3. Groaning “Under the Afflicting Hand of God,” 1775–1783
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3 Groaning “Under the Afflicting Hand of God,” 1775–1783 As had happened during the French and Indian War, the war for American independence served as the catalyst for interdenominational change. In 1763, the year of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the American colonists were proud to be British.By July 1776,however,the colonists declared their intent to be independent. The Presbyterians’ role in unifying the colonists aided this transformation, and the denomination continued in this task as the war persisted. Its cause—the protection of their natural rights and liberties —was righteous and justified their rebellion. The Presbyterians’ success , on the other hand, depended on their ability to be worthy of such divine blessings. Still, the war took a dreadful toll on the church and, as many colonists reacted to the devastation, the Presbyterians believed unrepentant national sins were hindering the cause. It was only through repentance of these sins that Americans could remove the “afflicting hand of God” and secure their liberties. Among the most prominent sin was America’s long and determined relationship with slavery, but as the war progressed, a growing number of Presbyterian leaders, reminiscent of the French and Indian War, began to suspect that the true source of their hardships was their dwindling concern for a united Christendom.The war’s conclusion saw the Presbyterians elated with the success of the American cause, but while they rejoiced they reminded themselves that Christ’s kingdom came first. During the constitutional crisis that preceded the war, the Presbyterians assumed a share of the colonial leadership, and they continued to throughout the war. Following the bloodshed of April 19, 1775, the Presbyterian Groaning “Under the Afflicting Hand of God” / 59 synod, meeting in May, encountered the issues that had risen in the wake of Lexington and Concord with determined resolve. As the conflict with Britain continued,the synod issued a pastoral letter addressing the unfortunate series of events and outlining a proposed course of action.1 In light of what lay before them, Presbyterian leaders reaffirmed their orthodox belief in the sovereign will of God and that just as his sovereignty was known in times of peace, it was “known by the judgment which he executeth.” Also, they reminded Presbyterians, it would be “highly criminal not to look up to him with reverence, to implore his mercy by humble and fervent prayer, and, if possible, to prevent his vengeance by unfeigned repentance.”Like so many times before, the letter began with an exhortation to repent in order to avoid the wrath God had laid aside for them.The ruling body continued, “Affliction springeth not out of the dust,” and there was a reason that God visited them with hardships.The synod called its congregations to “remember and confess not only your sins in general, but those prevalent national offences.”2 The ruling body quickly noted that this divine punishment and necessary repentance did not preclude the colonists from protecting themselves and their liberties. If “the British ministry shall continue to enforce their claims by violence,”it wrote, the Presbyterians should fight, alongside the rest of the colonies.3 However, the synod clarified that this decision was not a rejection of Great Britain. They retained a hope for reconciliation and that George III would realize the malicious intentions of his advisers. The synod advised, “Let it appear, that you only desire the preservation and security of those rights which belong to you as freemen and Britons, and that reconciliation upon these terms is your most ardent desire.”The governing body also told its members to maintain the colonial unity that had developed because “nothing can be more manifest than that the success of every measure depends on its being inviolably preserved.” For clarity’s sake, the synod wrote that it expected Presbyterians to support the Continental Congress and “that a spirit of candour, charity, and mutual esteem, be preserved and promoted towards those of different religious denominations.”4 The leadership then addressed as many potential problems as it could, in an attempt to have at least offered some advice if further conflict made it impossible for the ruling body to meet.The synod’s pastoral letter made three things clear: that despite the growing emphasis of temporal over the eternal, the current troubles were to be understood within its orthodox notion of God’s divine will; that interdenominationalism was to persevere; and that all Presbyterians were to focus their energies and their prayers on the...