Teaching Religious Loyalism

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?


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for these reflections, Jonathan. I've found the film Mary Silliman's War is very effective for complicating the place of religion in the Revolution, as well as loyalism and gender (I often pair it with Carol Berkin's Revolutionary Mothers). I use the film in my survey courses and course on the AR.
Jonathan said…
Thanks, Mark. I like the idea!
Michael Hattem said…
Thanks for a really interesting piece, Jonathan. Loyalism and religion are probably the two toughest aspects of teaching the Revolution (and the colonial period) and so I applaud you getting your students to reckon with both.

I think it's important for students to understand that the question of passive obedience and non-resistance did not arise out of the imperial crisis but shaped responses to it, after having been part of a long-running Anglophone debate. Colonists were exposed to it from the 1720s on in writings by Trenchard and Gordon and responses by Anglican clergy. But the debate developed its own colonial context when colonists and native colonial Anglican clergy began engaging with the question in the 1750s (see Mayhew's Discourse concerning unlimited submission and issues of the Independent Reflector as well as the writings of William Smith and James Wetmore). Thanks again for the post!
Jonathan said…
Michael, thanks for your comments.

They really help by pushing the conversation toward trying to understand how those various religious responses to the Revolution developed. They obviously didn't just appear after 1763, so it's important to trace longer roots. I'm definitely in favor of pushing our understanding into the earlier eighteenth century.

As you observe, the debates about resistance/non-resistance tied American colonists into larger Anglophone conversations (and nice tie-in to Mayhew, by the way). For me, that speaks to increasing Anglicization. On the other hand, the conclusions reached in the colonies looked different than what was achieved in the metropole. I would suggest this is not just about the triumph of "republicanism" (ah, that word) of the Trenchard and Gordon style but also about interpretations of Calvinist Resistance Theory that had developed on the European Continent.
Tom Van Dyke said…
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.

I don't teach class but I did stay at a Holiday Inn, where I listened to this podcast some months back.

Jonathan, took the lukewarm water role inbetween the fire of Mark David Hall's "Calvinist Resistance Theory" and modern-day MacArthurist/fundamentalist[?] Gregg Frazer's ice of Romans 13.

For Calvinist Resistance Theory, as Jonathan notes, even early 1700s America won't get it done--we must go back to 1600s Britain. The Puritan Revolution cut off the king's head in 1649. [They later apologized. Sort of.]

The American revolution did nothing so drastic. In fact the 2nd British civil war--the Glorious Revolution of 1688--merely booted out the next king, claiming he "abdicated" in favor of Wm & Mary.

That's why you'll find in the Declaration of Independence that King Geo3

has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

Biblical fundamentalism is more a 20th century invention. If you could square what you wanted to do with what the Bible said you couldn't, you were in the soteriological clear.

[Nice to see your mention of one of the handful of Calvinist/Presbyterians who opposed the American revolution, Jonathan. The colonists ran him out of town and threw his all his shit into the Savannah River. Zubly is notable primarily for how cheerfully they rejected his act.]
Jonathan said…
Hi, Tom,

Good to see you here, as well as on John Fea's blog, etc.

Are you suggesting that the Revolution was mostly inspired by Puritan political thought? If so, how to account for Revolution in places where the Puritans weren't dominant?

And, how then do we make sense of people who also rejected the Revolution for theological reasons?
Will said…
On the relation between religious revivals, the Revolution, Loyalism, and indifference to the revolution, see the work of the late George Rawlyk, notably on Henry Alline, but also revivalism in post-revolutionary British North America. There is a rich historiography on late colonial Nova Scotia, the revivals associated with Alline, and lack of support for the Revolution in Nova Scotia.

Popular Posts