The Pulpit and the American Revolution: Major Themes

The Pulpit and the Patriots

Leonard O. Goenaga

Article Series: The Pulpit and the Patriots

Week 1: The Pulpit and the American Revolution: Major Themes

When the question is given, ‘whose political writings most influenced the Founding Fathers’, the usual names are to be expected: The Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire and Hume, the Social Contract theorists Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau, or perhaps the classics of political thought, Plato and Aristotle. Having studied at a secular public university, and having focused in political theory, I would be tempted to respond in a similar fashion.1 In an effort to find an answer to this question, it would make sense to look to whom the Fathers themselves cited most, and conclude these individuals would have been most influential. It then came to me as an utter shock to find out that professors Donald S. Lutz and Charles S. Hyneman, after reviewing over 15,000 items with explicitly political content, identified 3,154 references to other sources, and concluded that “The source most often cited by the founding fathers was the Bible, which accounted for 34 percent of all citations.”2 Not only did that produce some serious interest, but I also came to discover that the most cited thinker regarding explicitly political material was none other then Paul the Apostle!3 As for the individuals whom I thought would be most influential, Locke was ranked fourth with 2.9% of the citations, Hobbes ranked thirteenth with 1.0%, Rousseau ranked sixteenth with 0.9%, Plato ranked twenty-sixth with 0.5%, and Machiavelli ranked twenty-ninth with 0.5%. This produced within me some serious questions, namely, why was I never taught this before? Why had this influence been so fully ignored?

Regarding the role the Pulpit played during the Revolution we can find wide acknowledgment among scholars. Hinting earlier the central role the New England Pulpit would have, Mark Noll argues in his work, One Nation Under God? that,

As war approached many of them [New England Preachers] cast the conflict with Great Britain in cosmic terms. God has called his people to religious and political freedom in the New World; certainly he would now sustain them as they fought off the tyrannical effort by Parliament to destroy it.4

These New England pastors played a diverse role. Some were seen preaching sermons to militias before heading off to war. Others served as chaplains, and others still joined “informal committees of correspondence that preceded the formation of the new state governments.”5 Alice Baldwin, whose family produced a lineage of such New England Congregationalist preachers, after a lengthy analysis of the time and its ministers, concludes that they were essential to dispersing a constitutional mind-frame regarding God and His natural laws among the People, that “God ruled over men by a divine constitution.”6 She then concludes:

The alliance of the ministers with the leaders of the agitation against England was one reason for its success … No clever lawyer, no radical mechanic gave more warmth and color to the cause than did some of these reverend divines … Resistance thus became a sacred duty to a people who still were, on the whole, a religious people.7

Summarizing the influence Christianity and its members had upon the Revolution, historian Patricia Bonomi states:

Religious doctrine and rhetoric, then, contributed in a fundamental way to the coming of the American Revolution and to its final success. In an age of political moderation, when many colonials hesitated at the brink of civil war, patriotic clergymen told their congregations that failure to oppose British tyranny would be an offense in the sight of Heaven. Where political theory advised caution, religious doctrine demanded action. By turning Colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies, ministers did the work of secular radicalism and did it better: they resolved doubts, overcame inertia, fired the heart, and exalted the soul.8

The call in the Pulpits to resist English tyranny became a primary factor in mobilizing the masses against passiveness and neutrality, and into action. The theological themes of Calvin shaped these Revolutionaries’ worldviews, while the earlier mentioned Puritan contributions of postmillennialism and a fear of power gave divine reasons to promote a spiritual justification for Revolution, painting England and the struggle in cosmic terms. The battle was shaped at the Pulpit in vocabulary biblically familiar: as the Israelites were rescued from the tyranny of the Pharaoh, so now would God rescue New England.9 Preaching such imagery would become widespread and naturally a product of the postmillennial view from the Puritans. It would also directly inspire scores of congregants to passionately join the Revolution with a perceived divine mandate.10 The question now left: What did they say? It is to the Pulpit and its Preachers we now turn.

