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Don’t know much about history?

How concerns over corrupt Anglicanism helped spur American colonists to revolt. The first in a series of “stump speeches”

Samuel Adams (left) and Patrick Henry iStock.com/(Adams) stocksnapper and (Henry) GeorgiosArt

Don’t know much about history?

I’ve given more than 300 speeches in more than 180 cities over the years, but since I’m turning 70 this year it’s time to retire from speechifying. I developed over time about 10 “stump speeches” on various subjects to be used with modifications in different places, and we plan to post a few of them on the first Saturday of the month as part of our Saturday Series. Here’s one, first delivered at Hillsdale College in 1996, about causes of the Revolutionary War.

“Don’t know much about history” is the first line of a great song about love, but it’s also an accurate description of the state of the nation’s knowledge. Let me quote you some answers to test questions concerning the American Revolution that teachers have collected. Here’s one: “The colonists won the war and no longer had to pay for taxis.” Another: “Delegates from the original 13 states formed the Contented Congress.” And one more: “Benjamin Franklin declared, ‘A horse divided against itself cannot stand.’”

It was Abraham Lincoln, of course, who said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He made that statement on the eve of the Civil War, but the great war of the 1860s was actually the second civil war in American history. The first civil war was the American Revolution, and three major camps dominated political discussion at that time.

Those favoring big government sided with the British. Those favoring smaller government, lower taxes, and more local control turned against the British. Those who did not care much about questions of big or little but yearned for righteous government did not necessarily side with big or little. They merely wanted officials to act according to Biblical principles. They were the swing vote.

In time, the small government and righteous government folks joined to make a Revolution. I’ll discuss how that happened.

The book most quoted by political writers and leaders prior to the American Revolution was not one of John Locke’s but one of God’s: the book of Deuteronomy.

But what issues drove the colonists to fight against the most powerful government in the world at that time? You might think the answer is simple: Americans fought for liberty. Leaders read John Locke and learned the right way to build a society. But here’s a problem: The book most quoted by political writers and leaders prior to the American Revolution was not one of John Locke’s but one of God’s: the book of Deuteronomy.

Significantly, Deuteronomy, like other books of the Bible, would not have told colonists in the abstract whether British rulers, the representatives of big government, were forces for good or evil. Sure, their own observations concerning the problems of big government backed up Biblical warnings about tax, spend, and enslave monarchs: See 1 Samuel 8. But they also knew that Jesus Himself was born during the reign of Augustus Caesar, certainly an emblem of big government, and Christ did not demand the overthrow of Rome.

What Jesus did say was, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Although the division was not always clear, the founders understood taxes were Caesar’s, as long as taxes were not used to attack what was God’s. But that’s how colonists in the 1760s feared new taxes would be used. They thought their taxes would go to support not only governmental functions but also a corrupt Anglican denomination, which had abandoned Biblical Trinitarian concepts and become deistic in principle and materialistic in practice.

Concern about Anglican corruption was enormous in those days. Around London, some parsons wore riding boots under their cassocks so they could ride to the chase with their hounds the minute services were over. Congregations in high-back pews repaid pastoral disinterest in kind by eating during the sermon, to avoid taking time from their subsequent pursuits. Britain’s John Brown complained that Anglican priests “despise the Duties of their Parish to wander about, as the various Seasons invite, to every Scene of false Gaiety.”

One foreign visitor commented on “how fat and fair [English] parsons are. They are charged with being somewhat lazy, and their usual plumpness makes it suspected that there’s some truth in it.” One pious lady, Hannah More, complained that among the upper classes, the Bible was “the most unfashionable of books.”

Writers and artists skillfully depicted the decline. Poet William Cowper depicted the typical parson as “loose in morals and in manners vain, in conversation frivolous, in dress Extreme. At once rapacious and profuse … well prepared by ignorance and sloth, by infidelity and love of world, to make God’s work a sinecure.” Artist Joshua Reynolds pointed out that the 18th century London elite often lacked even knowledge of the Bible, let alone belief in it. When he showed leading aristocrats his painting of the prophet Samuel, they asked who Samuel was.

Compulsory tithes went to support a minister who preached required quarterly sermons against fornication and drunkenness while regularly indulging in such activities.

