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Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 4 of 9: Perceptions and Beliefs of the Colonial Clergy

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

In article four of the series (continuation of the topics in article three) we will continue discussing the perceptions and political beliefs of the colonial clerics. And not just the colonial clerics themselves let us start with a religious organizational hierarchy threat perception. Regardless as to whether it was true or not, belief of a political threat to the colonial churches was a motivation to support the call for independence.  

Book of Common Prayer 1596

The American Bishop Threat

Many historians have made a lot of effort to demonstrate that the monarchy and the Church of England had worked in collusion to significantly restrict religious freedom by establishing an American Episcopate. As was discussed in the earlier part of this article, the Anglican Church was in trouble and its influence had dwindled as the colonies grew.

The Church of England’s presence in the colonies hadn’t kept pace with the population growth, along with its inability to move outward, establishing new and additional churches for ever-increasing numbers of towns and sprawling communities. Just as with any organization’s ability to survive and thrive, the failure to adapt to its environment and situation, plus poor or lack of a clearly centralized and recognized leadership, usually spells trouble over the long term. This was as good a reason as any for the Anglican efforts to secure an American bishop.  With no singular leader or guiding body of leaders to bring together and manage the Anglican church efforts, plus the inability to add more certified clergy to keep pace with the population growth, the Church of England’s presence and influence in the colonies was seriously, if not completely, hampered.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1573–1645) was an English churchman and academic.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury

If the monarchy or the Church of England had truly intended to infringe on the colonial religious freedoms through the establishment of a colonial bishop, it is surprising that a bishop or even a visiting prelate had never been sent to the colonies. Several petitions were made concerning the appointment of a resident bishop. “As early as 1638, Archbishop William Laud proposed to send a bishop to the New World”(Rhoden 39).[1] Not until 1713 did the monarchy support such a notion. Queen Anne was preparing to support this plan until her untimely death ended the issue.  This plan never received support by the monarchy again until after the American Revolution. As Rhoden points out, the “ecclesiastical leaders failed to persuade the king and his ministers of the necessity of a colonial bishop” (39).[1]

Whether or not England had planned on supporting the petition or not, the mere idea of this event happening was seen as a threat to the colonial clergy and was publicized by clergy, politicians, and publishers alike as such. The Anglican clergy did not help their own cause by also making their efforts public. Thomas Bradbury Chandler, a clergyman representing nineteen other Anglican clergy, “agreed to petition the Archbishop of Canterbury and the English bishops about the appointment of a colonial episcopate” (Rhoden 40).[1]

These twenty clergy sent letters to colonial governors and to other Anglican clergy of Maryland and Virginia, as well as other individuals. Chandler also published a pamphlet in 1767, An Appeal to the Public, in Behalf of the Church of England in America, to present their “arguments for episcopacy and thereby convincing opponents of the necessity of an American bishop” (Rhoden 40).[1] Instead of gaining support from the public and his opponents, his efforts caused uproar. As Rev. William Smith put it, Chandler’s efforts and his Appeal, “have raised a great Flame” (Rhoden 40).[1] Chandler did receive much attention, but not the kind he sought.

There never was a unified effort by all the colonial Anglican clergy or by the Church of England or even the English monarchy to establish an American bishopric. There were separate and serious efforts by smaller groups of individuals on both sides of the Atlantic toward this goal; however, without adequate support by the monarchy, the Church of England, or even from a united colonial Anglican clergy, the value and importance of an American bishop was not fully perceived or achieved. The truth appears to be more that the heavy publicity given to arguments by colonials against the establishment of a colonial Anglican episcopate incited the ire of the public in an effort to reinforce political-religious discontent against England.

Portrait of Samuel Cooper, of Boston's Brattle St. Church, 18th c.

Portrait of Samuel Cooper, of Boston's Brattle St. Church, 18th c.

Rebel Clergy

The religious leaders of the new America determined that it was they (of the new land) who were the chosen ones and that the old country England had fallen out of favor with God. America was the New Jerusalem and God’s chosen people. In Boston during the early 1770s, ministers like Charles Chauncy, Jonathan Mayhew, and Samuel Cooper voiced “powerful visions of a mighty empire reaching across the continent” (Phillips 117).[2] Also speaking prior to the American Revolution, other religious leaders such as Jonathan Edwards, the “foremost proponent of the Awakening in New England,” promoted the idea that America was the true and New Kingdom of God, and that the colonists were the chosen people. England could no longer be considered as such because of the “deteriorating moral values of Europe” (Carroll 1).[3] 

