Religion & the Founding: Bonomi's "Under the Cope of Heaven"

You might say that Patricia Bonomi, in her book Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America, picks up where Bailyn left off. He surveyed the literature of colonial America with an emphasis on its political argumentation, considering the significance of the dissenting religious tradition to that political debate, but primarily focusing elsewhere. Bonomi looks specifically at not only the religious argumentation, but the series of religious events that helped stoke the flames of revolution in late colonial America.

Bonomi does much else in this book. She debunks the previous historiography of the eighteenth century, which posited a religious decline in that century, plunking a rationalist century between a Puritan-dominated seventeenth and a Revivalist eighteenth century, which never made much sense. But, Bonomi builds on the many local studies to demonstrate that there was no appreciable decline in religiosity in the years leading up to the Revolution at all, and the first half of her books looks at the signs of vibrancy in the religious landscape. Along the way she also dispels the myth that the Middle Colonies were a keystone of irreligion in the colonial religious landscape, sandwiched between a devout, Congregationalist New England and a more or less acquiescent Anglican South. In fact, by the middle of the eighteenth century, the Middle Colonies had more congregations per capita than either New England or the Southern colonies.

It is the last third of the book which interests my project. Bonomi considers the Great Awakening as a kind of precursor of the Revolution, both in content and in effect. She writes:

As the Great Awakening broke down social cohesion in America, it simultaneously elevated the individual. During the more communal seventeenth century, colonists had rarely conceived of themselves apart from a larger collectivity – the family, the congregation, or the town. But the eighteenth-century revival penetrated and shattered that unitary cosmos by directing its message to the individual. In exhorting their followers to make personal decisions for God, and then to act on those decisions regardless of their effect on the larger society, the revivalists gave sanction to a new dynamic in human relationships.

She cites multiple sermons that evidence this highly individualized conception of the Christian faith. As well, the previously communal methods of attaining Church membership were abandoned by the revivalists and replaced with an understanding of religious conversion that Bonomi terms “individualistic and egocentric.”

The divisions wrought by the Great Awakening quickly assumed a political character. My home state of Connecticut was ground zero in the battle between the New Light revivalists and the Old Light establishment. The outsiders in religion began to see themselves as outsiders in politics, and they were as ready to challenge the political establishment as they were to confront the religious one. The New Lights wrested control of the lower chamber of the Connecticut General Assembly by 1763, but they were not able to dominate government while the governorship and the council until the Stamp Act played into their hands. Jared Ingersoll was one of the leaders of the Old Lights and when he agreed to become the stamp distributor for the colony, he virtually handed the control of the council and the governor’s chair to the New Lights. The serendipity of history is remarkable.

The Great Awakening did something else. It recalibrated the tenor of public disputation. The revivalists had made their case for the Gospel to the populace at large, and politicians took note. The revivalists proposed a different understanding of authority, one rooted in the personal experience of conversion by the individual believer, and saw little value, indeed positive obstruction, in traditional, communal church structures. Nor was the social upheaval wrought to those parts of New England, New York and New Jersey most affect by the Great Awakening. In Pennsylvania, denominational politics broke apart traditional, communal sensibilities and in Virginia, the once dominant Anglican establishment, was finally challenged by the growth of dissenters in the colony in the last half of the century. In all these places, dissenters and New Lights, and the denominational establishments they challenged, “organized committees of correspondence, wrote circular letters, adjusted election tickets for religious balance, voted en bloc, and signed political petitions ‘as a Sabbath- Day’s Exercise.’” These disputations coincided with an increased latitudinarianism among believers, who would often attend the church that was closest no matter its denominational affiliation, and the influx of Enlightenment attitudes, especially among the gentry. Her treatment of “Gentlemen’s Religion” examines in detail the creeping of secularism into religious thought and language. 

