The American Revolution and Righteous Community: Selected Sermons of Bishop Robert Smith

By Wood, Bradford J. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2008 | Go to article overview

The American Revolution and Righteous Community: Selected Sermons of Bishop Robert Smith


Wood, Bradford J., South Carolina Historical Magazine


The American Revolution and Righteous Community: Selected Sermons of Bishop Robert Smith. Edited by Charles Wilbanks. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. xxiv, 280; $49.95, cloth.)

During times of crisis, leaders often make use of religious rhetoric and ideology. Religion is, after all, a central part of culture, and as such, it can motivate and inspire in powerful and distinctive ways. Along these lines, those sympathetic to the American Revolution used religious belief to justify their cause and gain support during the long, bitter war with Great Britain. Robert Smith, the most important Anglican clergyman in Charleston during the revolutionary era, provides an interesting example of the ways that southern Anglicanism and the American Revolution intersected and reinforced each other. Smith led St. Philip's, Charleston's most important Anglican church, from 1759 until 1801 and became South Carolina's first Episcopal bishop. In The American Revolution and Righteous Community, Charles Wilbanks provides readers with a seventy-page introduction about Smith, a selection of twenty-seven complete sermons, a list of textual annotations, and two helpful appendices. While Smith is never likely to receive as much attention as some of his more fiery evangelical contemporaries, these materials make it possible to use Smith's interesting career to shed considerable new light on the established Anglican churches in the southern colonies.

While sermons have long been a staple of studies focusing on religion in colonial New England, Smith's sermons offer the first substantial opportunity to apply the same scrutiny to preaching and religious rhetoric in the plantation colonies. Indeed, it is a shame that this volume includes less than a tenth of Smith's sermons that survive at St. Philip's, though a variety of considerations probably make a more comprehensive publication impractical. Wilbanks explains that he chose these sermons "based on the identification of those that focus primarily on issues of public morality, specifically civic duty, citizenship, charity, universal love, and national virtue" (p. xxiii). While these issues seem especially important to the era of the American Revolution, they suggest only one out of a variety of interesting directions that historians might take with these sermons. The sermons themselves make little explicit reference to political or military events, so it is reasonable to infer that Smith devoted more intellectual energy to the challenges of maintaining what Wilbanks refers to as "righteous community" than to the revolutionary-era political transformations that sometimes preoccupy historians. The sermons reveal Smith's efforts to craft a moderate Protestant perspective designed to compete with the rise of dissenting religion in South Carolina and to appeal to the refined sensibilities of one of British America's wealthiest congregations. …

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