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Reviewed by:
  • Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America by Spencer W. McBride, and: John Witherspoon's American Revolution by Gideon Mailer
  • Chris Beneke (bio)
Key Words

American Revolution, Religion, Churches, Protestantism, John Witherspoon, Presbyterianism, Scottish Enlightenment

Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America. By Spencer W. McBride. ( Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2016. Pp. 272. Cloth, $39.50.)
John Witherspoon's American Revolution. By Gideon Mailer. ( Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. 440. Cloth, $45.00.)

For centuries, European and colonial American governments had supported favored churches, funding them, according them exclusive privileges, and suppressing their rivals. The newly established United States operated according to a different set of rules. By 1791, every state granted the free exercise of religion, while the amended Constitution forbade Congress from making laws respecting religion. It was an epochal change. Yet it did not stop clergymen from meddling in matters of state, nor civil authorities from meddling in matters of faith.

The nature of that enduring entanglement is the focus of Spencer W. McBride's probing and sharply reasoned Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America. McBride proceeds thematically with chapters devoted, among other things, to the political uses of religious proclamations, the role of military and congressional chaplains, and the accusations of irreligion made during the 1800 presidential campaign. He considers "the political utility of religion and the religious utility of politics" during and after the Revolutionary War (7).

McBride takes a hard-headed approach and seldom accepts contemporary rhetoric at face value. Civil authorities and clergymen, he contends, forged an interdependent relationship. Elected officials used [End Page 159] religious tools to sustain morale and discipline, while ministers used political tools to augment local prestige and influence. Pulpit and Nation is not exactly a cynical book. McBride acknowledges that many people acted from sincere religious motives, but argues that "When power is at stake, we should always question motives" (8).

It's a sensible point and helps to explain why Congress's religious proclamations were tailored to specific political conditions and why they invoked a pro-American, nonsectarian version of Providence. Protestant patriots even managed to excuse their indispensable Revolutionary ally, France, for being Catholic. In this and other cases, theological distinctions were subordinated to politics. Late-eighteenth-century leaders were pragmatists first, ecumenists second. Thus McBride argues that army commanders welcomed chaplains because they made their armies more effective. Revolutionary authorities calculated that troops prone to debauchery and desertion would benefit from the sobering presence of a religious professional. They may have possessed higher motives too, but their primary consideration was military necessity.

McBride's most provocative and potentially groundbreaking chapter discusses the campaign to derail Thomas Jefferson's 1800 presidential run. There was great power at stake, and so McBride questions the motives behind attacks on Jefferson's purported irreligion. He shows how the fiercest accusations arose in the swing states of New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, where such charges had the most political leverage. McBride adds that if short-term political calculations inspired the campaign against Jefferson, the presumption that the president should be a sincere, practicing Christian prevailed over the long run.

To demonstrate the complexity of religious and political interactions, McBride profiles three Revolutionary-era clergymen, the first a loyalist, the second a patriot, and the third a minister tragically torn between the two sides. In the northern states, McBride explains, there was some correspondence between Anglicism and loyalism. To the South, however, that correspondence broke down. Many of the staunchest opponents of British authority had been baptized in the Church of England, and their grievances were political, not religious. "A number of factors went into the decision to support the Revolution," McBride observes, "but religious affiliation was rarely one of them" (69).

Pro-Constitution Federalist clergy imagined the United States as a New Israel, a confederation of godly republics stirred to action by pharaonic oppression and then providentially directed to independence. Not [End Page 160] everyone was as sanguine about the country's religious future. Anti-Federalist clergy lamented that the nation's founding charter failed to mention God or Christianity...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 159-163
Launched on MUSE
2019-02-28
Open Access
No
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