Religious Diversity in America During the Revolution by Suzanne Adair

Posted by on Aug 11, 2014 in 18th Century U.S., Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 6 comments

A-Hostage-to-Heritage185x280For two centuries, a number of historically inaccurate legends and myths have circulated about certain aspects of the American War of Independence. I have debunked some of them in my award-winning crime fiction series set during the American Revolution, the latest book being A Hostage to Heritage. One myth worth examining for 21st-century Americans proclaims that the civilian population during the Revolution was made of zealous Protestants. You can see an example of the myth in the historically incorrect movie “The Patriot” with its imagery of an overly enthusiastic young woman recruiting men from a Protestant congregation into joining a militia against the redcoats

Firebrand Protestants could definitely be found during the war. Britons sometimes referred to the American War as the “Presbyterian War.” But although a good number of people of the thirteen colonies and surrounding territories were Christians, they weren’t all Presbyterians or even Protestants. And the residents of America certainly weren’t all Christian.

Christianity in America during the Revolution

In Revolutionary America, Christianity was splintered into diverse sects that weren’t on the same page about how their faith should be interpreted and expressed. Probably the largest and most influential sects were Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. In addition, there were groups of Puritans, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Lutherans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish, Eastern Orthodox, and English Roman Catholics. There were likely also groups of French Huguenots and Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Catholics. Thus Christianity in Revolutionary America was by no means a unified religion.

Founding Fathers

Most of America’s founding fathers were Christian, but the religious persuasions of a few elude definition. “Deism” has been the label ascribed to the religious preferences of certain of America’s prominent founding fathers. In his book The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution, historian Gregg L. Frazer makes the case that John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and several others were actually theistic rationalists—neither deists nor Christians.

Jews

140709HaymSolomonA financial broker who helped fund the Continentals, Haym Solomon, an Ashkenazi Jew from Poland, is the most famous Jew associated with the American War of Independence. From the number of congregations in existence at the time of the war, Solomon must have been one of many Jews in America. The goals of the Congress appealed to most Jews because they’d been persecuted for centuries elsewhere in the world.

Muslims

On occasion, Africans captured for the slave trade proved to be literate Muslims who could transcribe the Qur’an from memory. Here are two examples provided by Daniel Dillard, a doctoral candidate in religion at Florida State University:

140709AyubaSuleimanDialloJob Ben Solomon Jallo (1701–1773), also known as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a Senegalese Muslim of aristocratic birth enslaved for a brief period in Maryland, composed three separate copies of the Koran solely from memory. Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori (1762–1829), also known as Abd ar-Rahman, the famous West African prince enslaved for 40 years in Mississippi, occasionally delighted audiences by telling them he was writing out ‘‘The Lord’s Prayer’’ in Arabic, when in actuality he had transcribed the first sura, or chapter, of the Koran, known as the fatiha.

George Sale translated the Qur’an into English, advertised it in American newspapers, and made it available in bookshops. As a result, a number of Americans during the Revolution owned copies of the Qur’an and were familiar with the Muslim religion.

Thomas Jefferson studied the Qur’an. It may have influenced his work on the Declaration of Independence.

Other Non-Christians

Native Americans engaged in various spiritual practices—monotheistic, polytheistic, henotheistic, animistic, or a combination of those. Indentured servants from the British Isles or Germany who were transported or took passage to better themselves brought with them folk religions in addition to Christianity. Captured Africans who weren’t Muslim contributed varied polytheistic religions to the mix, and those slaves who embraced Christianity in America didn’t always abandon their native religion.

140709ThomasJeffersonA number of the nation’s founders left written records showing that they were comfortable with and supportive of faiths other than Christianity. Plus they’d seen the problems caused by state religions in other parts of the world. After the Treaty of Paris, for the good of the new country, they steered the development of the United States of America toward a government that would tolerate a variety of religions. Here are Thomas Jefferson’s famous words about religion and government:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

In America, religion-based hate crimes undermine the goal of religious diversity that the country’s founders sought. Such crimes destabilize the freedoms we enjoy today—freedoms that thousands of people purchased for us with their lives from 1775–1783 and in subsequent wars.

What do you think about the position of America’s founders on religious diversity? In what ways would America be different today had their position been less tolerant?

(Thanks to James Stewart, Thad Weaver, William Myers, and Martha Katz-Hyman for input on this essay.)

 Suzanne Adair, August 11, 2014

Bio:

Award-winning novelist Suzanne Adair is a Florida native who lives in a two hundred-year-old city at the edge of the North Carolina Piedmont, named for an English explorer who was beheaded. Her suspense and thrillers transport readers to the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, dancing, hiking, and spending time with her family.

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6 Comments

  1. I do believe in freedom of religion. I don’t believe in freedom from religion, a philosophy currently embraced by many in today’s society, that advocates that no United States citizens, particularly those who are Christian, are allowed to mention or practice their faith in any public setting.

  2. Fascinating info Suzanne. It’s fine food for thought (if only people would partake) amid the alarmingly self-righteous climate of the country today.

    • Ruth, that “self-righteousness” is one of the reasons I wrote the essay.

  3. Great essay! I wish everyone would read and accept it.

    • Thanks, Peg. When the essay was originally published, I got feedback from a few skeptics. I’d confused them with the facts, I guess.

  4. Wonderful essay that needs to be shared across social media (I plan to share on Google+). I agree with M. Ruth and Peg; it is amazing how certain segments in society today applaud the separation of church and state only as long as it still allows Christianity special privileges not granted to other faiths…a case perhaps of “if we don’t study history, we are bound to repeat it”?

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