Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History


February 14, 2022
by Gabriel Neville Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History by Katherine Carté (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press/Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2021)

Dwight Eisenhower once said that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” This uniquely American argument, made by other presidents as well, is rooted in a seeming paradox of the Founding Era. America abandoned official religion in the wake of the Revolution and yet the nation became much more religious.[1]

Katherine Carté’s book Religion and the American Revolution is not about the theological origins of the conflict or the so-called “black-robed regiment” of militant clergy. It is about the impact of the Revolution on established religion on both sides of the sea. It is one of several recent books that opens the historical aperture on the era and lets us see familiar events in a broader context. This is especially important when it comes to the dominant Protestant sects of the period. These were trans-Atlantic organizations and America’s established colonial churches remained very close to and even dependent on support from home.

Fundamental to Carté’s analysis is understanding that the Church of England was just one of three denominations that represented a compound Imperial religious establishment. Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists all held privileged status in different parts of the Empire: Anglicans in England and the American South, Presbyterians in Scotland, and Congregationalists in New England. Carté describes a tripartite “scaffold” of establishment that bound Protestants together and united the King’s dominions. Protestantism defined the British Empire more than Englishness did, since most of its subjects were not English.

The “scaffold” Carté describes was self-reinforcing. Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians were all dissenters somewhere in the Empire. Thus, all had a vested interest in toleration while also enjoying establishment status. Carté admits that this excludes nearly half of America’s Christians—Lutherans, Quakers, Mennonites, Baptists, Moravians, and especially Catholics. People of these faiths were dissenters everywhere. Non-Christian religions hardly figure in the narrative at all. The regionally elite, established denominations are Carté’s subject.

It is seldom said, but anti-Catholicism was closely related to pre-Revolutionary Americans’ understanding of their rights. Britain and its possessions saw themselves as a bulwark of liberty in a world otherwise ruled by tyrants. For them, Protestantism was synonymous with liberty and also defined by what it was not: French, Spanish, Catholic, or Jacobite. All citizens of the Empire were the inheritors of a unique legacy that began with the Magna Carta and expanded with Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the beheading of Charles I in 1649. The ouster of the Stuarts in the Glorious Revolution, the coronation of William of Orange, and the 1689 English Bill of Rights transformed Britain into something different from her enemies. Britain no longer believed in the divine right kings. Kings could be, and had been, removed. In their coronation oaths, the Hanover kings swore to govern according to the laws of Parliament and to “maintain the laws of God, the true profession of the Gospel, and the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law.” The 1706 and 1707 Acts of Union, which merged England and Scotland into one bi-confessional state, solidified the king’s role as protector of two state churches—an arrangement that was soon understood to include New England Congregationalists and (less formally) most other Protestants as well.[2]

Carté describes a vibrant era of Protestant Christian life, interdenominational harmony, and relative freedom. Christian leaders conducted robust correspondence across the sea on all sorts of matters. An Anglican bishop for America was proposed and opposed. Money was raised for colleges and missions. Meanwhile, the divine right of kings was alive and well in the French and Spanish empires. No bills of rights had been enacted in Paris or Madrid, and Protestants associated that lack of freedom with the “popery” of those nations and of Britain’s own past. The conflict was real. The wars of religion in Europe were intense, long, and bloody. Britain put down Jacobite uprisings in 1715 and 1745 and anti-Catholicism was an important theme in the Seven Years War and its American theater, which we call the French and Indian War.

Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War changed everything. The Empire turned its attention to making peace with the Indians and assimilating the Catholic Quebecois. To many, the rhetoric and the policies coming from Whitehall seemed to turn on a dime. The Proclamation Line of 1763, blocking settlement west of the Alleghenies, was meant to reduce Indian conflict. The Quebec Act of 1774 was meant to assure the peaceful assimilation of former French subjects. These measures were vehemently opposed by the colonists. The Catholic Church was preserved in Quebec and the boundary of the province was extended south to the Ohio River, creating a direct border with Virginia and Pennsylvania. French civil institutions were also preserved, meaning there would be no elected legislature and no right to a jury trial. The Quebec Act and the concurrent Intolerable Acts were taken as proof that Parliament had lost its commitment to American liberty. The new Quebec policy diverged significantly from the strident anti-Catholicism that had united the Empire for so long. This may have mattered most in the colonies, where a common enemy was arguably needed to preserve the bond with Britain. A century and a half and the wide Atlantic already separated America from London. The policy changes also mattered in England and Scotland where there were large and destructive riots.

