Religious Radicalism as a Factor of the American Revolution

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Forty years after the beginning of the American Revolution, the two most famous theorists of the Revolution, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, exchanged opinions on how the American colonies could have thrown off British rule so completely, and then on top of that, institute in their new government so complete a repudiation of the British example of government. Adams, gently reminded Jefferson that the change was not nearly so dramatic as he thought. The Revolution, said Adams, was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775 in the course of 15 years before a drop of blood was shed.

Adams was not only right but probably more right than he thought, in the sense that ideas which paved the rout to American independence had been there for much longer, even more than 15 years.

One source was John Locke. Thomas Jefferson, who preferred to see himself as an original thinker, did not like being told that the Declaration of Independence he was delegated to write in 1776 sounded like it was copied from Locke’s treatises on government. But even Jefferson admitted that Locke’s little book on government is perfect as far as it goes. Still, Locke was hardly the only figure on the horizon of American minds before 1776. The Enlightenment as a whole contributed a general resistance to the notion that traditional authorities, including kings and parliaments, had to be deferred to; while the Scottish common sense philosophy offered a particular source of alternative authority in the shared natural sense of truth and right which everyone was supposed to possess, whether they were princes or peasants.

Above all, in the most hard-headed sense, it was the penny-pinching attitude of the imperial government that led the colonies to put the necessity of self-government in the first place. The colonies were astounded at the prospect of parliament trying to change those rules, so to speak, in midstream.

In 1843, when one of the last survivors of the Revolution’s first fight at Lexington was interviewed about the reasons for taking up arms against the British, he was quizzed about whether he had been reading Harrington and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty. I’ve never heard of these men, answered Levi Preston. The questioner, Mellen Chamberlain, then asked: Well, then, what was the matter? Young man, Preston replied, what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to, they didn’t mean we should.

Religious Rebellion in New York

Let’s not underestimate another source of resistance, the religious radicalism that went into founding so many of the colonies, not only the Puritans of New England, but the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Baptists of Rhode Island had their roots in dissent from an established State Church. And even other immigrant religious groups, like Scot-Irish Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, Dutch Calvinists in New York, German Lutherans and Roman Catholics, all of them acted outside the circle of the protestant Church of England culture; and that could lead to political dissent the moment this sense of alienation and being on the margin attached itself to political grievances.

In 1746, the New York assembly decided to establish a college in New York city on a par with Yale, Harvard and the other colonial colleges. As a Crown colony, however, the assembly assumed that the New York college, like Oxford and Cambridge, would have to be a Church of England's college. In other words, its faculty would have to be communicants of the Church of England, the required worship and religious instruction would have to be Church of England’s, and most likely, its students would have at least to publicly conform to the Church of England. But New York had originally been founded by the Dutch, and when the English seized the city in 1664, part of the settlement that allowed for peaceful transition was in agreement not to force the Church of England down Calvinist throats. The result was that New York became a mixed multitude of Dutch reformed Churches, Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews, Baptists; while the actual Anglican communicants of the colony numbered no more than 20% of the population.

For non-Anglicans, the notion that public revenues were going to fund an Anglican college looked like picking their pockets to create a machine whose graduates would proselytize and undermine their Churches. And their dim view of things was not helped by the selection of the Connecticut apostate, Samuel Johnson, as the first president.

In the summer of 1753, shortly before the new King’s College was opened, a terrific pamphlet war broke out in New York, led by the wealthy Presbyterian William Livingston. This was significant for what was to follow. Livingston bases his religious suspicions of the King’s College project on an appeal to Locke’s notion of government. Rulers and magistrates, argued Livingston, occupy their places as men above the rest dependent upon the free exercise of the will of the later for the good of the whole. That obligated the magistrates to the pursuit of the welfare of the community, not to the exercise of favoritism toward one part of it. The transformation of King’s College from a publicly funded college into what Samuel Johnson unwisely called an Anglican seminary was precisely such a perversion. At that moment, Livingston argued, people may consider themselves as in the State of Nature, which authorized resistance and the formation of a new government.

In the end, Livingston campaign failed. King’s College opened its doors in the springs of 1754 with Samuel Johnson at its head. But Johnson was forced to back off on restricting the college only to Anglican communicants. And in 1763, the trustees forced Johnson into retirement and began a process of making King’s into a professional school for New York’s wealthy upper classes.

This is only what happened in places like New York, where the Presbyterianism of William Livingston was still comparatively mild stuff. Among those touched by the Great Awakening, the scorch of revival tended to re-arouse all the anti-authoritarian intellectual habits that a century of occupation and settling down had tended to obscure. Whitefield’s come back with the “Old Lights”, the disruption of Yale by David Brainerd, and Jonathan Edwards’ dismissal from Northampton in 1750 were only the best-known examples of the ease with which religion could rouse the spirit of Puritan contention.

The Religion of Virginia

The Great Awakening came later to Virginia than anywhere else in British North America, since Virginia was complacently Church of England’s and commercial in spirit. But Virginia soon acquired a radical tradition. Through the 1750’s and 1760’s, Scot-Irish Presbyterian migrants from Pennsylvania came to the Shenandoah Valley carrying with them much of Presbyterianism’s Calvinistic fervor. Poor Virginia whites flocked after Scot-Irish evangelical preachings. By 1772, as many as 10% of the whites had joined the most wildly individualistic and self-assertive of all of the Awakening’s churches, the Baptists.

This posed a challenge to the Anglican ascendancy in Virginia, not only because the Baptists increasingly resisted paying taxes to support the Church of England in Virginia, but also because the strict moralism of these evangelical Baptists called the hedonistic life styles of the great planters into question. A Virginian great planter shook his head in despair over this development. The indisposition to our people, he said, proves that we are verging fast towards Republicanism and Puritanism, this to me seems sufficient reason for the King sending a bishop among us, who I hope would in some measure contribute to track a spirit so adverse to our present happy form of government.

He could wish as much like, because there would be no bishop sent to Virginia. One reason being the old problem of the British empire’s reluctance to spend its own cash for anything in America. Instead, the American colonies were treated as an ecclesiastical extension of the Church of England’s dioceses of London. No Bishop of London ever took the trouble to visit America. Instead, the Bishop appointed a commissary to represent his interests there. The Bishop’s commissaries proved to be very skilled at staying out of trouble.

But the more compelling reason why there would be no Bishop was that the colonies, plainly, would not stand for it. Too many of them had left the established Church behind them in coming to America to welcome it catching up with them. Too many of them had acquired too much experience in running their own church affairs to want some Anglican running them. Even the most unpuritanical certainly did not want to be taxed for the benefit of an Anglican Bishop.

It took no great difficulty for any of this people to treat efforts by the imperial government to extend its secular powers over the colonies in precisely the same way. Even in laying the very foundations of the American republic, Puritanism and the Enlightenment, far from being at each other’s throats, were already stirring the American soup together.