The American Revolution: A War of Religion? | History Today

Jonathan Clark probes the anti-Catholic actions and millenarian rhetoric of 18th-century America, challenging the assumption that 1776 was solely a product of secular and constitutional impulses.

Thanks to our ruling picture of the American Revolution, a major premise of British and American history remains unrevised: the belief that both societies have pursued the uninterrupted evolution of a secular, libertarian, constitutional ideal, and that its progressive implementation has progressively freed them from internal revolutionary threat. A longer perspective is a crucial corrective: through all the vicissitudes of English politics from the 1530s to the 1820s and beyond, the most consistent theme both of popular sentiment and of ideological exegesis was anti-Catholicism. From the sixteenth century, Englishmen pictured the Roman Church not merely as a system of cruelty and intolerance, but as an international conspiracy operating through secret agents and with the covert sympathy of fellow travellers. Deliverances were attributed to direct divine intervention in favour of Protestant England. An apocalyptic or millenarian perspective on England's and America's history was generated principally in the context of Protestantism's conflict with Rome.
By the late seventeenth century, anti-Catholic paranoia was even stronger in America than in England, despite the presence in the colonies of an even smaller Catholic minority. This heightened sensibility reacted strongly against the exercise of executive power by James II and produced a situation of extreme tension: in 1689 news of events in England triggered violent rebellions in three colonies – Massachusetts, New York and Maryland – and peaceful changes of government where the authorities did not resist the proclamation of William and Mary. The Massachusetts rebellion was aimed at restoring Puritan hegemony and local autonomy, enjoyed from Charles I's charter of 1629 until its cancellation when the colony was unwillingly incorporated in the Dominion of New England in 1684. This swift and violent reaction was in part a response to a theory of popish conspiracy, manifest in recent English history:

We have seen more than a decade of Years rolled away since the English World had the Discovery of an horrid Popish Plot; wherein the bloody Devotees of Rome had in their Design and Prospect no less than the Extinction of the Protestant Religion... And we were of all Men the most insensible, if we should apprehend a Countrey so remarkable for the true Profession and pure Exercise of the Protestant Religion as New-England is, wholly unconcerned in the Infamous Plot.
In New York the rebellion, headed by Jacob Leisler, was in part an ethnic Dutch backlash against English encroachment since the conquest of the colony in 1664, in part an attempt by one set of magnates to dispossess another set of the spoils of office. Nevertheless, the popish phobia created a political idiom in New York and could be exploited.

All shortcomings in the administration of proprietary Maryland could be similarly attributed to the religion of its administrators, and political parties were already polarised on sectarian lines. By 1689, this division had generated paranoid complaints of 'Not only private but publick outrages, & murthers committed and done by papists upon Protestants without redress, but rather connived at and tolerated by the chief in authority'. In March 1689 the colony was gripped by a rumour that the Catholic ruling group was conspiring with the Indians to massacre the Protestants. According to the Council's report to London, people had 'gathered themselves together in great parties to defend themselves, as they were persuaded, against a groundless and imaginary plott and designe contrived against them as was rumoured and suspected by the Roman Catholicks inviting the Indians to joyne with them in that detestable and wicked Conspiracy'.

The American colonies rehearsed certain libertarian issues in 1689, but they had not obtained all or even most of what they had sought. The issues therefore remained; but their significance was transformed by the change of dynasty. No longer could antipopery sentiments transform practical objections to English rule: William III's Calvinism aligned him squarely with New England Puritanism, and the Lutheranism of George I and George II similarly established their credentials. The enemy was henceforth an external one. If the practical threat of popery receded, it did not disappear: in Europe the Protestant interest often seemed on the defensive until the Seven Years' War; French Canada and Spanish Florida similarly served as reminders to Americans. An added peril now began to prey on the psyche of the southern colonist: the fear that he would be murdered by the negro, either in an isolated incident or as part of a mass insurrection which would necessarily result (as with anti-Catholic phobias) in a general massacre of white Protestants. Isolated incidents certainly occurred. Would they run together to constitute a revolution?

