Sunday, March 7, 2021

American Pulpits: The Battleground of the American Revolution

 

The battlefields of the American Revolution are hallowed landmarks of our nation’s struggle for independence.  These historical attractions serve as much more than mere summer vacation destinations or 6th grade Social Studies research topics.  They are, in fact, reminders of the toil, strife and loss that was required before the United States could claim its sovereignty.  And while these battlefields give us a palpable link to our nation’s founding, another battlefield, intangible and underappreciated, stands with equal importance to Bunker Hill or Yorktown.

            American Christian pulpits, though not the site of artillery or musket fire, operated as some of the most critical combat zones on which frontline battles of the Revolution waged.  Ministers of various churches acted like spiritual generals, shaping the opinions of their respective congregations by offering the necessary justification or opposition for the impending conflict with Britain.  Accordingly, the sermons given by America’s plethora of Christian ministers proved every bit as influential and important as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or the Boston Tea Party.  The American Revolution was not only a war of bullets and power, but a battle waged from the pulpits across the many colonies, each passionately supporting or opposing the Revolution by appealing to the same scriptures and Christian teachings, with Patriots taking a more nuanced view of scripture, and Loyalists adopting an extremely literalist, all-or-nothing understanding of Bible teachings.

Christianity, The Bible, and Early American Society

To understand how Christianity and Bible teachings were weaponized by both Patriot and Loyalist-sympathizing ministers, one must first comprehend the tremendous importance religion had on early American society.  Simply put, religion was not just a mere sideshow venue of the American Revolution but instead was a premiere stage on which the drama unfolded.  This comes as little surprise to those well versed in the history of Colonial America, which was a world defined on Christian beliefs and teachings.  But it is not enough to simply say that Christianity and the Bible were significant for their spiritual value alone.  The reality of Colonial American society was that Christianity and the Bible permeated every nook and cranny of daily life, including and perhaps especially political matters.  As one prominent historian has noted, “For all of the early English settlers, whether they were settled in the North or the South, the Bible was the central text of religious and political discourse.”[1]  Acclaimed American Historian Mark Noll supports this position when he writes, “The Bible sanctified all manner of public speech…Once the Bible had achieved a place of honored distinction for selves and society, it became a lens through which believers perceived the external significance of temporal events, but also a torch that shone its illuminating rays on those events.”[2]  In short, the Bible, its teachings, and Christianity became the foundational measuring stick by which all matters of life were assessed. 

For a population that had placed almost all their stock upon the altar of Christianity and the Bible, it comes as no surprise to discover that the preaching and sermons of ministers was esteemed as almost canonical.  No other medium in early American society was able to influence or inform the community more than the sermon.  As Historian Harry Stout has pointed out, the average church attendee, “listened to something like seven thousand sermons in a lifetime…For all intents and purposes, the sermon was the only regular voice of authority.”[3]

It is for these reasons that ministers of various Christian denominations were the first to start digging the trenches of war into which both Loyalist and Patriot camps sought refuge.  And since the settlers of all the American colonies depended so greatly upon their ministers for guidance and clarity, it is reasonable, if not obvious, to assume that their preaching determined the political persuasions of a large majority of said colonists. As early American Historian James Byrd aptly summarized, “It was the clergy who made the Revolution meaningful to most common people” because “there were dozens of ordinary people who read the Bible and looked to their ministers for an interpretation of what the Revolution meant.”[4]

Patriot and Loyalist Preaching: A Juxtaposition

Even though religion and Bible teachings took the premiere role in shaping the minds and hearts of early American society, it would be a mistake to assume that every church, minister and congregation felt the same way about what was being preached.  Different interpretations and perspectives on the American Revolution naturally led to different interpretation and perspectives on the Bible, the Christian message and its significance in sanctioning or opposing a separation with Great Britain.  By and large, Patriot and Loyalist ministers relied heavily on many of the same Bible passages but offered vastly different interpretations.  Historian Gregg Frazer summarizes the differences by arguing that Loyalists appealed primarily to history, law and Biblical literalism, while Patriot preaching tended towards Bible theory, Enlightenment reason and fear tactics.[5]  And while Frazer’s analysis is appropriate in the abstract, it fails to account for the many specific anomalies which were of tremendous importance in the shaping of public sentiment in specific colonies.  For example, at least 1/3 of all Anglican ministers in the colonies turned out to be Loyalist sympathizers, yet nearly half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (none were Anglican clergy) were members of the Anglican faith.[6]  In addition, Pennsylvania Quakers, known for their stance of neutrality, earned from themselves enemies on both sides, yet appealed to their Christian faith as a means of justifying support for the Revolution in ways other than fighting.[7] 

What these anomalies show is that support and opposition for the American Revolution often boiled down to the message sponsored by specific ministers, in specific churches, shared with specific congregations.  It is a historical misnomer that all members of particular denominations, colonies, or ethnic groups favored the Loyalist or Patriot persuasion.  In reality the matter was far more nuanced.  As Frazer again notes, “Though religious affiliation clearly played a role it was not the decisive factor for many.”[8]  What mattered most was the actual preaching of the minister that most influenced a particular community. 

