Patriotism of Presbyterians

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

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No people had a clearer perception of the essential principles of liberty, or had done and suffered more to assert and defend them, than the Presbyterians of Scotland. Their great and incomparable Reformer, Knox, when obliged to flee his native land, had repaired to Geneva, where he “studied with unwearied diligence” under Calvin, and became so charmed with that independent commonwealth, and with the simple scheme of church government there established and the spirituality of the worship connected with it, that on his return to Scotland he began to propagate his matured sentiments with great earnestness and success. The adoption of these wise and liberal views by his countrymen led eventually to the triumph of religious and political liberty. What these were, so far as rulers and subjects were concerned, was shown by Knox’s memorable reply to Queen Mary when she asked him the question, “Think you that subjects having the power may resist their princes?” “If princes exceed their bounds, madam, no doubt they may be resisted even by power.” This the learned historian Froude calls “the creed of republics in its first hard form;” and so John Knox became the representative of civil equally with religious freedom in Scotland.

To this is to be added a sense of past wrongs and the remembrance of how their ancestors had been hunted like wild beasts by the soldiery, and had their houses pillaged and burned, while they were compelled to fly for safety to glens and mountain-fastnesses when the despotic attempt was making to impose prelacy upon Scotland. Thus it was that the history and the traditional memories of the Scottish people, who constituted so important a part of the Presbyterian Church of America, made them earnest and active patriots when called upon to choose between resistance or submission to arbitrary power.[1]

The causes were many and obvious why the patriotism of the Scotch-Irish should have been so universal and ardent in the war with England. Their antecedent history furnished abundant reasons why they should distrust the mother-country and dislike her methods of governing her colonies. Under the rule of those who had controlled the policy of that government, and through the oppressive measures which were imposed upon Ireland, they, and their fathers before them, had been made to feel all the evils that the arrogant bishops could inflict; they had seen their manufacturing industry paralyzed to please the mill-owners of Lancashire, their agriculture discouraged in order that English-grown corn might have a more lucrative market, and Ireland cut off from the sea by the navigation laws and compelled to sell her products to British merchants rather than in the open markets of the world. In a word, they had seen that England’s policy was to use her colonies for her own interests, irrespective of their rights or their consent.

With their past experience, it would indeed have been strange if they had not been among the first to discern the threatened evils and the most earnest in resisting them. Ireland was but a colony of longer standing; and having seen to what a pitiable condition an English colony could be reduced whose rights and interests were disregarded, is it any wonder that these people were the earliest to take alarm? The question in both colonies was substantially the same. The same governmental measures were sought to be employed in America as had been in Ireland. The wrongs which the American people were called upon to resist had been inflicted upon the people of Ireland for generations. The trade of this country was already in English hands. Under the fostering care of the proprietary governors, active means were being employed to make the Episcopal the established Church of the country, and then farewell to all liberty of conscience. Oppressive laws which would destroy the manufactures and the agriculture of the new colony, as they had those of the older one, might be enacted at any time; and the only way to prevent the recurrence of the evils and the injustice from which they had fled was firmly to resist the first encroachments of irresponsible authority. So that if the Scotch-Irish were more suspicious than other settlers of the mother-country, and more positive and outspoken in their opposition, the reason was none had such cause for complaint on account of the grievances they had previously endured.

Their hostile feelings, moreover, were kept alive by the continued arrivals of their friends from Ulster, driven out, so to speak, from a country which they had reclaimed from desolation and made rich and prosperous. It required, too, more than the wide waste of waters which separated them from their former oppressors, to efface the resentment which these exiles carried with them to their new homes. It blazed up anew at every remembrance of the wrongs they had endured; and when the possibility of a recurrence of these evils confronted them, it is not surprising that “in the war of independence England had no fiercer enemies than the grandsons and great-grandsons of the Presbyterians who had held Ulster against Tyrconnel.” They and succeeding colonists “were torn up by the roots and bid find a home elsewhere, and they found a home to which England, fifty years later, had to regret that she had allowed them to be driven.”[2]