Still another chronicler has described how religious rhetoric infused and justified America’s call to arms: ministers everywhere compared America’s break from Britain with the division of Jewish tribes under the tyrant Jereboam, or with the misunderstanding between the Canaanites and the Gileadites. The slavery from which the colonists were being delivered was of course like that of the Israelites under Pharaoh, and as early as 1776, George Washington was cast as Moses. (Phillips xxii)[2]

The idea that God gave the earth to man and therefore any laws governing man must be consistent with God’s laws was a fundamental premise underlying the thought and reasoning of the colonist. This notion was repeated in many sermons of the seventeenth and eighteenth century: God the Sovereign is the lawgiver, perfectly wise, just, and good, and these are natural laws (Baldwin 14).[4] It was believed that if the government seriously violated God’s commands, then the pact between the government and the people was broken and it was the duty of the people to resist “in order to assure their religious covenant” (Rhoden 5).[1]  Samuel Stoddard preached this concept in 1703 during an election sermon where he stated that

The abuses that are offered unto a People by their Rulers, and the abuses that are offered unto the Rulers by the People are deeply resented by God. (Baldwin 32)[4]

John Davenport (April 9, 1597 – May 30, 1670) was an English Puritan clergyman and co-founder of the American colony of New Haven.

John Davenport

Colonial clergy treated the issue of God’s law and natural law as though they were conjoined or one and the same. These natural laws were often referred to as the general principles of justice and equity under which all humankind was conceived to have lived before the establishment of societies and civil laws. Before and well after 1763, sermons and pamphlets included reference to this natural law as being implanted by God at birth in the hearts and souls of all people. In 1669 John Davenport in his Election Sermon said, “the Law of Nature is God’s law” (Baldwin 15).[4] In Samuel Hall’s Connecticut Election Sermon of 1746, he stated,

I think there can be no doubt about this; but that in all cases where the matter under determination appertains to natural Right, the Cause is God’s Cause. (Baldwin 15)[4]

The colonial clergy supporting the idea of rebellion believed it to be their role as students and teachers of religion, God, and government to clarify the issues and present the underlying principles of good government so clearly that all would understand. The clergy endeavored to unite their parishioners around a set of commonly understood principles, which in this case spelled war. As Williams proposed,

The clergy saw the necessity of a union of the colonies and urged its maintenance in the face of all discouragement. Their efforts helped to imprint upon the hearts and minds of the people a lasting faith in constitutional government as the guardian of their dearest and most sacred rights. (54)[4]

Portrait of Benjamin Hoadly (1676–1761), was an English clergyman, bishop of Bangor, Hereford, Salisbury, and Winchester.

Benjamin Hoadly

The rebellious colonist found assistance in arguments against England from someone within the enemy camp. Bishop Benjamin Hoadley, a liberal Anglican bishop, was, as Leslie Stephen describes, the “best hated clergyman of the century amongst his own order,” and achieved fame, or notoriety, in England for his role in the elaborate clerical polemics of the Bangorian Controversy (1717-1720) (Bailyn 37).[5] Hoadly was scorned by the Anglican proponents of the status quo on both sides of the ocean. He was admired by the radical thinkers of England and in the colonies “he was widely held to be one of the notable figures in the history of political thought” (Bailyn 37).[5] As early as 1705, Hoadly argued against the notion of the divine right of government and passive obedience (Bailyn 37-8).[5]

England’s effort to control the colonies through laws specifically designed for the monarchy’s benefit and at a cost to the colonies fueled the rebellion fire. The East Apthorp’s tract of 1763 on the Church of England’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had re-instilled the New England clergy’s fears of an American bishopric. The Rev. Jonathan Mayhew published a 176-page attack against the establishment of an American bishopric. As Mayhew wrote,

Such missions have all the appearance of entering wedges, carrying on the crusade, or spiritual siege of our churches, with the hope that they will one day submit to an Episcopal sovereign. (Bailyn 97) [5]

The colonist interpreted the taxation efforts of Parliament, such as the Stamp Act and the Coercive Acts (the Quartering Act of 1765 and enacting in 1774, the Boston Port Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quebec Act) as further evidence that England’s monarchy had broken its sacred covenant with God. The Quebec Act was seen as having a three-fold malevolent intent. It extended the Canadian borders to cut off the western colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia. It was seen as a softening on Catholicism or as elevating the importance of the Roman Catholic Church; it was also seen as an unfair taxation issue. The Protestant clergy understood the passing of the Quebec Act as Britain’s efforts to establish a strong foothold for Roman Catholics in the colonies. As the colonial clergy saw it, these acts confirmed that England had conspired to restrict or deny spiritual and civil liberty to the colonies.

