Theses Doctoral

The Church Militant: The American Loyalist Clergy and the Making of the British Counterrevolution, 1701-92

Walker, Peter William

This dissertation is a study of the loyalist Church of England clergy in the American Revolution. By reconstructing the experience and identity of this largely-misunderstood group, it sheds light on the relationship between church and empire, the role of religious pluralism and toleration in the American Revolution, the dynamics of loyalist politics, and the religious impact of the American Revolution on Britain. It is based primarily on the loyalist clergy’s own correspondence and writings, the records of the American Loyalist Claims Commission, and the archives of the SPG (the Church of England’s missionary arm).
This dissertation focuses on the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, where Anglicans formed a religious minority and where their clergy were overwhelmingly loyalist. It begins with the founding of the SPG in 1701 and its first forays into America. It then examines the state of religious pluralism and toleration in New England, the polarising contest over the proposed creation of an American bishop after the Seven Years’ War, and the role of the loyalist clergy in the Revolutionary War itself, focusing particularly on conflicts occasioned by the Anglican liturgy and Book of Common Prayer.
The dissertation proceeds to follow those loyalist clergy who left the Thirteen Colonies as refugees, tracing their reception in Britain, their influence on conservative churchmen there, and their role in rebuilding the imperial Church of England in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Particular attention is given to the relationship between the loyalist refugees, the English high church movement, and the Scottish Episcopal church. Bridging British, Canadian, and colonial American history, it suggests that the American Revolution galvanised an Anglican religious revival in the British Empire and shaped an emerging alliance between the Church of England and conservative politics. It ends in the 1790s, as this alliance solidified under the influence of the French Revolution.
Most scholarship on religion and the American Revolution is ultimately concerned with the politics of the revolution. This dissertation, by contrast, asks how the politics of the revolution affected the religious lives of those who lived through it. It provides a sympathetic account of the loyalist clergy’s religious identities and beliefs, and situates them in the context of early-modern British religious history. In doing so, it reconstructs a distinct spiritual culture which was concerned with the holiness of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom. It locates the clergy’s loyalism in the longer history of political martyrdom, a category that has been overlooked by secular-minded historians of loyalism.
The loyalist clergy were also preoccupied with the lack of state support for the colonial Church of England. Together with their allies and sympathizers in Britain, they formulated a powerful critique of the British Empire’s religious pluralism: an important but overlooked contribution to counter-enlightenment and counter-revolutionary thought in Britain. By studying that critique, this dissertation highlights the limits of state support for the colonial Church of England prior to the American Revolution, and identifies a turn towards greater state support in the wake of American independence.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Brown, Christopher L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 21, 2016