Religion at the End of a Revolutionary Semester

Jonathan Den Hartog

Back at the beginning of the fall semester, in early September, I laid out some ways I would be integrating religion into my class on "The American Revolution and Early Republic." Now, with the semester drawing to a close, it seemed like a good moment to reflect and see how those plans came to fruition.

I'm pleased to say my students "got" much of what I was trying to do.

My favorite moments came as students brought religious perspectives into the historical debates they reenacted. In debating independence, students argued whether Romans 13 implied "unlimited submission" or if obedience could be discontinued at some limit. For many historical debaters, this was a central question--as, indeed, James Byrd indicated it was at the time.

Another historical moment came when a student playing a Roman Catholic Marylander complained about all the anti-Catholic language she heard from patriots, as they equated "popery" with tyranny. She rightfully asked whether she should join such a movement.

A third historical moment came when a "frontiersman" from Kentucky reported that his political views of the world had been shaped by the Methodist Circuit-rider that visited his house regularly.

These imagined moments assured me that students were, in fact, internalizing some of the dynamics I was describing.

We had further highlights, too.

Samuel Seabury
I thought my students did extremely well with using religious categories to understand the Loyalists, and to do so with empathy. Understanding the perspective of someone like John Joachim Zubly helped them wrestle with the complexities of resistance and revolution. I appreciated that many of them had heard about Samuel Seabury, and they found it ironic that Seabury would return as an Episcopal Bishop in Connecticut. This concern for the Loyalists has also shown up in some student research projects.

Discussing establishment and disestablishment at the state level also opened some eyes, as it was part of a church and state arrangement that many of the students had perhaps never considered. In talking about disestablishment, I made sure to give credit to the Baptists, who remained committed to "soul liberty," even as they had opportunities to join establishments.

Students even did a good job of showing interest in the conflicts of religion and politics between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

Tracing religion as an important theme through the course helped make interesting connections, when individuals showed up in different settings. This time around, I was impressed with how Timothy Dwight helped to connect anti-French politics in the late 1790s, religious outreach in the 2nd Great Awakening, higher education (Yale), and a developing American literary culture (as a "Connecticut Wit" and author of "Greenfield Hill").

Finally, since the semester is not quite over, I'm looking forward to sharing with the class the hot-off-the-presses book that just arrived on my desk--Daniel Dreisbach's Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.

Altogether, the questions about religion in the era of the American Revolution that I was raising came to resonate well with the students and helped them understand the passions, hopes, and struggles of an era of upheaval.


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