"The will of the Almighty," thundered Thomas Paine, "expressly disapproves of government by kings." In a voice more like that of a Baptist preacher than the enlightened Deist he was, Paine warned readers of Common Sense that the Almighty, ever "jealous of his honor," would never countenance a "form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven." Paine understood better than most other Revolutionary pamphleteers that the farmers, artisans, and laborers who would make up the backbone of Revolutionary resistance were best persuaded through religious argument buttressed by the Bible. Most pamphlets of the 1760's and 1770's neglected religious themes, airing colonial grievances and debating proper responses in technical legal and philosophical terms. Written by colonial lawyers and gentlemen for other lawyers and gentlemen, this outpouring of print came to comprise what historians have termed a "public sphere," an imagined, critical, thoroughly secular space open mainly to elites, where the force of the better argument could win the free assent of a reasonable public without the aid of legal coercion, political oppression, and religious traditionalism. In Common Sense, however, Thomas Paine targeted the hearts and minds of a much broader audience, made up of ordinary citizens. He understood that to do so he must to reach beyond that narrow elite circle to a larger public sphere, a marketplace of ideas framed in religious terms and forged during the Great Awakening controversies of the 1740s.
Thomas Paine's turn to religious argumentation as a means of mobilizing popular support illuminates the complex nature of the relationship between religion and the American Revolution. Levels of formal church membership remained low among Revolutionary Americans, and colonists identified with a bewildering variety of religious persuasions. Yet even among those who considered themselves enlightened rationalists, most continued to understand their world in religious terms. Paine himself defended belief in God as an indispensable moral foundation for republican democracy even while attacking the "priestcraft and sophistry" of organized Christianity. Thomas Jefferson grounded the "unalienable rights" of the Declaration of Independence on the "law of nature and nature's God." Leaders such as George Washington and John Adams continued publicly to insist that religion alone could inculcate the virtue necessary to preserve republican government. To be sure, many hoped that Enlightenment reason would purify religion of notions and traditions they saw as superstitious, contradictory, and outmoded. Still, most clung to belief in a supreme being Benjamin Franklin addressed as "Powerful Goodness."
In ranks below the Revolutionary elite, familiarity with the Bible and an increasingly widespread evangelical religious style afforded colonists a shared language, a common set of potent metaphors, and a powerful set of shared experiences. The transatlantic religious revivals of the previous decades also bound colonists together with neighbors of different denominations as well as with distant strangers who had experienced the New Birth in mass meetings led by itinerant evangelists or by sympathetic parish ministers. George Whitefield, the Anglican pioneer of this exciting new style of itinerant revival ministry, had demonstrated in 1740 how to reach beyond the confines of particular denominational beliefs through dramatic open-air preaching and innovative use of print media. By the time of his death in 1770, Whitefield's repeated tours of the British colonies had made him the visible symbol of this transatlantic revival community.
The itinerancy George Whitefield introduced also became the focus of protracted controversies which taught colonists new ways of advancing their own religiously-informed views, defending their liberties, and refuting rival claims in a public arena. The "Grand Itinerant" inspired a host of colonial imitators who fanned out across the colonial landscape in the decades after 1740 and who mounted an unprecedented challenge to established religious authority. They preached fiery revival sermons in "the old Whitefield style," calling on people to forsake their "unconverted" ministers, to receive assurance that they were God's children through the experience of New Birth, and to join new fellowships of like-minded "New Light" converts. "Old Light" opponents of the revivals tried to repress the itinerants by official means as well as attacking them in a barrage of printed sermons, newspaper essays, and pamphlets. New Lights returned the fire with their own sermons and print literature. The controversy embroiled New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1740's. In the early 1750's a new wave of New Light Presbyterian itinerancy sparked similar disputes in Virginia pulpits and press. On the eve of the Revolution a new influx of Baptist and Methodist itinerants into the Virginia and Carolina Backcountry sparked controversy once again.
