Though the events transpired almost a quarter of a millenium ago, the shelves down at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore routinely continue to display freshly researched, written, and published histories of the American Revolution, the founding fathers, and the genesis of the United States. Yet there remains an element of the American founding era that is routinely underrepresented in these volumes—the role of religion. It is a factor of the Revolution that many historians minimize. The revolution, they maintain, was essentially secular in nature.
But “No understanding of the eighteenth century is possible” warned Carl Bridenbaugh, “if we unconsciously omit, or consciously jam out, the religious theme just because our own milieu is secular.” Yet, as Kevin Phillips remarked, “Historians and commentators in the late twentieth-century United States have shrunk from emphasizing religion in their explanations of seventeenth and eighteenth century affairs.” Phillips argued that this is a gross error insofar as “any serious investigation of the patterns of rebellion and loyalty during the 1775-1783 fighting in the United States leads to religion.”
No one recognized this better than the foes of the American revolutionaries. Ambrose Serle, secretary to British General Howe in New York City, wrote to the British Secretary of State in 1776 telling him that the American Revolution was ultimately a religious war. Serle’s insights are perhaps worthy of special consideration given his privileged vantage point. In light of his intelligence, education, broad perspective, and eyewitness status, Serle’s observations compel historians to incorporate his perspective into a comprehensive understanding of the conflict. Serle’s biographer, Edward Tatum, Jr., who wrote the introduction to Serle’s Diary put it in these terms:
Serle was no ordinary observer but one whose training and philosophy gave point to his opinions and coherence to his judgments. In addition, his unique position as a civilian in intimate association with Lord Howe afforded him an unusual opportunity to see more than one aspect of a complicated situation.
Given Serle’s erudition, his observations cannot be summarily dismissed. Serle argued for a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the revolution beneath the secular facade. He boldly asserted that the revolution could not be sustained in America if it were not for the Presbyterian ministers who bred it. He lamented the fact that almost every minister in America doubled as a politician. Most significantly, he echoed a chant by loyalists throughout America, namely, that at the bottom of the conflict was the Presbyterians’ desire to gain “the Establishment of their own Party.” In other words, he claimed that the war was fueled by the Presbyterians’ desire to establish their religion as the official church of the new American government.
The same assessment may be made of Charles Inglis’ perspective. He had a front row seat to the entire revolution. He, too, was highly educated and erudite. He had close contacts with a large number of loyalists in the know. If anyone was a principal mouthpiece for the opinions of loyalists, Inglis was. And what did he say? “It is absolutely certain, that on the part of many, the present is a Religious War.” Another such Tory during the war stated, “the American controversy is closely connected with Christianity in general, and with Protestantism in particular; and that, of consequence, it is of religious as well as of a civil nature.”
The important fact that King George III and his deputies on both sides of the Atlantic alleged that the colonial rebellion was a religious endeavor is no longer widely publicized. A number of scholars have casually mentioned this phenomenon in passing. Kevin Phillips, in his 1998 study of the American Revolution, twice noted: “King George III and other highly placed Britons called the colonists’ rebellion a ‘Presbyterian War.’” Historians of yesteryear were a bit more attentive to this feature. According to William H. Nelson, the belief that most of the American revolutionaries were “congregational or presbyterian republicans,” or at least of Calvinistic temperament “was held by almost all the Tories whose opinions survive.” According to the celebrated British historian of the American Revolution, George Trevelyan, in the early days of the revolution, loyalists alleged that “political agitation against the Royal Government had been deliberately planned by Presbyterians… it was fostered and abetted by Presbyterians in every colony.” John C. Miller observed, “To the end, the Churchmen believed that the Revolution was a Presbyterian-Congregationalist plot.” These references notwithstanding, historians no longer give much attention to this “Presbyterian plot” interpretation of the revolution. In light of the abundance of evidence, such is an irresponsible oversight.A Hessian captain, fighting on behalf of the British, told a friend in Germany in 1778, “call this war, dearest friend, by whatsoever name you may, only call it not an American Revolution, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.” Andrew Hammond, British commander of the HMS Roebuck, arrived in America just after the Declaration of Independence had been signed by the members of the Continental Congress. At that juncture, Hammond conveyed the perspective of the Anglicans, “[I]t is the Presbyterians that have brought about this revolt, and aim at getting the government of America into their hands.” Isaac Atkinson, a Maryland loyalist, expressed his opinion of the revolution, that “it was a religious dispute and a Presbyterian scheme.” Thomas Smith, a supporter of the crown in Pennsylvania he held the view “that the whole was nothing but a scheme of a parcel of hot-headed Presbyterians.”
