Faith Frontiers

Liberty, Virtue, and the Revolutionary War Generation

An Essay on the Influence of the First Great Awakening
On the War for Independence

It was August 14, 1765, and market day in Boston, Massachusetts. Before sunrise, a small group of merchants, known as the "Loyal Nine," hung a stuffed effigy of Andrew Oliver in a large Elm near the street in front of Deacon Jacob Elliott’s home. The Governor had appointed Oliver to collect a new tax levied by British Parliament, the Stamp Act of 1765. This additional tax was more than the colonial economy could accommodate, and the merchants decided to stage a protest.

People gathered beneath and around the tree all day, often blocking the street. They spoke out about their rights as Englishmen. The colonies were already heavily taxed by Parliament in an effort to recover the expense of the French and Indian War. Free-born Englishmen should not be taxed without representation, many in the crowd were saying, and the colonies had no representatives in Parliament.

As the sun set, men dressed as day laborers appeared, led by Ebenezer MacIntosh, a veteran of the French and Indian War and a shoemaker. They cut down the effigy, stuffed it in a coffin, and carried it through town. Behind the coffin marched a column of Boston men, shouting "Liberty and Property!" They marched to the Old State House, where the governor’s council was meeting, and rattled its windows with a defiant shout.

Next the men turned their attention to a building being erected by Andrew Oliver for his tax collection office. They pulled the building down board by board and carried off the pieces. They marched to Oliver’s home, broke out windows, and burned the effigy and coffin in a bonfire made from pieces of Oliver’s office building. Then they broke into Oliver’s wine cellar, drank his wine, and scattered the contents of his house. The Oliver household fled in terror.

Sheriff’s deputies tried to intervene, but were driven away. The governor ordered the militia to beat the alarm but was told that "all the drummers were in the mob." The next morning, Oliver was found and marched to Deacon Elliott’s tree. There, he was forced to resign as tax collector. Triumphant banners and lanterns were hung in the deacon’s tree, including a sign reading "The Liberty Tree."

The Loyal Nine were heroes. Their club, renamed the Sons of Liberty, grew into organized groups of resistance throughout the colonies. Other tax collectors were forced to resign. Within months, no government official was left to collect the Stamp Act tax. On March 18, 1766, eight months after the Boston uprising, British Parliament rescinded the Stamp Act1.

Preliminaries to the Revolution

What united middle and lower class British-Americans that they would fearlessly rebel against the British government in 1765? Certainly it was more than just discontent. Disruptive public behavior was not a characteristic of the shy and diffident "plain people," as the upper class thought of merchants, farmers and laborers in English society. Something much deeper lay beneath this ferment of rebellion that ultimately turned colonial society up side down from New England to Georgia. Something greater than themselves gave plain people the courage, and the self-confidence, to act out against abuses that compromised their rights to liberty and property.

In 1818, John Adams thoughtfully recalled:

"The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution."2

John Adams realized that, before 1775, an earlier reformation had taken place in the characteristic values, beliefs, and practices of the middle and lower classes. This foreshadowing event challenged existing social and religious systems. Taking shape in the 1730s, it broke forth in 1740 as the First Great Awakening of the American people.

Perhaps because the Awakening took the form of an evangelical resurgence of Protestantism in response to secular pressures of the European Enlightenment within the Church of England, many academics and historians choose to ignore how colonial society was transformed by revivalism. Then as now, people attach different levels of importance to religion. But here, we are talking about the "revolution generation" and how, for most of them, religion was a spiritual and social force that reformed their lives and prepared them for revolution.

In the early decades of the 18th century, colonial society was divided generally into two classes, the upper class gentility, known as the "gentle people," and the middle and lower classes known as the "plain or simple people." The upper class held the wealth of the colonies in land and crops and was generally loyal to the Crown. In contrast, merchants, farmers, and laborers found their lives increasingly difficult, burdened by taxes and regulations that restricted trade. Worst of all was Parliament’s requirement that British troops be quartered in private residences. This erosion of personal liberties, and the increasing acts of oppression by those in power, were made even worse at a spiritual level by the established church, the Church of England.

