Protestantism in America: A Narrative History by Jerald C. Brauer
Jerald C. Brauer is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor and Professor of History of Christianity, formerly Dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago. He is also Editor of The Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 4: Religion and Revolution
The year 1740 found the colonies in a state of fear and yet confidence. Life was still not easy. Indian attacks were a constant menace, and the Roman Catholic French and Spanish forged an iron ring to the north, south, and west. How could the ever-increasing numbers of people move beyond the eastern seaboard if enemies held the territory all around them?
Canada was in the hands of the French. Their fur traders and trappers traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, pushed into western Pennsylvania, northern Ohio, and northern New York. They were small in numbers but strong in heart. With the French trappers went French Jesuit priests. These men were out to win the savages for Christ. Sacrificing European comforts and customs, the Jesuits went among Indian tribes and shared their way of life in an attempt to improve that life.
Within a half century the Jesuits had lost many martyred priests but had succeeded in winning a number of converts, and, more important for France, they also had won the friendship of a large number of the Indians. Not interested in forming permanent settlements, they did not appear to be such a threat to the Indian way of life. The French planned to use Indians in driving the English off the frontier and in confining the colonists to the seaboard.
Another threat to the English was the Spanish settlement to the south. Spain was a strong Roman Catholic power, eager to expand from Florida northward and westward to Georgia and the Carolinas. Constant raids and warfare marked the relations of the southern English colonies and their hostile neighbors. Little wonder that the English hated and feared these other groups in America. Not only were they French and Spanish; they were also Roman Catholics. For over one hundred years after the Reformation, the Catholics and Protestants had fought bloody battles in an attempt to crush each other. The hatred and suspicion born of the warfare was still very much alive.
From time to time the rivalry and hatred of the enemies broke loose into all-out war. Longest and most bitter of these struggles was the famous French and Indian War throughout the 1750’s. During the early years of fighting the French and their Indian allies had the best of the struggle.
English frontier settlements were wiped out. Fire, torture, and tomahawks drove them back. The Indian allies of the French were encouraged to undertake raids against the helpless, scattered families in the backwoods. No mercy was shown, for it was a fight to the death. For the Indians it meant preserving their land under French protection. For the English colonists it meant the right to move west to new land, the conquest of the French threat, and the defeat of a Roman Catholic power.
The English were not without their Indian allies, because the strongest of all the eastern tribes, the Iroquois, fought on their side. However, the English could not use the Indians to full advantage because white leadership meant little to them. Jesuit priests accompanied the Indian tribes from French territory on their raids and in their battles. This was done in order to control the savages. Protestant colonists claimed it was done to incite them to greater cruelty and atrocities. Whether the priests were responsible or not, they were present at several of the bloodiest massacres of the war.
The clergy of the colony rallied the people to the side of freedom and justice. They abhorred the Roman Catholic French as infidels who would bring slavery to the people of America just as they had enslaved the French Protestants on galley ships. Where was freedom in France or in New France?
Jonathan Mayhew exhorted his Boston parishioners: "Do I behold these territories of freedom, become the prey of arbitrary power? . . . Do I see the slaves of King Louis with their Indian allies, dispossessing the freeborn subjects of King George, of the inheritance received from their forefathers, and purchased by them at the expense of their ease, their treasure, their blood! . . . Do I see a Protestant, there, stealing a look at his Bible, and being taken in the fact, punished like a felon! . . . Do I see all liberty, property, religion, happiness, changed into slavery, poverty, superstition, wretchedness!"
"And are we willing to give up our civil Rights and Privileges, and become subjected to Tyranny and arbitrary Government? And are we willing to give up our Religion? O! for God’s sake, let us think of our Danger, and labor to prevent our Ruin. Your All lays at Stake" -- so cried another preacher to a group of soldiers.
Thus the clergy preached about the privileges and freedom of the English colonists as contrasted with the government of the French king. They raised troops, fought in battles, and served as chaplains. Above all, they kept alive a certain tradition in the people, a heritage which stressed freedom to worship God and good government under decent laws.
After a long struggle, in 1763 the English emerged triumphant. They stripped the French of Canada, took over all the land to the Mississippi River, and drove the Spanish out of Florida. The New World was open to English expansion, and the threat of Roman Catholicism was removed. All the colonies rejoiced, for it was now possible to settle down and reap the sweet fruits of victory.