The early Hanoverian era saw a series of plots or uprisings by negro slaves in America, equally savage in their impact and in the punishments with which they were repressed. Conspiracies were discovered and rebellion prevented in Virginia in 1687 and 1709, South Carolina in 1720, New Jersey in 1734, Maryland in the late 1730s, South Carolina in 1740 and elsewhere. Violent rebellions occurred in New York City in 1712 and 1741, in South Carolina (the Stono Rebellion) in 1759 and on other occasions. In the 1730s and 40s slave disorder has been linked to the evangelical movement known as the Great Awakening: the first movement to sweep large numbers of negroes into sectarian participation, it acted to challenge hierarchical distinctions of white and black even more forcibly than those of white and white.

Despite the special circumstances of slave revolts, religion could appear both in their motivation and in the white response. In 1741 New York was convulsed by fears of a negro insurrection: outbreaks of arson and robbery seemed to be its preliminaries; informers fuelled the panic, and trials rehearsed the issues in the public eye. Paranoia now inflated public disorder into a full-scale conspiracy. Much of the blame was attributed to revivalist religion, ignited by the recent visit of the Calvinist George Whitefield, and directed to the subversive end of the conversion of blacks as well as whites. Wartime conflict between Spanish Florida and the colony of Georgia soon introduced another ancient preoccupation into the mounting New York frenzy: the Catholic plot. Suspicion of the enthusiasm or superstition which was seen as common to both Methodism and Catholicism now joined with the ancient horror of a Catholic massacre. These events were seen as part of the divine scenario: 'so bloody and Destructive a Conspiracy was this, that had not the mercifull hand of providence interposed and Confounded their [the negroes'] Divices, in one and the Same night the Inhabitants would have been butcher'd in their houses, by their own Slaves, and the City laid in ashes'. Within such a context, New York's response to this fictional conspiracy is explicable as motive rather than mere rhetoric: four whites were hanged as conspirators; so were eighteen blacks; and thirteen more negroes were burnt at the stake. Similar conspiracies continued to be uncovered up to and long after the Revolution. Such was the emotional background against which the lofty issues of 1776 were rehearsed.

In England, millennial expectations receded after the 1650s; in the colonies, especially Puritan New England, they evolved into the eighteenth century as an orthodoxy, though without the revolutionary threat implicit in English sectarianism. New England society had earlier come close to being a theocracy; the sense of America as a religious experiment, as the new Israel, still gave stability and practical content to millenarian hopes. In the southern colonies, these traditions may have been refreshed by the Calvinism of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants. The Great Awakening, in turn, was explicitly millenarian; when it lost its first impetus, England's wars of the 1740s and 50s against France and Spain renewed the identification of Anti-christ with Catholicism and revitalised the old images of Catholic persecution. As a preacher warned, 'our inveterate and popish Enemies both without and within the Kingdom, are restless to enslave and ruin us'. If France won, 'Cruel Papists would quickly fill the British Colonies, and seize our Estates, abuse our Wives and Daughters, and barbarously murder us; as they have done the like in France and Ireland'.

In the 1740s and 50s, Britain overcame the major threats to her internal stability – threats to the religious and dynastic order. In the American colonies they survived; indeed they were exacerbated. Apart from the conflict of loyalist and republican, in the period following the Peace of Paris, a common thread ran through the conflicts which saw colonial Americans in armed conflict with each other: the clash of material interests between the pioneers, the settlers of the western backcountry, and the long-established settlers (if the eastern seaboard with their control first of colonial, then of republican government. This applied to the march of the Paxton Boys against Philadelphia (1764); the Regulator movement in North and South Carolina (1768-71); the clashes in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania between Pennamite and Yankee (1770-1); the disorders of the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont (early 1770s); Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts (1786-7); the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania (l 794); and Fries' Rebellion (1799). Such conflicts were once held to owe everything to the material grievances of the back-country and equally little cither to the pursuit of secular constitutional ideals or to formal sectarian allegiance. Yet these instances of civil disobedience can now be seen to share important features with other colonial insurrections since 1676, especially the religious catalyst; their ethnic composition brings their sectarian nature into sharp relief.

