Chapter 1: Puritanism, Revivalism, and the Revolution by Jerald C. Brauer

Religion and the American Revolution
by Jerald C. Brauer (ed.)

Chapter 1: Puritanism, Revivalism, and the Revolution by Jerald C. Brauer

(Jerarld C. Brauer, is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School, The University of Chicago)

For many years scholars have debated the relationship between religion and revolution. Almost all of the views expressed in the discussions of that basic problem are reflected also in the writings on the relationship between religion and the American Revolution. Earliest interpreters of that intricate relationship could be classified as exemplars of filial piety. They believed that the roots of the American Revolution were to be found primarily within the Puritanism brought from England to American shores. The Puritan world-view as represented by its doughty expositors, the New England clergy, provided the intellectual vision or framework in terms of which the Revolution later was mounted.

That view encountered a number of basic objections. How could it account for the transformation of a theocratic state into a democratic state? Could one demonstrate that the basic ideas espoused by the clergy made any impact on masses of people? At best it might be argued that certain of these basic ideas were taken over by later propagandists and used for their own purposes.

Perhaps the most telling critique of the earliest assumed relationship between Puritanism and the American Revolution is that it stressed certain abstract ideas, theological and philosophical, and so overlooked the real forces that produced the American Revolution. It tended to ignore deep-rooted social tensions that marked mid and later eighteenth-century American society. It subsumed all colonial sectional concerns under a basically New England concern. It failed to see the late eighteenth-century struggle with England in terms of a long ongoing struggle between the colonies and the mother country. It paid scant attention to the economic tensions which slowly developed between England and the colonies and reached their peak after the conclusion of the French and Indian War.

The late Hannah Arendt wrote, "The rebellious spirit, which seems so manifest in certain strictly religious movements in the modern age, always ended in some Great Awakening or revivalism which, no matter how much it might ‘revive’ those who were seized by it, remained politically without consequences and historically futile." 1 Such a view hardly does justice to the complex realities of the historical situation which saw the development of the American Revolution. Religion was indeed one of the primary forces which impelled colonial American people towards revolution and sustained them in their actions.

In an attempt to prove a connection between religion and the American Revolution, some historians thought it sufficient to quote sermons that contained words and ideas similar or identical to political rhetoric of the Revolution. John W. Thornton is a good example. In the preface to his The Pulpit of the American Revolution, which appeared in Boston in 1860, Thornton begins with this statement:

The true alliance between Politics and Religion is the lesson inculcated in this volume of Sermons, and apparent in its title. . . . It is the voice of the Fathers of the Republic, enforced by their example. They invoked God in their civil assemblies, called upon their chosen teachers of religion for counsel from the Bible, and recognized its precepts as the law of their public conduct. The Fathers did not divorce politics and religion, but they denounced the separation as ungodly. They prepared for the struggle and went into battle, not as soldiers of fortune, but, like Cromwell and the soldiers of the Commonwealth, with the Word of God in their hearts, and trusting in him. This was the secret of that moral energy which sustained the Republic in its material weakness against superior numbers, and discipline, and all the power of England. To these Sermons -- the responses from the Pulpit -- the State affixed its imprimatur, and thus they were handed down to future generations with a two-fold claim to respect.2

Thornton goes on to say, "In the sermon of 1750 Jonathan Mayhew declared the Christian principles of government in the faith of which Washington, ordained by God, won liberty for America, not less for England, and ultimately for the world.3 And quite self-consciously, Thornton tied in the American Revolution with the earlier English Puritan Revolution when he stated, "The name of Hugh Peter reminds us that New England shared in English Revolution of 1640; sent preachers and soldiers, aid and comfort to Cromwell; gave an asylum to the tyrannicides, Whalley, Goffe, and Dixwell; reaffirmed the same maxims of liberty in the Revolution of 1688, and stood right on the record for the third revolution of 1776."4

Thornton not only sees an intimate connection between religion and the American Revolution; he confines that relationship to Puritanism. Such a view overlooked entirely the Episcopalian contributions made through Virginia leaders. Where the latter have been credited it is usually pointed out that they were no longer genuinely religious but at the very best latitudinarian in their outlook. But even if latitudinarianism is to be understood as a religious movement, one recent historian argued that "the contribution of religious latitudinarianism . . . is normally overrated in American history."5

If latitudinarianism and Enlightenment are to be understood, in part, as religious movements, as a number of contemporary historians now argue, then the relationship between religion and the American Revolution requires reevaluation. That process is now underway.6 This paper assumes that fundamental contributions were made by religious movements other than Puritanism and Revivalism, but in this brief essay it is impossible to touch that larger question.

The Thornton preface is a classic example of begging the question of the interrelationship between religion and the American Revolution. Did these abstract, formal theological doctrines relate directly to the political process of the day, or were they primarily rationalizations of fundamental realities which were in no sense theological? Historians of religious thought and institutions in America have paid insufficient attention to these two basic criticisms. They persist in the assumption that formal discourse related directly to the political action of the American Revolution.

