Religion and the American Revolution
An Imperial History
- ISBN: 9781469662640
- Published By: University of North Carolina Press
- Published: June 2021
In Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History, Katherine Carté provides a unique perspective on the title subject. As the subtitle suggests, the study encompasses the entire British Empire. Carté’s purpose is to elucidate the effect of the American Revolution on religion and the relationship between religion and politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the first chapter, Carté effectively describes the structure or “scaffolding” of a system of imperial Protestantism. Carté introduces claims concerning the Revolution’s effects on imperial Protestantism: it “destroyed the habits and mechanisms of connection, competition, and legitimation between protestant institutions” in the empire and also “transformed the networks of connection that linked protestants on one side of the ocean to the other (24).” In short, the Revolution “transformed religious communities and institutions” throughout the British Empire, not just in America (25).
Carté de-emphasizes denominations and regional and national structures in favor of a common imperial system. Although the Church of England was the legally established church, Carté shows that Presbyterians and Congregationalists “enjoyed the gravitas of legal establishment in part of the empire and could assume they were eligible for at least toleration everywhere (41).” Ultimately, networks of Anglicans, dissenters, and awakened protestants constituted the “planks” in the scaffolding of imperial Protestantism.
Having introduced the controlling concept, Carté spends a chapter explicating how the system functioned prior to the Revolution. The particular focus on imperial Protestantism’s response to the Stamp Act and the bishop controversy, together with its coordination of missions’ efforts, establishes imperial Protestantism’s effectiveness and flexibility in dealing with potential problems while at the same time moving forward with Protestantism’s primary aims.
Carté explains how the scaffolding of imperial Protestantism was challenged by the events of 1773 and 1774: particularly the Boston Tea Party and protests following passage of the Quebec Act. The system held, but “its component parts were bent, repurposed, and ragged – no longer welded together” (168). The American Revolution exposed this vulnerability and ultimately dismantled and destroyed the system.
In Carté’s telling, political and religious leaders on both sides used “the same tools to define the war’s purpose,” but, of course, in “very different ways” (169). Those tools were various expressions of public religion: vestiges of the decades of shared participation in imperial Protestantism. Particularly important were the authority and rhetoric of the public pulpit and government-sponsored religious events such as fast days and days of prayer and thanksgiving. Carté contends that in the long run, “the gritty realities of war” (206) tore apart the planks of imperial Protestantism.
Carté concludes that the war “wrenched apart the planks of imperial Protestantism’s scaffolding” by destroying many of “the projects that had been built by transatlantic partnerships” and by forcing religious leaders to take sides in opposition to “long-standing loyalties” created by the system (207). In particular, “the ties that sustained the Anglican and dissenting networks of the colonial period” were broken and the two dominant religious groups permanently separated (207).
Americans left behind the “imperial network of dissenters” and increasingly separated into various independent denominations and groups. Baptists of one sort or another flourished, as did “awakened” protestants whose network was not as dependent on denominational or institutional structures (219-222). Carté also describes the damaging and destruction of churches, colleges, and missions agencies in America. Britain, of course, suffered none of the physical destruction, but in Carté’s description, it suffered an “amputation” by losing a significant part of its religious structure and a large number of its partners (233). The most obvious effect was the withdrawal of the Anglican network from America.
In an interesting chapter, Carté explores the effects of both sides compromising their anti-Catholic positions and argues that both governments became “no longer really protestant in character” (246) because the exigencies of the war caused both governments to embrace Catholic partners. With the scaffolding of Protestantism broken down, the barrier to such action was gone. Other post-war effects in Britain included a new missionary movement and a renewed abolitionist movement.
Carté concludes with a discussion of the American Revolution’s effects on religious establishment in the two countries. In the new United States, separation from the imperial system resulted in separation of religion from government, proliferation of sects, omission of religious tests for office, and an emphasis on the personalization and intellectualization of religion. In Britain, belief that excessive religious freedom had spawned the Revolution led government leaders to tighten the screws of establishment and to compromise less with dissenters.
The scope of the book itself presents a general but relatively minor concern. Because it covers so much ground, the reader is sometimes asked to accept too few examples or pieces of evidence in support of an argument. At times, it is not entirely clear that chosen exemplars are representative of the majority.
A particular substantive concern is Carté’s claim that “religious leaders were primarily reactive. Rather than guiding public sentiment, as has often been assumed, they worked within the structural imperatives created by Britain’s mixed establishment (126)." Without addressing the arguments or evidence for this view, Carté dismisses them as “oversimplifications” (127n). In a book replete with references to nearly every relevant published work, at this juncture Carté makes no mention of important sources for this argument made by scholars who have not merely “assumed” (126) their conclusions. Ironically, Carté’s chapter contains a number of examples which could be viewed as evidence for the “oversimplified” position.
Religion and the American Revolution is well researched and contains an abundance of footnotes, though particular matters are not always supported by particular footnotes. Many footnotes point instead to entire works or chapters. The overall argument—Carté’s notion of a scaffolding of imperial Protestantism—is well-founded and the case is persuasive. The analysis of the effects of the Revolutionary War on that scaffolding is enlightening—particularly the War’s effects on imperial Protestantism in Britain. Religion and the American Revolution is an important contribution to an understanding of the title subject.
Gregg Frazer is a professor of history and political studies at The Master’s University.Gregg FrazerDate Of Review:June 24, 2022