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  Stories from the Revolution  
Image: Christ Church in Virginia was a branch of the Church of England, the colony's established religion prior to the Revolution. Religion and the American Revolution
by Jon Butler, Yale University

Religion was not a major cause of the American Revolution. But the Revolutionary struggle subtly interacted with religion, then quickly produced changes that transformed traditional European relations between government and religion and made America a beacon of religious freedom for people everywhere.

Historians once emphasized that religious revivals during the so-called "Great Awakening" of the 1740s helped usher in the Revolution. Pennsylvania's Gilbert Tennent and New England's James Davenport invited laypeople to reject established religious leaders, much like Revolutionaries questioned the monarchy. But Tennent repudiated his own early enthusiasms, courts in Hartford and Boston each declared Davenport "non compos mentis," and Revolutionaries themselves never used the revivals of the 1740s as models for Revolutionary protest in the 1760s and later.

The Declaration of Independence of July 1776 emphasized politics as the cause of the Revolution, especially disputes about representation, taxes, and the effects of British imperial policy in America. The Declaration referred to religion only generally--to "nature's God" and "Divine Providence"--and never mentioned Christ or cited Biblical texts to support independence.

Religious issues figured only occasionally in the protests leading to Revolution. Opposition to naming a bishop for the Church of England mixed with protests over the Stamp Act in 1763 and 1764, when New England Congregationalists and Baptists claimed that a Church of England bishop would threaten their religious liberty. But the claim was exaggerated, and the bishop never was appointed, although the issue lingered on up to 1776.

Some clergymen became active in anti-British protests, and the Massachusetts Loyalist, Peter Oliver, bitterly blamed New England's drive for independence on "black coated mobs." The New England clergymen who did support protest usually fulminated against the same British authorities and policies local politicians opposed. Liberals like Jonathan Mayhew supported the people's right to withdraw from contractual government, and conservatives like Joseph Emerson linked the Revolution to a revival of piety and even the apocalypse, the end of the world, and the second coming of Christ.

They were not alone. New York's Abraham Keteltas called the Revolution "the cause of heaven against hell," and the Presbyterian John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), attended the Continental Congress as a delegate. In Virginia, even a Church of England minister supported the Revolutionaries, shouting out "God preserve all the just rights and liberties of America" to a stunned congregation.

Yet most ministers waited out the Revolution and viewed it cautiously. As late as 1775 the Presbytery of Philadelphia assured followers that it was "well known . . . that we have not been instrumental in inflaming the minds of the people" and rejected "such insults as have been offered to the sovereign."

The Church of England, the second largest denomination in the colonies (behind New England's Congregationalists), suffered most disastrously during the Revolutionary war because the King headed the Church. More Loyalists belonged to the Church of England than were affiliated with any other social or religious group, and many Anglican ministers left the colonies. As a result of Revolutionary upheavals, most Anglican congregations lost members, while others disbanded.

As the Revolution ended, both states and the federal government stimulated changes that guaranteed freedom of worship and largely removed government from religious affairs. New York, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina abolished their colonial Church of England legal establishments. Virginia's Patrick Henry sponsored a measure that would have provided tax support and legal privileges to several Christian denominations, but George Washington worried it might "rankle, and perhaps convulse the state." Instead, Virginia approved Thomas Jefferson's bill "for Establishing Religious Freedom," which outlawed government aid to religion generally and protected freedom of worship for all religious groups in the state, not just for Christians.

In 1791 the first amendment to the new federal constitution opened with sixteen now-famous words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Congress spoke about religion generally, not just of churches. The first amendment recognized the wide range of religious belief and practice that typified America before and after the Revolution, and by prohibiting "an establishment of religion," it created a new model of relations between government and religion that gave individuals and voluntary groups, not government, responsibility for religious practice and belief among America's peoples.

To learn more:

Jon Butler, Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 2000)

Edwin S. Gaustad, Neither King nor Prelate: Religion and the New Nation, 1776-1826 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1993)

Nancy L. Rhoden, Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England Clergy during the American Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 1999)

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