Religion and the American Revolution

Historical Background

While the dominant narrative of the American Revolution focuses on its political causes, the factor of religion cannot be ignored. Many settlers came to the North American colonies seeking the freedom to practice their religions. For the Puritans, who established a vision for their colony, calling it a “City upon a Hill,” religion was intertwined with America’s destiny to become a beacon for the world. One cannot fully understand the minds of the Revolutionary generation without considering the place of religion in the social and political life of the colonists, including the revivals of Protestant evangelicalism in the mid-eighteenth century. John Adams said, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligation. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American revolution.” (John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856), 10: 282)

Essential Question

Was the American Revolution a religious event?

Significance

An understanding of the history of the United States must include an understanding of the role played by religion in the nation’s founding and evolution. One comes to understand Americans by studying the Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Social Gospel, and the emergence of the Christian right. In New England, in particular, the Puritan ethic provided the basis for a belief that the colonies and the new nation had a special role to play in God’s plan.

Objectives

  • Students will be able to, either in writing or orally, describe how religion and the Enlightenment affected the Revolutionary generation.
  • Students will be able to explain the meaning and implications of predestination, deism, Presbyterian, Providence, Posterity, Natural Rights, evangelicalism, the Great Awakening, and Arminianism.
  • Students will be able to compare and contrast the “Suffolk Resolves” with the “Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.”
  • Students will be able to describe the Enlightenment view of religion.

Motivation

  • Have students view the cartoon labeled “The Yankee Doodles Entrenchment” available online at the John Carter Brown Library’s collection of Political Cartoons
  • Have the students describe the action.
  • Students are to identify the role of at least two characters in the cartoon.
  • Students are to write their own caption and be able to justify their text.

Activities

  1. Provide students with an overview of the role of religion in American history using as a basis the Historical Background provided above. Students are to take notes during this brief description (recommend no more than 5 minutes).
  2. In 1630 on board the ship Arbella, John Winthrop gave an oration entitled “A Model of Christian Charity (PDF).” A copy of the full text is available online from the University of Virginia Library’s Religious Freedom pages.
  3. Provide students with the entire document but have them only read the last page.
  4. The first sentence of the second paragraph on the last page provides the opportunity for teaching the meaning and implication of “posterity.”
  5. From the reading, have students identify Puritan values.
  6. Lead a discussion on the meaning and implications of the phrase “city upon a hill.”
  7. Provide students with an excerpt from John Locke’s “The Reasonableness of Christianity” (1695).
  8. Have students identify the audience who read Locke’s treatise.
  9. In the excerpt Locke refers to “Law.” What law is he referring to?
  10. Explain how Locke relates GOD and REASON.
  11. Jonathan Edwards was a leading revivalist clergyman. In 1734 he gave a sermon entitled “The Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.”
  12. Provide students with a copy of the excerpt. Conduct a brief discussion on the relationship of Arminianism and predestination.
  13. Have students attempt to relate this sermon to the “Reason” of the Enlightenment.
  14. Edmund Burke, a British statesman, wrote on the “Conciliation with the Colonies.” Students read the excerpt and describe Burke’s argument that religion was a reason for the colonists’ break with England.
  15. Students receive a copy of the excerpts from the “Suffolk Resolves” and the “Declaration and Causes for Taking Up Arms.” Students contrast the two documents regarding the cause of war.

Closure

Students will engage in a discussion of the essential question.

Follow-Up

Students are to write an essay answering the essential question using evidence from the documents and other outside resources.

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