by Becca Palmer

Historians have long recognized religion as a central element of life in the early British colonies in America. Some of these colonies were founded as havens for religious dissenters, making religious liberty central to colonial identities. Nevertheless, religion was not confined solely to the private sphere. Patricia Bonomi has recognized that religion and politics converged “as often as not”in colonial life, and Christopher Pearl has noted that “America’s pulpits served as political crucibles.” However, there has not been enough analysis on the political ideas expressed in religious sermons during the American Revolution, 1765-1783. A close examination of the political thought preached to congregations in the decade leading up to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, in which the thirteen colonies declared separation from Great Britain, thus provides a greater understanding of how the political ideas that inspired the American Revolution—including liberty, constitutional authority, and individual rights—were spread to the colonists in their daily lives.

This research comes out of my doctorate, which examines Revolutionary political thought and print culture between 1765-1776. I expand the source-base of existing scholarship—which often predominantly focuses on pamphlets—to include newspapers, religious sermons, poems and plays as sources of political thought. This approach pays more consideration to “history from below,” recognizing that sermons and poems were just as important in mobilizing ordinary Americans as the pamphlets of a few “great men,” something perhaps underappreciated in existing intellectual histories of the American Revolution. Including a broader range of popular sources both uncovers the language ordinary people used to interpret and respond to the events of the Revolution, and problematizes narratives of the period 1765-1783 that present it purely as an “imperial crisis.” Expanding our source-base instead recognizes the numerous intersecting political issues that colonists experienced in their daily lives at the provincial, regional, and imperial levels. My approach therefore enhances our understanding of what is considered “political” regarding Revolutionary ideology and offers a more nuanced understanding of colonial political thought.

This blog post takes a closer look at one of these types of sources: religious sermons. These were a significant part of colonial life, and the political themes that they included reveal the important role ministers played in spreading ideological ideas. The sermons discussed here were held to celebrate the repeal of legislation, commemorate elections, and mark the election of officers to the Massachusetts Artillery Company.

Stamp Act Repeal

Firstly, sermons were preached to celebrate the repeal of specific acts of legislation. Three sermons preached to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 will be discussed, by Nathanial Appleton and Jonathan Mayhew, both Congregationalists, and Samuel Stillman, an evangelical Baptist minister. Despite their differing religious doctrines, their political messages were similar. Introduced as a tax on paper in 1765, the Stamp Act was pivotal in triggering the colonial movement against British authority. It was widely viewed as a conspiracy against American liberty that undermined the rights of colonial subjects to consent to any tax placed upon them. In Mayhew’s words, the colonists were specifically protective of their “natural right” to property “till we have freely consented to part with it.” However, the Stamp Act undermined this in two ways: firstly, by imposing a tax the colonists believed they had not consented to, and secondly, by causing riots that destroyed the private property of local officials implicated in the act. The Stamp Act riots were particularly damaging in Boston, with the houses of Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and Stamp Distributer Andrew Oliver, broken into. Stillman believed that the masses had been manipulated into “violent out-rages upon the property of others,” which “reflected dishonor” upon the country. Here, Stillman’s rhetoric also reflects the elitist strand of colonial thought that critiqued the perceived violence and irrationality of the general public.

Following sustained boycotting and protests by the colonists, the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766. Mayhew praised the “Friends of Virtue” who had “gloriously appeared in the Cause of Liberty,” attributing the repeal to a “generous public spirit,” which had been “manly…yet respectful and loyal” in petitions to the Crown. Similarly, Stillman celebrated the repeal as originating from “that benevolent righteous regard to the public good” that prevailed in the British administration. Appleton thus thanked William Pitt (the British Prime Minister) and his administration for being “enemies of corruption, tyranny, and oppression” and rescuing the colonists “from captivity, and slavery.” In this way, sermons were used to make clear political statements about the perceived intention of a small group of British ministers to oppress the colonists and undermine their natural rights, something which could only be rescued by public spirit and the actions of virtuous statesmen.