Since its formation in the sixteenth century, the Church of England had become a mixture of imperialism, reformed Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Enlightenment philosophy. It was an instrument of the state, characterized by cold formalism, spiritual indolence, and an intellectualism that taught a person could achieve his or her own redemption through reason and observation. Sundays in the Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, were an occasion for the upper class to transact business before and after attending church services mandated by Parliament. Any gentleman who failed to attend a Sunday service was fined five pounds of tobacco, payable to the church.

Wesley M. Gewehr writes, "religion had become a matter of dead formality in [Anglican] churches everywhere throughout the colonies."3 This same concern was expressed in 1732 by the Rev. Samuel Wigglesworth. In a sermon delivered to the General Assembly of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, he predicted a coming calamity for New England, unless there was a return to the religious devotion of the first Puritan generation.

However, instead of trying to recover lost religious devotion, religious imperialism increased among Anglican and Congregationalist churches until colonial society erupted in the Great Awakening of 1740. What followed was a beginning of the revolution for religious freedom that would prime the revolution generation for America’s war for independence and sustain them through the formative years that followed.


Liberty and freedom were never common words in the vocabulary of history. In fact, there were no special words in the ancient world for either "liberty" or "freedom". The Code of Hammurabi, in the 18th century BC, contained many references to "slaves." But the opposite of "slave" was not "free." It was "master." Neither, however, was a master free. He, in turn, was subject to a more powerful master. We might assume a king was the supreme master, but this was not so. In the ancient world, a king was subject to the gods, and the gods, well, the gods were subject to Nature.

This ancient hierarchal structure of slave and master was familiar to Thomas Jefferson and deplored by him, even though he himself was a master of slaves. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson purposefully acknowledged the ultimate and universal authority of the Creator. After making reference to "the Laws of Nature," he stated Nature also had a master, "Nature’s God." It was Nature’s God who was the grantor of the "separate and equal Station" in life claimed by the American revolutionaries. His less than subtle point to the British king was, as a religious authority the Crown may be head of the Church of England, but liberty was an endowment to humanity from Nature’s God, the Master of the universe. James Madison would add….religion was essential to a free society, but religious establishments of the state were not and, indeed, were impediments to freedom.

The revolution generation believed the Creator-God of Old Testament Patriarchs liberated Israel from slavery and claimed the Hebrew people as His possession, saying, "You shall be my people, and I shall be your God." This formula established a metaphysical reality and cited the authority for Israel’s liberated position in the ancient world. If the Master of the universe was their liberator, nothing could enslave them again, that is, as long as they were faithful to their divine covenant.

Herein also lay the hope of the revolution generation as they confronted the powerful but corrupt British Empire. The early colonists believed they too were God’s chosen people. As such, they appealed to divine Providence (the power of God that guides human destiny) to liberate them from Great Brittan. There was, however, a nagging question in the minds of the Founders: Would the American people be virtuous enough, both socially and individually, to merit God’s blessing of liberation from Brittan’s Monarchy?

In the context of history, our English word, "liberty," comes from a Latin word meaning to be liberated, unbound, and released from restraint. In this context, "liberty" is a slave word and applies to a people liberated from enslavement to a greater power. "Freedom," on the other hand, is a "free-born" word. "Freedom" and "free" have the same root as the word "friend." To be free, therefore, means to belong to a family or tribe of free people, joined by ties of kinship, commitment, and most importantly, by mutual trust. Can the Colonies, with such religious and cultural diversity, be joined in a bond of brotherhood that would enable this miracle? The Founders were not certain.

Liberty and Freedom

"Liberty" and "freedom" are not merely different, they are opposites. "Liberty" implies release and separation. "Freedom" implies connection and relatedness. In the mid-18th century, a challenge before the revolution generation was to combine the ideals of liberty and freedom. People had to be both liberated as individuals and connected as family, in other words, liberated and mutually concerned for the freedom and well-being of one another. Could thirteen, very different colonies be transformed into a one family-nation? As a prelude to revolution in a society that had drifted into a condition of melancholy by the eighteenth century, a social upheaval would be needed to produce cultural reformation unlike anything the world had seen. This upheaval would need to be a "great awakening" of the American people.