Across the Atlantic, the Virginia House of Burgesses complained that many local parsons were known largely for their ability to throw dice, deal cards, and “gabble in a pulpit, roar in a tavern, exact [money] from their parishes, [and] give themselves to excess in drinking or riot.” Compulsory tithes went to support a minister who preached required quarterly sermons against fornication and drunkenness while regularly indulging in such activities.

Colonists could console themselves with the thought that the worst abuses were across the ocean, and that Americans did not have to put up with Anglican bishops lording it over them. The American part of the denomination was run out of London, and that vital distance limited the destructiveness of Anglicanism in America.

So, all stayed fairly cool—until British officials during the 1760s decided imposition of theological controls over the Colonies would help to keep them under political control. Up to that decade, Anglicanism had been a minor player in New England, but New Hampshire leaders were annoyed in 1761 when London decreed that all schoolteachers emigrating from England to teach in New Hampshire had to be Anglicans certified by the Bishop of London.

Similarly, Massachusetts ministers were furious when they incorporated a missionary society to help in the conversion of Indians to Christianity, only to see London officials disallow the organization because it was not under Anglican control. Connecticut ministers attacked “imperious bishops who love to Lord it over God’s heritage,” and spoke often of the “pomp, grandeur, luxury and regalia” of Anglican worship and lives.

When London in 1768 seemed ready to appoint Anglican bishops who would live in America and amass the pomp and power of their Old World kin, the middle Colonies erupted. New York Presbyterian and political leader William Livingston criticized “the politics of the [Anglican] church … its thirst for domination.” The New York Gazette regularly attacked “ecclesiastical bondage.”

Pennsylvania Presbyterian Francis Allison said Anglicans should be free to worship as they saw fit, but “what we dread is their political power, and their courts.” The Pennsylvania Journal in 1768 ran 21 straight articles on the way that Anglican plans were “totally subversive of our Rights and Liberties.”

Southern colonists were used to Anglican establishment, but when Anglicans whipped some Baptist preachers and jailed others, James Madison condemned the “diabolic, hell-conceived principle of persecution.” Those who would later campaign for religious liberty often did so not out of a desire to restrict Christianity but to set up defenses for it against Anglican-style corruption.

Colonists’ concern about Anglicanism has not been emphasized by 21st-century historians who are accustomed to seeing the economy as the central campaign issue, with religious matters relegated to the closet of private concerns. Yet, the centrality of theology to the development of a revolutionary coalition was evident to John Adams and other contemporaries: Adams said London’s attempt to impose Anglicanism upon the Colonies, “as much as any other cause, arouse[d] the attention, not only of the inquiring mind, but of the common people, and urge[d] them to close thinking on the constitutional authority of Parliament over the colonies. … This was a fact as certain as any in the history of North America.”

Henry, a great speaker, and Adams, a great writer and organizer, tied together the Biblical and tax reasons for opposition to England.

The work of Patrick Henry in the South and Samuel Adams in the North heightened colonists’ concerns. Henry, a great speaker, and Adams, a great writer and organizer, tied together the Biblical and tax reasons for opposition to England. The two men understood how not the quantity of taxes but the lack of quality in what would be paid for—in part, an Anglican establishment—infuriated their fellow citizens. When London in 1768 proposed to appoint an Anglican bishop to live in and attempt to control churches within the Colonies, Henry and Adams were among those who yelled, seven years before Lexington and Concord, “The Bishops are coming, the Bishops are coming.”

Materialist historians looking for class conflict have portrayed Samuel Adams as an organizer of the proletariat, but Adams’ own emphasis was on “Endeavors to Promote the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ.” Once, when Adams wrote to a friend about the high points of a celebration, he stressed the sermon delivered that day. The friend wrote back, “An epicure would have said something about the clams, but you turn me to the prophet Isaiah.” In good and bad times Adams wrote of the need “to submit to the Dispensations of Heaven, Whose Ways are ever gracious, ever just.”