Election Sermons

Furthermore, sermons were also held to celebrate elections to political office. In 1765 and 1766, respectively, the Calvinist ministers Andrew Eliot and Edward Bernard preached sermons to commemorate elections to the Massachusetts Council. This was a body chosen by the House of Representatives to advise the Governor of the colony. Examining the political content of these sermons reveals that they went further than commemorating the transfer of power with a religious allegory or text. Instead, they conveyed clear messages about politics and society. Firstly, Eliot referenced the importance of government founded on consent, drawing on the concept of the state of nature: the idea that societies are “contracts” created when free individuals come together to create a state for mutual protection. He argued that free individuals would not relinquish their natural freedom purely to “gratify the pride and avarice” of those in power but rather for “the common good.” Therefore, Eliot echoed a familiar eighteenth-century doctrine that “public good, is the great, the only end of magistracy.”

To achieve the common good, Eliot suggested that those in power ought to be “men of virtue and religion,” so that they would prioritize the interests of the public over their own. Nevertheless, strict virtues were not enough; they should also exercise prudence and “be wise as serpents as well as harmless as doves” to ensure adaptability in times of “dangerous and important crisis.” Consequently, Eliot emphasized both traditional religious virtues of piety, generosity, and selflessness and also more pragmatic, secular characteristics. These emphases reveal that eighteenth-century sermons were significant not only in spreading traditional religious doctrines, but also in making clear suggestions to political rulers on how they ought to act during their terms in office.

Furthermore, Barnard contrasted these preferred virtues with the corruption of religious leaders, language which drew on Massachusetts’ founding as a haven from religious oppression. He feared that corrupt leaders would undermine the “ardor of devotion” among the people by pursuing their own interests over those of their congregations. This would lead the people’s spirit to be “well nigh distinguished.” A decline in religious spirit was problematic not only for religious practice but also because religion was seen as key to both secular virtue and liberty. According to Barnard, religion and liberty were “closely united” because the former fostered the spirit and activity necessary for the continuous protection of the latter. Instead, by neglecting religion and relying on “extravagance, luxury, and every vice dependent on plenty,” the public would be left corrupt and destitute, more interested in gratifying pleasure than defending the cause of liberty. This echoed a significant fear in eighteenth-century society; that the increasing wealth of the colonies would lead them to favor profit and extravagance over a sober and industrious life. These vices would, according to Eliot, “contract the mind” and fill “the soul with criminal prejudices.” Therefore, he reminded his congregation of the importance of religion, which instead “enlarges the mind,” encourages virtue, and, in turn, would promote “public happiness.”

Nevertheless, religious belief was not enough. Eliot also called on the government to “suppress our vices, and to encourage industry, frugality and sobriety,” reflecting the clear role that sermons played in proscribing social and moral actions, both by instructing their congregations and presenting explicit demands to those in government. One way the state could safeguard liberty was by maintaining its balanced constitution, as, according to Barnard, “a wise mixture of several powers” would protect the liberties of the subject and ensure that each branch of government would not become “pernicious” and encroach on each other at the expense of the subject. Therefore, these election sermons performed several political functions; by linking the importance of religious virtue with pragmatic skills, they made clear suggestions on how state officials should act in power. Secondly, fears regarding moral degeneration were solved both by a return to religion and through active efforts by those in power, as long as checks and balances were maintained by a mixed constitution. Election sermons were therefore held both to commemorate a particular event and make clear suggestions for the next year of political life.

Military Election Sermons

Finally, the military sermons I studied in my thesis were addressed to the Massachusetts Artillery Company, an organization for the training of militias. Each year, sermons were preached to celebrate the election of officers to the Company. Here, I discuss three sermons from 1767, 1768, and 1773, by Congregationalist pastors Daniel Shute, Jonas Clarke, and Simeon Howard respectively. They linked ideas of armed conflict through popular resistance to more abstract ideas of virtue, liberty, and religious duty.

