Religion’s Role in Shaping the American Revolution


    About the author

    Dr. Edwin S. Gausted.
    Dr. Edwin S. Gaustad

    A leading authority on the history of American religion, Edwin S. Gaustad received his Ph.D. in History from Brown University in 1951 and was the retired Chairman of the Department of History, University of California, Riverside. Among his many writings are such standard works as The Great Awakening in New England (1957), an Historical Atlas of Religion in America (1962), and A Religious History of America (1966).


      In the unceasing and important debates about the social, political, economic and diplomatic causes of the American Revolution, it is easy to minimize or overlook the force of religion in shaping that 18th century cataclysm. The power of religion in this era was sometimes subtle and steady, at other times swift and turbulent. Because of much recent scholarship, religion’s several significant roles are now more difficult to ignore than was the case in earlier histories of the Revolution. Let me speak of three relationships or interactions in which religion is an active if not a determinative partner. These three areas are (1) religion and liberty, (2) religion and community, and (3) religion and virtue.

      1. Religion and liberty

      Religion and liberty is a theme so significant and (in the First Amendment) a consequence so momentous that it is difficult to imagine causal connections being ignored in the pre-Revolutionary era. Yet, that has been largely the case as British policy and practice have been scrutinized almost exclusively from the perspective of political tyranny or economic exploitation. Carl Bridenbaugh has convincingly shown how great was the colonial fear of an ecclesiastical tyranny engineered by the Church of England.1 The Anglican campaign to bring bishops to America intensified after the middle of the 18th century, reaching a crescendo in the 1760s and 70s. In those decades, of course, passions were inflamed on many counts, so much so that concerns about political liberty blended with and augmented concerns about religious liberty. Or to put it in the words of a group of Congregational delegates gathered at Yale in 1769 to express their dread of “the establishment of bishop’s courts among us”: “We have so long tasted the sweets of civil and religious liberty that we cannot be easily prevailed upon to submit to a yoke of bondage, which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear.”2 The pledge of resistance to “all tyrants civil or ecclesiastic” (William Livingston’s phrase) was directed specifically against the hierachy of the Church of England, a hierarchy which in the historical or personal; memory of so many North American colonists had never been reluctant to use political power against religious dissent. Bishops of that heritage and of that stripe simply must be kept out of America: must be kept out at all costs, even at the cost of war. Fear of specific ecclesiastical oppression furthered the case of revolution and of liberty in America.

      Fear of a general oppression by institutional religion at constituted a major element of revolutionary ideology. This position, known as deism, was held only by a few in the mid-l8thcentury but it was a powerful few. Most of the founding fathers, sympathetic with and influenced by the European Enlightenment, saw religion – natural religion, that is – as a potential good, but with equal clarity they saw the religions of existing institutions and religions based on a fixed scriptural revelation as meddlesome, wrong-headed and hopelessly obsolete. It was time for a change, change from the dogmatic to the rational, from the supernatural to nature, from priestcraft, pomp and power to humility, simplicity and truth. Reason in religion (and in all the affairs of mankind) would “overturn the empire of superstition and erect upon its ruins a fabric against which the storms of despotism may beat vain.”3 These words of Elihu Palmer, written two decades after the Revolution, echoed the sentiments of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin and others before and during that Revolution: religion must arise from reason and conviction, never from force and favor.

      Another and larger group of Americans argued for freedom from religious oppression and harassment (and by extension all oppression and all harassment) on the grounds that it violated their own consciences and their own private experience with God. The pietists – New Lights, Quakers, Baptists, Mennonites and others – in defending their own consciences believed that they were really defending the prerogatives and privileges of God. Men must not assume unto themselves, wrote William Penn, the authority, the infallibility, that is God’s alone. Men must not “entrench upon Divine Property to gratify particular interests in the world . . . no man is so accountable to his fellow creatures, as to be imposed upon, restrained, or persecuted for any matter of conscience whatsoever.”4 And in the Revolutionary era itself, the Baptist Isaac Backus of Massachusetts vowed that religious liberty had been bought too dearly to be exchanged for any considerations whatsoever. To nearby Bostonians, alarmed about a small tax on tea, Backus complained that an equal tax to support the established churches was required every year of all dissenters in the Bay Colony. He wrote in 1774:

      All America are alarmed at the tea tax; though, if they please, they can avoid it by not buying the tea; but we have no such liberty. We must either pay the little tax, or else your people appear even in this time of extremity, determined to lay the great one upon us. But these lines are to let you know, that we are determined not to pay either of them; not only upon your principles of not being taxed where we are not represented, but also because we dare not render that homage to any earthly power, which I and many of my bretheren are fully convinced belongs only to God. Here, therefore, we claim charter rights, liberty of conscience.5

      From several perspectives, therefore, religion contributed directly to a concern about liberty – liberty civil and ecclesiastical in the era of the American revolution. Some feared the power of the Church of England and its “imperious bishops”; some attacked the rigidities of a dogmatic revelation and the pretensions of an entrenched institution; others warned against all magistrates and authorities – foreign or domestic – who violated that private domain open only to God: the conscience of man. From a variety of motives and with differing ends in view, Calvinists, deists, pietists, found themselves sharing a rhetoric and an anxiety about all those cords constricting the liberties of all those Americans.

      2. Religion and community

      But religion in the mid-eighteenth century also had a vital role in creating or encouraging a sense of community. So divided and disputatious were the thirteen colonies that England had every right to believe that only she, the Mother Country, kept the seaboard settlements from tearing each other apart. One was a Virginian or a Pennsylvanian, a back country farmer or an urban merchant, an aristocrat or an indentured servant, with interests and loyalties severely limited, intensely parochial. England’s injuries and injustices could appear strangely remote when compared with noisier insults of the colony just next door. Communication among the colonies was infrequent if not totally absent; transportation on north-south roads was agonizingly slow, so much so that journeys down river from the fall line to the mouth were infinitely to be preferred to any other mode of travel. Charleston was closer to London than to Boston in almost every way except strict geography. No coastal canals, few port roads, no common newspaper, no common assembly, no free trade, no common faith, no common loyalty, and for a significant minority, not even a common heritage or a common language. What could bind this scattered, fractured two million souls into a national community, into a social whole?

      Well, several things did, as we well know. Economic grievances, political deprivations, ideological assertions certainly played their respective parts. But we must also give due notice to religion’s contribution to that sense of community necessary to wage and to win a war. How did religion help these colonists of English North America rise above endless border disputes, conflicts of class and of race, interests of creed and of commerce? In two ways, particularly, religion in the generation before the Revolution prepared a diverse people to become a nation.

      First, that wave of religious enthusiasm known as the Great Awakening transcended denominational barriers, ignored colonial boundaries, melted divisions between rich and poor, young and old, male and female, black and white. Here, dramatically, suddenly, inexplicably was a popular religious movement, an outbreak of fervent piety, that brought people out of their private retreats, off their farms and businesses, out of their studies and their sheltered officialdoms to hear and to rejoice in a gospel open to all. In the words of a later hymn, “Whosoever will may come.” And for awhile in the 1740s and 1750s it seemed that nearly everyone did come, finding themselves part of a community larger, closer than any they had previously known in America. Viewed exclusively as a social movement, this 18th century revivalism related Americans to each other in a way that enabled them to think in communal, in cooperative terms. Viewed also as a religious movement, it gave to the colonists a “profoundly shared belief in a transcendent power… a belief in the existence of certain absolute, eternal, universal laws against which Americans must measure the relative laws of their manmade culture…This provided Americans with the courage to change what must be changed…”6

      These words of William McLoughlin’s suggest religion’s second contribution to community in the pre-Revolutionary era: the creation of a common destiny and hope. The 18th century revivalism travelled on the wings of a post-millennial optimism, a confidence that God has great things in store for the world in general, for America in particular. “At the heart of the evangelical ethic was the hope of human betterment, the vision of a great community in which men, instinctively as it were, would seek the general welfare.”7 Americans could become part of God’s great historical plan, and those newly awakened to biblical affirmations, newly cleansed by God’s grace, felt every confidence that they were already partners in that grand scheme. The courage to cast off the overlordship of a sovereign and powerful England came more readily as one found refuge in an even more powerful lordship. Christianity promised a Kingdom of God: why not now? why not here?

      3. Religion and virtue

      The third and final impact of religion relates to a deep concern about the state of civilization, the growth of vice, the absence of virtue. Religion championed liberty, it promoted community, but it also underlay and enforced morality. And morality was the cement of civilization. To a remarkable degree, the 18th century – that so-called age of reason – was obsessed with the question of virtue: the virtue of ancient Greece and Rome and what happened to it; the virtue of enlightened, rational, republic-loving men – and how best to institutionalize it; the virtue of the Christian religion – and how to be faithful to it. From the American side, there was a tendency in the 18th century to see England as a nation rapidly losing its virtue, and to see, conversely, the New World as the rising hope of a finer moral model. But, strangely, there were those in England also who, seeing decay and dissolution all about them, warned that this sinfulness of the fathers would wreak great havoc upon the children of coming generations.8

      On the American side, as several historians have noted, the colonists were preoccupied in the 18th century with the intimate connections between virtue and government, virtue and social cohesion, virtue and the economic order, virtue and the tides of history. E. S. Morgan, for example, has analyzed the relationship between the Puritan ethic and the American Revolution. British acts of oppression, British measures of increased taxation might have the unintended effect of causing Americans to be more industrious, more frugal, more disciplined. Americans could respond to British tyranny by agreeing not to import, not to consume – not so much to damage England’s treasury as to strengthen America’s integrity. The Revolutionary generation saw Americans being drawn into luxury and vice, dissipation and corruption – in foolish imitation of their English “betters.” Further American deterioration was forestalled by – ironically – the British parliament itself. “Luxury,” the Virginia Gazette reported in 1769, “has taken deep root among us, and to cure a people of luxury were an Herculian task indeed; what perhaps no power on earth but a British Parliament, in the very method they are taking with us, could possibly execute.”9 Out of luxury comes immorality and infidelity, and out of these comes loss of all liberty. A writer to the Newport Mercury in 1774 declared: “We may talk and boast of liberty; but after all, the industrious and frugal only will be free…”10 To preserve virtue was to preserve liberty, and the temptations to abandon virtue were many. To some it appeared that Britain was out deliberately to debauch and despoil America, to “Toss to them all the Toies and Baubles that genius can invent to weaken their Minds, fill them with Pride and Vanity, and beget in them all possible Extravagance in Dress and Living, that they may be kept poor and made wretched…” Yet, to others, Britain’s very effort to chastise and rebuke the colonists brought out the best in a people “not yet debauched by wealth, luxury, venality and corruption.”11

      The “central mandates” of colonial behavior, Jack P. Greene notes, were virtue and independence. “In the conventional usage of the day, virtue meant the voluntary observance of the recognized standards of right conduct, while independence implied exemption from all external control or support…From the very first days of settlement, the challenges of the American environment had put a high value upon initiative and self-control. Wilderness conditions…had early forced men to rely heavily upon their own resources. Mastery of environment, in other words, had to an unusual degree required mastery of self, and full mastery of self in turn required that a man love both virtue – freedom from one’s own passions – and independence – freedom from the passions and/or control of others.”12

      In the face of Britain’s growing vice as well as her efforts to cramp American independence, a revolution would also be, for Americans, a moral regeneration. The resulting republic would rule not by fear or force, but by the conscientious scruple and voluntary obedience of all the people. A popular government, that is, a government of the people, cannot exist without virtue, without that self-restraint, that self-sacrifice, that internal principle of obedience. The ruler of a republic is to be obeyed “more by the virtue of the people, than by the terror of his power.”13 And a revolution, which though bringing deprivation and hardship, would bring also a new wholesomeness and vitality to American life. Calamity, John Adams wrote to Abigail, “will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy us.”14 Luxury, self- indulgence, and immorality were vices inimical to republican strength; they were also contrary to Christian ethical perceptions. “. . whether we consider the great principles of God’s moral government,” said Princeton’s John Witherspoon, “or the operation and influence of natural causes,” it is the character of a people that deterrnines their resolve and ability to be a free nation. “Religion and republicanism,” as Gordon S. Wood notes, “would work hand in hand to create frugality, honesty, self-denial and benevolence among the people” to create, in short, what Samuel Adams called “a Christian Sparta.”15

      A summation by John Adams represents a broad vein of American opinion that England had lost her virtue, and therewith her right to rule, while America in contrast could seize the moment to repent, reform and revolt – creating thereby a new, a cleansed, an enduring Republic.

      When luxury, effeminacy, and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch in England, when both electors and elected are become one mass of corruption; when the nation is oppressed to death with debts and taxes, owing to their own extravagance and want of wisdom, what would be your condition under such an absolute subjection to parliament?…[Corruption was now so deeply implanted in England] as to be incurable…[England needed revenue from America, not because of legitimate expenses incurred in the late war with France, but because of waste and political depravity]. Corruption, like a cancer…eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallowing up the whole society.16

      The catalogue of the sins of the fathers was a damaging and damning one. And those sins were visited upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:7). But the effect of that biblical view of history – as well as of the proverb, “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” – would be fully felt only in England itself. The sins of the English father turned to blessing for American children.

