As American citizens it is only just and fair to link the birth of our nation with the American Revolution. A nation of independence, with a balance of freedom and security. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so many other American Constitutional rights are taken for granted every day. For many of us, we were born into these rights and although we were most likely educated of the American Revolution at a young age, it is impossible for us to fully grasp the passion, struggles, losses, and effort of our ancestors to gain us these rights. The American Revolution has been studied by many from a political point of view. It is less common that the sociological causes and consequences of the Revolution are evaluated in-depth. The Pre-Revolution Colonial Society based many of their decisions on their religious beliefs. As a result, religion by large fueled the desire of the colonists to fight for their independence from the crown of England. Ironically, just as religion greatly effected the American Revolution, the Revolution greatly effected American religion and its freedom of.
The Church of England was established in six of the American colonies before the American Revolution broke out. In three other colonies, the Congregational Church was established by law and supported by general taxation. The Congregational Church was formed in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Although there were a considerable amount of Baptists and Episcopalians, the majority of the population belonged to the Congregational Church. (Jameson, 83) In all of the six colonies where the Church of England was established the majority of the population did not attend it. In Virginia about half of the population attended the Church of England, but in Maryland, New York, and New Jersey the dissenters out-weighed the churchmen. In Virginia the other half of the population was made up of Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Moravians.
In New York the Church of England was only established in a few locations outside of New York City. (Jameson, 83) In New Jersey The Church of England was never documented to have been established at all. (Jameson, 84) In North Carolina the Presbyterians and the Moravians were as large in number as the Anglicans, but the Quakers out populated everyone. There were six only Episcopal clergymen in the province, yet all of the population had a duty by law to contribute to the support of the English clergymen. (Jameson, 84) Pennsylvania and Rhode Island allowed complete religious freedom. Quakers, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Moravians, Dunkards, Mennonites, and Catholics all co-existed there without conflict. Baptists stood as the leading denomination in Rhode Island. (Jameson, 85)
Taking all thirteen colonies into consideration there amounted to a total of 3105 religious organizations. Of these 3105, over six hundred congregations were of the Congregationalist order, mostly in New England. Approximately five hundred and fifty were Presbyterians, five hundred Baptist, four hundred eighty Anglican, three hundred of the Society of Friends, a little over two hundred fifty German and Dutch Reformed, one hundred fifty Lutheran, and fifty Catholic. (Jameson, 85) Despite the many popular denominations formed, until 1766 no marriages were legal unless the ceremonies were preformed by Episcopal clergymen. Only to the Presbyterians and the Anglicans was this service extended to. (Jameson, 84) Another law permitted that only men of the Episcopal faith could teach school. (Jameson, 84) With all of the varieties of religious denominations formed, it is obvious that the shock of the American Revolution would loosen the bonds which bound unwilling people to any church established by law. In New England however, this was not expected to be such a problem because the majority of the people belonged to the established church. (Jameson, 85)
In Virginia a Declaration of Rights was written in 1776. The Declaration stated, “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other.” (Jameson, 86) This law lead to the equality of all denominations before the law, and the established church no longer had special privileges. It could only be expected that with this law passed people would fall away from the established church. (Jameson, 86) The British had plotted to impose Anglican bishops in the colonies, which aroused fear in the Americans that they would be persecuted for their religion convictions, and this further poisoned relations between Britain and the colonies. (RAR, 3)
