The Presbyterian Rebellion

This is always a good week to think about our country’s history, amidst the fireworks, cookouts, and national declarations. I suppose it’s in our blood as Presbyterians. Since the beginning of this American experiment, our denomination’s forbearers have always been engaged in the machinations of our self-governance. A courtier in service to King George III once referred to the Revolution as “the Presbyterian rebellion.”

In fact, even before 12 Presbyterians signed the Declaration of Independence, our church was a hotbed of patriotic fervor. The historian, Bradley J. Longfield, writes, “There was something inherent in Presbyterianism that made the cause of colonial independence congenial to it.” 

But we should really blame all of this on the Episcopalians. Since the beginning of the 18th century, Anglican colonists longed for the Church of England to name a resident bishop for the New World. But many Reformed Christians, who had escaped Europe for religious freedom, were deeply opposed to having a bishop on America’s shore. That seemed to them one step removed from an established state church. The battle for civil liberty became tied up with religious liberty. When Presbyterians in New York were repeatedly denied a charter of incorporation from the government (which was controlled by Anglicans who feared the churches would be put on equal footing) they rallied with Congregationalists to oppose the very idea of a bishop… and soon a king. 

Presbyterians were shortly described as the most patriotic of the Protestant churches. Yet even among the church’s zealous ranks, there were clergy who tempered our longing for independence with the truth that such unshackling would not free all residents. The Rev. Jacob Green, a minister in Hanover, New Jersey, wrote in early 1776, “What foreign nation can believe that we who so loudly complain of Britain’s attempts to oppress and enslave us, are, at the same time, voluntarily holding multitudes of fellow creatures in abject slavery.” History would prove Green right. 

Even now, 247 years later, we grapple with what it means to be a nation of liberty for all people. One way I suspect we as Americans continue that hard work is by our form of government: giving representative voice to the people, and working to safeguard the concerns of the marginalized. I’d like to think our church taught us that first, as we listen to the Spirit of God move us toward true freedom.