Review: Gregg L. Frazer 'God against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy's Case against the American Revolution'

The voices and ideas of the losers - of those who remained loyal to England during the American Revolution - are virtually unknown.

The opening page of Gregg L. Frazer's God against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy's Case against the American Revolution (2018) reminds us that despite the very significant historical research over the last few decades into the Loyalists, the popular narrative has remained unchanged.  The 'Tories' are still routinely dismissed as a small minority of elite, self-interested, placeholders.  The reality of the struggle between Loyalist and Patriot was radically different.  As historian Robert Calhoun has stated, "The Revolution was in some respects a civil war", with "large numbers" serving in Loyalist military units, and Loyalism embracing a range of perspectives with significant roots in colonial society, from "principled loyalism", to "accommodating loyalism", and a "doctrinaire toryism [which] was an extension of the stability of Anglican parish life in England".

Frazer's focus on the Loyalist clergy recognises that - amongst both Loyalists and Patriots - the pulpit was a key factor in shaping local allegiances.  In fact, this reliance on the pulpit was more pronounced amongst Loyalists because there were few other "public advocates for Loyalism ... aside from churchmen" (p.2), not least due to the aggressive mechanisms to enforce political conformity created by the Patriots.  What is more, clergy were particularly suited to participation in political and public controversy as they tended to be "observant political subjects and well-educated men" (p.78), "well-educated Englishmen" (p.99).

Identifying 182 Loyalist clergy, Frazer notes that 76% of these clergy were Anglican (p.29).  This statistic in itself, however, can be misleading as the conflict bitterly divided Anglican opinion in the colonies.  Of the Church of England clergy in the colonies at the outset of the conflict, 128 can be identified as Loyalist, 130 as Patriots, and 59 as unaligned (p.5).  What is more, there were significant differences between the southern and northern colonies:

In Maryland, 40 per cent were loyal, but that could be said of only five of twenty-three Anglican clergymen in South Carolina (p.5).

This reflects J.C.D. Clark's summary of differences between the colonies:

the position varied from colony to colony: all of Connecticut's 20 Anglican clergy were loyalists, and New York and New Jersey each produced only one republican priest; but of some 100 Virginia clergy, 74 have been identified as backing the rebellion against 20 loyalists.

A theological divide underpinned much of this contrast.  Southern clergy tended to be low church and latitudinarian, whereas northern clergy were usually high church.  And it was northern colonies which had a higher number of missionary clergy from the high church Society for the Propogation of the Gospel.  As Frazer notes:

About 90 per cent of the SPG missionaries kept that oath [to the Crown] and were Tories (p.5).

Amongst the five Loyalist clergy identified by Frazer as the "most prolific writers", four were Anglicans, and three of these names in particular will be familiar to many readers: Jonathan Boucher, Charles Inglis, and Samuel Seabury (p.29).

Reviewing the arguments put forward by the Loyalist clergy, Frazer considers in turn the Biblical, philosophical, and legal arguments.  He points to significant contrasts in how Loyalist and Patriot clergy handled Scripture:

In their sermons, as a general rule, the Loyalist preachers appealed more to the Bible and held to a more literal and contextual interpretation of the relevant texts of Scripture than did the Patriot preachers.  In addition, the Loyalists typically took passages at face value without adding or subtracting from the text, wile the Patriot preachers adjusted texts to fit their purpose by adding qualifying language (p.36).

Words from Mark Noll are used to drive home the point:

exegetical precision was not required in order to enlist the Bible for the patriot cause (p.36).

Frazer goes on to neatly summarise the different approaches to Scripture:

It is perhaps symbolic, but also instructive, to recognize that ... the motto of resistance theology was the nonbiblical phrase "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."  In contrast, the catchphrase of the Loyalist ministers was "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers" - the direct text of Romans 13:1 (p.38).

It is difficult not to, at least partly, see this as an outworking of the theological differences between the different theological traditions within colonial Anglicanism, with Patriot latitudinarian clergy approaching Scripture with a quite different mindset to the orthodox doctrinal commitments of Loyalist clergy:

The Loyalist ministers took the passages literally - the prevailing view of the "Christian West" for more than 1,500 years (p.234).

When it came to philosophical arguments over allegiance and rights, the Loyalist clergy were able to invoke a well-established Anglican political theology which rejected the visions of Hobbes and Locke.  Thus Frazer quotes Inglis:

He expresses disagreement with Thomas Hobbes on the mechanistic origin of government and agreement with Richard Hooker that government and society are inseparable (p.80).

Similarly, Boucher:

As he does regarding contract and consent, Boucher takes on the ultimate Patriot source in the dispute over resistance: John Locke.  After referring to him as an "inferior" writer, Boucher claims that Locke "when defending resistance, falls into inconsistencies, and is at variance with himself" (p.91).

Against Lockean abstractions, the Loyalist clergy - in a manner not unlike that later seen in Burke's Reflections - pointed to the practical wisdom of the British experience of ordered liberty.  As Inglis states of the Aristotelian scheme of a constitution balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and the democracy:

It has been the opinion of the wisest men in every age, that a proper combination of the three, constitutes the best government.  It is the peculiar, distinguishing glory of the English constitution, that it is a happy mixture of these; so tempered and balanced, that each is kept within its proper bounds, and the good of the whole thereby promoted (p.81f).

