“Prepare Thyself … to Meet the Lord Thy God!”: Religion in Pennsylvania During the Revolution

The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

Religion in the colony of Pennsylvania was distinctive. In contrast to most areas of the western world, this province practiced freedom of religion. It never had an established church. Friends who controlled the first legislative assembly, meeting in Upland, now Chester, in 1682, specified that no one was “at any time [to] be com­pelled to frequent or Maintain anie religious worship, place or Ministry whatever, Contrary to his or her mind.”

Although religious leaders who were accustomed to state churches in Europe blamed Pennsylvania’s “excessive liber­ty” for many of their problems, members of Europe’s per­secuted minorities considered Pennsylvania “the freest and most tolerant country in the world.” It was, they declared, a “land the like of which no one had ever seen.” Conrad Beissel, superintendent of the German Seventh Day Bap­tists, so appreciated the magistrates’ tolerance that he pro­claimed the province to be “under the authority of the saints.”

Pennsylvania’s religious freedom led to greater variety in beliefs and practices than existed in any of Great Britain’s other American colonies. Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravians, described the colony as a “complete Babel.” The province was pluralistic by every possible criterion. Its population included Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, Deists and Pietists as well as churchmen and dissenters.

Pennsylvanians of the Revolutionary era took their religion very seriously. Edmund Burke, member of the British parliament, commented accurately to the House of Com­mons in 1775, “Religion, always a principle of energy in this new people is in no way worn out or impaired.” He ex­plained that most of the colonists were Protestant, “and of that kind which is most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.” The colonists “mode of professing” their religion, according to Burke, was a major cause of their “free spirit”

Members of Pennsylvania religious groups quickly resisted threats to their freedom. When the Anglican clergy in America appealed for the appointment of a bishop, Presby­terians of Pennsylvania and other Middle Colonies ener­getically opposed the petition. In 1766, they allied with the Connecticut Association of Congregational churches to form the General Convention for Religious Liberty which met annually until 1775. The convention communicated with dissenters elsewhere in the British Empire in order to develop political opposition in parliament. Francis Alison of the Philadelphia committee wrote regularly to leading English ministers. He emphasized that members of the con­vention did not oppose bishops who had only the power of “ordaining, confirming, and taking care of the morals of their Episcopal clergy;” but he challenged the bishops’ his­toric secular power. Because some colonists, including even Pennsylvania’s leading Friends seemed willing to “admit a moderate episcopacy, Alison and other members of the convention obtained and circulated evidence that Anglican authorities had denied religious liberty in the colonies.

The increasing tension between Great Britain and her American colonies led some Pennsylvanians to believe that God was punishing them for their departures from His pre­cepts. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, patriarch of Pennsyl­vania Lutheranism, asserted that “God, who rules over all things is first using the motherland as a rod for America.” The Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia in 1775 issued a pastoral letter urging “every person, family, city, and province to humble themselves before his throne, to confess their sins, by which they have provoked his in­dignation.” It recommended that its constituents specify not only “sins in general” but also “national sins” that had provoked God’s wrath, such as pride, materialism, and neglect of worship. The delegates asserted that if they ex­pected God to hear their supplications, they should remem­ber what God required of them.

Pennsylvania’s religious leaders, like many of its political leaders, approached revolution cautiously. In a pastoral letter, the Presbyterian synod urged its constituents to “Jet every opportunity be taken to express your attachment and respect to our sovereign King George.” Simultaneously, how­ever, the synod admonished Presbyterians to “maintain the union which at present subsists through all the colonies” and to support the Continental Congress. Anglican mission­aries to Pennsylvania also steered a moderate course, for to comply with some colonists’ demands for a public proclam­ation of opposition to parliament’s position would likely offend those Englishmen who paid their salaries, while to express support for parliament “would leave them without congregations everywhere.” As Thomas Barton, Anglican missionary at Lancaster, later reported to the Pennsylvania assembly, the missionaries “made it their study to give no offense to either of the contending parties.”

Adherents to various faiths expressed their preference to be agents to reconciliation. The Anglican clergy of Phila­delphia prayed that they “could become mediators for the Settlement of the unnatural Controversy that now distracts a once happy Empire.” Presbyterian ministers claimed that they “ardently wished” and ” often hoped” that the divisive issues could “have been more early accomodated.” A German church member composed in German a hymn for use on the fast day set by the Congress in 1775 containing the appeal,

Amen, Lord Jesus, help us now
For the sake of your dear name
Bring peace within our borders now
Forge us together all the same

Provincial religious leaders held the home government largely responsible for the crisis. Even the Anglican clergy of Philadelphia considered the residents of America entitled, “as well as their Brethren in England, to the Right of granting their own money.” They warned the Bishop of London that attempts to deprive them of their rights would be either futile or not worth the cost. Philadelphia’s Anglicans gave their clergy the impression that they would “never submit to the Parliamentary claim of taxing them at pleasure.” The clergymen, themselves, asserted that their “Consciences would not permit us to injure the rights of this country.” Other churchmen also began to speak out in 1775 as the governing bodies of Philadelphia’s Reformed and Lutheran congregations, with the Pennsylvania German So­ciety, issued appeals to their co-religionists in New York and North Carolina, whose position was in doubt, to support the Continental Congress.