The wide availability of millennial thought meant that British legislation on the American colonies in the 1760s could at once be seen in an 'apocalyptical perspective’. The Stamp Act therefore quickly reversed a whole nexus of ideas which had grown up in a fervent identification of civil and religious liberty with British rule. George Grenville's stamps were described in the language of the Book of Revelation as 'the mark of the beast'. In cartoons, British policy was often personified as the devil. This paranoia had been expressed again in the New England controversy of 1763-5 over the threatened appointment of an Anglican bishop. In 1774 it received an immense boost: the Quebec Act, granting toleration to Canadian Catholics, was taken as proof of an imperial plot to promote popery. From the 1740s, American imagery had steadily strengthened the identity between tyranny and sin, civil liberty and grace. This was partly a consequence of a religious revivalist movement sufficiently dramatic and distinct to acquire a capitalised name: the Great Awakening.

Several decades before British political authority was systematically challenged in the colonies, a similar challenge had been launched against conventional ecclesiastical authorities of several denominations by the 'New Light' preachers of the religious revival. The significance of their appeal to personal revelation, a right of private judgement and a duty of secession from sinful congregations was interpreted by the established powers in the same terms as that of the rebels of 1776. The New Light clergy were 'Innovators, disturbers of the peace of the church, sowers of heresies and seditions'; they were 'foremost in propagating the Principles of Sedition, and Disobedience to Authority'. George Whitefield recorded in 1739 the un- popularity of the New Light ministers who graduated from William Tennent's famous log College: 'Carnal ministers oppose them strongly; and, because people, when awakened by Mr. Tennent or his brethren, see through them, and therefore leave their ministry, the poor gentlemen are loaded with contempt, and looked upon as persons who turn the world upside-down'.

Few of the implications of New Light theology were brought to hear against British rule before the early 1760s: until the conclusion of the Seven Years' War, the threat to liberty, property and Protestantism clearly emanated from French Canada. In New England especially, Britain was depicted as the main bulwark of freedom against the anti-christ of Rome. From the mid-1760s, however, colonists were free to redirect their rhetoric of Protestant virtue. In this they were encouraged by the perspective of still more recent immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, including the clergymen John Witherspoon and Alexander Craighead, who re-emphasised the Covenanter roots of political contractarianism. Witherspoon exercised his influence as President of Princeton from 1768 to 1794, Craighead in more humble surroundings as a minister in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, from 1755 to his death in 1766. Craighead had already been expelled from ministering in two presbyteries for imposing the Solemn League and Covenant and the National Covenant: his affinities with the Cameronians made him a difficult neighbour. Among the Scots-Irish of the backcountry, however, he found a receptive audience. To them he appealed both by his preaching and his published works. Among the latter has been claimed the anonymous pamphlet Renewal of the Covenants (Philadelphia, 1743, 1748) which reviewed their history in Scotland and their violation under the persecution of Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs.

Like the Covenanters, Craighead preached 'a defensive War against all Usurpers of the Royal Prerogative of the glorious Lamb of God'. After his death, this message was sustained by other New Light clergy in the neighbourhood, like the influential David Caldwell: their teaching flowed directly into the Regulator movement. Although other denominations including New England Congregationalism shared this religious impetus to political engagement, the popular movement which bore that name had a special place in the tradition of disorder. The history of colonial British America was punctuated with a series of backcountry rebellions against east coast authorities. The last and greatest of these occurred only shortly before the larger Revolution of l776, for from 1768 until their military destruction at the battle of Alamance in May 1771 the piedmont of North and South Carolina was increasingly under the control of the self-styled Regulators, local activists usurping by force the authority of colonial magistrates and tax officials.

What prompted certain Americans to rebel? The old constitutional scenario of a sinister and concerted attempt by George III to resurrect monarchical absolutism is now untenable; so is the related notion that the ministry of Lord North rested on a revived Tory party. Nevertheless, the historiographical tradition which made a neo-Harringtonian libertarianism into the almost universal American idiom even before 1776 required that the trigger of revolution should be external to the colonies, a reassertion of authoritarian ideology in 1760s Britain. A fuller picture of the monarchical, Anglican nature of the early-Hanoverian regime removes the significant elements in this contrast between the years before and after 1760, and reopens the question of internal colonial triggers to the rebellion of 1776.
Before the 1760s, the main idioms of political discourse in mainland colonies had echoed English norms: they were determined by the dynastic and religious questions fought over by Englishmen since 1679. But why was it thought appropriate by some people to use Whig rhetoric against a whig regime? After 1760, the pattern in the New World again corresponded closely to that in the Old. The external threats disappeared, together with the internal polarity they had induced. The confluence of former Whigs and Tories in support of George III simultaneously reawakened old fears and provided new targets for existing opposition rhetoric.
In both 1688 and 1766, the constitutional problems raised by questions of taxation, executive prerogative and parliamentary jurisdiction were turned from grievances into issues which evoked the passionate commitment of great numbers of ordinary men by their engagement with a much wider nexus of ideas and feelings. Contemporaries recognised the part played by religious enthusiasm in the American cause. 'Enthusiasm' now came to take on a wider secular meaning: John Adams echoed Shaftesbury's eulogy of 'noble enthusiasm' as a quality which 'raised the imagination to an opinion or conceit of something majestic and divine'. But its secular sense had most importance only to the small circle of men who formed part of the Jeffersonian Enlightenment. The political commitments of most men were still an aspect of their religion; and this was already taking forms which were both new and distinctively American.

