There are several books I can say with certainty that I didn’t enjoy, but which I’m glad I read anyway – either because they make an important point or because they illuminate a certain issue from another perspective. One of these books was James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War – a study of the use of Scripture in justifying and supporting the War of American Independence. It was a distinctly uncomfortable read for me, given my anti-war high Toryism and my familial sympathies with the Religious Society of Friends, but it offers an illuminating perspective into the way the colonists read and interpreted Scripture, a way which continues to influence our present culture.
Byrd’s basic thesis is that the colonists understood Scripture primarily through the lens of war. Frontier violence against the American Indians by the British colonists, and between the colonial powers themselves, was the frame of reference through which the colonists understood the stories of ancient Israel and of Christ. Solidified by the revivalism of the first ‘Great Awakening’, by the ‘Real Whig’ viewpoint of John Milton and Algernon Sidney, and by the Calvinist ‘covenant theology’ which asserted that God would protect and bless righteous states with military might and stability (whilst weakness and division were signs of God’s wrath), and with the personal equivalent thereof which asserted that prowess on the battlefield was an indication of God’s favour, the revolutionary colonists understood their struggle against Britain essentially as jihad. American colonists saw their wars against the Catholic French and the Indians as a spiritual struggle against the ‘Popish’ Antichrist and against devilish ‘savagery’, respectively.
The colonists, from King Philip’s War on, developed a hitherto unknown ‘American way of war’ which ignored all the chivalrous niceties of Old World warfare (‘[n]ot only did colonists kill American Indian women and children, but they also destroyed their villages, executed those captured in war, and even sold some as slaves’), and sanctified it through their preaching. The ministers who aligned themselves with the revolution would later enthusiastically direct this sanctified violence against the colonial governors, dissenters and their own mother country. As Byrd put it: ‘Americans envisioned a patriotic Bible through the potent synthesis of these convictions: political liberty was a divine cause against tyrannical evil, sacrifice and martyrdom for God’s chosen nation were virtues, and there was an intimate relationship between spiritual and military warfare.’ This martial discourse required the careful and calculated selection of Scriptural passages: Exodus 15 (‘The Lord is a man of war’) and the Exodus story in general, Judges (particularly Jael’s killing of Sisera and the Song of Deborah) and Jeremiah 48 (‘cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood’) proved particularly popular.
Byrd identifies – more in the book’s footnotes than in the body text itself – the first ‘Great Awakening’ (with its primary preachers Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Davies) as a major contributing factor to the revolutionary role of the sermon, and to the close identification of Biblical piety in the thirteen with republican ideas and warfare. Revivalist sermons bolstered the popular idea that God’s providence hung over the success or failure of the colonial cause – which was identified most often in millennial terms. The revivalism of the 1730’s and ‘40’s promoted the connexion between the cause of God’s teleological victory and the cause of the militant defence of British, and then colonial, liberal republicanism.
In my previous essay on symphoneia, I commented in passing firstly on the particular vulnerability of the American body politic to a ‘kingdom-now’ heresy, and secondly on the accommodation of the Great Awakening to the secular mythos. It is the latter on which I want to dwell here, but the former is in some partial measure also explained. The revivalism of the Great Awakening arose out of and furthered a distinctly colonialist hermeneutic, based not on the traditions of the Church but on a frontier experience wholly removed (despite the academic classical and Biblical literacy of the Founders) from the lived mythical and cultural matrix out of which Christianity arose. The American colonies had already received a highly-attenuated read of Christian doctrine from the Puritan heritage, being subject to a sola scriptura model of Scriptural interpretation which positively invites the deformation of the word and image of God into a self-portrait – a ‘man of war’, just as the colonists were ‘men of war’.
