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Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 3 of 9: Pre-Revolutionary War

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In this third and fourth articles (due to the length of this section of the series, the topics have been broken into a third and fourth articles) in the series addresses traditional clerical religious views and religious-political arguments in support of and against American independence prior to the first shots fired. Part of this exploration will include a look at the clergies’ views and arguments about the idea of freedom, slavery, and the separation of church and state prior to the American Revolution.

England was well aware of the power of faith and had always counted on this as a means of strengthening the bonds among its people, the Church, and the monarchy.  England’s monarchy had always used the power of the Christian Church to justify and support its efforts to extend the British Empire; however, these efforts assumed that the religious-political beliefs and interpretations of the Church of England were well supported in the colonies.  This became the basis of discontent and debates between the soon-to-be American or colonial clergy and the official church, the Church of England or Loyalist clergy. As the American Revolution approached, religious leaders in the colonies found themselves on both sides of the argument of independence.

Timothy Cutler

Timothy Cutler (May 31, 1684 – August 17, 1765) was an American Episcopal Clergyman.

Politics and Religion

Many of the American colonies were settled by people who refused to compromise their religious convictions. They held that God’s law, natural law, and the Scriptures could not be denied or set aside by man-made laws. For these original settlers, the politics of man-made laws and religion were not two separate matters. Just as with the Puritan influences still felt during these times, politics and religion were intertwined and inseparable. As put by Timothy Cutler in his election sermon of 1717, “God having made man a rational creature,” had “twisted Law into the very frame and constitution of his soul” (13).[1]

Puritans perceived the universe to be one great kingdom whose one and only ruler was God. This relationship was a sacred covenant, a contractual obligation among God, His son, and his people, requiring strict obedience of His followers. This idea of a covenant, a contract between God and man, was a key factor towards the argument for and against, independence through rebellion.

Words For War

Clergy of the pre-war period on both sides used their pulpits, armed with their Bibles and other religious literature, and through oration, letters, and publications argued for or against independence. As noted in the previous article, the most common source for clerical battles of rhetoric was the Bible (Old and New Testaments).  Additionally, writers cited classical literature including that of the late Roman period. Another source included the works of John Locke, especially his essays on religious toleration and humankind’s relationship with government: the notion that there existed a contractual agreement whereby governing bodies must be consistent with God and the scriptures. This contract was further interpreted to mean that if the people felt that the contract had been gravely violated by the government, then that same government was no longer valid in the eyes of God, or the people governed.

Evangelistic Movements

Towards the mid-eighteenth century, the Great Awakening began sweeping across Great Britain and America.  In America, this Great Awakening took the form of evangelism and brought forth the idea of being born anew through the preaching of God’s Word. The Awakening set aside liberal ideas of rationalism and a man-centered world for a return to a God-centered world. The notion of born-anew was to be linked to the idea of a nation-anew.

The Great Awakening brought forward some extremely charismatic religious leaders who made their mark in the British colonies of America. This period introduced the evangelist preacher traveling the countryside conducting planned and ad hoc sermons to the public in Europe and in North America; some becoming like street vendors selling their goods and cures. The most important American preacher of the Awakening was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Edwards was the chief scholar and champion of the Awakening. His published works explained the Awakening in terms that intended to bring more followers to religion and God.

He was considered a world-class theologian and was known as an early “fire and brimstone” preacher employing the fear of divine punishment to bring his audiences to repentance (Carroll, xii).[2] Another leading evangelist of the time was George Whitefield. He was ordained a minister of the Church of England, and yet he was publicly at odds with them. He was popular for his ability to inspire and motivate a mass of listeners. His preaching tour of the colonies ran from 1739-1741. One of his sermons was reported to have had 30,000 spectators in attendance (xii).[2]

One of the lasting contributions of the Great Awakening was re-instilling or reinvigorating, the idea of religious recruiting crusades. The American frontier became a new recruiting ground for religious leaders to go forth and save souls. This was a concept not shared or exercised by the Anglican Church to the extent that it was by the majority of the colonial churches. The Anglican Churches remained relatively close to the east-coast settlements and did not see the need or advantage of expanding their base of potential parishioners (Rhoden 26).[3] The British monarchy and its military arm failed to recognize and appreciate the power of the pulpit.

Loyalist Clergy

In New England the clergy and laity of the Anglican Church were mainly Loyalist. The Loyalist’s position, as well as that of the Church of England and the monarchy, was that civil government was of divine origin. All in authority were God’s delegates and derived their power from Him. The Anglican Church and the Loyalist clergy believed in the idea that church and the state were absolutely linked as one. Furthermore, they needed each other for survival. The Church provided influence over community minds and mores, while the government protected the body of the church and the community. As the Rev. Samuel Seabury stated, government was intended, “ . . . for the security of those who live under it,” to “protect the weak against the strong,” and to preserve the peace and good social order (313).[4]  To the loyalists clerics, the Church and State were one body.