Firstly, much like election sermons, ministers used understandings of the state of nature, but this time to justify armed resistance. Howard argued that people enter society “for the general good,” and therefore, when an unjust state undermines their “happiness and safety,” they may have to “either submit to slavery, or defend [their] liberties” by engaging in war. Shute agreed with the necessity of conflict in certain situations as long as it was always “with a view to the general good.” Therefore, in Boston, sermons were used to support the actions of militias and justify revolution against unjust authority. Of course, not all religious groups supported these doctrines; pacifist Quakers in Pennsylvania, for example, critiqued active engagement in conflict. Nevertheless, these military sermons provide clear insight into the political climate of revolutionary Boston. They justified their support for the militias through warnings that the encroachments of unjust authority would be implemented with a standing army. Developing the radical opposition writings of seventeenth-century England and Scotland—which condemned permanent, standing armies as tools of arbitrary authority—Howard suggested that standing armies undermined political stability and the common good because they held “no real estate in the dominions which they are to defend” and tended to pursue their self-interests rather than promoting “the happiness and liberty of a community.” Instead, Howard proposed the creation of a popular militia, a form of citizens’ army drawn from the people in times of conflict that would be loyal to its country and prioritize its welfare above all else. Therefore, a nation should “have the power of defence in the body of the people” by having “a well-regulated and well-disciplined militia.” This militia was not to remain separate from religion but could instead benefit from it. Christian virtue was fundamental to its conception; for Howard, if a people were to regain liberty against an oppressive power, it was necessary “to maintain the general practice of religion and virtue.” Moreover, he argued that, in scripture, the “character of a soldier and a good Christian” were compatible. Clarke similarly stated that—much like the men of Judaea—the people ought to be “fit for warlike services” and be “men of firmness of mind [and] of a manly, courageous and warlike spirit.” Consequently, religious and secular duties were combined in these sermons, with religious scripture used to justify armed resistance to defend public peace and safety. Rather than military service being seen as opposed to religion, the two were viewed as compatible, with conflict at times a duty to preserve a nation’s religion, virtue, and liberty. This once again demonstrates how religion and politics were intricately intertwined in Revolutionary America, with Bostonian Congregationalists infusing traditional doctrines with religious ideas to justify armed resistance to British authority.

Nevertheless, like the Quaker disavowal of armed resistance, the politicization of religion detailed here was not universally accepted. Some ministers critiqued the overlapping of these two spheres: John Tucker, another Congregationalist minister from Boston, argued that ministers “entangling [them]selves with the affairs of this life” could distract them from religion, in favor of factional politics. Thus, we must remember the diverse landscape and ideas of colonial America and not take one specific belief as representative of the wider continent, or even a single colony. Hence, while this blog looks specifically at Boston, my thesis analyses sermons from across Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to uncover and analyze the vivid particularities in how religious actors responded to political events.


Closely analyzing sermons during the American Revolution reveals that religion was heavily political and a major means for the diffusion of Revolutionary political thought among the populace. Ordinary people were exposed to ideas not only through political documents or pamphlets but also through pulpits. Sermons covered diverse issues, including the duties of rulers, links between liberty and virtue, rights to property, and the compatibility of military skills with Christian virtue—which made them a crucial medium for transmitting political ideas. The diversity of themes included in sermons reveals how simple acts like listening to or reading sermons could serve as a means for mobilizing the colonial public towards independence. My project thus evidences the value of “history from below” approaches to the American Revolution in recognizing the multitude of ways that ordinary people engaged with politics. To ensure that the beliefs and experiences of ordinary American are included in our historical analysis, we must therefore do more to recognize the critical importance of sermons within intellectual histories of the American Revolution.

Becca Palmer is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of History at University College London. She studies the intellectual history of the American Revolution, with a specific interest in print culture and the long republican tradition. 

Edited by Thomas Cryer

Featured Image: James Caldwell at the Battle of Springfield, water painting by Henry Alexander Ogden, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.