributed to these misunderstandings, but religion was a major element.
The average 18th-century British regular soldier was not a particularly observant Christian. Like all Britons, most were baptized and attended occasional Anglican services, but the army was not overly concerned with the spiritual life of its men. In 1758, the British army camped near Lake George had 15 chaplains: 14 served the 6,000 Massachusetts provincial troops while one served the 6,000+ regulars (210). While New England soldiers participated in daily prayer services and attended two sessions of preaching on Sundays, regular soldiers were seldom seen participating in organized religious services.
Disparity in religious observance between the two groups was not just a matter of formal worship. Massachusetts men were deeply troubled by the regulars’ conduct, complaining that British soldiers ignored the Sabbath, fornicated with female camp followers, and regularly took the Lord’s name in vain. Caleb Rea, a Massachusetts soldier, said of swearing, “as a moral cause I can’t but charge our defeat on this sin, which so much prevails, even among the chief commanders” (117).
Their mundane interactions with British soldiers in camp convinced many Massachusetts soldiers that, “they were the moral superiors of the redcoats, and this conviction colors most of their perceptions of the British” (117).
Anderson argues that the young men who fought in the Seven Years’ War were profoundly influenced by their interactions with regulars. During the war, they began to think of themselves as culturally separate from the ordinary Britons (admittedly, not a fair sampling of British society in general) whose behavior so offended them, which made it easier for them to contemplate political separation 15 years later.
Another factor setting provincial soldiers apart from the regulars was their “old fashioned” providential thinking. New England soldiers believed that every occurrence — victories, defeats, bad weather, etc. — had “not just an immediate cause, but an underlying moral cause” and that the army would never prosper while the regular soldiers continued to defy God (203). The redcoats tended to dismiss this view, but it allowed the provincial soldiers to credit victories to their own prayers and clean living (even though their military contributions were dubious). In this way, Massachusetts soldiers came to believe that they were primarily responsible for winning the war and that the regulars were, if anything, a hindrance to final victory. The regulars might be tactically competent, courageous, well-supplied, and numerically superior, but the New Englanders believed that these considerations could never lead to victory if they were not right with God.
The implication (not made explicit by Anderson) is that this belief in the efficacy of Providence may have enabled New Englanders to face down British regulars in the 1770s, despite the army’s overwhelming advantages.
Too often, historians explain Revolutionary-era ideology as exclusively rational, legalistic, and inspired by the Enlightenment without taking the colonists’ providential worldview seriously. If, as Anderson argues, young provincial soldiers were “accustomed to casting events into [a] providential framework,” it is unlikely that they would have abandoned this habit of mind twenty years later (199). Without further investigation, it is impossible to say definitively whether soldiers from other colonies would have shared Massachusetts’ fondness for interpreting events as signs from God. In addition, it is hard to imagine that Virginians or western Pennsylvanians drew such a stark distinction between themselves and their redcoated comrades based on religious communitarianism. Still, Anderson makes a crucial point by casting popular religion as a political, as well as a cultural, phenomenon. For Massachusetts soldiers, religion was both a spiritual matter and a badge of inclusion in an imagined community — one that was beginning to conceive of itself as distinct from the rest of the British Empire politically as well as culturally.