By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
The absence of rules from the Church of England and the influence of Enlightenment and Republicanism did not allow religion to become a controlling influence in the early American culture. The American Revolution of 1775 further did not allow Christianity to make a stronghold in the American culture.
The Revolution of 1775 completed the disruptions that the Great Awakening had only begun 30 years before. The congregations of the Church of England—who were torn by their loyalty to the king as the supreme governor of the Church of England—fell to pieces for all practical purposes. Thousands of loyalists, Anglicans, fled to Canada or to the West Indies, leaving behind no more than two-dozen Church of England clergymen in the colonies to carry on.
This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Presbyterian and the Congregational Clergy
The Presbyterian and the Congregational clergy, by contrast, saw the Revolution as an opportunity to eliminate their Anglican rivals and gain ascendancy for the future by siding with the winners. Many of them swung enthusiastically behind the revolutionaries, and turned their pulpits into drums ecclesiastic.
John Witherspoon—the Presbyterian President of Princeton College, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence—announced that, “The separation of this country from Britain has been of God,” and he called on the Presbyterian body to rally to the cause of liberty and the rights of mankind.
However, the war took a more severe social toll on the Presbyterian and Congregational divines than they could have dreamed, or than anyone expected. “The late contest with Great Britain glories, hath it had been for their country, hath been particularly unfortunate for the clergy,” wrote Peter Thatcher, a Massachusetts parson, in 1783.
Christianity in the New Republic
The evidence of that suffering was easy to see. New Jersey eliminated all state funding for churches in 1776, and New York followed suit in 1777. In Massachusetts, the new republican constitution of 1780 maintained public taxation for church purposes, but it now allowed tax payers to choose whichever church they wished to support, not just the Congregational Church.
It was Virginia, however, which became the test case for how much or how little public recognition Christianity was going to be left with in the new republic. At the urging of the great revolutionary orator Patrick Henry, Virginia disestablished the Church of England in 1776, but it provided afterwards for the collection of church taxes and the distribution of among the various churches on a plan similar to that used in Massachusetts, so in Virginia a single church was disestablished but not the principal of public support for religion.
Now, that might have satisfied Patrick Henry’s version of republicanism, but it didn’t satisfy Thomas Jefferson’s or James Madison’s.
Learn more about the American Revolution.
The Republican’s Attitude Toward Christianity
Jefferson and Madison were relentless in their determination to force Christianity off the public square of Virginia republicanism. In 1779, as governor of Revolutionary Virginia, Jefferson withdrew state funding for the two professorships in divinity at the College of William and Mary. In 1785, Madison persuaded the Virginia legislature to drop all public funding for religion.
Madison, who represented Virginia in the First Federal Congress in 1789, opposed counting ministers as ministers in the federal census. He also opposed the hiring of chaplains for Congress and for the American military, as an establishment of a national religion. In 1817, after he had retired from the presidency, Madison continued to urge Congress to tax church property.
Jefferson summed up his attitude toward public religion very simply in 1802. He wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people, which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson’s image of a wall of separation wasn’t intended as a compliment. It was meant to convey the shutting out of religion from public discourse.
Learn more about the Republicans and Federalists.
Deists and Their Challenge to Christianity
Now, just at the same time as traditional Christianity in the American Republic seemed to be going down, it also seemed that everywhere strange and unusual forms of republican replacements were springing up for it. “I think the world (is) ripe for a revolution in religion,” wrote the republican inventor John Fitch, who sponsored one of the more notorious forms of republican and Enlightenment religion by organizing the Society of Deist Natural Philosophers in 1790 in Philadelphia.
A surprisingly high percentage of the Deists were, like John Fitch, even like Benjamin Franklin, lower-class artisans or else people who started out in life as lower-class artisans, and veterans of the Revolution. These were people who had either been displaced or dislocated by the war, or radicalized by exposure to European ideas. Either way, they tended to be people who were often belligerent in their skepticism about traditional Christianity.
Deism of Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine
The Revolutionary veteran and Vermont republican Ethan Allen pushed Deism into public debate by publishing a crude but highly effective little tract called Reason, the Only Oracle of Mankind in 1784, in which he freely attacked reliance on the Bible, the superstitions of prayer and miracles.
Allen was followed by an even better known veteran of the Revolution, Thomas Paine. Paine, like John Fitch, was a sort of person who was in an incessant ferment of revolution, and he joined ranks with Deism after the American Revolution by publishing the Age of Reason in 1794.
A second part followed in 1796. Paine was even cruder than Ethan Allen and even more effective. “What is it that the Bible teaches us?” Thomas Paine roared. “It teaches us rape, cruelty, and murder.” Now, by contrast, Paine said, “The creation is the Bible of the Deist; he there reads in the handwriting of the Creator himself the certainty of His existence and the innumerability of His power, and all other Bibles and testaments are to Him forgeries.”
Thomas Paine’s Deism was a sensational development but it was only the most sensational replacement for traditional Christianity on offer in the 1790s.
Common Questions about American Revolution and Christianity
Jefferson and Madison were relentless in their determination to force Christianity off the public square of Virginia republicanism.
Ethan Allen criticized Christianity in Reason, the Only Oracle of Mankind in 1784. He attacked the reliance on the Bible, the superstitions of prayer, and miracles.
To show his opposition for Christianity, Jefferson in 1779, as governor of Revolutionary Virginia, withdrew state funding for the two professorships in divinity at the College of William and Mary.