Religion and the War of 1812

Jonathan Den Hartog

As part of our 4th of July celebrations, my family and I went to a local historic site (Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, for those interested in the Upper Midwest).  As part of the day's festivities, costumed reenactors staged a mock battle of a skirmish from the War of 1812. The connection to the site itself was loose, and I was left wondering if the audience was able to place the events being acted out in anything beyond "people in old-timey costumes fire at other people in old-timey costumes and the Americans won." Having some sense of the War of 1812 has become even more important to me, as that topic has dominated my research and writing this summer.

For this blog, I thought I might also share some reflections on religion in the War of 1812 and what more could still be said.

First, we need to point to the "standard" work on the subject--William Gribbin's The Churches Militant: The War of 1812 and American Religion. Gribbin published the book in 1973, and it seems like this would be a great topic to revisit, now 40 years later. With our greater knowledge of so many things from the Early Republic, it would seem a terrific time to revisit the subject.

We know more about the politics of the Early Republic and party ideals and functioning. We have had better works on the War of 1812, itself, thinking of books by Alan Taylor, Donald Hickey, Nicole Eustace, and Paul Gilje. We have a better sense of religion in the early republic and how it impacted both Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. And, we have so much greater access through digitization projects that a wealth of material would be more readily available and richer than Gribbin was able to pull together. With these resources, the space would seem to be wide open for greater consideration of religion in the War of 1812.

It strikes me that one area for expansion would be to tie religious responses more tightly into the larger narrative of the War of 1812. Although great histories have been written, placing American religious responses to the War more centrally would add another layer of compelling understanding of why the war mattered so much to people. Knowing that a Federalist minister would be actively preaching against the War could give greater explanation to the New England willingness to resist and even organize a Hartford Convention. Or, watching certain Southern and Western revivalists preach in favor of the War might explain at least a portion of the crusade-quality that the War took on along the frontier. On one hand, then, integrating religious stories into the larger story could make a for a fuller understanding of the War.

On the other hand, we might ask what effect the War had on America's Protestant churches. Did the upheaval along the western frontier disrupt the 2nd Great Awakening there, and in what ways? Did it interfere with Baptist and Methodist preaching in significant ways? (Here, I'll have to look to my friends doing Methodist history to help me out.) What was the relationship between the end of the war and the flowering of many national voluntary societies like the American Bible Society? Did the war itself lay the groundwork for such evangelical initiative? What role did the war play in transatlantic Anglo-American evangelical cooperation and identity? (And here, let's note that Emily Conroy-Krutz has given us some very solid answers.) Or, as Amanda Porterfield has suggested, did religious splintering simply open up the field for a triumph of an American honor culture? In other words, how did Protestantism move in the decade 1810-1820?

And, a fuller understanding of the war can bring other religious traditions into the picture, too. American Anti-Catholicism fed into the continued opposition to France, but what about the Catholic experience itself? Did the War of 1812 alter Catholic self-understanding either in Canada or the United States? Also, Greg Dowd has pointed to Native religion as a powerful factor in creating inter-tribal unity. Could the Native American religious experience also be integrated into the larger story of the War of 1812? In short, might something be gained by seeing the War of 1812 as a confrontation of not only political visions, but religious visions, as well?

In this, we might come back to considering public expressions of religious faith. Having recently blogged about Mark Noll's analysis of the Bible in American public life through the American Revolution, let's paint this period as another one where the Bible was used and contested in American public life.

On this front, I've been quite familiar with the Federalist sermons against the War of 1812. Federalist ministers denounced the war as unjust and argued that fighting in it would be rebellion against God. Not only did the war lack wisdom, justice, or foresight, but it threatened to bring America into closer alliance with France, which these Federalists saw as the fountainhead of religious infidelity in the world. At the same time, it pushed America to fight Protestant Britain.

But new and interesting to me has been to read in some Democratic-Republican pro-war sermons. A great example comes from John Hathaway Stevens, a Massachusetts Congregational minister who took a stance quite opposite many of his New England clerical brethren. On the very same Fast Days that Federalists were denouncing the War, Stevens took to his pulpit to encourage it. Drawing on the story of Deborah and Barak in Judges 4 and 5, Stevens drew a close parallel between the experience of the Ancient Israelites and the American nation. Stevens proclaimed that national sins would bring judgment and oppression--and he didn't stint in identifying many national sins, including "an inordinate thirst for property and love of money." Still, those American sins paled in comparison with the significance of British oppression--"there is not a more corrupt and wicked government on earth than the British government." The suffering of American sailors demanded a military response, and such a response would be just. Moreover, "God approves of the war in which we are now engaged for the defence of our just rights." If Americans repented of their sins, they could be assured of divine help and success in battle.

I'm struck by the continuities of Stevens' message with many of the sermons preached during the American Revolution. There seems to be a parallel there, and dare we say, a lack of imagination on Stevens' part. By contrast the Federalist opponents of the war were able to examine the War of 1812 on its own merits and so took a position different than they had a generation earlier. Such divides are interesting.

I also wonder, finally, if telling a stronger religious story about the War of 1812 might even engage and help make more sense of the past for those tourists taking in a bit of Midwestern history.


Doug Ward said…
One important event occurring shortly before the start of the War of 1812 was the New Madrid earthquake. Did any sermons see the earthquake as a statement about the advisability of war, one way or the other?
Jonathan said…
Douglas, good question!

I haven't seen any connections made. It would be interesting to hear from some historians of the Mississippi Valley and the West if any preachers that they have read drew any connections.
Unknown said…
You make some very good points here. I am finishing a monograph on British North American churches during the War of 1812 and you are totally correct in that it was a collision of religious values. This is most poignantly seen in the conflicts within Episcopal and Wesleyan Methodism. But also between Church of England and Presbyterian churches. Perhaps we should chat!
Jonathan said…
James Tyler Robertson, track me down digitally at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul...would be delighted to have a chat.

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