But there was a price to pay for the victory, and when the time of reckoning came it produced even greater dissension between the motherland and the colonies. The British had won the victory and had gained a world-wide empire; but now the question emerged as to who should pay the bills for the protection and security of the empire.
For years there had been tensions between the colonists and the motherland. England determined to use its colonies to build up its own wealth and security; consequently, it passed a number of laws carefully regulating colonial economic life so that England stood to benefit. Over the years England had passed laws regulating the commerce and taxes of its colonies. At times no objection was raised, but at other times protests were loud and vigorous.
Now, faced by a huge debt from the recent French and Indian War, the British determined simultaneously to make a peaceful settlement with the Indians, to keep a large army intact in order to preserve peace, to pay off past debts, and to handle future expenses by a series of colonial taxes. So they put into effect a tax on molasses, a basic colonial commodity, and passed the infamous Stamp Act, which placed a tax on all newspapers and legal documents. These taxes were to furnish the money to pay off the war debts.
Once again the New England Puritan preachers awakened to this new threat to their liberties. This was not the first time clergy and colonists had challenged the actions of the British parliament. Was not the very founding of Massachusetts based on a charter that granted certain privileges and liberties to the people? Friction was long-standing and grievances had come down through the years. No sooner were the French defeated than the English turned their backs on the charters and proceeded to rule as they wished. So argued some of the colonists.
The English argued that the king in parliament has every right to tax English subjects in order to pay the cost of maintaining peace and prosperity. Taxes were to be relatively small in that they were to be levied on only a few basic items.
Against this the colonists asserted that Englishmen could not be taxed without having the opportunity of consenting to that tax. Their colonial charters guaranteed that right. But the British and their sympathizers replied that the charters gave no such independence from parliamentary control, and to flout legal parliamentary actions was to go against the powers that were ordained by God to rule England under law and custom. So the arguments raged throughout the colonies. Particularly in New England voices were raised on both sides. And what were the ministers doing? Did they apply the same arguments against the British king and parliament that they used against the French? They did, but with greater effectiveness because they were arguing as Englishmen with Englishmen.
They contended that their commonwealth was founded on a compact that was drawn up between their fathers and the king. This sacred contract formed the fundamental law of the land whereby their relations with England were to be determined. It embodied the rights of all freeborn Englishmen to liberty and property. So long as both parties observed the rights and duties of this compact there would be peace, harmony, justice, and security. But when one party to a compact or covenant breaks the fundamental agreements of the compact, he not only violates the terms of contract, but he also violates the laws of God which are embodied in that compact. That is what parliament did! Under the guidance of the clergy and a group of radical agitators, bands of men were established, and they adopted the name "Sons of Liberty." They wrote and spoke against the Stamp Act. People were enrolled in a great protest boycott against all British imports. Home spinning and weaving was encouraged. Meanwhile British merchants suffered such a severe loss of trade that they forced parliament to abolish the Stamp Act.
At this news the pulpits resounded with glad tidings. Tyranny had been defeated! The founding fathers had been vindicated. Sermons were preached recounting the dreams and actions of the first Puritan settlers so as to teach the people the heritage which they possessed. The repeal of the evil act became an act of deliverance from slavery.
Meanwhile another danger had been growing in the New England and Middle colonies. For several years a group of New England Anglicans were busily engaged in an attempt to bring bishops to America. Such a move required an act of parliament, so it raised anew the question of parliament’s rights over the colonies. Furthermore, it re-created the specter of lord bishops as the right arm of the crown ready to undercut the people’s liberties. The descendants of the Puritans could not forget their fathers’ persecution at the hands of bishops such as Laud.
The Church of England had no intention of introducing bishops as a means of political control. It was purely a religious matter intended to deal with specific shortcomings in Church organization. Only bishops could ordain, confirm, and exercise discipline through ecclesiastical courts; therefore they were desperately needed in America. The past history of Puritan colonists prevented them from understanding the Anglicans’ need.