How the Founders combined liberty and freedom is seen in our nation’s Declaration of Independence. "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are Created equal (neither slave nor master), that they are endowed (a gift of family) by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights (absolute and permanent rights of the individual that cannot be transferred, surrendered, or rescinded), that among these are Life (living freely in a relationship of trust, doing to others as you would have them do to you), Liberty (liberated from bondage to an oppressive power and protecting one another from future enslavement), and the Pursuit of Happiness" (a state of mind wherein one happily lives in harmony with one’s neighbor).

What made the American war for independence unique in human history was this successful blending of liberty and freedom, being liberated from political and religious bondage and joined in a mutuality of trust and well-being in one nation under God. As illustrated by the Liberty Tree rebellion, the spirit of freedom had been awakened among the people in 1765. British Parliament’s attempt to restrict individual liberties was met, not with a submission born of melancholy hopelessness, but with overwhelming communal resistance and defiance.

As the colonies sensed a common allegiance against their oppressor, this resistance intensified and spread, until it broke forth in war in 1775. No other revolution in human history created such an exceptional social and political transformation. But in order to place liberty and freedom in the revolutionary context, it is necessary to recognize the indigenous religious forces at work in the revolution generation and their parents. It was men like George Washington (born in 1731), John Adams (born in 1735), Thomas Jefferson (born in 1743), and James Madison (born in 1751), who grew up in a time of religious ferment and social reformation that prepared them for the choices and commitments they would make in the war for independence.


The revolutionary ideal would, of necessity, include an extraordinary social and religious dimension the Founders called "virtue." A public that is virtuous would require a fundamental change in colonial America’s culture, a shift away from a corrupt British society as well as away from Brittan’s established religion. Pastor Samuel Wigglesworth, an Anglican minister, attributed New England’s spiritual malady in the 1730s to the "exorbitant reach after riches." His solution was an inner change of "heart" among the people.

At the beginning of the 18th century, British-American society was known for its lack of brotherly love, evident in quarrelsomeness and a disposition toward excessive litigation. In addition to Parliament increasing its involvement in the colonial economy and public affairs, the colonists were burdened with inflation, indebtedness, and declining agricultural productivity. Political cronyism was common among government officials and military officers. Social hostility had increased between the landed gentility and the working plain folk.

It is difficult today for us to imagine the social chasm that separated the upper and lower classes. Usually poor and poorly educated, the plain folk were isolated from educated and wealthy genteel people. Plain folk were embarrassed and shy in the presence of gentlemen and gentlewomen. The Church of England identified with the wealthy and powerful, dedicating its ministry primarily to the elite of colonial society. Its ministers were included in the ranks of the genteel and usually viewed as unapproachable by plain folk. Plain folk were viewed as unworthy of the Church’s favor, or even God’s notice, and were excluded from the ministrations of the church, including Communion.

As a consequence of the Great Awakening, however, plain folk began to literally awaken from their lethargy of suppression and reevaluate their untenable situation. Told by revival preachers that the work of God’s grace was the work of redeeming individuals as well as society, they began to find the courage and determination to change the character and nature of their situation in British-American culture. Virtue, they learned, was an individual choice made available to each person by the Holy Spirit. It was not a matter of class or religious affiliation.

Samuel Adams wrote:

"The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy [freedom as] the gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people, then shall we both deserve and enjoy it. While, on the other hand, if we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject slaves."

John Adams summed up the need for virtue, saying:

"Public Virtue cannot exist without private [virtue], and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics."

If the revolution generation desired to form a republic independent of Great Brittan, they first would need to become a virtuous people. What did the Founders mean by "virtue"? How was the character of British-American society to be reformed, such that those who signed the Declaration of Independence would be willing to pledge…"with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor"? Free and independent Americans must of necessity be a virtuous people, or those who made this pledge would hang for treason.

