“The principal matter recommended by the faction in New England, was an union of the congregational and presbyterian interests, throughout the Colonies…Thus the Presbyterians in the southern Colonies, who, while unconnected in their several congregations, were raised into weight and consequence; and a dangerous combination of men, whose principles of religion and polity were equally averse to those of the established Church and Government, was formed.” – Joseph Galloway, Loyalist, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly
Throughout the history of the Presbyterian church in America, many of its members have taken a public stand for religious and civil liberty, most notably leading up to, and during, the War for Independence. Even before George III ascended to the English throne, most of this religion had rallied with other denominations in criticizing the Anglican Church for its combined and subjected authority to the British Crown, and subsequent persecution of other persuasions.
The Synod of New York and Philadelphia addressed its ministers regarding this matter, warning and preparing them for the future, writing, “If…the British Ministry shall continue to inforce their claims by violence, a lasting and bloody contest must be expected…[though] it may please God, for a season, to suffer his people to lie under unmerited oppression, yet…we may expect, that those who fear and serve him in sincerity and truth, will be favoured with his countenance and strength.”
When the time came for separation from Britain, no matter the type of conflict, Presbyterians were amidst the foremost on the many fronts in helping to achieve America’s independence. Twelve of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were indeed Presbyterian, most notable of these the Reverend John Witherspoon, also president of the College of New Jersey, now commonly known as the Ivy-League Princeton University.
Among those military leaders who led troops into battle stands the name of the Reverend James Caldwell, pastor and chaplain during the Revolution. Noted for his commitment to the cause, he was given the title of “The Fighting Parson” within the Continental Army. He is most known for his actions at the Battle of Springfield in June of 1780, where upon when the colonials ran out of gun wadding, he distributed copies of Isaac Watt’s hymnal as a replacement, urging them to “Give ‘em Watts, boys!”
“So intense, universal, and aggressive were the Presbyterians in their zeal for liberty that the war was spoken of in England as ‘The Presbyterian Rebellion,’” writes Lorraine Boettner in her book, Calvinism In History. “An ardent colonial supporter of King George III wrote home: ‘I fix all the blame for these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians. They have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures. They always do and ever will act against government from that restless and turbulent anti-monarchical spirit which has always distinguished them everywhere.’ When the news of ‘these extraordinary proceedings’ reached England, Prime Minister Horace Walpole said in Parliament, ‘Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.’”
After the war, though not commonly known for his religion, Alexander Hamilton, yet another Presbyterian, played an influential role in bringing about the ratification of the Constitution, personally garnering support for the document in the state of New York especially. His combined efforts with two others in writing multiple essays defending the idea of an entirely new constitution in place of the Articles of Confederation, and laying out the powers, scope, and vision of the new republic were ultimately successful in helping to bring about confidence and trust amongst state ratifying conventions in the efforts of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. We commonly know these today as “The Federalist Papers.”
Though many Americans, myself included, espouse different religious beliefs than these patriotic Presbyterians held in their day, we must be thankful for their continued efforts in the cause of liberty, not just for themselves, but for us all. The heritage of these freedom fighters serves as both a reminder and an inspiration to us today as we work and pray to pass down an intact “torch of freedom” to the next generation. May the following words of the Reverend Witherspoon keep us focused as to how we can do so, and may God bless our efforts in actually doing so.
“Whatsoever State amongst us shall continue to make piety and virtue the standard of public honor will enjoy the greatest inward peace, the greatest national happiness, and in every outward conflict will discover the greatest constitutional strength.”