Sometimes we’re lucky to end up with a super brilliant friend who has the gift of making complex information accessible (sort of like Thomas Sowell). My brilliant friend is Wolf Howling, who has spent the last few years delving deeply into the American Revolution and its causes. He wrote here before about the Writs of Assistance that helped drive the Revolution. Today, he’s shared with me an essay he wrote about how inextricably intertwined religion and revolution were in 18th Century North America:
While the Writs of Assistance controversy may have lit the fuse for the Revolution in 1756, it was on January 30, 1750, that the soil in which the Revolution would grow was first tilled. On that day, a young Congregationalist minister, Jonathan Mayhew, but three years out of Harvard Divinity School, would take to the pulpit at Boston’s Old West Church and, for his sermon, read from a document he had labored upon for several months, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers.
In the sermon, Mayhew was responding to the fact that Anglican clergy in Britain were working to rehabilitate and glorify King Charles I, the tyrannical and hapless King who was beheaded on January 30, 1649 during England’s Civil War. Given that the English Civil War ended up pitting mostly Puritans (by 1750, known as Congregationalists) and Presbyterians (Dissenters, as they were then called collectively) on one side and against a largely Anglican force on the King’s side, it is not surprising that any attempt to rehabilitate Charles and demonize those who fought against him would draw a heated response from a Congregationalist Minister.
Little marked for whatever reason today – perhaps because of the left’s efforts to rewrite our Revolution as wholly secular – the sermon, which Mayhew had printed and distributed throughout the colonies and Britain, was at the time a very influential document. In his discourse, Rev. Mayhew explained that religion justified resisting a tyrant generally and Charles I specifically. Moreover, he argued that British liberties sprang forth from the natural rights God had bestowed on man, so that fighting to protect those rights from a sovereign’s encroachment was more than a secular option, it was a religious obligation. Mayhew, in one of his sermons, in 1750, also was the first on American soil to utter the words “no taxation without representation.”
In none of this was Rev. Mayhew breaking wholly new ground. He was largely planting on American soil seeds that had ripened in Britain during its two Revolutions in the 17th century (the Civil War, from 1642-1651, and the Glorious Revolution in 1688). Mayhew’s contribution was to combine those British secular rights with John Locke’s “natural rights” philosophy. Taking Locke’s philosophy to its logical conclusion, Rev. Mayhew explicitly portrayed British secular rights as protecting natural rights, and thus, divinely inspired. By 1775, those seeds had bloomed throughout the American colonies.
Religion was important throughout the colonies and, by 1775, a majority (58%) of the people inhabiting the colonies were of the English dissenting religions – Congregationalists (Puritans), Presbyterians and Baptists (i.e., the people who had fought against Charles I in the English Civil War). Another 10% were Quakers – also Dissenters, but militantly pacifistic. Only 16% of the people in the colonies held to the Anglican faith. The rest were largely a mix of German Lutherans, Catholics, Huguenots, Dutch Reformed, and Jewish.
When in 1775 Benjamin Franklin proposed as the motto on the Great Seal of our newly formed nation, Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God, he was giving a pithy summary of the beliefs Rev. Mayhew articulated on that January 30 day some 25 years earlier. By 1775, Mayhew’s beliefs were being preached from the majority of colonial pulpits. There is little doubt that religion was a driving force at the center of our Revolution.
As Horace Walpole quipped at the start of the Revolution, giving a tongue in cheek view of the American Rebellion as seen from London, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian minister.” In 1776, Ambrose Serle, Secretary to Lord Howe, expressed similar sentiments with a bit more venom:
[Dissenting Preachers – i.e., Congregationalists, Presbyterians, etc.], firebrands to a man, inculcate War, Bloodshed and Massacres, as though all these were the express Injunctions of Jesus Christ, and they call for Destruction upon the loyal Subjects and Army of their rightful Sovereign, like so many Arbiters of the Vengeance of Heaven.
In 1781, Peter Oliver, a high functionary in Massachusetts Bay Colony government for two decades before the Revolution, wrote a book, The Origin & Progress of the American Rebellion. In it, he prominently denounced Rev. Mayhew and the “Black Regiment” – i.e., the Congregationalist ministers of Boston who always dressed in black – for their pivotal role in inciting the Revolution.
