Although religious differences separated many American colonists, they shared a common identity as Englishmen. This was a bond that stood firm against all enemies. However, this loyalty was tested by a series of British colonial taxes and laws. It started with the Stamp Act of 1765 and then the Tea Act of 1773. The colonists saw these acts as a British plot to deprive them of their fundamental English rights and their God-ordained liberties.
Followers of the Church of England were outspoken British loyalists during the revolutionary struggle. Anglican Churches were government supported, so their members naturally tended to support the state. In the days leading up to the American Revolution, support for Anglicanism in the colonies collapsed. Most of their clergy fled back to England and former members deserted to other Protestant denominations.
But it was the patriot pastors who warned Americans that the British were infringing upon their God-given rights. The very basis of the Biblical law of liberty, “the right to private property,” was being violated. As the colonists saw it, the English were in effect warring against God. Americans were convinced that they had a sacred duty to rise up against the British government.
To fight for liberty was to fight for God. All Biblical references to “liberty” imply both spiritual and civil liberty. In fact, the two are one, since tyranny degrades Christianity. The most popular of all liberty texts during the Revolution was “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Needless to say, the colonists were confronted with many serious problems. One of which was the fact that they had nowhere to turn for civic or military leadership. The Americans had always turned to England for guidance and protection. This was obviously no longer an option. The governors were appointed by and accountable to the British Crown. For that reason, the only known leadership left to turn to were the pastors and ministers.
The clergy played a crucial role in building popular support for the war against England. The enemy knew that sedition was being preached from the pulpits of America. Without the outspoken, persistent, and courageous leadership exhibited by our pastors, it is doubtful whether American independence could ever have been attained. Because of the preachers’ black robes, they became known as the “Black Robed Regiment.” The Black Robed Regiment supplied the conviction and wisdom needed for winning the war against a tyrannical government. The very name infuriated the British Crown.
Early on in 1760, Governor Powell of Massachusetts warned that once the pastors of the colonies joined in the resistance against England there would be no stopping the colonial movement. He said, “The spirit of their religion will, like Moses’ serpent, devour every other passion and affection.”
The pulpits were so significant that Prime Minister Horace Walpole told Parliament that, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” In fact, the Revolution was commonly referred to in British Parliament as “the Presbyterian Revolt.” Britain’s Edmund Burke warned, “The fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in these English colonies than in any other people on earth.” He went on to explain, “The people are Protestants, and of that kind [evangelicals] which is most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”
Just prior to the battles of Lexington and Concord, Reverend William Emerson preached to the Concord Militia that their victory against the larger British army was guaranteed. He challenged the British, “It will be your unspeakable damage to meddle with us, for we have an unconquered Leader that carries his people to victory and triumph.” “The coming war would bring many tribulations,” he acknowledged, “but American victory had been ordained by God since the beginning of time.” The Concord Militia would later stand its ground and send the Redcoats fleeing. The British suffered 293 casualties in their battle with the militia.
The pulpits provided so much leadership that the Sons of Liberty often organized their supporters in the church buildings and through the church officers. It was no coincidence that “one if by land and two if by sea” was signaled from the Old North Church tower. Churches became fortified buildings where the community could gather if attacked, and where arms and powder were stored. Therefore, church buildings were prime military targets. And as a mockery, churches in occupied towns and cities were often used by the British as horse stables.
The historic Minutemen found much of their leadership in church elders and deacons. Pastors were often responsible for calling men to battle. In fact, the Reverend Jonas Clark, a leader of the Minutemen, was with his flock at Lexington Green. “Old Jonas” had sworn never to run from British guns and proved it when he fell from a musket ball. Trying to fire from the ground, he was “run through” with a British bayonet.
Another member of the “Black Robed Regiment” was the Reverend James Caldwell. He became famous when, during a battle, he supplied the paper wadding for the muskets from his church hymnals. Returning to the battle with an armful of Isaac Watts hymnals he shouted, “Now boys, give ‘em Watts!”
Many pastors also served as chaplains in the Continental Army. For instance, the Reverend Naphtali Daggett, professor of divinity at Yale, was a chaplain and fought against the British at New Haven. So valuable was such service that General Washington constantly pleaded with the Continental Congress for more chaplains, out of fear that “the Lord would turn His back upon their noble cause.”
When John Adams was later asked who was behind American Independence, he replied, “The Reverend Samuel Cooper, Reverend Jonathan Mayhew, Reverend George Whitefield, and Reverend Charles Chauncey.” In 1765 Charles Chauncey delivered a famous sermon on the Stamp Act, stating that “this is an anti-biblical tax.” And the Reverend George Whitefield accompanied Benjamin Franklin into Parliament to argue against the Stamp Act.
Many pastors who served became America’s Founding Fathers. One was General Frederick Muhlenberg who led his brigade against Cornwallis at the Battle of Brandywine. Muhlenberg was a minister of the Gospel, and after the War of Independence, was the first Speaker of the House. Another, Abraham Baldwin, was a professor of divinity at Yale and served as military Chaplain in the Revolution. Baldwin is a Founding Father who served in the House and Senate.
In fact, twenty-nine of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence held Bible school or seminary degrees. Forty-four delegates to ratify the various state constitutions were pastors who were selected by their towns to represent them. Many of these state constitutions’ ratifications were even held in church buildings.
Today, we need to realize that history holds immense power. If we pay attention to what history has to say it will tell us about our current tribulations. It will reveal the solutions and direction we need to take. America is once again confronted by tyranny; and once again we have nowhere else to turn but to our Christian leadership. Sadly, it appears that history might not repeat itself in that regard.
Perhaps today’s pastors should take heed to what Charles G. Finney said in his 1873 publication entitled The Decay of Conscience. He warned, “If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall, the pulpit is responsible for it.” Finney is perhaps best remembered as a minister of the Gospel during the Second Great Awakening.
Ray Harker is the founder of God in Government (www.GodGov.org), a teaching ministry and outreach dedicated to a Biblical worldview. He is the author of the books "God in Government" and "Solid Food for the Soul."