The S.P.G. was active in New England, winning converts, establishing churches, and pleading for bishops. During the Stamp Act agitation these men proved loyal to England and opposed all actions intended to overthrow the tax. Therefore, the New England Congregational clergy felt that asking for bishops was all part of a great plot to deliver the Puritan colonies back into the hands of king and bishops.
The same pastors who fought the Stamp Act battled against the introduction of bishops. Again, the center of opposition was New England Congregationalism and Middle colony Presbyterianism, two of the largest Churches. These two groups held a series of joint meetings to develop a strategy. Articles were written in newspapers, pamphlets were turned out by hundreds, and eloquent sermons were delivered from pulpits. All the arguments boiled down to two major points. Bishops were but another form of tyranny -- spiritual tyranny -- and, as such, they perverted the gospel by their hunger for power and pomp. Furthermore, spiritual tyranny was but another step in the direction of political tyranny. Loss of religious liberties meant a loss of political liberties.
So important was the agitation over bishops that it turned the attention of the entire population to the questions of parliamentary rights and fundamental liberties. Even the great patriot John Adams admitted that it caught the attention of the common people and made them aware of the basic questions.
Event piled upon event, building up to a grand climax. Undaunted by the rejection of the Stamp Act, the British parliament instituted a new series of economic restrictions. The colonists could not determine where the pinch was greatest, on their pocketbooks or on their political liberties. To aid in the enforcement of these laws, British troops were housed in Boston homes. This was the end!
In March, 1770, a thrill of horror passed through the colonies when British regulars fired on a crowd gathered in Boston commons, killing five and wounding others. Excitement from that had hardly died down when, in 1773, there occurred an act that led to the revolution. In order to save the East India Company from bankruptcy and in order to reassert its authority to tax, parliament dispatched a vast quantity of tea to the colonies. It was to be sold cheaply but with the abhorred tax included. Merchants and laborers were aroused.
Late one night a mob of Bostonians disguised as Indians converged on the piers, boarded the boats loaded with tea, and dumped the cargo into the sea. This was the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773. Other ports followed with even greater violence, and in one case ship and cargo were burned.
The governor was furious, and the English people and parliament did not take lightly the insult of the "Boston Tea Party." A series of strict regulations were passed which placed Boston and Massachusetts directly under royal control. The commander in chief of British troops in Boston, General Gage, was appointed governor.
As regulations grew in severity, the Puritan clergy rallied the people, and revolutionary agitators such as Samuel Adams cried for action. In 1774 another blunder of the British strengthened Puritan suspicions that a concerted effort was under way to repeal the religious and political liberties of the colonies. The so-called Quebec Act again raised the heated issue of Roman Catholicism. The territory of Quebec was extended southward to the Ohio River and westward to the Mississippi River. In this vast Quebec territory, not English common law, but French civil law was to prevail. Also, the British pledged themselves to support Roman Catholicism in that territory in the same way that the French had done.
Suddenly all these actions appeared as part of one great plot that would culminate in the triumph of Roman Catholicism. Did not the support of the Catholics and the agitation for bishops prove it? So the clergy attacked the Quebec Act as a danger to religious and civil liberty, the frontiersmen attacked it as a sellout of their territory, and the merchants and land speculators agreed. The entire nation was aroused.
In April, 1775, hostilities broke out with the battles of Lexington and Concord. The die was cast! The colonies were in open rebellion against the constituted authorities. What would the Churches and the clergy do? Which side would they back, or could they remain neutral? Did they have the right to take any side?
It was clear from the past actions of the Puritan clergy in times of crisis that they would have a good deal to say. For years they had preached about the fundamental rights of men, that governments were the result of a compact, that disloyalty to the compact or its laws called for adjustment, and that all people were responsible to the laws of God.
One pastor wrote his reaction to Lexington and Concord in a newspaper article, saying: "King George the Third, adieu! No man shall cry unto you for protection. . . . Your breach of covenant; your violation of faith; . . . have dissolved our allegiance to your crown and government.
"O my dear New England, hear thou the alarm of war! The call of heaven is to arms! to arms! Behold what all New England must expect to feel, if we don’t cut off and make a final end of those British sons of violence, and of every base Tory among us. . . .
"We are, my brethren, in a good cause; and if God be for us, we need not fear what man can do. . . .
"O Thou righteous Judge of all the earth, awake for our help. Amen and Amen."
