WE might underestimate how deeply American Presbyterianism was indelibly impressed by the American Revolution. Just as much, Presbyterianism was a defining characteristic of the War for Independence.
At the time Walpole addressing the British Parliament, said “There is no crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson and that is the end of it.”
This theology of religious agitation and historical advancement was rooted in the fertile ground of John Calvin and John Knox, neither of whom had respect for theologies of that abandon the duties of civic virtue.
“These revolutionary principles of republican liberty and self-government, taught and embodied in the system of Calvin, were brought to America, and in this new land where they have borne so mighty a harvest were planted, by whose hands? — the hands of the Calvinists. The vital relation of Calvin and Calvinism to the founding of the free institutions of America, however strange in some ears the statement of Ranke may have sounded, is recognized and affirmed by historians of all lands and creeds.” E. W. Smith
The revolutionary sentiment was often considered a particularly Presbyterian sentiment and the theologies and sermons of the era not only promote religious zeal behind the concept of ordered liberty but the sheer force of the theology of the Westminster Standards applied to civics. Their Presbyterianism was not our Presbyterianism; they likely would have had a hard time recognizing their off-spring in the faith.
Here is an example of the kind of fire that peppered Presbyterian sentiment of the era: http://www.bcgv.org/_images/DavidJonesSermon.pdf
They were Postmillenial and unashamed of the immediate application of Christian theology to time, place and circumstance. The idea of a Christianity without a transformative effect upon “culture”, the political landscape and the social condition of the people would have seemed wholly alien to them. Such theologies were rare but for the Quakers, Shakers and Amish; it would likely have been considered by them outside the scope of Christianity.
Modern Presbyterian historian D.G. Hart makes an ongoing effort to track the deep differences between traditional American Presbyterian sentiment in regard to its inherently “political” nature as opposed the Dutch Continental strand of reformed thought, much more amenable to monarchy, subjection and indifference to the course of civic virtue. His historical works are perhaps the most biased I’ve read that can still be called history but are useful for dates, events and the names of the parties. He’s not wrong about the deep divides but doesn’t seem interested in grasping the traditional Presbyterian arguments against contemporary versions of Presbyterianism. 1 The American revolution was a Presbyterian religious war against what they perceived to be dominating Papists and Anglicans. Methodists were Anglicans, Baptists were rare and there weren’t enough of anyone else to make them numerically significant.
“When Cornwallis was driven back to ultimate retreat and surrender at Yorktown, all of the colonels of the Colonial Army but one were Presbyterian elders. More than one-half of all the soldiers and officers of the American Army during the Revolution were Presbyterians.” Size
Did they think they were entering the “promised land” or that they were in the subject condition of “exile in Babylon”, intended by God to suffer the weighty hand of evil empires (Horton, Van Drunnen)? They considered slavery in the promised land their condition and the war against domination by the English analogous of putting off the chains of the Amalekites and the Philistines. They had a duty to resist and a duty to free themselves of paganization and tyranny. Religious freedom was better than life and death was preferable to religious compromise; they were willing to die even for their neighbor with whom they disagreed about matters of theology so that both might worship in accord with conscience and best understanding.
The majority of those with whom D.G. Hart has to do in interpreting the record of contemporary Presbyterianism had no experience or history in Presbyterianism, by his own description arriving from nationally, ethnically and religiously Dutch Reformed backgrounds and uncomfortable with American Presbyterianism. In this he does help us to see vast differences between the path and trajectory of the Dutch Netherlands civilly and religiously from the United States civilly and religiously. That Continental theologies tend toward the abandonment of the civic realm to ‘secular’ powers, personalizing religion and religious ethics while American theologies are prone to the formally predictable effects of God’s providential care in history.
The Christian concern for the political life of the community is a trait of traditional American Presbyterianism (by way of the English and Scottish reformations and revolutions) while ideas of two realms, one sacred and one secular, one of Christian obedience and one of natural law and civil domination by the elite is not. We might also argue that one is true civil Calvinism and one is not, but for another occasion.
The American Presbyterians saw the American experience as that of a new Jerusalem, a “city on a hill”, while the Amsterdam theologies were powerfully influenced by German Pietism. The Kantian religious explosion was beginning at that time but dominated the thought of Continental religion for the next 200 years through the rise of “Critical” approaches to knowledge and Holy Scripture.
We see these in Hegel, Barth and Brunner but no less in the PCUSA today. “The quest for the historical Jesus” and “the New Perspective on Paul” were both sown in this field. The Enlightenment glorification of autonomous reason raised an anti-enlightenment tension in the seminaries with the abandonment of reason as applied to religion and the interpretation of Holy Scripture, and brought about a crisis in American theology from which we are yet to ‘emerge’.
1. Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by D.G. Hart and John Muether.