It may not be amiss, now, to reconnoitre Mr. Qtis’s black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a Part in the Rebellion. The congregational persuasion of Religion might be properly termed the established Religion of the Massachusetts, as well as of some other of the New England Colonies; as the Laws were peculiarly adapted to secure ye Rights of this Sect; although all other Religions were tolerated, except the Romish. . . . [This Congregationalist clergy] distinguished theirselves in encouraging Seditions & Riots, until those lesser Offenses were absorbed in Rebellion.
Though Oliver talks only of his experiences in Massachusetts Bay Colony, the reality is that, by 1776, sermons and views such as those to which Mayhew gave voice sounded from pulpits throughout the colonies. For example, the following is a quote from a sermon delivered in 1776 by Presbyterian Minister Abraham Keteltas of New York
[This revolution] is a glorious cause : It is the cause of truth, against error and falsehood ; the cause of righteousness against iniquity ; the cause of the oppressed against the oppressor ; the cause of pure and undefiled religion, against bigotry, superstition, & human inventions. It is the cause of the reformation, against popery ; of liberty, against arbitrary power ; of benevolence, against barbarity, and of virtue against vice. It is the cause of justice and integrity, against bribery, venality, and corruption. In short, it is the cause of heaven against hell.
At the southern end of the colonies, Congregationalist minister Rev. William Tennent was famous for justifying rebellion and revolt in South Carolina. Indeed, during the Southern campaign of the Revolutionary War, Lord Cornwallis placed a £1,000 reward on the head of firebrand Baptist minister Richard Furman. In Virginia, there was Lutheran minister Peter Muhlenberg who, in the midst of a sermon on the eve of the war, famously threw off his clerical robes to reveal a military uniform. He then proceeded to enlist much of his congregation and would lead them throughout the war, all the way through the Battle of Yorktown. It should be noted that he was not unique among preachers of the time.
Having said all of that, a person’s religion was not a wholly accurate indicator of how his wartime allegiance. For instance, some back country Presbyterians, angry at political mistreatment by those in the developed coastal regions, did not support the revolution. Many a Scots Presbyterian forced to emigrate to this country after the end of the Jacobite Rebellion proved particularly – and wholly inexplicably — loyal to George III. Anglicans in the colonies were also quite divided. Many stayed true to their oath to support the King, while numerous others, particularly in Virginia through South Carolina, came down fully on the side of the Revolution.
The American Revolution was so completely intertwined both with religion and with England’s two Revolutions in the 17th century that none can be reasonably well understood without reference to the other. This post, broken into two parts, will look at religion’s role in the Revolutions. It will also examine two opposing theories about British rights and government: The first from Thomas Hobbes, who wrote Leviathan, which support of Charles I and Royal absolutism; the second from John Locke, who believed in natural rights and the obligation to revolt, theories that he espoused in Two Treatises of Government.
Although these clashing theories did not culminate in the American Revolution until the 1700s, to understand them, one has to look further back in British history. The real starting point for all of this is King Henry VIII and the English Reformation he led in 1529.
Before 1529, Henry VIII was an ardent and pious Catholic – so much so that Pope Leo Xth bestowed on Henry the Title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith). But when Henry’s first wife seemed incapable of producing a male heir and the Pope refused Henry’s request for an annulment, Henry laid waste to the Catholic Church in England. He outlawed Catholicism, restyled all the existing Catholic Churches as Anglican churches (including despoiling priceless treasures and buildings), and made of himself the Anglican Pope. All Anglican priests and bishops had to swear an oath of loyalty to England’s monarch in his role as Supreme Head of the Anglican Church as a condition of their ordination. And like Catholicism before it, Henry named Anglicanism the “state religion.”
To put this in perspective, if you were a member of a religion other than the “state religion” in whatever European country you lived, you would be under some sort of legal disability. At a minimum, all people had to pay taxes that went to support the state church, whether they were members or not. (An imperfect analogy is the way in which conservatives today are forced to fund radically Leftist public schools, colleges, and universities, which no longer teach but, instead, preach.) Beyond that, legal disability could take many forms. Often, members of the non-State Church were prohibited from government jobs or holding office. In some cases, marriages in other faiths were not given legal recognition, thus affecting the ability to inherit. Often, not only were classes of professions, such as the judiciary,
Beyond that minimum, this legal disability could take many forms. Often, members of the non-State Church were prohibited from government jobs or holding office. In some cases, the state refused to recognize marriages in other faiths, which affected the ability to inherit. In addition to being banned from government jobs or political office, entire professional classes, such as the judiciary, were foreclosed, as was education in the major universities. At worst, there were cases of outright butchery, as in the French persecution of its Huguenot population.
