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

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This fifth article of the series will discuss the clergy’s roles and their opposing principles during the conduct of the war. The differing principles included the concern for religious freedom, the relationship between church and state, the debate over taxation, and the legitimacy of rebellion. Some of the loudest and most sustained voices came from pulpits throughout the colonies. 

Not Everyone Wanted Independence

The British colonies were split into three groups over the issue of independence. The total population making up the thirteen colonies by 1776 was approximately 2½ million people. Only 1/3 of them clearly stood on the side of independence. The estimated number of Americans remaining loyal to the British government was about 1/3 of the politically active population. Of those that supported the cause of independence and were still young enough to fight, most were farmers, not professional soldiers. Moreover, most of these farmer-soldiers never expected to fight a protracted war requiring a long-term commitment. From their religious leadership, both the professional soldier and the citizen-soldier found inspiration and leadership to help them in sustaining the fight.

From the pulpit, religious leaders served as a major source of information for the colonial farmer-soldiers.  The issue of religious and civil freedom, as well as some other interesting arguments on the issues of church and state and slavery (though not part of the rationale for independence), continued as topics of discussion prior to the conflict. Religious leaders continued to validate the colonial politics through religious rhetoric mixed with pseudo-historic stories. But now, colonial participation was not just limited to matters of verbal and literary warfare. Clerics provided justification for the war and inspired the citizenry to take up arms, and, moreover, the words of the clergy helped to carry professional and non-professional soldiers alike onward into the heart of battle with the assurance that their cause was a righteous one.  Many religious leaders accepted the role of military chaplain; however, in the case of rebel clergy, some took up arms against their enemy.

St. John's Episcopal Church, 1643, Suffolk, VA

Loyalist Clergy During the Revolution

Loyalist clergy were religious leaders that remained allied to England, the monarchy, and the Church of England.  Generally, those persons associated with the Church of England were known as Anglicans, though not all Anglicans remained loyal to England by the start of the Revolution.  All Anglican clergy swore an oath of allegiance to the Crown. A breach of this oath was considered a traitorous act. To the Loyalist, the Church of England and the monarchy were two parts of the same coin, and were inseparable; furthermore, the two were approved by God and acted in the name of God. Any act against the one was an act against the other and inevitably was an act of defiance to God. They believed strongly that their support and fight against the patriots was in the name of God as well as the king.

Loyalists strongly believed that the authority of the church, religion and the monarchy or government, were intertwined as ordained by God. God authorized the king to govern the people as a father governs the children.  Religion and the leadership of the church provided the link between God and the king. The idea that the governing of a nation would be done by anything other than the monarchy and church was seen as abominable by the Loyalists. The feelings that the Loyalist clergy demonstrated can be best summed up by the words of three of the most outspoken Anglican ministers (and future chaplains of the British military): Seabury, Byles, and Boucher. Rev. Samuel Seabury of New York, speaking of the patriots, said,

If I must be enslaved, let it be by a King at least, not by a parcel of upstart lawless committeemen. If I must be devoured, let me be devoured by the jaws of a lion and not gnawed to death by rats and vermin (Williams 72).[1] 

In Boston, the Reverend Mather Byles offered his own retort to the rebellion when he asked, “Which is better, to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or three thousand tyrants not a mile away?” (Williams 72).[1] Jonathan Boucher continued with the fundamental idea behind support of the king when he stated that “the families of the earth were subjected to rulers, at first set over them by God" (Williams 71).[1]

British assault on Breed's Hill.

Loyalists in Non-Combatant Roles

The Loyalist clergy limited their participation to non-combatant roles once the war commenced. Most historians estimate that more than half of the Loyalist clerics returned to England. This inevitably weakened the influence of those that stayed behind relative to the much greater numbers of rebel clergy in the colonies. Most of the Anglican clerics that had served in political positions prior to the war withdrew from service once it became clear that they would have to choose sides. Some of the more aggressive clerics took up roles within the British military, primarily as chaplains. Those that chose military service did so, as Williams states, “on the basis of fulfilling their duty as subjects of a sovereign whom they believed to rule by divine right” (66).[1] They believed themselves to be “champions” of the king and the Church of England (Williams 71).[1] Those that chose other means of supporting the Loyalist cause often made recruiting houses out of their sanctuaries by making earnest appeals for volunteers to the king’s cause. Many more took to oration and the written word as a means of warfare against rebellion.

