The Origins of the American Revolution: Religion

Yesterday, Tom Cutterham kicked off our week-long roundtable on the Origins of the American Revolution with a discussion of Nick Bunker’s recent book, An Empire on the Edge. Today, we continue with a discussion of religion and the American Revolution.

George Whitefield Preaching in Philadelphia

George Whitefield Preaching in Philadelphia

In 1781, as the American Revolution raged, a Connecticut magazine reported that a spectral George Whitefield (1714-1770) had appeared over a regiment of British troops, including Benedict Arnold. So frightened were these British regulars, the magazine claimed, that they burned their British finery. Those familiar with the consumer politics of the Revolutionary period will recognize the political statement implicit in the burning of British goods. With refinement, British clothing, textiles, and other goods had become attractive to well-heeled colonists, who emulated the latest London fashions. As T.H. Breen and others have noted, the wearing of British fashions became problematic during the Revolution. Textiles and other factories began to crop up in the northeast, the start of an American industry.[1]

A spectral Whitefield, scaring the pants off of a regiment of British troops merged religious and political rhetoric into a single image, implying a moral cause for those fighting for independence. Perhaps more interestingly in this case, as a leader of a unit of Continental Troops, Benedict Arnold had visited Whitefield, taking souvenirs (talismans?) from the Grant Itinerant’s coffin. The second implication to this report was that not only had Arnold chosen the wrong side, he had also chosen against the righteous side.

The Apotheosis of George Washington, by Constantino Brumidi (1865).

The Apotheosis of George Washington, by Constantino Brumidi (1865).

The precise degree to which religion influenced the American Revolution has played out repeatedly in the historiography. Historians like Bernard Bailyn have primarily ascribed a political underpinning to the origins of the Revolution, although Bailyn notes that religious rhetoric crept into the Revolutionary cause. Historians of religion, including Carla Gardina Pestana, Patricia Bonomi, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and Frank Lambert have described the evolution of a denominationally diverse, if predominately Protestant religious culture from the colonial period onward that, included a significant number of people who were suspicious of an established church, as well as undue influence from a bishop from overseas.[2] My goal here is not to settle this debate in a short blog post, but rather to describe how I approach these questions when I teach Revolutionary religious culture to my undergraduate students.

Benedict Anderson has described nations as “imagined communities.”[3] National identity was constructed from print culture, debates over politics, the construction of national ritual, and also debates about the role of religion in American life.[4] I describe religious identity as part of a debate that begins before the American Revolution. Religious Toleration varied considerably by colony. The roots of the challenge that a young republic would face in defining and describing its religious culture pre-dated the Revolution considerably.

Connecticut minister Lyman Beecher was not a fan of religious pluralism. He described latitudinarians, Deists, Catholics, Unitarians, and others as "enemies of het truth."

Connecticut minister Lyman Beecher was not a fan of religious pluralism. He described latitudinarians, Deists, Catholics, Unitarians, and others as “enemies of het truth.”

As the example of the ghost of George Whitefield demonstrates, religion became part of the Revolutionary rhetoric for some Americans, as well as deeper questions about religious liberty and the role between church and state. The American Revolution dragged on longer than expected (particularly for the British, who had envisioned a rather speedy victory). The death toll and other suffering meant that colonists looked for evidence of the righteousness of their cause. Some Revolutionary-era preachers used their pulpits to blend politics and religion for that purpose. Jonathan Mayhew, the fiery minister of Boston’s Old West Church, preached a series of sermons based on Romans 13, arguing that King George III had abused his authority and ought to repent. He was not alone—other ministers drew all manner of inspiration from The Old Testament to claim righteousness of cause. A number of revolutionary leaders, including George Washington, became subject of deification. The image from the interior of the rotunda on the Capital building, depicting George Washington being raised to the heavens (see left) provides wonderful opportunities for discussing with students both the use of religious imagery during (and after) the American Revolution, and also how this deification shaped the way people came to think of these deified leaders.

