Prior to and during the American Revolution, American colonists of the 1700s intensely debated and discussed whether it was biblical to defend their rights and freedoms and go to war with Britain. Those who opposed revolution were called “loyalists” or “Tories” of King George III and Britain. Those who supported revolution were often called “patriots” or “Whigs” after the pro-reform political party in England.
The Bible was often at the center of colonists’ discussions, sermons, and political writings regarding revolution. In addition, many widely-read historical and religious writings published prior to this period (including pseudonymed Stephen Junius Brutus’s 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants) and John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise on Civil Government) supported the principles of right of resistance tyranny, natural rights, and popular sovereignty in American political thought based on the Bible. The Bible and Judeo-Christian ideas had such a strong influence on the American Revolution that some loyalists referred to the war as the “Presbyterian Rebellion.”
Some loyalists referred to the revolution as a “Presbyterian Rebellion” after the Presbyterian church movement that came out of the Protestant Reformation. (The Presbyterians, as it were, governed their churches by a group of equal, elected leaders and representative courts.) While patriot colonists in the thirteen colonies comprised many different religious sects, some loyalists referred to the war as Presbyterian with a focus on the Presbyterian churches in New England where the Boston Tea Party occurred. The New England Presbyterians, along with many other religious groups in America, espoused the ideas of political resistance and popular sovereignty, of European religious and political reformers. Many such colonists, for example, favored the people’s right of resistance and religious tolerance, and they opposed the Divine Right of Kings and absolute rule.
As such, one loyalist, Rev. William Jones, told the British government in 1776 that the revolution was instigated by Presbyterians who were “Calvinists by profession, and Republicans in their politics” and that “this has been a Presbyterian war from the beginning.” Another loyalist in New York wrote in 1774 about the Presbyterians, “I fix all the blame for these extraordinary American proceedings upon them. Believe me, the Presbyterians have been the chief and principle instruments in all these flaming measures.”
American Founder John Adams later in 1821 reflected on and affirmed the influence of Reformed Christian political thought on the American Founding, writing in a letter,
I love and revere the memories of Huss, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and all other reformers, how much so ever I may differ from them all in many theological, metaphysical, & philosophical points. As you justly observe, without their great exertions & severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.
Whether rightly or wrongly applied, the political principles of the American Revolution were, as Gary T. Amos observes in his Defending the Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence, “an inheritance left to colonial Americans by earlier generations of Christian writers.” These principles included the people’s right of resistance, natural rights, and popular sovereignty as opposed to the Divine Right of Kings and absolute rule. This heritage of Western political thought had developed over centuries and laid the groundwork for the American Revolution and the founding of the new nation of the United States.
Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.
Kamrath, Angela E. The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. Second Edition. Houston, TX: American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.
1. The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2. Protestant Reformers Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
3. Reformed Political Thinkers Defended Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
4. The Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
5. Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government
6. Thomas Hooker as the “father of American Democracy”
7. Why Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
8. Great Awakening Effects: Unity, Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution
9. The American Revolution: An Introduction
10. The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
11. The American Revolution was sometimes called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
12. American Revolution Debate: Submission to Authority
13. American Revolution Debate: God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
14. How the American Revolution shed light on the Moral Problem of Slavery
15. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
16. American Revolution Debate: The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
17. American Revolution Debate: The Principle of Civil Covenants
18. American Revolution Debate: Obedience to God Over Man
19. American Revolution Debate: Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression & Divided Kingdom
20. American Revolution Debate: The Lawfulness of Defensive War
21. Freedom: The Most Important Characteristic of America
Poster: Declaration of Independence
Activity: The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 6, Part 1, Activity 3: Principles of the American Revolution, p. 205, 354-356. MS-HS.
Principles of the American Revolution
Purpose/Objective: Students learn about the historical context of the American Revolution and the Bible-based principle of freedom that drove the colonists to support revolution against Britain.
1) Chapter 6 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections 6.1 and 6.2 in particular.
2) Essay/Handout: Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3) Related blogs/videos (see above).
Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the American Revolution” handout and, as desired, relevant sections in Miracle of America sourcebook as indicated on the handout. (The Miracle book is high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class. You may wish to project some text on-screen. Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed. The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text.) After the reading, have students write answers to the questions that follow on the handout. See “Principles of the American Revolution” handout and review questions in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, pp. 354-356. Review questions are also found in Chapter 6 of the Miracle of America sourcebook, p. 175.
To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org. To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.
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