Frazer, “God against the Revolution”

9780700626960“Let tyrants shake their iron rod / And Slav’ry clank her galling chains / We fear them not, we trust in God / New England’s God Forever Reigns.” These words from a famous Revolutionary song reflect the Patriots’ belief that the Almighty was on their side in the struggle against the Crown and for independence from Great Britain. This belief carried forward after the war, so that, when Tocqueville visited in the 19th century, he observed that Americans so completely conflated Christianity and “freedom” that they could not conceive of one without the other. But there was another side in the Revolution. Like many colonial rebellions, the Revolution was in truth a civil war, and one with religious undertones. The Loyalists also thought God was on their side. But as Anglicans and conservatives, they thought He favored, not Republicanism, but Monarchy and the Established Church.

A new book from the University Press of Kansas, God against the Revolution, by historian Gregg L. Frazer (The Master’s University) evaluates the arguments of Loyalist clergy. It looks like a fascinating book. Perhaps, like Bernard Bailyn’s famous biography of Loyalist Governor Thomas Hutchinson, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, it will encourage some sympathy with the losers in our Revolution. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Because, it’s said, history is written by the victors, we know plenty about the Patriots’ cause in the American Revolution. But what about the perhaps one-third of the population who opposed independence? They too were Americans who loved the land they lived in, but their position is largely missing from our understanding of Revolution-era American political thought. With God against the Revolution, the first comprehensive account of the political thought of the American Loyalists, Gregg L. Frazer seeks to close this gap.

Because the Loyalists’ position was most clearly expressed by clergymen, God against the Revolution investigates the biblical, philosophical, and legal arguments articulated in Loyalist ministers’ writings, pamphlets, and sermons. The Loyalist ministers Frazer consults were not blind apologists for Great Britain; they criticized British excesses. But they challenged the Patriots claiming rights as Englishmen to be subject to English law. This is one of the many instances identified by Frazer in which the Loyalist arguments mirrored or inverted those of the Patriots, who demanded natural and English rights while denying freedom of religion, expression, and assembly, and due process of law to those with opposing views. Similarly the Loyalist ministers’ biblical arguments against revolution and in favor of subjection to authority resonate oddly with still familiar notions of Bible-invoking patriotism.

For a revolution built on demands for liberty, equality, and fairness of representation, God against Revolution raises sobering questions—about whether the Patriots were rational, legitimate representatives of the people, working in the best interests of Americans. A critical amendment to the history of American political thought, the book also serves as a cautionary tale in the heated political atmosphere of our time.

On American Universalism

At the First Things site today, I have a review of a current exhibit, “Canova’s George Washington,” at the Frick Collection in New York. I argue that Canova’s famous statue of our first President is not a celebration of Enlightenment universalism, but an admonition against the course of empire:

In fact, the Farewell Address, which Canova depicts Washington writing, famously warned Americans against involvement in world revolution. Not only should America “steer clear of permanent alliances” with foreign countries, Washington wrote, she should have “with them as little political connection as possible.” Neutrality with respect to foreign quarrels was the best policy for America.  Why risk the new nation’s peace and prosperity by entangling it in the intrigues of the old?

The context for this warning was, of course, the French Revolution, and the campaign by Jeffersonians to commit the United States to Republican France’s war against Great Britain. Jeffersonians thought the French Revolution, with its universal Declaration of the Rights of Man—all men, everywhere, not just the French—its rationalism, and its destruction of the old regime, was a natural continuation of our own, and thus worthy of American support. But Washington had proclaimed American neutrality in the conflict. The Farewell Address was a rejection of the Jeffersonian, universalist interpretation of our Revolution, and everyone would have seen it that way at the time.

To my mind, then, Canova’s statue doesn’t suggest a celebration of universalism and progress. It suggests, instead, that Americans, like the Romans before us, are apt to stray from republican virtues in a quest for empire, and warns us against such a path.

You can read the whole review at the First Things site, here.

Taylor, “Unity in Christ and Country”

In June, the University of Alabama Press will release Unity in Christ and Country: American Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758–1801 by William Harrison Taylor (Alabama State University). The publisher’s description follows:

Unity in Christ and CountryIn Unity in Christ and Country: American Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758–1801, William Harrison Taylor investigates the American Presbyterian Church’s pursuit of Christian unity and demonstrates how, through this effort, the church helped to shape the issues that gripped the American imagination, including evangelism, the conflict with Great Britain, slavery, nationalism, and sectionalism. When the colonial Presbyterian Church reunited in 1758, a nearly twenty-year schism was brought to an end. To aid in reconciling the factions, church leaders called for Presbyterians to work more closely with other Christian denominations. Their ultimate goal was to heal divisions, not just within their own faith but also within colonial North America as a whole.

Taylor contends that a self-imposed interdenominational transformation began in the American Presbyterian Church upon its reunion in 1758. However, this process was altered by the church’s experience during the American Revolution, which resulted in goals of Christian unity that had both spiritual and national objectives. Nonetheless, by the end of the century, even as the leaders in the Presbyterian Church strove for unity in Christ and country, fissures began to develop in the church that would one day divide it and further the sectional rift that would lead to the Civil War.

Taylor engages a variety of sources, including the published and unpublished works of both the Synods of New York and Philadelphia and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, as well as numerous published and unpublished Presbyterian sermons, lectures, hymnals, poetry, and letters. Scholars of religious history, particularly those interested in the Reformed tradition, and specifically Presbyterianism, should find Unity in Christ and Country useful as a way to consider the importance of the theology’s intellectual and pragmatic implications for members of the faith.

