Religion during the American Revolutionary War


Religion had experienced a ‘Great Awakening’ during the middle years of the eighteenth century. The old-fashioned Anglican services with long, droning sermons were dying out and a more exciting style of evangelical preaching with a far greater freedom of speech and expression was taking over.
Contrary to common belief, religion played a major role in the American Revolution. It offered a moral justification for opposition to the British, an assurance to Americans that revolution was divinely justified. It was observed, "by turning colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies, ministers did the work of secular radicalism and did it better."

Many ministers supported the American cause during the Revolution. They fulfilled a variety of roles:  military chaplains, secretaries for committees of correspondence, and members of state legislatures, constitutional conventions and the national Congress. There are records of some bearing arms and leading troops into battle.

The Church of England, whose ministers were bound by oath to support the King did not support the American cause. Most Quakers, being pacifists, objected to the War itself although a breakaway group calling themselves The Free Quakers managed to satisfy their consciences and did, in fact, bear arms against the English. While religion generally flourished as it tends to in times of war, the lack of Ministers in certain parishes led to a decrease in organised religion.

At the beginning of the war some ministers thought that America might become "the principal Seat of the glorious Kingdom which Christ shall erect upon Earth in the latter Days." Victory over the British was taken as a sign of God's approval of America and stimulated a conviction that Christ would rule on earth for 1,000 years. When Jefferson came to presidency in 1801 the mood of the new country was buoyant and optimistic, with the millennialist Christianity a central part of this.

A Fighting Priest.

At the end of a sermon in January 1776  in Woodstock, Virginia, Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807) threw off his priestly garb to reveal the uniform of a Virginia militia officer. He proved a courageous and loyal officer, commanding a brigade that successfully stormed the British lines at Yorktown. He retired from the army in 1783 as a brevetted major general.

A Revolutionary Chaplain

James Caldwell (1734-1781), a Presbyterian minister at Elizabeth, New Jersey was a chaplain during the War. At the battle of Springfield, New Jersey, on June 23, 1780 his company ran out of wadding for the guns. Caldwell is said to have run into a nearby Presbyterian church and returned with armfuls of Watts hymnals and the words, “Put Watts into ‘em, boys.’ He did not survive the war.
One difficulty encountered was that the standard church services included prayers for the King and Royal family. In most places these were replaced, after some debate, with prayers for the Congress.
In 1778 The Anglican church became the Protestant Episcopal church of the United States while the Presbyterian Church disassociated itself from its Scottish roots and became an entirely American entity.

How this affects our portrayals as re-enactors:

How much religion affected the daily life of the troops is a subject that each man could satisfy as he wished. It is recorded that a great number of common people professed to following no religion. To this end, our portrayal would be correct in having Protestant Episcopalians, Free Quakers, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, agnostics and atheists in our ranks. Any preaching being done should be loud, evangelical, uplifting and contain a liberal sprinkling of hellfire and brimstone. I have not been able to find out yet whether priests who took up arms wore anything to show their status, or whether they wore secular clothes.
Can I suggest that anybody who is interested in reading religious propaganda of the times Google Thomas Paine’s treatise called Common Sense, published in 1776 as this was widely discussed in the taverns and homes and caused great comment, and David Jones’ sermon ‘Defensive war in a just cause sinless’. (Google the name of the sermon and the first hit is a pdf file of the actual sermon. It’s heady stuff.)