Many Pennsylvania churchmen did more than talk about resistance; they joined local militia units or the Continental Army to fight for independence. In some congregations, it seemed as if the vast majority of the men, including the ministers. had enlisted. The Presbyterians were best known for their military prowess. At least twelve Pennsylvania Presbyterian ministers served as chaplains. German church­men, of whom Peter Muhlenberg was the most famous, also participated. In Reading, the Reformed minister, Philip Jacob Michael resigned his charge of more than ten congre­gations and joined a large contingent of his members in the Berks County militia. Practically every member of the 3rd Company of the Northern Battalion of the Berks County Militia was a member of the Reformed and Lutheran congregations of Bern Township. The Philadelphia Anglican clergyman, William Smith, reported that his “people have all taken up Arms and entered into associations.” He observed in the Philadelphia churches “nothing but men in their uniforms.”

When the fighting began, some congregations also pro­vided for the care of sick and wounded soldiers. East Vincent Reformed Church in Chester County, the Friends’ Meeting in Radnor, the Methodist Society at Bethel Hill, as well as many other congregations converted their sanctuaries into hospitals for the Continental troops. Government officials recognized also that the commodious quarters of Pennsylvania’s religious communities could be utilized.

The Director General of the Hospitals, Dr. William Shippen, designated Bethlehem as the site of the General Hospital of the Continental Army. Moravians, under the leadership of their minister, John Ettwein, worked willingly to receive the casualties in the “Brethren’s House” and other buildings. Approximately 250 wounded soldiers arrived in late 1776 and remained almost four months. The Moravians housed even more of the sick and wounded after the Philadelphia campaign, especially the Battle of Germantown, in the fall of 1777 when nearly 1,000 troops found refuge among them.

Such disturbances rendered normal religious activity impossible. John George Wittner, secretary of the Reformed coetus, observed that the “people at present think more of arms than of God’s word.” As the British armies advanced toward Philadelphia in September, 1777. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg proclaimed, “Now prepare thyseif, Pennsyl­vania, to meet the Lord thy God!” He had withdrawn from the city one year earlier, and many former parishioners vis­ited him at Trappe during the British occupation. Yet, he could serve them there only slightly more effectively than in Philadelphia because of the large numbers of unruly rebel troops in the vicinity. The Lutheran congregation at Germantown scattered, and the pastor became a fugitive. Presbyterians also departed in such large numbers that the city’s Second Presbytery ceased to function altogether. The First Presbytery did not meet in the fall of 1777 when the British occupied the city, for “members thought it unsafe and improper to attend,” but later members maintained the presbytery by meeting in remote locations. So many members of the Reformed Church left that those remaining could fit into the congregation’s schoolhouse. Their minister, Casper Dietrich Weyberg, stayed in Philadelphia where he defended the American cause, even to Hessian troops in the British service. For this indiscretion, British officials threatened his life and imprisoned him briefly. Anglican clergy­men throughout the state left their parishes, often in order to escape similar treatment by the rebels for their refusal to forswear their allegiance to the king. Thomas Barton closed St. James Church in Lancaster “to avoid the fury of the populace who would not suffer the Liturgy to be used unless the Collects & Prayers for the King & Royal Family were ommitted.” He reported that some of his Anglican colleagues “have been dragged from their horses, assaulted with stones & dirt, ducked in water; and obliged to flie for their lives.” The Presbytery of New Castle, which included Presbyterian Congregations in southern Pennsylvania, complained that the church in that area was “being rendered destitute of a preached Gospel.”

Congregations located near the fighting curtailed their worship because the armies ejected them from their build­ings. Rebel troops broke into the Friends’ Market Street Meeting House in Philadelphia in 1776 and used it as quarters on their way from Maryland to New Jersey and New York. When Muhlenberg entered his Augustus Lutheran Church at Trappe for the funeral of a child, he found straw and manure on the floor and food on the altar. A militia man was presiding at the organ, and “what the soldiers sang to his accompaniment was not for edification.” Both Amer­icans and British devastated St. Peter’s Lutheran Church at Barren Hill by burning the altar, pulpit, benches and window shutters. British officials took over Philadelphia’s St. Michael’s Lutheran Church for use by the Hessian soldiers, and the Methodists’ building they used as a cavalry school. Presbyterian churches, often destroyed by the British in New York and New Jersey, were occupied by the British in Philadelphia but left standing. The British also occupied Philadelphia’s Reformed church, and when the congregation returned to it, Pastor Weyberg preached on a text from the Seventy-ninth Psalm, “O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; Thy holy temple they have defiled.”