Significantly, it’s doubtful that, in 1529, Henry VIII was trying to lead a true Protestant Revolution in his country, one that would oust not only the Catholic church but the entire religious hierarchy, from priests on up. Rather, he appears to have set out to create a style of Catholicism that he could completely control, with an identical hierarchy, the only significant difference being that he, not the Pope, would head this new English faith.
Whatever his intentions, King Henry VIII’s English Reformation opened Pandora’s Box. In England, a plethora of different Protestant sects sprang up. In addition to Anglicanism, by 1625 there were at least 19 other Protestant sects in England. Scotland had its own Reformation in 1560, outlawing the Catholic Church and replacing it with Presbyterianism.
These non-Anglican sects in England, Scotland and, later, Northern Ireland, came to be known collectively as the Dissenting Religions. Each was opposed to government interference in religious practices and wanted to have some form of diffuse, local church governance. Additionally, except for the Scottish Presbyterians, the English government over the next many decades placed all of these dissenting faiths under varying degrees of legal discrimination. The one thing these Dissenters shared with Anglicans was a visceral hatred for Catholicism that was so intense that it is difficult to comprehend today (although another imperfect analogy might be to the Islamists’ hatred for other faiths, especially the Jews).
The British Isles were a religious time bomb when Charles I ascended to the British throne in 1625. The Presbyterians held complete sway in Scotland and the Puritans were a powerful force in England. Charles started off his reign by marrying a Catholic, earning the deep suspicion of many in the British Isles. Charles ran immediately into problems with Parliament, which limited his ability to raise revenue. The King attempted to get around this by such means as extorting forced loans and imposing “ship money” taxes that Parliament had not authorized — ineffective acts that led to a near uprising.
Charles convened a new Parliament in 1628 in an attempt to quell the rising furor. As a condition of giving Charles a revenue stream, Parliament required him to agree to sign a “Petition of Right,” a document addressing British rights, identifying Charles’s violation of those rights, and spelling out his agreement not to do so in the future. After being granted a revenue stream, Charles dissolved Parliament and, claiming divine right, chose to rule by fiat for the next 11 years, ignoring much of what he had agreed to in signing the Petition of Right.
What finally brought it all to a head was when Charles began to introduce “High Church” reforms into Anglicanism, bringing it closer to Catholicism. These reforms, as much ritual as doctrinal, earned intense criticism from Dissenters, which was brutally suppressed. When Charles I attempted to introduce the same reforms in Scotland in 1637, it set off riots that soon turned into a rebellion – the so-called Bishop’s War. The hapless Charles’s English army was defeated at every turn by the Scots who came to control Northern England.
Charles was forced to summon Parliament to raise funds to fight the war. But the members of Parliament, arriving in London in 1640, presented Charles with extensive demands for reform before they would agree to authorize any new income for the King. The theory that the King did not have a divine right to rule, but rather ruled by a social contract, fit perfectly into this atmosphere of intellectual and political turmoil. The King’s rule finally collapsed after he tried to have several members of Parliament arrested for treason.
In 1642, the bloody English Civil War broke out, a war that, as it spread across England, Scotland, Ireland, and even the American colonies, killed a quarter of a million people. The war broke upon largely sectarian lines, with Dissenters manning the ranks of the rebellious, pro-Parliament “round heads” under Oliver Cromwell’s command, while the King led the largely Anglican “royalists.” A number of soldiers who fought on behalf of Cromwell and Parliament were American colonial volunteers, largely from Massachusetts Bay and other of the northern colonies. Moreover, Royalist and Parliamentary supporters in the colonies also had several armed clashes.
Every movement has its philosophers. The most famous of the royalist philosphers, Thomas Hobbes, wrote in favor of royal absolutism in his magnum opus, Leviathan, a work still cited approvingly today. Hobbes ignored the question of whether a King had a divine right to rule. Instead, he postulated that there was a social contract between King and the governed, but that it was a very unusual contract, one that, to be effective, must give tyrannical power to the monarch.
Hobbes’s contract was, in essence, one that the sovereign could not breach. Hobbes argued that, given human nature, man, when in a “state of nature” (i.e., with no government), was a feral beast who would prey upon others. Only with autocratic rule could humans exist peacefully. Hobbes, likely an atheist, did not see man as having an inherent goodness, let alone natural rights. Many would argue that his view is cynical, dystopian and amoral, if not immoral. Not surprisingly, it found favor with Rousseau and a home in France in their revolution a century later.
