This article was originally published in the July 2, 1976 issue of Christianity Today.
Colonial Americans who remained loyal to Great Britain during the Revolution have only recently become a subject of serious study. For a very long time, writers on American history perceived the Revolution much as the original patriots did. So long as the virtue of the patriot cause and the magnitude of British evil were accepted without question, the historian could look upon colonial Tories only as sadly deluded, stubbornly obnoxious, and crassly self-serving lackeys of the British tyrants. And from a religious perspective, belief in the manifest righteousness of the patriot effort prevented later Americans from being able to understand how a colonist could be both a genuine believer and a Tory.
There were, however, Christian roots to the Loyalist point of view. The political commitments of the Christian Loyalists may have to be rejected, but a study of their religious perspective can enlighten American Christians who are concerned about sorting out loyalties to God, church, and country.
The motives that led colonial Americans to remain loyal to Britain were as many and varied as those that prompted others to seek independence. In all, some one-fifth to one-third of the colonists are thought to have had Tory leanings or to have actively supported the British connection. Some of these, particularly crown officials and Anglican ministers, were predisposed by their positions to Loyalism. Some were bound to England by commercial, family, or traditional ties. Some were convinced through reading the political writings of the day that the argument for Loyalism was intrinsically better than the case for rebellion. And many were simply indisposed by their own constitutions to undergo the distress, social upheaval, and radical changes entailed by the Revolution. From a Christian point of view, Loyalists divide naturally between members of the Church of England and members of the other religious bodies in the colonies.
Many Anglicans in the middle and southern colonies supported the patriot cause George Washington and Patrick Henry are prominent examples. But Anglicans from New York and New England were the most vocal exponents of a Christian Loyalism. Sincere Christian convictions were displayed by many members of the Church of England who resisted the drive for independence. Prominent among these was Moses Dunbar, whose last days stand out as one of the most notable examples of Christian fortitude on either side during the Revolutionary period.
Dunbar, a layman from Waterbury, Connecticut had moved from Congregationalism to Anglicanism before 1776, and at the start of the war had offered his services to the British. In January 1777, during a visit to his home in Connecticut he was captured by patriot forces. In his pocket was a captain's commission from a British regiment. A Hartford jury sentenced him to death by hanging.
On the day before his execution Dunbar wrote a long personal statement that he entitled "Last Speech and Dying Words." This document spoke briefly of his early life, mentioned the family estrangement caused by his conversion to the Church of England, related his inability to "reconcile my Opinion to the necessity or Lawfulness of taking up Arms against Great Britain," gave the details of his arrest and trial, and then took up spiritual matters:
I shall soon be delivered from all the Pains and Troubles of this Mortal State, I shall be Answerable to None but the all-seeing God, who is infinitely Just and who knoweth all things. As I am fully persuaded that I depart in a State of peace with God and my own Conscience, I can have but little doubt of my future Happiness through the Mercy of God and Merits of Jesus Christ. I have sincerely repented of my sins, Examined my Heart, prayed Earnestly to God for Mercy for the Gracious pardon of my Manifold and heinous Sins, and now resign myself wholly to the disposal of my heavenly Father, submitting my will to his.
From the very Bottom of my heart I forgive all my Enemies, and Earnestly pray God to forgive them all.
I die in the Possession and Communion of the Church of England.
My last advice to you is that you, above all other Concerns, prepare yourselves (with God's Assistance) for your future, Eternal State" (The Price of Loyalty, ed. C. S. Crary, McGraw-Hill, 1973, pp. 231; 233, 234).
Anglicans did not suffer in silence as the war approached but countered the patriots' arguments with four general theses: (1) that the English monarchical system was a distinctly better form of government than the democratic republicanism proposed by the patriots; (2) that individuals had a moral, indeed a Christian, obligation to submit to lawful rulers and to obey their laws; (3) that inviolable oaths sworn by Anglican clergymen prevented any tampering with the church's liturgy in order to appease patriotic scruples; and (4) that the Bible explicitly condemned the kind of actions taken by the patriots.
