Religion and the American Revolution

by Jerald C. Brauer (ed.)

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

Originally published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, in 1976. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


(ENTIRE BOOK) An examination of the two primary traditions — denominational biblical tradition and enlightenment utilitarianism — that worked together to contribute to the American Revolution and to create the civil religion which marks American culture to this day. The three chapters are by Brauer, Sidney Mead and Robert Bellah.


  • Preface These three essays represent a coordinated and unified effort to gain a new perspective on the way that religion and the American Revolution were interrelated.
  • Chapter 1: Puritanism, Revivalism, and the Revolution by Jerald C. Brauer Brauer examines 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 Revolution. Puritanism created the center out of which New England society live. Then the Great Awakening not only creatted a belief in the new man which tended to question traditional values; it also created an image of a new age. It taught thousands to question the past and to be open to the future. It transformed some 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.
  • Chapter 2: Christendom, Enlightenment, and the Revolution, by Sidney E. Mead When the American Revolution was completed, not only had the Established Church of England been rejected, but, more important, the very idea of Establishment had been discarded in principle by the new Constitution. For the first time in Christendom there was legal religious freedom as distinct from toleration in a commonwealth. A church became a voluntary association, in competition with perhaps hundreds of others. This meant that even while ostensibly defending the authority of the Bible against skeptics, infidels, and atheists, each sect was actually contending against all other Christian groups. Many theologians of the sects continued to talk as if they were the exponents of the normative culture system of the commonwealth, while actually they represented only that of, at best Christianity in general, at worst their exclusive sect. Meantime the intellectuals of the commonwealth, e.g., Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, and even Eisenhower, naturally found no real religious home in any existing sect. And many sensitive persons squirmed to have the best of both worlds, usually in the end by giving each a separate but equal compartment in their minds.
  • Chapter 3: The Revolution and the Civil Religion by Robert N. Bellah It is the essence of general civil religion that it is religion in general, If we ask what virtue and corruption meant to the founding fathers the answer is clear. Franklin described it as "zeal for the public good." Jefferson described virtue as "a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct." Corruption is the opposite of "zeal for the public good." It is exclusive concern for one’s own good. For Jefferson, corruption consists in forgetting oneself "in the sole faculty of making money." But all religious traditions in America were called in question in the 1960's. The legitimacy and authority of all our institutions, political, economic, educational, even familial, as well as religious, has now never been shakier. We are not only in an economic depression but in a political and religious one as well.