According to a 2002 Pew Research Center survey, religion is more important to Americans today than to the people of any other developed country, it was even more important in the eighteenth century. Religion was a central aspect of the lives of virtually all Americans, and ministers and theologians—the vast majority of them Protestant—were highly influential civic leaders and opinion-makers. Religious sermons were offered not just on Sunday morning, but on every important civic occasion, and they offered a theological perspective on whatever issue was before the community, be it a holiday, a harvest day, an election—or a looming military conflict, such as the one posed by the American colonies’ decision to separate from Great Britain.
In the history of American political thought, sermons have received far less attention than the writings of prominent leaders and political theorists like Thomas Jefferson. However, political sermons may have been more influential in their day than the writings of Jefferson or Madison, because they spoke directly to the people with a special kind of authority—that of men whose expertise lay in interpreting the word of God. And American religious leaders, from the Pilgrims who first landed in Massachusetts to the divines of the late eighteenth century, saw religious and political liberty as inextricably linked, and therefore came out as important voices in favor of independence.
Key strains of Protestant theology favored this development. The Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe had been a rebellion—a protest—against what was seen as the tyrannical rule of the Catholic Church. The English Puritans of the following century settled in America because they felt the hierarchy of the Church of England—itself a Protestant church—was still too much of an interference in the direct relationship between God and his faithful. The Congregational churches of New England had no hierarchy at all—each church was an autonomous, independent congregation—and so the church leaders were well versed in notions of independence, liberty of conscience, and their biblical justification. They readily saw the injustice of a British government that taxed its colonies without their consent.
Thus, sermons like “On the Right to Rebel against Governors” by Congregational minister Samuel West of Massachusetts, and “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men” by Princeton College president John Witherspoon, both delivered in 1776, spoke forcefully and articulately in favor of independence, imparting an important stamp of religious legitimacy to the war effort the colonists were about to launch. Similar sermons at key points in American history remind the reader of the important role of religion.