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Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 1 of 9: How Religious Leaders Fuel the Flames of War in American History

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

I need to inform readers’ right from the start; this is long read consisting of nine articles in a series. Consider each article as a chapter in a book on American History. The focus is narrow and yet a detailed study of a particular aspect that I discovered during my graduate school days. I also wish to note that this series is derived and comprises the chapters of my graduate thesis.[1] They have been structured so that they can be read in random order; however, the entirety of the work will make more sense and flow better if read sequentially. This work can be quite useful for studies of the American Revolutionary War through to and including the American Civil War. The original version was accepted into the U.S. Army Library and is included in the bibliography of Revolutionary War Almanac (2006) by author John C. Fredrikse.


Articles in the Nine Part Series

Table of Contents

  1. How Religious Leaders Fuel the Flames of War in American History.
  2. Religious Justification of War
  3. Pre-Revolutionary War
  4. Perceptions and Beliefs of the Colonial Clergy
  5. The War for Independence
  6. Noteworthy Clerics of the American Revolutionary War
  7. Brother Against Brother, Church Against Church
  8. Comparison and Contrast of the Two Wars
  9. Series Summary

As most of you know, especially folks at the graduate and post-graduate level, your educational focus truly starts its narrowing of focus when you begin grad-school. Your grad thesis is a culmination of that narrowing of focus and serves as an expression of your detailed knowledge in the particular academic discipline. Most doctorate programs, of course, go even farther in specializing and culminate in a dissertation (usually accompanied with an oral presentation; questions and answer session).

As for my grad specialty, I made an extensive study of 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries American History; particularly focusing on the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. In fact, I wrote my graduate thesis on a topic that encompassed the latter half of the 18th century through the 19th century.  That being said, this article series compares and contrasts the roles of religious leaders during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

Here I present the argument that religious leaders were significant participants who encouraged, justified, and in several cases actively participated in these two wars. Furthermore, the clerical arguments for and against American independence and the South’s secession shared profound similarities, as did the arguments for loyalty to the crown and loyalty to the United States government. Clerics on both sides of these wars used religion, the church, and scriptures to justify their sides’ positions, intertwining politics, economics, and liberty with religion as inseparable elements. During these two wars clerics served as spiritual leaders, military recruiters, surgeons, collectors and disseminators of information, as well as combatant enlisted men and officers. As a result of their efforts, these clerics helped to fuel the flames of war.


Let us start with a little background information

Kings, presidents, politicians, and military leaders are usually in the starring roles of history, and are often noted as the major influential factors in or causes of history’s great wars and battles; however, religious leaders have also contributed to the war effort in both direct and indirect ways. Many political leaders and governments recognized the power that clergy can have over a community and were willing to capitalize on it, while others did not. The American Revolution and the American Civil War were two major conflicts demonstrating the powerful influence of these religious leaders.

What’s the Point of this Series

Much has been written about the American Revolution and the American Civil War. Much has also been written on religion as a major influential force in inspiring and reinforcing the underlying political causes and justifications for these two wars. However, little has been written focusing on the role and influence of religious leaders during these two wars. This is not to say that there hasn’t been information included in many of these books referencing religious individuals or groups. 


In order to explore this topic, this 18th and 19th centuries American History article series will try to answer several questions.

  • Who were some of the key religious leaders of the Revolutionary War?
  • What was the role of religious leaders in the Revolutionary War?
  • Were there any religious leaders in America preaching against independence or resistance during the Revolution?
  • Who were some of the key religious leaders of the Civil War?
  • What was the role of religious leaders in the Civil War?
  • Were there any key religious leaders that actively participated as combatants during either war?
  • If so, who were they and what were their roles?
  • What impact did the religious leadership have during the Revolution and the Civil War?
  • How did the country’s religious leadership justify armed conflict in both wars, in light of the traditional religious philosophy of peace?
  • How did American Revolutionary War religious leaders reconcile their religious beliefs and positions with their roles as combat leaders?
  • Did a change occur during the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War?
  • If so, what was it and how did it manifest itself?

More to the Point

The purpose of this series is to discover and explore the changing roles and ideas that influenced religious leaders who actively participated during these two American wars, as well as their associated activities. This exploration includes a look at the broader Western traditions and their influence on the religious leadership in that part of the New World known as the United States of America.

Little credit or emphasis has been paid to the power of these religious leaders in moving their followers to action. Religious leaders served a critical role in recruitment of soldiers or militiamen and non-combatant volunteers, especially during the American Revolution. In both wars these religious leaders provided motivation and encouragement by serving as motivational leaders and speakers, leading non-professional and professional soldiers, and by influencing them to stay in harm’s way on the battlefields.

Religious leaders have served in many capacities during times of conflict. Though the duty title of “chaplain” as a member of the military did exist during these periods, not all religious leaders accepted this non-combatant role. There were several religious leaders actively participating as combatants during the American Revolution. Some were in significant positions of military leadership leading troops into combat. Others limited their participation to just being the voice of inspiration to their communities and in organizing and supporting non-combatant activities during both wars. Though it is true that the Bible, as well as other religious literature, does mention violence from time to time, we often view leaders in the religious community as “traditionally” pacifistic in nature. However, as this article series demonstrates, the role of these religious leaders during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War could be depicted by the image of a man with a Bible in one hand and a weapon in the other.

Declaration Independence

Theoretical Basis and Organization

As this series will show, there were profound similarities between the arguments for and against independence, secession, and loyalty to the standing government and the actions of clerics during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. The colonial religious leadership of the 18th century and the Confederacy of the 19th century, professed some of the same religious arguments for resistance against a government believed to be unjust. On the other side of these two wars, the religious leadership of the Loyalists (and British Monarchy) of the 18th century and the Union (U.S. government) of the 19th century also argued similarly against independence or secession respectively. Additionally, the combative role of clergy during the Revolutionary War was more common than in the Civil War.

Whenever the issue appears to be a fight for freedom or religious-based politics, the rules change and almost anything can be justified as being in the name of God and the Holy Scriptures. Religious leaders of the American Revolution took more aggressive and active parts in the war because of the fear of or threat to their religious practices and their personal liberty, as well as self-awareness of their power of influence over the colonists in this New World. American Civil War religious leaders stayed in non-combative roles, with only a couple of exceptions in the South (Confederate States).

Clergy on both sides were forced to take sides.

Their communities relied on their religious leadership to provide them the proper interpretation of the word of God. Clerics had to answer the question, is God with us or against us? These preachers of God established interpretations of the Bible and other religious literature in such a way to support the political agendas respectively of the side of the battle-lines they sat behind; if not, they were often rejected by the community they were there to serve. 

Colonial leaders of the Revolutionary War and the Union leaders of the Civil War recognized the influential power of the clergy and made a significant effort to enhance the Chaplain Corps. This was not the case for the Confederacy and that of the British forces during the American Revolution.


Limitations of this Article Series

This discussion has the inherent limitations normally associated with historical investigations. The sources of information for this study are the books and publications listed in the article references. There are few original sources of the actual words or works used by clergy of the period readily available. Much of what does exist or is available is the reprinting of sermons, letters, journals, newspapers, and other writings attributed to the clergy, as well as the interpretations of the historians that have covered this period. 

Whether or not the scriptural religious interpretations used during these two wars were correct or not is considered outside the scope of this study. The reason for this is to avoid appearing to support or propose an alternate interpretation over that of those presented by the religious leaders discussed in this study.  Arguing the logic or the validity of those interpretations or rationales relating to the rejection of scriptural interpretations or offering up other interpretations is not the purpose of this series.

Let’s Clarify a Few Definitions of Terms Used Throughout the Series

It is important to discuss at this point a few of the terms used in these articles. What is meant by “religious leaders” as used throughout this series? The “religious leaders” focused on are those that carried the title minister, reverend, priest, rabbi, chaplain, or parson, and most often called clergymen, clergy, or clerics. “Combatant” or “combatants” is used to denote those wartime participants who performed roles involving the taking up of arms as fighters. During the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War, many people served without taking up arms and engaging in the killing arts. These non-killing persons are referred to as non-combatants. Examples of non-combatants in these articles are chaplains, medical doctors, and other persons whose role was limited to non-lethal support, or those non-participant civilians that just happened to be within the area deemed a war zone.

Next article in the series: Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 2 of 9: Religious Justification of War


Religion in America #21: "America's Religions," Ch.22-23 The Revolution and Second Great Awakening

Religion in America #22: "America's Religions," Ch. 24 Moral Reform, Antislavery, and the Civil War



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  1. Carl C. Stophlet III A Comparison and Contrast of the Roles of Religious Leaders of the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Carson California: California State University Dominguez Hills, 2002.

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