King George III was advised by William Jones in 1776, “this has been a Presbyterian war from the beginning… and accordingly the first firing against the King’s troops was from a Massachuset [sic] meeting house.” Did the king agree with Jones? The evidence is overwhelming that he did.
From the beginning of the conflict, George III was convinced that the leading New England rebels were Presbyterians. This is proven by a remark he made to Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson in 1774. When discussing the nature of the American dissident leadership with his representative from Massachusetts, the king exclaimed, “are they not Presbyterians?” The king had every reason to suspect so. A letter published in a London newspaper only a month earlier came from a royalist in New York:
Believe me, the Presbyterians have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures, and they always do and ever will act against Government, from that restless and turbulent anti-monarchical spirit which has always distinguished them every where.
The king maintained this sentiment throughout the war. In 1779 Benjamin Franklin, a rather reliable source of diplomatic intelligence, stated that George III hated the American Revolutionaries because the king perceived that they were “whigs and Presbyterians.”
Royal sentiments in this regard permeate the documentary record. Jones was not the only source who communicated this opinion to the king. We know that the British Secretary of State, Lord Dartmouth, who certainly had the king’s ear, was also urged by an intelligence agent in America to understand that “Presbyterianism is at the bottom” of the war. The provisional governor of Rhode Island, Nicholas Cooke, was told that the revolution was a Presbyterian war, and the royal governor of Rhode Island believed it.
Were these Tories who considered the revolution a religious plot entirely sober in these reflections? Clearly not. They, too, were participants, embroiled in the fanaticism of the conflict. Their tendency to suspect that a Presbyterian minister was hiding behind every tree, secretly orchestrating the revolution from beginning to end, is Macarthyesque indeed. But the other extreme to which historians have gone is just as spurious. Religious and denominational dynamics were vitally central to the revolt. Historians have failed to state this as clearly as it deserves. The allegation that the American Revolution was a Presbyterian Rebellion is an important one to understand if we are to have a truly comprehensive understanding of what happened and why.
In short, the American Revolution did have a “holy war” dynamic to it that pitted Anglicans against dissenters (who were generally referred to as Presbyterians), and in the minds of the loyalists, the war was fundamentally, at bottom, a Presbyterian rebellion. It is, without question, an accurate assessment of how King George III and his advocates perceived the American war. Whether that perception was entirely accurate may be another question, but the very fact that it was how they viewed it is an important dynamic that should not be overlooked as we chronicle America’s nativity narrative.
 Joseph Ellis, Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, Ron Chernow, and David Hackett Fischer have all recently published best sellers on this foundational era of American history.
 Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689-1775, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), xi.
 Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 16.
 Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Ambrose Serle to Lord Dartmouth, November 8, 1776 in B. F. Stevens’ Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America 1773-1783, with Descriptions, Editorial Notes, Collations, References and Translations, vol. 24 (reprint Wilmington, DE: Mellifont Press, 1970) 2045.
 Edward Tatum, “Introduction,” The American Journal of Ambrose Serle, Secretary to Lord Howe; 1776-1778, Edward Tatum, ed. (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1940), ix.
 The best scholarly treatment of this sentiment as a whole is Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1958).
 The word “Presbyterian” was used in this context to include almost all Christians who dissented from Roman and Anglican ecclesiastical systems; see Richard Gardiner, The Presbyterian Rebellion (Ph.D. diss., Marquette University, 2005).
 [Charles Inglis?], The Letters of Papinian: In Which the Conduct, Present State and Prospects, of the American Congress, Are Examined (New-York: Printed by Hugh Gaine, at the Bible and Crown in Hanover-Square, 1779), no. 5, 78; in Early American Imprints, 16311.