John Adams explained what it meant to be virtuous:

"There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honor, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superior to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasure, Passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest connections, when they Stand in Competition with the Rights of society."

Indeed, the passion for freedom was to be found in those who are virtuous and who depend on the virtue of their neighbors. It was a scenario out of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Unity was a matter of religious commitment, a covenant born of honesty, promises, and trust. As the rebellion against the Stamp Act of 1765 illustrated, colonial Americans could successfully oppose the tyranny of Great Brittan if they came together with a singleness of purpose and a unity born of belief in a truth greater than themselves. Their right to liberty and freedom was a holy inheritance and a commitment to one another.

The message shared among the revolutionary war generation, from colony to colony, was that a virtuous character, both public and private, lay at the heart of their chance for independence from British rule. Private interests must serve the public good. If social virtue, and therefore personal virtue, was a necessity for liberation from the British Crown, it also was necessary in order to be liberated from British culture and the religious captivity of the established church. The power of the established church over the people at this time in history cannot be ignored. It reaches back for generations, to the fourth century AD.

In the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, established the first church of state, the Roman Catholic Church. When Rome fell, the Roman Catholic Church survived and became the imperial church, a state within itself, no longer an establishment of a state, but an independent establishment led by a Pope. The Church’s authority was unchallenged until the Protestant Reformation in 1517. It was 17 years later that Henry VIII took offense at the Pope, replaced the Roman Catholic Church with the Church of England (Anglican) as the established church of the British Empire, and named himself head of the Church.

By the 1760s, bishops of the Anglican Church occupied 28 seats in Parliament. Anglican ministers, including those in the colonies, pledged their loyalty to the British Crown and Parliament, who authorized their ministries and paid their salaries. In Virginia, the religious power of the Anglican Church was backed by the power of the British Empire. Virginia’s colonial government required all non-Anglican denominations to pledge their allegiance to the Crown, register their churches, and license their ministers through the Church of England.

But as the revivals of the Great Awakening spread through non-Anglican churches in the frontier region, particularly among the Baptists who virtually ignored the policies, doctrines, and practices of the Anglican Church, the Anglican Church and its clergy became the strongest opponents of the revival movement. The shift toward religious freedom had begun, however, and it would not be deterred by Anglican persecutions in Virginia or in any other colony.

From Generation to Generation

Recall that in 1818, John Adams wrote:

"The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution." 4

We have suggested this radical change in colonial culture was initiated by an evangelical movement that swept through the colonies like wildfire in the early 1740s. The movement, known as the First Great Awakening, began in Europe as Pietism within Lutheran Churches. It was taken up by Calvinist Presbyterians and Congregationalists in New England, as well as by disillusioned Anglicans. The movement’s emphasis was on individual piety and a virtuous Christian life that would reform society.

Men like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, William Tennent, Sr., who established the Log College that became Princeton, his sons, William, Jr., Gilbert, and John Tennent, and John Wesley, among others, preached for a spiritual renewal among the people of colonial America, regardless of class or ethnic origins. The heart of revival was not about church doctrine, which had been the cause of terrible wars in Europe, but about the work of the Holy Spirit to redeem individuals and society. So despondent were the plain people prior to the Awakening, it was reported that many who heard the revivalists, and the promise of God’s redeeming grace, were overwhelmed with fear or gratitude or both, falling down in faints or breaking down in emotional and sometimes uncontrollable reactions.

When migrating to the Americas, Puritans referred to themselves as the Thirteenth Tribe of Israel. Jonathan Edwards, a Calvinist, picked up the Israel metaphor and used biblical history as a warning of things to come, if individuals and society were not reformed. In his famous sermon, "Sinners in the hands of an angry God," he began with a warning from Deuteronomy, "Their foot shall slide in due time." He said,

"In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained void of counsel…..’Their foot shall slide in due time,’ seems to imply…they were always exposed to destruction…they are liable to fall of themselves…and the reason why they are not fallen already…is only that God’s appointed time is not come." (

This dreadful analogy, of a people poised on the slippery slope of an abyss, did not escape the imagination of his listeners, who were anxious to hear the good news of God’s free and redeeming grace that would keep them from certain destruction.