The problem is to determine, if possible, ‘how New England culture moved through its religious symbols and beliefs from what appeared to be a conservative theocracy to wholehearted support of a revolution. In his stimulating essay "Center and Periphery" Edward Shils provides a perspective which enables one to note how Puritanism’s and Revivalism’s theological beliefs and symbols helped to create a revolution in the colonists’ hearts and minds prior to the outbreak of the rebellion.7

New England society was founded on and lived out of a clear center, which from its inception contained certain paradoxical or peripheral elements. It is not difficult to locate the realm of values, beliefs, and symbols which gave coherence and meaning to that society. These beliefs and symbols the New Englanders grounded in sacrality or in God himself; they were ultimate, dependent upon the will of God as revealed in Scripture and reconfirmed in nature. Though all of society participated in them and upheld them, they were especially embodied in and manifested by a ruling elite composed of magistrates and ministers. Out of these symbols and beliefs order prevailed both for society at large and for the various subsystems and institutions within it.

Society was a coherent, well-articulated system that exhibited a basic center and contained several peripheral or paradoxical elements. As the historical process unfolded and New Englanders participated in the vicissitudes of historical experience, the center, composed of the symbols, values, and beliefs which initially undergirded order and authority in the colony, became a dynamic ingredient in rebellion against Crown and Parliament.

It is unnecessary and impossible to sketch out the entire process whereby Puritanism and Revivalism, drawing on symbols and beliefs which were central to New England society, helped to overthrow both King and Parliament. An effort will be made to lift up several of these central values and beliefs and to indicate briefly how each underwent a process of transformation and reaffirmation which enabled it to play a direct role in the political processes of the late eighteenth century. Fortunately, all of these beliefs and symbols have been carefully analyzed and studied by numerous scholars, and it is unnecessary to spend time on their subtleties and various interconnections.


The Puritans who first settled Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that their holy experiment was founded on divine will. They believed that every aspect of their life, both personal and social, was grounded in sacrality. The very fact of their presence in the New World was posited on the assumption that God, in his providence, had saved the discovery of the New World until after the reformation of his church. The Puritans were called by Providence to settle the New World and to establish a "due forme of Government both civill and ecclesiastical,"8 grounded on the revealed word of God as encountered in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Modern society might wish to deny the ultimacy of those beliefs and symbols which under-girded it, but in New England the Puritan concern was the opposite. It heartily affirmed that society existed only in and through divine Providence.

Though predestination was an essential doctrine for the vast majority of Puritans and had consequences both for personal and social life, it cannot in itself be counted as one of the central symbols or beliefs that marked Puritan society. Seven or eight basic symbols, beliefs, or values were closely articulated to form the center as well as the peripheral structure of Puritan society. These were reflected throughout New England economic, political, and family life and class structure, as well as in the institutions of the churches and schools. They were held tenaciously and incarnated by the ruling elite in each of the subsystems and institutions. They initially provided resources for order and stability, but later they served to create dissatisfaction and revolution.

One of the most important symbols and values in the entire Puritan cultural system is covenant. This symbol was one of the most basic and pervasive in Puritan society, and it touched on every aspect of life. Covenant did not represent a means whereby a capricious or even irrational deity gave structure and rationality to his otherwise arbitrary will.9 Covenant was grounded in Scripture as demonstrated by the way God initially called Israel into being through a covenant with Abraham. To be sure, in his eternal wisdom, God elected those whom he chose for eternal life and banned the remainder to perdition, but the way he chose to make known his election was through his Word and Spirit, which created a relationship of covenant between himself and each of his elect; thus, the relation between God and the individual was grounded on covenant.

Three things are essential for the Puritan understanding of covenant. First, it is absolutely clear that all initiative in the creation and sustenance of covenant is in God’s hands. He creates, initiates, and sustains the covenant relationship. It is purely an act of grace on God’s side. On the other hand, the covenant is, in the second place, conditional. That is, God lays down the basis of covenant and the terms of its fulfillment, and if man fails to fulfill it, the covenant is broken. Judgment and punishment ensue. A third thing to note about the covenant is its communal nature. Though it is grounded in the relationship between God and the individual, its purpose is not simply the salvation of individuals but rather the creation of a people. Individuals are not covenanted to God singly, in a lonely relationship. Though the relationship between God and the soul is highly individual and subjective, it occurs only in the context of a community, the church. Churches are collections of individuals covenanted with each other to form a congregation of fellow believers. There is no true manifestation of the church apart from fellow believers owning a covenant with God and with each other.

