Jesus vs. the Watchmaker
Some argue that the American Revolution was motivated by Christian ideals—the love of political and religious liberty, and the passion to create a society built on biblical values. Many scholars say the Revolution was merely the product of Enlightenment deists—rationalists who believed God, like a watchmaker, set the universe running and let people manage it by reason. They wanted to found a just and free society on rational, scientific principles.
How we resolve this disagreement depends upon how we pose the question. If the question is, Was there unambiguous biblical justification for the Revolution? we probably have to say no. While many Christians supported independence, many others (Tories) argued for submission to Great Britain—and many pacifists argued biblically that war under any circumstances was wrong.
If we ask instead whether the Revolution was sustained by Christian ideals (versus Enlightenment rationalism) the answer is tangled. In fact, both of these ideologies embraced the ideals and rhetoric of liberty and together were the driving forces behind the Revolution. Despite their pronounced differences, each supported the other and, in the words of historian Patricia Bonomi, “did not cause separate channels but flowed as one stream toward the crisis of 1776.”
Kingdom of Heaven
The responses of both Christians and rationalists to British rule followed similar lines, but their visions and arguments for independence were clearly different.
As talk of revolution increased, colonial clergymen preached the justness of the colonists’ cause. Samuel Langdon from Massachusetts, for example, preached in 1775: “If God be for us, who can be against us.… May we not be confident that the Most High … will plead our righteous cause?”
They also regularly preached on the theme of liberty. If God’s people had been “called to liberty,” as Galatians 5:13 promised, meaning liberty in Christ, then it did not seem much of a stretch to believe that this also meant freedom from political tyranny.
So many patriotic preachers joined in a chorus of dissent against the British attack on American liberties, John Adams was led to say, in the months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “They [the clergy] engage with a fervor that will produce wonderful effects. Those … of every denomination … thunder and lighten every Sabbath.”
This religious zeal was to some extent an outgrowth of the Great Awakening, the great evangelical revival that spread through the colonies from roughly 1735 to 1755. Thousands of conversions took place, and many observers, including the Awakening’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, saw America becoming the center of God’s kingdom on earth. The conversions were proof that world history was culminating. The creation of new, converted men, especially political leaders, would make possible the realization of God’s promised kingdom. Edwards believed change was good for man and society, and this new evangelical emphasis helped focus American discontent. In particular, it offered a new vision that allowed for a breaking with the past.
The new vision corresponded with New England Puritans’ vision of themselves as God’s “New Israel.” Puritans and their various denominational descendants—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and German and Dutch Reformed—supported independence because they believed in this vision. In the frantic days preceding the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence, Ebenezer Baldwin of Connecticut was only one of many contemplating the possibility that America might become “the principal seat of the glorious kingdom, which Christ shall erect upon Earth in the latter days.”
Enlightenment rationalists approached these same themes from a significantly different direction.
The Enlightenment was a 1700s movement that elevated reason over revelation as the chief source and test of humankind’s knowledge. The achievements of Sir Isaac Newton and other astronomers and mathematicians gave to people a new confidence in the power of human reason, without the assistance of divine revelation, to grasp more fully God’s government of the universe. The Enlightenment promised to reveal the mysteries of God’s created handiwork because, as religious historian Sidney Ahlstrom put it, “Reason and scientific knowledge could supply all the necessary elements of religion and ethics, though many might concede that revelation was still needed by the masses.”
For example, Enlightenment thinking about liberty began not in the Bible but in the social contract and natural right theories of such philosophers as John Milton, Algernon Sydney, and especially John Locke. Locke held that all people possessed the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, and if the enjoyment of these rights were interfered with by the civil sovereign, the people had the right to revolt and form a new government.
Outside of the Bible, the writings of Locke were the most frequently cited source for justifying the Revolution. Not coincidentally, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was grounded in Locke’s philosophy, especially as it enumerated the various colonial liberties that the British government had violated.
More importantly, the Enlightenment had its own take on the future. Enlightenment colonists saw the Revolution as promising an imminent and radical transformation of the world and the universal establishment of peace, freedom, and morality. This utopian vision was a secular version of the millennial goals, and even the spirit, of more biblically oriented Christians.
Its key terms, however, were not those of Scripture but of political ideals: liberty, reason, progress, and the rights of man. Newspapers of the era were full of columns upholding visions of a future era of liberty and peace that were not dependent upon Scripture. The Boston Gazette, for example, described America rising to that “happy period” when “virtue and liberty [shall] reign here without a foe, until rolling years shall measure time no more.” And the “New York Journal” urged perseverance in the Revolutionary cause until “true freedom and liberty shall reign triumphant over the whole globe.”
Framing the Revolution
So, was the American Revolution motivated primarily by Christian or deist ideas? Though the answer is complex, we can probably answer primarily Christian. Much of the Revolution’s ideological underpinnings were theological arguments advanced by Christians. And even when rationalists fueled the independence movement, they often employed if not the exact words certainly the prevailing tone of orthodox Christianity.
It is safe to say that the Revolution would neither have been commenced nor sustained on the strength of one of these groups alone. Both Christians and rationalists argued for the Revolution in a compelling religious framework, assuring devotees of both camps, especially those who would fight and even die for the cause of independence, that their efforts were looked upon with favor from heaven.
Derek H. Davis is director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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