      So what of Great Britain who lost those colonies and more – did Englishmen also see history through these biblical glasses? Did they see their own land as falling into vice and in danger of collapse, while far off colonials would obey the demands of virtue and therefore prosper? The answer is that a surprising number agreed with, even anticipated, the American view in this matter. They also saw history in Deuteronomic terms: Great Britain was falling away from God, away from virtue; God, therefore, would punish – not so much through a special visitation of wrath, but through the natural operation of divine law. The fathers had sown the wind; the children would reap the whirlwind.

      Many Englishmen, especially those whom Caroline Robbins has designated the commonwealth men, saw government as a delicate balance of powers exercised in several ways by persons chosen in differing manners. These theorists also saw human nature as delicately posed between virtue and vice, with government of necessity so constructed, so ordered as to guard against man’s vice and encourage his virtue. The two great temptations in human society were power and luxury. For the first, one must set up barriers, constitutional safeguards, that would keep any one man or any group of men from exercising unregulated, unlimited power. The radical Whigs, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, through the medium of “Cato’s Letters” printed weekly in The London Journal, wrote in 1721:

      Considering what sort of a Creature Man is, it is scarce possible to put him under too many restraints, when he is possessed of great Power: He may possibly use it well; but they act most prudently, who, supposing that he would use it ill, inclose him within certain Bounds, and make it terrible to him to exceed them.

      Men that are above all Fear, soon grow above all Shame…

      Power, without Controul, appertains to God alone; and no Man ought to be trusted with what no Man is equal to. In Truth there are so many Passions, and Inconsistencies, and so much Selfishness, belonging to human Nature, that we can scarce be too much upon our Guard against each other. The only Security which we can have that Men will be honest, is to make it their Interest to be honest; and the best Defence which we can have against their being Knaves, is to make it terrible to them to be Knaves.17

      With respect to the corrupting force of luxury, the same Englishmen wrote (1720) that the example of Rome’s tragic fall should be lesson enough to all of Great Britain. After describing the glory that was Rome, the authors ask:

      But what did all this Profusion and Magnificence produce? Pleasure succeeded in the room of Temperance, Idleness took the place of the love of Business, and private Regards extinguished that Love of Liberty, that Zeal and Warmth, which their Ancestors had shown for the Interest of the Publick; Luxury and Pride became fashionable; all Ranks and orders of Men tried to outvie one another in Expence and Pomp;…and, having before sold everything else, at last sold their Country…Thus ended the greatest, the noblest State that ever adorned the wordly Theatre, that ever the Sun saw…and every other Nation must run the same Fortune, expect the same fatal Catastrophe, who suffer themselves to be debauched with the same Vices, and are actuated by the same Principles and Passions.18

      Such men sought to warn England of woes to come, sought to reform the sins of the fathers so that their children need not suffer, so that the Empire need not wane. In a broad context of ideas that called for a balance of powers, a rule of law, the consent of the governed, freedom of thought and of religion, these and other commonwealth men warned against those vices that first destroy men, then civilization. They would teach men how to live and nations how to preserve virtue.

      In the 1720’s when Trenchard and Gordon were writing – two full generations before Americans won their War of Independence – another writer, philosopher and churchman, was calling for England’s reform even as he was envisioning America’s rise. This man, George Berkeley, famous for his philosophical idealism, put youthful achievements behind him as he saw a world going awry and wondered how to set it right. In 1720 Berkeley returned from a four-year tour of the European continent to find an England plunged into debt, torn by stock swindles and dishonesty in high places, and most of all oblivious to the absolute decline in religion and morals. The next year, 1721, Berkeley published An Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain. Having just gone through the wild excesses of what was called the South Sea Bubble – Britain’s own Watergate – the country, said Berkeley, could be the better for it if it really learned its lesson. If Britain in fact returned from selfishness, luxury seeking, money grubbing, and dishonest manipulation, to attain integrity once more, “if it should put religion and virtue in countenance, restore a sense of public spirit, and convince men it is a dangerous folly to pursue private aims in opposition to the good of their country”: if Britain did all that, then, perhaps, some hope remained.

