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Religion in the American Revolution
Part Two

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The Religious Mentality


There is much debate amongst historians about when the North American continent was actually cognitively discovered by the earliest explorers. Some historians and archeologists place the event as early as the six century. Others see the architectural sculptures in at places like Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, and claim that America must have already been discovered by its construction in the mid 12th century. Regardless of when it actually occurred, the strongest historical evidence gives us a story that sets in place a competitive rivalry between the European states to settle and conquer the new horizons for their own domain. Religion has always been a major force in the Americas. Archeological evidence indicates that prior to the age of discovery, religious ceremony played a significant role in human life in the Americas, especially in death rites and in the governance of chiefdoms.[1] These same religious attitudes were paralleled around the globe.    

The vigorous policy of colonization undertaken by most of the European states was motivated by various economic, political and religious reasons. Undoubtedly the greatest attraction was wealth.[2] In that culture, as in ours today, where there is an attraction for greater wealth, one can almost be certain to find a religious partner or motivation close at hand.

As the colonists traveled to America in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought with them their religions. More than not, they also brought their cultural preferences, ideologies, philosophies and even religious wars. Some were more obvious than others, and many were well


Their philosophical concerns about government and potential taxes and social restrictions were often the focus of politicians, publishers and religious leaders alike. Some concerns were well founded, while others were not. The Americans had plenty of money and they paid practically no taxes. British taxes on America cost the average American $ 1.20 a year. Most of these were invisible taxes paid on imports.[3]

The American Revolution of the 1770s and 1780s was not dreamed up one night in a Boston Pub by a pair of get rich quick schemers. It was a process that came to a climatic explosion over two or three decades. It was a crisp morning on April 19, 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts when a confrontation between the British army and a handful of colonial Minutemen ignited the entire war against the colonist’s English King. The Americans were withdrawing when someone fired a shot which led the British troops to fire on the Minutemen. The British then charged with bayonets leaving eight dead and ten wounded. [4] It started a war that set families against families and not just a nation against another nation.   

King George III was not only the king of England but he was also the head of the Church of England (The Anglican Church). The notorious 16th century King Henry VIII of England had formed the Church (taking all the English Catholic Churches with him), when the Pope Clement VII refused to grant him a divorce thus allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn. The Church of England had remained securely intact for nearly two and a half centuries up until the time of the colonial revolution. Because of this, the revolutionary would become an emotional stew of torn loyalties to both religion and the only government most of the colonists had ever known. This is highly indicative that from the beginning religion played into the early development of the United States.

The upheavals and excitements of the war promoted the formation of numerous utopian millennial sects whose charismatic leaders believed that the war was a portent of the “end times’ before the return of Jesus.[5] Coupling these extremists with the more traditional religious views of the Anglicans, Presbyterians, the then newly forming Methodist movement, and the few Roman Catholics that lived throughout the colonies, there was no obvious way to keep the religious influences out of the political endeavors of a brand new nation at war with their motherland, England. When we read the various documents, pamphlets and personal letters that were being circulated throughout the Revolutionary War era, it is obvious that the people’s religious views were as important as their political perceptions. 

Then there was a group of people, mainly well educated and more elite within the social structures that referred to themselves as Deists. Deism is not an official religion, but more of a philosophical approach to life and religion.  It was a “heterogeneous movement where there is much emphasis on natural religion[6]”.  It was a vague reflection of classical agnosticism, promoting the idea that God or a deity had created the world and left the forces of nature and the instilled moral conscience of mankind to govern and perpetuate it. To know this God or deity or for a personal relationship (including acts of worship) to be a possibility or even a necessity in the realm of human existence was not to be considered as an objective goal to the deist mindset. The popular philosophical posture of the late 18th century deists was “God may only be thought of as an absentee landlord.”[7]

Some of the founding fathers of the United States were none too ashamed to express their

deistic ideals openly. These men included Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Yet, none of these men resisted or persecuted those who promoted the Judeo-Christian moral values that were installed into the documents of the new nation’s republican governmental structure. Thomas Paine was a skeptic, but he justified declaring independence in Common Sense on Biblical grounds.[8]    Common Sense was a widely circulated pamphlet Paine wrote promoting the philosophy of gaining independence from the king of England.

Supporters of the Revolution argued that they fought for a Godly cause, and many Christians joined the war effort in that belief. [9]This was preached from nearly a third of the pulpits throughout the thirteen colonies. Certainly, if God approved of military fighting to preserve their political and religious freedoms, then it must be a just war.

This premise united the religious population who were willing to be engaged in the political issues that confronted them. It eventually caused many a man to leave his church Sanctuary, take up arms and go into the battlefield, ready to fight against the redcoat British soldiers. The religious fervor expressed in the war was as much to blame as the political propaganda in many of the minds of the colonial minutemen.           


[1]  Porterfield,Amanda, Corrigan, John Religion in American History (West Sussex,UK Blackwell Publishing, 2010) p.2

[2] Aspenleiter, F.J. Western Civilization (Chicago,IL, Loyola University Press, 1961) p. 333

[3]  Bourgoujian,Lisa(Producer) The American Revolution The Conflict Ignites (Greystone Communications) 23:28

[4] Hamby, Alonzo Outline of U.S. History (New York, Nova Science Publishers, 2006)  p.43,44

[5] Allitt, Patrick N. American Religious History (Chantilly, VA, Teaching Company, 2001) p.30

[6] Wright, Edmund (Editor)  Dictionary of Word History (New York, Oxford University Press, 2006) p.151

[7] Blackburn, Simon Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy ((New York, Oxford University Press, 2006) p.92

[8] Allitt,Patrick N. American Religious History (Chantilly, VA, Teaching Company, 2001) p.31

[9] Allitt,Patrick N. American Religious History (Chantilly, VA, Teaching Company, 2001) p.31


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