The basic symbol or belief in the covenant as the way in which God, man, and fellow believers are related carried over into every aspect of Puritan life. Just as the relation between God and man, and between man and fellow men in the church, was grounded on covenant so was the body politic. Before the Pilgrims landed they formulated the Mayflower Compact based upon the concept of the church covenant. In his famous sermon on "Christian Charity," John Winthrop reminded the Puritans that they had covenanted together to undertake a common task; the entire Massachusetts Bay effort was interpreted as a covenant between those engaged in a common enterprise and as a covenant between all the people and God.10 This symbol is found in diaries, in letters, in countless sermons preached in the context of regular services, and in sermons on great occasions stretching from Winthrop’s "Christian Charity" through fast-day and election-day sermons up to and through the very Revolution itself. The commercial charter which the Puritans turned into a political constitution for their holy commonwealth was looked upon as a special act of Providence sealing the covenant made with his people.11

A second fundamental belief and central value of Puritan society was the symbol of consent. This too was grounded in Puritan religious experience and tested in day-to-day historical experience. Puritan society was inconceivable apart from the reality of consent. Though God predetermined who was to be saved, it was also his will that election would be made manifest to believers through their conversion. Without a profound, existential religious experience of conversion one could not be a Christian. This was the religious basis of Puritan dissatisfaction with the Reformation in the Church of England: the church was made up primarily of lukewarm Christians who had never experienced the shattering judgment and spiritual rebuilding of the conversion experience.

Conversion represented human consent to the reality of divine election. It was God’s will that man consent to the reality of his sinfulness and in the experience of that degradation consent to the reality of divine forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Only in that way would the covenant be owned. God did not strike the elect with a thunderbolt or magically transform a person from sinner to saint. The process of election was internalized through key experiences in life which culminated in human acceptance of salvation. It involved a self-conscious decision to consent to God’s will for forgiveness.

The theme of consent runs throughout Puritan society. Just as man consents to God’s judgments and divine activities, so the consent of man is required at all key points in human existence. When one joined a congregation one had to demonstrate the truth and validity of one’s consent to divine will, and upon acceptance by the congregation one had to consent to join that congregation and to abide by its rules. Therefore, no church had the power to force its will upon any other church. Each congregation was a full and complete church in and of itself, and through consent of its members could make all decisions concerning its own welfare.

Above all, a minister could not be imposed on a congregation by any power from the outside, even by the magistrate. Members of the congregation consented to their own minister. Also in the body politic, consent was required at all key points. Magistrates, deputies, and selectmen had to go through a process of nomination and election by freemen. Without consent they could not rule. Even the militia chose their own officers. Thus the symbol of consent was deeply imbedded in the very matrix of values out of which New England society lived. It cannot be denied that consent operated in New England society in such a way that a relatively small group of elite magistrates and deputies managed to retain control of the colony. But that is not the point. They retained their role as a special elite in society only insofar as they embodied the main values of the people and made necessary adjustments in order to retain consent.

The rule of fundamental law and its absolute necessity was another central belief or value of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.12 Law was not simply a necessity because of the fallen nature of mankind and the consequent war of all against all. It was more than simply a deterrent against anarchy and chaos. Law was, beyond that, a positive reality which provided structure and order for life so that humanity could realize its full potential in mutual service as well as the fulfillment of its responsibilities to God. Law provided the framework within which a people could live out their covenant responsibilities to God and to each other. It offered not only guidelines but a lure toward the good life.

Law was a structure in which and under which all people lived and worked. No person and no group was above the law and each found their mutual responsibilities properly defined in it. At its best law represented God’s own will for the cosmos. In its historic reality, it evidenced the particular way the English people had worked Out their destiny under God’s law. Law required both power and authority, but it also provided the limits in terms of which power and authority could and ought to be exercised.13 It was effectual only because it participated in and was transcended by sacrality. God was both its source and its end so that no person or group, however representative or symbolic of the law, stood beyond it. Though fundamental law provided an essentially conserving force for Puritanism, it became, under other circumstances, a source of protest against both Crown and Parliament.

A fourth central value for Puritan society was a profound belief in an organic society ordained by God. Whatever democratic elements early New England society possessed, it certainly lacked any view of egalitarianism. Society was built on a clear, ordered structure. As in the medieval view of the body politic, society was built solidly on a hierarchical arrangement. It was not as complex or well ordered as the English society from which it derived. Perhaps one could call it a simplification of and variation on the English class-system which had a hereditary monarchy on top, followed in descending succession by clearly demarked classifications of nobility, a complex church hierarchy, a landed gentry, a rising merchant class, simple yeomen, and vast numbers of unfranchised people who fitted none of those categories.

It has been said that the clearly ordered society of New England consisted of basically two classes and that the lines between these two were constantly shifting. One class was composed of people of quality or the rich and the other involved common folk or the not-so-rich, though financial status was not the only distinguishing mark between the two groups. In addition to money and particularly land, the heritage and background one brought from England was important, as was one’s status in the church and in the various civic functions within the community.14

In New England the first group consisted of a small number of people such as the magistrates and other political officers, the ministers, the merchants, and the slowly increasing number of professional people such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. The second group was composed largely of small landowners whose material resources were not yet sufficient to establish them as members of the first class.

Puritan sermons and tracts abound with references to the good ruler.15 In fact, Winthrop was typical of a ruler who reminded both himself and his fellow magistrates of the nature and extent of their responsibilities. The point is that New England society believed that a small number of people symbolized the deepest values and beliefs of their system as long as that elite remained faithful embodiments of those beliefs.

