For most Americans of the time, the Revolutionary War was a struggle for freedom and an independent nation.
However, for members of the church it represented a conflict between loyalty to an emerging United States and an oath to the King of England sworn before the eyes of God.
For some this dissidence was too great to bear. During the campaign over half the Anglican priests in America gave up their ministries rather than go against their promise to serve the king, while some even supported the British forces.
For others the Revolution became something of a religious crusade. Jonathan Mayhew, the pastor of the West Church in Boston, gave moral sanction to the war by preaching that opposition to a tyrant, in this case the British occupiers, was a “glorious” Christian duty.
Some ministers became military chaplains. One such Presbyterian minister, James Caldwell, famously helped at the Battle of Springfield, New Jersey, in 1780. Upon noticing that the company had run out of wadding, the paper used to hold the powder in the barrel of a gun, he ran to a nearby church and procured a pile of hymn books for the job.
Ministers could also take part in the more clerical side of the Revolution. John Witherspoon was a political parson and represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782. Not only did he serve on over one hundred committees, but his signature can be found on the Declaration of Independence.
Overall the Revolutionary War had a lasting impact on the state of religion in America.
Those who were partial to millennialist ideals believed that Christ would reign on earth for 1000 years and that the victory over Britain was a clear sign of God’s partiality for the United States.
Anglican ministers who had stayed in the colonies started to construct an independent American church. From this the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States was eventually established. Methodists were also compelled to form the all-American Methodist Episcopal Church.
Presbyterians followed suit and began to view their church as ‘American’ in nature, reducing the influence of the Church of Scotland.
After years of division the religions of the United States were finally united under one banner; that of ‘being American’. This left them free to embark on their next crusade; ensuring the abolition of slavery in their fledgling state of independence.