Jonathan Mayhew, pastor of the West Church in Boston, saw the Church of England as a dangerous diabolical enemy of the New England way of life. However his Christian morals lead him to announce that “Christians were obliged to suffer under an oppressive ruler… resistance to a tyrant was a glorious Christian duty. In offering moral sanction for political and military resistance.” (RAR, 2) This passive stand Mayhew took was common among ministers during the Revolution. Some Quakers were convinced that despite their faith’s passive beliefs, they could take up arms against Britain. They called themselves Free Quakers, organizing themselves in Pennsylvania. (RAR, 4) The Presbyterians were the first denomination to become large in number and activity. Soon after, the Moravians, Baptists, and New Lights flourished, as well as the Germans (Lutheran or Reformed) from Pennsylvania. (Jameson, 87)
While considering the American Revolution in regards to religion, one can not disregard Thomas Paine’s publication Common Sense. Common Sense, published in 1776, became an over night sensation read allowed in taverns, private homes, and other public places. (SEC, 2)
A wide range of colonials, both literate and illiterate, felt compelled by Paine’s argument for breaking free from Britain death grip. What Paine wrote persuaded enough of the undecided men and women to empower the endorsement of the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776. (SEC, 2) Common Sense was such a success among the colonists because it was an enticing combination of politics and religion. Paine addressed the issue of supporting the cause from the stand point of feeling rather than thought. (SEC, 2) He argues that all kings are blasphemous who claim a sovereign authority over human beings that rightfully only belongs to God. Paine reiterated how the Jews of the Old Testament rejected monarchial government, comparing America with Jerusalem. He believed that American would be God’s new chosen people, if they followed the Jewish example. (SEC, 3)
Interestingly enough Thomas Paine was not an Orthodox Christian. He was born into Quakerism in England, but retreated from it years before writing Common Sense. In fact, prior to Common Sense Paine had been referred to as a “dirty little atheist” by those of the Protestant faith. (SEC, 3) He had proudly proclaimed his deistical beliefs in a pamphlet called The Age of Reason, which had prompted the Protestants to make such claims. Despite Paine’s insincerity in Common Sense, he wrote with his targeted audience in mind. By using religious appeals he gained a grasp on the readers, and evoked them to move into political action against Great Britain. (SEC, 3)
Many historians characterize late colonial America as a religious society, full of competing denominations, religious enthusiasm, and opposition to the established church. “That contentious spiritual climate, they believe, at once revived older traditions of Protestant dissent, particularly the opposition to the divine right of kings, and lent impetus to popular and individualistic styles of religiosity that defied the claims of the established authorities and venerable hierarchies – first in churches, and later, in the 1760s and 1770s, in imperial politics.” (SEC, 4)
Historians argue that the Great Awakening acted as a dress rehearsal for the American Revolution. In Alan Heimert’s Religion and The American Mind, he argues that those who supported the religious revival later become the most ardent rebels against Britain. Joseph Galloway, former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, believed that the American Revolution was a religious quarrel “caused by Presbyterians and Congregationalists whose ‘principles of religion and polity were equally averse to those of the established Church and Government.” (RAR, 1) Some Historians also believe that the Revolution was a result of the merging of the traditional Protestant radical and republicanism. (SEC, 4)
It is important to look at the psychological effect the desire for freedom had on the colonists. The colonists began to ask themselves, how can we who are so engaged in this great struggle for liberty hold men in the bondage of slavery? If they strongly believed in their religious scriptures that said men are created equal and free under the rule of God, how could they expect liberty from England if they would not return the same courtesy to the negro population? It was quite contradicting all together.
When the American Revolution began there were approximately a half of a million slaves in the thirteen colonies. The majority of the slaves were held in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maryland. Out of the approximate half of a million slaves, 475,000 lived in these colonies. (Jameson, 21) Pre-revolution, many hearts had already begun to turn away from the cruel bonds of slavery, based on their own morals, ethics, and humanitarian beliefs. For those who had accepted slavery as a part of the normal culture, their beliefs were tested as the passion for liberty increased throughout America.
