The Stamp Act as a hellish plot

I’ve been reading Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, which is quite good. One of the themes that he discusses is the American revolutionaries’ Christian republicanism, which saw Protestantism and English liberties as inseparable and threats to them as Catholic and from Antichrist (in my understanding, the Catholic Church and Antichrist were closely identified for many early modern Protestants). Here was one part that stuck out:

An angry stamp distributor in Philadelphia, John Hughes, … reported that Presbyterians there had begun to question the authority of the king, declaring that they would honor “No King but King Jesus.” Parliament decided to repeal the Stamp Act, realizing that there was no point to risking civil war over the issue. But to the colonists, the repeal offered only a reminder to be vigilant in their defense of Christian liberty against the tyrannical spirit of this new manifestation of Antichrist. The Boston Gazette blamed an “Infernal, atheistical, Popish” cohort for passing the Stamp Act, but rejoiced that their “DIABOLICAL Purposes” had been frustrated.

One Connecticut account of the repeal shows how deeply the colonists had come to associate political tyranny with the spirit of Antichrist. When word arrived of the repeal in 1766, a crowed composed largely of evangelicals celebrated, saying “that victory was gained over the beast, and over his mark … [and] we can yet buy and sell without the mark, or the number of his name.” They called the king’s supporters “papists.” Pastor Joseph Emerson of Pepperell, Massachusetts, speaking at a thanksgiving service celebrating the repeal, noted that the protesters believed that their “civil and religious privileges” were were both jeopardized by the act. If the Parliament was not bound to respect the colonists’ rights in the matter of taxation, what would become of their religious liberty?” (33)

I find it surprising how quickly this language could switch targets from France (an actual Catholic and absolute monarchy) to Britain (a Protestant and constitutional monarchy). You can also see that conspiracy theories have a long history in American culture (and probably many other cultures too). The supposed Antichrist of Catholic France became America’s first ally, and Kidd notes that one preacher compared France to the Good Samaritan, and some hoped that the American alliance could lead to French conversion to Protestantism. Finally, it’s interesting to note that the French monarchy was far less threatening to liberty than the Republic that eventually replaced it.

None of this is intended to be condescending to the people of this period, but it’s just interesting to step back and look at it with the perspective of a couple hundred years.

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