Political Liberty and Religious Liberty

The animosity and anger generated by what appeared to the colonist as a violation of the pact among the government, the governed, and God, encouraged the people first to take action for a political remedy. The concern for political liberty was intertwined with the concern for religious liberty. Words of anger and opposition to England were exclaimed from pulpits and in writings throughout the colonies. One of the clerics presenting this view in his writings and sermons was Rev. Isaac Backus of Massachusetts. Backus vowed that religious liberty had been bought too dearly to be exchanged for any considerations whatsoever and in 1774, he wrote,

. . . we are determined not to pay either of them; not only upon your principles of not being taxed where we are not represented, but also because we dare not render that homage to any earthly power, which I and many of my bretheren are fully convinced belongs only to God. (Hovey 210)[6] 

Backus had assured the world that the colonists had the right and the responsibility to God and man “to oppose King, ministry, Lords, and Commons of England” (Bailyn 305).[5] Finally, in April and again in July of 1775, “he declared all connections were broken and allegiance totally dissolved” (Bailyn 305).[5]

Many other colonial clerics spoke up in favor of rebellion. Peter Whitney, Jonas Clarke, Timothy Dwight, and Samuel West preached rebellion and independence as a just and righteous cause. The Rev. Ezra Stiles long expected and wished it. The Rev. John Cleaveland in the Essex Gazette of June 7, 1774 said of Great Britain,

. . . she is become cruel as the Ostrich, more cruel than Sea-Monsters towards their young ones! Her Measures tend not only to dissolve our political Union to her as a Branch of the British Empire. (Baldwin 130)[4]

John Knox Witherspoon (February 5, 1723 – November 15, 1794) was a Scots Presbyterian minister and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence. 

John Witherspoon

On May 19, 1775, John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian cleric, drafted the official pronouncement of the Presbyterian Church’s endorsement of the revolutionary cause. He was also the only clergyman that signed the Declaration of Independence.

Sermons discussing government and political ideas or thought often used the ancient Hebrew ideas of government as an example of excellence. These political-religious sermons discussed the origin and purpose of government, freedom of speech, and desirable and undesirable laws. In all the sermons and public addresses the primary purpose appears to have been to clearly and in a repetitive manner ensure that the colonists could be sure of their “inalienable rights and to define these rights,” ensuring that people understood the legitimate platform for government as a contractual agreement among God, government, and humanity. Abuse by the government (king and monarchy) was a violation of that contract, and as such this established the validity of and necessity for rebellion (Baldwin 126).[4]

The Continental Congress, recognizing the value of these politico-religious sermons, advised setting aside special days of fasting and of thanksgiving. On these occasions the clerics would advance the theories of government in accordance with a contractual agreement and the holy right and legal right to take action against tyranny, further urging their people to resist even at the cost of their own blood. From the pulpit, colonial religious leaders of all denominations provided their congregations with a regular diet of support for rebellion.  Bailyn tells us that many of these pro-war sermons would find a way throughout the colonies as patriotic pamphlets (Baldwin 123).[4]

African Slaves Transport

Slavery

Some of the religious leaders of the colonies recognized the contradiction that existed in the idea of liberty and freedom for some and not for all more than a decade prior to the war. As early as 1765, the Rev. Stephen Johnson of Lyme, Connecticut preached on “the general nature and consequences of enslaving measures” and the “iniquity of slavery and its shocking ill effects and terrible consequences” (Bailyn 238).[5] Johnson argued that to be “both enslaver and enslaved” was equal to “the oppression of Holland” and “the histories of France and of England under former popish reigns . . .”; however, he confined his argument to these past historical circumstances and did not make mention of the African American enslavement in the colonies (Bailyn 238).[5]  

There were several other religious leaders like the Rev. John Witherspoon during the 1770s, according to Baldwin, that also realized the hypocrisy of claiming freedom from England as a natural right, a God-given right, when colonials themselves enslaved others. Samuel Cooke in his Election Sermon of 1770 preached one of the earliest public denunciations of slavery. The Rev. David Osgood in December 1772, and January 1773, also promoted the abolition of slavery. Some of these clerics noted the hypocrisy of the practice and charged that it was inconsistent with Christianity, for how could colonials cry for and fight for liberty while justifying the enslavement of others for economic reasons?

