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Presbyterians and the American Revolution

Exhibit Overview

Before the Revolution: As “Dissenters” from the established Church of England, Presbyterians mistrusted British colonial power—and were not afraid to assert a right to religious freedom when it was threatened. Presbyterian influence in the colonies grew markedly in the middle decades of the 1700s, shaped by the Great Awakening and an influx of Scottish and Scots Irish immigrants, most of whom were Presbyterian. With words and actions—and sometimes with violence—these religious dissenters challenged colonial rule, and many felt moved to defy the status quo in the name of God.

During the Revolution: Presbyterian response to the war was far from monolithic—there were Patriot, Loyalist, and neutral Presbyterians. But the majority of Church leaders supported the rebels. Twelve of fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterian, including the only clergyman, John Witherspoon. George Duffield of Philadelphia’s Third Presbyterian Church (today’s Old Pine Church, next door to the Presbyterian Historical Society) served as chaplain to the Continental Congress, and patriot pastors supported the war effort from their pulpits in every state. Everyday Presbyterians felt the war’s impact in their communities and houses of worship. British troops occupied Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. From New England to the Carolinas Presbyterian churches were seized to quarter troops or damaged by forces loyal to the Crown who saw the revolution as primarily a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”

After the Revolution: America’s victory in the war benefited the many Presbyterians who supported the Patriot cause. John Witherspoon remained in the nation he helped create, leading efforts to formalize the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution. Antislavery views gained proponents, and in 1787 the Presbyterian Church came close to calling for immediate abolition. African American Presbyterians began organizing their own congregations with First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia the first in 1807. Women built on their public involvement in the Patriot cause, forming missionary societies and establishing schools. By the time of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s, women were the majority of members in most Presbyterian congregations—although still barred from ordained ministry. Americans had guaranteed their religious freedom but this victory did not shield them from the social and political tensions that played out as the new country struggled over the meaning of freedom and equality for all.

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