Call for Papers: Religion and Politics in Early America

The Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis is hosting a conference entitled “Religion and Politics in Early America.” The conference will take place on March 1-4, 2018. The organizers of the conference are seeking proposals for both panels and individual papers. Proposals are due by Friday, May 26, 2017. Those interested in organizing a panel or submitting a paper can find more information here. The Danforth Center’s description of the conference follows:

Danforth Center.pngThis conference will explore the intersections between religion and politics in early America from pre-contact through the early republic. All topics related to the way religion shapes politics or politics shapes religion—how the two conflict, collaborate, or otherwise configure each other—will be welcomed. We define the terms “religion” and “politics” broadly, including (for example) studies of secularity and doubt. This conference will have a broad temporal, geographic, and topical expanse. We intend to create a space for interdisciplinary conversation, though this does not mean that all panels will need be composed of multiple disciplines; we welcome both mixed panels and panels composed entirely of scholars from a single discipline.

Dawson, “The Gods of Revolution”

This is a new edition of a work by the brilliant historian, Christopher Dawson,Dawson final sketch.indd first published in 1972. The book (Dawson’s last monograph, a short work published posthumously with an introduction by Arnold Toynbee) is The Gods of Revolution, reissued by CUA Press and with a new introduction by Joseph Stuart. In a college course in the intellectual history of western civilization many years ago, one of the required readings was the last chapter of Dawson’s book. I went back and looked at it, and have the following line highlighted: “And a free society requires a higher degree of spiritual unity than a totalitarian one, hence the spiritual integration of western culture is essential to its temporal survival.” The publisher’s description follows.

In The Gods of Revolution, Christopher Dawson brought to bear, as Glanmor Williams said, “his brilliantly perceptive powers of analysis on the French Revolution. . . . In so doing he reversed the trends of recent historiography which has concentrated primarily on examining the social and economic context of that great upheaval.”

Dawson underlines the fact that the Revolution was not animated by democratic ideals but rather reflected an authoritarian liberalism often marked by a fundamental contempt for the populace, described by Voltaire as “the ‘canaille’ that is not worthy of enlightenment and which deserves its yoke.” The old Christian order had stressed a common faith and common service shared by nobles and peasants alike but Rousseau “pleads the cause of the individual against society, the poor against the rich, and the people against the privileged classes.” It is Rousseau whom Dawson describes as the spiritual father of the new age in disclosing a new spirit of revolutionary idealism expressed in liberalism, socialism and anarchism. But the old unity was not replaced by a new form. Dawson insists the whole period following the Revolution is “characterized by a continual struggle between conflicting ideologies,” and the periods of relative stabilization such as the Napoleonic restoration, Victorian liberalism in England, and capitalist imperialism in the second German empire “have been compromises or temporary truces between two periods of conquest.” This leads to his assertion that “the survival of western culture demands unity as well as freedom, and the great problem of our time is how these two essentials are to be reconciled.”

This reconciliation will require more than technological efficiency for “a free society requires a higher degree of spiritual unity than a totalitarian one. Hence the spiritual integration of western culture is essential to its temporal survival.” It is to Christianity alone that western culture “must look for leadership and help in restoring the moral and spiritual unity of our civilization,” for it alone has the influence, “in ethics, in education, in literature, and in social action” sufficiently strong to achieve this end.

Byrd, “Sacred Scripture, Sacred War”

The American Revolution had roots in both the Enlightenment and Evangelical Christianity. Intellectual histories often stress the former, but scholarship increasingly focuses on the Revolution’s Evangelical ideology as well. In June, Oxford University Press will publish Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution by Vanderbilt’s James P. Byrd. The publisher’s description follows:

The American colonists who took up arms against the British fought in defense of the ”sacred cause of liberty.” But it was not merely their cause but warfare itself that they believed was sacred. In Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, James P. Byrd shows that the Bible was a key text of the American Revolution. Many colonists saw the Bible as primarily a book about war, and God as not merely sanctioning violence but actively participating in combat. When war came, preachers and patriots turned to scripture, not only for solace, but for exhortations to violence. Byrd has combed through more than 500 wartime sources, which include more than 17,000 biblical citations, to see how the Bible shaped American war, and how war shaped Americans’ view of the Bible.

Esbeck on Religion During the American Revolution

Carl H. Esbeck (University of Missouri School of Law) has posted Religion During the American Revolution and the Early Republic.  The abstract follows.

This paper is part of an anthology and will appear in volume one under the heading Historical Introduction to Law and Religion in the West. The editor requested an extended essay concerning religion and religious liberty in the American War of Independence and its aftermath. The paper is juxtaposed with another on the French Revolution, providing a comparison for the role religion played in these events that continue to shape the world. In addition to the War itself, which unfolded over 1775-1783, changes within American Protestantism had a leveling effect on society and, by the early years of the republic, the political and religious culture exalted liberty, individualism, and the voluntary church.

The Quebec Act of 1774 illustrates the degree to which American patriots reacted against Roman Catholicism. This act of Parliament preserved the established role of the Catholic Church in French Canada, including public funding and full sanction by the British government. British tolerance of the Catholic establishment drew harsh protests from Congress, even mention as a grievance in the Declaration of Independence. American sensitivity was to Old World political uses of religion. The patriots believed that a fully-empowered Catholic hierarchy to the north and west of them would bring Old World intrigues involving the Roman Church. To be an American was to be in sympathy with Protestantism, to be Protestant was to be republican, and to be republican was to oppose Catholic absolutism. Moreover, the British were departing from their constitutional commitment to representative government when they unilaterally imposed taxes and other oppressive acts on colonial subjects. This was seen as an offense to republicanism and each American’s inalienable rights. The breach of the Lockean social contract legitimated armed rebellion. Continue reading

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