A classic exposition of American revolutionary ideas

The Ideological Origins of the American RevolutionThe Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s easy to see why this is a classic. Bailyn thoroughly defends his thesis that the American revolutionary leaders shared a common set of assumptions drawn from the Whig tradition adapted to the American context and reshaped by the tensions with the British government. It was through this tradition that they interpreted the other ideas that they used, such as classical republicanism. In the postscript, Bailyn also shows how both the Federalists and anti-Federalists drew on the same ideas while reaching different conclusions about the best form of government for the United States. Perhaps Bailyn’s most impressive achievement is that he explains it all so clearly in a way that I think would be quite accessible to an interested reader without academic training in history.

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Sacred Scripture, Sacred War

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American RevolutionSacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution by James P. Byrd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Byrd tries to broaden and deepen the scholarly work on clergy in support of the American Revolution. He looks at the major Biblical passages that informed their sermons relating to the war, and argues that “civil millennialism” (the belief in the close relationship between the patriots’ cause and the millennial reign of Christ) has been given undue attention by previous historians. Byrd argues that sermons were more often intended to inspire men to fight with courage and without shame. His concluding sentences are provocative: “In the American Revolution, when it came to making the case for war and ushering citizens to the battlefield, the Bible was a persuasive ally. The ramifications of this relationship would cascade throughout American history as the United States came to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars” (168).

Byrd offers a lot of insight into revolutionary preaching, but it seemed to me that he understated the continuity of Revolution-era sermons with colonial-era sermons. He offers many examples of pre-Revolutionary sermons that strike the same themes, though of course they supported fighting for Britain. It seems to me that the sermons studied show that the patriotic preachers used an inherited approach that assumed a close relationship between church, society, and the subject/citizen that all ought to be committed to righteousness and unalterably opposed to the forces of Antichrist (the Roman Catholic Church, in their view). They applied this inherited approach to the American Revolution, with Britain sometimes portrayed as being aligned with Antichrist. If you’ve read the book and I am missing something here, please set me straight!

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American saints and relics, revisited

Several years ago, I passed on a post from Peter Leithart about the American use of relics from the Revolutionary era.

I was reminded of it when thinking about this passage from James Byrd’s analysis of patriotic sermons during the American Revolution, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War:

Whitefield’s patriotic reputation did not rest completely on political preaching. His sermons certainly had political ramifications, but he rarely addressed politics directly. Typically, he preached on the spiritual “New Birth” of salvation. Still, Whitefield became a source of patriotic authority. In September of 1775, five months into the Revolutionary War and five years after Whitefield’s death, a group of Continental Army officers visited Whitefield’s tomb in Newburyport, Massachusetts. They were looking for inspiration for battle, but in an unusual way. They asked that Whitefield’s coffin be opened. When the sexton complied, the officers removed the famous evangelist’s collar and his wristbands and took the relics with them. The army officers may not have known much about Whitefield’s political preaching, or the relative lack thereof, but they knew Whitefield as an evangelist who appealed to the people and resisted traditional authority. (17)

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.

American saints and relics

No, I don’t just copy everything Peter Leithart writes and then post it on my blog.  But it wouldn’t be a terrible idea.  This post of his is short enough that I’m just going to copy and post it here.  Really interesting stuff.  I’m enjoying catching up on his blog after being away.

William Cavanugh notes (The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict): “although Jefferson was responsible for the complete separation of church and state in Virginia, Jefferson wrote in the language of medieval Christianity about the preservation of physical things associated with the creation of the declaration: ‘Small things may, perhaps, like the relics of saints, help to nourish our devotion to this holy bond of Union.’  Of the desk on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson expressed his hope that we might see it ‘carried in the procession of our nation’s birthday, as the relics of the saints are in those of the Church.’”  Cavanaugh cites a study that shows that “throughout the nineteenth century, virulently anti-Catholic leaders were inclined to borrow Catholic imagery to describe the nation’s founding.  The founders were ’saints,’ they raised ‘altars’ of freedom, their houses were ’shrines’ containing ‘relics,’ and so on.”

Practices, rituals, and language that no Protestant would tolerate at church found their home in American civil religion.