Patrick Henry states it best in 1773, ” It is not amazing that at a time, when rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country above all others fond of liberty, that in such an age and in such a country we find men professing a religion the most humane, mild, gentle, and generous, adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive to liberty? … I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day, if not, let us transmit to our descendents, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot, and an abhorrence of slavery… It is a debt we owe to the purity of our religion, to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery.” (Jameson, 23)
Anti-slavery organizations began to form throughout the colonies, beginning on April 14, 1775 at the Sun Tavern in Philadelphia. This first organization was made primarily of the Society of Friends denomination, they called their organization The Society for the Relief of Free Negros Unlawfully Held in Bondage. They professed that “loosing the bonds of wickedness and setting the oppressed free, is evidently a duty incumbent on all professors of Christianity, but more especially at a time when justice, liberty, and the laws of the land are general topics among most ranks and stations of men.” (Jameson, 23) Previously in 1774 Rhode Island passed a law that all new slaves brought into the colony shall be set free. They believed that all who wish to enjoy personal freedom should be willing to extend personal liberty to others. Connecticut passed a similar law later on that year. Between 1776 and 1778 Delaware and Virginia prohibited importation of slaves. (Jameson, 25)
After America won its freedom, greater changes for the anti-slavery movement took place. The Superior Court of Massachusetts abolished slavery completely, stating it is a Constitutional right (“All men are born free and equal”).
In 1784 Connecticut and Rhode Island passed laws that gradually extinguished slavery. (Jameson, 25) The other states were reluctant to abolish slavery. However in Virginia in 1782 an act was passed that eventually lead to the freedom of more than ten thousand slaves. This act stated that any slave owner may manumit all of his slaves as long as their maintenance would not become a public problem. Within eight years this act lead to the freedom of twice as many slaves than the Massachusetts constitution had. (Jameson, 26) It can be concluded that the successful struggle for America’s independence affected the character of America society. The freeing of the nation from Britain inevitably lead to the freedom of the individual. America was enlightened, and eventually the race of the individual no longer mattered.
Aside from slavery, the religious effect of the American Revolution had many other sociological impacts on America. As mentioned previously it was inevitable that a Revolution against Great Britain would loosen the grip of the established church on the colonists. Of course the church of England suffered the deepest inflictions from the American Revolution, as the King of England was head of the church. (RAR, 5) With the established church aside, the Revolution had an immense effect on other denominations as well. Both positive and negative effects took place as a result of the war. Throughout the war many churches were destroyed. (RAR 5) During the war congregations broke up. Many ministers either fled to Britain or went off to war themselves, some even becoming colonels or generals of the Continental Army. (Jameson, 91) Post-war there became a great absence of ministers, who had been bound by oath to support the Kind of England. (RAR, 1) This was especially true for those of the Church of England and the Anglican Priests.
The Presbyterian faith also suffered greatly as a result of the war, as most of the Presbyterian clergy were Whigs (rebels to England). The British took any sign of the Presbyterian faith (i.e. large Bibles or a metrical version of the psalms of David) as evidence of the rebel cause. The Presbyterian church in Long Island’s steeple was sawed off by the British, and it was used as a prison and guardhouse until it was torn down. The Episcopalian faith suffered because the majority of its clergy was made up of Tories (loyalists to England). (Jameson, 92)
For the Anglican churches The Book of Common Prayer became a problem, as many of the prayers it consisted of were prayers for the monarch, and for the King of England. The Christ Church in Philadelphia decided to replace the prayers for the King with a prayer for Congress: “That is may please thee to endue the Congress of the United States and all others in Authority, legislative, executive, and judicial with grace, wisdom, and understanding, to execute Justice and maintain Truth.” (RAR, 6)
Almost immediately after the first legislature was formed under independence, requests for religious freedom came pouring in. One petition was signed by ten thousand men in favor of this request. In opposition there were petitions signed by members of the established church, along with a Methodist minister who represented three thousand Methodists. (Jameson, 88) These clergymen represent the public who by faith had pledged to the established church, and were unable to get past that.