It is little wonder, therefore, that in an environment of material conquest such as the American frontier that Isaiah’s Imanu’el could be recast as a vengeful Ares, but why do I insist that the Great Awakening is an accommodation to a secular mythos? Would it not have made more sense, given the tendency of Calvinists to experiment in papocaesarism (whether in Geneva or in Massachusetts Bay), for the zeal of the colonial revivalist preachers to have resisted the secular logic which would come to characterise our government? It is a sad mark of our times that the more militant a faith is, the more ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’ it is broadly considered to be, and vice versa; it is no surprise that there has therefore been significant academic resistance to the idea that preaching played a great role at all in building support for a Revolution which enthroned a more purely secular form of government than had ever hitherto-fore existed. But the Calvinism of the Great Awakening and the secularising tendency of the Revolution not only didn’t conflict – they tended to feed off of each other. There are two overlapping aspects to the accommodation to the secular mythos by the revivalism of the first Great Awakening.
The first is also the most obvious: the Revolution was a project supported and spread by preachers, but it was also spearheaded by men who were not Christians but rather deists (Thomas Paine and James Madison), Freemasons (Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock) or Arians (Thomas Jefferson), who were influenced more by the contemporary political myth-building of Locke than they were by any religious conviction at all. And the divide between the religious and the irreligious revolutionaries was largely a class one. As Vladimir Moss put it: ‘There were essentially two kinds of American religion: the Masonry of the cultured leaders of the Revolution, who usually belonged to some institutional church but whose real temple was the lodge… on the one hand, and the Protestantism of the lower classes, on the other.’ And, as Byrd makes clear, the irreligious elites knew their audience: for all his deprecations of traditional Christendom, Tom Paine’s Common Sense is littered to a cynical degree with references to Exodus. The members of the Continental Congress – nearly all of them of the irreligious elite – understood the irreplaceable value of the chaplaincy in inspiring the masses to support the cause with their blood.
The second aspect is much more subtle, but no less important. George Grant elucidated the connexion between the ‘worldly asceticism’ of the colonial Calvinists and the ‘new sciences’ of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Bacon. Between them there was a common attack on the Aristotelianism of Western mediaeval science, but also there was a common sympathy to a voluntarist and utilitarian understanding of the cosmos. Grant demonstrates, quoting the Lutheran theologian Ernst Troeltsch, that Calvinism, having forsaken God’s constancy, good nature and ‘metaphysical unity of substance’ in favour of God’s unconstrained will (hence, the colonial militarism), thereby trended toward the abandonment of any common understanding in favour of ‘the practically free and utilitarian individual judgement of all things’. Grant concludes: ‘the connexion [between the Calvinists and the new sciences] was from the side of the Protestants who found something acceptable in the new ideas so that often they were the instruments for these ideas in the world, almost without knowing the results for their faith’.
The tension between the perspectives of the irreligious elites and the militant front-line millenialists has created a dialectic which we’ve never really resolved, between two false eschatologies. On the one hand, a significant segment of American Protestantism still demands that America be considered the ‘shining city upon a hill’ and the ‘last best hope for mankind’. On the other hand, there is a cynical aspect to a certain brand of American Protestantism which yokes this immanentised eschatology to a praxis of non-regulation of religious violence, undermining the promise of the Gospel. The Kingdom of God is at once presented as immanent in the secular order and the American dream, but all too often in the same breath it is snatched away by a Panglossian denial that there can ever be anything better than the current material status quo – one in which one is never called upon to love one’s enemies, but to worship a state which tortures, bombs and makes an open-ended war upon them.
Ironically, the rebellion against British rule produced no radical innovations of its own, but rather put ideas already existing in the ‘new sciences’ into practice, showing what Moss called the ‘dangerously open-ended’ nature of British Whiggism. What we see in the relation of the colonial preachers to the colonial government in the Revolution is not a healthy symphoneia in the slightest, but rather the cynical use of a papocaesarist theological perspective which denies the moral nature of God, for the ultimate purposes of a ruling class whose interest is in sundering the State from any moral obligations the Gospel might see fit to impress upon it.