The patriotism of the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, as was true also of their brethren from Scotland, was influenced largely by deep religious convictions. Many of them were voluntary exiles for conscience’ sake. These would be very naturally the faithful advocates and supporters of religious freedom. Here, in the land of their adoption, they wished to enjoy and to transmit to their children not only the blessings of a liberal civil government without the prescriptive rights of a nobility, but one in which they would be equally free from the impertinent interference of an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

They were ready to grant to others the rights and privileges they claimed for themselves. If any were enamored with the “trappings of Episcopacy,” and preferred a Church with subordinate and superior orders of clergy, culminating finally in bishops with powers of supervision and control, they were not disposed to quarrel with them about their choice. But what they knew of the prerogatives of bishops beyond the sea induced them to deprecate their presence and power in the Church of Christ. “Our forefathers,” said they, “and even some of ourselves, have seen and felt the tyranny of bishops’ courts. Many of the first inhabitants of these colonies were obliged to seek an asylum among savages in this wilderness in order to escape the ecclesiastical tyranny of Archbishop Laud and others of his stamp. We dread the consequences as often as we think of this danger.” And what was here said of Archbishop Laud by these Connecticut colonists, could have been uttered with equal truth of nearly every prelate of Scotland, including that arch-traitor and archbishop, Sharp.

Nor were they without good reasons for fearing that Episcopacy might be established in this country. The instructions given to the governors of the several provinces required them “to give all countenance and encouragement to the exercise of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the bishop of London,” and particularly directed that “no schoolmaster be hereafter permitted to keep school within this our said province without the license of the bishop of London.”[3] In 1730 an order of council was passed approving the instructions that had been sent to the governors of the provinces, directing them “to support the bishop of London and his commissioners in the exercise of such ecclesiastical jurisdiction as is granted to them.”[4] In several of the provinces the Episcopal Church was either established by law or was peculiarly favored by the colonial governments. Already some of them had experienced the tender mercies of Episcopacy in Virginia, in the Carolinas and in New York, where it had secured a preponderating influence and was supported by the strong arm of the civil authority. In these colonies “dissenters” had been subjected to grievous and unjust hardships. In some instances they had been fined and imprisoned for being present at, and taking part in, religious services after the Presbyterian mode of worship; in others they were obliged to aid in the support of clergy upon whose ministry they did not attend, and were denied the rights of citizenship and the right of marriage by their own pastors.

Besides, the intention to introduce Episcopacy into this country, and make the Episcopal the established Church, was early and frequently avowed. “Americans in England were openly told that bishops should be settled in America in spite of all the Presbyterian opposition.” The Episcopal clergy of New York and New Jersey petitioned for the episcopate, and at as early a period as 1748 it was proposed to introduce Episcopacy into New England by elevating some of the ministers to an ecclesiastical pre-eminence over their brethren. Thus the memories of the past, together with these avowed intentions and attempts, united all the other denominations in resisting the project to make the Episcopal the established Church in America. They wanted no Courts of High Commission, no lords-spiritual, no prelatical arrogance, in their new homes.

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[1] The single exception was that of some Highlanders in North Carolina at the beginning of the Revolution. Banished from Scotland for taking up arms for the Pretender, their pardon was conditioned on a solemn oath of allegiance to their sovereign. Such obligations they regarded with peculiar sacredness, and they had required the king to swear to the Solemn League and Covenant. Not feeling to any great degree the evils complained of by the other colonists, they were slow to engage in the contest. Some of them at first sympathized with and aided the royalists; but when the monarchical government came to an end, they became the fast friends and supporters of republican institutions. We may respect their moral principles, while we deplore their error of judgment, that led them at first to battle with freemen who were only demanding their rights.

[2] Froude.

[3] Maclean’s History of Princeton College.

[4] Ibid.