CREATING AMERICAN NATIONALISTS: PRESBYTERIANS AND THE WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE

Philadelphia’s Third Presbyterian Church, often simply referred to as the “Pine Street” church.
(ProfReader/Wikimedia Commons)


By William Taylor - Posted at the Journal of the American Revolution:

“Can it be supposed,” he asked, “that God who made man free … should forbid freedom, already exiled from Asia and Africa, and under sentence of banishment from Europe—that he should FORBID her to erect her banners HERE, and constrain her to abandon the earth?”[8]No, he said, America was to be the new standard-bearer for liberty and would continue as such “until herself shall play the tyrant, forget her destiny, disgrace her freedom, and provoke her God.” - Rev. George Duffield—future chaplain to the Continental Congress, March, 1776
There was no turning back after the morning of April nineteenth.[1] When the militiamen under Captain John Parker defended themselves against the British regulars at Lexington, they signaled a transition in the imperial crisis. What was still primarily a war of words before the sun broke the horizon that morning in 1775 had intensified into an armed conflict by the falling of that evening’s shadows. Meeting in Philadelphia shortly after this bellwether moment, the ruling body of the Presbyterian church, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, wrestled alongside their fellow colonists with the repercussions. In the course of their annual meeting the synod decided to write a pastoral letter to the congregations under their care and throughout the colonies.[2]

This letter set out four things very clearly. First, God was still sovereign in all things, and that “affliction springeth not out of the dust,” meaning, in other words, it was time to examine themselves and repent. Second, the synod insisted that they were still, and should be, loyal British subjects who hoped for reconciliation and peace. “Let it appear,” they wrote, “that you only desire the preservation and security of those rights which belong to you as freemen and Britons, and that reconciliation upon these terms is your most ardent desire.” Third, they affirmed that the elusive theory of justifiable rebellion was well within reach. If “the British ministry shall continue to enforce their claims by violence,” then Presbyterians should fight, alongside the rest of the colonists.[3] Fourth, the synod noted that while the conflict lasted its members needed to maintain colonial unity by both supporting the Continental Congress and promoting “a spirit of candour, charity, and mutual esteem … towards those of different religious denominations.”[4] Wearing their orthodoxy and loyalty on their sleeves, the Presbyterians demonstrated that they saw no separation of the spiritual and the secular and that they would strive in this time of crisis to build and preserve unions within and for these blended realms.

It would be a mistake, however, to see these union efforts by the Presbyterians in May 1775 as occurring in a vacuum. Seventeen years earlier the Presbyterians had embarked on a mission that made union building a priority for the church. This effort of 1758 was prompted by the schism that had rent the church since 1741. The reunion of 1758 was not intended to be a private affair. The Presbyterians had very publicly split and so they decided to very publicly reunite. In this spirit, they published an account that combined their reunion efforts as well as four promises for the colonial reading world. They first promised to “study the Things that make for Peace;” second, to lead exemplary lives, both in word and deed; third, to ensure that their doctrines were orthodox and evangelical; and fourth, to commend “ourselves to every Man’s Conscience in the Sight of God.” There is no doubt that these efforts were first intended to heal the divisions within the church but this should not obscure the Presbyterians’ intentions towards their fellow colonists in other churches. The synod made this point clearly when it wrote that the ultimate “Design of our Union is the Advancement of the Mediator’s Kingdom.”[5]

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