Bible Preachers Forerunners of Freedom

by Paul T. Butler

Over six hundred Separatists fled England after trying to reform the Church of England had resulted in severe persecution. They took up residence in Leyden, Holland. Bradford wrote they had "as the Lord's free people, joined themselves by a covenant to the Lord into a church estate, in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all His ways made known . . . ."They could not fulfill their ambitions for a Biblically-based civil society in Holland so they made arrangements to migrate to "the New World" (America). One of the most significant leaders of these "Puritans" was Reverend John Robinson, minister of the congregation. He could not join the "Pilgrims" bound for America on the Mayflower. There was room for only 120 persons from a congregation of 600, but he prayed for them at their departure and wrote a letter of warnings and instructions which William Brewster read to the "saints and strangers" as they began that epochal journey it ended: ". . . whereas you are to become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government, and are not furnished with any persons of special eminency above the rest . . ." (no "lords," "earls" or "barons" on board), they would have to choose their leaders from among equals. Rev. Robinson continued: "Let your wisdom and godliness appear not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations ... for the image of the Lord's power and authority, which the magistrate beareth, is honorable, in how mean persons soever . . . ."

Bible-believing preachers have always been in the forefront for civil government as ordained by God and structured on the principles for civil society as revealed in the Bible. The "Mayflower Compact," dated November 11th, 1620, the first time in recorded history that free and equal men voluntarily covenanted together to create their own new civil government, was drafted by ministers and other church leaders among the "Pilgrims." In the "Pilgrim" colony of Plymouth and the ever-expanding colonies of all New England, Puritan preachers like John Cotton, Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, and Thomas Hooker were singularly instrumental in forming the structures of the earliest democratic civil governments of America.

Thomas Hooker left the Bay Colony and settled with his congregation on the Connecticut River. Hooker's concept of civil government was that it should parallel the "covenant" structure of the church of Christ as he saw it in the Bible: "There must of necessity be a mutual engagement, each of the other, by their free consent, before by any rule of God they have any right or power, or can exercise either, each toward the other . . . ." The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, principles for civil governance of Hooker's community were constituted:

(a) religious qualification or affiliation in order to vote was not required;

(b) clear, definitive restraints were enjoined regarding the authority of the magistrates; (c) non-landholders (servants, etc.), not allowed to vote for executive civil officers, could elect deputies to the governing council; (d) the chief executive's powers (the governor's) were closely circumscribed and he was prohibited from immediate re-election. It was not yet the great American republic, but it was on its way thanks to a preacher!

Slowly, gradually, however, the obsession for civil freedom and human rights began to subside. The colonies were growing in population, territory and resources. Ships were docking daily, disembarking hundreds and hundreds of "old world" immigrants. These were from every class, vocation and religious or non-religious persuasion of Europe (as well as slaves from Africa). Secular historians would say that the mania for "making a fortune" smothered the Pilgrim dream for a free civil republic founded on the principles of the Bible. The truth of the matter is, however, that with economic prosperity came a suffocating complacency toward spiritual matters. Sermons about justice, righteousness, human rights and truth fell on increasingly deaf ears. The majority of immigrants were no longer interested primarily in civil and religious reformation but in economic advancement. A prolonged and disinterested civic and religious complacency seemed to settle over America between the end of the seventeenth century and the first three decades of the eighteenth century. Between the "Puritan era" and the first stirrings for independence, Americans seemed content with the subtle, but ever-increasing, encroachments upon their civil rights as "Englishmen" so long as profits continued.

The only significant spiritual development in this span of more than half a century was that sunburst of light in the middle of this period, which historians call the Great Awakening . . . actually a re-awakening of a deep national desire for the Covenant Way of life. This yearning did not die with the passing of the Puritan era, but only went dormant. It was a desire which would produce a new generation of clergymen who would help to prepare America to fight for her life.

The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall

and David Manuel, pub. Revell, 1977, p. 240

The most eminent figure of the Great Awakening was George Whitefield. Whitefield went to Oxford in 1733 and was ordained to the ministry in 1736 at the age of 22. After extraordinary evangelistic success in England, he was convinced of a mission to evangelize the Indians of America.