Universally, the Loyalist clerics promoted the argument that the rebellion was causeless, unprovoked, and unnatural. Some of the most effective and prolific Loyalist writers of the period included clergymen Charles Inglis, Samuel Seabury, Jonathan Boucher, and Thomas Chandler.  Their writings promoted, as they had prior to the war, the idea that an obligation existed for the colonists to submit to the monarchy. In defense of subordination and obedience, Inglis wrote that

Government implies subordination, where government is, there must some who preside or govern ¾ and others, over whom that presidency is exercised: From the very nature and design of government, it is the duty of the latter to honor and obey the former. This is also the Will of God. (Rhoden 68)[2]

Many Loyalist clerics such as Seabury based their religious-political views on biblical interpretations of I Peter 2:17, whereby they are instructed to keep the fear of God and to “honor the King” (Rhoden 69)[2] and Romans 13:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. (Rom. 13:1-2)

Loyalist clergy knew well the influence that religious leadership had on a community, especially as it existed during the rebellion. Inglis, Boucher, and other Loyalist clerics placed blame for the initiation and promotion of the war on everyone from “republicans, smugglers, debtors, and men of desperate fortunes,” as well as the colonial clerics (Rhoden 82).[2] The Massachusetts Tory Peter Oliver held the New England clergy solely responsible for “fomenting the Revolution crisis,” calling them the “black regiment” (Carroll xi). They further believed that “the hand of providence would intercede decisively on behalf of the monarchy” (Rhoden 72).[2]

Siege of Yorktown

Colonial Clergy of the Rebellion

Colonial clerics, especially the New England Puritan clerics, were considered, as Baldwin states, “among the chief agitators of the Revolution,” and during the war, these men were “among the most zealous and successful in keeping it alive” (xi).[3] Mayhew, Cooper, and Chauncey are often noted as Revolutionary leaders by many of the historians that have written about this period (Baldwin xi).[3] One of the reasons these men of the cloth were so influential was because of the large number of college-educated ministers. According to Williams, for this particular reason Congregationalist and Presbyterians were “two of the most important and influential bodies in the colonies during the Revolutionary period”(43).[3]

Among New England clergy, 85% were college-trained or degree-holders (Weis 15). Degree-holding clerics were considered by the public as legitimate authorities regarding social and political matters, as well as matters of religion. This gave them that added edge of legitimacy when they argued for independence and the justness of the cause in terms of God and contractual government. The average member of society would not casually disregard the words of a highly-educated cleric.

Colonial clerics were so concerned with distancing themselves from any perception that the colonial churches or God supported England and the king that they took steps to establish the contrary. Clergy in Maryland and other colonies rewrote or made adjustments to their Book of Common Prayer in order to remove all reference to obedience and or prayer to the King of England. On May 25, 1776, Maryland voted to make these changes, placing strips of paper showing prayers composed for the Continental Congress over those referring to the king. On July 4, 1776, Reverend Jacob Duché and the Christ Church of Philadelphia replaced the prayers for the king with a prayer for Congress.

It should be noted at this time that not all the non-Anglicans supported independence or demonstrated a willingness to participate. John Wesley, the religious leader of the Methodists, condemned those that took action against the monarchy. His actions and those that supported the established church caused a split of the Methodist Church. Some of his clerical followers became staunch Loyalists, while others joined the patriots (Williams 48).[1]  Before and during the commencement of the war, Quakers, Menonites, and Moravians had no theology of armed resistance to monarchs and warned their followers against participating in the rebellion at the risk of “potentially serious disciplinary measures” (Rhoden 5-6).[2] They strongly felt that connecting themselves formally to either side (whether they secretly agreed with the rebels or not) would be a violation of their beliefs against the linking of religion and politics.

The Second Continental Congress voting independence

The Church and State Debate

Religious taxation was one area where the church and state debate was not divided based on Rebel-Loyalist lines.  Colonial Protestant clerics were mixed on the church and state debate, while Loyalists and Congregationalists were clearly in support of a church and government linkage, especially via the taxation of the congregations. One of the primary uses of this type of taxation was to provide for the compensation of the resident minister. On the other hand, the Baptists were strongly against any established ties to the government, even in the form of financial support for the church. Followers of the religious taxation effort, especially Anglicans, urged support based on viewing religion as a public utility. Colonial religious leaders fighting against taxation had a simple argument that was consistent with their general principles of rebellion. Their argument was that preaching the word of God should be done freely. Any appearance of a connection to ministering for money would taint the holy effort; furthermore, government involvement in religion violated a people's civil and natural rights. Eventually, the argument against government-supported religious taxation won out.

Religion, particularly Christianity, was argued as being the best way to promote proper social mores, peace, and prosperity in the colonies. In his Election Sermon of 1778, Phillips Payson used an argument that later became the staple of the Massachusetts advocates for state support of religion. He insisted that religion as a means of influencing the public is of great importance toward restraining men’s minds through the "fear and reverence of God and the terrors of eternity,” for these serve as powerful restraints on men’s minds. Payson and many others, regardless of the side they chose to support relating to taxation, believed that if religious restraints failed, then good social order and the preservation of the government would fail with it.