Religious rhetoric was one thread of the Revolution, although I caution my students that the reasons for the Revolution were multifaceted and complex. American religious identity would become further complicated during the Early Republic. While the United States was not entirely free of its entanglements with Great Britain (as the War of 1812 demonstrates), independence meant that a national identity—legal, political, and cultural—would have to be crafted from thirteen colonial cultures that no longer had the united cause of independence from Great Britain. The dawn of the nineteenth century also came with the additional challenge of religious pluralism that not every American wished to accommodate.


[1] Some of this material appeared in a prior post, “George Whitefield, a Revolutionary Hero?,” History News Network, June 30, 2015. The post was adopted from my book, Jessica M. Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015). Also, see T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[2] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1967); id., “The Origin of American Politics,” Perspectives in American History 1 (1967); Carla Gardina Pestana, Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991); Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006).

[4] Particularly useful here are Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: the Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

20 responses

  1. Jessica, well done 🙂 I really enjoyed the your comments concerning the complex and multi-faceted creation of an American National Identity… that occurs both before and after the Revolution.. and the many influences and factors that should be considered when attempting to describe that process 🙂 This is such a great piece to use in my APUSH classroom… Historiography, perspective, multiple-factor causation…etc… THANK YOU !!!

    • Thank you, Jonathan. I’m happy that you enjoyed it and found it useful. I think one of the things that can be helpful for students in stressing all these different factors is getting them to understand WHY some of the founders like George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson placed such a value on religious liberty. (You can also bring in George Washington’s Letter to the Truro Synagogue here.) It was because at the time of the Revolution, there was already a pretty big diversity of (mainly Protestant) religious identities, and there were fears that any one denomination would become too powerful. You may find both Saul Cornell, Other Founders and Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America are both really useful for unpacking these points. (I’ve taught the Lambert.) Perhaps the best way to really drive this point home to students is a collection of documents that show the range of religious beliefs among the founding fathers, to drive home why it’s over simplistic and not terribly useful (or good history) to make arguments like “the founding fathers believed….”

      • Thank you so much for taking the time to give me such thoughtful feedback…Your effort is truly appreciated 🙂 So often we hear and read statements that oversimplify…Your detailed response will guide me and my students this year on our journey to discover the more nuanced and full story we know American History to be 🙂

        • You’re welcome. My colleague, Craig, is very right about the challenges of religious pluralism. I suspect the answer to his question is a very unsatisfying “it depends,” with a mix of denominational and local politics as factors. T.H. Breen has a good (and short) book on Virginia’s tobacco planter culture during the Revolutionary era, and one of the points he makes is more or less that despite Virginia’s rather prominent Anglican religious culture, one of the reasons that planters decided to side with the revolutionaries was because they didn’t want to have to pay taxes to support clergy. (And of course, during and after the American Revolution, Virginia was kind of a hot bed when it came to debates over established religion. (Which undoubtedly influenced both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.) There’s a collection of essays, edited by Paul Rasor and Richard Bond (From Jamestown to Jefferson) that are useful on this subject. And if you want a good primer on disestablishment in Early America (and beyond, since it was really a nineteenth-century process), you should check out Steven Green’s The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America.

          One of the things that I emphasize when I teach my US History 1 survey, is that they colonies really do have their own characters & cultures. (This probably isn’t news to you, if you’ve been teaching APUSH.) Religious culture is part of that.

