Sunday, July 07, 2013

Religion and the American Revolution

James P. Byrd, author of “Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution,” has a column in the Washington Post with the rather tendentious title, "Was the American Revolution a holy war?" His argument is that many who supported or fought in the American Revolution considered it a sacred cause and that God was on the side of the Americans in this war. The examples that Byrd provides of ministers and our founding fathers are illustrative and go to refute the assumption that I hear from many of my students. They've heard that several of our nation's founders were Deists and so conclude that religion played little role in their lives.

When I teach American history, one of the themes all the way through the course is the central position that religion played in so many key moments in our nation's development particularly in moral movements such as aboltion and civil rights. The Revolution is no exception. Following the First Great Awakening, many of the soldiers who fought in the War were the sons of families that had had their religious fervor brought to life in the 1730s and 1740s during the Awakening. In fact many American soldiers, particularly those from New England, had had their first contact with the British during the French and Indian War and were particularly disgusted by the crudity of British soldiers who swore and cavorted with loose women, while ignoring the Sabbath.

Many of the influential leaders who spoke to the founding generation were ministers such as Jonathan Mayhew whose 1750 sermon, "Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers" on the centennial of the execution of Charles I" was influential in arguing that citizens are justified in executing a king who denied them their liberties. Abraham Keteltas preached in his 1777 sermon, "God Arising and Pleading His People's Cause," that God was on the side of the Americans because the Lord would always support righteous self-government and the cause of liberty.

The Library of Congress has an excellent online exhibit of images and artifacts on the role of religion in the American Revolution and the founding of the nation. I've used a lot of these images when I teach this period.

One crucial development arising out of the Revolution was that states wrote their constitutions and had to decide whether they should continue the colonial pattern of state-established religions. Crucially, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson won the argument against an established religion when they passed Jefferson's Act for establishing Religious Freedom. The battle was won on a national level with the First Amendment whose very first clause forbade congress from establishing a religion. Because no one religion could be favored, pluralism of religion had an easier time growing in American than in most other countries though we certainly do also have a history of religious intolerance, most notably against Catholics in the 19th century.

My students are always excited when I point out that the word "antidisestablishmentarianism," which they've all heard of as one of the longest non-technical words in English refers to such debates in the United States in the 18th century and Great Britain in the 19th century.

So religion played a key role in our revolution and the Revolution also set the groundwork for the pluralism of religion in our country today. Just one more aspect of the Revolution to think about this holiday weekend.