Thanks to the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture for allowing us to reblog the following Q&A with Katherine Carté, author of Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History, that originally appeared on their blog, Uncommon Sense. This is the first in a planned series of conversations with Omohundro Institute authors about how their work relates to the American Revolution.
With this post, Uncommon Sense inaugurates a planned series of conversations with OI book authors about how their work relates to the American Revolution. It is one of the ways in which the OI is contributing to the Semiquincentennial, the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.
In its eight decades, the OI has published approximately forty books related to independence, the American Revolution, and related topics as part of its mission to explore Vast Early America. We will highlight some of those books over the next few years through author interviews and other reflections.
To begin, we turn to Katherine Carté, author of the 2021 book Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History. In the book, Carté explores how British protestantism connected colonies and empire until the rupture of the American Revolution.
In Religion and the American Revolution, you describe religion as an “imperial bridge” between Britain and the North American colonies. Can you describe what that meant?
We often think of religion as what people believed, but because people organized themselves into denominations, societies, and all kinds of religious fellowships, it also functioned to connect people. For many Americans and Britons who participated in religious institutions, those communities connected them to peers across the Atlantic. In addition, religious leaders in the colonial British Empire believed that Empire was the best way to promote protestantism and Christianity. The reach of the British Empire helped them spread their faith to Indigenous peoples and to enslaved peoples. Its armies and navies fought against the dangers of Catholic powers, especially the Spanish and the French. Both colonists and Britons were part of that project. They served in British armies on behalf of what they called the “Protestant Interest.” They donated money to help support missionaries. They attended sermons that described the dangers of “popery” (an anti-Catholic slur) among Indigenous peoples, and distributed devotional materials printed in Britain to their neighbors. In all these ways, colonists’ connections to imperial Protestantism helped bridge the connections between Great Britain and the colonies.
Within the colonies (and then states), what role did geography play in understanding the impact of religion on the efforts of both Patriots and Loyalists to win adherents?
That’s such a great question! There are two really different answers. One is to think about regions. New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Southern colonies each had different kinds of religious populations and establishments. In each of those places, Loyalists and Patriots used religion differently. In New England, the clergy of the “Standing Order” largely supported the Revolution, while Anglicans were often Loyalists, and they could face persecution. As always, the mid-Atlantic was the site of a lot of diversity and confusion—Presbyterians could be staunch Loyalists or fervent Patriots, for example. Pacifist leaning groups, like the Quakers and Moravians, had different calculations to make. In the Southern states, where the Church of England was established, being a member of that church meant little in terms of which side one took in the Revolution. In other words, the same kinds of regional situations we see for other issues are there for religion too.
Geography mattered in a different way as well. Religious leaders and networks were most effective in more densely populated areas, particularly in cities. As a result, leaders from either faction could debate issues of politics in cities in ways that were less likely in more remote areas. I’m thinking here of Samuel Seabury debating Alexander Hamilton, or Charles Inglis and Thomas Paine. Those two Loyalist Anglican ministers were part of the Revolutionary fray of New York City. People in rural areas certainly had diverse opinions and vibrant debates, but urban spaces saw more politicized religious publishing, so it’s more evident in the record. We should remember when we’re evaluating such statements that they often came from an urban environment.
How did Patriots use public celebrations of religion to advance their cause in the early years of the Revolution?
The Patriots knew they needed credibility and dignity in their cause. The support and participation of religious leaders in the Patriot cause was one way to get it. A good example is the fast day that the Continental Congress declared in the summer of 1775. It came after the fighting against the British started, but well before the Declaration of Independence. Many religious leaders participated in that fast day, even when they were cautious or lukewarm about the direction the Patriots were going. When they did so, they followed the Congress’s lead, honoring its authority. Religious leaders also served as chaplains for Revolutionary legislatures, even sometimes when they were themselves loyalists. This happened in New York City, where English-speaking clergy took turns as chaplains in the revolutionary assembly. It also happened in the First Continental Congress, where Jacob Duché, who supported resistance but rejected the move towards Independence—served as the first chaplain. The prayers and solemnity religious leaders brought to these assemblies helped convince the public that Patriots were cautious and serious-minded, even when they were also radical and revolutionary.