The Reformed congregation in Allentown also did not use its building consistently throughout the war but for a different reason. The sermon record of the minister, Abraham Blumer, reveals that he did not conduct Sunday services in the church from September, 1777, until April, 1778. This period coincides precisely with the residence of the bell of the Pennsylvania State House, later known as the Liberty Bell, beneath the floor of the nave. It is possible that the floor was disrupted in providing a shelter for the bell.


Test of Faith

The war was a severe test of faith for persons whose re­ligious beliefs forbad their participation. A small minority of the Friends had already become restless with the society’s pacifism and “had adopted the principles of James Logan that a war of defence was Christian and therefore justifi­able.” Thomas Mifflin, prominent Quaker merchant, became a general in the Continental Army, and even John Dickinson who may not have been a Friend, himself, but whose an­cestors, wife and children were, decided to support the war and later served briefly in the army. Eventually, four to five hundred of the 30,000 Friends in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting joined the American forces. Not more than a half dozen joined the British army.

Nevertheless, most Friends adhered to the teaching of their seventeenth-century leader, George Fox, who advised, “whatever bustlings or troubles or tumults or outrages should rise in the world keep out of them.” Pennsylvania Friends stated in 1776 that they could not support the new national and state governments, could not hold offices, pay taxes, use paper money, serve in the army, provide supplies, or pay fines. German pacifists including Mennonites, Amish, Dunkards, Schwenkfelders, and Moravians adopted similar positions. Discipline was so effective among most non-com­batant religious groups that a recruitment officer in the Hanover area complained that “The great number of Quakers, Mennonites and Dunkers in this country occasions the company to be so hard filled up.” Concerning the non­combatants’ position, Philadelphia’s Thomas Paine wrote in the second issue of The Crisis, published in January, 1777, that they constantly harped “on the great sin of our bearing arms, but the king of Great Britain may I ay waste the world in blood and famine, and they, poor fallen souls, have nothing to say.”

Christian pacifism to the rebels seemed loyalism and they charged that those who refused to support the war were Tories at heart. A Schwenkfelder pacifist complained that “The mad rabble said, ‘If we must march to the field of battle, he who will not take up arms must first be treated as an enemy.’ ” The non-combatants were harassed in many ways. As the British approached Philadelphia in 1777, the Continental Congress advised the officials of Pennsylvania to seize prominent Quakers who were “disaffected to the American cause.” Leaders of the new government, mostly Presbyterians, had long opposed the Quakers in provincial politics and were only too happy to comply. The Fishers, Pembertons, Thomas Wharton, Henry Drinker, Thomas Gulpin, and John Hunt, all of whom were prominent Phila­delphia Friends, were banished to Winchester, Virginia, for the winter, where Gulpin and Hunt died. (No pro-British acts were ever proved against them.) Other Pennsylvania Friends, including William Compton, Christopher Smith, and Edward Wells were sentenced to prison for refusing to serve in the army. Sometimes, mobs punished Friends un­officially, as when William Brown, William Dayne, and Thomas Masterman were drummed through the streets of Philadelphia by a company of armed men for persisting in pacifism. In 1778, the rebels hanged Friends John Roberts and Abraham Carlisle for alleged treason.

At times, the Continental troops threatened the pacifistic women. Moravians at Bethlehem were especially apprehen­sive in late 1776 when forces formerly commanded by General Charles Lee approached the settlement. “Lee had made rough boasts of what he would have his men do to the Tory town of Bethlehem, and had even made a wicked allusion to the Sisters’ House as a special attraction.” On the evening of December 17, General Horatio Gates placed the Sisters’ House under heavy guard to prevent any invasion of the Moravian sisters’ privacy. The troops, by then under the command of General John Sullivan, contented themselves, instead, by stealing food, burning fences, and a few by “sitting quietly in the church, listening to sacred music.” Moravian leaders at Lititz thwarted a similar threat when they routed six armed soldiers who tried to force their way into the women’s residence ostensibly to obtain blankets from the sisters’ beds.