Fortunately, it was not Hobbes who won out. Though the war would go on until 1651, Parliament — which was entirely a Roundhead redoubt — captured Charles and executed him in 1649 for the crime of “treason” and ruling as a “tyrant.” With him died absolute monarchy in Britain. The war’s end ushered in Puritan Rule under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. The Anglican Church was reformed with a Presbyterian governing system.
Cromwell too, although not a monarch, was a tyrant. Indeed his Puritan rule was so draconian that it lasted only a decade. It turned out that what the British wanted was a non-tyrannical monarchy. Thus, after Cromwell died in 1658, neither his son nor the military could hold the government together. By 1660, Parliament invited Charles’s son, another Charles known as Charles II, to return to England’s throne. He accepted, and the “Restoration” began.
Charles II’s reign reinvigorated Anglicanism. Although this Charles, as a condition for the crown, agreed not instigate large-scale reprisals against the Parliamentarians and other Dissenters, he and his Anglican supporters nevertheless had the Puritan leaders of the revolution declared guilty of treason. They also placed Puritans and other Dissenters under a legal disability, denying them the right to occupy public office.
Lastly, Charles and his Anglican ministers initiated plans that finally came to fruition in 1684 to revoke the Massachusetts Charter, along with the charters of several other northern colonies that Dissenters occupied. They then consolidated these colonies under the Dominion of New England. This ended the colonist’s right to self-rule and placed them under a royally appointed dictator.
Charles II’s acts flew in the face of Britain’s other great philosopher of the era, John Locke, whose most famous work, Two Treatises of Government, stood in stark contrast to Hobbes’ grimly autocratic views. While Locke agreed with Hobbes that the relationship between government and citizens was a social contract, his agreement ended there.
Locke argued that even in a state of nature, with no government, we are subject to natural law – the law of God – and we all understand that we should not harm others in their person or property. The only reason to create a government was for that institution to more perfectly and evenly guard the natural rights to life, freedom, and individually owned property. Such a government, regardless of form (monarchy or otherwise), must always rule with the consent of the governed. When Charles I’s government failed to abide by its overarching duty under this social contract, the governed had an inherent right (not a mere obligation) to rebel. Locke’s philosophy had a tremendous impact on colonial Enlightenment thinkers, from Jonathan Mayhew to Thomas Jefferson.
When Charles II died childless in 1685, his brother, the Catholic James II, ascended the throne. Initially, an England exhausted by religious wars, met his ascension with surprising equanimity. That soon changed, though, when James II took a series of steps both at odds with British rights and with the Anglican establishment (which had been somewhat “Presbyterian-ized” in the years since Charles I’s rule). He enlarged the English standing army and placed Roman Catholics in command. Later, he would use the military to disarm Protestants who might rebel against him. He also attempted to rule by fiat rather than through Parliament, doing away with the “penal laws” that placed non-Anglicans, and particularly Catholics, under legal disability. He also jailed without trial several Bishops who reacted critically to these changes.
All of that set the table for a second rebellion. The final straw came when James II’s Catholic wife gave birth to a son whom James baptized as a Catholic. With the likelihood of a Catholic succession now real, several British nobles invited Mary, James II’s Protestant daughter, and her equally Protestant husband, William of Orange, to lead a revolt in England. What followed was known as the Glorious Revolution. When William and Mary landed in Britain, James II’s army instantly dissolved and James himself fled Britain for France (stopping only long enough to toss the “Great Seal” of England into the Thames). Unlike the blood English Civil War only four decades earlier, virtually no one died in this Revolution.
As it had with Charles II, Parliament once again imposed conditions on the man they invited to wear the English crown. It drew up the third of England’s great Constitutional documents, the English Bill of Rights (the other two being the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Petition of Right of 1628), and required that both William and Mary sign it. They did so in 1689, and they abided by the document’s terms, thereby giving England a permanent Parliament and turning the country into the first Constitutional monarchy. Also in 1689, Parliament passed and William signed the Toleration Act, finally removing most legal disabilities from people who practiced the Dissenting religions (except for Catholics).
As soon as word of the Glorious Revolution arrived in Massachusetts, the colonists had their royal dictator arrested. The colonies reasserted their original Charters, all of which allowed for colonial legislative home rule as well as the right of taxation. William and Mary’s government ultimately agreed, although with the proviso that Massachusetts Bay Colony had to grant legal tolerance to all other religions – not including Catholics, of course.