After the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most prominent places where it circulated was in the churches of the new states, as read by ministers. Why did Congress and the state legislatures want religious figures to spread the news of independence, and what did ministers see for themselves in that public role?
Ministers had long cooperated with government leaders in the colonial period—both imperial and colonial leaders. They were people who brought authority to their pronouncements, and they had a ready-made way to communicate with people. Those factors made them appealing to political leaders. On the other side, when clergy read the Declaration of Independence, they had the opportunity to help lead their congregations in difficult times. That was something they were also familiar with. Of course, some ministers, especially loyalist Anglicans, refused to do it, which could get them into serious difficulties with local Patriots.
Through the eighteenth century, the Protestant British colonists often defined themselves in opposition to French Catholics. How did those views change because of the alliance with France during the Revolutionary War?
It was a gradual change. For a lot of colonists—clergy included—the help the French provided was providential, meaning it came from God. For that reason, they welcomed it, even if they were nervous about having so many new Catholics around. Some religious leaders went so far as to say that the Alliance provided an opportunity for US protestants to help bring Protestantism to France. On the other hand, for those in Britain and loyalists in the colonies, it was easy to make the argument that the French Alliance was a sign of how badly the Patriots had gone astray.
How did the American Revolution reshape the structure of religious denominations in the new United States?
Before the Revolution, the need to work within shared imperial structures limited the number of new denominations founded in the British colonies. Even groups from the Great Awakening tended to stay within the dominant denominations (in particular, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, and the Congregationalists) that existed on both sides of the Atlantic. After the Revolution, the pressures to conform to others across the Atlantic or even in another state dropped dramatically. Lots of new denominations were formed, most importantly the Methodists, who had been within the Church of England before the war.
Non-whites found it easier to claim the status of being ordained religious leaders too. Before the Revolution, the Church of England, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists (as well as other, smaller groups), had usually required college educations or something similar for ordination, and people of color were usually excluded from such educations. Although a few people of color were recognized as clergy before the Revolution—people like Presbyterian Samson Occom and Anglican Phillip Quaque–they were few and far between. After the Revolution, the creation of new and innovative church structures in the United States included lots of groups, often Baptists, who had spiritual rather than educational requirements for ordination. Without the gate-keeping of government-recognized church establishments, it was a lot easier for diverse communities to select their own religious leaders, and for those outside of those communities to acknowledge the position diverse religious leaders had.
Each interview will also include two questions about how the author sees their work contributing to the project of commemorating America’s 250th.
How does your book change the way we should think about the United States declaring independence in 1776?
I think the most important thing I learned through this project was to see 1776 as more of a pivot than a break. What I mean by that is that we need to pay a lot of attention to what came before. The Patriots did something dramatic, but they acted within a particular historical context. When it comes to religion, this means taking note of how British imperial religion shaped the specific ways that Patriots—and later US leaders—thought of and treated religion.
It’s also important to look at the consequences of the Declaration of Independence for Britons. Before that moment, many British religious leaders hoped and assumed the colonies would come back into the fold. More than a few were sympathetic to the Americans’ complaints, if not always to their methods. After that moment, it was very easy for Britons to claim that the Americans were at fault for the rebellion and cut off any remaining connections.
What is the one thing you most wish those working on commemorations for America’s 250th would learn from your book?
I hope they remember how difficult and disruptive 1776 was. People responded in so many ways to the challenges of the war and also to the Declaration of Independence. Some saw in their religious values and communities support for what the Patriots were doing. Others (especially Anglicans and Quakers) had to face difficult dilemmas. The experiences of Covid and also of the challenges to our political institutions in recent years have reminded us that people we know and love can make many different decisions when faced with complex challenges. 1776 was just such a moment.