The Revolutionary significance of these recurring conflicts over itinerancy and the New Birth lay not in the insurgency of pro-Revolutionary evangelicals against Establishment Loyalists, but in the adaptation of potent new ways of persuading the public to support a cause. Ardent opponents of the 1740's revivals such as Charles Chauncy of Boston became passionate advocates of resistance to British tyranny in the 1760s. Many with evangelical sentiments remained lukewarm to Revolutionary sentiment or opposed it on biblical grounds. Both, however, adapted skills honed during the Awakening controversies to mobilize a broad public response to the burning issues of the day. They had to do so because, as the historian William G. McLoughlin has observed, the Great Awakening prompted increasing numbers of ordinary people to consider church and state as "creatures of the people and subject to their authority." Thomas Paine's biblical argument against monarchy simply extended what the Awakening had already begun teaching many to believe: that authority flowed from God, the only rightful king, through the people to their popularly-chosen spokespersons in church and state.
The gentry elite who led resistance to Parliament during the 1760s and 1770s needed spokespersons skilled in the methods of the religious public sphere. They could never have prosecuted a protracted, bloody conflict like the Revolutionary war without appealing to the farmers and artisans who made up the rank and file in a style of communication ordinary people found persuasive. Indeed, the eastern gentry of Virginia and the Carolinas found themselves appealing for support from evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists whom they had recently persecuted for not conforming to the Anglican Church. Revolutionary elites bid for the support of their western Dissenting populations through concessions of religious liberty. They also relied on the support of itinerant spokespersons who coupled fiery revival preaching with passionate appeals to resist British tyranny. Baptists came to support the Revolutionary cause, but William Tennent III, an evangelistic emissary to the Carolina Backcountry, encountered stiff resistance to his Revolutionary appeals among Scotch-Irish Presbyterians there. Nevertheless, the old Whitefield style of persuasion remained important to the Revolutionary cause. Indeed, Revolutionary America's most famous orator, Patrick Henry, called patriotsto arms in cadences borrowed from itinerant evangelists.
Religion played other important roles in mobilizing support for Revolution regardless of whether it was evangelical or not. Colonists often encountered Revolutionary themes for the first time when local ministers announced the latest news from the pulpit or when parishioners exchanged information after Sunday meetings. Ministers occupied an important place in the colonial communications network throughout the eighteenth century, especially in towns where few people had access to newspapers and official information was dispensed from the pulpit or lectern. Sunday afternoons provided a convenient time for men who had already gathered for worship to form militia units and drill, and many ministers used their sermons to motivate the minutemen. Israel Litchfield, a young Massachusetts minuteman, recorded that his local minister keyed biblical texts and sermon themes to the great events of 1775. Reverend Ebenezer Grosvenor situated the people of Scituate within a cosmic drama pitting the New English Israel against red-coated enemies of God, and urged the militiamen who would drill that afternoon to prepare well for the conflict. In Virginia's Shenendoah Valley the Lutheran minister John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg concluded a Sunday sermon of 1775 by throwing back his ministerial robe to reveal a military uniform, rolling the drum for Patriot recruits, and leading them out for drill. Few ministers matched Muhlenberg's flair for drama, but many throughout the colonies used their pulpits to mobilize resistance.
Because of its place in mobilizing resistance, the religious public sphere exerted a profound impact on the culture of the early United States. Revolutionary leaders sought to fire the imaginations of religious followers by couching many of their hopes in expansive millennial themes. They cast the Revolution as a harbinger of Christ's impending return to earth, when true liberty and great piety would extend across the American continent. The nascent democratic impulses of the Great Awakening gained strength during the Revolution, producing a vibrant popular religious form centered on revival preaching and ecstatic experience. Popular preachers of the early republic de-emphasized doctrine and mingled secular republican ideals with evangelical themes, creating a distinctively American form of Christianity that spread like wildfire even as it splintered into scores of rival sects. New sects found themselves increasingly free to compete with old established churches as earlier concessions to religious dissent became codified by new laws. In 1786 the Virginia legislature passed the Statute for Religious Liberty, authored by Thomas Jefferson. States such as Massachusetts and Connecticut which continued to support a religious establishment well into the nineteenth century nevertheless protected dissenting citizens' rights of conscience through liberal statutes for religious toleration. The religion clauses of the national Constitution's First Amendment insured that the religious marketplace of ideas to which Thomas Paine had appealed in 1776 would flourish, transforming secular Revolutionary ideals and American religious forms while instilling a vibrant evangelical Protestant element deep within American national identity.