American Revolution and Ecclesiology

The stance of Whiggish clergy during the time of the American Revolution may be explained more by the threat of enforced Anglican episcopacy than the usual more-purely-political threats we are used to hearing about (taxation, representation, currency, free trade, freedom). I’m just starting to try to understand this after reading an interesting article on Jonathan Mayhew, the Boston Congregationalist pastor sometimes credited with the once-again popular (and simplistic) slogan “Resistance/Disobedience/Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” I think it could be argued that even Mayhew was concerned to protect the place of nonconformity (the cause of the original push to the colonies by the pilgrims) even while he called for obedience to the parliament and the King.

As with all things, though, nuance is lost when the human heart is roused with political heat.

Maybe some of you with more knowledge of the time period (and a few hours) could read the piece and share your thoughts.


I havent read the article yet and I am no expert, but I wanted to second what you said about nonconformist concerns. Gregg Frazier, who edited the book of Loyalist sermons you recommended, pointed out in his preface that the vast majority of American Christian’s belonged to the historically nonconformist churches, such as Baptists, Congregationalists, Reformed and Presbyterians. Even Episcopalians in the South tended to have more evangelical views in the aftermath of the Great Awakening. It was the Southern states who dis established their Episcopalian churches first after the revolution. The Northern states kept their established churches much longer.

After the French and Indian War, the British government was trying to exercise more direct control over the American colonies. The war cost money and they needed to collect more taxes to pay for the war and for the administration of New France, basically Canada and the Midwest. Nonconforming Christians had some fear, justified based on history, that greater British control and oversight would lead to an established Anglican American church along with persecution. Many Christians were motivated by this fear to support independence. Even relatively innocuous things like the appointment of the first American bishop led to an uproar. People were quick on the trigger.

Of course the irony was that many of the Founding Fathers were Episcopalians and from 1776 on, the Episcopal Church has traditionally been the church of America’s elite: presidents, senators and Supreme Court justices.

As a descendant of Ulster Scots, I have natural affection for those who opposed the interference of the Crown. But my main point is that there were religious undercurrents motivating independence that we don’t know about. I didn’t know about it until I read Frazier’s essay.


Finally read the entire article. I had read Mayhew’s discourse before, but I had read it as a straightforward “Defy Tyrants” kind of piece.

The historical journal article, as I understand it, is suggesting that Mayhew’s discourse was primarily aimed at Anglicans who were teaching that, to fulfill Romans 13 and other like passages, a Christian was obligated to become a member of Fr. Bill’s church. He provides a lot of interesting data to support his inference. It makes sense to me. Mayhew’s point was that the men of New England had competing loyalties and obligations, and absolute submission to just one of those loyalties/obligations would be servile and disobedient to God, which I can agree with.

At the time, religion and state were still so identified with one another that people could make the case that proper submission included not just submission to civil decrees but to the church the sovereign supported or headed (the monarch is the head of English church, a perverse arrangement that came about by historical necessity). Faced with that kind of imposition, I can see why so many Americans were motivated to fight back. The length of time between 1750 and 1775 though makes me think there’s still a lot more to the story. Religious fears were there, but political causes shouldn’t be ignored.

American Christians like us, sitting in our pews centuries after the fact, get fed narratives about these events and how they relate to contemporary fights over abortion, the Supreme Court and the care of the sick and dying (Terri Schiavo case). Understandably I think, we want to think of our nation as a Christian nation, and it is a Christian nation in many important respects. Tangled up in that is this implication that Scripture definitively supports this or that American conception of government or America’s Revolution as establishing a biblical ideal government. Well, not so much. It’s similar to the narratives that get told about the abolitionists during the Civil War. The Bible just doesn’t say the things these advocates want it to say. The mistake here is inadvertent and sincere, but no less a mistake.