Was the American Revolution a holy war?

James P. Byrd is an associate dean at Vanderbilt University and the author of “Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution.”

Holy war can seem like something that happened long ago or that happens far away — the Crusades of medieval Europe, for example, or jihadists fighting secular forces today. But since their country’s founding, Americans have often thought of their wars as sacred, even when the primary objectives have been political.

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This began with the American Revolution. When colonists declared their independence on July 4, 1776, religious conviction inspired them. Because they believed that their cause had divine support, many patriots’ ardor was both political and religious. They saw the conflict as a just, secular war, but they fought it with religious resolve, believing that God endorsed the cause. As Connecticut minister Samuel Sherwood preached in 1776: “God Almighty, with all the powers of heaven, are on our side. Great numbers of angels, no doubt, are encamping round our coast, for our defense and protection.”

Several founding fathers were more theologically liberal than the typical evangelical Protestant of their day. Still, few were anti-religious, and the nation’s architects often stated that religion supported virtue, which was essential to patriotism. “A true patriot must be a religious man,” wrote Abigail Adams, wife of America’s second president.

George Washington believed so strongly in the religious case for patriotism that he demanded chaplains for the Continental Army. He appealed to the Continental Congress for higher pay for chaplains, and when one chaplain impressed the general, Washington went to great lengths to retain him.

That chaplain was Abiel Leonard of Woodstock, Conn. Washington wrote letters to the governor of Connecticut and to Leonard’s church, hoping they would support the pastor’s extended service in the Army. In his letter to the governor, Washington wrote that Leonard had proved to be “a warm and steady friend to his country and taken great pains to animate the soldiers, and impress them with a knowledge of the important rights we are contending for.”

For Washington, chaplains not only supplied moral guidance but appealed for God’s support in battle, which was vital. He believed that the war’s outcome rested in God’s hands, and he ordered his soldiers to attend “divine service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.”

We cannot fully understand the revolution without recognizing such appeals for God’s favor on the battlefield. Both the founders and ministers understood these ideas because they knew scripture, one of the major sources of American patriotism. Colonists fought the Revolutionary War in a society in which the Bible was the most read, most owned and most respected book. John Adams once told Thomas Jefferson, “The Bible is the best book in the world.” Perhaps more important, Adams also called the Bible the world’s “most Republican book” — scripture inspired morality, but it also fueled patriotism.

Even those colonists who normally had no use for the Bible found it helpful during the revolution. Thomas Paine would attack Christianity and call the Old Testament “a history of wickedness,” more appropriately judged “the word of a demon than the word of God.” But he did not publish these radical statements until after the revolution. In 1776, Paine quoted scripture like a revival preacher. His “Common Sense,” the most influential patriotic pamphlet of the revolution, had the feel of a sermon, deploying the King James Bible against King George’s tyranny. Scripture, Paine argued, clearly revealed God’s “protest against monarchial government.”

Paine knew that “Common Sense” had to make biblical sense. He relied especially on 1 Samuel 8, which tells of the Israelites asking for a king. In that passage, God relents and gives them King Saul, but the prophet Samuel warns that their demand signals their rejection of God. Accordingly, Paine asserted that “monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins” of the Israelites that would later bring curses from God; if Americans would obey God, therefore, they must reject British monarchy. The war for independence was a sacred duty.

The views of the founders notwithstanding, ministers translated the revolution’s meaning to colonists who knew much more about the Bible than political theory. Revolutionary War sermons were convincing because they spoke in ubiquitous stories and images from scripture.

Patriotic ministers did not shy away from biblical violence. They embraced it, almost celebrated it, even in its most graphic forms. For example, they cited the story of Deborah in Judges 5, about God’s condemnation of those who refused to fight his enemies. This text also includes the heroic story of Jael, a tent-dwelling woman who assassinated a Canaanite general by driving a tent peg through his skull. Ministers often quoted this story with an equally gruesome curse from the prophet Jeremiah: “Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”

There were hundreds such sermons — tools for combating the chronic problems of soldier recruitment and morale. In one example, Israel Evans, a favorite chaplain of Washington, praised fallen patriots as “martyrs for the cause of freedom” and called on the remaining troops to “finish the glorious work of liberty! Arise, and lead on your brother soldiers to dreadful deeds of death and slaughter, until the ruthless hand of Britain shall no more disturb the peace of men.”

Likewise, preachers often called patriotic service in war a sacred virtue. As Massachusetts Congregationalist Eli Forbes proclaimed, not every “good Christian is of consequence a good soldier,” but one could not be a good soldier without “the principle and practice of Christianity.” Peter Thacher of Malden, Mass., insisted that “we are fighting . . . for our religion, that religion which the word of God hath instituted and appointed.” So Thacher charged patriots to “fight to the last drop of your blood in this glorious cause.”

Talk of glorious causes has persisted from the revolution through the war on terror. Some Americans think of the United States as “God’s New Israel,” a nation on a divine mission, its wars blessed by God. Sometimes rhetoric makes this view obvious: Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, for example, the White House apologized after President George W. Bush used the word “crusade” to describe the battle against terrorism.

But references to religion can be subtler, or even obligatory, in political speeches. Consider President Obama’s July 4 speech from last year, in which he praised military sacrifices and ended with: “God bless you. God bless your families. And God bless these United States of America.”

We pass over such niceties as commonplace, almost dutiful, in political speech, but they are religious statements. Their roots go back to the revolution, when colonists — from evangelical preachers to founders such as Washington — asked for God’s blessing. Whatever century it is, our leaders often include some suggestion of the same biblical themes that filled revolutionary-era sermons, including sacrifice, courage for the fight and appeals for God’s providential blessings on America.

We are, it seems, one nation under God after all.

james.byrd@vanderbilt.edu

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