The American Revolution: Unholy Rebellion Or Holy Disobedience? (II)

The American Revolution

The history that follows is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. It is intended only to demonstrate the root cause of the Colonists’ resistance to King George III along with the reasons they gave for resisting him.

The Tories And Whigs

It has been my experience that anyone struggling with what the Bible says about rebellion and “the spirit of 1776” has probably given some thought to what party he would have aligned himself with during the American Revolution. Tories were Colonists who remained loyal to the British Crown up to and during the Revolution. Thus, they were also called Loyalists, the King’s Men, and Royalists. Their opponents, who supported the American Revolution, were called Whigs, Patriots, Rebels, and Congress Men. Thus, these two parties, the Tories and the Whigs, represent the sharp division that existed in the Colonies prior to and during the American Revolution. Taking the time to understand these two parties goes a long way in helping one to comprehend the root causes of the Revolution or Rebellion, for depending upon what party you were a member of, or sympathetic to, you thought of it as being either one or the other.

The Tories’ View Of Things

Historians have estimated that about 33% of the white population may have been Loyalists (i.e., about 500,000), but there are no exact numbers. They, of course, saw themselves as the “honourable” ones who stood by the Crown and the British Empire, which they believed to be the rightful authority under whom they were obligated to be obedient. (Note: “Honourable” is the softer English spelling of the sharper American “honorable” and is something a Tory would have been very careful to maintain.) So, it is clear that if the Tories were right, the American Revolution was nothing less than sinful rebellion. It will be my task, then, to refute the Tory view.

But before doing so, let me say that I suspect that many of my brethren, if alive then, would have been Tories. There was even a time when I thought that I would have been one as well. I no longer think so. I attribute this to two things: (1) my continued study of God’s word and (2) a more thorough understanding of the history and writings that led to the American Revolution. Therefore, if anything, I would have been a Whig. I say “if anything” because it is the possibility that I could have been totally apolitical, even though I rather doubt it. What’s more, the pacifists among us who I’ve spoken with would surely have taken a hands-off position on the whole “nasty” thing, while all the while quietly or silently rooting for one side or the other. I say this because although my pacifist brethren think the Christian ought to never be involved in war, they nevertheless usually have some definite ideas about who they think should win such wars, especially when their own interests are at stake. In other words, they believe it would have been wrong for them to fight against the Germans and Japanese during WW II, for example, but they’re sure glad the Allies fire-bombed German cities and atomized a portion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to hasten that war to its “rightful” conclusion. But I digress. Again, if you’re interested in a further study of this, consider my little book on war, where I deal with this in much more detail (cf. The Christian & War).

For the sake of argument, and for the purpose of simplifying a rather complex set of circumstances, I am using the Tory and Whig parties to explain the two very different perspectives of the Colonialists up to and during the Revolution. This is not to say there were not more nuanced ideas on either side, only that the basic differences between these two parties pretty well sums up the major differences that ripped through the political-social fabric of the Colonies at the time of the Revolution.

The Puritans

Factored into this equation must also be the influence of the Puritans. In fact, the story of religion in America is the story of Puritanism. At the time of the Revolution, about three-quarters of the North American Colonists were of Puritan extraction. Without a doubt, it was the dominant political, religious, and intellectual force throughout the 17th and 18th centuries (Benjamin Hart, Faith & Freedom, p. 83). Therefore, given all the good things we owe to the Puritan legacy, it is disappointing how little most Americans actually know about them. In fact, the term Puritan actually carries with it a negative connotation today. Notwithstanding, it was Puritans who actually gave us “our first written constitutions, regular elections, the secret ballot, the federalist principle, and separation of Church and State” (Ibid.). Furthermore, it was their work ethic and their emphasis on equality under the law that spawned the capitalist spirit that triumphed over the hereditary privilege that had so dominated England.