Thus began the ministry of the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century, one of the handful of men in the history of Christendom to be used by God to change the course of nations through the power of His Spirit ... he dared to trust that his preaching might help create one nation under God thirteen scattered colonies united with each other ....

ibid, pp. 244,246

It is recorded that Benjamin Franklin was deeply impressed by the preaching of Whitefield. Listening to Whitefield preach one evening on the steps of the Philadelphia courthouse, Franklin was amazed and intrigued, of course, at the carrying power of his voice. Like the scientist he always was, Franklin retraced his steps backward down Market Street until he could at last no longer hear Whitefield. The amazed Franklin computed that in an open space, Whitefield's Words could be distinctly heard by 30,000 people.

It was George Whitefield's passion to convert all of New England and arouse believers and non-believers alike to personal faith and righteous living. Horseback, through rain, snow, blistering heat and dust he rode the highways and byways of New England covering nearly 2000 miles in a five-month period. He often preached four times per day, sometimes for two hours per sermon.

The Lord, through the preaching of this covenanted man was uniting the thirteen colonies on a level so deep that few people even realized at first what was happening .... They were beginning to discover a basic truth which would be a major foundation stone of God's new nation, and which by 1776 would be declared self-evident: that in the eyes of their Creator, all men were of equal value ....

ibid, p. 251

Altogether, Whitefield preached more than 18,000 sermons between 1736 and 1770. Whitefield proclaimed that: men are reconciled to God by grace, that God is no respecter of person^, that denominational divisions should disappear and all should be known simply as Christians. Single-handedly, Whitefield inoculated the American mentality with the divine concepts of human rights which would fan the spark of freedom into a burning flame again. And that flame burned brightest in the hearts of Bible-believing preachers.

As the great Biblical principles of civil government (i.e. that all civil rulers are subject to the divine laws of social contract the same as all citizens, that there are unalienable rights belonging to all human beings equally such as life, liberty and proprietorship, that government's singular reason for existence is to protect these rights) were emphasized more and more in American pulpits. It was inevitable that colonial political "philosophers" (many of them faithful Christians) would rise to libertarian activism. Men like Samuel Adams, John Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, George Mason, James Madison, and a host of others were convinced that Almighty God had moved providentially in the colonization of America. God was continuing His providential work with America thrusting her toward the "great experiment" a democratic-republic. America would be the first civil society where the citizenry would have a voice in its governmental structure. That government would be so constituted as to guarantee, as much as humanly possible, man's basic unalienable rights. It would be so because it would be constituted on the revealed will of Almighty God for civil social structure in the Bible.

Here then, was the seed of that democracy which would be embodied in the Constitution of the United States: of the political understanding that all men were equally entitled to the vote, and that, in the sight of God, a farmer was as good as King George. For God was no respecter of persons: His laws applied equally to all men .... It is difficult for us, with ten generations of democracy behind us to appreciate just how radical were the words of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Never before in history had the world actually believed in the equality of man. That is why, beginning with the Mayflower Compact, a century and a half earlier, the American system of government under God had been so unique. Under God that was the key. Democracy would be subsequently tried in many places through the next two centuries, but only in nations where the one true God was worshiped would it succeed. For the study of man's history shows that equality without the unifying hand of Almighty God, inevitably breeds chaos and anarchy.

ibid, p. 255

The British Parliament and Crown increasingly imposed arbitrary civil restraints and taxes upon the colonies. Subtle, but ever increasing abridgments of Englishmen's constitutional and natural civil rights were exacted. The colonial citizenry was being denied the basic right of the Englishman's civil contract (Magna Charta), representation in the government enacting its laws and levying its taxes. For the King and Parliament to suspend this right meant that they were putting themselves above the law (constitution) and that was contrary to God's word and to reason (the natural law).

During this ominous erosion of basic human rights, an "army" of American preachers were continuing to proclaim Biblical principles and precepts antithetical to these infringements and demanding reformation of the "mother government" in England. Thanks to the Great Awakening, there was now a new generation of committed preachers spread throughout the American colonies, and out to their frontiers, many of them men of considerable mental and spiritual depth and maturity.