The preacher Levi Hart in 1774 explained “that the society that permits its members to deprive innocent people of their liberty or property was guilty of tyranny and oppression” (Bailyn 243).[5] He demanded that it was “high time for this colony to wake up and put an effectual stop to the cruel business” and that the colonists themselves were tyrants for continuing this practice. Hart stated that only when the practice of slavery ended “will the hard bondage of sin and Satan be thrown off and the most perfect liberty be enjoyed” (Bailyn 243).[5]

The Rev. Samuel Hopkins also weighed into the argument and more by taking action in Newport, Rhode Island, where he worked, according to Bailyn, to free slaves near his community. In 1776, he published a pamphlet entitled A Dialogue Concerning Slavery of Africans; Shewing It To Be the Duty and Interest of the American Colonies To Emancipate all the African Slaves (Bailyn 243-244).[5] According to Baldwin, among the other clerics that promoted the end of slavery during the mid-and late 1700s were Samuel Hopkins of Newport, Rhode Island, Ebenezer Baldwin, Levi Hart, young Jonathan Edwards, Jeremy Belknap, David Avery, Elam Potter, Nathaniel Emmons, Andrew Eliot, Isaac Lewis, and Erra Stiles (128).[5]

John Murray (1741–1815)

Above: Cleric John Murray

Clerical Recruiters

Historians who comment on the actions of clerics during this war admit that these men of the cloth had tremendous success in filling the ranks of needed fighters and regiments. Clerics were often called upon to stand in front of a mustered militia or a mass of prospective recruits and preach inspirational words for the men to be of stout heart and full of courage in fulfilling God’s justice. Samuel Eaton and John Murray were examples of the clerical recruiter. Samuel Eaton stated to his congregation that “cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood” (Williams 61).[10] Forty men had volunteered as a result of Eaton’s efforts. John Murray spoke to his church membership with such enthusiasm that he filled the needs of a colonial company. As will be shown in the next article, the recruiting efforts of the religious leadership did not halt once the war began. In fact, their influence and efforts became more important once the dying began.

The American population was increasing at a phenomenal rate. Rhoden claims that modern estimates show an average increase of 34.5% per decade between 1700 and 1790 (25).[1] Anglican clergy found themselves with less and less influence on the total number of hearts and souls of the colonies as the population exploded. Dissenter church construction greatly surpassed Anglican growth. Anglican church growth totaled only 3½ times of that previous to the war. By 1780 “Anglicans had fallen to fourth place, behind Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Baptist” (Rhoden 24).[1] “In 1700, Anglican churches served roughly one-fourth of the colonial population, in 1750 one-sixth and in 1775 one-ninth” (Rhoden 24).[1] Between 1700 and 1780, there was phenomenal growth in colonial church construction. The number of Congregationalist churches grew to five times their original numbers. Roman Catholic churches grew 2½ times. Baptist church numbers grew fourteen times. Presbyterian churches grew in number by more than seventeen times (Rhoden 24).[1]

James Caldwell at the Battle of Springfield

James Caldwell American Revolution

Summary

By 1776, the path to war had been laid and paved with Bibles, sermons, and the words of learned men. The role of the clergy prior to the Revolution was to provide justification, motivation, and inspiration for resistance or loyalty to England through the interpretation of the words of God and the Scriptures. Rights based on deep-rooted religious beliefs and values served to strengthen the power of the coinciding political beliefs and values.  The colonial religious leadership provided the moral necessity for resistance, while the Loyalists provided moral condemnation of the rebellion. 

The religious leadership linked religious liberty and political liberty as intertwined and inseparable. Any threat to one was a threat to the other. The loss of one was a loss of the other. From the Stamp Act of 1765 to Lexington and Concord, as Williams wrote, “the patriot pulpits thundered and dwelt on the rights of resistance” (Williams 40).[10] From the other camp, the Loyalist clerics thundered their own messages of obedience and submission to the crown above all. As the official spokesmen of God and moral right, these religious leaders found themselves in the forefront of the conflict.

Next: Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 5 of 9: The War for Independence

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Bibliography

  1. Nancy L. Rhoden Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England during the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  2. Kevin Phillips The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, & The Triumph of Anglo-America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
  3. Peter N. Carroll Religion and the Coming American Revolution. Waltham: Glinn-Blaisdell, 1970.
  4. Alice M. Baldwin The New England Clergy and the American Revolution. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1958.
  5. Bernard Bailyn The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
  6. Alvah Hovey A Memoir of the Life and Times of the Rev. Isaac Backus. New York: Da Capo Press, 1972.
  7. Carl C. Stophlet A Comparison and Contrast of the Roles of Religious Leaders of the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Carson: California State University Dominguez Hills, 2002.
  8. Phillip Thomas The Confederacy’s Fighting Chaplain Father John B. Bannon. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1992.
  9. Alvah Hovey A Memoir of the Life and Times of the Rev. Isaac Backus. New York: Da Capo Press, 1972.
  10. Eugene Franklin Williams Soldiers of God: The Chaplains of the Revolutionary War. New York: Carlton Press, 1975.

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