 John Fletcher, The Works of John Fletcher, 4 vols. (Salem, Ohio: Schmul Publishers, 1974), Vol. 4, 439. On the floor of Parliament, Sir Edmund Burke also gave an extensive account of how the Americans’ Protestantism motivated the war. Edmund Burke, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. 6 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854-56), 1:464-71. John Adams concurred, saying that the religious element of the conflict was “a fact a certain as any in the history of North America.” Adams to Jedediah Morse, December 2, 1815. Works of John Adams, X:185.
Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 92, 177. Other scholars who have mentioned that King George III blamed the Presbyterians for the war include Henry Ippel, “British Sermons and the American Revolution,” Journal of Religious History (1982), Vol. 12, 193; James Graham Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 305; The Journal of Presbyterian History 54, no. 1 (1976); David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), Vol. 1, 15; H.M.J. Klein, ed., Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: A History (New York and Chicago: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1924), Vol. 1, 86; Paul Johnson, “God and the Americans,” Gilder Lehrman Institute Lectures in American History, Oct. 1999; John A. Mackay, “Witherspoon of Paisley and Princeton,” Theology Today, January 1962, Vol. 18, No. 4.
 Sir George Otto Trevelyan, The American Revolution (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1915; New Edition), Vol. III:311-312.
 Capt. Johann Heinrichs to the Counsellor of the Court, January 18, 1778: “Extracts from the Letter Book of Captain Johann Heinrichs of the Hessian Jager Corps, 1778-1780,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 22 (1898), 137.
 A.S. Hammond, August 5, 1776, Hammond Papers, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
 “Minutes of the Committee of Safety of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 1774-1776,” from the original in the library of General William Watts Hart Davis, Doylestown, Pennsylvania; entry for August 21, 1775, in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 15 (1891), 266.
 William Jones, “An Address to the British Government on a Subject of Present Concern, 1776,” The Theological, Philosophical and Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. William Jones, 12 vols. (London, 1801), Vol. 12, 356.
 King George III, July 1, 1774, quoted by Thomas Hutchinson, Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, P.O. Hutchinson, ed. (Boston: Houghton & Mifflin, 1884; AMS Reprint, 1973), Vol. 1, 168.
 Peter Force, ed., “Extract of a Letter to a Gentleman in London, from New York, May 31, 1774” American Archives, Fourth Series, Vol. 1, 301.
I’m dismayed that this article repeats British authorities’ beliefs that “Presbyterians” fueled the Revolution in New England without acknowledging that most New Englanders would have resented that label. The vast majority of New England clergy and congregations were Independent or Congregatonalist, and many people viewed Scottish immigrants and their Presbyterian organization with suspicion.
Not only is that fact important, but it also shows the limits of assessments that used the “Presbyterian” label. How accurate were those observers if they didn’t even grasp a fundamental part of New England culture?
The importance of religion in Revolutionary New England culture can hardly be understated, but it’s incumbent to describe that religion accurately. Contra this article’s claims, most studies of Revolutionary New England do just that. The examples in footnote 1 seem to be biographies of Revolutionary figures from other regions and faiths.
The war was won in the South. Without Presbyterian Scots-Irish, New England would have fallen to the Brits. New England holier-than-thous started it, the South finished it, and Yankees wrote the history books.
Well, doctrinally, Congregationalists and Presbyterians are almost identical. In fact, some seminaries would train pastors from either denomination, with just a class or two difference.
I just finished Kevin Phillips’ 1775 and he covers the religious aspects of the war in great detail. Unfortunately (or fortunately), historians can be influenced by the times in which they study and write. I’m not particularly religious but it has bothered me when efforts are made to remove any religious elements of our history. Whether the deity was called the Creator, Divine Providence or God, its presence appears in our Founding Documents, Great Seal, contemporary letters and speeches. For better or worse, religion makes the world go around and explains why that world is always in conflict but religion also informs culture and culture informs history as this article so aptly points out.
Would have to agree with J. L. Bell here. The quotes are compelling, but also must reflect an obvious omission by those who accused “Presbyterians.” This may have been a diversion. It was well known in London at the beginning of the Revolution that New England had been a refuge of the regecides and levellers who left England during and after Cromwell’s time. The term “Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion” I think referred to the motive of the rest of the colonies, particularly the South and back country. In New England, the English would have recognized an old English adversary, from the English Civil War. That’s why the band played “The World Turned Upside Down” at Yorktown.