It is in the so-called "Election Sermons" of New England ministers that we find some of the most fluent expressions on the subject of civil government. "Election Sermons" were preached annually on "general election day" (the last Wednesday in May when colonial legislatures met according to their "charters" to elect representatives for the coming year). Such sermons were also preached later when officers of the militia were elected. On these occasions political subjects were considered very proper. Usually the sermons were printed so that they could be distributed among the civil and military nominees. Many of the sermons most zealous about human rights and most apt to spread the thirst for liberty were often printed far and wide in patriot newspapers. Many an agitated Loyalist or Tory admonished these preachers to "... confine themselves to gospel truths" instead of mixing religion with politics. But for the Puritan ministers the cornerstone of liberty was the Bible. Favorite texts were: "Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty" (II Cor. 3:17); and "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free . . ." (John 8:32). Upon such Biblical truths New England preachers fed their own souls and those of their congregations. Charles Turner, preacher at Duxbury, Massachusetts, expressed the point of view of many ministers: "The scriptures cannot rightly be expounded without explaining them in a manner friendly to the cause of freedom."

Because of their education these preachers were well grounded in Greek and Roman philosophers and historians. From these ancients they became aware of the fruits of both liberty and tyranny. They also studied in their colleges the writings of John Locke, Baron Montesquieu, Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, Emmerich de Vattel, Sir Edward Coke, and John Milton (theologians and philosophers). From these and political philosophers contemporary with themselves they formed clear conclusions about civil government which they shared unequivocally with their parishioners and others through the printed page. Their Biblically based political conclusions may be summarized as follows.

a. The powers of civil government and every one of its officials is derived from Almighty God and His word. Jonathan Mayhew said: "Rulers derive their power from God, and are ordained to be his ministers for good." Their study of Biblical texts concerning civil governance indicated a number of fundamental divine guidelines intended for all civil governments to follow. Puritan preachers believed strongly that no King or Parliament could claim to rule by divine right unless they had the covenantal (constitutional) consent of the governed unto whose welfare civil government owed its ordination.

b. Government was to be structured according to a compact or constitution. If God condescends to rule by law, if the Absolute Sovereign rules through covenant or constitution (laws), it is clearly reasonable and essential for imperfect human rulers to rule through covenants and constitutions rather than by tyrannical edict. Rule by constitution provides limitations and obligations upon ruling officials, established by Biblical precept (Deut. 17:14-17; I Sam. 10:25). Thomas Barnard said in 1763: "All power has its foundation in compact and mutual consent or else it proceeds from fraud or violence."

c. Liberty is grounded in Scripture and reason and is always requisite. It is necessary, therefore, that all citizens proclaim it verbally and promote it by personal involvement. Liberty can never be taken for granted. It is always tenuous, never to be equated with economic prosperity or military superiority alone. Economic fortune or misfortune should not determine political convictions.

d. Preachers before and during the Revolution were, for the most part, politically centrists. They were not extremists and anarchists, nor were they for the status quo and passive pragmatism. They were not nihilists, but they believed government as they were experiencing it had to be changed. They were "constitutionalists" who believed in reasonable laws imposing obligations upon both governors and the governed. If rulers violated their constitution with the people, they must be ousted. If they honored their compact with the people, they should be obeyed. Andrew Eliot, minister in Boston, said in 1765: " . . .when rulers are wise and good, opposition is a high crime." In the opinion of the Puritan preachers, the real radicals were those in the British government who were disregarding the rights of Englishmen guaranteed by the Magna Charta.

The intent of this paper is to give a minuscule biographical sampling of preachers whose ideas gave birth to American independence. There were hundreds of others, (especially on the frontiers of the colonies), besides these mentioned, equally fervent in preaching liberty and independence. But their sermons were not printed so their legacy was not preserved.

