Was the American Revolution a war of religion? Most historians think not, or at least that religion did not cause the Revolution. But short of causation, there were a host of connections and resonances between religion, ministers, and the Patriot movement.
One of the most intriguing discussions of religion and the Revolution came from the Loyalist writer Peter Oliver, who blamed much of the fervor of the revolutionary movement on the Patriot pastors. Most notably, he saw dissenting (non-Anglican) pastors in New England as the hard core (the “base,” as we’d say today) of Patriot resistance. Oliver called them the “Black Regiment,” in reference to their clerical robes.
At the center of that hard core was Jonathan Mayhew, the theologically liberal minister of Boston’s West Church.
Mayhew had begun to stoke resentment against the Church of England and the threat of Anglican power in America in his sensational 1750 sermon A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission. The Puritans had kept Anglicans out of Massachusetts in the 1600s, but legal and religious changes had allowed Anglicans to establish a beachhead there in the early 1700s. Mayhew warned that the Anglican officials, hostile toward dissenters like him, actually represented the “kingdom of Antichrist” and would steal their religious liberty if given a chance.
Mayhew only lived to see the first glimmers of the revolutionary crisis since he died in 1766, but his sermon remained popular. Indeed, John Adams said it was “read by everybody,” and Mayhew posthumously became one of the ministerial founding fathers of the Patriot movement.
Historian Mark Noll recently reviewed a new book on Mayhew, J. Patrick Mullins’s Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution, at American Political Thought [read the whole review here]. Noll commends Mullins’s book but finds Mayhew’s “conspiracy-mongering” less commendable.
With Father of Liberty, J. Patrick Mullins solidifies the reputation of Boston minister Jonathan Mayhew as a crucial early advocate of the ideology that fueled the American Revolution. . . . Mullins does a very good job underscoring the rational, libertarian foundations on which Mayhew built from his days as a Harvard undergraduate to his fame (and notoriety) during the Stamp Act crisis. He was a militant antipapist who saw in Catholic France an epitome of all things despotic.
Almost as consistently he harped on the principle of obsta principiis [Latin “Withstand beginnings”] that other Real Whigs also stressed—“the place to stop the spread of tyranny is in the bud.” This principle, in turn, nurtured the conspiratorial mentality that dominated his entire analysis of Parliamentary action. During the Stamp Act crisis, John Adams referred to Mayhew (“a writer of great ability”), who had shown in the bishops controversy what England was about: in Adams’s words, “There seems to be a direct and formal design on foot, to enslave all America.”
Mullins also brings vividly to life Boston’s hothouse political atmosphere, showing why Mayhew’s connections with influential members of his West Church put him at the center of agitation against the British administration, and spelling out with special clarity Mayhew’s long-term influence on leading thinkers of the Revolution like John Adams. In a word, the book successfully defends Mullins’s thesis about Mayhew as one of the earliest and most important thinkers of American independence.
Still, a few minor problems and one larger question linger. . . . Most important is the overarching question whether Mayhew’s pioneering articulation of Real Whig principles made sense. Mullins does not seem to doubt that what Mayhew perceived as deadly threats to enslave the colonies were just as he said, and that the conspiracy-mongering to which Mayhew was inspired by the principle of obsta principiis mirrored realities.
But those are dubious propositions about British policy that did not so much scheme about, as stumble toward, oppression of the colonies. Treating as real conspiracies what Mayhew thought were real conspiracies places the same kind of confidence in Mayhew’s perceptions that Mayhew placed in his own judgments about the motives, goals, interlocking machinations, and devious devices of the British ministry.
But if British policy was more inept than overtly tyrannical, as others in the colonies then and some later historians have concluded, then Mayhew’s Real Whig ideology was blinding him to reality rather than illuminating the actually existing situation. Moreover, Mayhew’s insistent protests against being “enslaved” by Parliament are hard to take with entire seriousness when, as many in Britain and a few in the colonies had begun to point out, real rather than anticipated slavery was responsible for the wealth that many in Mayhew’s West Church enjoyed.
In other words, showing that Mayhew’s ideas were important is not the same as showing that they were true.
Mayhew and many other American ministers, traditionalist and liberal like, helped feed paranoia about the threat to American liberty that Noll, as a Christian historian, finds unfortunate and unseemly. They helped make the American Revolution, and the bloody civil war in British America, more likely.
War usually needs sacred sanction of some kind in order to sustain the people’s motivation for it. Surely there are some cases (the fight against Nazi tyranny in World War II comes to mind) where ministers can make a strong case for offering such sanction. But was the American Revolution such a case? Noll has his doubts.
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