Home | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Examination
Religion in the American Revolution
Part Three

When you are done reading this portion of the text proceed to the Part Four by clicking on the appropriate link.

Revolutionary Religions


Let us examine the various specific religious influences that were resident in the thirteen

North American colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War. One of the smaller religious groups in the land was Roman Catholicism. Pope Pius VI reigned from 1775-1799 but was primarily consumed with the Vatican’s relationship and reaction to the French Revolution and the enlightenment philosophers promoting their ideals across the European continent.

The Roman Catholics originally had settled around Baltimore, Maryland, generally living next door to their Protestant neighbors who were also seeking religious freedom from the persecution rendered in their former family lands of Britain and Europe. The only other colony where Catholics were found in any significant number before the Revolution was Pennsylvania, where the liberal policy of the Quakers encouraged Catholics to settle. [1]          

Roman Catholicism is often considered to be the original official religious practice of Christianity, tracing its organizational formation back to the Roman Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea which occurred in 325 AD. It was in that year that Constantine gathered over three hundred known Christian Bishops to write and declare what we now know as the Nicene Creed, a unifying statement of Christian belief which Christians of all denominations still recite today.

Roman Catholics trace their spiritual formation back to the sixteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, recalling the words of Jesus Christ saying, "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it."I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Matthew 16:18-19[2]. This passage being interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church establishes Peter as the first in a succeeding line of ruling bishops throughout the chronology of the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants do not interpret this passage within the same context.   

Three phases of the revelation of God to man form central tenets of Catholic belief: the natural revelation of God through reason, the supernatural revelation of God in Christ, and the revelation in the church.[3] The worship of the Roman Catholic Church focuses on the sacraments of the Church. Seven particular sacraments have become traditional and are enumerated: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, holy orders and marriage.[4] The actual worship service, often referred to as “The Mass” centers the attention and activity on the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist, also known as the Lord’s Supper and Holy Communion. This is the act of partaking of the blood and body of Jesus Christ in the transubstantiated present elements of bread and wine.

Until the Revolutionary, Catholics in the colonies were under the rule of a vicar apostolic resident in London.[5] Shortly after the colonies declared their independence, Rome was constrained to appoint a Bishop to be active and present with the Catholic population in America.  

The man that was selected was a Jesuit priest by the name of John Carroll. Father Carroll was a dedicated patriot and also extremely loyal to Rome. He was consistent, diligent to his faith and understood and promoted the core issues regarding the separation of church and state. He was elected to the office of Bishop in 1789.

The American Church was singularly fortunate in this man chosen to guide its destiny and to lay the groundwork for its future expansion. [6] Bishop John Carroll established many religious communities in the United States and was active in helping the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph (the nation’s first native religious order) establish the first Catholic elementary and secondary schools in America at Emmitsburg, Maryland. After a long and productive ministry he died on December 15, 1815 in Baltimore, Maryland.       

In the newly formed United States of America, the dominant religious influence came from the Protestant population and its clergy. They were a divided religious people group, sharing to some extent their anti Anglican and Roman Catholic sentiments. The Protestant reformation had seen its official beginnings a little over 250 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia on July 4,1776. During those many decades there were various ideas and theological interpretations that had fractured the original idea of seeking genuine reformation of the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants had split into a vast array of what we now refer to as denominations. Five of these denominational groupings stood out to some extent on the bright new horizon of religious life in the United States of America.           

A frustrated Augustinian monk and college professor named Martin Luther officially started the Reformation by tacking his “Theses 95” to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany in October of 1517. This act of inviting scholarly men to a debate over theological issues was not an uncommon thing to do. However, the content of Luther’s statements raised the eyebrows of too many of the wrong people in the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s four key doctrinal statements for reformation of the church were never accepted.

The first position has become known as “Sola Fide” translated - faith alone. This theological position declared that it was faith in Jesus Christ, and that alone was only necessary for salvation. There was a strong implication that the ritualistic works required by the Church had no part in one obtaining the free gift of salvation. Luther based his understanding of this position on a passage the Apostle Paul wrote; “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "But the righteous man shall live by faith." Romans 1:17[7]

The next theological posture was called “Sola Scriptura” translated - Scripture alone. This position rejected the possibility of the Church’s tradition being equal to the voice of Scripture. It also included a rejection of allegory when interpreting scripture. Luther insisted that Scripture were to be interpreted literally and used only for the determination of correct theology of Christian faith and practice.

