Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Clergy & The American Revolution - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4
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The Clergy & The American Revolution - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The Clergy & The American Revolution
“The Dove and Serpent: The Clergy in the American Revolution.” American Quarterly 31(Summer 1979):187–203.
By the spring of 1774, American colonists were realizing the futility of peaceful protests and demonstrations against British injustices and beginning to wonder if the time had come for a permanent solution to the quarrel of government. Aware that events had reached a crisis, the leaders of the colonies faced an urgent problem: how to convince the common American, ignorant of the writings of Locke or the British Whig radicals, to suffer personal hardship for the American common good. Thomas Jefferson proposed using the American Puritan heritage for political advantage by calling for a day of prayer and fasting. “We were under the conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events; and thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting and prayer would be most likely to call up and alarm their attention.”
Jefferson and his fellow intellectuals realized the depth of the religious undercurrent that flowed throughout the colonies. The clergy enthusiastically responded to the call to fervor, since this promised to revive their waning political leverage and added fire to the cooling religious spirit. “The awe-inspiring occasion of a day of humiliation and prayer would serve to recall the people to the sacred mission of their forefathers and place the clergy at the forefront of that movement.”
The sermons of that year reveal the tension felt by the clergy to evade the question of military conflict while creating a mood of rebellion. They emphasized prayers for peace and reconciliation and finally offered strained rationalizations for the impending war.
Once war was underway, sermons showed a marked decline in the use of inflammatory rhetoric. Some clergymen felt assured of a continued war, but more were uneasy about the alliance between religion and war developing into a ‘combative Christianity.’
The emphasis soon shifted to social projections of a post-war America. The clergy anticipated this to be an era “of purest virtue when the American garden would be cleared of the tangles of European corruption and the fruits of moral and spiritual perfection would spring forth.”
Sincere as these prophecies were, ministers maintained a measure of self-interest. Should the victory of America not be a stage in America's development toward the fulfilment of the divine plan, it might be reasoned that clergy had used the sacred calling to serve Satan. The clergy had good reason to be concerned: the closer America came to military success, the less the people appeared to be interested in moral and religious progress. “Internal corruption had already begun to crumble the structures of the new Jerusalem even before they had been completed.”
The clergy's other major concern was how the separation of church and state would shape the future of the Church in the United States. The immediate results were a reduction of the status and power of established clergy and a rapid increase of untrained preachers free to teach heresy. “Having counted upon an increase of religious feeling in the nation to result in the people's gratitude to God for their victory, many ministers were faced with a populace more concerned with land, goods, and politics than with saving their souls.”
In the 1780s the problem facing the clergy was that of forging a role for themselves in a republican society. The next two decades of sermons reveal a rebuilding of relationship of ministers to leaders of society, redefining a function of the clergy, and enlivening the Puritan ideal with imagery appealing to the post war generation.
As civil reform movements arose the clergy used these benevolent organizations as a new connection to establish Christianity as an essential element of the new republic. “By associating themselves with these societies, the clergy provided an aura of divine approval to such organizations while gaining in return a measure of social status.”
These were difficult years for the clergy, but just as their seventeenth century predecessors had done, the ministers adapted the Christian message to new needs and conditions with faith in the fulfillment of the American mission.