J.L., I understand your point but I think the reductionism occurring here is largely done by the British (and not so much the author of the piece). He acknowledges at the end that many of the British are using the term “Presbyterian” to refer to dissenters in general, including New England Congregationalists. I suspect that should’ve been pointed out at the start of the piece, rather than at the end, and been expanded upon.
It would be instructive to know how many Tories were in the Church of England. I suspect it would be a relatively high percentage.
I agree that “Presbyterian” was not how most New Englanders would have described themselves. The underlying question of a secular vs. a religious American Revolution remains.
Stoughton Congregationalist or Church of God/Christ Minister Samuel Dunbar was an ardent patriot, who gave a fiery prayer introducing the first meeting of the Suffolk Revolves “convention.” His son, Elijah, was apparently a luke-warm Loyalist, but who, like so many, saw which way the strongest winds were blowing, and became a patriot and soon was the treasurer of the Town of Stoughton, paying out the salaries to the militia and many other war-related items.
It seems that many engage in a little too much “presentism” when they make a clean distinction between the words Presbyterian and Independent/Congregationalist. That distinction is more recent than many seem to grasp. In 1753 Yale College President Thomas Clap wrote that his college was founded by members “of the Denomination called Presbyterian or congregational,” and added, “we make no Difference of Distinction between them in this Colony.” (Thomas Clap to the Rev’d Mr. Punderson, November 5, 1753). Yes, we do make the distinction today, but it is erroneous to charge the highly theologically educated Puritan Yale President, Dr. Clap with the aspersion that he “didn’t even grasp a fundamental part of New England culture.” In the colonial period, the label “Presbyterian” was a much more ambiguous designation than it is at present. Employed broadly as a synonym for a Calvinist, a dissenter, or a republican, the term was used with considerable imprecision in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, it was used as a demagogic tool to inflame popular passions.
New Englanders in fact, did not resent the label. Benjamin Franklin described his upbringing in a Puritan/Congregational family with these words, “I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian.” (Franklin, Autobiography, 37). Mercy Otis Warren, one of the first of the historians of the American Revolution, referred to the New England Puritans as the “Presbyterians of the Massachusetts.” (Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, 10). Franklin explained that the established religion of the New England colonies was that “what is commonly called Presbyterian.” (Papers of BF, XIX, 167). Thomas Jefferson held the view that the first settlers in New England were “Presbyterian Brethren.” (Jefferson, Works, II:218). Again, the assessment that those who applied the term Presbyterians to New England Congregationalists must have been uninformed because they “didn’t grasp a fundamental part of New England culture” seems misdirected at men like Franklin or Jefferson, or a woman like Mercy Otis Warren (not to mention Rev. Dr. Clap). If Franklin, Jefferson, Warren and Clap are examples of uninformed colonials, who, then were “in the know”?
Having poured over the literature carefully, the most common terms used to describe ecclesiastic differences were “churchmen” and “presbyterians.” Churchmen were the Anglicans, the adherents to the Church of England and her bishops. Presbyterians were all those who dissented from the Church of England and her bishops, and therefore, whose ministers were not ordained by bishops but by presbyters–that included the New England Congregationalists.
A legitimate criticism might have been that I should have spelled this out more clearly in the article above, but, alas, word counts can be harsh taskmasters.
For further reference, see my dissertation abstract here.
I think the article above makes a fair point that religion is a factor often understated. I would not try to stretch the point into making the revolution about religious issues but it is fair to point out that Anglican bishops tended more often to remain loyal and counsel their parishiners to the same. Ditto for dissenters of all types. They tended more toward the Whigs. However, I still think the issue is more closely tied to taxation rather than to religious persecution of any type. Anglicans often held the power to tax everyone and not just their own parishiners. I understand where that would offend the other ministers. 🙂
Wayne, although I don’t discount the issue of taxation, the evidence is abundant that the Tories dismissed your view. To wit, one officer wrote to England in 1780 as follows:
“All the pretext of resistance to the imposition of illegal taxes was in the beginning nothing more than a mask, a trumped-up reason. The plan for that rebellion is laid older and deeper, and was conceived and hatched chiefly in the New England provinces. Since this sort of people are mostly Presbyterians and Puritans, thus for a long time—in accord with their religious tenets—all secular authority, but especially the name and power of a king, has been a thorn in their eye.” (Pettingill, Letters from America, 229).
