The religious ideas that helped foment the American Revolution

Written by William C. Duncan

May 26, 2021

In previous posts, we have noted ways in which religious ideas and people of faith helped shape the freedoms of the United States. All of this, however, would have been moot if there were no United States in the first place. Religious teachings and religious individuals were critical in this respect as well.

The British Parliament imposed the Stamp Act – its first “direct tax on the colonists”– in an attempt to pay down the debt from the Seven Years’ War (the 1756-63 conflict between England and France over colonial claims). The law “required that, starting in the fall of 1765, legal documents and printed materials must bear a tax stamp provided by commissioned distributors who would collect the tax in exchange for the stamp. The law applied to wills, deeds, newspapers, pamphlets and even playing cards and dice.”

In 1766, Congregationalist minister Jonathan Mayhew preached a sermon in Boston that would shape the colonists’ reaction not only to the Stamp Act but to relations with England. Mayhew talked about “civil liberty” which, he explained, meant that laws “are made by common consent & choice; that all have some hand in framing them, at least by their representatives, chosen to act for them, if not in their own persons.”

When government ignores this principle, the subjects are “in a state of slavery.” This would be the state of the American colonists “if they are to possess no property, nor to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, but by the mere precarious pleasure of the mother [country], or of a distant legislature, in which they neither are, nor can be represented.”

The sermon extended the argument he had developed in a 1750 pamphlet, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission to the Higher Powers, which made the case that it could be appropriate to resist unjust authority. Fourteen-year-old John Adams read and reread it until “the Substance of it was incorporated into my Nature and indelibly engraved on my Memory.” This sermon, Adams later said, would help anyone understand the “principles and feelings which produced the Revolution.”

A Library of Congress exhibit explains:

Religion played a major role in the American Revolution by offering a moral sanction for opposition to the British–an assurance to the average American that revolution was justified in the sight of God. As a recent scholar has observed, ‘by turning colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies, ministers did the work of secular radicalism and did it better.”

 

Ministers served the American cause in many capacities during the Revolution: as military chaplains, as penmen for committees of correspondence, and as members of state legislatures, constitutional conventions and the national Congress. Some even took up arms, leading Continental troops in battle.

Mayhew’s argument “anticipated the position that most ministers took during the conflict with Britain.” Political scientist Mark David Hall notes “the almost unanimous support Calvinist clergy offered to American patriots.”

Religious ideas were also influential. Most conspicuous are the references to a “Creator,” “Nature’s God,” “divine Providence,” and the “Supreme Judge of the world” in the Declaration of Independence. Hall notes examples of “Christian ideas” with significant influence on the Founding:

  1. The belief that “humans were sinful” contributed to the adoption of “a constitutional system characterized by separated powers, checks and balances, and federalism,” rather than “a strong, centralized government run by experts.”
  2. An understanding of “liberty” as “the freedom to do what is morally correct.”
  3. The belief that humans are created in the image of God, which “led them to conclude that we the people (as opposed to the elite) can order our public lives together through politics rather than force. It also helped inform early (and later) American opposition to slavery.”
  4. The need to protect religious freedom and, eventually, to drop support for established religions “primarily because they thought that such establishments hurt true religion.”

By design, the new U.S. government was not “religious” in the sense of requiring allegiance to any particular faith. It was, rather, dedicated to a comprehensive protection of the religious exercise of all its citizens.  The Framers knew by experience that this protection would allow people of faith to continue to exercise the powerful influence that had created the free nation.

Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic foster agency but leaves big questions for later

Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic foster agency but leaves big questions for later

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant religious freedom decision this morning, with all the justices concluding that the city of Philadelphia violated the constitutional rights of a religious foster care agency, Catholic Social Services, when it “stopped referring children to CSS upon discovering that the agency would not certify same-sex couples to be foster parents due to its religious beliefs about marriage.”

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