The essentially conservative New England Puritan belief in the hierarchically ordered society had both within its theory and in its practice forces which, under the proper historical circumstances, could become highly critical if not revolutionary. The Achilles’ heel of the New England Puritan value system and belief pattern was in their loyalty to Crown and Parliament. Englishmen were bred to respect and honor the Crown even when they disagreed with it. The founders of New England were Englishmen. They represented several generations of frustrated efforts at religious reform, and they sought out a new habitation because they were convinced that their lives and fortunes were in danger at the hands of the Crown. They were not free to worship God as they ought or to shape their lives accordingly.

Nevertheless, the New England Puritans did not break with the central English symbol of the role and power of the English Crown. They appealed from a misguided and misinformed Crown to the Crown as it ought to be in its purity. Frustrated in their attempts to achieve religious reform through the necessary political means, Puritans in England early turned to an alliance with Parliament and looked to it more and more as the central symbol of order, justice, and power in English society. Those Puritans who came to New England shared that tradition.

New England Puritans always felt uneasy with the Stuarts, but they remained ambiguously faithful to belief in the Crown. They insisted on the validity of their charter because it was granted by the Crown, but they resisted every effort on the part of the Crown to interpret it, modify it, or take it back. The Puritans were not opposed to the Crown; rather they held an ideal of it which was totally at variance with its actuality in English history. Their view of the Crown was what Shils defined as peripheral to the center of seventeenth-century English ideals and beliefs. But not only was their view of the Crown peripheral; their geographical location itself made the Crown peripheral to their everyday experience. Though there were ample symbols of the Crown in the flag and other officials, the symbol itself was well over three thousand miles distant and lacked means of actualizing its presence. Early in New England experience Endicott got in trouble with his fellow New Englanders when he cut the cross out of the British flag and so symbolized Puritan discontent at the Crown obstinately misinformed concerning the Christian religion. In fear of losing their charter, fellow Puritans made every effort to cover this blunder.

Central to the matrix of New England Puritan values and beliefs was the symbol of Parliament as the guardian and repository of English liberties and responsibilities. Uneasy with a Crown that refused to understand itself or the Christian religion in a proper light, New England Puritans quickly aligned themselves with the Parliamentary cause during the English Puritan Revolution. They paid the price with the loss of their charter at the time of the Restoration. Further, they had to reaffirm their loyalty to the Crown though they did their best to maintain as many as possible of the privileges and prerogatives which they had so carefully built up over forty-odd years. New England had to bow to the inevitable and accept a royal governor and a large number of his underlings in various key posts. In the New England body politic the Puritans had not strayed so far from the symbol of the Crown that they were utterly unable to live with it in their system of values. They reaffirmed their earlier belief in the value and significance of the Crown and hoped for better days.

The Puritans were fully aware of the exclusion controversy waged in England at the time of the Glorious Revolution. They were delighted at the accession of William and Mary to the throne, and they applauded the emergent supremacy of Parliament. The preeminence of Parliament in conjunction with a clearly limited Crown emerged as central symbols in English life, and these were shared by New England as well. However, there was a difference in the function of Parliament and Crown in the central value system of New England society.

Although the Puritans were content to live as part of the British empire and gave genuine obeisance both to Parliament and Crown, there remained an ambiguity and a paradoxical relation between these two central symbols of English society and their function in the center of New England society. New Englanders constantly harked back to their original charter as well as their rights and liberties not only as Englishmen but as New Englanders in the New World. Election-day sermons are demonstrable proof of this attitude.16 Under the impact of historic events New England was led to the point where Parliament and Crown in the New England value system clashed with the English vision of the function and role of Crown and Parliament both within England and within the British empire.

As a result of the economic problems caused by the French and Indian War, economic problems and readjustments within England itself and throughout the empire, basic changes in the structure of Parliament, the stepped-up campaign for bishops by the Episcopal church in the colonies, and the continuing geographical distance between the colonies and the homeland, there developed a growing sense of dissatisfaction and distrust on the part of the American colonies and New England in particular.17

In the face of growing differences with England, the response of New England was comparable to their earlier response at the time of Charles I. They held a utopian view of the Crown and Parliament. Puritans appreciated and looked to the Hanoverian family for understanding and support, just as they respected and honored the function and role of Parliament. They blamed the growing difficulties on stupid and conniving politicians who were not genuinely concerned with the true interests of England, Crown, Parliament, or New England. The initial opposition to the Grenville government drew upon the whole arsenal of the central values and beliefs of Puritan society, including Crown and Parliament. Consent, covenant, the structure of fundamental law, the stability of their ordered society, Crown and Parliament, and their belief in liberty were all employed in arguments by clergymen and politicians alike.18 What started as an uncomfortable disagreement between colony and British empire escalated into a basic feeling of distrust and fear which eventuated in rebellion on the part of the colonists.

A number of events conspired to threaten the traditional liberties of the Englishman and the well-established hard-won liberties of the New Englanders themselves. As a result of the missionary activity of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel throughout the colonies and particularly in New England, and with the introduction of the Church of England worship in Boston, the very heart of New England, clergy and laity alike began to fear a vast plot to overthrow the liberties of their churches and to establish the Church of England.