Yet, if all secular authority is a “thorn in their eye”, wouldn’t there be a significant movement following the war to establish religion in the new nation? I certainly agree that Puritans, particularly the further back one goes, tended very strongly toward requiring adherence to their religion but, at the time of the revolution, I don’t really see much of a religious movement. As I mentioned above, I don’t really know of any religious issues in the political arguments other than economic considerations.
When I read some of the materials from the era, I am convinced that most of the Whigs were sincere in their belief in Enlightenment principles. I can be cynical and point out how these beliefs nicely coincide with their desire to push away the Proclamation line or otherwise line their pockets but I am still left a strong feeling that truth exists in the old maxim that ‘no man ever loved liberty more or spent more time contemplating its limitations than the 18th centurty Englishman.’ Or, if that isn’t the way the old maxim goes, maybe it should be. 🙂
Wasn’t there indeed an attempt to establish Presbyterianism after the war? Let’s look at the evidence.
In 1785 James Madison observed that “the Presbyterian [clergy] seem as ready to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out. I do not know a more shameful contrast.” (James Madison to James Monroe, April 12, 1785).
John Adams told Benjamin Rush that the potential establishment of Presbyterianism cast a cloud over his election–
“…the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them ‘Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.’” (John Adams to Dr. Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812)
The President of Congress observed that there were indeed designs to do “what our Enemies have so often prognosticated. We have been quarreling with the Ch. of England these 40 years past, about uniting Civill and Ecclesiastical Power, and now at the moment we have the shadow of Power in our Hands, we are running into the same extreme.” (Boudinot to Caldwell)
Thomas Jefferson was repulsed by the fact that the Presbyterians were still hoping for an establishment of their church as late as 1820.
“The Presbyterian clergy are the loudest, the most intolerant of all sects; the most tyrannical and ambitious, ready at the word of the law-giver, if such a word could now be obtained, to put their torch to the pile, and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere the flame in which their oracle, Calvin, consumed the poor Servetus, because he could not subscribe to the proposition of Calvin, that magistrates have a right to exterminate all heretics to the Calvinistic creed! They pant to re-establish by law that holy inquisition.” (Thomas Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820).
Apparently this remained somewhat of an issue all the way into the 1870s: http://books.google.com/books?id=AAsmY30mn2QC
Of course there has always been, particularly among the clergy, those who strive to establish their respective religious beliefs upon society. The good news is that here in the US and particularly following the revolution and in the age of Enlightenment, these movements remained firmly in the realm of the minority. For instance, Madison may complain at times about the Prsebyterian Clergy but had no problem getting the 1st amendment passed in a Congress dominated by dissenters. John Adams may have received votes from those who favor establishment yet, just because they felt him their best hope, he still didn’t feel enough political pressure to actually help them succeed in gaining any ground toward establishment. Thomas Jefferson was always repulsed by attempts at establishment and considered his work on religious freedom to be a crowing achievement. Naturally he would feel the need to remain vigilent and be horrified when later religious movements would try to take hold.
As do we all need to, even today there is a minority whose clear desire is to establish the US as a Christian nation and impose their own moral and religious codes upon the population.
But none of that creates a religious struggle in 1776 where the dominant issues involved lined up as Anglican vs Presbyterian. Taken as a whole, the political literature and makeup (and acts of) of the Continental Congress simply don’t support the American Revolution as a religious conflict.
Wayne, I concur with your assessment if you concluded by saying the literature doesn’t “support the American Revolution as ONLY a religious conflict,” or perhaps “PRIMARILY a religious conflict.” But I don’t think we can entirely dismiss John Adams’ perspective when he wrote that the religious dynamic of the war was “a fact as certain as any in the history of North America.”