Adams always emphasized the connection between attacks on political rights and attempts to restrict religious rights. He repeatedly explained that “the religion and public liberty of a people are so intimately connected, their interests are interwoven, and cannot exist separately.” In 1765, he said the levying of taxes was part of a British plan to force submission to religious slavery: “I could not help fancying that the Stamp-Act itself was contrived with a design only to inure the people to the habit of contemplating themselves as the slaves of men; and the transition from thence to a subjection to Satan, is mighty easy.” Later in the 1760s, Adams continued to use his regular column in the Boston Gazette to explain how the British would use tax revenue to support Anglicanism.

Adams’ understanding of the Stamp Act eventually became standard throughout the Colonies. Materialist historians miss much of this because religious fervor to them is merely a sign of something else, but here’s what excited many colonists: One, the Stamp Act imposed taxes on documents in ecclesiastical courts. Two, the act allowed London to require that all transactions be conducted on officially stamped paper to be sold only by government-selected distributors. And three, Anglicans with influence could choke off dealings by dissenting churches by refusing to supply them with stamped paper. They could even jail dissenting ministers who broke the law.

The Stamp Act, in short, became not merely a tax issue but an ideological onslaught.

Colonists came to understand that if the Stamp Act were sustained, officials soon might have to hold Anglican views and pay tithes to support luxury-loving bishops. The Stamp Act, in short, became not merely a tax issue but an ideological onslaught. Even the St. James Chronicle of London acknowledged that “stamping and episcopizing our colonies were understood to be only different branches of the same plan of power.” John Adams, Samuel’s cousin, argued, “There seems to be a direct and formal design on foot, to enslave America.”

Patrick Henry also spiritually triangulated by connecting religious, political, and economic issues. When Henry became famous, those who did not like his theology complained that he resembled “a Presbyterian clergyman, used to haranguing the people.” Those who did not like his belief in democracy said Henry was “so infatuated that he goes about … praying and preaching amongst the common people.” (The horror!) Those who did not like the way he searched for opportunities to build a coalition between opponents of higher taxes and critics of Anglican corruption portrayed him as an opportunist.

An opportunist he was not. A seeker after opportunities he was. The first fell into his lap in 1763 when Anglican clerical leaders, desiring larger compulsory tithes, went to court to gather in some back tithes that London said they were legally owed. Henry, arguing in court against the payments, spoke out against Anglican priests who were “rapacious harpies snatch[ing] from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphan children their last milch cow.” He discussed the law not as an economic matter but as a moral concern, stating that although Anglican leaders wore the garb of humility and preached the beauty of charity, in practice they were greedy.

Henry’s dramatic expressiveness pushed along his oratory, but even the words he used before the jury were revolutionary. Henry proclaimed that an oppressive king “from being the father of his people, degenerated into a tyrant, and forfeits all rights to his subjects’ obedience.” The jury, which included both Anglicans and Presbyterians, agreed on a verdict for the local Anglican minister, as required—but established damages of one penny. When news of the verdict spread through Virginia, Henry was acclaimed not only for winning a case but for uniting theological and tax concerns.

During the remainder of the 1760s, Henry’s legal renown and income grew. He used some of that income to pay personally the fines that some Baptist ministers received for speaking out against corrupt Anglicanism—he was building a coalition. Colonists began predicting that if Anglican bishops were appointed to America they soon would demand the lavish incomes common among English bishops.

Presbyterians and other Dissenters also argued that American bishops would gain the political power their counterparts had in England. This meant that the question of Anglican establishment was politically as well as spiritually important. Even the Virginia House of Burgesses went on record as opposing “the pernicious Project of a few mistaken Clergymen, for introducing an American Bishop.”

Adams believed the establishment of Anglicanism would affect even those who did not care about the theological issues.

John Adams was an early Unitarian and by no means part of the religious right of his era. Still, he disliked British promotion of twin tyranny—a powerful state and an established church—and wrote columns in the Boston Gazette explaining, “If Parliament could tax us, they could establish the Church of England, with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and tithes, and prohibit all other churches.”

Adams believed the establishment of Anglicanism would affect even those who did not care about the theological issues: “If Parliament can erect dioceses and appoint bishops, they may introduce the whole hierarchy, establish tithes, forbid marriages and funerals, establish religions, forbid dissenters, make schism heresy, impose penalties extending to life and limb as well as to liberty and property.”

