America's Christian History

Those Blasted Presbyterians: Reflections on Independence Day

July 4, 2014 by dwsweeting

“We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against him, let us not pay the least regard to it.” Book Four, Calvin’s Institutes

“I fix all the blame of these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians.”  So one colonist loyal to King George wrote to friends in England.

Around the same time, Horace Walpole spoke from the English House of Commons to report on these “extraordinary proceedings” in the colonies of the new world.  “There is no good crying about the matter,” he said.  “Cousin America has run off with the Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”

The parson of which he spoke, was  John Witherspoon—a Presbyterian minister, as well as a descendant of John Knox.  At the time, Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).  He was also the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

From the English perspective, the American revolution was often perceived as a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”  And its supporters were often disdained as “those blasted Presbyterians.”

The Presbyterian Revolution
Most American Christians are unaware of the fact that the American Revolution, as well as the new American state, was greatly shaped by Presbyterians and the Calvinism that was at its root.  Some modern-day  Presbyterians have moved light years away from the convictions of these early colonists.

An estimated three million people lived in the colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War.  Of that number, “900,00 were of Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin, 600,000 were Puritan English, while over 400,000 were of Dutch, German Reformed and Huguenot descent. That is to say, two thirds of our Revolutionary forefathers were trained in the school of Calvin.”  (Carlson, p. 19)

As one historian puts it, “When Cornwallis was driven back to ultimate retreat and surrender at Yorktown, all of the colonels of the Colonial Army but one were Presbyterian elders. It is estimated that more than one half of all the soldiers and officers of the American Army during the Revolution were Presbyterian.” (Carlson, p. 16)

To the man, Presbyterian clergy joined the Colonialist cause. It was said that many of them led the Revolution from the pulpit.  In doing so, they paid a heavy price for their support for independence.  Many lost family members or their own lives.  Some had their churches burned to the ground.

The Presbyterian Drive
We forget that many of the early American colonists had left England precisely because Presbyterian Christianity was rejected.  After its brief reign as the established church through the English Civil War and the work of the Westminster Assembly, Britain returned to Anglicanism.  Thousands of non-conforming Presbyterian ministers were then ejected from their churches.  Some, such as the Covenanters, were martyred in a period that came to be known as “the killing times.” Rigid laws of conformity drove many to seek a better life somewhere else.  After 1660, many Presbyterians began to make their way to the colonies in North America.  It was these individuals who brought a new strength to the colonies as they inched their way forward towards independence.

They had little loyalty, and often outright hostility, to the crown of England.  They were armed with the theology of John Calvin, mediated through John Knox, and solidified during the English Civil war. It was a theology which devalued the divine right of human kings, and elevated the worth and dignity of the individual under God.  This theology shaped the early American understanding of civil liberty.

It shaped our founding fathers. The idea of human equality which influenced John Locke, who in turn,  influenced our founding fathers, was learned from the Puritans. Locke’s father had been on Cromwell’s side during the English Civil war.

It also shaped the general population under the influence of the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a massive 18th century religious revival that shook the colonies. It was promoted by preachers such as Gilbert Tennent and George Whitfield who travelled up and down the coast calling for a return to a robust Christian and Biblical faith.  Emphasizing the new birth and a Calvinist theology, the Great Awakening had an immense influence on colonial sentiments in the generation just preceding the American Revolution.

Consider then, some of what was at work in the American consciousness preceding the revolution. There was the memory of their horrid experience in England. There was the worry that Anglicans would establish this same kind of church in the colonies. There was a persistent fear of the imposition of bishops who were viewed as “holy monarchs,”  (monarchy in any form was considered bad)!  There was a belief in the absolute sovereignty of God. God alone is Lord of all and the author of liberty. There was a corresponding belief in the absolute equality of individuals (king and peasant, clergy and laity) under God’s law. There was the belief that no human should be entrusted with absolute power, given our radically fallen human nature.  There was a belief that there should be a separation of powers in any new government that is established.  And because of their experience in England, there was the belief that religious freedom and freedom of conscience should be respected.

In other words, for these Presbyterians, liberty is affirmed, but it is not an absolute liberty. It is always to be lived out under the sovereign creator God. It was this theology, a theology rooted, not just in Calvin, but in the Bible, which ultimately gave the colonialist the will to resist.

The Presbyterian Legacy
So this year, as we celebrate our independence once again, and as we think of early American courage, and the genius of our founding fathers, let us not forget those blasted Presbyterians who sought to understand liberty in light of the Bible.  A liberty which conceived of a nation and its entire government under God.

Sources:  Our Presbyterian Heritage, Paul Carlson (Elgin:  David C. Cook, 1973)Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs, Walter L. Lingle and John W. Kuykendall, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1988), The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, Douglas F. Kelly, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey:  P&R Publishing, 1992)

America's Heritage


 Noah Webster & Early America

Noah Webster would not recognize the dictionary that bears his name today. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language defines education as: "1. the process of educating especially by formal schooling; teaching; training. 2. knowledge, ability, etc. thus developed. 3. a) formal schooling. b) a kind or stage of this: as, a medical education. 4. systematic study of the methods and theories of teaching and learning."

In Webster's original dictionary published in 1828, his definition was: "Education - The bringing up, as a child, instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties."

To Webster, the central goal of education was to train youth in the precepts of Christianity. He stated, "In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government, ought to be instructed...No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people."

In Webster's United States History Book, he has a chapter on the U.S. Constitution. In there is a section with the heading, Origin of Civil Liberty, which contains this: "Almost all the civil liberty now enjoyed in the world owes its origin to the principles of the Christian religion... The religion which has introduced civil liberty, is the religion of Christ and His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free constitutions of government..."

Education in Early America: Education in early America was much different than that of today, in form and results. Most education was done by the home or church. This is where the ideas and character were implanted in our founders. Such training produced one of the greatest group of men - in thought and character - of all time.

Samuel Blumenfield says: "Of the 117 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, one out of three had had only a few months of formal schooling, and only one in four had gone to college. They were educated by parents, church schools, tutors, academies, apprenticeship, and by themselves.

Almost every child in America was educated. At the time of the Revolution, the literacy level was virtually 100% (even on the frontier it was greater than 70%). John Adams said that to find someone who couldn't read was as rare as a comet. When tutors were hired they were most often ministers, and those that went to college were instructed by ministers.

The first school in New England was the Boston Latin School. It was started in 1636 by Rev. John Cotton to provide education for those who were not able to receive it at home. The first common (public) schools were thoroughly Christian. In 1642 the General Court enacted legislation requiring each town to see that children were taught, especially "to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of this country..."

As time went on private schools flourished more than common schools (especially as the Puritan influence in common schools decreased). The Christian community saw the private schools were more reliable. By 1720 Boston had far more private schools than public ones, and by the close of the American Revolution many towns had no common schools at all." There were no public schools in the Southern colonies until 1730 and only five by 1776.

History repeats itself, as today the issue of public schools Vs private is a hot button. As far as home schooling goes, we are just returning to the days of old. Statistics show that home schooled children are above average in SAT scores, and best of all they can read.