Carl Bridenbaugh sketched out the social and political implications of the struggle over the attempt to establish bishops in the American colonies.19 The high point of agitation for bishops coincided with the growing alienation between the colonies and England over new taxes and a new system of tax collection, and a mounting debate over the extent and nature of Parliament’s authority in relation to the colonies. All segments of colonial society felt they had a stake in the outcome of these disagreements. As Parliament defined its power over the colonies and exercised that power in ways unacceptable to New Englanders, the initial ambiguity over Crown and Parliament in the center of New England values and beliefs grew into outright opposition. Unambiguous powerful symbols and beliefs within the center forced the symbols of Crown and Parliament into an Increasingly peripheral position until, in the name of the very center itself, they were eliminated.

Those placed in power as representatives of the Crown and Parliament could not understand the agitation, the distrust, and the growing hatred against the established system. A number of them never did understand why the Revolution came about, and so they found themselves loyalists and had to flee when their time came.20 That which started as an incoherent and fearful discontent slowly crystallized into ever more precise opposition and action.

Puritanism was one of the most effective forces in colonial America in "mobilizing the general mood" and effectively organizing both ideas and actions in opposition to Crown and Parliament.21 Puritanism had consistently pointed to, preached, and attempted to live out the central values and beliefs that gave coherence and meaning to Puritan society. Although these symbols were not identical in content with those held by the first generation founders of New England, they were clearly derivative from that matrix of beliefs and values. In the hands of the Puritan descendents of the Revolutionary epoch, symbols such as covenant, consent, fundamental law, and liberty were used first to criticize and finally to undercut two other central symbols that had always been held with a certain degree of ambiguity, namely Crown and Parliament. These same beliefs and symbols articulated by the New England Puritans merged with parallel, similar, and, at time, even dissimilar values and beliefs from other sources to produce a new ideology which formed and shaped the resistance of the American colonies against Crown and Parliament.


The emergence of Revivalism in the 1730s marked a new phase in the development of Christianity in American culture, and it both renewed Puritanism and presented it with a fundamental challenge.22 Though Revivalism grew out of Puritanism, it was equally a child of the continental Pietistic movement that swept Europe and England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and made its way to American shores. On the surface Revivalism appears as a form of Puritanism whereas in fact it is just the opposite of Puritanism at many key points. Both movements share the centrality of the conversion experience; however, in Puritanism the conversion experience was set solidly in the middle of a complex social and institutional structure. In one sense, Revivalism as a religious movement excised the concept of conversion out of Puritanism and cast it loose in a highly individualistic and subjectivistic fashion.23

Many of the central values and symbols of New England society were brought under attack directly or indirectly by the Great Awakening, the first expression of Revivalism in American culture.24 Each of the basic symbols and beliefs that marked the center of New England Puritan culture will be reviewed insofar as they were modified or attacked by the Great Awakening. The consequence of newly emerging symbols and beliefs of Revivalism will be seen as a resource which fed into the growing opposition to Crown and Parliament and helped to mobilize and give structure to widespread unorganized feelings of discontent. Thus Revivalism, along with Puritanism, helped to prepare and sustain an attitude in the American colonies which eventuated in rebellion and revolution.25

Among the new beliefs, symbols, and values which marked Revivalism, four in particular stand out as critical and having consequences for the development of new attitudes. Primary among these was Revivalism’s belief in and creation of the new man. Conversion of a sinner denoted the death of the old man and the emergence or rebirth of a new man. The converted believer died to sin, to old habits and patterns, and emerged a new man open to new responsibilities and new forms of discipline.

A radical break occurred in the life process of the converted person. Before conversion, one was alienated from God and one’s fellow human beings, wallowing in misdirected affections or slowly dying in indifference toward the true goals of life, and wholly committed to an unspiritual life. As a result of conversion, a human being was totally turned about. A conversion experience marked an ontological change in which the old Adam died and a new believer in Christ was born. This profound, shattering, all-embracing experience transformed the total life of the believer and had far-reaching consequences for his entire existence.

Both Puritan and Anglican divines immediately saw the consequences of this startling emphasis on the new man. Leading Boston clergy who attacked the gradual encroachment of the British on New England rights also attacked what they felt were the destructive tendencies of the Great Awakening not only in Jonathan Edwards but especially in his less sophisticated and less intelligent cohorts.26 Puritanism was built upon the centrality of the doctrine of conversion, and in New England it was held that only truly converted people could be accepted into full church membership. By 1636 the holy commonwealth was ruled only by those who had demonstrated a full conversion experience to the satisfaction of the saints.

