Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dissenting religion and the push for American independence

From the great English statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797) comes this famous analysis of the role that dissenting religion played in the American commitment to liberty at the time leading up to our Revolution:
Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit. The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it. I do not think, Sir, that the reason of this averseness in the dissenting churches, from all that looks like absolute government, is so much to be sought in their religious tenets, as in their history. Every one knows that the Roman Catholic religion is at least coeval with most of the governments where it prevails; that it has generally gone hand in hand with them, and received great favour and every kind of support from authority. The Church of England too was formed from her cradle under the nursing care of regular government. But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world; and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.
- Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775.

[Cross-posted at my own blog, Ordered Liberty.]


Tom Van Dyke said...

Killer quote, Mark. We can unpack it anon, but even as one who comes from the Roman Catholic perspective, theologico-politically, I could not agree more with Burke's analysis.

Had the settlers of America been mostly Catholic and/or Church of England, we'd be Canada.

The USA is "dissenter" country.

Mark D. said...

As far as Catholicism in America goes, while French Catholics were quite happy to come to an accommodation with the English crown in Canada, English Catholics in what would become the United States were not. Part of this, I think, is the difference in status between the two Catholic communities. After the end of the French and Indian War, the Catholic Church was officially recognized, protected and given aid by the British Crown. The Catholic Church in Canada remained largely an establishment church as a result. The Catholics in the American colonies never enjoyed establishment status -- even in Maryland prior to the Revolution they were being persecuted. Thus, Catholics in what would become America often had the same characteristics as the dissenting Protestants that Burke spoke of in his speech. The Catholics in Canada, not so much.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hey, Mark, I'm in total agreement even if I do have a dog in this fight. Anti-Catholicism is what made America great!

Jason Pappas said...

Had the settlers of America been mostly Catholic ... we'd be Canada.

Or Mexico!

Burke is excellent here. It was the spirit or sentiment of dissent among "denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty ...". Excellent point. It continues our discussion of John Adams' "Feudal and Canon Law" essay.

Daniel said...

I largely agree with the Burke quotation. But it is crucial to keep in mind that many of those dissenters wanted to establish utopian communities that were not bastions of liberty. Utopia didn't work out. Something else had to be tried.

Attempts at religious purity breed diverse forms of religious purity. Sects flourish under different understandings of scripture and spirit. Accommodation became essential.

From nearly the beginning, we did have a form of Protestantism that would have worked well as an official, established religion. It was the religion of Witherspoon. A calm, rational, conventional Presbyterianism. But that was the religion that was opposed by most of the reform movements of the centuries before the Revolution.

Freedom may not be in the nature of Protestantism. But faction probably is. And faction requires either freedom or brutal suppression.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Faction" is the term used IF one wants to splinter religious form another understanding of "the faith".

"Freethinking" is the term used in "secular" segments to form a new understanding in the Academy....

Both were useful to form "a spirit of unity under liberty" America was/is a country that understood its identity in the individual's conscience, because America was most of all a country founded on ideals.

America was where the individual counted and mattered, because all could find opportunity and free association.

Estase said...

Great quote. I think what Burke was saying was pure Whiggism--one's faith is one's own business, not that of anyone's government. Was reading Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year where he makes a big point of saying that the Dissenters got a pass during emergency circumstances, the implication being "Wouldn't it be nice if faith was never government's business?"

Phil Johnson said...

A solid stroke of the hammer that drives the nail home.

Anonymous said...

Burke's insight is confirmed by Frank Lambert’s claim that “a central part of America’s English heritage was a spirited Dissent that provided lively competition for the established church.” (The Founding Fathers and the Place of religion in America, p. 44) - JMS

Magpie Mason said...

"From the great English statesman Edmund Burke...."

Heavens! My Masonic Brother Edmund Burke was IRISH. He served as a Whig in the House of Commons of GREAT BRITAIN, but he was Irish.

A minor point not meant to detract from Mark's thrust, but one I think worth noting.