  2. As someone who thinks most of our recent debates about the Revolution have significantly downplayed the religious element, I welcome this post! But while I think you are correct when you emphasize the diverse religious origins and colonial cultures that predated the American Revolution (which, of course, had their roots in almost two centuries of diasporic migration by religious groups to the colonies), I also think the idea that the cause of independence saw religious leaders put aside their differences is too neat an explanation. Some good scholarship is out there on when and why peoples of different Protestant persuasions, in particular, put aside their differences in pursuit of a greater cause. The most popular one right now is anti-popery, or the collective fear shared by many different Protestants of a Catholic conspiracy to usurp their liberties and to subvert their government and religion in an arbitrary and tyrannical fashion. Scholars like Scott Sowerby and Owen Stanwood have done really excellent work on this phenomenon in periods bookmarking the Glorious Revolution, while Brendan McConville has suggested its importance in the Revolutionary period has been understated by historians, particularly when it comes to how perceptions of King George III altered over the course of his reign (which you allude to here).

    Regardless of whether you buy their arguments, I think the question still needs to be answered as to why religious groups who were in every other respect competitors to one another would be willing to put aside their differences to pursue a common, ostensibly national cause. Maybe religion didn’t matter, and priests and pastors were swept along by the same revolutionary fevour that animated everyone else. Maybe it mattered entirely, and every other revolutionary argument had to take account of the widespread religiosity of the colonies to gain traction. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between these two positions, of course.

    • I will confess that I have not yet had a chance to read Sowerby’s book, although it is definitely in my “to read” pile. (But agree on Stanwood’s work.) On this point, you may actually be interested in some of the essays in the new volume edited by Gallup-Diaz, Shankman, and Silverman – Anglicizing America. There are two great essays – one by Nancy Rhodes, and one by Jeremy Stern that explore some of the ideas you are suggestion. I agree that a more in-depth exploration of American Revolutionary politics and religious difference would be useful (and more than I dared bite off here).

      • I am very interested in that volume! It’s on my desk as we speak, I’m hoping for a quiet weekend some time soon to break into it. Fair point about biting off more than you can chew in a blog post, however. I found this to be a very stimulating post though, hence my lengthy reply, in particular your point about religious differences re-emerging after the Revolution. It strikes me that I can’t think of a great answer as to why that happened, any more than I can as to why they disappeared almost entirely during the Revolution itself.

        • It’s a good, thought-provoking read. I reviewed it for the Journal of Southern History earlier this summer. I do agree that you’re raising some good questions. I definitely want to get to Sowerby’s book, and a few others. There are a bunch of essays on toleration and the problem of religious pluralism in Beneke and Grenda’s latest, _The Lively Experiment_ that will probably be useful here (three entire sections of the book, in fact). It’s another volume that I need to get to in the near future. With article revisions, I haven’t quite met my (apparently, overly ambitious) summer reading goals yet.

          • There are certainly some good essays in the Beneke and Grenada edited volume, namely Ned Landsman’s on the Episcopate and the British Union. Landsman also has an essay on that topic, though not confined entirely to religion, in the forthcoming American Revolution Reborn Volume, based on his fantastic paper from that conference. Kate Carte Engel’s essay in that volume (and mine, I guess I should add) will also deal with some of the questions you raised here. So take heart Craig, there may yet be a new generation of scholarship on the rise that deal with the religious elements of the Revolution.

            • That’s great news, Mark! I’ll await that volume eagerly. It’s no surprise to me that hear that Ned Landsman is at the forefront of the new wave of scholarship on pluralism (in general) in the Revolutionary period. He’s been writing fascinating stuff from traditionally unheralded perspectives in Early America from the outset of his career. I’m a fan.

  3. What are your thought on what I think came from Bailyn’s work on pamphlets, that the Enlightenment led to a deeper psychological awakening that the world was once thought to be guided by providence, but instead the populace examined more machiavellian notions, which led to a paranoid state of mind on both sides of the conflict. Do you believe this is separate from the religious origin or apart of it?

    • I think that it is hard to separate the two, particularly given the critiques of religion proposed by the Enlightenment. This is a good question, and I think I would want to give it more thought before expanding my response into particulars.

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  9. The latest is David Williams’ “Revolutionary Religion with 5 sermons” , a solid account of the influence of religion on the lower class folk who actually fought the battles. see or Amazon


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