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Introduction to Part II:
IN GOD WE TRUST, 1770-1870 

Topic 3: Revolution, Republican Religion, & American Identity 

For materials and information on the American Revolution browse my course site, The Revolutionary Generation in America. 

Note these useful secondary sources for this topic: 
Sins of the Fathers Religion & the Revolution, an essay by  Edwin Gaustad
Religion and the Revolution, Prof. Terry Matthews, Wake Forest College
Religion and the American Revolution, Christine Heyrman, University of Delaware

A Library of Congress exhibit contains useful primary  material as well: 
Religion and the American Revolution Library of Congress Exhibit
Religion and the Congress of the Confederation, 1784-1789, Library of Congress Exhibit

Primary Sources: 

Common Sense, Thomas Paine, 1776

Scriptures of American Civil Religion, from the Atlantic Monthly Sidebar


Religion, The Revolution & Republican Ideology

The American Revolution, a source for much of the symbolism of  the American national myth, was arguably the most important historical movement shaping American identity. In the Revolution, English colonists transformed  themselves into a new nation by creating a distinctive identity based on republican principles. They took their heritage of English Whig ideology and shaped it into the ideology of American republicanism which is the foundation of American identity. This part of the lecture examines the ways religion played a role in this process. 

Religious factors among the causes of the Revolution:

1. In New England the long-standing distrust of the Church of England and its bishops was part of the revolutionary movement

The distrust and fear of Bishops and the anger over Anglican efforts to secure a bishop for American Anglicans, according to John Adams, was "as much as any other cause to arouse the attention not only of the inquiring mind, but the common people and urge them to close thinking on the constitutional authority of parliament over the colonies." 

2. Rebellion and the Calvinist Heritage:

·         God the Ultimate Ruler

·         Covenant Theology

·         Mayhew as source

3. English national identity ever since the Reformation was highly charged with religious, and particularly anti-Catholic, emotion. In the American colonies, particularly in New England, this English Protestant identity became part of an emerging  American identity. New England's long quarrel with the Church of England tried to draw  parallels between Anglican bishops and Roman Catholic hierarchy as part of a threat to Protestant security. 

4. The ideology behind English identity in the 18th century drew from the Whig tradition developed after the Glorious Revolution 1688. At the heart of that ideology was the idea that Liberty was the patrimony of all Englishman and that it always had to be defended against an aggressive thirst for power by corrupt officials. English religious dissenters were particularly drawn to that ideology and made it part of their quest for religious liberty.

5. Impact of the Great Awakening: 


“Although it is ironical that the Awakening sought to internalize religious experience, as it spread up and down the Eastern seaboard a striking tendency emerged in which people began to wear one's religion on one's sleeve.” Matthews


It inspired increasing sense of egalitarianism by taking the position that everybody's soul is subject to the possibility of redemption and by providing a rationale for questioning authority

6. Preachers, particularly in New England and Presbyterian and Baptist ministers in the Middle Colonies and the South, spread the revolutionary word.


Preachers used the millennial themes planted by the Puritans and reinterpreted them to fit the revolutionary situation. Ezra Stiles, a New Englander, offered this  expression of a new interpretation of the errand into the wilderness in 1760:

"The right of conscience and private judgment is unalienable; and it is truly the interest of all mankind to unite themselves into one body for the liberty, free exercise, and unmolested enjoyment of this right...And being possessed of the precious jewel of religious liberty, a jewel of inestimable worth, let us prize it highly and esteem it too dear to be parted with on any terms lest we be again entangled with that yoke of bondage which our fathers could not, would not, and God grant that we may never, submit to bear...Let the grand errand into America never be forgotten."”

7. Religion and the Quest for Virtue

8.  The Role of  Enlightenment Religion

From Religion and the American Revolution, Christine Heyrman, University of Delaware:  Why did Common Sense succeed so brilliantly as a piece of political propaganda?
Among other reasons, because it is a kind of secular sermon, an extraordinarily adroit
mingling of religion and politics. Look at the opening paragraphs ("Time makes more
converts than reason.") in which Paine casts the decision to support the cause of
rebellion as a matter of feeling rather than thought, as a process akin to that of
evangelical conversion. Review his assault on monarchy, which boils down to the
proposition that all kings are blasphemous usurpers who claim a sovereign authority
over other human beings that rightfully belongs only to God. Notice, too, how
vehemently Paine insists that the Jews of the Old Testament rejected monarchical
government--the obvious conclusion being that God's new "chosen people" in America
should follow that example. Consider his assertion that the colonies are an asylum of
religious liberty, implying that Americans must pass from argument to arms to protect
freedom of conscience for religious dissenters. And, finally, don't miss how often the
cadences of Common Sense echo and even reiterate the language of the Bible. 

Ironically, Thomas Paine was anything but an orthodox Christian. Although bred to
Quakerism in England during his youth, he had shed that religious influence years before
writing Common Sense and later proudly proclaimed his deistical views in a pamphlet
entitled The Age of Reason--which prompted pious Protestants, even as late as the
twentieth century, to denounce him as a "dirty little atheist." But even if Paine was less
than sincere--indeed, entirely disingenuous--in invoking the evangelical sentiments that
suffuse Common Sense, he had an intuitive grasp of religious appeals that would move
his American audience to political action. In other words, while Common Sense is not
a reliable guide to Paine's private religious opinions, its enthusiastic reception in
America tells us a great deal about the religious views of his audience. . . .He was--and remains--an irresistibly compelling spokesperson for the republican tradition, and Common Sense stands as the best example of how deeply politics and religion were intertwined for many men and women of the revolutionary generation.

Revolution in Church-State Relations & the Emergence of American Civil Religion

Reading: Marty, pp. 154-166; Cherry, pp. 82-109
Online Primary Sources:
 Bill for Religious Freedom
Madison, Memorial
   Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association on Separation of Church and State

Consequences of the Revolution for America's Churches, Prof. Terry Matthews

Religion and the State Governments [This Library of Congress exhibition gives a short and clear overview of the role of government in religious life at the state lever before and after the 1789 Constitution. ]

Religion and the Federal Government [This Library of Congress exhibition gives a short and clear overview of the issue of government and religion at the federal level. ]

An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (Jefferson, 1777)

The Growth of A Civil Religion

For the churches, there were consequences to this mixing religion  and revolution. One of the most important was the advent of a civil religion. Just as a common understanding of the Christian faith served to unite a diversity of religious denominations in a shared evangelical world view, another general religion took firm root during the period of the American Revolution. This new faith was not pluralistic. It was as Winthrop Hudson puts it: a "religion of the republic" with it's own beliefs, myths, and symbols; it's own ceremonies, and rituals; it's own days of remembrance and thanksgiving." (We might even say it has it's own temples. If you have ever been to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, you may have noted how they seem to be modeled after ancient temples.)

wash-deo.jpg (47901 bytes) Deification of Washington

Rousseau on Civil Religion, from the Social Contract