Carté quotes some blistering sermons given by New England Congregationalist ministers. In resisting the acts of Parliament, Samuel Sherwood insisted, the colonists were merely acting as their forebears had in resisting James II, a “tyrannical oppressive prince.” If it was wrong to do so, then the colonists might as well “throw up the present constitution of England and the Hanover family” and “return back in our allegiance to the Stuart family; and to their popish plan of government.”[3]

Despite the strong language in these sermons, Carté argues that American clergy generally did not foment revolutionary fervor as war approached, but rather hewed closely to the views of the political leaders in their individual colonies. Old prejudices persisted when it came to equating Catholicism with tyranny, but that had to change. Congress turned quickly to enlisting the support of the Canadians and the French. General Washington banned celebrations of Pope’s Day (Guy Fawkes Day) in the army. Though the process may have begun with the Quebec Act, the “scaffold” of religious establishment described by Carté quickly crumbled in America as diverse colonies united with each other and with new Catholic allies. Congress regularly called for days of fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving, but the political importance of these lessened with time as it became clearer that these were appeals for voluntary spiritual support from an interdenominational confederacy and not edicts with the force of law.

In the end, the Revolution separated conceptions of liberty from anti-Catholicism and divided religious practices from government power. Contrary to what some might have expected, this seems to have resulted in a much more religious nation. The Revolution was quickly followed by the Second Great Awakening, which focused more on personal relationships with Jesus than it did on status and institutions. The Church of England fell apart in United States. Great numbers of its clergy fled and those that remained were soon disconnected from a church whose reach was by definition coterminous with British rule. The Episcopal church eventually took its place, but it was vastly outstripped by the Methodists who had previously existed within its ranks. Evangelicals shine in Carté’s narrative. Disestablishment seems to have unleashed a pent-up energy. The numbers of Baptists and Methodists exploded. In New England, Congregationalists clung for a time to their long-held status, especially in Massachusetts where they remained the official church until 1833.

Carté’s book is valuable to anyone who wants to understand the role of established religion in the British Empire and the reasons why established religion was abandoned after the war. It is carefully written and generally avoids wading into the controversies that seem inevitable when religion and government are placed together.

She does make one argument near the end of the book that is worth testing. She depicts a historical debate over whether the Revolution established a “Christian nation” or “finally and righteously” built a “wall of separation” between church and state.  She describes an “imagined Christian nation” that was held up by “Christian nationalists” that was “in tension” with a “practical, legal reality.” Right from the start, she maintains, Washington’s first Thanksgiving Day proclamation showed the “confused tendencies” of leaders to “both employ public religion and to minimize it.” She emphasizes the point. “Britain’s protestant empire would . . . have no direct successor in America,” she writes. “Yet this did not stop religious leaders—and even those in elected office—from acting as if such a protestant nation existed. The tension between institutional weakness and rhetorical insistence on protestant hegemony is a lasting legacy of the Revolutionary era.”[4]

To be sure, the relationship between government and religion in America changed dramatically during the founding era, but there is no reason to think the founders were confused about it. The first four American presidents each had much to say on the issue. Alexis de Tocqueville captured their collective sentiments by asserting—a bit like Eisenhower—that “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.”[5]

The leading founders wanted America to be a land with no state churches and no religious tests, where even a non-Christian could, as Washington liked to say, “sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, none to make him afraid,” while also being a self-consciously religious (and overwhelmingly Christian) nation. In his farewell address, written by Alexander Hamilton, Washington described the American people as having, with “slight shades of difference . . . the same Religion, Manners, Habits & political Principles.” More famously, he warned:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect & to cherish them.

This sounds quite a bit like Eisenhower. The separation of church and state was not seen as requiring a separation of religion and state. The key was understanding that others, including non-Christians, had the same rights. This was expressed by Washington in his 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation at Newport, Rhode Island.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.[6]

This letter may have been drafted for the president by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Carté offers no evidence that the founders saw a meaningful “tension” between the sentiments in Washington’s letter to the Newport synagogue and the warning in his 1796 farewell (she quotes neither document). Moreover, the “practical, legal reality” of disestablishment may have been practical but it was not legal until the 1860s, when the Fourteenth Amendment applied the provisions of the Bill of Rights to state law. Until then, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment only applied to Congress. The original understanding was not much of a change: every American religious establishment had existed at the colony or state level anyway. Massachusetts maintained its establishment for another half century.

Carté’s incomplete look at the “Christian nationalism” question is not a major flaw. It is not central to her main thesis or narrative. The book is carefully researched, clearly written, and interesting to read. She provides needed context for a frequently neglected but very important part of colonial life and early national life. The story she tells is an inspiring one, in which Americans’ perception of liberty—once defined in part by “antipopery”—was corrected and improved to eventually include people of all faiths.[7]

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[3]Katherine Carté, Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History (Williamsburg and Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 153-154.

[4]Ibid., 371-375

[5]Sanford Kessler, “Tocqueville on Civil Religion and Liberal Democracy,” Journal of Politics, 39 (1977):119-146, 123.

[6]Dorothy Twohig, et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 21 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987-2020), 6:284–286, 20:703-722. Punctuation corrected. The “vine and figtree” illustration comes from Micah, 4:4: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall makethemafraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spokenit.” (KJV)

[7]Carté, Religion and the Revolution,375.


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