Colonial clerics considered the Revolution in terms of religious liberty and in terms of political liberty (Williams 43).[1] Clerical supporters of the revolution were strong believers in the idea that God’s law is humanity’s law and as such all human governments must be founded on consistent principles; if not, then human government is illegal and is not to be obeyed. Government consistent with God is a blessing, according to the Rev. Peter Whitney, while “like other blessings, it may become a scourge, a curse, and severe punishment to a people” (Bailyn 59).[4]  This of course provides the fundamental assurance that rebellion was a moral imperative and words stating such rang down from the colonial pulpits.

Battle of Trenton, a painting

Rebel Clergy Call to Arms

At the first call to arms, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational ministers threw themselves into the cause of the Revolution zealously and uncompromisingly. Religious leaders served the American cause in many capacities during the Revolution, as military chaplains, writers for committees of correspondence, and as members of state legislative bodies. Religious leaders supporting the call for independence used their pulpits to preach the justification of violence and war in the name of God. This new nation was to be thought of as the New Jerusalem, the chosen people of God, just as the British considered themselves the chosen people during the English Civil War. 

Colonial clerics reached into hearts and souls, and tapped into the fears of the colonists in order to inspire them to action. As Samuel West preached before the representatives of the colony of Massachusetts Bay on May 29, 1776,

When a people find themselves cruelly oppressed by the parent state, they have an undoubted right to throw off the yoke, and to assert their liberty. . . . It is an indispensable duty which we owe to God and our country, to rouse up, and bestir ourselves, and being animated with a noble zeal for the sacred cause of liberty to defend our lives and fortunes, even to the shedding of the last drop of blood. . . . We must beat our ploughshares into swords, and our pruning hooks into spears, and learn the art of self-defense against our enemies. (Williams 60-61)

David Jones’ preaching succinctly professed the argument in support of rebellion on a Fast Day in 1775, calling the rebellion a “defensive war in a Just Cause”; as such it was sinless (Williams 59). Jones tied the rebellion to the security of family. In his effort to convince his congregation, he stated that the colonist must consider the condition of our sons and daughters . . . if you submit to arbitrary measures, you will entail on your sons despotic power. Consider what will be the case of your wives, if a noble resistance is not made: all your estates confiscated . . . your wives must be left to distress and poverty (Williams 59-60).[1] 

One of his final statements regarding this had been heard many times throughout the war:

We have no other remedy, but, under God, to fight for our brethren, our sons and our daughters, our wives and our houses. If God be with us who can be against us? (Williams 59-60)[1]

The central theme of many of the sermons was the “justness of the American cause,” to persuade men to recognize the “importance of religion in their lives,” and at the same time “they tried to arouse a spirit of patriotism, bravery and enthusiasm” (Williams 87).[1] Clerics took their post giving words of prayer before, during, and after “battles, marches and roll class” (Williams 87).[1]  Burials were particularly significant, according to Williams, “because they were usually accompanied by a funeral oration stressing patriotism and devotion to duty” (87).[1] Having holy words spoken over the dead was important to morale, showing that they (soldiers) would not be forgotten and forsaken.

Patriot clergy were not content to sit idly as disinterested entities, so they volunteered their services in a variety of ways, but primarily in the task of carrying religion into the camps and on the battlefields (Williams 65).[1] Some found other ways to serve, as chaplains, politicians, medical support, or as self-proclaimed historians like Reverend William Gordon. However, there were some that took up arms to lead colonial troops into battle. 

Rebel Chaplaincy

Clerics were selected for the role of chaplain for their outspoken support for the rebel cause and the recognized ability they had to inspire and encourage those that may falter in the fight. As the cannons roared, chaplains were willing participants, shouting encouragement in an effort to inspire the men with the same fire as their combat commanders. Chaplains were so important to the cause that Congress often made special efforts to ensure that requests for clerics by the colonial army units were accommodated; however, shortages did exist. Williams relates that in the case of two colonial colonels, Pettibone and Chapman, they “hired a chaplain at their own expense” in order to meet the spiritual needs of their soldiers (77).[1] There are no exact counts of the number of chaplains that served during the war on the rebel side. Williams estimates that the number is an arguable 179 serving with continental or state troops during the conflict (76).[1] 

In a few cases these ministers of the spirit also served as ministers of the body. Chaplains provided assistance to the shorthanded surgeons whenever the need arose treating the sick and injured. According to Williams there were men like Robert Blackwell, James Sproat, and David Avery that were both chaplains and physicians (88). When they were not treating the body, they were treating the soul. 

The Modern Chaplaincy

For a break from the large volume of material covered in this article series, this video, along with several others connected to this video, provide a current day view of the American Chaplaincy. 

Videos on the History of the Chaplain Corps.


Next: Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 6 of 9: Noteworthy Clerics of the American Revolutionary War.



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  1. Eugene Franklin Williams Soldiers of God: The Chaplains of the Revolutionary War. New York: Carlton Press, 1975.
  2. Nancy L. Rhoden Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England during the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  3. Alice M. Baldwin The New England Clergy and the American Revolution. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1958.
  4. Bernard Bailyn The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

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