Few aspects of the American Revolution are as misunderstood as the role of religion. Current debates usually focus on whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation and, if true, what that would mean for public policy today.
The founding documents have become a battlefield for competing claims about the faith, or lack thereof, of their authors, replete with cherry-picked quotes purporting to show that our early leaders did or did not want to privilege one religion over another.
As we discussed in a recent episode of History As It Happens, the Revolutionary War was more complicated than popular memory often allows. The colonists’ war against Great Britain was also a civil war, pitting neighbor versus neighbor in bouts of internecine violence.
Now a historian is taking a fresh look at the religious landscape in the colonies, reconstructing “the religious world into which the American Revolution intruded,” pitting Protestant against Protestant in what was an “empire of imperial Protestantism,” according to Katherine Carté, a scholar of early American history and author of “Religion and the American Revolution.”
In this episode, Ms. Carté explains how disruptive and damaging the war was for religious communities.
“The Revolution is a break in an empire that people see in religious terms. People in 18th century America and Britain thought that the British Empire was playing a role in providential history, that it was the vehicle through which God was bringing his plan to pass,” Ms. Carté said.
“So when that empire ruptures, it really causes deep changes, structural changes in the way established churches work, and it also causes real shifts in the way people think of the governments they are part of.”
Most British colonies, except for Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, had an established church, usually Anglican. But Congregationalists and Presbyterians also enjoyed religious freedom on both sides of the Atlantic, revealing “a colonial-era system in which Protestant groups competed by a shared set of rules and worked to common ends,” Ms. Carté said.
One of those ends was the maintenance of the British Empire. Another was bringing Christianity to Native American tribes and the enslaved. Thus, the Protestant churches offered no systematic critique of slavery or the appropriation of Native American lands by White settlers, Ms. Carté said.
The crisis over Parliament’s sovereign right to tax the colonists therefore placed the established churches in a bind. During the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, most church leaders were not comfortable criticizing the political leaders of the empire of which they were an integral part.
“Most American religious leaders thought the Stamp Act was a terrible idea. But they were also largely uncomfortable with the violence of some of the Stamp Act protests. There are a few important religious leaders that do speak out against the Stamp Act, but they do it in places where royal authority is pretty weak,” Ms. Carté said.
After the rupture of war, the dominant Protestant denominations saw their influence decline, giving way to “awakened” sects.
For more of Ms. Carté’s insights about the American Revolution’s effect on religion, as well as whether the authors of the Constitution founded a “Christian nation,” listen to this episode of History As It Happens.