Adams to Morse, Dec. 2, 1815 books.google.com/books?id=fWt3AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA185
When placed in the mixing pot as one of many causes or perhaps to say that certainly there are some who were motivated by religion I certainly agree with you. Maybe even a few folk for whom religion was their primary motive. Yep, likely a few Presbyterian or Congregationalist ministers.
Anyway, I do believe you are correct in that the revolution has some divisions that break along church lines. Its certainly true that a large percentage of the loyalists were Anglican and likely came from churches where the minister remained loyal. I saw that in the study of Rev Seabury even though the arguments in his texts were mostly economic in nature, his influence was higher among those in his church. A church which dominated that area.
The sort of reverse situation is demonstrated in South Carolina where British officers openly looked down on and discriminated against the Presbyterians. Christian Huck and James Wemyss come to mind as having strong feelings against Presbyterians.
So, while I obviously don’t feel the revolution was primarily about religion or religious issues, I have no problem with the idea that religion played a role in how people viewed each other, how they viewed the king, and, in many cases, religion had a strong influence on which side of the revolution they came down on.
Gardiner’s article states: “When discussing the nature of the American dissident leadership with his representative from Massachusetts, the king exclaimed, ‘are they not Presbyterians?’”
In fact, this is the exchange between former royal governor Thomas Hutchinson and George III in July 1774, as recorded in the latter’s diary:
H[utchinson].—The body of the people are Dissenters from the Church of England; what are called Congregationalists. If the [new Massachusetts] Council shall have been generally selected from the Episcopalians, it will make the change more disagreeable.
K[ing].—Why are they not Presbyterians?
H.—There are a very few Churches which call themselves Presbyterians, and form themselves voluntarily into a Presbytery without any aid from the civil government, which the Presbyterian Church of Scotland enjoys.
Lord D[artmouth].—The Dissenters in England at this day are scarce any of them Presbyterians, but like those in New England, Congregationalists, or rather Independents.
For the article to quote only one part of this exchange, and not even the full sentence at that, was probably a product of enthusiasm for its thesis. But to omit acknowledging how Hutchinson and Dartmouth distinguished between Independents/Congregationalists and Presbyterians for the king and to claim that that’s a “presentist” idea verges on willful deception.
That’s not just a matter of labels. By lumping together all Calvinist dissenters under the label “Presbyterian,” the article misses how resistance leaders in New England viewed Scottish immigrants with suspicion, and how Hutchinson praised Scottish gentlemen for their loyalty to the Crown. Ethnicity, recent immigration, and business ties were the important dividing lines. For Yankee Congregationalists those Scotsmen’s Presbyterianism wasn’t a common theological cause but, if anything, more reason to distrust them.
The article rests heavily on the assessment of one side of the political argument about the thinking and motivations of the other. As the exchange above shows, George III didn’t have a good conception of New England; his statements are a better reflection of his own thinking than of what drove the New England resistance leaders. Likewise, John Adams’s claims about what political opponents accused him of doing were almost always exaggerated and reflected his own psychology.
There’s no question that religion was a significant motivating factor in the American Revolution—and, contra this article’s opening complaint, many recent historians have written about that. Boston Congregationalists were accusing the Crown of trying to set up an Anglican bishop in America well before Loyalists accused Americans of wishing to set up a Presbyterian establishment. Neither of those accusations was true, however. Such paranoia about the enemy should remind us to look at what each side actually wrote, and in full rather than selectively.
Some did, in fact, split hairs between the ecclesiastical polity differences between Presbyterians and Congregationalists (Presbyterians being connected by presbyteries and Congregationalists having independent local congregations). But the fact remains that many extremely influential, educated, and highly-placed leaders during the revolution DID NOT distinguish between Presbyterians and Congregationalist: King George III certainly fits that label: educated, influential, important, significant, etc. (certainly moreso than the minor characters you find more relevant).