Richard Price rightly sensed that the American colonies in 1776 were 'animated by piety'. They were, indeed, in the grip of one of the more momentous of religious revivalist movements. The evangelical phenomenon known in the colonies as the Great Awakening began slowly in the 1740s, under the inspiration of the New Light Presbyterians, a highly politicized elite associated in the foundation of Princeton. From the 1740s it grew to become a mass movement, turning into a 'landslide' in the decade following 1765. By 1776, the Great Awakening had inspired in many colonists a vision of an imminent millennium. The expectation of a future moral transformation was matched by a condemnation of the sinfulness, luxury and corruption of past life, and, especially, of English modes. It was the millenarian impulse which gave immediacy to the academic neo-Harringtonian critique of 'corruption', and the social constituency of the evangelical movement which gave these religious insights their populist focus as an attack on privilege and hierarchy, an assertion of divinely- sanctioned popular sovereignty against the divine right of the English monarchy.

In the decade before 1776, the rhetoric of American clergy subtly changed. The familiar jeremiad about the sins of God's chosen people and the need for a collective act of atonement was increasingly combined with an implication that that repentance had already been demonstrated by the resistance to tyranny, so that Providence was now enlisted in the rebel cause. The doctrine that God stood in a contractual relation with his chosen people - a doctrine especially emphasised in New England Congregationalism and by Presbyterians – became more generally available to all Americans, and the burden of guilt for the breach of this eternal contract was by implication transferred to the mother country.

Indeed, argued Perry Miller, it was not the 'genial Anglicanism' of the established clergy nor the 'urbane rationalism' of the Washingtons, Jeffersons and Franklins that brought the rank and file of American Protestants into the war. What aroused a Christian patriotism that needed staying power was a realization of the vengeance God denounced against the wicked; what fed their hopes was not what God promised as a recompense to virtue, but what dreary fortunes would overwhelm those who persisted in sloth; what kept them going was an assurance that by exerting themselves they were fighting for a victory thus providentially predestined.

It has been suggested that colonial Americans were able to mobilise so quickly between 1775 and 1776 because a millennial tradition of thought was available for instant activation, overriding the tradition of a remedy for present corruption in the return to former virtue. Mobilisation on the scale of 1776 is evidence against religious imagery being mere rhetoric. A break in the tie with Britain, a renunciation of existing rationales for American society, demanded and was easily given an alternative rationale, a biblically-supported vision of a new future.

Within the millenarian vision, one component in particular still acted as an emotional catalyst and a political trigger: the fear of Popery. Its role was already an ancient one. The New England colonies were founded at a time of frenzied anti-Catholicism in England, and carried this inheritance as a lasting and vivid theme in their moral and political discourse. Laudian persecution of Puritans added the element of paranoia. Consequently, the imperial challenges of the 1670s and 80s produced an even more hysterical reaction in the colonies than in England. By the mid-eighteenth century, the vocabulary of tyranny, slavery and arbitrary power was still grounded on the meanings of the key term 'popery'; but, under the impact of such early eighteenth century English texts as Cato's Letters, these meanings had been stretched to cover the exercise of power by any established, episcopal church. Whatever its origin, this heightened emotional temperature acted to sweep up and distort patterns of argument which might otherwise have provided grounds for caution rather than insurrection.