Luther also presented the theology of “Sola Gratia” translated - grace alone. This statement connects strongly with “Sola Fide” position of faith alone. It emphasized the participation of God in the believer’s salvation utilizing the text of scriptures like “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Ephesians 2:8.[8] Luther preached that grace is a gift from God and not something you receive through participation in the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church.

Finally Luther promoted the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This doctrine stated that the Bible could be read and interpreted by the individual believer. It also declared that Bibles must then be accessible to the common person in their own language.   

Many of the original German settlers into the United Stated were religiously identified by their founder as Lutherans. While they were not a dominant protestant sect, they contributed to the philosophy set forth in the Revolution..

Another more larger group of Protestants in the colonies was the Presbyterians. This is a group whose British roots were connected to a Scottish reformer named John Knox. A contemporary and student to renown Swiss reformer John Calvin, Knox firmly planted the Protestant movement of John Calvin’s original doctrines in the British Isles. The Scottish Presbyterian traditions constituted itself a synod in 1716 and grew during colonial times to become a significant force in American religion. [9]  The Presbyterian Church was visible, obvious and a voice to be heard in the political aspirations of many of the instigators of the Revolutionary War.            

A fairly new movement that had sprung out from the Anglican Church was started by a famous preacher named John Wesley, who was an ordained Anglican priest, and his very talented musical brother Charles. After arriving back in England in 1738 from a North American evangelistic effort in Georgia, John and Charles never returned. However, the systematic and methodical approach to practicing the Christian faith that they initiated at Oxford University would eventually sweep the entire globe, starting first in the new American colonies.

The Wesleyan movement (often called “Methodism”) grew steadily amongst the Protestant and Anglican population of the colonies. John Wesley had instituted a system of regular conferences of Methodist leaders in England in order to strengthen and oversee the activities of the movement[10]. Eventually two men, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke were placed in charge of the North American branch of Methodism. It was during this time frame that the Wesleyan Methodist movement gently broke ties with their Anglican roots, by ordaining laymen who they had personally trained to become preachers and leaders in the various cities where the movement had become strongly active. Though the Methodists were still young and not as structurally organized as other groups, they became an integral part of the religious landscape during the Revolutionary War.          

Finally there was a cluster of Christian groups often referred to as the Anabaptists, primarily because they objected to the baptism of infants and forced church membership. The two most evident groups were the Mennonites, sometimes referred to as the “Swiss Brethren”, and the Quakers, also known as “The Society of Friends”, or simply “Friends”. They were more extreme in their ideals of church reform than had been Luther, Calvin or Zwingli in the 16th century.

The Anabaptists were pacifists and were strongly opposed to state churches. This is why many of them desired refuge in the new territories of the American colonies.[11] They led simple and uniformed lives and worshipped quietly. Because of their religious beliefs, they were not fond of going to war to obtain or secure any rights or freedoms. Their general attitude towards revolution was not an enthusiastic one at all. 

They did represent a noticeable amount of the colonial population, and so their influence as heard by the governmental leaders making decisions about the war and the potential rights of he people. The largest cluster of Anabaptists settled in what is now Pennsylvania, but their presence was noticeable throughout the colonies.        

[1] Bokenkotter,Thomas A Concise History of the Catholic Church (New York, Doubleday, 2004) p.366

[2] New American Standard Bible The Holy Bible (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers Inc.,2005) p.765

[3] Brantl, George Catholicism (Old Saybrook, CT. Knoecky & Konecky, 1961) p.19

[4] Bowker, John Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (New York, Oxford Press, 2006) p. 497

[5] Bokenkotter,Thomas A Concise History of the Catholic Church (New York, Doubleday, 2004) p.366

[6] Bokenkotter,Thomas A Concise History of the Catholic Church (New York, Doubleday, 2004) p.366

[7] New American Standard Bible The Holy Bible (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers Inc.,2005) p.873

[8] New American Standard Bible The Holy Bible (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers Inc.,2005) p.907

[9] Blankman,Drew, Augustine, Todd Dictionary of North American Denominations (Downers Grove,IL,

InterVarsity Press, 2004) p.96,97

[10] Losch, Richard L. The Many Faces of Faith (Grand Rapids,MI, Eerdmans Publishing, 2001) p.158

[11] Losch, Richard L. The Many Faces of Faith (Grand Rapids,MI, Eerdmans Publishing, 2001) p. 124


Central Institute of Theological Studies
P.O. Box 750491
Dayton, Ohio  45475