How about Ben Franklin? Were his views significant an informed? Benjamin Franklin described his upbringing in a Puritan/Congregational family with these words, “I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian.” (Franklin, Autobiography, 37). Mercy Otis Warren, one of the first of the historians of the American Revolution, referred to the New England Puritans as the “Presbyterians of the Massachusetts.” (Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, 10). Franklin explained that the established religion of the New England colonies was that “what is commonly called Presbyterian.” (Papers of BF, XIX, 167). Thomas Jefferson held the view that the first settlers in New England were “Presbyterian Brethren.” (Jefferson, Works, II:218). Again, the assessment that those who applied the term Presbyterians to New England Congregationalists must have been uninformed because they “didn’t grasp a fundamental part of New England culture” seems misdirected at men like Franklin or Jefferson, or a woman like Mercy Otis Warren (not to mention Rev. Dr. Clap). If Franklin, Jefferson, Warren and Clap are examples of uninformed colonials, who, then were “in the know”?
In 1753 Yale College President Thomas Clap wrote that his college was founded by members “of the Denomination called Presbyterian or congregational,” and added, “we make no Difference of Distinction between them in this Colony.” (Thomas Clap to the Rev’d Mr. Punderson, November 5, 1753). Yes, we do make the distinction today, but it is erroneous to charge the highly theologically educated Puritan Yale President, Dr. Clap with the aspersion that he “didn’t even grasp a fundamental part of New England culture.”
I stand by my assertion (and Franklin’s) that “presbyterian” was used in the late 19th century to refer “commonly” to the dominant religious perspective of New England.
Mr. Bell’s citation of the entire page of Hutchinson’s diary appears to imply that King George didn’t mean to ask Hutchinson “are they not Presbyterians?” but rather wanted to know “why are they not presbyterians?” The answer provided by Hutchinson makes it clear that the former was certainly the intent. I can only imagine that Mr. Bell is unaware that the word “why” in this historical context was often used as an interjection. In demonstrating this , the OED cites a number of passages: to wit, Shakes. Much Ado iv. ii. 44 “Why this is flat periurie, to call a Princes brother villaine.” Ibid. v. iv. 73 Bene. “Doo not you loue me? Beat. Why no, no more then reason.”
A colonial may have seen a visitor at a distance and remarked, “Why is that you my old friend, Thomas Jefferson?” but a reader would be very mistaken to suggest that the expression indicated an inquiry as to why the person was Thomas Jefferson.
So when King George said “Why are they not Presbyterians?” a careful reader has to discern whether “why” is an inquiry regarding the reason for it, or whether “why” is an interjection. If “why” were an inquiry, the answer given would begin with a word like “because…” But let’s look at the exchange:
King’s question: Why are they not Presbyterians?
Hutchinson’s answer: There are a very few Churches which call themselves Presbyterians…
The responses Hutchinson and Dartmouth give only answer the question “are they not Presbyterians?” They do not answer the question “why are they not presbyterians.” Hence, the “why” is easily identifiable as an 18th century interjection. To relay the king’s intent properly then, it is necessary to omit the interjection, lest an uninformed modern reader make the same erroneous linguistic presumption Mr. Bell appears to have made.
Further, there is an corroborating evidence that the King categorized the revolutionaries as Presbyterians (e.g., Franklin to Hartley, Feb. 3, 1779).
The point of the article is not to suggest that the king was accurate in his understanding of ecclesiastical politics, but only to show what the king presumed about the colonials.
Gave you a credit on
What’s New on the Online Library of the American Revolution.
Presbyterian’s were of course dissenter’s, and hard minded “fellows” in the minds of the Unitarians, Quakers and Congregationalists of the New England by the beginning of the Revolution. As Presbyterian’s were ten years prior to the Revolution quite Educated Clergyman throughout the Cities, Townships, larger Coastal towns, and deep within the Frontier is a powerful force of knowledge and faith to combat the evils of the world of their day and time.
A Presbyterian Pastor who comes from proud stock and of humble beginnings, can seem “quite dangerous” to the Powers that Be, certainly to the Church of England and those who try to use religion to pacify a people to the will of a political power. A “Presbyterian Revolution” is mentioned in many “dispatches” however, that is certainly due to the power of many of those holding Pulpits and in Communities with large numbers of people seeking a message or homily that preaches to the evils that impact the hearts and minds of the people.
My friends at HARVARD, YALE and PRINCETON tend to forget that Economics…and Political Preaching came together quite easily – focusing on the injustices of power politics, issues that impacted the common man, women, family and township and these factors are easy to relate to the Pharaoh’s of one’s particular time and place.