The Loyalists, some of whom did share general Whig conceptions about the nature of governmental power, simply were unable to believe that the threat of "slavery" from Parliament or the established Episcopal Church could at all be compared to the dangers from a popular mob run amuck into unregulated anarchy. Samuel Seabury, who cared for an upstate New York parish during the war and who afterwards became the first bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, issued a series of reasoned tracts in which he sought to expose the intrinsic weakness of colonial political aspirations and to remind the colonies of the inherent strengths of the British system that the patriots were rushing to throw over. His tract Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress suggested that Christian belief itself could very well become a casualty to the spirit of independence sweeping the land.
In its most extreme form, this line of argument held that the Presbyterians and Congregationalists wanted to throw off the rightful sovereignty of the King only in order to foment open rebellion and mob rule. More typically Anglican, however, were the arguments of Charles Inglis, rector of Trinity Church in New York City, who took up his pen against Tom Paine's Common Sense in order to argue that monarchy was the simplest and most stable form of government and that democracy was an untried system subject to unknown disorders.
In a tract directed against Paine, The True Interest of America Stated, Inglis also intimated the positive ideal that Anglicans advanced as a counter to the patriotic vision. More of the specifically Christian content of Anglican social theory emerged in this emphasis than in the strictly political debate. From Inglis's perspective, life in society was to reflect divinely constituted order just as individual life was. The orders of society, the traditional patterns of authority, the very inequalities of place and station, existed not to satisfy base human lusts but to reflect God's plan and purpose for Christian life in society. In a book about the Loyalists, William A. Nelson summarizes well the contrast between the Anglican and the patriot worldviews: Inglis and others like him, writes Nelson, had "seen a vision of a world where society was blessed, and man could be saved, not by seeking his own fulfillment only, but by living in grace with his fellows. The revolutionists, on the other hand, had little interest in society as such. It was the life of the individual that was sacred to them, and their theories about society were usually mere projections of their concern for the individual" (The American Tory, Oxford, 1961, pp. 186, 187).
All the talk of natural rights, British tyranny, and a grasping Church of England appeared to these Anglicans as transparent excuses to throw over the traces of civilization and to embark on a social bacchanal that could end only in destruction, confusion, and the death of Christian culture. From this point of view, the Christian rationale for patriotism seemed very shaky indeed.
Besides being unable to grasp the logic of the patriot cause, members of the Church of England also thought that all men, and Christians in particular, had a moral obligation to submit to the rulers that God had provided for them. Writing in 1774, Thomas Bradbury Chandler of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, expressed his conviction that the allegiance of a subject to a properly constituted government was not an optional matter: "The principles of submission and all lawful authority are as inseparable from a sound, genuine member of the Church of England, as any religious principle whatever. The Church has always been famed and respected for its loyalty, and its regard to order and government" (A Friendly Address).
After the actual outbreak of fighting, many Anglicans fled the country rather than submit to what they considered an illegally constituted government. One of those who left was Isaac Wilkins, an influential member of the New York colonial legislature who clearly expressed his religious sentiments in 1775 upon his departure from the country: "It has been my constant maxim through life to do my duty conscientiously and to trust the issue of my actions to the Almighty. I leave America and every endearing connection because I will not raise my hand against my Sovereign, nor will I draw my sword against my Country" (quoted in The Price of Loyalty, p. 35). For many Anglicans in the colonies, Loyalism was an outgrowth of the conviction that Christianity demanded allegiance to one's rulers and obedience to his laws.
A third motive inspiring Loyalism pertained more directly to Anglican clergymen serving in the colonies. In assuming their clerical offices, ministers of the Church of England swore not to countenance any effort to depose or harm the English sovereign. In addition, the stated services of the Anglican liturgy contained specific prayers for the King and his family that the minister was sworn to include in the regular services of the church. The dilemma faced by Anglican curates was acute. Demands by the patriots that they repudiate these vows drove many curates who may have had some sympathy for the Revolution into an unreserved defense of Loyalism.
