Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Presbyterians and the American War of Independence

Last Sunday, I preached on how God makes his people a blessing to their land. You can listen to that sermon at this link. "By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown" (Proverbs 11:11). One historical example of this can be found in the work of Christians in the struggles of our own country during its war for independence. Consider the contributions made by our fellow Presbyterians at that time. 

In 1768, John Witherspoon accepted an invitation to become the president of the College of New Jersey. He was a Presbyterian pastor from Scotland who had become notable as a leader of the evangelical party in the Church of Scotland against the moderates. At the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University), he taught 500 students, including 
a president of the United States (James Madison), a vice president (Aaron Burr Jr.), twelve members of the Continental Congress, five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, forty-nine US representatives, twenty-eight senators, and three Supreme Court justices. Added to this impressive list were 114 ministers of the gospel, 19 of whom became presidents of institutions of higher learning. (Reformed and Evangelical across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America) 
Around the same time, British policy toward their colonies began to change. The British Parliament began claiming authority to tax and regulate the internal affairs of the colonies, an authority which the colonies argued was illegitimate and which belonged to their own representative legislatures. Parliament only had authority to regulate external trade for the advantage of the mother country, not to raise revenue. They rightly saw this imposition a usurpation and one that undermined their rights as British freemen and the security of their hard-won property.

Another threat was that the British Parliament might attempt to impose a bishop on the colonies aligned with the power of the state, a tyranny from which the colonists had escaped by coming to America. Congregationalists and Presbyterians were united in their concern for religious liberty and were concerned with good reason that the suppression of civil liberty might lead to the suppression of religious liberty. Historically, they knew how kings had used bishops to gain greater control over the church and feared that such a bishop might be empowered with authority over dissenters. In 1766, the Presbyterian Church (the Synod of New York and Philadelphia) and the Consociated Churches of Connecticut formed an association with a regular convention for better communication between them and for a united stand for the gospel and religious liberty and against the imposition of a bishop.

The Presbyterian synod rejoiced with the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 and reminded its people to give thanks to God for delivering them both from the French and Indians and from the Stamp Act and to respond with renewed obedience to God, rather than risk his judgment by ingratitude. In all the coming trials of the war, pastors would remind the people to look beyond the British to the hand of Providence and to humble themselves before the Lord in prayer and repentance.

As war approached, Presbyterian pastors were careful to be pastors not politicians. Preaching on politics directly was more the exception than the rule, and was done most often on special days of fasting or thanksgiving. But centuries of Reformed teaching on the magistrate and proper ways of resistance had a strong influence on the colonies, and pastors did not ignore the events of their time. They approved the struggle for American rights and liberties and gave pastoral exhortations for how to pursue this course in a godly way. 

The Synod sent out a pastoral letter of 1775 drafted by John Witherspoon to this effect. In it, they advised those under their charge to express their attachment and respect to their Sovereign (but misled) King George; to seek only the preservation of those rights which belonged to them as freemen and Britons and to desire reconciliation on those terms; to honor, pray for, and observe the resolutions of the Continental Congress; to maintain church government over the morals of members; to each fulfill his debts and duties to his neighbors amid disorder and disruptions; to preserve a spirit of humanity, only fighting as necessary; and to continue steadfastly in prayer. The letter was signed on May 12, 1775 and it was read from the pulpit in the churches on a national fast day, July, 20, 1775, a year before independence was declared. John Adams sent a copy of this letter to his wife and was very pleased with it and with the Presbyterian preaching he attended in Philadelphia from Rev. George Duffield, a future chaplain to the Continental Congress. You can read the pastoral letter here.

On May 17th, 1776, a day of prayer and fasting declared by Congress, John Witherspoon preached “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men.” In this sermon he preached on God’s providence and a right use of it and the importance of virtue. In it, he declared his opinion “that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.” He concluded his sermon by saying, 
Upon the whole, I beseech you to make a wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs, and to remember that your duty to God, to your country, to your families, and to yourselves, is the same. True religion is nothing else but an inward temper and outward conduct suited to your state and circumstances in providence at any time. And as peace with God and conformity to him, adds to the sweetness of created comforts while we possess them, so in times of difficulty and trial, it is in the man of piety and inward principle that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier. — God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.
Only two months later, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. Witherspoon was one of its signers, along with 11 Presbyterian laymen. Speaking of him, a member of Parliament said, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” 

One of those other Presbyterian signers was Thomas McKean. He was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian, born in Pennsylvania to parents born in Ireland, and educated by Rev. Francis Alison (an Old-Side Presbyterian minister) and at the University of Pennsylvania. He represented Delaware in the Stamp Act Congress and in the Continental Congress (1774-1782). He voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence, served as a colonel in the war, helped draft the Articles of Confederation and voted for them. He served in the Delaware House of Assembly and drafted Delaware's 1776 Constitution.  He was the chief justice of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1799, a member of Pennsylvania’s convention who voted to ratify the US Constitution, and the governor of Pennsylvania from 1800 to 1808. Even at the age of 80, he was active during the War of 1812 in leading a Philadelphia citizens group to prepare for a potential British invasion. 

