Jonathan Den Hartog
I'm just wrapping up my fall semester class on "The American Revolution and Early Republic," and I thought I might share a piece of it with our readers.
One challenge that I think American students studying the Revolution have is to understand the Loyalists generally. As students assume that the Patriots were in the right, they find it hard to understand why people would take the opposite position. Adding the religious element is a further complication. Again, students can make sense of the Protestant/Republican/Whig synthesis, but the other side comes off as more opaque. I want students to understand what pushed the Anglican Charles Inglis into forthright Loyalism and ultimately to Canadian exile and what pushed the Georgian Presbyterian John Joachim Zubly into opposing the Revolution.
As we unpacked the coming of the Revolution and considered the issues raised by Patrick Griffin's America's Revolution, we discussed the coming of the Revolution as a problem of the integration of the colonies in the wider British empire. As T.H. Breen and others have argued, America was becoming more intertwined with British culture, not less.
So, how to bring religion into this story?
I had success with at least a few strategies.
I found talking about John Wesley worked very powerfully with my students. Wesley's evangelical Christianity is unimpeachable. He's a sympathetic figure, yet he forthrightly condemned the American Revolution in his piece "A Calm Address to Our American Colonies." (Granted, Wesley largely lifted it from Dr. Samuel Johnson, but he still published it in his name and with his imprimatur.) In this address, Wesley asserted the British ministry's position in regard to taxation and insisted the colonists obey their rightful rulers.
I also pushed students to give voice to the religious Loyalist position, primarily from the Anglican perspective. Here, I encouraged them to use a strong assertion of Romans 13. In debating the Revolution from the position of an Anglican priest, I watched several students really nail the argument. One of them even produced some Robert Filmer quotes in favor of obedience to monarchical authority.
Had I had more time, I would have encouraged my students to listen to this podcast on "Should Christians Have Fought in the US War of Independence?" Gregg Frazer gives voice to the passive, non-resistance view which characterized the Anglican position--although the other two voices aren't bad, either.
And, I think my students figured it out. This might have been an indication of the acuity of the class, but at least I was able to provide the materials for them to see another perspective. I think the experience was fruitful. The class saw more clearly how messy the push for independence was. Further, they grasped that religious arguments could lead away from independence as much as they could lead towards it. If that was the case, contrasting and analyzing the types of theological arguments and uses of the Bible offered by both sides became necessary. I hope the end result was to understand the period better as well as to understand the foreign character of the time--the arguments that carried the most weight weren't the ones that we might find the most convincing. Still, by giving voice to both sides we have taken those historical actors seriously and maybe, just maybe, planted a greater mindfulness about the strategies employed when attempting to talk about religion in the public square.
For the comments section--is this an issue that has cropped up for anyone else? If so, how have you dealt with it in class?