American rhetoric in the 1760s and 1770s combined the same inconsistent elements as did that of England: beside contract theory and natural rights theory went the doctrine of the ancient constitution. As important as the specific form of the ancient constitution was the long record of sacrifice in its defence: colonists revered the 'ancestors (who) have liberally shed their blood to secure to us the rights we now contend for'; but such a rhetoric carried the implication that the constitution could only be maintained 'at the hazard of our lives and fortunes'. A theory of past achievement became itself an incitement to present excess: in the frenzy of an evangelical religious movement, the theory of the ancient constitution demanded sacrifice and atonement rather than negotiation, compromise or humility.
From soon after the accession of George III, English Dissenters co-operated with their colonial co- religionists to confirm and strengthen the Americans in their belief that a transatlantic conspiracy was being hatched against both civil and religious liberty. These issues were revitalised, for English Dissenters also, by the Anglican church's intermittent moves to appoint a bishop for the colonies. Only when viewed against the background of the history of English, Irish and Scots sectarian emigration to the colonies did this modest proposal assume the sinister shape of a bid to reimpose those claims which the Americans had fled their homelands to escape. The Wilkes affair and Anglican resistance to the Feathers Tavern petition against subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles fell into place as episodes in the royal conspiracy.

It required the Dissenting perspective to arrange these unconnected incidents into a scenario of impending tyranny. Anglicans explained the innocence of a scheme for a bishop in America: as a memorandum of Shelburne re-emphasised in 1764, it was proposed to 'model every thing upon the most extensive Principles of the Toleration... No Coersive Powers are desired over the Laity'. But the ancient intolerance of New England Congregationalism was given a new object by the loyal behaviour of Anglican clergy during the Stamp Act crisis; by 1771 the clergy of New York and New Jersey, petitioning once more for a bishop, could warn that 'Independency in Religion will naturally produce Republicanism in the State'. Anglicanism had changed greatly from the persecutory creed it had been as recently as Anne's reign; colonial Dissenters still largely lived with their ancient shibboleths, nursing atavistic hatreds.

Yet the perspective of the Jeffersonian Enlightenment blocked any deeper understanding of the causes of rebellion. At the same time, a right of rebellion, once asserted so successfully, had become part of American culture. It could not be removed by Britain's recognition of the independence of thirteen other colonies in 1783. Rebellions therefore continued, adding to fears that the new republic would break into its component parts, either between northern and southern or between eastern and western states. In Shays' Rebellion (1786), the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), and Fries' Rebellion (1799), Americans fought Americans in a continuing conflict over the issues that had been at stake in 17'76, but now it was a US Federal government which asserted its authority with the whisky excise of 1791, and the stamp and land taxes of 1798. This continuity conflict sets 1776 in the perspective of a civil war rather than a war of national liberation, a war to emancipate a pre-existing nation; and it reopens the question of its religious origins.

Evidence does survive of these later rebels identifying the cause of their east coast opponents with Antichrist. Many were active Presbyterians, and although their church officially disavowed rebellion, the religious element continued to do more than strengthen their group identity. Even Fries' Rebellion contained an echo of dynastic, anti-Anglican fears. The Presbyterianism of the Whiskey rebels, too, bound them closely into a transatlantic tradition. Opposition to internal taxes in England in the 1730s, as in the colonies in the 1760s and 1790s, was articulated by the elite in the familiar terms of arbitrary power. Popular perceptions showed why such language was activated: according to Lord Hervey, during the Excise Crisis of 1733 'the universal cry of the kingdom was "No slavery, no excise, no wooden shoes"'. The London Journal claimed that the opposition had spread the effective rumour 'that a great many Pair of Wooden Shoes were lately imported, on purpose to be carried about the City on Poles or Sticks, as Emblems or Signs to the People, of what a dismal State they are coming to'. Popery and poverty (wooden shoes) were as much a popular identity as a literary trope, as the Gordon Riots of 1780 once more emphasised.

Social stability combined with political instability was the norm in early modern societies of western Europe. This is particularly apparent in England's Atlantic empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Conflict, massacre, schism and sometimes successful rebellion were set against steady but irregular structural change and commercial development, always threatened by the stresses and outcomes of war or insurrection. Why was the intellectual tradition of Common Law and parliamentary representation activated, turned from a defensive to an offensive creed? Why were great numbers of men periodically seized by revolutionary frenzy? From Venner's rising in 1661 through 1688 and 1776 to the Irish rebellion of 1798, we find not a monocausal explanation but a common thread on both sides of the Atlantic in religion.