The war destroyed the pacifists’ political power in Penn­sylvania. The once-dominant Friends withdrew almost completely from politics. By 1779, there were only two Friends serving in the state legislature, constituting a mere four percent, while in 1755 twenty-six Friends had held eighty-one percent of the seats. Chester County. which had elected to the assembly twice as many Friends as members of al I other religious groups combined between 1755 and 1776, elected no Friends in 1777 and 1778. Anglicans who had gained influence as the Friends declined during the French and Indian War, occupying twenty-five percent of the seats in the assembly between 1756 and 1776, by 1777 held only three percent of the seats. Presbyterians, who controlled a mere nine percent of the seats in 1755 replaced the Friends as the dominant group, with sixty-eight percent of the state legislators in 1777, followed by the Reformed and Lutherans with fourteen and eleven percent, respectively.


Shift in Control

The shift in political control of Pennsylvania from one religious group to another during the revolution raised the question of the new government’s religious policy. Several leaders, such as Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, had long complained about the province’s religious freedom that ren­dered the sects equal to the churches before the law. Anglican clergymen, including William Smith, had maneuvered for a quarter century to gain greater privileges for their church. As the Friends lost political power in Pennsylvania, they charged that the surging Presbyterians sought to estab­lish themselves legally. They considered the revolutionary state government’s test acts designed to permit only Presby­terians and their allies to participate. Such anxiety proved unnecessary. As charges against the Presbyterians became more intense, members of the synod at their Philadelphia meeting in 1783 affirmed “we do believe that every peaceable member of civil society ought to be protected in the full and free exercise of their religion.” After the war even the Anglican clergy gave up their attempt to gain the same privileges that their English counterparts enjoyed. In 1782, Pennsylvania’s William White, who had assumed lead­ership of the developing American Episcopal Church, pro­claimed that “all denominations of christians are on a level, and no church is farther known to the public than as a vol­untary association of individuals.” Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1776 reflected the preference of most residents for a continuation of the traditional policy of religious freedom and expanded it by removing the remaining political disabilities from Roman Catholics. Religious prejudice lingered, however. When Philadelphia’s Jewish congregation, Mikvey Israel, purchased land to build a synagogue next to the German Reformed Church, the Reformed members ob­jected so vigorously that the congregation built its syna­gogue elsewhere.

After the major fighting in Pennsylvania ended in 1779, residents expressed gratitude for the opportunity to resume their normal practice of religion. Albert Helffenstein, secre­tary of the Reformed coetus, recognized it “as a special favor of the Lord that we have not been utterly consumed.” When General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, a Mass of thanksgiving was offered at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. Families displaced by the war re­turned to their homes, and pastors who had been army chaplains returned to their people. Ecclesiastical reports in­dicate that congregations recovered numerical losses and even increased in size. The Methodists added a new circuit in the Lancaster area. Although the Friends who had purged their meetings of those who conformed to the government’s demands declined in number, they believed that their spiritual condition had improved. Perhaps because Friends were no longer as powerful, the restoration of peace reduced the intense hostility toward religious groups that did not support the revolution. Nevertheless, a contingent of pacifists, especially Mennonites, left Pennsylvania for Canada, primarily as a result of their experiences during the war.

The revolution transformed religion in many states as their legislatures disestablished the church and their resi­dents legally acknowledged pluralism and accepted volun­tarism. Pennsylvania’s religious heritage rendered such drastic action unnecessary. While the intolerance of militant citizens challenged the state’s traditional religious freedom, the people’s commitment to it was sufficiently deep to sustain the principle even if revolution had strained it. The war brought Presbyterians prominence and power; however, the issue of defense, which had created such antagonism toward the Friends, was no longer crucial after the war. There was no immediate change in the moral tone of the state laws, for Presbyterians maintained the austere social code includ­ing the strict regulation of behavior on the First Day, that the Friends had first imposed in the late seventeenth century. The more elaborate ecclesiastical structure of some churches, such as the Roman Catholic, and the ecclesiastical independence of the Reformed and Anglican churches from European parent bodies merely accelerated trends that were evident during the late colonial period. The Anglican clergy felt frustrated by their inability to restrain their parishioners from revolution, but their feelings were similar to those of many earlier churchmen who had noted the tendency of their Pennsylvania members to make up their own minds on significant issues.

If the war was to have been God’s chastisement of Penn­sylvanians, apparently they remained chastised for only a very short time. Three years after the war ended, members of the Reformed coetus noted that the people had returned to their preference for “debauchery and luxury” and had already forsaken their wartime habits of frugality and self­-sacrifice. “The faithful minister.” it reported, “with silent tears, grieves over hearts possessed of such extravagant pride, for all his remonstrances are in vain.”


Dr. John B. Frantz is associate professor of American history at The Pennsylvania State University.