Direct arguments from Scripture were not as frequent from Loyalist ministers as from preachers who backed the patriotic effort, but the Bible did play a significant role in Anglican Loyalism. In 1774 Thomas Bradbury Chandler argued on the basis of Romans 13 that the apostle Paul had demanded submission even to the worst of tyrants, Nero. Paul knew what he was talking about, Chandler felt, for "the bands of society would be dissolved, the harmony of the world confounded, and the order of nature subverted, if reverence, respect, and obedience might be refused to those whom the constitution has vested with the highest authority" (A Friendly Address).
Jonathan Boucher of Maryland was another Anglican who discovered a foundation for Loyalism in the Bible. In a sermon "On Civil Liberty, Passive Obedience, and Nonresistance" preached in 1775, Boucher argued that the "liberty" of Galatians 5:1 did not signify political self-determination, as patriotic preachers assumed, but rather release from the dominion of sin. The New Testament did, however, speak clearly of political obligations in demanding "obedience to the laws of every country, in every kind or form of government." "Obedience to Government is every man's duty," Boucher went on, "because it is every man's interest; but it is particularly incumbent on Christians, because it is enjoined by the positive commands of God."
To support his contention Boucher cited specific biblical injunctions to submit to the state. He adduced Titus 3:1 ("Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work") as merely one of the many texts showing how important the apostle Paul considered submission to lawful authorities to be. After an examination of the New Testament evidence, Boucher concluded that "the duty of submission and obedience to Government was enjoined on the converts to Christianity with new and stronger sanctions."
Members of the Church of England were by no means the only American Christians to remain loyal to Great Britain during the Revolutionary period. Other Christian groups also harbored significant Loyalist sentiment.
It is not surprising that Loyalism existed among Methodists, who at the time of the Revolution were still a fledgling body in America. From England, American Methodists received word of Charles Wesley's openly stated belief in the doctrines of divine right and passive obedience. John Wesley, for his part, expressed public sympathy for the inequities inflicted upon the colonies. But he also criticized American Whigs for their highly exaggerated prattle about the "slavery" resulting from British policies and for their disobedience of the clear scriptural injunction to be subject to the powers that be. In seeking to put British wrongs in their proper light, Wesley reminded his American friends that the true slaves in the colonies were the Negroes. He also cited himself as an example of an Englishman who, because he did not meet the property qualifications, was not able to vote in parliamentary elections and who therefore paid taxes without representation.
Because of the wide publicity given to the Wesleys' opinions on the conflict, Methodists in America were suspected of Toryism. Indeed, many of the Methodist missionaries in America probably shared their leaders' political sentiments. Whether they agreed or not, all the English missionaries except Francis Asbury returned to the mother country during the war. Asbury, who shared a patriotic sense of outrage at British imperial policies, did not hide his displeasure over Wesley's comments on the political crisis. Owing at least in part to Asbury's rejection of Wesley's Toryism, Methodists were able to resume their rapid advances in America after the war while other Loyalist bodies, particularly the Anglicans, suffered long under the stigma of Toryism.
Among the "patriotic denominations" Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and to a lesser extent Baptists the advocates of an independent United States were so numerous and so vocal that it is easy to get the false impression that none of the members of these denominations were Loyalists. In fact, there was significant Loyalist sentiment in each of these groups.
Some Baptists, who in general had had doubts about the initial break with Great Britain, also doubted the rightness of the American cause after the hostilities began. In New England a few Baptists joined the British forces under Burgoyne at the battle of Bennington in April 1777. Whether Baptist Loyalism in New England arose out of reaction to Congregationalist strictures upon Baptist life or from specifically scriptural insights into the nature of civil strife is not clear.