In sum, religious turmoil in Britain, between a Catholic-oriented state church, on the one hand, and a multitude of dissenting Protestant churches, on the other hand, had a formative effect on the American colonies. Significantly, the English Bill of Rights, creating a constitutional monarchy, which ousted James II’s tyrannical rule from the colonies, meant that the colonies began the 18th century imbued with the Lockean belief that a social contract exists by which the government acts for the benefit of the government and not vice versa.
Lastly, no discussion of religion in the colonies during the 18th century can be complete without mentioning the First Great Awakening, a movement initiated in Britain about 1730 but that found its greatest reception on American soil. It was an ecumenical movement led by several Anglican preachers to revitalize the faith of Christians generally and to make the need for spiritual revelation a deeply felt personal need for each Christian. Moreover, the movement’s leaders emphasized the need for Christians to live their faith through good works and evangelicalism.
When George Whitfield, the Anglican minister who originated the awakening, came to the colonies, he drew crowds in the tens of thousands everywhere he went to speak – and he would, over the years, speak all across the length and breadth of the colonies. Ben Franklin, out of sheer curiosity with the size claimed about the crowds, went to hear Whitfield speak and came away so impressed with Whitfield’s message that he thereafter would regularly print Whitfield’s sermons in his popular publications.
The Awakening was not merely directed at the coastal regions, but it spread throughout the colonial backcountry. Of note, Whitfield and his acolytes also brought their evangelicalism to the slave populations, spreading Christianity among the slaves and arguing with slave holders that slaves must be treated fairly and educated enough so that they could read the Bible. (Ironically, while Whitfield preached that we are all equal in God’s eyes, he was himself a slave owner.) It wasn’t until after Whitfield’s death in 1770 that another major figure in the First Great Awakening, John Wesley, published his Thoughts Upon Slavery in 1773, coming out strongly in favor of abolition.
The result of the First Great Awakening in America was that, by 1760, religion had been revitalized across the colonies. It was fertile ground indeed for Reverend Mayhew’s message that American colonists had a religious obligation to defend their British rights. And with the first stirrings of the abolitionist movement amongst Wesley and the Quakers, for the first time in human history the moral problems of slavery came to the fore.
Summary and a Historical Note:
Religion played an important role in motivating the American Revolution in several different ways:
One, the simple reality is that most of the people in the colonies were from dissenting religions and were always on guard against any attempt by Britain to impose legal disabilities upon them in America.
Two, many of these people emigrated during a period when concern for historical British rights of personal liberty, due process of law, and limits on taxation were not only at their zenith, but were at central issue in two Revolutions. Three, the Congregationalists, early on, equated these specific British rights in Lockean fashion, as derived from God given natural rights and as a justification for rebellion. It was an idea that took hold on our shores and that had fully matured by 1775. And lastly, the First Great Awakening profoundly
Three, the Congregationalists, early on concluded that these Lockean rights were derived from God-given natural rights and, if denied, justified rebellion. It was an idea that took hold on our shores and that had fully matured by 1775.
Fourth, the First Great Awakening profoundly enhanced the already deeply religious paradigm in the colonies.
On the other side of the pond, it is indeed ironic that Parliament, in an effort to subjugate the American colonies some 70 years later, would begin to take positions that would inevitably lead to it to adopt the doctrine of Parliamentary Supremacy, which held that, while the Crown was bound by England’s three great Constitutional documents, but Parliament was not. This doctrine allowed Parliament to act with impunity against those rights that the American colonists had long considered God-given and inherent in all people. Britain, which had 100 years before done away with monarchal absolutism, now implemented parliamentary absolutism, which the English retain to this day.
Over the past century, the American Left has largely succeeded in using our judicial system to drive Christianity and the Judeo-Christian ethic from the public square. Moreover, since the 1950’s and LBJ, the Left has muzzled traditional churches, threatening them with severe tax consequences should they engage in overt politics. Look around and you can see the world they are creating in its stead, where
Look around and you can see the world the Left has created in place of the traditional American belief that God imbues all of us with natural rights that the government exists to protect. Instead, under Leftist rule, the government no longer protects these inherent rights. Instead, it exists to arbitrate “fairness” as the Left defines the term (and, as we are coming to see, that definition shifts constantly and in increasingly bizarre fashion). Unless the Left is stopped, we will see our nation change fundamentally and irrevocably.
End of Part I