The revivalists’ message was like a hammer striking the heads of their listeners, leaving colonists with no doubt that their only hope to avoid God’s judgment was to separate themselves from the corrupt influences of English society, become a virtuous people, and trust God’s grace to deliver them. Deliverance could be expected, Edwards proclaimed, through the flow of providential events yet to come. This news convinced many that the kingdom of God could, indeed, be expected by the end of the 18th century. A liberated America was pictured as part of God’s coming kingdom of peace and prosperity on earth. These and other strong convictions added to this generation’s growing fervor for independence in the years leading up to the revolutionary war.

Nevertheless, the effects of the Great Awakening divided colonists between those who wished to preserve the intellectual formalism of the established church and those who shared the emotional enthusiasm of the revivalists. Presbyterians were divided between Old Side and New Side proponents. Congregationalists were divided between Old Lights and New Lights. Anglicans, Old Side Presbyterians, and Old Light Congregationalists opposed the evangelical movement. Baptists and Methodists favored it, as did New Side Presbyterians, New Light Congregationalists, and many Lutherans and German Reformed congregations, particularly in frontier regions.

Historian Alan Heimert writes that, while the new Calvinism of the Great Awakening appeared to deemphasize the Protestant plan of salvation, it did emphasize the Holy Spirit’s work of salvation by grace alone through faith, and give new importance to moral behavior in the work of redemption. Virtue was understood, not as a variety of deportments that differed from class to class, but as a state of mind essentially the same for all men, regardless of station.5 Consequently, a strong emphasis was placed on personal morality, and the moral teachings of Jesus Christ were held up as the standard of excellence by revival preachers, as well as by Thomas Jefferson.

A social leveling began that would lead to the restoration of an Old Testament norm of social behavior, treating others the way you want to be treated. As a result, old animosities of class distinctions began to disappear, and colonial society became more cordial and mutually supportive. By the 1760s, a new spirit of expectancy began to characterize attitudes of the time, as people embraced biblical values and principles and witnessed social reformation taking shape within colonial culture. As revivals brought all classes of people together in worship and Bible study, plain people lost their shyness. People in both social classes were awakened to the truth that all are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights from the Master of the universe. Before these words were written into our founding documents, they were lived among the people of a reformed colonial society.

The social effect of this evangelical movement united people with a sense of shared freedom based on faith in God’s work of grace, and it liberated them from the bondage of class distinctions. It foreshadowed the end of the imperial power of the Crown and its established church, giving colonists a new sense of religious freedom that would reinforce their commitment to a war for independence. The result was a massive reordering of American society and a moral commitment among individuals to the growing spirit of revolution that would break forth in 1775.

John Adams, however, offered a cautionary statement to future generations.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Samuel Adams added these words of wisdom, written to his friend, Richard Henry Lee.

I thank God that I have lived to see my country independent and free. She may long enjoy her independence and freedom if she will. It depends on her virtue.

We find, therefore, that the spirit of revolution was born in the fervor of religious revival that swept through the colonies, shaping their understanding of liberty, freedom, and virtue. Were they virtuous enough to gain the blessings of freedom? History would say, "Yes." But I leave you with another question, yet unanswered. Are the people of America virtuous enough today to hold onto this legacy?


1 Fischer, David Hackett. Liberty and Freedom, A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas; Oxford University Press (2005), p. 19-24.
2 Ferling, John. Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (2002), p. 281.
3 Gewehr, Wesley M., The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790. Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 1930, page 4.
4 Ferling, John. Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (2002), p. 281.
5 Heimert, Alan, Religion and the American Mind from the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1966, p. 55.

Eugene C. Buie, Jr., DMin.
April 4, 2011
Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

Rev. Eugene C. Buie, Jr., DMin. (Retired)

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