Southerners had their own reasons for supporting independence. Tidewater planters found themselves under an increasing debt burden, made worse by British taxes and unfair competition from monopolies. Lord Dunmore’s anti-slavery initiatives frightened the Virginia planters as much as the “lawn sleeves” terrified New Englanders. Slavery continued to exert mounting tensions on Whig-American notions of liberty and property, and the fact that the southerners could unite with their brethren further north in no way minimized the sharp differences between the sections over this issue.
The reality of slavery also placed tremendous strain on the colonists’ Christianity, posing the crucial question of how any Christian could enslave another in light of Biblical teachings that in Christ there was “neither bond nor free.” It confronted American believers with the a staggering reality: if the purpose of slavery, as some claimed, was to make it possible for the “heathen” to “come to Jesus,” then why were slaves denied access to the Bible and even, in many cases, preachers? Likewise, if slaves were converted, did an imperative not exist then to free them? Certainly it is not true that “English North Americans embraced slavery because they were Christians, not in spite of it”—an argument born of author Forrest Wood’s misguided view that the evangelical nature of Christianity necessarily required an assumed inferiority and even demonic element of all non-believers. Wood completely misses the numerous references to jubilees, to regular and routine emancipation of servants in the Old Testament and to the overriding implication in the New that a Christian would never enslave another (believer or not) due to the “golden rule.” On the other hand, it is true, as Sydney E. Ahlstrom’s Religious History of the American People states, that turning Africa into “a hunting ground for slaves rather than a field for philanthropic and missionary endeavor is one of the world’s great tragedies.”
While North/South differences had begun to surface over slavery, the sectional divisions that characterized the United States on the eve of the Civil War were far less noticeable in the 1770s. Virtually all the northern colonies permitted slavery, and Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Maryland all had ports that received slave ships. Whatever bubbling resistance had started to appear in some Christian denominations against slavery, it remained muted and, at any rate, was easily offset by southern clergy assuring black captives that it was “God’s will” that they be in bondage.
Other ministers, however, saw the hand of God moving much differently in the embers of the rebellion. In what might seem odd in light of recent anti-war experience, especially the Vietnam War, New Jersey’s support for the Revolution was led by an academic and a minister, John Whitherspoon, a Presyberian cleric who was the president at the College of New Jersey (later called Princeton University). Witherspoon, only a short time after voting to send delegates to the First Continental Congress, wrote a letter to the Synod of New York and Philadelphia to support the war effort. Only two months prior to the Declaration, he preached a sermon in which he warned that “there is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.”
Whitherspoon was not alone among ministers who took up arms. Many saw it, as did Witherspoon, as inevitable, given the close association of political freedom and free exercise of religion. “Religious leaders,” noted Joseph Loconte, “could be found in state legislatures and constitutional conventions,” and Virginia Parson Peter Muhlenberg—providing a character for the Mel Gibson hit movie, “The Patriot,”—after delivering a sermon in Woodstock, Virginia, “tossed off his clerical robes to reveal the uniform of an officer in the Virginia militia.” Other clerics, such as Rev. Robert Smith of South Carolina and Rev. John Craighead of North Carolina, followed Muhlenberg’s example. Although Muhlenberg emerged as one of George Washington’s top officers in the Continental Army, none had the influence of Witherspoon, whose 1776 sermon, in which he told his congregation, “If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage,” was widely circulated.
1. T. H. Breen, The Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of the Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).
2. T. H. Breen, The Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of the Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965).
3. Forrest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (New York:: Knopf, 1990), 38.
4. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 635.
5. James L. McAllister, “John Whitherspoon: Academic Advocate for American Freedom,” in Miscellany of American Christianity: Essays in Honor of H. Shelton Smith, ed., Stuart C. Henry (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1963); and Thomas Miller, ed., The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990).
6. Miller, Selected Writings, 140-141.
7. James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, D. C.: The Library of Congress, 1998).
8. Quoted in Joseph Loconte, “Minister to Freedom: The Legacy of John Witherspoon,” Heritage Foundation’s “President’s Essay,” 200, 15.
9. Loconte, “Minister to Freedom,” 15-16.