No Bishops, No Kings: Religious Iconography and Popular Memory of the American Revolution

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By J. L. Tomlin

Writing to his friend and fellow founder Thomas Jefferson in 1815, John Adams bitterly complained that public memory of the American Revolution was “corrupting” the actual history. For Adams, increasing public focus on the “great minds” of the Revolution, the martial prowess of General Washington, or popular images of Congress signing the Declaration of Independence obscured the true nature of the Revolution by making it seem inevitable, exclusively rational, and secular. “The Revolution was in the minds, but also the hearts, of the people,” effected as much from the pulpits as from politicians.[1] Over the coming decades, Adams’ fears were at least partially realized. Popular memory and iconography of the American Revolution has indeed centered on the reflective and secular nature of our preferred memory of the event; yet popular religious iconography and art in the decades preceding the Revolution offer a fuller narrative arc of the development of the revolutionary ideas within American society itself. Combining popular beliefs and biases with their practical effects, religious iconography and art from the revolutionary era displays a clearer and truer evolution of the events and beliefs that defined it.

The iconography and rhetoric traditionally associated with the beginning of opposition to British imperial reform policy centers on tax policy. Think “No Taxation without Representation.” Yet, British Americans contributed a fraction of the tax burden born by imperial subjects elsewhere, especially in Britain itself, and indeed had representatives like Benjamin Franklin arguing American interests in Parliament.[2] This slogan suggests tax policy was at the forefront of American resistance despite substantial evidence suggesting otherwise. In fact, American popular suspicion and antipathy toward the principles behind imperial reform are far better captured by more theological interpretations of events. Consider the religious fears depicted within cartoons regarding American opposition to the establishment of an Anglican Episcopacy within the American Colonies (images 2 and 3).

“An Attempt to land a bishop in America: Political Register.” London, Sept. 1769.

The hostility toward fiscal policy and tax burdens are indeed present, but within a framework that suggests Americans saw imperial reform writ large as part of a larger hostile scheme to rework American life in ways unwarranted and unwelcome by broad swaths of American society. Religious reforms were foremost among these. The Episcopacy controversy of the late 1760s, an effort to install Anglican bishops and their accompanying legal privileges in the colonies, was one of a series of scandals that united American opposition. Yet, many Revolutionary leaders, such as John Adams, felt it was a key turning point in spreading and hardening American popular opposition to the evolving imperial relationship between Britain and its colonies.[3] It drew upon long-standing fears of bishops as associated with Catholicism and corrupt or heavy-handed political power, and even included a variation on the hated James I’s observation of “no bishops, no king” in the line “no lords temporal or spiritual.”[4] It also reflected a growing American way of viewing political, economic, and religious developments as intertwined and even rooted in conspiracies afoot in the world aimed against American prosperity and freedom. Such an American interpretation of events explains far more of American alarm and seemingly exaggerated antipathy toward relatively mild policy changes than seemingly secular concerns over taxation.

“The Mitred Minuet.” Paul Revere. Boston, 1770.

Traditional American memory of the Revolution also tends to conflate resistance to Parliamentary initiatives and the British monarchy itself. Historians and even contemporary observers themselves have long noted that the two were distinctly separate issues within American political opposition until the middle of the Revolution. The issue of the monarchy itself was also one that evolved as events unfolded. Consider, for example, the depiction based on contemporary witnesses to one of New York’s Revolutionary banners from early in the conflict (image 4). The banner advocates the religious and political conflation of events with the “no popery” label, but also proclaims loyalty to George III, suggesting the two issues of loyalty to Parliament and loyalty to the King were separate issues for many New Yorkers even after fighting had erupted between Americans and the British military.[5]

“George III Rex Banner,” displayed in New York, New York, Oct. 1770 (modern image based on contemporary descriptions). As created in Griffin Martin’s “The American Catholic Historical Researches,” vol. 24, 151.

