Finding Religion in the American Revolution

Jonathan Den Hartog

With the new semester starting, I get to return to my "American Revolution and Early Republic Class." Apart from the drama of the era, it's a great class for integrating religious topics.

I was really impressed with Kate Carte Engel's guest post in May on her Digital History project on religion in the Revolution. In response, let me report on some ways we'll be "Finding" religion in the American Revolution.

We have already started by demonstrating the religious situation before the Revolution, laying the groundwork with an understanding of colonial religion. We brought up the Great Awakening and tossed around the question of whether and how it was important for the Revolution.

We'll definitely be revisiting those great questions about Christianity's role in the Revolution. Here, though, it's important to me to demonstrate the religious debates of the period. Although there was a patriot religious argument, it wasn't the only one. There was a strong Loyalist one, as well. Further, the conflict looked very different to equally-evangelical believers on either side of the Atlantic. So, this story has to be a transatlantic story.

I look forward to seeing what students do with the primary sources we'll be reading. I wonder what they'll make of Edmund Burke's claim that American religion demonstrated "the dissidence of [religious] dissent," which suggested conciliatory measures. I'm looking forward to the day we simultaneously read John Witherspoon's "Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" and John Wesley's "Calm Address". These two voices by themselves mark contrasting evangelical opinion. I'm also confident Romans 13 will come up.

We'll also have a lot of secondary material to work through. One of my knowing students has already mentioned John Fea's arguments. Without a doubt, Mark Noll's scholarship--both older and more recent will make a strong appearance. We'll work through Thomas Kidd's claims about links between evangelical Protestants and the liberty desired by the revolutionaries. It will also be important to bring in Loyalist voices. I look forward to introducing Glenn Moots's take on covenantalism.

Then, we'll dig into how religious faith played out during the war. We'll consider soldiers on both sides of the conflict, both officers and foot soldiers. We'll consider where someone like Joseph Plumb Martin is coming from, as well as the devout and not-so-devout in the Continental army. I have no doubt Alexander Hamilton's religion--and Hamilton's musical--will be open for discussion.

It's also important for me to place he Revolution as itself a transforming event for American religion. It caused its own "restructuring of American religion" (with apologies to Bob Wuthnow). States had to consider the structural place of religion, and many (eventually all) opted for disestablishment. Religious liberty, the freedom of conscience, and the right to private judgment drove many Protestant dissenters to favor disestablishment over even the opportunity to participate in an establishment. This development moved religious expression in a decidedly voluntarist direction. Over time, Americans found themselves energetically devoting energy both to their denominations and to newly formed voluntary societies.

Our religious story will have to cross color lines. We'll consider Sylvia Frey's discussion of religion and African-American impulses for liberty. I'm extremely eager to introduce figures like Richard Allen for his role in American Methodism and Lemuel Haynes for his role in Congregationalism.

And yes, there's a gendered dynamic here, as well. We'll have to connect classic studies by Linda Kerber and Rosemarie Zagarri with women like Sarah Osborn, Phillis Wheatley, and others.

Restructured American religion also continued to have political implications in the new nation. One version energized Democratic-Republicans, while other visions motivated Federalists. Concerns about doubt and infidelity percolated through the political culture, as debates over religious nationalism roiled the frontier. At the same time, faith helped motivate a nascent anti-slavery movement and a pro-slavery argument.

In short, religious themes can be run throughout the course. This story thus integrates into the broader narrative of the upheaval of the Revolution and points to significant structural questions about the American republic that grew out of it.

If readers have found sources from the revolutionary period that teach particularly well or ways of posing issues to students, please share them in the comments section!


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