Once New England settled for the Half-Way covenant, the centrality and necessity of conversion receded into the background. It was not that New England Puritanism gave up on conversion; on the contrary, the ministers constantly hoped for, prayed for, and worked for periods of "refreshing" as they called it. There were a number of such periods in New England church life; however, they were never widespread nor did they exhibit a high degree of intensity.27 The Puritan doctrine of conversion was never divorced from the doctrine of the covenant or the holy community. The emotional drive of conversion was always carefully balanced by the function and role of reason and seen in the context of a biblical hermeneutic. Hence, it was not the doctrine of the new man which was predominant in the New England Puritan concept of conversion but rather the doctrine of the converted man as a recruit for both congregation and community. Conversion was the bedrock for total citizenship in all aspects of the holy commonwealth. Conversion embodied a high degree of subjectivity, but it remained in a delicate balance both with the objectivity of total community involvement and the balancing power of reason.

The Great Awakening has been interpreted as the first colony-wide movement that bound together many diverse interests among the thirteen colonies and provided a thread of unity that ran throughout the group. Some historians have gone so far as to argue that it was the first movement that gave the colonies any sense of common identity.28 Itinerant ministers, exemplified by the indefatigable George Whitfield, traveled from colony to colony bearing their message of repentance and redemption. Whitfield’s numerous trips to America and his crisscrossing the colonies and appearing in every major city documents the extent and importance of the movement. The significance of the Great Awakening lies not only in its pervasiveness throughout the colonies but equally, if not more, in those ideas and beliefs which it injected into mid-eighteenth-century American culture.

Rebirth led to a new man, a new being. Though the new man was not totally discontinuous from the old man, emphasis was on the new. A heightened sense of decision led to a high degree of self-consciousness concerning one’s difference from all those who surrounded him in society. The converted believer basked in his own uniqueness, which inevitably led to an intense dissatisfaction with the traditional, with things as they were.

Though the converts of the Great Awakening were committed to the same central grouping of values and symbols as were the Puritans, they tended to hold these with a degree of absoluteness which made them highly critical of the elite in society who symbolized those values but did not live them fully and completely. The new man was to be new and to express his commitments fully and completely. The converted believer saw no shades of gray but only extremes of good and bad, right and wrong; there was nothing in between. When the new man questioned the traditional values and beliefs it was usually not to overthrow them or to set them aside but to argue for a complete, full, logical application. Often that so-called logical application led to direct opposition to the values themselves.

Not only did the Great Awakening create a belief in the new man which tended to question traditional values; it also created an image of a new age. This was not a repudiation of earlier Puritan ideals; rather it was an attempt to carry them a step further and to apply those values directly to American society at a particular moment in history. In his History of the Work of Redemption Jonathan Edwards sketched out a new version of the chosen people theme.29 No longer were the Puritans only a light and an example to the rest of the world with regard to a "due forme of Government both civill and ecclesiasticall"; now they had moved far beyond that.

In Edwards’s view America was to be the center of God’s kingdom on earth; it was here that the new age would dawn. The revivals themselves were part of the proof of this concept.30 God’s Spirit had long been at work in history to bring to fruition his plans for the whole cosmos. His kingdom had in a sense already come in part and was now gradually unfolding. Prior to the final judgment and overthrow of all evil, human history would first go through a time of tribulation and then would enter a period of great creativity and goodness. Edwards was convinced that history had reached that point and the Spirit of God was about to pour itself forth throughout the world in a new, fresh, and creative way. America was to be the center of that movement, and it was from this point in the world that God’s Spirit would go forth to all mankind. Edwards’s vision of a total world history culminated in a new age of the Spirit centered in America, and in New England in particular.31

The combined vision of the new man and the new age appeared in a context conducive to building a sense of uniqueness and individuality among the American colonies. New men participating in the first stages of a new age could easily become disenchanted with the more restrictive traditions of an old age. There was a sense in which a number of the leaders and new converts in Revivalism had their sights fixed backwards upon a glorious past that was to be reconstituted, but it was equally true that even those older values were now seen by many in the context of a new age and a new epoch. Traditional authority, whether local magistrates, Parliament, or Crown, looked quite different from the perspective of a dawning new age. Though it is difficult to document the exact degree of Revivalism’s influence in encouraging a new ideology critical of British rule, it is nevertheless interesting to note the number of leaders and laity from the ranks of Revivalism who made common cause with the leaders of the Revolution.

Perhaps even more important than belief in the new man and in the new age was Revivalism’s insistence on the centrality of the Holy Spirit and its consequence for the religious life. The doctrine of the Spirit was at the base of both the conversion experience which created the new man and of the new age brought into being through God’s providential action. The Spirit was a great equalizer in all religious life. Only those led of the Spirit could exemplify and carry genuine religious authority. Only those reborn of the Spirit could be entrusted with ministry, and those who were not so converted were in fact destructive of Christianity.

When employed outside the context of strong traditions, the biblical injunction that "the Spirit bloweth where it listeth" tended to undercut all religious authority and in many cases all forms of authority whatsoever. It was the children of the Great Awakening who first seriously questioned the authority and the power of the traditional ministers as well as the right and authority of the magistrates to lay down the conditions of religious expression through worship.

