Those Blasted Presbyterians: Reflections on Independence Day

“We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against him, let us not pay the least regard to it.” Book Four, Calvin’s Institutes

Presbyterian Revolution

“I fix all the blame of these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians.”  So one colonist loyal to King George wrote to friends in England.

Around the same time, Horace Walpole spoke from the English House of Commons to report on these “extraordinary proceedings” in the colonies of the new world.  “There is no good crying about the matter,” he said.  “Cousin America has run off with the Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”

The parson of which he spoke, was  John Witherspoon—a Presbyterian minister, as well as a descendant of John Knox.  At the time, Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).  He was also the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

From the English perspective, the American revolution was often perceived as a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”  And its supporters were often disdained as “those blasted Presbyterians.”

The Presbyterian Revolution
Most American Christians are unaware of the fact that the American Revolution, as well as the new American state, was greatly shaped by Presbyterians and the Calvinism that was at its root.  Some modern-day  Presbyterians have moved light years away from the convictions of these early colonists.

An estimated three million people lived in the colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War.  Of that number, “900,00 were of Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin, 600,000 were Puritan English, while over 400,000 were of Dutch, German Reformed and Huguenot descent. That is to say, two thirds of our Revolutionary forefathers were trained in the school of Calvin.”  (Carlson, p. 19)

As one historian puts it, “When Cornwallis was driven back to ultimate retreat and surrender at Yorktown, all of the colonels of the Colonial Army but one were Presbyterian elders. It is estimated that more than one half of all the soldiers and officers of the American Army during the Revolution were Presbyterian.” (Carlson, p. 16)

To the man, Presbyterian clergy joined the Colonialist cause. It was said that many of them led the Revolution from the pulpit.  In doing so, they paid a heavy price for their support for independence.  Many lost family members or their own lives.  Some had their churches burned to the ground.

The Presbyterian Drive
We forget that many of the early American colonists had left England precisely because Presbyterian Christianity was rejected.  After its brief reign as the established church through the English Civil War and the work of the Westminster Assembly, Britain returned to Anglicanism.  Thousands of non-conforming Presbyterian ministers were then ejected from their churches.  Some, such as the Covenanters, were martyred in a period that came to be known as “the killing times.” Rigid laws of conformity drove many to seek a better life somewhere else.  After 1660, many Presbyterians began to make their way to the colonies in North America.  It was these individuals who brought a new strength to the colonies as they inched their way forward towards independence.

They had little loyalty, and often outright hostility, to the crown of England.  They were armed with the theology of John Calvin, mediated through John Knox, and solidified during the English Civil war. It was a theology which devalued the divine right of human kings, and elevated the worth and dignity of the individual under God.  This theology shaped the early American understanding of civil liberty.

It shaped our founding fathers. The idea of human equality which influenced John Locke, who in turn,  influenced our founding fathers, was learned from the Puritans. Locke’s father had been on Cromwell’s side during the English Civil war.

It also shaped the general population under the influence of the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a massive 18th century religious revival that shook the colonies. It was promoted by preachers such as Gilbert Tennent and George Whitfield who travelled up and down the coast calling for a return to a robust Christian and Biblical faith.  Emphasizing the new birth and a Calvinist theology, the Great Awakening had an immense influence on colonial sentiments in the generation just preceding the American Revolution.

Consider then, some of what was at work in the American consciousness preceding the revolution. There was the memory of their horrid experience in England. There was the worry that Anglicans would establish this same kind of church in the colonies. There was a persistent fear of the imposition of bishops who were viewed as “holy monarchs,”  (monarchy in any form was considered bad)!  There was a belief in the absolute sovereignty of God. God alone is Lord of all and the author of liberty. There was a corresponding belief in the absolute equality of individuals (king and peasant, clergy and laity) under God’s law. There was the belief that no human should be entrusted with absolute power, given our radically fallen human nature.  There was a belief that there should be a separation of powers in any new government that is established.  And because of their experience in England, there was the belief that religious freedom and freedom of conscience should be respected.

In other words, for these Presbyterians, liberty is affirmed, but it is not an absolute liberty. It is always to be lived out under the sovereign creator God. It was this theology, a theology rooted, not just in Calvin, but in the Bible, which ultimately gave the colonialist the will to resist.

The Presbyterian Legacy
So this year, as we celebrate our independence once again, and as we think of early American courage, and the genius of our founding fathers, let us not forget those blasted Presbyterians who sought to understand liberty in light of the Bible.  A liberty which conceived of a nation and its entire government under God.

Sources:  Our Presbyterian Heritage, Paul Carlson (Elgin:  David C. Cook, 1973)Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs, Walter L. Lingle and John W. Kuykendall, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1988), The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, Douglas F. Kelly, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey:  P&R Publishing, 1992)

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24 Responses to Those Blasted Presbyterians: Reflections on Independence Day

  1. Marty McNeely says:

    That’s a very helpful article Don. A book which clarifies the particular influence of the Scots / Irish (Northern Irish) in America is Born Fighting by James Webb. Happy 4th July to all at RTSO from Ballymena, N Ireland!

  2. Reblogged this on Schreiberspace and commented:
    A great read!

  3. Matt Lockwood says:

    Pride comes before the fall….

  4. Pingback: Independence Day: “Those Blasted Presbyterians” | Christ Covenant Church | Greensboro, North Carolina

  5. Alan Dueck says:

    If these Revolutionary Presbyterians “had little loyalty, and often outright hostility, to the crown of England” it’s not because “They were armed with the theology” of Calvin (or the Bible), whose teaching and behavior were quite the opposite. If “monarchy in any form was considered bad,” among these Presbyterians, then they had not read their Bibles closely enough. Liberty is certainly affirmed in the Scriptures, but liberty is not lived out “under God” abstractly and individualistically, but concretely and socially, mediated through governments ordained by God — including monarchies. Moreover the notions of separation of powers, religious freedom/freedom of conscience, and ultimately of revolution, have more in common with humanistic ideologies than with biblical Christianity.

    It’s time to reconsider the self-justifying patriotic narratives that we tell ourselves every July 4, and be willing to admit that the founding fathers were flawed men influenced at least as much by their world as by their theology.

    • dwsweeting says:

      Well, that is how the pro British colonists argued. But the Revolutionary presbyterians and their descendants had such bad experience with the monarchial idea, in the church and in society, that they were not impressed. And the Biblical data on monarchy cuts both ways.

      The pro revolutionaries were a mixed bunch. All of them were children of their age. And the ones who were the most consciously Calvinists had a theology which told them they were not only flawed, but radically sinful and in need of grace.

  6. Da Dura says:

    The problem with glorifying these wonderful Calvinists is that when they had the power in Mass. for instance, they were more intolerant than the Anglicans they fled after the restoration.

  7. Stephen Hatch says:

    “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” (Romans 13:1+2).

    Since the Bible is the inerrant and authoritative Word of God, and since it again and again (not just in Romans 13) tells us to submit to governing authorities (unless those authorities tell us to violate God’s Word) it is difficult for me to see the American Revolution as biblically warranted, it was over taxes and the like, and I seen no biblical warrant for bloody rebellion over such issues.

    • dwsweeting says:

      Many in that generation felt that Romans 13 was not the only text that informed their actions. hey also brought Revelation into it. Besides there was a world of experience they and their descendants had BEFORE coming to the colonies which informed their decision. For them the, “and the like” part was significant. Thanks for your comment.

      • Romans 13:1-8, Titus 3:1+2, 1 Peter 2:13-18, make it very clear that Christians are to submit to the governing authorities, of course there are cases when we must obey God rather than men as Peter and the Apostles did, but where in Scripture is there warrant for bloody rebellion against governing authorities for the reasons the patriots had? I am not looking for a Lockean answer but biblical ones, with the texts taken in context.

    • CL says:

      The govt described in Romans 13 is clearly a “minister of God to you for good.” (Also 1 Pet 2:14) Show me a govt that meets that requirement, and I’ll show you a people bound to obey said govt. It is impossible to read Rom 13 and rightly conclude that when the govt abandons its rightful role and removes itself from its side of the bargain, the people are still bound to hold up their end. Govt is NOT excused from obeying God’s law.
      God’s #1 and #2 commandments are clear in Mt 22:34-40. If you obey those, you have fulfilled the Law. If you do not, you are a lawbreaker subject to just reprisal. No govt is exempt.
      Govts are to be obeyed when they act as an extension of God’s authority. Was Britain, in all its rabid colonization, carrying out God’s commandments? Or was she just lusting for power that was not hers?

