The history of the American Revolution is, above all, a story about national beginnings, and stories about beginnings are stories that explain. How we understand our origins informs our sense of identity as a people. We look to the past not only to understand who we are but also to justify who we wish to become. And so, as a nation divided over the proper place of religious belief in the contemporary public square, we naturally debate the place of religious belief in the American founding.
Outside of the academy, much of that debate has focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: Did religious belief play an important role in the American founding? This makes sense if the primary motive is to score points in the culture wars, mining the past for ammunition to use against secularists who deny that the United States was founded as a Christian country. There's a problem with the history-as-ammunition approach, however. It's good for bludgeoning opponents, but it discourages sustained moral reflection, the kind of conversation with the past that can penetrate the heart and even change who we are.
In contrast, books like Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press) have the potential to challenge us deeply. Granted, author James Byrd inadvertently offers ammunition to readers cherry-picking evidence for a Christian founding. He matter-of-factly contends that sermons were more influential than political pamphlets in building popular support for independence, and he insists unequivocally that "preachers were the staunchest defenders of the cause of America." And yet the question that really interests him is not whether religion played an important role in the American founding but how it did so. More specifically, he wants to understand how colonists used the Bible in responding to the American Revolution.
Toward that end, Byrd went in search of original colonial sources that addressed the topic of war while appealing to Scripture. He ultimately identified 543 colonial writings (the vast majority of which were published sermons) and systematically analyzed the more than 17,000 biblical citations that they contained. The result is by far the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of "how revolutionary Americans defended their patriotic convictions through scripture, which texts they cited and how they used them."
Arguments from Scripture
Byrd relates his conclusions in five thematic chapters, each of which highlights a common scriptural argument in support of the Revolution. Americans found in Scripture "a vast assemblage of war stories" relevant to their own struggle with England. From the Old Testament, ministers drew inspiration especially from the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14-15), from the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, and from the example of David, the man of war who was also the "man after God's own heart." Ministers analogized each of these stories to the situation with Britain and drew pertinent lessons. The Israelites' enslavement in Egypt resembled their own bondage to British tyranny; ditto for the Israelites' subjection centuries later to Jabin, king of Canaan. The contest between David and Goliath, in like manner, foreshadowed the colonists' righteous struggle with a powerful but arrogant British empire. (That David went on to become a king was a fact that need not be emphasized.)
To the patriotic ministers who declared them from the pulpit, the lessons embedded in these stories were indisputable. God championed the cause of independence. A warrior who liberated his people by means of war, the Lord clearly sanctioned violence in the pursuit of freedom. Furthermore, he would intervene on their behalf, and with God on their side, the ill-trained and poorly equipped patriots would be victorious. This meant that loyalty to Britain was rebellion against God, and pacifism was "sinful cowardice." Had not the angel of the Lord cursed the people of Meroz because they did not come "to the help of the Lord against the mighty" (Judges 5:23)? Had not the prophet Jeremiah thundered, "Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood" (Jer. 48:10)?
If the biblical argument in support of the Revolution was to succeed, of course, patriot ministers knew that they must buttress these arguments with support from the New Testament. This was no simple task, inasmuch as the apostles Peter and Paul both seemed to condemn rebellion and teach submission to rulers as a Christian's duty. Paul enjoined the church at Rome to "be subject to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1); Peter commanded Christians to "honor the king" (I Peter 2:17b). Neither admonition seemed to leave much room for righteous resistance to civil authority.
Advocates of independence countered that these passages in no way required submission to tyrants. Following a line of argument fashioned by Jonathan Mayhew during the Stamp Act crisis, patriotic ministers noted that in Romans 13 Paul had also referred to the ruler as "God's minister to you for good." Mayhew had concluded from this portion of a single verse that the purpose of civil government was to support "the good of civil society," and if a ruler were not doing that, Paul's instructions to submit to the governing authorities did not apply.
Ministers reassured their flocks, furthermore, by repeatedly citing one of the few unambiguous endorsements of liberty in the New Testament. "Stand fast," Paul had counseled the churches of Galatia, "in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free" (Gal. 5:1). The liberty Paul had in mind was civil as well as religious, ministers insisted. As Presbyterian minister Nathaniel Whitaker instructed his congregation, this meant that the refusal to "stand fast" with the patriot cause was nothing less than "a sin against the express command of God."
Three overarching patterns emerge from Byrd's study that should trouble Christian readers. First, the influence of political ideology and historical circumstance in shaping the colonists' interpretation of Scripture is striking. Traced to its roots, the colonists' conviction that civil liberty is a God-given right owed more to the Enlightenment than to orthodox Christian teaching, and yet the belief strongly informed how colonists understood the Word of God. Reading the Scripture through the lens of republican ideology, they discovered "a patriotic Bible" perfect for promoting "patriotic zeal."
Second, the readiness with which Christian advocates of independence sanctified violence is disturbing. "Colonial preachers did not shy away from biblical violence," Byrd finds. "They embraced it, almost celebrated it, even in its most graphic forms."
Third, and most ominously, the evidence suggests that the way patriotic ministers portrayed the military conflict with Britain morphed rapidly from merely a "just war"—a war originated for a morally defensible cause and fought according to moral criteria—into a "sacred" or "holy war"—a struggle "executed with divine vengeance upon the minions of Satan." Patriotism and Christianity had become inseparable, almost indistinguishable.
Byrd writes with restraint and offers little commentary on his findings, but the implications for American Christians are sobering, and the stakes are high. As Byrd acknowledges in his conclusion, over time the United States has come "to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars." American Christians have played a major role in that process of national self-definition, all too regularly sanctifying the nation's military conflicts as sacred struggles. Historian Mark Noll has lamented that, by the time of the American Revolution, "the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation," not the other way around. With painstaking thoroughness, James Byrd reaffirms that conclusion, showing that the pattern even defined how Revolutionary-era Christians read their Bibles and thought about war.
Robert Tracy McKenzie is chair of the history department at Wheaton College, and the author of a forthcoming book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (IVP Academic). He blogs at Faith and History: Thinking Christianly about the American Past.