“Altar Against Altar”: the Arguments and Experiences of Loyalist Clergy in Revolutionary America




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This study examines the arguments and experiences of Loyalist clergy in the American Revolution. I situate their lives and written works during the political disturbance of the revolutionary crisis, reconstruct their intellectual arguments for loyalty to the Crown, and illustrate what consequences they faced. Based on examining primary and secondary sources, I make the following four claims. First, I contend that religion in revolutionary-America was multi-faceted and defies a uniform depiction that is often described. The witness of Loyalist ministers challenges the narrative that portrays religion during these years as having one united voice criticizing Parliament’s policies and espousing republican principles. On the contrary, understanding what Loyalist ministers said and saw during the Revolution reveals that religion was complexed, nuanced, and oppositional, and it formed a vivid and intricate tapestry within colonial society in the late eighteenth century. Second, I contend that Loyalist preachers were more consistent with following a traditional Protestant hermeneutic of the Bible than their Patriot counterparts. Loyalist sermons usually employed a literal interpretation of the Scriptures while Patriot sermons frequently broke from their Protestant hermeneutical tradition by taking verses out of context to fit a Whiggish political agenda. A third claim I make is that Loyalist sermons tended to be politically conservative and often attacked what was perceived as republican politics. Loyalist ministers like their Protestant fathers before them—expressed a pessimistic understanding of human nature and believed human government was designed by God to keep man from succumbing to his natural tendencies of sin and violence. Though they denied that the Bible mandated any form of government, clergy loyal to the Crown preferred a limitedmonarchy and many were averse to republican ideas such as natural equality, consent theory, and governing for the common good. Yet even here there was diversity of thought as a significant minority of Loyalist ministers held Whiggish political notions. Loyalist ministers, therefore, were not all anti-democratic and reactionary, and even the more conservative Loyalist clergy did not give unquestionable support to the Crown, nor did they preach unlimited obedience. My final claim is that Loyalist ministers were victims of a discriminatory Revolutionary period. They were verbally and sometimes physically assaulted. Their land and property seized, churches closed, and many were banished and forced to relocate to Canada or elsewhere in the British empire. After independence, liturgies were created by revolutionary committees requiring churches to cease prayers for the King and to pray for the American cause instead. Refusing to abide by the new liturgies was tantamount to treason. In this way, prayer had become weaponized by revolutionaries. In various states ministers faced prosecution if they continued to pray for the king, failed to open their churches on Congress’ sponsored fast days, or preached against the Revolution. Such treatment is a striking reality for a future nation so self-assured in its origins of religious and political freedom.



History, United States, Religion, History of