Ideas Still Have Consequences

“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People. A Change in their Religious Sentiments of their Duties and Obligations.” So said John Adams of the ideological foundations of the American Revolution.

But Katherine Carté is not so sure. In her Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History, Carté suggests that most histories of religion and the American Revolution err by giving too much attention to the ideological side of the conflict. Such histories have therefore attributed too much influence to the idea-wielding colonial clergy while foregoing attention to broader geopolitical forces. In Carté’s telling, these broader forces rendered impotent any ideas incompatible with them and at times even seem to be more or less determinative of what theological ideas operated in the 18th-century English speaking world.

Carté’s book situates the ideological debates of the American Revolution in the broader context of transatlantic imperial policy. In so doing, the book provides an informative account of the decline of the confessional age of cuius regio, eius religio and the rise of religious liberty in the modern state. Yet by explicitly diminishing the role of the ideas that drove the supporters and opponents of the American Revolution, Carté at times gives the impression that political-theological ideas are the children of one’s own time and place, or at least are powerless and are therefore helpless subjects of what she calls “imperial scaffolding.” This is a book that misunderstands the American Revolution by diminishing the importance of the ideas that filled the “Minds and Hearts of the People.”

Imperial Protestantism

Carté argues that the American Revolution divided religious networks that previously operated across the British Empire and which promoted Protestantism under its aegis. These religious networks, which Carté labels “scaffolding,” were the product of “imperial Protestantism,” which was a “system of government privilege, protestant institutions, and social networks” that united Christians in missionary and social efforts from all parts of the British Empire, but which especially united Christians in America and in the British Isles.

The “planks” in Carté’s scaffolding are too numerous to list, but two examples will make the metaphor more concrete. First, governments gave public financial support for established churches, while the king as well as regional governments determined established status and adjudicated the boundaries of tolerated Protestant religion. Second, influential religious societies, including the Church of England’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and various formal and informal networks among dissenting Protestants served to unite Christians from across the empire in efforts ranging from missionary efforts to the building of colleges and schools.

Carté explains that government policy and “imperial scaffolding” refereed the boundaries of legitimate Protestant religion in the Empire from the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution. Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists enjoyed the benefits of legitimate Protestant religion insofar as the Act of Toleration (1689) granted public worship not only to the Church of England but also to dissenting groups, which contributed to a growing pan-Protestant identity.

In America, the American Revolution was an explosive that collapsed the imperial scaffolding. Carté’s account of the rise of an ecumenical and tolerant spirit toward Catholics in America due to the role that the French played in the war is a fascinating part of the book, and her account of the rise of a modern, more liberal polity from the critical period between Yorktown to the U.S. Constitution is also helpful and informative, if at times overstated in the extent to which the new Constitution allegedly produced an essentially secular polity.

Why Was There an American Revolution?

Carté’s treatment of the 1760s seeks to debunk historical myths that she sees as the result of inadequate attention to the “imperial scaffolding.” Carté explains that the book is an “institutional history” that is “far less concerned with religious belief…” Instead, it “turns its attention to the pivotal role that governments, power, and politics played in defining the terms of religious communities and also in setting the rules for protestant institutions when it came to public life.”

For example, many historians see the Bishop Controversy of the 1760s as a forerunner of the American Revolution. Such historians are in good company. John Adams recalled that the Bishop Controversy was a controversy about religious liberty and also about parliamentary authority; the debate, he said, “spread an universal alarm against the authority of Parliament” since if it were the case that “Parliament could tax us, they could establish the Church of England,” not to mention “prohibit all other churches.” 

But Carté suggests that such a view would have missed the point. She does show that many Americans’ fears of an Anglican bishop in America were unfounded, even bordering on conspiracy theorizing and mass hysteria, as the authorities in the home country had no intention of installing a bishop. But the imperial scaffolding, Carté explains, did not crumble but only “frayed” as a consequence of the Bishop Controversy, concluding that the uproar was not so much a dry run of the mid-1770s as it was an illustration that ideas have no power if governmental authority does not grant them power. When viewed in the context of an intercontinental empire, Carté explains, the “ideological contests between Anglicans and dissenters take on a more limited significance.”

As with the Bishop Controversy, the Stamp Act “exposedand then quickly reaffirmed—the mechanisms of imperial Protestantism.” Historians have a habit, we are told, of looking back into the 1760s for signs of coming revolution, but they should be seeing continuity with imperial Protestant comity. Far from being a spark that ignited revolution, the Stamp Act was a dispute “that participants assumed would be overcome.”

While Carté seeks to show that colonial clergy simply took direction from political leaders, these same political leaders seem to have contributed little to the decisions that culminated in American Independence. Instead, the irresistible logic of the same historical forces that produced the imperial scaffolding in the first place ended up causing the American schism.

