I wanted to comment on the 4th but I didn’t have the energy and waiting to see the reactions of the chattering class makes it a bit easier. Independence Day is many things to different people but the received wisdom has been that it was a result of the enlightenment and rationalism, not religion. In fact it has been the focused project of some to convince us that the founding fathers were atheist or worse. A new group of researchers has turned that upside down and believe that the revolution was mainly due to religious sensibilities dealing with covenant theology and freedom of conscience.
Dr. Harry Stout is a professor at Yale University and one of the leaders of a quietly growing number of scholars who, using a new blend of intellectual and social history, have begun to find a religious consciousness and motive at the center of the American Revolution. He makes amazing observations and asks great questions . America before Revolution was basically rural with isolated pockets of people, a primitive mail system, libraries centered in larger cities, with many people’s only books a Bible and maybe some broadsheet pamphlets from wandering pamphleteers. Yet Stout makes the claim that these were “the most literate people in the history of the world”. How is that possible? Wait for it…… the Sermon. A Christian Science Monitor interview with Stout gives us this gem. “The average New Englander heard 7,000 sermons in a lifetime, about 15,000 hours of concentrated listening. There were no competing voices. It was a medium more influential than TV is today. Nor, had the tough-minded piety of Calvinism relaxed into a pallid outward morality in the sermons and religious life of the 18th century – currently, the accepted view. In the villages, ministers continued to preach the need for deep self-examination, redemption, rebirth, and freedom from sin. Further, the colonial ministers – the grass-roots leaders of the Revolution, according to Stout – closely identified the events leading to 1776 with the ongoing drama of God’s church and the fulfillment of a mission going back to the declaration of Puritan founder William Bradford: “We are the Lord’s free people.”
These were the original deplorables who “clung to their guns and their Bibles”. Reading the sermons and dispatches from militia and minutemen gatherings the overwhelming sense of providential care leaps out. Every small group of militia had a chaplain and the chaplains were wonderful chroniclers of battles, casualties, morale and camp gossip. They were moral cranks more concerned about foul language than foul pestilence derived from foul personal habits and foul hygiene. They were extremely well read and could equate military movements to Xenophon’s Anabasis or Thucydides “History of the Pelloponisian War. Their scriptural knowledge was encyclopedic and uncanny but most of their allusions were from the Old Testament. They displayed that interesting blindness that wanted everyone to have freedom of assembly and speech except loyalists to whom they could be quite beastly.
There was a seething hodge podge of discussion, debate, church politics, church organization, theological insights and theological blinders. Quaker and Puritan moral qualms on warfare butted up against the fear of Anglican hegemony from British influence. Strict Quaker non- violence could be watered down by Native American depredations fanned by British instigation in the back country. Political promises were weighed in the balance of religious affiliation. Benjamin Franklin’s campaign promises to retaliate on Indian villages were weighed against his Quaker faith by German settlers some of whom were Lutheran. Franklin went to his grave believing he lost a political bid for assemblyman to Germans.
- (more coming)