Several of the same motives that turned Anglicans from patriotism also influenced ministers and laymen among the Presbyterians. Scottish settlers in western North Carolina resisted the logic of patriotism because of overarching fidelity to oaths sworn to the English king. These Scottish settlers, among whom were some Presbyterians, had sworn fidelity to George Il after the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Their immigration to the new world did not lessen the obligation they felt to these oaths, and they retained their allegiance to Great Britain during the war.
The most prominent Presbyterian Loyalist in the colonies had other reasons for resisting the patriotic surge. John Joachim Zubly, a native Swiss, had been the first minister of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia. Zubly, unlike many Loyalists, shared Whig principles on abstract political matters. He denounced taxation without representation during the Stamp Act controversy, and argued for significant checks and balances on the exercise of royal and parliamentary power. He did not, however, see the republican alternative to the English system in so favorable a light as the colonial patriots did. Committed to the necessity of legal sanctions in political affairs and extremely wary of rapid, unthinking change in government, Zubly was unwilling to endorse colonial independence even as he argued for the redress of grievances.
Because of the Whig sentiments expressed in such works as his Law of Liberty, a sermon preached in 1775 at the opening of the Georgia Provincial Congress, Zubly was named a member of the Georgia delegation to the Continental Congress. He took part in this body until he sensed that the congress favored independence over the correction of problems within the British system. Then, early in 1776, he returned to Georgia. The Georgia Provincial Legislature banished him in 1777 and confiscated half of his goods. Until his death in 1781, Zubly engaged in a haphazard ministry among the slaves and wherever his Loyalism did not deprive him of a pulpit.
As for Congregationalists, those who had opposed the Great Awakening earlier in the century often embraced the Tory viewpoint for the same reasons that had led them to denounce the revival: in neither religion nor government should mob enthusiasm be encouraged, disorder be fostered, or the untried freaks of fervid minds be substituted for the stability and decorum of the old order. What Clifford K. Shipton has written of the Congregationalist physician William Brattle could be applied to many of the other Congregational Loyalists in New England: "By the winter of 1773-1774 Old Brattle, like a majority of the men of his class, had decided that the political agitators and legal metaphysicians were driving the province into civil strife likely to produce more evil than good" (Sibley's Harvard Graduates).
More explicitly religious motives also contributed to Congregational Loyalism. The Reverend Eli Forbes of Brookfield, Massachusetts, thought that Christians, and particularly Christian ministers, should simply not be a part of a movement engendering strife and discord. He wrote with reference to the political strife that the good Christian "will form no party schemes, or list under dividing names. All such party attachments discover a carnal mind, and the want of the true spirit of Christianity. Nor will the good Christian be discontented with the post in which the supreme Lord has fixed him, and break from his sphere like an eccentric body, to the disturbing or, indangering the whole system" (Some Short Account). Forbes was harassed by the patriots, who on one occasion hurled rocks at him and his wife and who later forced him to abandon his Brookfield pastorate.
In sum, Christian Loyalism during the Revolution had many components. Christians who chose to resist the patriotic tide did so as much for political, social, and cultural reasons as for explicitly religious ones. Yet finer and higher motives also moved some of the Loyalists. Whatever one may say of their politics, persons like Moses Dunbar, J. J. Zubly, and Eli Forbes maintained Christian convictions of high integrity, often in the face of sharpest public hostility. Their Loyalism must not be neglected by modern Christians who desire a fuller understanding of the event whose bicentennial we are celebrating.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Mark Noll also answered a question about whether the Revolutionary War was justified.
More articles on U.S. history are available on our site. Articles about Independence Day include:
Is Patriotism Dead? | The day that patriotism ceases, that day we will have ceased to be a people. A Christianity Today editorial (July 1, 2001)
What Jonathan Edwards Can Teach Us About Politics | Before Jerry Falwell and Jesse Jackson, another preacher ventured into the public square. (July 1, 2001)
Watching My Daughter 'Defect' | Part of being a good Christian is being a good citizen (July 1, 2001)