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, it was rare to find a church or a minister who had not pontificated on the reasons why colonists should or should not remain loyal to Great Britain.  For Loyalist ministers, the goal was clear: let the Bible speak for itself by appealing exclusively to a literalist interpretation of scripture that allowed for zero wiggle room on the issue of allegiance to the King of England.  Oftentimes this allegiance was compared to a parent/child relationship, with the colonists acting the part of a wayward youth.  An analysis of popular Loyalist sermons reveals this goal as plainly as possible.  Again, Gregg Frazer lends his support for this understanding of Loyalist sermons when he states, “In their sermons, as a general rule, the Loyalist preachers appealed more to the Bible and held to a more literal and contextual interpretation of the relevant texts of scripture than did the Patriot preachers.”[9]  A leading example of this very practice can be found in the sermons of Anglican Preacher Jonathan Boucher.  For Boucher, and his fellow Loyalists, the Bible in its simplest form could not be refuted.  In one of his sermons, Boucher offers his literalist interpretation of 2 Peter and employs the parent/child comparison with the following commentary:

No sooner were the children weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breast, than their parents began to teach them knowledge, to enable them to understand doctrine…And on this point the law was not vague and uncertain.  The text is clear and strong, and particular even to minuteness: parents were to teach their children, whilst they sat in the house, or walked by the way; when they lay down, and when they sat up…On the authority of the text and some other similar passages, we are led to infer, that parental instruction was not in general communicated so much my lectures or lessons but by conversation, with the child giving heed to the parent.[10]

Boucher’s appeal to Biblical literalism was supported by his peer, Bishop Charles Inglis, the first Anglican Bishop ordained in the colonies, who echoed Boucher’s assertions with the following:

When a Man becomes a Soldier, he ceases not to be a Christian, or a Member of Society. The Duties, the Principles of the Christian and Citizen, he should therefore keep in View, and never lose Sight of them. These should regulate his Conduct, whilst vindicating his own civil and religious Rights, and those of his Fellow Citizens…And trust me, that this will be so far from damping his Ardour, or depressing his Courage, that it will animate both -- it will add Fortitude to his Breast—Strength and Vigour to his descending Arm.[11]

In contrast, ministers in favor of the American Revolution tended to favor a more broadminded interpretation of the Bible, particularly focused on passages dealing with liberty or the suppression of liberty, particularly as they related to the Jewish nation of old.  The Reverend Isaac Backus’ now infamous sermon on religious liberty portrays such a message:

And as the Jews were ordered not to set up any rulers over them who were not their brethren; so this colony resolved to have no rulers nor voters for rulers, but brethren in their churches…We view it to be our incumbent duty, to render unto Caesar the things that are his, but that it is of as much importance not to render unto him any thing that belongs only to God, who is to be obeyed rather than man. And as it is evident to us, that God always claimed it as his sole prerogative to determine by his own laws, what his worship shall be, who shall minister in it, and how they shall be supported.[12]

The idea of Old Testament Jews, with liberties and freedoms oppressed, found no greater manifestation than the Exodus story.  As Historian James Byrd point out, “If the Moses and the Exodus have remained prominent in America, the American Revolution is a major reason why.  By making the Exodus story their own, especially by associating it so strongly with the republican ideals of liberty and the republican institutions of the new nation, the patriots set the parameters for later Americans.”[13]  This message of oppression and suppression of liberty was the single greatest factor that gave Patriot ministers the advantage over their Loyalist counterparts.  The message resonated better with a public that was ripe for change.  Gregg Frazer reinforces this perspective with the following:

The [Patriots] clearly won the rhetorical and propaganda battle.  They won in large part because they shut down and literally destroyed [Loyalist] avenues of communication.  But they also won because they had talented propagandists such as Samuel Adams, because they had agents such as the Sons of Liberty keeping the passions of the people inflamed. And because they had a more inspiring and exciting message.  The [Loyalist] message was the obligation to obey the law and the rather humiliating idea of subordination…The [Patriots] message of independence was dynamic and flattering to the people.[14]  