      But so flagrant were the sins of the fathers that Berkeley was not too sanguine. It is a degenerate age, he wrote, and so steeped in sin were most Englishmen that Berkeley could only conclude:

      We have long been preparing for some great catastrophe. Vice and villany have by degrees grown reputable among us; our infidels have passed for fine gentlemen, and our venal traitors for men of sense, who knew the world. We have made a jest of public spirit, and cancelled all respect for whatever our laws and religion repute sacred. The old English modesty is quite worn off, and instead of blushing for our crimes we are ashamed only of piety and virtue. In short, other nations have been wicked, but we are the first who have been wicked upon principle.19

      In a spasm of gloom, Berkeley added, “it is to be feared the final period of our State approaches.” While the darkness of that mood passed, what remained was Berkeley’s search for some other land where religion and morality would be honored, where virtue would be secure.

      Four years after this Essay regarding Britain’s ruin, Berkeley published A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches in Our Foreign Plantations. This was Berkeley’s dream of creating a new home for Christian learning to serve and to save all North America. Planning originally for Bermuda, Berkeley believed one could avoid the vice and luxury infecting England by migrating to an environment where frugality, industry, learning and a missionary spirit would prevail. Bermuda was ideal not because it was rich, but because it was poor; not because it was a bustling center of commerce and trade but because it was “a Corner from whence Avarice and Luxury are excluded…” In such a quiet corner inhabited by “a contented, plain, innocent Sort of People,” it would be possible, Berkeley believed, to erect “a Fountain, or Reservoir, of Learning and Religion.” From this source, rivulets would flow “streaming through all Parts of America…purging away the ill Manners and Irreligion of our Colonies, as well as the Blindness and Barbarity of the Nations round them…”20

      What happened to Berkeley’s scheme, as indeed what happened to his westward course of Empire, is another story. The point is that Britons as early as the 1720’s already despaired of their own nation’s capacity to escape ruin or to recover virtue. Hope lay across the seas where luxury and vice had not yet worked their evil ways. Berkeley’s dream for Bermuda, and his later sojourn in Rhode Island, found great encouragement in the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge founded in 1699 by Thomas Bray and long guided by a Harvard graduate, Henry Newman. In 1732, Newman in London wrote to a friend that England seemed to be yielding more and more to a depravity in manners, government and religion. The colonies abroad made England ever more wealthy, and thereby ever less virtuous. If this prostitution of a once noble nation continues, then, writes Newman, “it will be happy for her patriots that there are plantations to retire to, where they may mend the Faults that have undone their Mother Country, and unite in the advancement of Religion and Virtue in America, when they can no longer find protection in Europe.”21

      This anxiety about religion and virtue helped prepare Englishmen no less than Americans for that revolution which, as Adams wrote Jefferson, occurred first in the minds of the people. For it was in that revolution of heart and mind, years before Lexington or Concord or Bunker Hill, that religion played its powerful, multifaceted role.


      1. Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre & Sceptre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).
      2. Ibid., p. 288, et passim.
      3. Elihu Palmer, Principles of Nature (New York, 1802), p. 321.
      4. William Penn, The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience (1670), in his Select Works (London: James Phillips, 1782), Vol. III, 1ff.
      5. Alvah Hovey, A Memoir of the Life and Times of the Rev. Isaac Backus (Boston: Gould & Lincoln, 1859) p.210.
      6. William G. McLoughlin in E. S. Gaustad, ed., The Rise of Adventism (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 126. See also his essay on “The Role of Religion in the Revolution,” in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, Essays on the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), pp. 197-255.
      7. Alan Heimert and Perry Miller, The Great Awakening (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), p. lviii.
      8. William and Mary Quarterly, XXIV:l (January, 1967), 3-43.
      9. Quoted Ibid, p.9.
      10. Quoted Ibid, p.10.
      11. Quoted Ibid, p.17.
      12. Jack P. Greene, “An Uneasy Connection,” in Kurtz and Hutson, Essays on the American Revolution, pp. 59-60.
      13. Quoted in Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969) p. 68.
      14. Quoted Ibid, p.117.
      15. Ibid, p. 118.
      16. Quoted in H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), pp. 96-97; Novanglus (1774).
      17. David L. Jacobsen, ed., The English Libertarian Heritage (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), pp.80,87.
      18. Trenchard and Gordon, Ibid., p.59.
      19. A. A. Luce andT. E. Jessop, Works ofGeorge Berkeley (London: Thomas Nelson, 1953), VI, 84.
      20. Ibid, VII, 352-3, 358.
      21. SPCK Society Letters, vol. 25 (Sept 11, 1733); letter dated September 21, 1732 and addressed to Rowland Colton, Esq. at Etwall, Derbyshire.

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