First, there is Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), of Boston. His contribution was one of the most significant:

It is regrettable that Jonathan Mayhew is not better known and more rightfully honored by our generation. He was an inspired courageous pioneer, not only in his theological thought, but also in his convictions regarding civil and religious liberties. Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one-time attorney general of the United States called Mayhew, "The Father of Civil and Religious Liberty in Massachusetts and America." John Adams not only ranked him along with Otis and Samuel Adams as a patriot-statesman, but also said of him, "To draw the character of Mayhew would be to transcribe a dozen volumes."

They Preached Liberty, by Franklin P. Cole,
pub. Liberty Press, p. 26

Jonathan Mayhew was born on Martha's Vineyard in 1720, the son of Reverend Experience Mayhew and his wife, named Remember. His parents had bravely evangelized the Indian tribes of New England. Jonathan graduated from Harvard with honors in 1744. He reported that his university training had initiated him in the doctrines of civil liberty as taught by such men as Plato, Demosthenes, Cicero, and other ancients, along with Milton, Locke and Hoadley. Mayhew said, "I liked them; they seemed rational .... And having learned from the Holy Scriptures that wise, brave and virtuous men were always friends to liberty . . . because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty this made me conclude that freedom was a great blessing." He advocated the right of private judgment and the reality of the free human will. Ignoring the creeds of both Catholicism and Calvinism, Mayhew went directly to the Bible for his religious authority. He was a New Testament Church "Restorationist" a hundred years ahead of the times. In 1750 a quarter of a century before the Declaration of Independence, Jonathan Mayhew preached his famous sermon entitled, "A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers." It was preached on January 30, 1750, and heard by a young lad of 15 named Paul Revere, in the West Church of Boston. John Adams said later that this sermon "fired the opening gun of the Revolution." In this sermon Mayhew expounded the people's right to resist, even to the "chopping off of kings' heads" to resist tyranny. This sermon was widely read and quoted throughout the colonies and in Great Britain. Mayhew said:

It is blasphemy to call tyrants and oppressors God's ministers . . . .When (magistrates) rob and ruin the public, instead of being guardians of its peace and welfare, they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God, and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen ....

Fifteen years later he responded to the hated Stamp Act:

The king is as much bound by his oath not to infringe the legal rights of the people, as the people are bound to yield subjection to him. From whence it follows that as soon as the prince sets himself up above the law, he loses the king in the tyrant. He does to all intents and purposes un-king himself by acting out of and beyond that sphere which the constitution allows him to move in, and in such cases he has no more right to be obeyed than any inferior officer who acts beyond his commission. The subject's obligation to allegiance then ceases, of course, and to resist him is no more rebellion than to resist any foreign invader ... it is making use of the means, and the only means, which God has put into their power for mutual and self-defense.

The Light and The Glory, by Marshall and Manuel,
pub. Revell, pp. 264, 265

It is enlightening to compare parts of Mayhew's sermons with the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration says: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed . . ."etc. Twenty-six years earlier, Mayhew preached: "Nothing can ... be imagined more directly contrary to common sense than to suppose that millions of people should be subjected to the arbitrary, precarious pleasure of a single man who has naturally no superiority over them in point of authority so that their estates and everything that is valuable in life, and even their lives also, shall be absolutely at his disposal, if he happens to be wanton and capricious enough to demand them."

The Declaration says: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations . . . evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such a Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security . . . ." Mayhew said: "Those in authority may abuse their trust and power to such a degree that neither the law of reason nor of religion requires that any obedience ... be paid them; but . . . they should be totally discarded, and the authority which they were before vested with transferred to others, who may exercise more to those good purposes for which it is given."

The Declaration closes by a lengthy listing of constitutional violations and usurpations of King George III Jonathan Mayhew constructed a case against the King and Parliament very similar to Jefferson's (Mayhew's was directed against King Charles I). Great minds may run in the same channel, but preacher Mayhew's ran there before Jefferson's.

