The Presbyterian Rebellion

American Presbyterians frequently circulate the claim that King George III of England referred to the American Revolution as a “Presbyterian War.”

Several years ago I set out to find the original source from which the quote is taken since I was curious about the context in which the king made this statement — if indeed he even did.

The first time I discussed this quest with my dissertation director (who happens to be an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)), he suspected I may discover it is a fiction manufactured by proud Presbyterian myth-makers, for indeed many such writers have spun their yarn.

So begins a doctoral dissertation I found this week in researching an idea for my blog post for today. In his dissertation, titled The Presbyterian Rebellion: An Analysis of the Perception that the American Revolution was a Presbyterian War, Robert Gardiner pursues this quote and investigates the cultural context in which it might have been made.

Did King George say this? Here is how Dr. Gardiner summarizes his research on whether King George III would have said this –

The answer to the overarching question, then, is a nuanced affirmative. Did King George III call the American Revolution a Presbyterian Rebellion? Maybe, or even probably, but primary source documentation is lacking. Did King George III consider the American Revolution a Presbyterian Rebellion? Definitely. …[H]e gave every impression that it was a sentiment he held. Nothing suggests that George III disagreed with the opinion of his advisor, William Jones, who said that the American Revolution was a Presbyterian war from the beginning [Gardiner, p. 275-276].

He puts together a good line of evidence to support this and traces the quote itself, in a couple of different variations, back to the late 19th century and suggests the quote may have been manufactured, or misattributed, between 1876 and 1919.

But the rebellion, or on our side the War of Independence, was a Presbyterian cause. American Presbyterians are today well aware that the only active minister to sign the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian school. And people also point to the Mecklenburg Declaration from May of 1775 where a group of local citizens of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, who were all Scots-Irish Presbyterians (one account) passed a resolution declaring independence. While the exact timing and existence of that first document are sometimes questioned for their historical accuracy, it is good enough that North Carolina carries the date on its flag today.

So yes, Presbyterians played a part, but Gardiner does point out that it was not just the Presbyterians who were involved, or maybe even dominant.

Anyone attempting to allege a Presbyterian vs. Episcopalian controversy at the bottom of the revolt must explain the contradictory evidence. In particular, some of the most important leaders of the revolution were, in fact, Episcopalians — members of the Church of England. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence 34 were Episcopalians while only 6 were Presbyterians. In that light, it seems that the king would have had more warrant to call the revolution an “Episcopal Rebellion” than a “Presbyterian Rebellion.” All one has to do is cite the examples of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and George Wythe; and the Anglican vs. Presbyterian interpretation of the war quickly breaks down. These men were all bona fide Episcopalians, but at the same time, promoters of American independence [Gardiner, p. 279].

He goes on to say

The loyalists were quite aware of these facts, but they did not concede the point. According to loyalists, although many of the rebels wore Anglican masks, their hearts were not in harmony with their facade. Such was the observation of a loyalist named Tingly who tried to explain in 1782 the contradictory behavior of these revolutionary Episcopalians.

Tho they always professed themselves Churchmen [i.e., Episcopalians], they have proved that their principles & professions were not unisons; or, in other words, that they are Churchmen by profession, but Presbyterians by trade, i.e., no friends to Church and state … And those of this stamp joined with the hot brained Zealots among the Presbyterians who have almost all, without exception, proved fiery advocates for independency [Gardiner, p. 279-280].

Embedded in all of this is a distinction that is very important to make, and that is the cultural meaning of the term “presbyterian” at that time in England. It carried a lot of baggage, to say the least, after the restoration and was a catch-all term for trouble-makers and those that opposed the crown. (Remember, Jesus Christ is the ” head over all things to the church”) As Dr. Gardiner put it in the abstract of his dissertation. [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]

The label “Presbyterian” was a much more ambiguous designation than it is at present. Employed broadly as a synonym for a Calvinist, a dissenter, or a republican, the term was used with considerable imprecision in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, it was used as a demagogic tool to inflame popular passions. The term Presbyterian carried with it the connotation of a fanatical, anti-monarchical rebel.

Well, maybe those Mallard Fillmore cartoons are just a bit anachronistic.

Dr. Gardiner describes his motivation for this dissertation in the abstract by observing that “there indeed was a profound religious factor at the heart of the conflict, both perceived and real” and the Revolution can not be attributed solely to “socio-economic factors.”

So in that respect it was a Presbyterian Rebellion where he describes the situation saying “Calvinists and Calvinism permeated the American colonial milieu, and the king’s friends did not wish for this fact to go unnoticed.”

While the Declaration signed on this day in 1776 may make heavy reference to political and socio-economic factors, it opens and closes (concluding words below) with passages heavy with divine imagery. So, a happy Independence Day to my American friends as we remember this Presbyterian Rebellion.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Steve Salyards is a Ruling Elder at La Verne Heights Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in the Angeles Foothills just east of Pasadena. Steve blogs at The GA Junkie where this article first appeared; it is used with permission.