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America: The Land of Dissenters

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The American Revolution followed closely on the heels of the Great Awakening. This momentous religious event contained seeds for potential social change. Now the Awakening did not cause the Revolution, but it did anticipate it in many ways including the assertion of the rights of individual in whatever social level to challenge the established authority. This country is a land of dissenters and it has been since its inception. 

The most important link with the Revolution and a much older tradition of Protestant dissent that the Awakening reinforced. This went back to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth in the 1650s. The American colonies were populated mostly with people, especially New England Congregationalists and Scotch Irish Presbyterians, who thought of themselves as heirs to that valuable heritage. In their eyes, they were Dissenters rather than part of the powerful Anglican establishment. The Awakening intensified the dissenting tradition in America and increased their numbers. When the Revolution started, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists were almost invariably on its side.

George Marsden points out that one of the overlooked aspects of early America is its almost tribal ethnoreligious diversities. Politically, the most significant was the Scotch-Irish. During the reign of Elizabeth I, these Scots migrated to Ulster or Northern Ireland. As Scots, they disliked the English and as Presbyterians they disliked the Anglican church. During the course of the eighteenth century, they sailed in large numbers to the colonies, making up about one fourth of the population in Pennsylvania. They developed a strong animosity to the ruling Quakers, who were English and whose pacifist beliefs the gun toting Scotch-Irish saw as cowardly. They eventually brought Quaker rule to an end. Their even stronger hostility toward the English Anglicans, who were in control of the imperial government, was a major ingredient in the Revolution. Interestingly, the British sometimes referred to the American army as Presbyterian. But it was not just the Presbyterians. The Congregationalists in New England had a long and bitter history of antagonism with the Church of England. 

There was also a tradition of political dissent during the eighteenth century. The thought of English Dissenters was almost universally appropriated by the American revolutionaries. This thought first developed in the 1720s and it has been referred to as the Real Whig, or Commonwealth tradition. The commonwealth referred to the time of Puritan rule in England in the 1660s. These eighteenth century commonwealth men were heirs to this heritage because they belonged to nonconformist or dissenting denominations. 

Yet we most also recognize the importance and political implications in England of having an established church. Mirroring the practices of old Christendom, the Church of England was practically a department of the state and political power was tied to church membership. Other denominations were tolerated, but the memories of the Puritan takeover was recent enough that Anglicans were not ready to give up their political and social control. During the 1700s in England, if one were to hold public office or attend Oxford or Cambridge, one had to belong to the Church of England. 

This ties in to the most striking factor of religious dissent in the colonies was what one historian called the “Great Fear” or the fear of the American bishop. Anglicans in America operated at a considerable inconvenience by having no resident bishop by having no resident bishop since the church holds that the direct laying on of hands by a bishop was essential to ordination of clergy. Yet the same republican Americans, including many Anglicans, who opposed the new taxes for the empire were dead set against such an otherwise sensible proposal for an American bishop. They saw it as a major step toward imposing on the colonies the whole of the English hierarchical model for governing society.

Religion was a significant factor but it was not an isolated variable in the political events. Instead, the resurgence of dissenting religious heritages during the Great Awakening reinforced other ethnic and regional loyalties that contributed to the Revolution. Dissent was and is an important American tradition, whether it be religious or political. I spoke of the Whigs, they are one of the topics coming up, in particular, their view of history.