Anglican clergy believed strongly in the existence of a contractual obligation among the minister, the Church of England, and the monarchy. Church of England clerics were required to pledge their allegiance to the king and agree to defend him against any threat as a part of the ordination process. Additionally, they had to swear an oath to adhere to the Book of Common Prayer as the standard for the church (1).[3] For Church of England clerics arriving in America, many states also required them to swear an oath to the Colonial Congress, which of course placed them in contradiction to their previous ordination oaths (1).[3] These clergy tried to balance their ties both to their new communities and the Church of England.  Anglican clergy believed their church offered more advantage and validity due to their unified interpretations of “beliefs, behaviors, and forms of worship through the use of the Book of Common Prayer,” as was asserted in 1771 by Rev. John Tyler (12).[3]

Book of Common Prayer 1596

The colonial Church of England clergy were seriously concerned about the collapse of Anglicanism due to the lack of clerical numbers in the colonies. The population of the colonies was growing exponentially and the number of Anglican clergy was not keeping up. As Thomas Barton of Pennsylvania feared,

. . . the Sectaries are likely to overrun us.  Their Colleges in New England and the Jerseys are continually sending out preachers; who are always not men of the most Catholic principles. (29)[3]

Two factors impacting the growth of clerical numbers in the colonies were education and travel. Church of England clergy not only had to travel to England in order to be certified; they were also required to be highly educated. Anglican clergy believed that no one should presume to preach the Gospel before he had the necessary education and was duly ordained. This requirement for higher learning was combined with the requirement that Church of England clergy must come to England and be certified by the bishop of London. Dissenting clergy and churches were more liberal in their standards: in particular, those sects that had minimal education requirements could enlist clergymen quickly with little expense and, in turn, dispatch them to any part of the colonies.  

By the Numbers

There were 409 clergy licensed by the bishop of London for service in the American colonies during the years 1745-1775 (Rhoden 19). Up until 1716, American-born clergymen accounted for less than 2% of the clergy licensed to preach; yet by 1744 that number had risen to 22.6% (19).[3] During the American Revolutionary War the ordination of new colonial candidates for the Anglican ministry temporarily ceased. The American Episcopal Church reorganized after 1783; by 1789 in some states the number of clergy “almost matched their prewar totals of 1774” (20). [3]

Loyalist Clerics Speak Out

Samuel Seabury

Samuel Seabury (1729-11-30 - 1796-02-25), Bishop, Episcopal Church, USA

When the rebellious colonials began their talk and actions towards self-rule, many Loyalist clerics spoke out.  The Rev. Samuel Seabury, in arguing against the talk of government by majority, made the statement that New York’s authority had been “overthrown” and replaced by “delegates, congresses, committees, riots, mobs, insurrections, associations” (312).[4] [4]Seabury continues his criticism by describing the “self-constituted Committee of Safety of New York” as a “lawless, outrageous mob” (312).[4] In one of his more famous and descriptive commentaries, he further asked,

Was the slavery imposed by their riotous will to be preferred to the tyranny of a king? No: If I must be devoured, let me be devoured by the jaws of a lion, and not gnawed to death by rats and vermin. If the upstart, pretentious committeemen triumph, order and peace will be at an end, and anarchy will result. (312)[4]

In 1774, the Rev. Thomas Bradbury Chandler presented his own version of the arguments against rebellion. His tactic was to link obedience to government to that of obedience and loyalty to family. In it he asked, is it not that “some degree of respect be not always due from inferior to superiors,” especially in the case of child to parent? He continues this stream of thought by comparing Great Britain to the role of parent and the colonies to the role of children. Chandler asks,

How can such disrespectful and abusive treatment from children be tolerated? God has given no dispensation to people under any government to refuse honor or custom or tribute to whom they are due. (313)[4]

Finally, the argument he presents that was reiterated by many of his fellow clerics was that God’s will requires we

. . . submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; and require[s] us on pain of damnation to be duly subject to the higher powers, and not to resist their lawful authority. (313)[4]

In Chandler’s Friendly Address to all Reasonable Americans, he adds more heat to his argument by connecting the idea that rebellion was linked to the “destruction of harmony in society” and would result in the “subversion of the order of nature” (313).[4] He precedes this argument with:

To disturb or threaten an established government by popular insurrections and tumults has always been considered and treated, in every age and nation of the world, as an unpardonable crime.  Did not an Apostle, who had a due regard for the rights and liberties of mankind, order submission even to that cruelest of all despots, Nero? (313-4)[4]

The Rev. Jonathan Boucher’s sermon given in 1775, titled On Civil Liberty, Passive Obedience, and Nonresistance, endeavored to correct rebellious Americans’ scriptural misinterpretations. He believed that the colonials had a “gross misinterpretation” of the suggestive verse of Galatians 5:1, whereby it states, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (315).[4] In his argument, he states that what is meant by “liberty” in this verse is “simply and unambiguously freedom from sin, for every sinner is, literally, a slave” and that the only true liberty “is the liberty of being the servants of God” (315).[4]

 

Next is the fourth article in the series: Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 4 of 9: Perceptions and Beliefs of the Colonial Clergy. 

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Bibliography

  1. Alice M. Baldwin The New England Clergy and the American Revolution. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1958.
  2. Peter N. Carroll Religion and the Coming American Revolution. Waltham: Glinn-Blaisdell, 1970.
  3. Nancy L. Rhoden Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England during the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  4. Bernard Bailyn The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

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