Scholars who are sympathetic to the religious ideas that contributed to the American Revolution, as well as those who are more critical, agree with John Adams that, besides being a battle fought with steel and powder, the American Revolution was the product of a struggle over ideas, both political and theological.

Although the Boston Tea Party (1773) was a “significant turning point,” most religious leaders thought that tensions would cool down shortly thereafter. Yet the tense atmosphere soon became even more agitated with the Quebec Act (1774), which granted toleration to Roman Catholics in Canada. Carté is keen to explain that this law passed not because of any “philosophical or ideological arguments.” Instead, the “desire to limit political conflict and ensure the empire’s integrity—the same motives that had led to the creation of the mixed establishment—proved dominant.” Public opinion opposed greater freedoms for Catholics in the Empire, but King George supported the legislation, believing that what was most important was “to achieve the greatest level of stability and smooth governance,” which was the same thing that drove the imperial policy of a mixed Protestant establishment from 1689 to 1774.

Jonathan Mayhew, Conservative Imperialist

After the imperial scaffolding began “bending apart” after the Quebec Act, Americans used the remaining planks of their scaffolding, especially government-authorized fast day sermons, to begin preaching of the necessity of “justice in government and righteous resistance against oppression.” Carté explains, for example, that Peter Whitney preached in a Massachusetts fast day sermon in 1774 that “Reason will direct, and interest lead, all chearfully [sic] to submit to the laws and government” of “good ‘princes,’” although if magistrates act contrary to this mandate, “the people must be judge of the good or ill conduct of their rulers.”

One difficulty here is that such reasoning was present in American political rhetoric well before the Boston Tea Party and the Quebec Act—even decades before, when the imperial scaffolding allegedly had been infusing a pacific concord throughout the British Empire. It was present, as has been observed elsewhere, in Locke-inspired Boston minister Jonathan Mayhew’s explosive 1750 sermon Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission. Scholars who are sympathetic to the religious ideas that contributed to the American Revolution, as well as those who are more critical, agree with John Adams that, besides being a battle fought with steel and powder, the American Revolution was the product of a struggle over ideas, both political and theological.

But Carté regards any ideas of civil resistance to be either impotent or simply not present due to the presence of imperial Protestant policy prior to the collapse of the scaffolding in America. In one conspicuous case that appears throughout the book, Carté manages to turn Mayhew into a conservative gentleman who affirmed imperial policy. Carté seeks to debunk, for example, the “myth” that “when Parliament tried to impose new taxes, religious leaders—men like New England’s Jonathan Mayhew or Charles Chauncy—merely had to recognize and articulate the threats to liberty posed by a distant, tyrannical Britain.”

In fact, people like Mayhew “tended to hew the party line on matters that were essential to the empire’s stability.” Mayhew’s Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission, which John Adams credited with shaping own opinions—and public opinion—about revolution, was in Carté’s estimation “conservative even as it was provocative” since it was delivered on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I and since Mayhew affirmed the goodness of the Glorious Revolution. Similarly, during the Stamp Act Crisis, “the outsized attention of those who did speak up—or were perceived to do so” is taken as an adequate summary of the caustic rhetoric of Mayhew, Ezra Stiles, and others.

More specifically, Mayhew’s famous sermon The Snare Broken (1766), delivered after the repeal of the Stamp Act, was, Carté observes, framed “as a call for gratitude to God for deliverance,” while “his primary goal was to proclaim that the Americans’ points had been fully achieved, that their sufferings had been extreme, and that they were willing to endure more if need be.” In truth, a more complete account of The Snare Broken reveals that Mayhew stated that if the Stamp Act had not been repealed, most Americans would “go to all lengths, if things were driven to extremity, rather than to submit; preferring death itself to what they esteemed so wretched and inglorious a servitude.” Due to the repeal of the Stamp Act, Mayhew told his listeners that “industry, good order, and harmony” was their duty, though he hinted in his conclusion that “it may be justifiable for private men, at certain extraordinary conjunctures, to take the administration of government in some respects into their own hands.” Interesting sentiments indeed, coming as they are from an imperial conservative.

In short, rather than a peaceful and conservative lot, the American clergy were perhaps more accurately understood by Burke in his Speech on Conciliation when he described Americans as having a more vibrant “spirit of liberty…than in any other people of the earth,” something due in part to their variegated Protestantism, which agreed “in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty.”


One could do worse than to take the guidance of one historian, whose words appeared recently in this magazine: “[M]an does not live by pedantry and careful contextualization alone. We look to the past for insight, and historical insight is irreducibly an act of the constructive imagination, as much as it is a science of careful reconstruction.” We may well add more plainly that careful contextualization alone can sometimes be misleading if not married to equally careful textual analysis. For as long as America endures, Americans will look back to the American Revolution and to its leaders—those “Great Oaks” as Lincoln called them in the Lyceum Address. They will do so because these were not merely children of their own time but were people who were gripped by ideas, and they chose to act based upon those ideas.