A generation before 1776, the congregation of New England had heard and read many "declarations of independence." Sermon after sermon referred to the "natural rights of life, liberty, and property." But to Jonathan Mayhew belongs the distinction of being the first of the Revolutionary preacher-patriots. Mayhew was an intimate of James Otis, John Adams, and Samuel Adams. It was Mayhew who suggested to Otis, in a letter dated June 8, 1766, the idea of Committees of Correspondence, which later rendered invaluable service to the patriot cause:

Would it not be proper and decorous for our assembly to send circulars to all the rest .... Pursuing this course, or never losing sight of it, may be of greatest importance to the colonies, perhaps the only means of perpetuating their liberties.

They Preached Liberty, p. 33

Six weeks later, on July 19, 1766, at the prime age of 46, Jonathan Mayhew, preacher of the gospel and father of American liberty, died of a "nervous fever," probably stroke or heart attack due to stress and overwork.

Next, we give you Samuel Cooper, one of the half-dozen most influential men of Boston during America's struggle for independence. Born in Boston in 1725, graduated from Harvard in 1743, he became the minister of the Brattle Street Church in Boston and remained there 40 years until he died in 1783. He was elected President of Harvard in 1774 but declined the position. His father before him was elected and also declined. Both considered their life's work to be the ministry of the Brattle Street Church.

Samuel Cooper was a vigorous preacher in behalf of the patriot cause, and a stirring writer as well. He dared to protest the Stamp Act and other "intolerable acts" in Boston Gazette articles bearing his signature. This made him a target of abuse by officers of the Crown in and around Boston. In 1775 the British contemptuously quartered troops in his church building. He was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, John and Samuel Adams, and John Hancock was one of his faithful parishioners. Generals George Washington and Henry Lee along with Franklin and Hancock were guests at his table and recipients of his correspondence.

Samuel Cooper preached: "We want not, indeed, a special revelation from Heaven to teach us that men are born equal and free; that no man has a natural claim of dominion over his neighbors, nor any one nation any such claim upon another; and as government is only the administration of the affairs of a number of men combined for their own security and happiness, such a society has a right freely to determine by whom and in what manner their own affairs shall be administered. These are the plain dictates with which the Common Parent of men has informed the human bosom."

Cooper pled for peace, but not without liberty: "Peace, peace we ardently wish; but not upon terms dishonorable to ourselves, or dangerous to our liberties; and our enemies seem not yet prepared to allow it upon any other. At present the voice of Providence, the call of our still invaded country, and the cry of everything dear to us, all unite to rouse us to prosecute the war with redoubled vigor . . . ."

Foreign policy was also a topic for Reverend Cooper: "Conquest is not indeed the aim of these rising states; sound policy must ever forbid it. We have before us an object more truly great and honorable. We seem called by heaven to make a large portion of this globe a seat of knowledge and liberty, of agriculture, commerce, and arts, and what is more important than all, of Christian piety and virtue .... May our conduct correspond to the face of our country . . . ."

Finally, one of the most colorful and versatile of the patriot-preachers of Revolutionary New England was Jonas Clark. He graduated from Harvard in 1752 and settled in Lexington, Massachusetts, for a ministry that lasted 50 years, he supplemented his meager income as a minister by farming. His salary of 80 English pounds per year plus 20 cords of wood, was never enough to support a family of six girls and six boys. He made his home a meeting place for many of the patriot leaders. The very night Paul Revere made his famous ride to warn that the British were coming, April 18, 1775, the two "rebels" for whom the British were "coming," Samuel Adams and John Hancock, were being entertained in Jonas Clark's home! When Adams and Hancock asked Jonas Clark if the Lexington people would fight, Clark replied, "I have trained them for this very hour." It was just a few strides from the Clark parsonage that the first blood of the Revolution was shed on the following day, April 19, 1775, when the "shot was fired heard round the world." Many of the men who fell slain or wounded that day were members of Clark's congregation. Upon viewing the aftermath of the Lexington-Concord engagement and his slain parishioners, Clark said: "From this day will be dated the liberty of the world."

Jonas Clark had these words to say about Lexington and Concord: "And this is the place where the fatal scene begins! . . . without provocation, without warning, when no war was proclaimed, they draw the sword of violence, upon the inhabitants of this town, and with a cruelty and barbarity, which would have made the most hardened savage blush, they shed INNOCENT BLOOD .... They have not bled, they shall not bleed in vain . ..." In the same sermon he said: "Injustice, oppression, and violence (much less the shedding of innocent blood) shall not pass unnoticed by the just Governor of the world. Sooner or later, a just recompense will be made upon such workers of iniquity."

