Patriotism of Presbyterians (2)

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

previous page | contents | start of chapter | next page

CHAPTER XII.continued

It was not only, then, because their civil rights were imperiled, but also because their religious freedom was in danger, that our Presbyterian fathers were such steadfast, earnest patriots. As in Scotland and Ireland, so here, they recognized the fact that civil and religious liberty stood or fell together. So that, while they protested against taxation without representation, they were equally opposed to any interference with the rights of conscience. Feeling it to be their duty to resist all arbitrary power in civil government, they naturally feared and distrusted the influence of Episcopacy, since in their former homes it had ever been found the strong ally of despotism, and in this country they saw that its clergy and their flocks “leaned, with very few exceptions, to the side of the Crown.”

These principles and sentiments were common to the Scotch and Scotch-Irish colonists and their descendants, and sustained them through the sacrifices and perils of a seven years’ conflict for independence. But while they were conspicuous in their zeal and devotion as patriots, they were not alone or singular in this respect in the Presbyterian Church. For its members, though coming from sources widely diverse, were yet wonderfully harmonious and united in support of the cause. So well known were the opinions and sympathies of Presbyterians that they were subjected to all the evils the enemy was capable of visiting upon their persons or their property, and wherever found they were regarded and treated as arch-rebels.

History accords to Presbyterians the honor of being the first to combine to resist the impositions of the mother-country upon the colonists. Mr. Adolphus, in his book on the Reign of George III., uses the following language: "The first effort toward a union of interest was made by the Presbyterians, who were eager in carrying into execution their favorite project of forming a synod. Their churches had hitherto remained unconnected with each other, and their union in synod had been considered so dangerous to the community that in 1725 it was prevented by the express interference of the lords-justices. Availing themselves, with great address, of the rising discontents, the convention of ministers and elders at Philadelphia enclosed in a circular-letter to all the Presbyterian congregations in Pennsylvania the proposed articles of union. ... In consequence of this letter, a union of all the congregations took place in Pennsylvania and the Lower Counties. A similar confederacy was established in all the Southern provinces, in pursuance of similar letters written by their respective conventions. These measures ended in the establishment of an annual synod at Philadelphia, where all general affairs, political as well as religious, were debated and decided. From this synod orders and decrees were issued throughout America, and to them a ready and implicit obedience was paid.

"The discontented in New England recommended a union of the Congregational and Presbyterian interests throughout the colonies. A negotiation took place, which ended in the appointment of a permanent committee of correspondence, and powers to communicate and consult on all occasions with a similar committee established by the Congregational churches in New England. . . .

“BY THIS UNION A PARTY WAS PREPARED TO DISPLAY THEIR POWER BY RESISTANCE, and the Stamp law presented itself as a favorable object of hostility.”[5]

Equally explicit testimony is borne in a published address of Mr. William B. Reed of Philadelphia, himself an Episcopalian: “The part taken by the Presbyterians in the contest with the mother-country was indeed, at the time, often made a ground of reproach, and the connection between their efforts for the security of their religious liberty and opposition to the oppressive measures of Parliament, was then distinctly seen” Mr. Galloway, a prominent advocate of the government, in 1774, ascribed the revolt and revolution mainly to the action of the Presbyterian clergy and laity as early as 1764. Another writer of the same period says: “You will have discovered that I am no friend to the Presbyterians, and that I fix ALL THE BLAME of these extraordinary proceedings upon them.” And Rev. Dr. Elliott, editor of the Western organ of the Methodist Church, in answer to an assailant of Presbyterians, says: “The Presbyterians, of every class, were prominent, and even foremost, in achieving the liberties of the United States, and they have been all along the leading supporters of the Constitution and law and good order.”

The Synod of the Presbyterian Church, which met in Philadelphia a year before the Declaration of Independence, was the very first body to declare themselves in favor of open resistance, and to encourage and counsel their people, who were then ready to take up arms. But a few weeks before, the bloody conflict had taken place at Lexington, and created great excitement throughout the land. The General Congress was also in session in Philadelphia, consulting concerning the crisis which had been precipitated upon the colonies. At this important period the Synod gave expression to its deep sympathy for the cause of freedom, and its religious convictions respecting the rights of the people. “Rarely,” says Dr. Gillett, “on any occasion, has there been a parallel utterance more significant or effective, and it came at the opportune moment when political zeal needed to be tempered and sustained by religious sanctions.” Rev. Dr. Lang, in his volume entitled Religion and Education in America, thus speaks of the same document: “As a literary production, the letter is evidently of a superior order, highly creditable to the body from which it emanated; as a political document, it is unexceptionable; as a Christian testimony and admonition, it is all that could be possibly desired.”

The spirit which actuated these men is shown by the following extract from the Synod’s pastoral letter: “Perhaps no instance can be given, on so interesting a subject, in which political sentiments have been so long and so fully kept from the pulpit, and even malice itself has not charged us with laboring from the press, but things are now come to such a state that, as we do not wish to conceal our opinions as men and citizens, so the relation we stand in to you seemed to make the present improvement of it to your spiritual benefit an indispensable duty.”

It proceeds to exhort those who belong to its communion “not to suffer oppression, or injury itself, easily to provoke you to speak disrespectfully of the king,” but to “let it ever appear that you only desire the preservation and security of those rights which belong to you as freemen.” With respect to union in defence of their rights, it says: “Be careful to maintain the union which at present subsists through all the colonies; nothing can be more manifest than that the success of every measure depends on its being inviolably preserved, and therefore we hope that you will leave nothing undone which can promote that end. In particular, as the Continental Congress now sitting in Philadelphia consists of delegates chosen in the most free and unbiased manner, by the body of the people, let them not only be treated with respect and encouraged in their difficult service, not only let your prayers be offered up to God for his direction in their proceedings, but adhere firmly to their resolutions, and let it be seen that they are able to bring out the whole strength of their vast country to carry them into execution.”

The letter further urges “mutual charity and esteem among members of different religious denominations, vigilance in regard to social government and morals, reformation of manners, personal honesty and integrity, humanity and mercy, especially among such as should be called to the field.”

In order that these sentiments might exert their appropriate influence over the people connected with their congregations, copies of the pastoral letter were transmitted to all the churches,[6] and it aided largely in kindling and sustaining the patriotic zeal of the country. Particularly did it give prestige and influence to the counsel and acts of the Congress then in session, for whom, as we have seen, prayer was unceasingly to be offered, and to whose resolutions they were exhorted “firmly to adhere,” in order that they may “be able to bring out the whole strength of this vast country to carry them into execution.” From every Presbyterian pulpit in the land, and from every Presbyterian household altar, went up the voice of supplication in behalf of a suffering country. Thus it was that the Presbyterian Church, by the act of its highest judicatory, took its stand by the side of the American Congress, and helped to sustain the struggle for independence by its wise, brave and patriotic words.

previous page | contents | start of chapter | next page


[5] Undue political importance was attached to these measures, but it indicates the close connection between the religious and civil part of the contest now begun.

[6] This paper had a wider circulation than the bounds of the Synod. The official record of the provincial congress of North Carolina states “that two hundred copies of the letter were presented to the delegates by Rev. Mr. Boyd.”