It is even argued today that Puritanism failed. After all, there is not one single Puritan left to be found anywhere on the planet. But those who think this way are very much mistaken, for the Puritan spirit remains omnipresent in much of America, even to this day. I’ll say more about this a bit further along, but before doing so, it is important to understand that Puritanism was never a formal Christian sect or denomination. The term, like now, was more a term of derision, and it is believed to have been first used by Queen Elizabeth who branded those who refused to conform to the “Liturgie, Ceremonies and Discipline of the Church” with the “invidious” name of “Puritane” (Ibid.).

Puritans, it is discovered, simply thought of themselves as Christians. What they had in common was a belief “that the official church was not a true Christian church in the sense of resembling the church established by Jesus and his Apostles” (Op. cit., p. 84). To them, the Church of England or Anglican Church, as it was also known, was an abomination, for they believed that any church under the authority of a monarch was not really much different than one under the rule of a pope, and it can be safely said that they relished neither the Church of England nor the Church of Rome.

Consequently, Puritans were keen to attack anything resembling “popish” ritual in the English Church, and there was plenty of it to attack. In response, Queen Elizabeth said such people were “over bold with God Almighty, making too many subtle scannings of His Blessed Will.” They were viewed as not just trouble-makers, but downright subversive as well. Writing in the 1630s, Thomas Hobbes, who was a staunch supporter of monarchy, expressed the sentiments of the ruling elites of his day when he said that such people were poor security risks.

So, it seems, Puritanism was always associated with rebellion, and rebellion, most thought, was always wrong. However, rebellion was something most Puritans were reluctant to engage in, as they, too, thought such to be a sin. But when the government, and please keep in mind that their’s was a government where the separation of Church and State did not exist, pressed them, as it frequently did, to choose between their monarch’s will and what they believed to be God’s will, there was absolutely no doubt whom they intended to obey.

Of course, Puritans were not rebellious by nature. In fact, they believed that even an unjust and corrupt government was better than no government at all—at least up to a point. Just where that point happened to be was a question that could only be answered by individual conscience, and this only after applying the principles taught in the Bible. Speaking of this, Benjamin Hart perceptively wrote:

The point at which the individual Protestant in England decided to separate from, or rebel against, the established church varied, and thus had a bearing on the type of Protestants with whom he associated. The Episcopalian rejected the pope, but accepted bishops; the Presbyterian said no to bishops in favor of presbyters; Congregationalists shunned all ecclesiastical jurisdiction outside of the particular parish; Anabaptists were similar to Congregationalists, but were more radical in their separatist views. Perhaps more than any Christian sect, Anabaptists rejected human pronouncements and accepted as authoritative only the unadorned word of God. The branch of Protestantism one associated with usually had a bearing on one’s politics. Episcopalians identified more readily with aristocracy and Toryism; Presbyterianism with republican government; Congregationalism with democracy; while Anabaptist Separatists tended to be hostile to all man-made constructions, and might be considered libertarian (though certainly not libertine). It was these kinds of people, mainly Congregationalist and Separatist Protestants, who, prodded by the royal and church bureaucracy, decided in the 1630s to leave Old England for New England. It was a mass exodus. They emigrated, in fact, in such numbers that it must have appeared as though all of England was leaving. They included men of wealth, education, and position: lawyers, doctors, merchants, college professors, and some of the most famous evangelists and theologians (Op. cit., pages 84-85).

To make a long and complicated history short and succinct, the politics of Old England were very much associated with one’s religious perspective. All this evolved into two basic parties that were very much tied to one’s religious views: Whig/Puritan and Tory/Anglican. It was these two parties, then, with their roots very much in Old England, that are in play in New England and the rest of the Colonies before and during the Revolution.

So with a better understanding of the political and religious history of the two parties that were extant at the time of the Revolution, I can comfortably say that I would not have been at all inclined toward Toryism, and this for religious reasons more than anything else. I would no doubt have seen my Tory friends and neighbors as dupes of the very system I had come to the Colonies to get away from—a Church-State system that, by its very nature, was coercive of individual conscience. With this said, it is time to take a look at the Whig party, which we shall do, Lord permitting, in the next installment.

(continued)

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