          One of the most unique examples of how Patriot and Loyalist ministers differed in their interpretation of scripture, along with the message they delivered to their congregants, is that of Jacob Duché.  Originally a devout Patriot, Duché was one of the most vocal opponents of Great Britain.  Duché was even selected to offer the opening prayers at the First Continental Congress where he asked for God’s blessings and protection from the “rod of the oppressor” and asked for heaven’s “nurturing care” to “defeat the malicious designs of our creel adversaries.” [15]  In a sermon given just a few months later, Duché invoked the standard narrative of Patriot preachers, calling upon his parishioners to remember the bondage of the Jewish people and reminding them of their responsibility to safeguard the liberties God had granted them.[16]  To everyone’s surprise and dismay, Duché did not remain a Patriot.  After being arrested by the British in 1777, Duché had a rapid and dramatic change of heart, changing his persuasion on the war and becoming a full Loyalist.  In his letter to General George Washington, Duché demonstrates the profound change of heard he had experienced when he wrote, “My sermon speaks for itself & utterly disclaims the idea of idependency…How sadly have you been abused by a faction void of truth & void of tenderness to you & your country!”   Duché continues his insulting rant directed at Washington by insisting that the Patriot ideas of liberty are misguided and reconciliation with King George was the hope of heaven.[17]

          Apart from his rapid and dramatic change of persuasion, what is noteworthy about Duché’s change of heart is his accompanying change of rhetoric.  Duché went from being the voice of opposition to the evil oppression of Britain upon American liberties to then advocating for reconciliation with King George and insisting that America’s understanding of liberty and independence was misguided.  This not only reveals the power of persuasion but how both Loyalist and Patriot ministers held tightly to a very particular narrative, particularly as it related to the concept of liberty. 

Romans 13: The Great Battlefield

The Patriots ability to control the narrative from the pulpit gave them a tremendous advantage in terms of their ability to win over converts for the cause of revolution, but it did not guarantee them a spiritual victory.  The one area in which Loyalists appeared to maintain the moral high ground was on the issue of loyalty owed to the king, and the apparent Biblical sanction such allegiance seemed to require.  The Apostle Paul, admonition, found in the 13th chapter of Romans, clearly stated that submission to one’s authority was required of God, which presented a hurdle for Patriot ministers who sought Biblical endorsement for the cause of revolution.  The warning of Romans 13 to “be subject unto the higher powers,” along with the reminder that “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation,” proved to be a formidable obstacle for ministers who hoped to find a path for America’s independence.[18] 

The dilemma for Patriot ministers was obvious: how do you justify opposition to a sovereign leader when the Bible seems to oppose such action?  This was not a mere sideshow question for the Revolution’s participants.  As Historian Daniel Dreisbach has pointed out, “Bible texts weighed heavy on the American mind during the conflict with Great Britain…Romans 13 was the single most cited…and on their face, these texts made little allowance for resistance to civic rulers.”[19]

The minister who led the charge against the standard interpretation of Romans 13, which had
long been the trump card from Loyalist ministers, was Boston Congregational Minister Jonathan Mayhew.  Mayhew, who had undergone a change in his own personal religious persuasions, was well known for his blunt preaching style that was often divisive in nature.[20]  Mayhew’s influence was so profound that John Adams went so far as to call him one of the most influential figures of the Revolution, whose sermon he had “engraved on my memory.”
[21]    

The year 1750 marked the debut of Jonathan Mayhew’s landmark sermon.  As opposed to so many of his predecessors, Mayhew did not look to twist words of scripture or to double down on their absolute significance.  Instead, Mayhew let prudence dictate the interpretation of scripture.  Appealing to other Bible examples in which an absolutist tone is rarely if ever assumed, Mayhew wrote:

But who supposes that the apostle ever intended to teach, that children, servants and wives, should, in all cases whatever, obey their parents, masters and husbands respectively, never making any opposition to their will, even although they should require them to break the commandments of God, or should causelessly make an attempt upon their lives?  No one puts such a sense upon these expressions, however absolute and unlimited. Why then should it be supposed, that the apostle designed to teach universal obedience, whether active or passive, to the higher powers, merely because his precepts are delivered in absolute and unlimited terms?[22]

 

Instead of taking scripture at face value, as the Loyalist ministers had been doing since the beginning of the conflict, Mayhew made an appeal to reason.  As Jonathan Mayhew Biographer J. Patrick Mullins reminds us, Mayhew “reconciled the natural right of resistance with the Christian duty of obedience in light of scripture, history and real Whig political philosophy.”[23]  In other words, Mayhew’s hermeneutics adopted many of the same beliefs as many figures of the Enlightenment who had preceded him.  For Patriot ministers and supporters this essentially meant they believed they could have their cake and eat it too.   