They labeled their American opponents “Presbyterians and smugglers.” London tacticians, hoping to discourage the Presbyterian-smuggler alliance, argued that the politics of independent Colonies would be dominated by “deformed Pharisees” and “sanctified hypocrites.” Alexander Martin, North Carolina’s royal governor, explained to London authorities that the onset of revolution reflected “distinctions and animosities … between the people of the established Church and the Presbyterians.” But the London Evening Post recognized the dispute was broader. It reported that the colonists “equally detest the pageantry of a King and the supercilious hypocrisy of a Bishop.”

Parliament’s passage of the Quebec Act enraged many colonists. It made Roman Catholicism the state church in what had been French Canada. To make Catholicism the established religion of a British-controlled province was a slap in the face of New England’s Puritan tradition, but it could also be construed as precedent. The Suffolk Resolutions, which Massachusetts placed before the Continental Congress on September 17, 1774, argued that if the British established a dictatorial church in Canada, they could do the same in their own Colonies: The Quebec Act was “dangerous in an extreme degree to the Protestant religion and to the civil rights and liberties of all America.”

The Quebec Act also shocked colonists from the middle states and the South. The Continental Congress of 1774 emphasized the act in its petitions and declarations. Patrick Henry early in 1775 criticized the act and used Biblical language to decry gentlemen who cried “‘peace, peace’—but there is no peace.” He spoke of potential theological and political enslavement and demanded, “Why stand we here idle? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God!”

Samuel Adams united small government and righteous government concerns when he spoke in Philadelphia one month after approval of the Declaration of Independence: “We have fled from the political Sodom; let us not look back, lest we perish and become a monument of infamy and derision to the world.”

Are the ravages of original sin such that we cannot have both liberty and virtue, because liberty quickly becomes vice-filled license? Or can we find a way to have our virtue and drink in liberty as well?

Well, what now? What is America now? We have great cosmic power, as Aladdin’s genie might say—but morally, a tiny living space. Our 18th-century predecessors fought for liberty and virtue. Today, much of the world admires American liberty but sees us also as a monument to infamy and derision. Is that inevitable? Are the ravages of original sin such that we cannot have both liberty and virtue, because liberty quickly becomes vice-filled license? Or can we find a way to have our virtue and drink in liberty as well?

What emerged from the Revolutionary era was a sense that man cannot live by man alone. Americans had gone to war to keep their world safe from Anglican tyranny, but they knew if they did not worship God, some man-made tyranny would emerge. Americans needed the liberty to worship Him in diverse ways, but that He must be worshipped was clear to almost all—or else, we could not have both liberty and virtue.

Americans knew liberty and virtue could be maintained only through a continuation of Biblical belief or at least allegiance to Biblical principle, through God’s common grace. Repeat: Man cannot live by man alone. This the founders knew.

What do we know? We don’t know much about American history. We don’t know much about world history, either. Students on tests wrote that “Nero was a tyrant who tortured his subjects by playing the fiddle to them.” They wrote that “William Tell shot an arrow through an apple while standing on his son’s head.” They wrote that Sir Francis Drake, with the audacity typical of English sailors four centuries ago, “circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.”

These comments may be funny exceptions, but one survey revealed that more than half of high school seniors failed an easy multiple choice test about major events in American history. To pass, they only had to get 42 percent right! It’s no wonder that many citizens cannot discern the emptiness of proposed governmental panaceas—they don’t know that similar programs have been tried and have failed.

Historical illiteracy is a symptom of deeper problems. After all, why study history if it, like life itself, is merely a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing? If our existence has no God-given purpose, why not major in meaninglessness?

America is a very religious country, as was Athens when the apostle Paul visited there almost 2,000 years ago. We worship hundreds of idols: New Age gods and goddesses, materialism, drugs, pornography, citations in academic journals, you name it. We have shrines devoted to feasting and fornicating.

In an age of relativism, I’d suggest that those of us who believe in Christ, the Lord of history, need to keep stressing the basics: If we are not here to live by the Bible, we might as well worship false gods by eating, drinking, and trying to be merry (although only a fool is merry in such circumstances).

We need to keep insisting that we have only two choices, as Moses told the Israelites: Choose life and good, or death and evil. Not knowing much about history matters, but not knowing much about God matters even more.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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