Chris B. Greene and Alessandro Pia
February 14, 2011
John, Tom, and Israel:
Influencing the American Revolution
Indubitably, the defining event of the 1770s is the American Revolution. While one usually views the Revolutionary War from the political perspective, it was the theological and religious themes that ultimately drove the general populace to rebellion. Preachers such as John Allen (ca. 1741- ca. 1780), Thomas Paine (1737-1809), and Israel Holly (1728-1809) used their Biblical background and pastoral training to convey religious arguments and justification for the Protestant colonies to separate themselves from their king, spreading the rhetoric of revolution to the common man. Throughout the events leading up to the Revolutionary War and the war itself, orations and pamphlets given and published by each of these preachers encouraged rebellion and incensed the colonists against the English monarchy.
On March 5, 1770, British soldiers opened fire on a riotous crowd of colonists who were angered by the Townshend Acts, killing five civilians and injuring eleven. From this point onward, the tension between the British monarchy and the colonists only escalated: England continued to take political action and Americans continued to view such actions as impositions upon their rights. In 1772, the colonists razed the grounded British schooner Gaspée, which had been enforcing unpopular trade regulations around Rhode Island. Instead of becoming more lenient with legislation against the colonies, the British Empire merely imposed stricter and less popular laws, such as the Tea Act in 1773, which expanded the East India Trading Company’s monopoly within the colonies. In response to this (and the taxes leveled on tea), the colonists in Boston threw three hundred and forty two chests of tea into the harbor. Three and a half months later, the English monarchy started passing what became known to the colonists as the Intolerable Acts. In the course of three months, the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quartering act limited colonial power and increased British authority over the colonies, particularly in Massachusetts (although other colonies feared similar legislation would be leveled against them). In addition, the Quebec Act extended the borders of Quebec (into places where the other colonies were interested in expanding), guaranteed the free practice of Catholicism, and removed the stipulation of protestant faith from the oath of allegiance. This did not sit well with the primarily protestant colonies, who were not fond of the Pope, “that Antichrist” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV, VI). On April 19, 1775, war was openly declared against Britain when shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. Over a year later, the thirteen colonies declared independence from the British Empire on July 4, 1776.
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From obscurity comes John Allen, and to obscurity he must return. Little is known about his early life, but that he was born ca. 1743 and qualified himself for ministry before he was appointed pastor at a Baptist church in London in the year 1764. He was dismissed from the church in 1767, likely because of problems he incurred through heavy debts he had acquired, and two years later was accused of forgery (for which he was acquitted, but marked forever as dishonest). He published a pamphlet entitled The Spirit of Liberty: Junius's Loyal Address. Being A Key to the English Cabinet: Or, An Humble Dissertation upon the Rights and Liberties of the ancient Britons. With a political Tale upon the Characters of an arbitrary Ministry both in Church and State… Shortly after this publication he disappears, only to reappear two years later in Boston, looking to begin again his religio-political career. The sons of Liberty prop Allen into one of Boston’s Baptist churches and, during his short-lived ministry there, Allen published his masterpiece, An Oration Upon The Beauties Of Liberty. He wrote only one more reasonably notable oration and cartoon, The Watchman's Alarm to Lord North; Or, The British Parliamentary Boston Port-Bill unwrapped: Being An Oration On The Meridian Of Liberty before he slunk back into the obscurity from which he arose. Yet, despite his evanescence, John Allen left a mark on the populace of the revolution akin to that of the more famous Tom Paine.
John’s pamphlets and his sermons were often very much of the same tone. The pamphlet entitled The Spirit of Liberty: Junius's Loyal Address. Being A Key to the English Cabinet: Or, An Humble Dissertation upon the Rights and Liberties of the ancient Britons. With a political Tale upon the Characters of an arbitrary Ministry both in Church and State… which he wrote while expelled from his English congregation, argues for both the equal rights of Englishmen and baptism by immersion. He pleads with the king to restore to the English the rights granted them by the constitution. He then turns, in this same pamphlet, to defend the religion of the Baptists, claiming, that "the original Rise, Progress, and Spread of Religion, not only in Britain but in every part of the World had its Source from the People called Baptists" (Bumsted 564).
On Thanksgiving day, 1772, he gave An Oration Upon The Beauties Of Liberty. The ideas within this sermon (later published many times in pamphlet form) were, in that time, extremely radical, for while other revolutionary sentiment of the day yet called the colonists to remain loyal to their king, Allen declared that allegiance be only warranted by a king’s proper exercise of authority. From the Bible, Allen cited the story of Rehoboam, calling it justice that the king lost so many of his subjects by his misrule. He parallels this to the Commissioners Inquiry into the burning of the Gaspée as an overextension of King George’s authority. The commission sought to bring American colonists to England to be tried for the burning of the Gaspée, for certain English authorities believed the local courts would unjustly acquit the perpetrators. Allen claimed that no American colonist could be dragged to an English courtroom because none had broken an English law. He said that any colonist on American soil was responsible to American laws only; thus, it was actually impossible to break English laws, for they did not exist outside England. This pamphlet gained incredible prominence because it assumed as givens arguments which political theorists had tried repeatedly to prove. By laying this groundwork upon the bedrock of Biblical truth and common sense, and in this way questioning the unanimous allegiance to the king, John Allen sowed his seeds of separation.