This also shaped how Loyalist clergy regarded the legal debates surrounding the colonial debates and then the cause of independence.  The rejection of a settled constitutional order which had defended the colonies and enabled them to flourish deeply disturbed Loyalist clergy:

They firmly believed that the good of society required the stability provided by the traditional and constitutional features of the British governmental system - as well as by the colonial assemblies representing local interests.  Ultimately, the Loyalist clergymen were Englishmen who greatly valued that identity and the institutions and rights that accompanied it (p.125).

Frazer provides a convincing and comprehensive account of the theological, philosophical and legal case made by the Loyalist clergy.  In his conclusion he summarises the contrasting approaches of Loyalist and Patriot clergy:

Patriot preachers tapped into the theories of John Locke; Loyalist ministers delved into law, reason, and history (p.234).

This summary of the Loyalist clergy has a Hooker-like quality to it.  Indeed, it brings to mind the account given of Hooker in one of the classical texts of American conservatism, Russell Kirk's The Roots of American Order (1974):

Hooker's understanding of the benign character of law, of historical and cultural continuity, of constitutional government ... Hooker opened eyes afresh to the vision of order.

The fact that Kirk thus identifies Hooker as a source of the 'American Order' does, however, make me wonder about that judgement from the opening page of Frazer's excellent book: that these Loyalist clergy were the "losers".  If Yoram Hazony is correct, and the United States Constitution was established as a 'conservative democracy', an expression of what he terms "Anglo-American conservatism", and amongst the expounders of whom he lists Hooker, we might suggest that the concerns of the Loyalist clergy prevailed over what Hazony terms the "Enlightenment political tradition descended from the principal political texts of rationalist political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke" - the very tradition invoked by the Patriots.

Another reason to question the "losers" epithet is the emergence of the polity to the north of the United States.  The Loyalists established this polity as, in the words of Ron Dart, "a more conservative society, a culture much more founded in an older Tory vision of the common good".

And, finally, there is the role played by the Loyalist clergy in renewing and revitalizing Anglican political theology, particularly in the face of the 1789 Revolution in France.  Peter Williams's The Church Militant: The American Loyalist Clergy and the Making of the British Counterrevolution, 1701-92 powerfully demonstrates how the Loyalist clergy played an "expansive role" in both the renewal of Anglican political and in the popular reaction against revolutionary ideology.

This is something which had already been indicated in the place JCD Clark had given in English Society 1688-1832 to the Loyalist cleric Jonathan Boucher, in his account of Orthodox Anglican political theology and its understanding of allegiance in the face of the ideology being exported from revolutionary France.  Rather than 'losers', then, the Loyalist clergy become key players in the revitalizing of the British polity in the face of conflict with revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and in the renewal of Britain's imperial mission.

In The North American High Tory Tradition, Ron Dart states:

We do not need to read too far into Jewel's Apology of the Church of England, the Thirty-nine Articles of the Book of Common Prayer or Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to get a keen sense that the state has an essential role in building and creating a good and just society.  

Part of the Church's mission is to articulate an understanding of human flourishing.  This necessarily requires a political theology, an account of the right ordering of the polity.  This is what the Loyalist clergy in the American colonies were doing, in a time of political uncertainty, questioning, and upheaval.  Frazer's book is a reminder to the contemporary Church that the collusion with the empty secular order that is the late 20th and early 21st century Church's withdrawal from the political realm is a catastrophic failure to engage with debates and questions concerning the right ordering of the polity, a collective shrug of the shoulders in the face of the contemporary desire for polities shaped by something more substantive and meaningful than a coalition of technocrats, entertainers, and consumers.

In other words, we need to listen afresh to Boucher, Inglis, and Seabury, and regain a proper confidence in the necessary place of political theology in the Church's mission and teaching.  As Boucher himself stated in a sermon:

there is a sense in which politics, properly understood, form an essential branch of Christian duty.  These politics take in a very principal part, if not the whole, of the second table of the Decalogue, which contains our duty to our neighbour ... This, however, is as direct and clear a commission for a Christian minister's preaching on politics, in the just sense of the word, on all proper occasions, as can be produced for our preaching at all on any subject - Discourse XII 'On Civil Liberty; Passive Obedience, and Non-Resistance' (a sermon preached in the parish of Queen Anne, Maryland, in 1775) in Jonathan Boucher A View of the Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution (1797).


  1. I question how effective these arguments actually were. In the century past, the English themselves had beheaded one king and exiled another. What the American colonists did by separating was about a 4 or 5 at most.

    "He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us."

    1. Many thanks for the comment and my apologies for taking so long in responding.

      I think the key point is that a significant proportion of colonists disagreed with you. The Loyalists were numerically significant and the very fact of their existence is testament to the power of the arguments summarised by Frazer.

      Regarding English 17th history, the martyrdom of King Charles I was an event that most Britons throughout the 18th century - Tories and Whigs - contemplated with horror and did not support. For all of the criticisms of Charles that Whigs articulated, they did not regard his execution as anything other than a disaster.

      In terms of 1688, Tories, of course, insisted that it was an abdication and that hereditary right within a Protestant succession was maintained. As the 18th century progressed, many Whigs thought likewise.

      It is also worth noting that the American Revolution gave rise to a renewed Anglican political theology, to which Loyalist clergy contributed. This was to become particularly important in the face of the Revolution in France.


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