To the south, Virginia girded itself for battle under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the stinging words of Patrick Henry: "If we wish to be free; if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending; if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged . . . we must fight! I repeat it, sire, we must fight! An appeal to arms, and to the God of hosts, is all that is left us.
" . . . The gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, peace!’ but there is no peace. The war has actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that the gentlemen wish?. . . Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
The appeals to God were not mere camouflage, nor were they simply a justification for the immediate action to be taken. For many years ministers in America had preached on the grounds of obedience and rebellion. They were not satisfied that subjects should obey any and all orders from a Government. On the contrary, they insisted that government was based on law superior to itself and that it had its origin in the consent of the people. When that law was disobeyed or when the people’s consent was ignored, then the Government committed treason and was to be punished by the people.
One minister clearly expressed these views to a local company of artillerymen when he said: "Whoever makes an alteration in the established constitution, whether he be a subject or a ruler, is guilty of treason. Treason of the worst kind: treason against the State. . . . That we may, and ought, to resist, and even make war against those rulers who leap the bounds prescribed them by the constitution, and attempt to oppress and enslave the subjects, is a principle on which alone the great revolutions which have taken place in our nation can be justified."
He went on to argue that all great Protestant divines stood for this principle and he quoted Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and Zwingli. Thus it was that long periods of preparation paid off. The New England ministers were among the first to enunciate the doctrines that became the basis of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.
Not all ministers agreed in this. A vast majority of the Congregationalists and almost all the Presbyterians, under the leadership of John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, were in favor of the colonial cause. A small number of these clergymen, however, remained Tories, faithful to the king. As always, there was a vast body, probably the majority, of clergy who were conservative moderates. Only slowly were they won to the Revolution.
It was among the Anglicans that the largest numbers of loyalists were found. Especially the S.P.G. men in New England were king’s men. Many of them fled with the British armies and served as chaplains. Others showed their courage by facing rifle fire as they preached from their pulpits.
In the South, the Anglican churchmen were almost entirely for the Revolutionary cause. These were the men who opposed the introduction of bishops as an encroachment on the rights of the local vestries. They agreed with the New England Puritans in upholding the liberties and property of the colonists. Almost two thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were from the Anglican Church; hence, there was a great cleavage in their ranks.
The Lutherans, Baptists, Reformed, and other groups proved faithful to the cause of independence. All gave unsparingly of their time and men, and chaplains were furnished from all groups. The handful of Roman Catholics of Maryland and Pennsylvania also proved faithful to the Revolutionary cause. No one group can be singled out for special acclaim. Perhaps, of all groups, the New England Congregationalists did most, because of their years of preaching about the covenant and about a government responsible to the people.
One group that temporarily suffered as much as the Anglicans were the Methodists. John Wesley, their great English leader, wrote a series of pamphlets in which he pleaded for nonresistance on the part of the Methodists and condemned the Revolution. As a result Methodists were in bad repute, and a number of their leaders had to go into hiding. Fortunately, Francis Asbury, greatest of the preachers sent over by Wesley, remained in America and favored the colonial cause. All the American-born ministers were for the Revolution. But the stand of Wesley and his preachers tended to identify the movement with the British cause.
Some Christians refused to fight on either side as they believed that all war was wrong. As a consequence they were misused by both sides. The Quakers and the Moravians especially suffered greatly on this account during the Revolution. One of the most regrettable incidents of the entire war was the unprovoked slaughter of a large number of pacifistic Moravian Indians in Ohio. This dark blot rests on the American armies, though the British also misused Christian Indians.
So the Church working through the churches faced the question of revolution and came to the conclusion that there was a point where people might and should rebel against their Government. Governments were ordained of God, but they were ordained in such a way that they were responsible to God and to the people over whom they ruled. Government did not exist for itself and did not determine its own ends. It existed to fulfill certain laws of God, and when it failed to do this faithfully, it could be called to task by the people.
It was not easy for the Church to reach such a decision. Some of its members disagreed. But all agreed that in time of distress, war, and destruction, the Church had to offer succor and redemption; so it performed its acts of mercy and love in ministering to the sick and dying. The Church was carrying on a full ministry to man, both in his personal relation to God and in his relationship to his fellow men in society.