Striking statements from a few more American patriot-preachers are worthy of quotation here:

All power is originally from God, and civil government his institution, and is designed to advance the happiness of his creatures. Civil power ought therefore ever to be employed agreeable to the nature and will of the Supreme Sovereign and Guardian of all our rights.

Benjamin Stevens, of Kittery, Mass., 1761

... I cannot help hoping, and even believing, that Providence has designed this continent for to be the asylum of liberty and true religion.

Samuel West, of Salisbury, Mass., 1776

. . . They left their native land with the strongest assurances that they and their posterity should enjoy the privileges of free natural-born English subjects, which they supposed fully comprehended in their charter. The powers of government therein confirmed to them they considered as including English liberty in its full extent ....

Samuel Cooke, of Cambridge, Mass., 1770

As no body on earth had any title to this land but the original inhabitants our fathers got leave of them to settle, and made peace with them, and fairly purchased their lands of them. The king has no right to give it, nor the people of England, for it is not theirs to give. But God gave our fathers favor in the eyes of the people of the land; and they obtained their title to these lands; which was as good as the people of England have to theirs, or any other people under heaven. All pretenses to the contrary are vain and frivolous to the last degree.

Samuel Webster, of Salisbury, Mass., 1774

The practice of religion and virtue tends, above all things, to promote the public welfare and happiness of mankind, and to secure the ends of civil government; therefore rulers should be nursing fathers to it. Civil government was originally instituted to protect and defend men's lives and liberties, to guard and secure their properties, and promote their temporal interests and advantages .... Now the practice of religion and virtue, tends, above all other things, to promote those very ends, for which men entered into society.

Edward Dorr, of Hartford, Conn., 1765

Laws may be said to be good . . . when they tend to the securing and establishing the liberties and privileges of men; which they are entitled unto, by the constitution of the government they have voluntarily engaged to submit to; and which are confirmed to them by the revealed will of God .... And I will add here, that only such laws as these, are fit for the government of rational, intelligent, moral agents, all equal and upon a par, antecedent to any political combinations among men; and after all, entitled to certain immunities and benefits, as members of the body politic.

Ebenezer Bridge, of Chelmsford, Mass., 1767

My . . . brethren in the ministry will remember that it is part of the work and business of a gospel minister to teach his hearers the duty they owe to magistrates.... In order to the right and faithful discharge of this part of our ministry, it is necessary that we should thoroughly study the law of nature, the rights of mankind, and the reciprocal duties of governors and governed. By this means we shall be able to guard them against the extremes of slavish submission to tyrants on the one hand, and of sedition and licentiousness on the other.

Samuel West, of Dartmouth, Mass., 1776

On the free exercise of their natural religious rights the present as well as future happiness of mankind greatly depends.

Daniel Shute, of Hingham, Mass., 1768

Religious liberty is so blended with civil, that if one falls it is not to be expected that the other will continue.

Charles Turner, of Duxbury, Mass., 1773

The greatest restraints, the noblest motives, and the best supports arise from our holy religion. The pious ruler is by far the most likely to promote the public good.... Superior to base passions and little resentments, undismayed by danger, not awed by threatenings, he guides the helm in storm and tempest, and is ready, if called in providence, to sacrifice his life for his country's good. Most of all concerned to approve himself to his God, he avoids the subtle arts of chicanery, which are productive of so much mischief in a state; exercising a conscience void of offense, he has food to eat that the world knows not of.

