Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

By James H. Hutson | Go to book overview

THREE
RELIGION AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

The continuation of the revivals spawned by the Great Awakening into the era of the American Revolution has raised the question of whether these two seminal events were related. A few scholars have even suggested that the Revival may have "caused" the Revolution. Although experts have scoffed at this theory, it has had a staying power not unlike the notion that religion was decaying in eighteenth- century America; in modified forms, it continues to find occasional adherents.

It was the victims of the Revolution, the Tories, who paid the political power of religion its highest compliment--in their view its highest reproach-- by identifying it as the principal cause of the rebellion against George III ( 1738 - 1820). Initially, the Tories denounced local clergymen for allowing themselves to become the dupes of incendiaries like Samuel Adams ( 1722 - 1803) and for inflaming their congregations against the King and his ministers. As the dispute with the mother country became more intractable, however, the Tories persuaded themselves that the difficulties ran deeper than the rantings of "some mad Preachers." They concluded that the problem was structural, that certain of the colonies' religious denominations were, by doctrine and tradition, inherently subversive and could never peaceably coexist with monarchical government, against which they had now risen in arms, as their ancestors had done in England in the 1640s.

The former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Joseph Galloway ( 1731 - 1803), expressed this view in 1780, when he blamed the conflagration on "republican sectaries" by whom he meant Presbyterians and Congregationalists "whose principles of religion and polity [were] equally averse to those of the established Church and Government,"1 In the same year, the Anglican clergy of New York claimed it as a "certain Truth . . . that Dissenters in general, and particularly Presbyterians and Congregationalists were active Promoters of the Rebellion," the explanation being that "from their Infancy [they] imbibe Republican, levelling Principles, which are unfriendly to the Constitution, and lead them to an opposite Conduct."2

Although Presbyterians and Congregationalists

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