Book Review: The Brethren: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America by Brendan McConville (Harvard University Press, 2021)
Recent scholarship on the Revolution has expanded the perspectives from which the conflict is viewed, but as Brendan McConville observes, the white yeoman population has been overlooked. In The Brethren: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America, McConville examines the Lewellen Conspiracy, contending that the conspiracy arose out of fears for the safety of Protestant values among the yeoman population, coinciding with an ideological shift in the understanding of liberty. The conspiracy’s followers, a group known as the Brethren, arose in seven North Carolina counties where the yeoman dominated demographically. Only about a year into the conflict, the Brethen, led by John Lewellen, developed a plan to assassinate North Carolina’s patriot leaders—including the governor.
While a militantly Protestant and anti-Catholic worldview had previously been a defining pillar of freedom in the British Empire, the same world view provided the impetus for American colonists’ mobilization against the empire (page 4). The panic about Protestant values coming under attack originated in a series of developments, including the promotion of deist principles by leading politicians, a fear that the state constitution would uphold principles of the enlightenment, and the push for an alliance with France, a Catholic country. These factors, combined with conscription and the often-violent and coercive methods employed to demand cooperation with the cause of liberty, increased fears among Protestants about the safety of their values.
While the population in the seven counties in which the conspiracy arose contained some wealthy citizens as well as enslaved peoples, the yeoman dominated the regions demographically. The yeomen were influenced by religious, social, and economic concerns that became largely disconnected from Revolutionary ideals or were otherwise subject to perceived threats as the Revolution progressed. As McConville notes, the nature of the Anglican church in rural areas meant that laymen often conducted services in the absence of the appointed preacher, who was apt to be gone often as he travelled his circuit of dispersed rural congregations. This meant that these communities had laymen who served important roles in the congregations and became, by extension, important leaders in the community. Besides underscoring one facet of the way in which religion influenced these communities, it is notable that one of the leaders of the conspiracy functioned as a lay reader. In addition to the influence of the religious landscape, McConville contends that an agricultural shift from tobacco to grain and cereal products coincided with the changing notion of liberty and the increasing fears of the yeoman population.
While previous scholarship defined the Revolution in terms of enlightenment values, McConville asserts that such a top-down approach marginalizes and ignores the role of Protestantism in the Revolution. Furthermore, McConville asserts that even with recent trends in scholarship to examine marginalized populations, the yeoman population remains largely unexamined. The Brethren is an interesting study in the use of difficult sources and the creative ways in which historians must use them to reveal information about previously obscured incidents or populations. Drawing upon depositions, affidavits, correspondence, and court records, McConville discusses the numerous issues with utilizing sources that are derived from a marginally-educated population. Oftentimes, names are misspelled or feature multiple variations of spelling. Documents requiring signatures often feature “X” signatures from the illiterate, obscuring those voices from the record (p. 122).
While the author makes adept and perceptive use of sources to piece together the roots of the conspiracy and the way in which it reflected broader trends, the brush with which the author paints Revolutionary scholarship is perhaps too black and white as his characterization somewhat overlooks or simplifies recent studies that have illumined the Revolutionary era’s large population of disaffected. This book places the conspiracy within a broader context and frames it not as a conspiracy that arose out of the fringes of society, but rather one that arose out of feelings and values that would have been somewhat commonplace among citizens. McConville asserts that the Lewellen Conspiracy is interesting precisely because it does not represent extraordinary values or beliefs, but rather reflects trends evident in North Carolina’s population at large (p. 23). While it is true that the book examines this event through the fresh perspectives gained by previously underused sources, it seems a bit exaggerated to characterize scholarship as focused on either the elite or the enslaved (p. 23). A number of books in recent years have examined previously overlooked populations of the disaffected and the effects and impacts of the Revolution on everyday colonial citizens, and this book fits well within that trend. Further complicating the grand narrative of the Revolution, McConville demonstrates that enlightenment principles were pitted against religious principles in a struggle to determine America’s character (p. 99).
Overall, this compact volume is an engaging read. In addition to enlightening readers on issues affecting the yeoman population in the Revolution, this book will appeal particularly to those who are interested in religious history as well as aficionados of the Carolinas’ history. McConville makes a valuable contribution to the way Revolutionary era conspiracies formed, the impacts of religion on everyday life, and how the friction between the values of the ordinary populace and elite politicians contributed to the formation of the new nation’s government.