In fact, images such as the New York banner reflect the fact that the Revolution originally represented resistance to Parliament and defense of American freedoms, but separated King George III from the dispute altogether and even vocally proclaimed continued American fealty to the Hanoverian dynasty. This was a distinction under threat, however, by the time the Revolution erupted. Consider the American tapestry “The Hanging of Absalom by Faith Robinson Trumbull” (image 5). In dense theological imagery, the artist showed King George III as King David who, following the biblical analogy, faced the decision whether to engage in tyranny or return to godly rule. Resisting David’s unjust rule, Americans interpreted themselves and their freedoms as Absalom.[6] His executioner is even depicted in the British military redcoat. Here again, a distinctly theological depiction speaks more clearly to the American desire to remove George III from the developing political controversies while also signaling that events reflected God presenting the king with the momentous decision. Either George would reject the corrupting and tyrannical tendencies of the government acting in his name or suffer divine judgment and punishment for his participation in oppressing his loyal and long-suffering subjects. In fact, many of the first moves made by American political leaders in opposition to Britain, such as the Stamp Act Congress, Olive Branch Petition, and countless petitions for redress, rejected Parliamentary action while profusely proclaiming continued loyalty to the empire’s king.[7]

“The Hanging of Absalom.” Attributed to Faith Robinson Trumbull. 1770.

Traditional memory of the Revolution tends to depict American resistance as a fundamentally secular and political affair.[8] Religious iconography provides evidence of how Americans interpreted the Revolution. Consider the Rhode Island banner which proclaims “resistance to tyrants is obedience to God” (image 6). As recorded by scores of historians and contemporary observers, political and military resistance was increasingly seen within the context of religious duty and as an act of piety. Banners such as this, and at least three dozen others, reflected the American view, largely lost in our popular memory of events, that political and religious developments were inseparable and intimately tied to a larger understanding of the world wherein providence was at work in the world and God’s will could be interpreted and upheld within political and economic developments of everyday life.

Gostelowe Standard Nov. 10, 1776. Pennsylvania Historical Society.

To be sure, the religious imagery of the Revolution depicted so much of evolving American ideological and political viewpoints because most Americans considered them fundamentally linked with their worldview. However, religious depictions more fully represent the evolution of events as they unfolded rather than as we prefer to remember them retrospectively, which has been the focus of the largely secular popular iconography subsequent American generations have applied to the founding era. Tying economic reform to the perception of a larger anti-American political strategy gets us closer to understanding the hyperbole and emotional response of Americans to seemingly mundane reform. Illustrating the slow evolution of American opposition from the King’s government to the King himself shows us how Americans came to reject both as synonymous, as well as the reality that this conflation was not inevitable. Religious iconography of the revolution reveals a process of conversion to resistance, and a progression of American thought from alarm to hostility to violence that is largely forgotten in the secular and ideological imagery that dominates contemporary memory of the event itself.


J.L. Tomlin is a Senior Lecturer at the University of North Texas. He is currently revising his book project tentatively titled Fear and Loathing and Freedom: Early American Xenophobia and the Paradoxical Origins of American Pluralism, wherein he examines how the English tradition of anti-Catholicism came to inform American religious dissenters’ notions of individual autonomy and democracy, and the ways in which religious fear perpetuated those ideas in the decades leading into the American Revolution.

Title image: “An appeal to Heaven” Flag of Massachusetts Militia adopted by Gen. George Washington in October 1775.

Endnotes:

[1] John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818, “Adams Family Papers, Letterbooks,” accessed via Library of Congress, “Creating the United States.”

[2] T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of the Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 13-21. For more on popular memory of Revolution, see Janice Hume, Popular Media and the American Revolution: Shaping Collective Memory (Vicksburg: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 93-97.

[3] John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, “Adams Family Papers, Letterbooks,” December 2, 1815, accessed via Founders.Archives.Gov.;Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Scepter: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689-1775 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 167-72.

[4] David Harris Wilson, King James VI and I (London: Jonathan Cape Press, 1956), 279.

[5] The American Catholic Historical Researches, Catholics and the American Revolution. New Series, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan. 1906), 1-40; James Henderson, Party Politics in the Continental Congress (New York: McGraw Hill Press, 1974), 19, 37-41.

[6] Faith Robinson Trumbull, The Hanging of Absalom (1770), Lyman Ally Art Museum at Connecticut College, Connecticut, 84.

[7] The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, “Journals of the Continental Congress,” accessed Oct. 21, 2021 at Lillian Goldman Law Library.

[8] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 4th ed. (New York: Belknap Press, 1992), xii-3, 47-51, 199-207.

One thought on “No Bishops, No Kings: Religious Iconography and Popular Memory of the American Revolution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s