Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Religious History of the American Revolution

Kirkus Reviews commented on Thomas S. Kidd's God of Liberty that it was an:

Intriguing look at the role played by faith in America’s movement for independence.

Though books about the faith lives of America’s founders are abundant, Kidd (History/Baylor;
The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, 2007, etc.) finds a useful niche by exploring how religion affected the American Revolution itself. Without the various roles and uses of religion, the revolution would have gone quite differently, if it would have come about at all. The author points to two disparate precursors of the independence movement: the Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s and the Seven Years’ War (1756–’63). He describes the Great Awakening as the “first American revolution,” as it began an overthrow of traditional church-state relationships. Through the Awakening, state-supported churches came under severe attack as lay preachers rose up and dissenting churches became ever more popular. As state-supported churches lost power and prestige, so too did the colonial structures behind them. This was a movement that would carry on past the revolution. Kidd writes that “for religion in America, disestablishment would prove to be the most significant political outcome of the Revolution.” The Seven Years’ War expanded religious sentiment in the colonies, stirring up an anti-Catholic hatred that was used with surprising effect against the British monarchy. The war also instilled an apocalyptic viewpoint among many colonists, which was easily turned against their occupiers. The author also discusses the importance of virtue to the founders and its role in establishing the nascent federal government, and examines other aspects of faith, including chaplains in the war effort and ethical arguments over slavery. Kidd ends fittingly with a look at Tocqueville, who was the first, and perhaps best, observer of American history in comprehending the role of faith in the creation of the American experiment.

An important contribution to American religious history.

I agree with much that Kirkus wrote, but I found a strange gap in the way Kidd told the story of how much religious freedom--as well as economic freedom--was important to the leaders of the American Revolution. Kidd examines the great fear and loathing the revolutionaries had for the Catholic Church: it was the focus of all their attacks on tyranny. Catholicism and tyranny were indeed almost synonymous and the pope was the Anti-Christ. The religious revolutionaries began to see the English government and King George III even as equal to the Catholic Church in tyranny when Parliament negotiated with the Catholics in Quebec and allowed them the freedom to worship. They feared the establishment of an Anglican diocese in the colonies because it meant the consolidation of Anglican influence and they thought that the Church of the England was just too close to being Catholic for their safety. King George III was both tyrant and Anti-Christ. 

With all that build-up of animosity toward Catholicism in the colonial and revolutionary era, Kidd does not explain why Catholics were allowed, along with everyone else, to worship freely and practice their religion after the United States won independence from England. John Locke, one of the Enlightenment figures who influenced several founders, denied Catholics the same religious toleration and freedom he granted dissenters from the Church of England because he saw them, as most of the religious leaders of eighteenth century America agreed, as subjects of a foreign prince and purveyors of “doctrines absolutely destructive to the society wherein they live.” So how were Catholics accepted or at least officially tolerated in the newly-independent United States? Kidd does not describe this tremendous change in attitude. 

His focus, which makes sense for a professor at Baylor University, is very much on how Baptists sought religious freedom since they were often harassed in the colonies with Anglican or Congregational established churches. 

Please note that I purchased this book from Eighth Day Books. I highly recommend it in spite of the gap in narration noted above.

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