The Virginian Presbyterians, the Baptists, Quakers, and Mennonites were in high favor for religious freedom. They argued with great passion for an act that would exempt dissenters of the established church from paying taxes to it. Each person would be given the choice of which denomination they would pay their taxes to. Patrick Henry and George Washington were in great favor if this, however the law was never passed. It did however become legal for ministers of other denominations to perform the ceremony of marriage. (Jameson, 89) Instead, Thomas Jefferson proposed an act for religious freedom in entirety: “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever; nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” (Jameson, 90) The act passed and lead to the complete separation of church from state. Some people found this difficult, but in the end this act presented the world with a nation built upon equality and religious freedom.
Religious freedom and equality had not then reached its full development, as three of the four New England states still used established Congregational churches. In order for a man to take office in Massachusetts or Maryland they had to declare they were of Christian faith. Similar rules applied to Pennsylvania and Delaware. (Jameson, 90) North Carolina, South Carolina, and New Jersey set laws that no person could serve office unless they were of the Protestant faith. These restrictions gradually disappeared over the years, and religious freedom eventually prevailed in its full color. The battle for religious freedom was won. (Jameson, 91)
When I look at America today in 2006, I see a lack of faith, a lack of the fear of God, and a strong force of anti-Christian behavior. This has been becoming more strongly evident with every generation, and every passing year. People now speak out that they are offended by the word “Christmas Tree”. They want God taken out of the pledge of allegiance. Society wishes to take prayer out of the classroom. In many schools children are no longer allowed to sing Christmas carols, yet Hanukah songs are welcomed. People are taught by the American culture to do the best they can for themselves, and to get ahead no matter what they have to do, morals aside. The morality of younger generations is gradually becoming obsolete. Children of young ages are participating in immoral activities that I did not even know existed when I was their age. Sin is accepted as normal behavior, in regards to many different areas. Pre-marital sex is embraced by all of the methods of birth control available to the unwed. Abortion is legal, which means killing is illegal, which is just absurd. Gay marriages have become legal in Massachusetts, which completely goes against the Word of God. I sometimes sit and ask myself what has happened to this world I live in? It is a world that I certainly am not of. It is crazy that America was once a nation where religious beliefs were so strong that they could fuel a Revolution, and today God is unwanted in it’s Pledge of Allegiance. It is interesting how our nations most influential writers like Thomas Paine believed America would become God’s new chosen land.
They looked at the triumph over Britain as a sign that God approved of America and when Jesus came down to reign on Earth for thousand years, it would be here it America. Yet today, I can not name many people, besides those at my church, who even know that Jesus is supposed to reign on the earth for a thousand years. It all started with wanting freedom from having to pay taxes to a denomination that taxpayers did not belong. How is it that society has carried this freedom so far from what our ancestors originally planned? There intent was not to create a country largely populated with agnostics, atheists, and those offended by the mention of God. Whether it is the lack of morals being taught to America’s younger generations, or the media corrupting minds, or the disgust brought on by the disobedience of religious figures (like the Catholic Priests molestation cases), there clearly is something fueling an anti-Christian movement in current American society. In a strong way I wish it was still the law that no man could serve office in Massachusetts unless he were of Christian faith. Then perhaps the acceptance of gay marriage wouldn’t be being taught in schools, but instead the Word of God. I wonder, where would our society be today if Thomas Jefferson and his deistical beliefs, had not passed the act for religious freedom?
As American citizens we link the birth of our nation with the American Revolution. We are a nation of independence, with a balance of freedom and security. The American Revolution has been studied by many from a political point of view, and here it has been looked at from a sociological standpoint. The Pre-Revolution Colonial Society based many of their decisions on their religious beliefs. As a result, religion by large fueled the desire of the colonists to fight for their independence from the crown of England. Ironically, just as religion greatly effected the American Revolution, the Revolution lead to many social movements that greatly effected American religion, its organization of, in some cases its lack there of, and of course its freedom of.
Jameson, J. Franklin. The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement.
Princeton University Press: 1926 (Jameson)
“Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” Religion and the American
Revolution (Religion and the Founding of the America Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition). July 2006. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/
“Religion and the American Revolution” The 17th and 18th Centuries. July 2006.
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