However the honorable gentlemen who have commented, of course should note that many Scotch-Irish Loyalists were Church of Scotland immigrants who were strongly indebted to the Crown, and by that fact, a greater dissenter to the Loyalist Cause. General Washington worried about the more powerful Presbyterian Planter Elite that were wealthy Landowners throughout the South Atlantic Coastal Rice Farming, Indigo Planting communities, as well as those stubborn Scot’s in the Piedmont Regions from the Carolina’s to deep within Pennsylvania’s frontier along the Ohio.
Rev Dinkins, As your vocation is clearly shown, I thought you might enjoy a few thoughts concerning what we refer to as the Presbyterian Rebellion in South Carolina. Just as Cornwallis was busy trying to occupy and organize the southern states back into Crown control after the British victory at Charleston, Two Presbyterian congregations (led by two very outspoken and rabid Whig preachers) began a volunteer resistance that eventually led to running the British out of the south. One of these preachers was the locally famous, Rev John Simpson.
Rev Simpson came from Delaware and was “distinguished throughout the country for the zeal with which, at the earliest period of the struggle, he espoused the cause of liberty.” He moved to Chester District in the South Carolina back country and, although he also traveled some to York, became the first regular pastor of the Fishing Creek Church. Because Simpson “was regarded as the head and counsellor of the band of heroes who had so signally defeated the enemy at the Old Field” he was singled out for punishment. The Rev himself was out with the army but, on the morning of June 11, 1780, Mrs. Simpson heard gunshots down the road from her home by the Church. She went outside and met a British (or Tory) patrol with plans to kill Simpson and other Whigs. The shots had been William Strong from down the street who happened to be on the road heading toward the church. His untimely demise probably gave warning to others. The patrol was frustrated at not catching the Rev so they burned down his home and Church. No doubt, this story gave rise to the now infamous burning church story shown in the movie ‘The Patriot’. While the burning of church with people inside was not done, the local tradition after the war had been that “in was determined that his [Rev Simpson] punishment should be speedy. In pursuance of this resolution, a party took their way to the church, where they expected to find the pastor with his assembled congregation, intending, as was believed at the time, to burn both church and people, by way of warning to other ‘disturbers of the King’s peace. This was on the Sabbath morning, June 11, 1780.”
It might be noted that the brave Mrs. Simpson saved the children and her tea-spoons which had been a gift from her mother. Also, when the soldiers set fire to the Rev study, she ran in and saved two aprons full of books. Now that is my kind of priority. 🙂
Should you appreciate another tidbit or two about Presbyterians in the south, answer me the following that I think you may be in a position to know about.
The notorious Captain Christian Huck who was later killed at ‘Huck’s Defeat’, “with his band of redcoats and tories he wasted the country; everywhere, it is said, cursing Presbyterians, and burning those Bibles which contained the old version of the Psalms.”
My question is this; what is meant by the ‘old version of the Psalms’?
Now, this topic has proved so controversial that surely someone can help me. I recently saw something I can’t lay hand on now. It was a scornful attack on the MecDec, maybe as early as the 1820s or 1830s, that gave arguments for dismissing the possibility that there could have been such a document then added, snidely, about the people involved, “And they were all Presbyterians.”– Those words or very similar words–a clincher of an argument, the context being that of course all Presbyterians would lie to glorify themselves and their elders. I have scoured 4 newspaper data bases and Google and can’t find this thing I should have saved when I saw it. Help!
I heard this years ago “The one thing the British feared was a Presbyterian minister with a musket beside his pulpit.” Now I know why. Thanks, Richard.
I’ m researching letters related to Anna Seward, an English poet mid-late 18th century and came across something which might interest you? A letter from her father, Thomas, talks about the ‘Presbyterian incendiaries of New York’ and although undated the content suggests late 1770s. Thomas was a Canon at Lichfield Cathedral (high Anglican) and I would guess a Tory. His description might fit a general belief, (at least amongst those in Britain who deplored/feared the revolution in America) that The Great Fire of 1776 was indeed caused by the revolutionary Presbyterians?
Anna went on to publish in 1781 a long poem celebrating the ‘martyrdom’ of the spy/hero Major John Andre and later received a deputation from George Washington himself, who thought she had been too harsh on him!