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Thomas Paine was born on February 9, 1737 to an Anglican mother and a Quaker father. He served as a Methodist preacher for a time before turning to political things. When he went to Philadelphia in 1774, he had already been divorced twice, lost his job, and sunk into debt. That said, thanks to his background, “he knew the culture of Anglo-American Protestantism well” (Kidd 87). In his writings, which heavily influenced the American Revolutionary War, he relied heavily on this knowledge and utilized it to influence the colonists, who found more in common with Biblical theology than with Lockean natural law. Oddly enough, as he wrote these Scripturally based pamphlets that encouraged the general populace’s support of the revolution and “electrified the colonies,” he struggled with his faith, eventually becoming “one of the leading deist critics of Christianity” (87-88).
Common Sense, Pain’s most famous and arguably most influential pamphlet, was published anonymously on January 10, 1776. He presents the argument for revolution from a Biblical background as opposed to a political one, and encouraged many of the Americans who “hesitated to reject the authority of the king” (Kidd 87). Paine carefully established monarchy as “the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry,” stating that the foul institution “was first introduced into the world by the Heathens” (Paine 12). He continued, comparing the institutions of religion and government: “For monarchy in every instance is the Popery of government” (16). For the Protestant colonists, this should have been a horrifying thought, since they commonly viewed the Pope as the antichrist and saw “Popery” and “Popish” things as evil. Finally, Paine debated the concept of hereditary succession, saying it and original sin “are parallels” (18). He also calls the only presented defense for the institution “the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind” (19).
Having thereby established the sinfulness of monarchy, he then turns the blame for the sinful government upon its subjects, taking his argument from 1 Samuel 8 and 9. He says that it “was held [by the Jews] sinful to acknowledge any being under that title [king] but the Lord of Hosts” (Paine 13). Implicit in this is that, while the king usurps the title of God, the blame also falls on those who “acknowledge any being under that title.” He describes monarchy as “one of the sins of the Jews,” and the passages he quotes refer to plurals: “the voice of the people,” “they have rejected me,” and “we have added unto our sins this evil, to ask a king” (14-15). By expressing that the sin of monarchy is not that of the monarch, but rather that of the people who give him his power, he implies that America is actively in rebellion against God. This gives the hyper-spiritual colonists the excuse they so desperately need to rebel against the authority of the king.
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The only successful and persistent pastor among these three leaders, Israel Holly, did not attend college, and leaves few clues as to his early upbringing. Truly, the only item of note seems to be his reading extensively the works of Jonathan Edwards. Upon entering a religious debate, he once replied to his opponent with “Sir, if I was to engage with you in controversy, I would say, Read Edwards! And if you wrote again, I would tell you to Read Edwards! And if you wrote again I would still tell you to Read Edwards!” (Noll 444). From this foundation, Holly equipped himself to preach extensively on the concept of autonomy. He spoke and write primarily on the autonomy of a congregation, but he extended this idea to rally his fellow colonists to suooprt an autonomous state.
He, himself, having no formal education, he preached that it would be a denial of a man’s God-given liberty to withhold from him his calling as a pastor, regardless of the man’s formal qualifications. This meant a church should appoint who they see fit to minister, being unconstrained by a universal standard of educational qualifications. Holly extended this conviction to preach the autonomy of government, for he believed the two were inextricably tied. To Holly, the compliance of the colonies with the abuses of the Crown only preceded the loss of religious freedoms. “For I think,” declared Holly, “that there is such a kindred and likeness between a despotic power claimed by mortals, arbitrary government, and Popery” (Holly 22). The church’s autonomy could only be realized if the colonies preserved their political autonomy, and in order to preserve their political rights, the colonists must resist the increasing demands of an increasingly demanding crown.
Israel Holly did not use the word solely Popery for dramatic analogy, but believed that behind England’s rulers was a Catholic conspiracy, plotting to impose itself upon the freely-worshipping colonists. In preaching such a concept, he supported the dumping of tea into Boston’s harbor (overlooking the violent property damage perpetrated), citing the actions of the tea dumpers as noble and warranted (Holly 21). The sermon ended calling the people to resistance, but also repentance, for Holly believed that, though the colonists were justified, they were also sinful people themselves, and had in some degree brought this hardship upon themselves in a manner akin to the wicked city of Ninevah. Like Jonah to the wicked city, Israel Holly called his audience to repentance and a new way of life: a life of righteous resistance.
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These three pastors of the 1770s detail the progression of through among the common people of the time. Because of orators such as John Allen, the long-held belief of unconditional submission to authority was challenged, the king himself challenged to rule worthy of his throne. From challenging the king, rhetoric turned to challenge the people, as Paine charged the ruler’s subjects with the task of keeping him accountable, by their actions approving or disproving his rule. And once the king’s authority appeared dubious and the people’s rights unalienable, the words and ideas of Israel Holly took hold, promoting independence as a natural progression while vilifying the English with charges unreasonable governance, even agenda of Popery. While it was the general George Washington that lead the armies, and statesmen like Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams that crafted the government, it was men like Allen, Paine, and Holly who united a Protestant nation and spurred it to revolt.
John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark. New England's Tom Paine: John Allen and the Spirit of Liberty,The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Oct., 1964)
Holly, Israel, God Brings About His Holy And Wise Purpose. Hartford, CT, 1774.
Noll, Mark. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Oxford University Press: New York, 2002.
Paine, Thomas, Sidney Hook, and Jack Fruchtman. Common sense, Rights of man, and other
essential writings of Thomas Paine. Signet Classics, 2003. Print.