When a person dies, that person is usually forgotten as time advances. The Book of Exodus opens with the memorable saying: “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (1:8, ESV). Let’s face it, when most of us are laid low by the sweeping of the dread sickle, the memory of our lives will be swallowed up by oblivion. The psalmist reminds us of this reality: “As for man, his days are like grass. ... The wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (103:15–16, ESV).
The same can be true for ideas. Many ideas die with those who strove, fought, and suffered for them. This is usually the case for the people and ideas that were on the losing side of some great controversy. If later generations do not forget them outright, they at least tend to remember them as inevitable losers, in part because the victors have reduced them to caricature.
Both dynamics seem to be true of the individuals who remained loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution. The Loyalists and their ideas are unknown to many, if not most Americans. And if they are known, they are too often remembered in simplified and distorted ways.
The living owe something worthier to the dead than forgetfulness or, worse, their misconstruing or mockery. We owe them our empathy and even, as historian Beth Barton Schweiger has recently argued, our love. And loving the dead means laboring to tell the truth about them in all its complexity. In God against the Revolution, historian Gregg L. Frazer considers the Loyalist clergy and their arguments against American rebellion and independence, giving their viewpoint a careful, comprehensive, and fair treatment.
Grounded in Scripture
This book is a righteous tribute to Loyalist pastors, who took up their cause with integrity, erudition, and a sincere spirit of peace. Far from being dupes of the British elite or proxies of a tyrant, the Loyalist clergy saw themselves as true lovers of America who were equally committed to the flourishing of their communities. Frazer aims “to show that the Loyalists do not fit nicely into a simplistic category, were not ideologically shallow, and were not motivated by fear. They were ... well-meaning and seeking what they thought was best for their home: America.”
One reason the Loyalist clergy have been misunderstood is that much of their writing was destroyed during the Revolution. Another reason, to put the matter simply, is that the Patriots were victorious, and the victorious party typically has the upper hand in shaping how the contest will be remembered.
Frazer concludes that there were about 182 Loyalist clergymen during the Revolutionary period. Of these, he focuses on the dozen or so who were the most influential. The most prominent were Jonathan Boucher (Anglican), Thomas Bradbury Chandler (Anglican), Charles Inglis (Anglican), Samuel Seabury (Anglican), and John Joachim Zubly (Presbyterian). References to these figures appear consistently throughout the book. While Frazer mainly relies on the writings of only a select few pastors, he ably sorts out their distinctive biblical, rational, legal, and practical appeals.
One of the most significant features of Loyalist arguments in support of the British government is that they were not entirely uncritical. Much of what the Loyalists claimed was in harmony with Patriot beliefs. Many, like Zubly, did not approve of being called Tories, instead preferring the appellation Loyalist. Zubly’s writings shared striking similarities with those of his Patriot contemporaries, but as a Loyalist, he stopped short of supporting rebellion against Britain. In fact, Frazer concludes that most Loyalists loved America, criticized the British government for making grievous errors against the colonies, and spoke out against those errors.
In grounding their support of the mother country in Scripture, Loyalist clergy often handled God’s Word more conscientiously than their Patriot counterparts. Frazer points out that pro-revolution pastors frequently read their own biases into passages like Romans 13, consistent with Jonathan Mayhew’s precedent-setting 1750 sermon on the 101st anniversary of the execution of Charles I, “A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to Higher Powers.” Furthermore, Frazer asserts that while the Loyalists appealed mainly to Scripture, history, and the law, Patriot clergy relied on “theory, fear, and John Locke.”
The Bible formed the cohesive foundation for the Loyalists’ argument, and their commitment to a plain reading of Scripture stands in stark contrast to the often allegorical and typological interpretive methods favored by the Patriots. Sermons by Chandler, Zubly, and George Mickeljohn demonstrate that, for the Loyalists, Romans 13 is descriptive rather than aspirational, in contrast to Mayhew’s 1750 perspective. And the Loyalists’ plain approach to Scripture also deviates sharply from that of patriot figures like Samuel Sherwood, Abraham Keteltas, and Jacob Cushing, who identified the 13 colonies with ancient Israel as the chosen people of God. The Loyalist clergy were deeply concerned that the Bible was being abused by Patriots for political ends. They worried that Patriot pastors were subjecting the text of the Bible to reason, rather than reason to the Bible.
Bonds of Affection
While biblical authority was paramount to the Loyalist cause, legal, rational, and practical arguments were also essential. The Loyalists acknowledged innate hierarchies in human societies. They also recognized the authority of Parliament in governing the colonies, invoking historical precedents to challenge the Patriot claim that Parliament had never attempted to regulate the colonies’ internal affairs. They argued not only that Parliament had the right to make laws for the colonies, but also that the Continental Congresses were themselves arbitrary and illegal.
According to Loyalist pastors, the colonies existed in a dependent relationship with the mother country and ought to have regarded themselves as Britain’s loyal children. Britain, they argued, had undertaken heroic efforts to rid the North American continent of threats from the French, and the colonists ought to show gratitude in the form of affection and obedience to its lawful commands. As for the hated taxes and regulations that Parliament had levied on the colonies, they dismissed them as a mere pittance.
True, according to Jonathan Boucher, many of the “best & dearest rights … have been mercilessly invaded by Parliament,” and the Proclamation of 1763 (forbidding settlement west of the Appalachians) was a “very impolitic, as well as unjust” action taken by an imperfect government. And Zubly preached that the British government had “wasted British blood and treasure to alienate America and Great Britain.” But rebellion was sinful, and furthermore, the colonists could have used legal avenues to plead their case to Parliament and the king. Instead, while the colonists were condemning their rightful sovereign as a tyrant, they were hypocritically persecuting the Loyalists among them, depriving them of their property, their rights, and often their lives.
If the colonists were successful in breaking bonds with their rightful sovereign, the Loyalists argued, it would not be long until they were fighting each other over competing land claims, interstate trade, and basic questions of political identity and philosophy. Indeed, “four score and seven years” after independence, the states would indeed be engaged in “a great civil war.”
An Essential Caution
Frazer’s book is a signal achievement. He has brought Loyalist voices back into the light, to be considered and debated on their merits. Indeed, this project helps the living to think carefully about the American founding—to question dearly held assumptions about the purity of the Patriot cause and reexamine the idea that the American Revolution was a conservative effort meant simply to reassert the traditional rights of Englishmen.
God against the Revolution also makes a helpful complement to Frazer’s other writings questioning America’s religious exceptionalism and the myth of American chosenness. Even if, in the end, we take our stand with the Patriots of 1776, the Loyalists put forward an essential caution. They compel us to reflect on whether the war was truly just, and they draw our attention toward its considerable costs in human life. We should take the Loyalists seriously, and we should thank Frazer for rescuing them from oblivion.
John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic).