Book Review: ‘God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution’ by Gregg L. Frazer

by John D. Wilsey

When a person dies, that person is usually forgotten as time advances. The Book of Exodus opens with the memorable saying: “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (1:8, ESV). Let’s face it, when most of us are laid low by the sweeping of the dread sickle, the memory of our lives will be swallowed up by oblivion. The psalmist reminds us of this reality: “As for man, his days are like grass. … The wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (103:15–16, ESV).

The same can be true for ideas. Many ideas die with those who strove, fought, and suffered for them. This is usually the case for the people and ideas that were on the losing side of some great controversy. If later generations do not forget them outright, they at least tend to remember them as inevitable losers, in part because the victors have reduced them to caricature.

Both dynamics seem to be true of the individuals who remained loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution. The Loyalists and their ideas are unknown to many, if not most Americans. And if they are known, they are too often remembered in simplified and distorted ways.

The living owe something worthier to the dead than forgetfulness or, worse, their misconstruing or mockery. We owe them our empathy and even, as historian Beth Barton Schweiger has recently argued, our love. And loving the dead means laboring to tell the truth about them in all its complexity. In God against the Revolution, historian Gregg L. Frazer considers the Loyalist clergy and their arguments against American rebellion and independence, giving their viewpoint a careful, comprehensive, and fair treatment.

Grounded in Scripture

This book is a righteous tribute to Loyalist pastors, who took up their cause with integrity, erudition, and a sincere spirit of peace. Far from being dupes of the British elite or proxies of a tyrant, the Loyalist clergy saw themselves as true lovers of America who were equally committed to the flourishing of their communities. Frazer aims “to show that the Loyalists do not fit nicely into a simplistic category, were not ideologically shallow, and were not motivated by fear. They were … well-meaning and seeking what they thought was best for their home: America.”

One reason the Loyalist clergy have been misunderstood is that much of their writing was destroyed during the Revolution. Another reason, to put the matter simply, is that the Patriots were victorious, and the victorious party typically has the upper hand in shaping how the contest will be remembered.

Frazer concludes that there were about 182 Loyalist clergymen during the Revolutionary period. Of these, he focuses on the dozen or so who were the most influential. The most prominent were Jonathan Boucher (Anglican), Thomas Bradbury Chandler (Anglican), Charles Inglis (Anglican), Samuel Seabury (Anglican), and John Joachim Zubly (Presbyterian). References to these figures appear consistently throughout the book. While Frazer mainly relies on the writings of only a select few pastors, he ably sorts out their distinctive biblical, rational, legal, and practical appeals.

One of the most significant features of Loyalist arguments in support of the British government is that they were not entirely uncritical. Much of what the Loyalists claimed was in harmony with Patriot beliefs. Many, like Zubly, did not approve of being called Tories, instead preferring the appellation Loyalist. Zubly’s writings shared striking similarities with those of his Patriot contemporaries, but as a Loyalist, he stopped short of supporting rebellion against Britain. In fact, Frazer concludes that most Loyalists loved America, criticized the British government for making grievous errors against the colonies, and spoke out against those errors.

In grounding their support of the mother country in Scripture, Loyalist clergy often handled God’s Word more conscientiously than their Patriot counterparts. Frazer points out that pro-revolution pastors frequently read their own biases into passages like Romans 13, consistent with Jonathan Mayhew’s precedent-setting 1750 sermon on the 101st anniversary of the execution of Charles I, “A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to Higher Powers.” Furthermore, Frazer asserts that while the Loyalists appealed mainly to Scripture, history, and the law, Patriot clergy relied on “theory, fear, and John Locke.”

The Bible formed the cohesive foundation for the Loyalists’ argument, and their commitment to a plain reading of Scripture stands in stark contrast to the often allegorical and typological interpretive methods favored by the Patriots. Sermons by Chandler, Zubly, and George Mickeljohn demonstrate that, for the Loyalists, Romans 13 is descriptive rather than aspirational, in contrast to Mayhew’s 1750 perspective. And the Loyalists’ plain approach to Scripture also deviates sharply from that of patriot figures like Samuel Sherwood, Abraham Keteltas, and Jacob Cushing, who identified the 13 colonies with ancient Israel as the chosen people of God. The Loyalist clergy were deeply concerned that the Bible was being abused by Patriots for political ends. They worried that Patriot pastors were subjecting the text of the Bible to reason, rather than reason to the Bible.

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Source: Christianity Today