Professor Richard L. Bushman sketched out the consequences of Revivalism and its emphasis on the Spirit for the social order in Connecticut immediately prior to the Revolution.32 He quoted Jonathan Todd in Civil Rulers to the effect that Revivalists "would put down all rule, and all authority and power among men: pleading in defense of their licentious doctrine that Christ hath made all his people kings." And from Todd he also cited the Revivalists’ disrespect for leaders, both clerical and lay, who were not properly converted, how they regarded such "leaders and rulers of this people as unconverted and opposers of the work of God, and usurping an authority that did not belong to them."33 Bushman also pointed out that Samuel Johnson, the great Episcopalian leader in Connecticut, lumped together Revivalism and democracy in their disrespect for proper authority: "The prevalency of rigid enthusiastical conceited notions and practices in religion and republican mobbish principles and practices and policy, being most on a level and each thinking himself an able divine and statesman: hence perpetual feuds and factions in both.34

One cannot deny the widespread outbreak of schism, disagreement, and infighting within the various churches as a consequence of Revivalism. Ecclesiastical authorities were fought or ignored. In their anxiety to win full freedom for their own forms of worship without paying any tax to support religious forms which they did not believe, Revivalists waged a steady campaign against all forms of authority, both clerical and lay magistrate, in an effort to achieve full freedom for themselves. They did not hesitate to attack clerical leadership which appeared unconverted, too traditionally oriented, and a danger to the Revivalists’ conception of the Christian faith.

So churches were split into several camps -- old side, new side, old light, new light, moderates, and separatists. The fact that Revivalists were willing to attack traditional authority was in itself a demonstration that in the name of a so-called just cause traditional authority could be directly attacked. Revivalists did not hesitate to point out what they claimed to be inconsistency on the part of those Puritan descendants who fought to retain their liberty against the encroachment of possible bishops but refused to extend full liberty to their fellow believers who could no longer worship with them. When a movement has successfully attacked the authority of clergy and magistrates, they are prepared by habit to take on, if necessary, Crown and Parliament.

Revivalism, which emerged in part out of Puritanism, shared most of the central beliefs and symbols of Puritanism itself; however, the Great Awakening held and embodied these same beliefs in such a way that the believers tended to be highly critical of those same values and beliefs as embodied in the contemporary elite of the day. They saw the Puritans as unfaithful to their own basic beliefs and unable to carry them through to their logical consequences. Revivalists held what might be called a utopian view of the Puritan values and beliefs. Ultimately they replaced the traditional elite figures of authority, the clergy and traditional lay magistrates, with a new figure, a new man -- any man who had been reborn in the Spirit and was living out the converted life. Thus the layman emerged as the central figure in the Christian community, prepared to judge all people and authority in terms of the presence of the Spirit.


Revolution does not come easily to an essentially conservative society. Armed opposition to Crown and Parliament came as a surprise even to the colonial opposition leaders. The true Revolution first occurred in the hearts and minds of colonists as they found it increasingly difficult to square their perception of what it meant to be British subjects with what it was to be American. The source of the problem was neither simple nor immediate. The reasons for discontent were multiple and complex, and their origins were in the founding of the colonies, particularly New England.

Religion was one of the premier forces that brought the colonies into being and provided them with a set of symbols, beliefs, and values which undergirded their society. In at least two respects religion fed directly into the Revolution of heart and mind that preceded the rebellion. Puritanism created the center out of which New England society lived. The symbols, values, and beliefs that comprised that center contained two elements that were always to some degree peripheral, Crown and Parliament. As history unfolded, New Englanders gradually brought these peripheral elements under heavy attack from the center itself so that Crown and Parliament were viewed as detrimental to the central values of covenant, consent, the rule of fundamental law, the structure of New England’s organic society, and the liberties of its inhabitants. Thus Puritanism was a major force in engendering a revolution in attitude toward Crown and Parliament.

In a similar fashion, the Revivalism of the Great Awakening transformed certain of the central symbols of Puritanism and introduced new values and beliefs which questioned not only the authority and function of Crown and Parliament but also the traditional role and power of established clergy and magistrate alike. Revivalism swept the thirteen colonies and provided the first common indigenous movement that they shared, Through its belief in the new man and the new age it taught thousands to question the past and to be open to the future. Inherited forms of community and authority were broken and questioned. Under the free movement of the Spirit of God a leveling dimension was introduced into religious life wherein laity received a new status, and a critical resource became available to all truly converted believers. The daily lives of the colonists reflected a growing degree of frustration and dissatisfaction with the British empire. Revivalism provided one of the most powerful forces that helped to focus that discontent and offered a set of symbols and beliefs which were both a source of criticism and a vision of new possibilities. So Revivalism fed into the American Revolution.


End Notes:

1. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1965), p. 19.

2. John Wingate Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, or the Political Sermons of the Period of 1776 (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1860), p. iii.

3. Ibid., p. v.

4. Ibid., p. xx.

5. James Hastings Nichols, Democracy and the Churches (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951), p. 40.

6. Sidney E. Mead is one of the clearest expositors of the Enlightenment as a religious movement and its consequences for religion and politics in America. Note chapter two in this book, and also his The Nation With the Soul of a Church (New York: Harper and Row, 1975). See also Lester D. Joyce, Church and Clergy in the American Revolutions: A Study in Group Behaviour (New York: Exposition Press, 1966).