In exploring the Pulpit’s role during the Revolution, three traditions in particular stand as the primary agitators. In his work Religion, Awakening and Revolution, Martin Marty explains the story of Joseph Galloway, a loyalist, who testifying before Parliament after leaving the States, regarded the Crown’s opponents as: ” ‘Congregationalists, Presbyterians and smugglers [Baptists].’ “11 The majority of congregations active in the war were of this nature, and “In 1780 there were over 1900 congregations of Congregational-Presbyterian-Baptist persuasion, whence much Revolutionary talk and Action came.”12 In the following weeks, we will turn to fix such figures that properly portray the influence the pulpit would have on America’s patriots. 

“Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of their political institutions.” 13

The Pulpit and the American Revolution: Frequency of Citation by American Founders

Source: Lutz, Donald S. “The Relative Importance of European Writers on Late Eighteenth Century American Political Thought.” American Political Science Review (1984): 189-97.

Two professors, Donald S. Lutz and Charles S. Hyneman, have reviewed an estimated 15,000 items, and closely read 2,200 books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and monographs with explicitly political content printed between 1760 and 1805. They reduced this to 916 items, about one-third of all public political writings longer than 2,000 words. From these items, Lutz and Hyneman identified 3,154 references to other sources. The source most often cited by the founding fathers was the Bible, which accounted for 34 percent of all citations.14

                        Table 1: Citations by Decade
1760s 1770s 1780s 1790s 1800-05 Percent of Total Number
Bible 24 44 34 29 38 34
Enlightenment 32 18 24 21 18 22
Whig 10 20 19 17 15 18
Common Law 12 4 9 14 20 11
Classical 8 11 10 11 2 9
Peers 6 2 3 6 5 4
Others 8 1 1 2 2 2
100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
N 216 544 1306 674 414 3154

The Moral Liberal Research Writer, Leonard O. Goenaga, is a Baptist Associate Pastor (assigned to the Youth) at Glory of God Christian Fellowship, Raleigh, North Carolina; a Mentor (Computer Lab/Technology) at the Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club; a husband (to Katrina); and rugby coach. He holds a B.A. in Political Science (with a specific concentration in Political Theory, Social Contract, and Constitutionalism), a second B.A. in Religious Studies (with a concentration in World Religions and Early Christianity), a Master of Divinity in Christian Ethics, and an A.A. in Entrepreneurship. He has begun Ph.D with a concentration likely centered on an analysis of Locke’s Social Contract, H.L.A. Hart’s Legal System, American Constitutionalism, and Baptist Ecclesiology of Covenant. Visit his website at Leonardooh.com


Footnotes:

i Special focus during my Undergraduate (B.A., Political Science) work in political theory was focused on the person of Locke, and his influence on the Founding Fathers. A paper I wrote, “Lockean Liberalism and the Declaration of Independence,” hints towards how I would have responded two years ago. It can be accessed at: http://leonardooh.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/lockean-liberalism-and-the-declaration-of-independence/

ii See Table 1, Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Importance of European Writers on Late Eighteenth Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review 189 (1984), 189-97.

iii See Table 2

iv Mark Noll, One Nation Under God? 43.

v Ibid. 43

vi Alice M Baldwin. The New England Clergy and the American Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 1928: 168.

vii Ibid. 171

viii Patricia Updegraff Bonomi. Under the Cope of Heaven Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003: 216.

ix Robert R. Mathisen. Critical Issues in American Religious History. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2006: 135. “Little did John Winthrop know that his reference to Puritan New England as ‘a city upon a hill’ would set into motion forces that would eventually contribute to the birth of a new nation. ‘The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us as His own people [as He did among Israel],’ he opined, ‘and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with.’”

x Ibid. 135: “According to Charles Chauncy of Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, as the founding fathers of New England had been rescued by God from tyrannical England man years after God had saved his people from Egypt and delivered them to their Promised Land, so now New England had been relieved from the oppressive Stamp Act, even as the Jews had been protected from the destruction of Ahaseurus. To reassure his audience of this in 1770, he contended that ‘perhaps, there are no people, now dwelling on the face of the earth, who may, with greater pertinency, adopt the language of king David, and say, ‘our fathers trusted in these; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.’”

xi Martin E. Marty. Religion, Awakening and Revolution. Wilmington: Consortium, 1977: 123.

xii Ibid. 120. “Compared to a mere 624 Reformed-Lutheran-Catholic local churches, many of them very small.”

xiii Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: I:316.

xiv John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution: 52.