Bonomi gives a fine summary of the emerging ideology of dissent that Bailyn examined, the role of the “country whig” political theorists in shaping the ideas that would prove determinative for the colonials’ self-understanding of their situation. But, whereas Baliyn notes the significant fact that this ideology was held mostly by dissenters from the Church of England, and focuses mainly on the political ideas at work, Bonomi uncovers the religious fertility of the tradition and why it seemed so applicable to the late colonial crisis. Whereas the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I was marked as a day of penance in Great Britain, the fiery Congregationalist Jonathan Mayhew marked the anniversary in 1750 with the sermon, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission,” that was printed and distributed far and wide, in which Mayhew “called up the ghost of Charles I in order to bury it again in obloquy.” He called the idea of submission to the crown “tyranny, PRIESTCRAFT, and Nonsense” (emphasis in original), adding that “a spirit of domination is always to be guarded against, both in church and state.” These sentiments would be echoed in the writings of more famous founders. John Adams’ first published work was entitled “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” did not so much examine the canon laws of the Church as condemn them. Almost universally, sermons were preached and pamphlets were published that sniffed the sure smell of incipient tyranny whenever designs were detected upon either the civil or religious liberties the colonists claimed for themselves, and usually the one was the precursor of the other.

All this came to a head in advance of the imperial crisis when rumors began to be spread that the Church of England intended to send a bishop to the United States. Suspicions of Anglican encroachment were already present, especially in Boston, when the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel set up shop not on the frontier, bringing the Gospel to the Indians, but within earshot of “that nursery of Congregationalism, Harvard College.” The Rev. East Apthorp made gratuitous comments about the “fanaticism” of Massachusetts’ founders, embroiling him in controversy with Mayhew. And, when the Anglicans build a large mansion alongside their church in Cambridge, the dissenters feared it would someday serve as a bishop’s palace. What, precisely, was feared? Bishops were vestiges of “popery” to dissenters’ eyes, and popery was the great enemy of liberty. The ideology of dissent was – and is – defined in large part by its anti-Catholicism.

Not to be outdone, the President of Yale, Ezra Stiles, urged dissenters of all stripes to unite against the spread of Anglican influence and, in 1766, a meeting was held in New Jersey for this express purpose. Bonomi notes, “[The meeting’s] strictly political character is evident in the convention’s assurances that it would exercise no ecclesiastical authority over ministers or congregations, but concern itself exclusively with safeguarding dissenters’ rights against Anglican encroachments, especially those of ‘a few high flyers’ on the Middle Colonies.” By this time, the “high flyers” were already being accused of “popery.” The convention established committees of correspondence, the principal means of coordination that would be used by political activists in the following decade, and “an ideology of dissent that linked religious with civil tyranny created a common ground upon which rationalists and evangelicals alike could join to justify their opposition to England.” More remarkable still is the fact that even some Anglicans were opposed to the establishment of a bishopric in the colonies.

This religious emphasis was especially important because almost universally, Britons on both sides of the Atlantic considered the British constitution, balancing monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, a guarantor of liberty and prosperity. Political theory was not yet radicalized. Many people were largely content about their politics and increasingly prosperous in their material life. It was an age of moderation in the world of politics. Religion, specifically because of its reach and because of the significant ideology of dissent at the heart of so much of American religious experience, provided the popular arguments for the preservation of liberty that the politicians might not have found on their own.

The role of religion in spreading the emerging political gospel of dissent was recognized by the Continental Congress which, Bonomi notes, “subsidized a four-month tour by two Presbyterian ministers to the North Carolina backcountry in an effort to woo settlers.” The Congress urged other ministers of congregations spreading in the western regions to “use their pastoral Influence to work a change in the disposition of the people…[who were] not accustomed to speculate politically.” Ministers in Pennsylvania and South Carolina answered the call to bring the gospel of political liberty to the western parts of those states. Soon enough, regiments of soldiers were marching to battle under flags adorned with the motto “An Appeal To Heaven.”

Bonomi writes:

Religious doctrine and rhetoric, then, contributed in a fundamental way to the coming of the American Revolution and to its final success. In an age of political moderation, when many colonials hesitated at the brink of civil war, patriotic clergymen told their congregations that failure to oppose British tyranny would be an offense in the sight of Heaven. Where political theory urged caution, religious doctrine demanded action. By turning colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies, ministers did the work of secular radicalism and did it better: they resolved doubts, overcame inertia, fired the heart, and exalted the soul.

Her final chapter on the formation of American religious culture is a masterpiece, but extends beyond the scope of this week’s topic. Like the rest of the book, it requires a close reading for anyone who wishes to be serious about the role of religion in American life. But, Bonomi demonstrates convincingly that religion was critical to both igniting the fire of revolution and spreading it, and that the religion in question was defined precisely by its hostility to anything that had a whiff of Catholic religious or political theory.



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