7. Selected Essays by Edward Shils (Chicago: Center for Social Organization Studies, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, 1970), pp. 1-14. Taken from Edward Shils, The Logic of Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961).

8. John Winthrop, "Christian Charity" in Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson, eds., The Puritans, A Source Book of Their Writings (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963), 1:197.

9. There is a basic disagreement on this point. Perry Miller argued that a covenant represented Puritan attempts to soften the irrational and arbitrary act of double predestination; see his "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity," Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1956), pp. 65, 69. Leonard J. Trinterud established the fact that covenant theology was operative before Calvin’s Institutes and that it was present in English divinity as early as William Tyndale, whom many regard as the first English Puritan; see Trinterud’s "The Origins of Puritanism," Church History 20 (1951): 37-57.

10. John Winthrop, "Christian Charity," p. 198.

11. Charles M. Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934) I:431-461.

12. Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1928), pp. 12-21.

13. John Barnard. The Throne Established by Righteousness (Boston, 1734) in A. W. Plumstead, The Wall and the Garden. Selected Massachusetts Election Sermons 1670 - 1755 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968, pp. 252-67. Ebenezer Pemberton, The Divine Origin and Dignity of Government Asserted (Boston, 1710), pp. 10, 17-18, 96-98. Baldwin, New England Clergy, pp. 32-46.

14. Robert E. Brown, Middle-Class Democracy and the Revolution, 1691-1780 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969). pp. 38-119. Stephen Foster, Their Solitary Way (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971) pp. 33-40.

15. Foster, Their Solitary Way, pp. 67-98, See also Samuel Willard, The Character of a Good Ruler . . . (Boston, 1694); Benjamin Wadsworth, Rulers Feeding and Guiding This People . . . (Boston, 1716).

16. Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, passim; Plumstead, The Wall and the Garden, passim.

17. Brown, Middle-Class Democracy.

18. Baldwin, New England Clergy, pp. 105-121.

19. Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptres Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 171-340. As a result of this definitive study one can see the growth of New England distrust of bishops to a fear of a Crown and Parliament bent on imposing an abominable system to an ideology of opposition.

20. Bernard Bailyn, "Central Themes of the Revolution" in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, Essays on the American Revolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973) pp. 15-18.

21. Ibid., p. 11. Bailyn’s use of C. Geertz’s concept of ideology as one means of explaining the process whereby ideas effect social change represents a major advance in the interpretation of the American Revolution. This is equally applicable to the role of Puritanism and the Great Awakening. "Formal discourse becomes politically powerful when it becomes ideology; when it articulates and fuses into effective formulations opinions and attitudes that are otherwise too scattered and vague to be acted upon; when it mobilizes a general mood, ‘a set of disconnected, unrealized private emotions,’ into ‘a public possession, a social fact’; when it crystallizes otherwise inchoate social and political discontent and thereby shapes what is otherwise instinctive and directs it to attainable goals, when it clarifies, symbolizes, and elevates to structured consciousness the mingled urges that stir within us. But its power is not autonomous. It can only formulate, reshape, and direct forward moods, attitudes, ideas, and aspirations that in some form, however crude or incomplete, already exist." Ibid., p. 11.

22. Two excellent essays that deal with this issue are in James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison, Religion in American Life (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961): by Perry Miller, "From Covenant to Revival," 1:322-360, and by H. Richard Niebuhr, "The Protestant Movement and Democracy in the United States." 1:26-50.

23. One of the first to note this important shift, though it was not documented thoroughly, was Herbert W. Schneider in a work too often overlooked, The Puritan Mind (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1930), pp. 106-110. This analysis was carried further by the late Joseph Haroutunian in Piety Versus Moralism.- The Passing of New England Theology (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1932), pp. xxi ff., 9-12.

24. Alan Heimart and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakenings Documents Illustrating the Crisis and its Consequences (New York and Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1967). The entire introduction is given to this analysis.

25. In the following section no attempt will be made to document from sources the four salient points from the Great Awakening as even a quick reading selected from the works of J. Edwards, G. Whitefield, G. Tennet, or any of the major figures of the Revival will exhibit these factors.

26. Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening; A History of the Revivial of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield (Boston: Tappen and Dennet, 1842), pp. 302-387. See also Edwin Gaustad, The Great Awakening (New York: Harper and Row, 1964),pp. 80-101.

27. Jonathan Edwards The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. C. C. Goen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), vol. 4, The Great Awakening, pp. 4-5, 114-115, 145-146, 562.

28. William W. Sweet, Revivalism in America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, l944), pp. 24-27.

29. The Works of President Edwards in Four Volumes (New York: Leavitt and Allen, 1857) 1:491-497

30. Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, "Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival," p. 353.

31. Ibid. p. 358.

32. Richard L. Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee: Churches and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).

33. Jonathan Todd, Civil Rulers the Ministers of God:. . . Election Day Sermon, May 11th, 1749 (New London, 1949), p. 2. Quoted in Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee, p.271.

34. Ibid., p.273.