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


Almost every conceivable facet and dimension of early American life has been analyzed, studied, celebrated, and praised in recent years. Attention has been paid to the art, music, literature, furniture, and fine arts as well as the cultural and social mores of the Revolutionary epoch. A serious effort has been made to reappraise both the causes and the nature of the American Revolution and the consequent development of the American Constitution. Revisionists have long been at work in an attempt to view the Revolutionary events from other than the traditional perspectives. This is a salutary exercise. Fundamental questions must be asked anew by each generation as it seeks to appropriate and to understand its past. History is constantly in the process of being rewritten.

Religion in the Revolutionary epoch of American life has also received its share of current attention. No longer is it fashionable or possible to assume that there was a direct carry-over from the religious beliefs and practices in the colonies to the growth of the Revolutionary spirit and the carrying through of the Revolution itself. Books and articles are still written about the major contributions of particular religious figures such as Jonathan Mayhew, the great Boston Puritan preacher, or the overall contributions of each of the particular denominations from the Baptists to the Roman Catholics. The exercise of praise, however, hardly contributes to a profounder understanding of the causes and nature of the American Revolution. Religion is one of those forces in American life which people assume was creatively related to the founding days of the Republic. Americans have always held an unusually high degree of respect for religion and its role in their culture. Frequently they have overassessed its creative contributions. In the recent studies, however, a more balanced and hence truer picture of the relationship of religion to the American Revolution has emerged.

When three professors are asked to lecture on three different dimensions of the same subject, one is never certain what might emerge. The most careful planning could go astray. With a subject as vast as the American Revolution, totally diverse essays could be produced by different authors treating the same theme. If the diversity proved to be complementary, or if together the essays conveyed a fuller picture of the same reality, they would represent a degree of cohesiveness. On the other hand, the diversity might result in three totally unrelated, independent, and disconnected essays; in such a case, the three ought not to be put together in a single volume.

Though the three essays prepared for the Armstrong Lectures in religion at Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, Michigan dealt with different aspects or dimensions of the relation of religion to the American Revolution, those dimensions were carefully chosen so that whatever diversity of approach prevailed there would nevertheless be a certain degree of cohesiveness. It is interesting to note how many things are held in common by the three essayists.

The three authors, each from his own perspective, assume that there was a close interrelationship between religion and the American Revolution. Each of the three also assumes that this relationship was complex, not simple. Indeed, complexity might be called the key to all three essays: it is in the nature of that complexity that each of the authors grounds the relationship between religion and the American Revolution. Furthermore, all three agree that the Revolution first occurs in the attitudes, mind, or spirit of the American people prior to its outbreak in actual rebellion and warfare; two explicitly quote John Adams’s oft-quoted thoughts on that problem. All three rehearse certain of the basic religious concepts such as covenant, consent, fundamental law, and liberty as these related to the emergence and the carrying through of the Revolution. Thus, there is an underlying unity that ties together the three essays even though each deals in its own way with a particular aspect of the problem.

The first essay on "Puritanism, Revivalism, and the American Revolution" seeks to demonstrate the way in which religion helped to produce the Revolutionary spirit and attitude on the part of the American colonists. New England Puritan society was built upon and grew out of a center composed of certain basic religious symbols, beliefs, and attitudes. From the very beginning this center had within it and playing over against it certain other peripheral symbols and beliefs. As New England history unfolded, the central religious symbols brought the peripheral attitudes under attack until they were no longer regarded as tolerable within New England society. This was a basic factor that helped to bring about the revolution in the New England attitude toward England. Furthermore, the Great Awakening functioned in such a way that it not only brought the peripheral symbols of Crown and Parliament under attack but also objected to the very center of Puritan symbols and values with considerable dissatisfaction and discontent. This also led to the creation of a new revolutionary ideology. Hence the first essay argues for a creative relationship between religion and the American Revolution and views that interrelationship as something both subtle and complex.

The second essay on "Christendom, Enlightenment, and Revolution" rejects the over-simple idea that the Puritans alone or primarily were responsible for the coming of the American Revolution and for the shaping of the Revolutionary epoch in American culture. It was not the religion of American denominations which basically set and legitimated the norms for the American Revolution; rather it was the symbols, concepts, and beliefs of the Enlightenment which provided the legitimation both for the basic Revolutionary ideas and particularly for those ideas which underlay the American Constitution and subsequent American history. Professor Mead is one of a number of distinguished historians who see the Enlightenment not simply as a philosophical movement but primarily as a religious movement. In his judgment it is the Enlightenment as a religious movement which underlies the basic symbols, beliefs, and attitudes of the American Republic, and it is this form of religion that was central to the Revolution and to the shaping of the American nation. Denominational religion, including Puritanism and Revivalism, never clearly understood the implications of the Enlightenment for the founding or the future of the American nation. Thus, the relationship between religion and the American Revolution is located not where historians normally have placed it but at another point.

The third essay on "The Revolution and the Civil Religion" shares the belief that religion and the American Revolution were intimately related; however, it disagrees somewhat with the second essay in arguing that from the very beginning of the American Revolution and the constitutional period of American history there were two great structures of interpretation which underlay both the American Revolution and civil religion. For Professor Bellah, the two are, in a sense, identical. They emerged out of the Christian denominational-biblical tradition on the one hand and Enlightenment utilitarianism on the other hand. These two basic motifs have been intermingled from the very beginning. Thus the relation between religion and the American Revolution was complex and dependent upon several traditions. The essay traces out a movement from the Declaration of Independence with its primary emphasis on virtue and subsidiary concern for self-interest to the Constitution with its basic concern for self-interest. In this chapter, one has a fuller and more subtle exposition of the relationship between religion, civil religion, and the American Revolution.

Taken together, the three essays represent a coordinated and unified effort to gain a new perspective on the way that religion and the American Revolution were interrelated. The relationship is to be seen as complex, yet clear. From this point of view one can proceed to review the wide variety of ways in which religion and American culture have been constantly interrelated throughout American history.