Mayhew went even further with his condemnation of evil leaders, stating that Paul’s message rebuked those who “use all their power to hurt and injure the public,” adding that “such as are not God’s ministers, but Satan’s.”[24]  In so doing, Mayhew had successfully shifted the burden of Romans 13 to God’s chosen leaders and away from the masses.  In Mayhew’s mind, it was not the American colonists who needed to worry about God’s wrath but rather the King of England, who was “acting in an illegal and oppressive manner.”[25]

Even though his sermon was delivered two decades before independence was even debated in Philadelphia, Mayhew’s perspective on Romans 13 reveals an important truth about how many Americans came to view the American Revolution.  The American Revolution was not a coup d’etat.  There was no removal of the King of England.  Instead, the American Revolution was a separation due to the perceived wickedness and illegitimate reign of the King.  King George III, along with Parliament, had forfeited their right to sovereignly reign over the colonies, pure and simple. This perspective, of a separation of Britain, can be traced, in large part, to Mayhew’s unique interpretation of Paul’s declaration in Romans 13, and this view was later canonized by Jefferson in the very words of the Declaration of Independence when he wrote, “"He [King George III] has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us" and, “For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies” and finally, “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.”[26]

Conclusion

            In terms of its influence, religion was not some mere sideshow of the American Revolution.  If anything, religion was one of the most central components to the question of separation with Britain, so much so that ministers from every denomination, colony and persuasion felt impressed to weigh in on the matter.  Patriot ministers tended to favor a more open-minded approach to Biblical interpretation and Christian teachings, relying heavily upon appeals to reason and liberty that had been advanced by Enlightenment thinkers.  On the other hand, Loyalist ministers took a hardline stance with scriptural interpretation, insisting that little to no wiggle room could or should be tolerated.  Much of this battle came down to the concept of liberty and resistance to authority, as defined in Romans 13.  Ministers like Johnathan Mayhew effectively swayed public opinion to favor a more open approach to Paul’s admonition and by placing the blame for violating liberty squarely on the shoulders of the British king and Parliament. 

            The differences between Patriot and Loyalist ministers, though profound on specifics, were quite similar in terms of their understanding of Christian teachings.  Both sides felt they were on the side of truth and endeavored to protect the Christian faith.  As a result, one can easily see how both Patriot and Loyalist ministers felt deep and profound conviction that their Christian duty demanded they take a stand.  The sermons delivered by both camps proved to be the most profound way in which the American citizenry was both informed and persuaded, making the wars of the pulpit one of the most critical battlegrounds of the American Revolution.      



[4] James Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford        University Press, 2013).  Pp. 2.  Oxford Scholarship Online. oxford-universitypressscholarship-                com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199843497.001.0001/acprof-9780199843497

[7] Jean Specht, “Being a Peaceable Man, I have Suffered Much Persecution”: The American Revolution and Its            Effects on Quaker Religious Identity." Quaker History vol. 99, no. 2 (2010): 37-      48. doi:10.1353/qkh.2010.0004.  Specht notes that Pennsylvania Quakers, though unwilling to fight in the              Continental Army, were willing to help supply soldiers with food and other goods.  In addition, many       Quakers did advocate for Revolution and even fought, Nathaniel Greene being the chief example. 

[8] Frazer, God Against the Revolution, 5.

[9] Ibid, 36.

[13] James Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Pp. 72. 

[14] Gregg Frazer, God Against the Revolution, Pp. 18.

[15] Jacob Duché, First Prayer of the Continental Congress, 1774 (Philadelphia, September 7, 1774).  Office of the        Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives.       https://chaplain.house.gov/archive/continental.html

[16] Jacob Duche, The Duty of Standing Fast in our Spiritual and Temporal Liberties, A Sermon Preached in Christ          Church, July 7, 1775. Before the First Battalion of the City and            Liberties of Philadelphia; and now Published                 at Their Request.  Philadelphia: 1775.  Evans Early American Imprint Collection.  https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11057.0001.001/1:4?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

 

[19] Daniel Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, 110.

[22] Jonathan Mayhew, A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers: With                some Reflections on the Resistance made to King Charles I. And on the Anniversary of his Death: In which              the Mysterious Doctrine of that Prince's Saintship and Martyrdom is Unriddled.  1750.  Electronic Texts in               American Studies.  https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/44      

[23] J. Patrick Mullins, Father of Liberty, 52.

[24] Ibid, 28.

[25] Ibid, 34.

2 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Historian Gregg Frazer summarizes the differences by arguing that Loyalists appealed primarily to history, law and Biblical literalism, while Patriot preaching tended towards Bible theory, Enlightenment reason and fear tactics

In a painfully lengthy debate on these pages, Dr. Frazer never once engaged the challenge as to what was particularly "Enlightenment" about the Patriot argument. Well before the "Enlightenment" got rolling, the Puritan Revolution of the 1640s had executed one king and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 exiled another.

As for the "fear tactics" part, Frazer's own book features numerous Loyalist arguments that a revolution would bring dire political and economic disaster, little of which eventuated.

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