God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
In God of Liberty, Thomas Kidd presents a thoughtful and well-argued discussion of the role of religion in eighteenth-century America. Beginning with the Great Awakening and continuing through the Election of 1800, Kidd capably discusses ideas about faith and God and how they influenced the changes in America produced by the American Revolu-tion. In doing so, Kidd explains how evangelicals like John Leland and deists like Thomas Jefferson could agree on enough to enable them to work together during the Revolutionary era. Ultimately, “only public religious beliefs—that is, religious beliefs that had public, political implications—united revolutionaries because personal faiths of the colonists were too diverse to unify them” (6).
He begins his study with a discussion of the five religious ideas that brought Americans together during the Revolutionary era. They included the need to disestablish state churches, the idea that a creator God guaranteed fundamental human rights, the threat to the political system posed by human sinfulness, the fact that a republic needed to be sustained by virtue, and the belief that God, or Providence, moved in and through nations. All of these ideas unified Americans in their fight against the mother country, even when they strongly disagreed on the details of how these ideas actually worked. Ultimately, “public spirituality united revolutionary America” (10).
Kidd organizes his discussion in a method that is both chronological and topical in nature. This enables him to focus the reader’s attention on particular subjects while also marching through the years of the Revolutionary era in American history. He begins by discussing the influence of the Great Awakening, an event he describes as the first American Revolution because of its widespread social impact. The Great Awakening opened the door for many Americans to become involved in the public arena in ways not previously possible. It also encouraged the American sense of providentialism that already existed and thus set the context for seeing British efforts to infringe on American liberty as wicked. But Kidd fails to explain the impact of the Great Awakening fully. His discussion, while interesting, is also brief and pretty general.
Kidd continues with an excellent discussion of the alliance between deists such as Thomas Jefferson and evangelicals such as John Leland in their fight for religious liberty that grew out of persecution of Baptists in Virginia. Kidd concludes that religious liberty became a reality in America because evangelicals and deists both fought for it, even though their reasons for supporting it were very different. The evangelicals wanted to preach the gospel freely while the deists opposed government punishment of religious beliefs. Although these constituted very different agendas, the combination changed America, “helping make it both intensely religious and religiously free” (55).
In discussing the coming of the Revolution, Kidd points out a number of religious ideas and issues that helped produce the war and push Americans to hang on for final victory. He discusses the influence of anti-Catholicism as seen in the strong reaction to the Quebec Act which many Americans feared represented the first step by the British government toward restricting religious liberty in the colonies. He also shows how the orators and writers of the Revolutionary era such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine used evangelical rhetoric to rally the people to the cause. He discusses the growing support for the idea of equality by creation and how that produced growing support for the revolt against Great Britain.
Once the war had begun, Kidd shows how supporters of the Revolution focused on the need for public virtue if the Revolution was going to succeed. For the revolutionaries, organized religion provided the best training ground for learning virtue. The final chapter in this effort would be the adoption of the Constitution and the First Amendment in order to create a context in which religious belief would be personal and thus more influential. Kidd also discusses the biggest contradiction to the ideals of the American Revolution, the continued existence of slavery in a nation based on the concept of equality.
Kidd ends his study with a discussion of the Election of 1800 and the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States. Historians often discuss this event as the final event in the American Revolution because it proved that the Constitution worked because of the peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. Kidd agrees with this assessment, but also points out that many of Jefferson’s supporters saw his victory as “a great providential victory for religious freedom” (230). His election represented the last great victory of the political alliance between the deists and evangelicals that had been so important in bringing Americans together to fight the British in the Revolution.
He concludes with a discussion of the ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville as representative of the importance of religion in American development. Tocqueville believed that “the partnership of religion and liberty lay at the heart of America’s political success” (245). For Tocqueville and the Founding Fathers, religion played an essential role in a democracy because it taught people the essential values needed to make a democracy work. Without those values, government would fail. Kidd reminds his readers that “one of the greatest accomplishments of the American Revolution was the ingenious balance between religious freedom and religious strength” (256).
Kidd finishes his book by tying his conclusions about the role of religion in the American Revolution to current debates about the relationship between government and religion. While providing an interesting discussion about these issues, some readers may question whether it reflects too much presentism in a historical study.
Kidd supports his argument about the important role of religion in the American Revolution through a wealth of information from the various groups involved. He capably presents the reasons people pushed for revolution and why they also supported religious liberty at the same time. The combined chronological and topical presentation sometimes results in a certain amount of repetition (for example, the discussion of the Two Penny Act on pages 51 and 63 is very similar). Some readers may find this approach confusing and wonder why Kidd chose to organize his study in this manner. However, such repetition does not really detract from the excellent evidence and argument presented in this work. God of Liberty is a very readable discussion of what has often been a little-understood subject, because it tries to see the role of religion in the Revolution through the eyes of participants rather than descendants and thus helps us better understand how people with such diverse religious beliefs could come together to win a revolution and create a new nation based on religious liberty. In some ways, Kidd does not present anything new to his readers. Rather, he primarily pushes them to consider the evidence from a different viewpoint than previously considered. Kidd thus capably reminds his readers of the important role that religion played in the Revolutionary era as it provided the foundation for the core beliefs in equality and liberty that became the cornerstones of the new nation created by the war.