  8. Ken S. says:

    “Some modern-day Presbyterians have moved light years away from the convictions of these early colonists” – to say the least.

  9. w. aardsma says:

    among the Calvinists, let’s not forget the Baptists in the Continental Army, one of whom was a chaplain to George Washington. I would put them in the Calvinist camp because of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith of 1742 with the understanding that there were a few “irregular” Baptists also running around.

    also I do not know how doctrinally strong the Congregationalists (“English Puritans”) were at that time as Unitarianism was already developing in their midst (e.g., the Adams) and other doctrinal deviations would soon blossom in New England.

    Let’s not forget the non Calvinists who also fought by our side – the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the “Fighting Quakers,” even some Roman Catholics. There were Calvinistic Anglicans, yes, but I believe that there were more Wesleyans inside Anglican circles than Calvinists. On the frontier in N.Y. at that time it was common to have joint Dutch Reformed-German Lutheran congregations.

    “After its brief reign as the established church through the English Civil War and the work of the Westminster Assembly, Britain returned to Anglicanism.” I would like to point out that during that time period, the number of Articles of Religion was bumped above 39 to I think 43 was the count due to the Calvinistic influence.

  10. Well, at least one Calvinist pastor opposed both British injustices AND violent revolution as a response — Rev. Zubly of Independent Presbyterian in Savannah. (See David Calhoun’s history of the congregation.) As a result, Zubly’s pro-revolution congregation voted him out of office, and a mob burned down his house. So much for freedom of conscience. History is complicated.

    • dwsweeting says:

      Interesting and yes, complicated.

      • Stephen Hatch says:

        chrishutchinson, John Zulby is a good example of someone who was both was a leader against what he believed were unwise British policies (he was a leading pamphleteer and eventually was chosen as a delegate to the second Continental Congress-though because of his stand not popular there) toward the colonies but someone who would not participate in a bloody rebellion. And he is not the only example there are thousands who opposed British policy but would not condone bloody rebellion.

  11. How many were intimidated, ostracized, beaten, driven from their homes, and even killed by the “patriots” because they did not tow the political line is pretty despicable.

  12. Mark Barnard says:

    Makes me wonder if the unhealed wounds Presbyterians suffered during the civil war in England led them to be reactive toward and especially distrustful of British authority in America. Perhaps the civil war in England was a precursor to the Revolutionary War in America, the old unhealed wounds resurfacing. Discerning whether an authority figure is ruling “in the Lord”, or not, can often be distorted by the history and nature of the relationship between the one ruling and the ones ruled. And there was a lot of painful history between these two parties!

    In many cases, there is as little justification for rebellion as there is for a King who abuses his power. So, was our nation founded out of a reactive rebellion or a national awakening and renewed sense of righteousness? Such motives are easily intertwined, but rarely, completely pure. Before the One “who has eyes like a flame of fire and . . . who searches minds and hearts” – we may all have some repenting to do. P.S. I think the Wesley brothers had something to do with that First Great Awakening too:).

  13. ztalbott says:

    Thanks for this blog! Love this piece.

  14. ztalbott says:

    Reblogged this on Journeys with Zac and commented:
    Those blasted Presbyterians!

  15. Susan Thomas says:

    Stephen Hatch, My opinion is that the description of a Christian’s relationship to government, total subservience as in Romans 13, would have been written differently several decades later, when the Roman government abandoned their tolerance for religious plurality (even protection of Christians) and began persecuting Christians. Paul was writing to his audience at that time and could not see into the future (example: Nero).

  16. Ron Vander Molen Sr. says:

    Those Presbyterian revolutionaries may have been following the dictates of Knox and other revolutionary Calvinists, but they certainly were not applying what Calvin himself taught; namely, follow Scriptural commands and leave rebellious actions to “lesser magistrates”.

  17. David Juniper says:

    “There was the belief that no human should be entrusted with absolute power, given our radically fallen human nature.”

    Shouldn’t that read “any power”?

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