Phillips Payson, of Chelsea, Mass., 1778

During the War for Independence many ministers descended from the pulpit in order to engage actively in the fighting:

When the news of Lexington and Bunker Hill arrived, parson after parson left his parish and marched hastily toward Boston. Before daylight on the morning of April 30, 1775, Stephen Farrar, of New Ipswich, New Hampshire, left with ninety-seven of his parishioners. Joseph Willard, of Beverly marched with two companies from his town, raised in no small part through his own exertion. David Avery, of Windsor, Vermont, after hearing the news of Lexington, preached a farewell sermon, then, outside the meeting-house door, called his people to arms, and marched with twenty men. On his way he served as captain, preached, and collected more troops. David Grosvenor, of Grafton, left his pulpit and musket in hand, joined the minute-men who marched to Cambridge. Phillips Payson, of Chelsea, is given credit for leading a group of his parishioners to attack a band of English Soldiery that nineteenth day of April. Benjamin Balch, of Danvers, Lieutenant of the third-alarm list of his town, was present at Lexington and later, as chaplain in army and navy, won the title of the "fighting parson." Jonathan French, of Andover, Massachusetts, left his pulpit on the Sabbath morning, when the news of Bunker Hill arrived, and with surgical case in one hand and musket in the other started for Boston.

New England Clergy and the American Revolution,
by Baldwin, pp. 154-167

Many who did not join in the actual fighting rendered invaluable service to the cause for independence through preaching and writing, encouraging boycotting of English imports, giving of their small salaries to the cause of liberty, feeding soldiers, nursing wounded, caring for husbandless families, and serving as recruiting agents in towns and villages.

Peter Muhlenberg, having delivered a passionate sermon on the text "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" climaxed the message by saying, "In the language of the Holy Writ, there is a time for all things. There is a time to preach and a time to fight." Throwing off his clerical robe he revealed to his startled congregation the uniform of a colonel in the Continental Army, and cried, "And now is the time to fight . . . roll the drums for recruits!" He went off to war and his 8th Virginia Regiment distinguished itself in battle and he rose to the rank of brigadier general.

One story which is filled with both pathos and irony for preachers would be that of a battle in New Jersey, just across the river from Staten Island'

Early in June of 1780, in support of a British advance, Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen crossed from Staten Island to New Jersey with five thousand men. At the little village of Springfield, just west of Union, he encountered unexpected resistance and was forced to withdraw. In the course of this action, the wife of the Reverend James Caldwell, a mother of nine, was shot in her home, while her husband was away. Whether or not it was intentional (Caldwell had a price on his head and later that same day his house was burned to the ground), the incident inflamed the townspeople. When Knyphausen's force returned two weeks later, even though reinforced by British General Clinton himself, he was again stopped, this time in furious action. At the height of the shooting, the Patriots, taking cover behind a fence that was adjacent to Caldwell's church, ran out of the paper wadding needed to hold powder and ball in place in their muskets. Caldwell gathered up all the copies of Watts Psalms and Hymns he could carry, and rushed out to the crouching riflemen. Tearing pages out of the hymnal, he passed them out, shouting, "Put Watts into 'em boys! Give 'em Watts!"

The Light and The Glory, p. 291

Scores of Quaker preachers (and church members) gave physical support, as well as verbal, in the form of food and clothing to the soldiers. Some of the Quakers even bore arms in the war. The contributions of preachers on America's frontiers (Georgia, southwest Virginia, western North Carolina, east Tennessee, Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, etc.) is a story by itself. The impact that the "over-the-mountain" people had on the Revolution, led and empowered by their preachers, is immeasurable!

There is probably no group of men in history, living in a particular area at a given time, who can speak as forcibly on the subject of liberty as the Congregational ministers of New England between 1750 and 1785.

They Preached Liberty, p. 43

In a day when our liberties are threatened by pressure groups at home and by totalitarian philosophies and wars from abroad, we may well hearken to these preachers of liberty. Although their wisdom has been ignored by our generation, they can tell us much about the nature of liberty which is relevant for our day. They can tell us from sacrificial experience of the cost of liberty. But, perhaps most important of all, they can help us root our passion for liberty deep in the soil of American tradition, as well as Providential creation. Their age taught them, as our age teaches us, that democracy and the religion of Jesus are closely allied; when one falls the other is likely to follow. "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" a favorite text of the Revolutionary ministers may well be the watchword of freedom in every age.


Copyright © 1990, Paul T. Butler