When the Declaration of Independence was drafted on July 4, 1776, religious practice in the 13 colonies of the United States was colorful and varied. The quest for independence — as well as loyalist resistance to the cause — permeated church life and teachings across denominational lines. Patriots argued that their fight was God-ordained, while many Anglican clergy were bound by oath to pray for the King and the royal family.
Benjamin Franklin depicts God’s role in the revolution in his design for the Great Seal of the United States. Circling an image of Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the Israelites out of Egypt is the inscription, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Cast in 1752 in Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell bears the words of Lev. 25:10, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all inhabitants thereof.” And the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence cite God as the author of the quest for freedom: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Around the time of the Revolutionary War, most American Christians belonged to Anglican, Congregationalist, or Presbyterian groups. In 1776, there were also around 2,000 Jews (mostly Sephardic) and five synagogues in the colonies. The average size of a church congregation was around seventy-five members, and religious adherence amounted to only 17 percent of the total population.
The effect of the struggle for independence on religious practice was most visible in Anglican parishes. Since Anglican priests pledged loyalty to the King as a part of their ordination vows, many remained faithful to the British and continued with liturgical prayers for the monarchy. Boston’s King’s Chapel was a thriving Anglican congregation during this time, with “box pews,” or small enclosures owned and even decorated by wealthy families, on the main floor, and “unboxed pews” for black or poor church members on the second floor. King’s Chapel was the first church in New England to incorporate music into its services, having both a choir and an organ. Popular at the time was the hymn, “Old 100th,” commonly sung today as a doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow”).
Led by a Loyalist priest, King’s Chapel closed its doors after the British retreat on Evacuation Day (March 17, 1776) rather than allow the patriots to take over. Other Anglican congregations aligned themselves with the revolutionary cause and chose to change the liturgy rather than abandon it entirely. The rector of Christ Church in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, pasted strips of paper with prayers for the Continental Congress over the prayers for the King in the Book of Common Prayer. At a vestry meeting on July 4, 1776, Philadelphia’s Christ Church made a similar move, replacing the prayers for the King with a prayer for the wisdom of the new government: “That it may please thee to endue the Congress of the United States & all others in Authority, legislative, executive, & judicial with grace, wisdom & understanding, to execute Justice and to maintain Truth.”
Rev. Peter Muhlenberg made a bold display of patriotism before his Anglican congregation in Woodstock, Va. At the conclusion of a sermon in January 1776, he threw off his clerical robes to reveal his Virginia military uniform. During the struggle for independence, a number of ministers left their congregations to work as chaplains or take up arms, even some Quakers who felt that the cause of independence superseded their commitment to pacifism.