In fact, due to the strong support Presbyterians gave to the patriot cause, the war became known among many of the British as a Presbyterian war, especially since the Congregationalists were so closely united with the Presbyterians as to be grouped together with them. In fact, some Tories believed the war was caused by a Presbyterian-Congregationalist conspiracy to set up a Presbyterian establishment in the colonies - a rumor that Presbyterians would go out of their way to disprove. One loyalist Anglican minister, Rev. William Jones, wrote in 1776 to the British government that “…this has been a Presbyterian war from the beginning as certainly as that in 1641…” (referring to the British Civil War). 

While Presbyterians of various ethnic background largely sided with the patriots, the Scots-Irish were especially numerous and prominent. They sided with the patriots quite earnestly, except for a few areas where local disputes divided them. They were some of the most loyal troops that stuck by Washington at Valley Forge. Their Presbyterian ancestors had opposed tyranny under the authority of lower magistrates and legislatures in the British Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and now they did it again. One Hessian captain wrote to a friend, saying, “call this war, dearest friend, by whatsoever name you may, only call it not an American Revolution, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion” (Capt. Johann Heinrichs, January 18, 1778). This also meant that Presbyterians and their ministers and churches were often targeted by the British Army. For example, Rev. James Caldwell was a chaplain in the Continental Army and his wife was killed by the British, his house and church was burned by Tories, and his death was probably an assassination.

As the war shifted to the south, the Scots-Irish Presbyterians of the backcountry would provide important victories at King’s Mountain and Cowpens. At King’s Mountain, these Scots-Irish frontiersmen had been encouraged by the preaching of Presbyterian preacher Samuel Doak and were led by five colonels who were also Presbyterian elders. General Daniel Morgan who defeated Tarleton at Cowpens came to faith during the war and joined the Presbyterian church shortly after the battle. 

Not only did they fight, but Presbyterians also emphasized the importance of rightly responding to trials and humbling themselves before God in prayer and repentance. Both Congress and the Synod repeatedly set days to call people to repentance, prayer, thanksgiving, and new obedience throughout the war. Presbyterians looked to God to deliver and use this new country for good, but they also realized the need for national repentance and reformation if this was to happen, and preached for it. In 1779 and 1780, the Presbyterian church called for a day of prayer and fasting in this way: 
The Synod taking into consideration the great and increasing decay of vital piety, the degeneracy of manners, want of public spirit, and prevalence of vice and immorality that obtains throughout our land, and that the righteous God, by continuing still to afflict us with the sore calamity of a cruel and barbarous war, is loudly calling the inhabitants to repentance and reformation, and as a means thereto, to deep humiliation, frequent and fervent prayer, do therefore appoint Thursday, the 17th day of August next, to be observed by all under our care, as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; and do also renew the recommendation of former Synods to all their congregations, to spend a part of the last Thursday in every month, in social prayer, as their circumstances may admit.
The Presbyterian church also responded to victory with calls for thanksgiving. In 1783, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia sent out another pastoral letter to its churches, writing, 
We cannot help congratulating you on the general and almost universal attachment of the Presbyterian body, to the cause of liberty and the rights of mankind. This has been visible in their conduct, and has been confessed by the complaints and resentment of the common enemy. Such a circumstance ought not only to afford us satisfaction on the review, as bringing credit to the body in general, but to increase our gratitude to God for the happy issue of the war. Had it been unsuccessful, we must have drunk deeply of the cup of suffering. Our burnt and wasted churches, and our plundered dwellings, in such places as fell under the power of our adversaries, are but an earnest of what we must have suffered, had they finally prevailed.

The synod, therefore, request you to render thanks to Almighty God, for all his mercies spiritual and temporal; and in a particular manner for establishing the independence of the United States of America. He is the supreme disposer, and to Him belong the glory, the victory, and the majesty.

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