March 23 marks the 241st anniversary of Patrick Henry’s famous “Liberty or Death” speech, delivered before the Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond. With tension between crown and colonists at an all-time high in March 1775, many Americans expected war to begin shortly. Yet some convention delegates continued to push for reconciliation with Britain, a course that to Henry seemed cowardly. Henry’s speech has been famous ever since as the iconic speech of the Revolutionary era, but few people today realize just how deeply embedded it was in evangelical religious culture.
Shaming reluctant Virginians into taking defense measures, Henry declared “We must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts, is all that is left us! . . . Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!” With this, Henry raised his arms and bellowed, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
Even those very familiar with this episode may not recall how much Henry’s speech relied upon religious ideas and biblical texts. Although these are easily missed now, they would have been familiar to the audience at the Virginia Convention, who grew up in the Bible-soaked culture of colonial America. Several phrases, for example, came directly from the prophet Jeremiah. Henry warned that assurances of good will by the British would “prove a snare to your feet” (Jeremiah 18:22). He worried that Virginians would become like those “who having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not” (Jeremiah 5:21). And he declared that “gentlemen may cry, peace, peace—but there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Henry acquired his deep biblicism in part from his parents, and in part from his autodidactic education in which the Bible took a central role. But as a child he was also introduced to religious controversy of a kind that was seen in many parts of the colonies. Henry came from a traditional Anglican family, and he remained an Anglican (or Episcopalian, after the Revolution) throughout his life. However, in the 1740s and 1750s Patrick Henry’s family found itself in the middle of the first serious uprising against traditional authorities in colonial America, a series of religious revivals commonly referred to as the Great Awakening.
In the 1740s, evangelical Presbyterians began preaching in the Henry family’s home county of Hanover, much to the disgust of Henry’s uncle Patrick, an Anglican rector. The evangelicals challenged the Anglicans, who represented the established state church, suggesting that they preached a lukewarm gospel. Some of the new preachers even hinted that certain Anglican ministers had never experienced conversion, the emotional moment that secured one’s saving faith in Christ. Patrick Henry the uncle thought that the evangelicals only spawned religious frenzy and believed the Virginia government ought to stop such dangerous men. He envisioned evangelical preachers screaming at their congregations that they all were “Damn’d double damn’d, whose [souls] are in hell, though they are alive on earth, Lumps of hellfire, incarnate Devils, 1000 times worse than Devils.”
But the evangelicals had an entirely different effect on Patrick Henry’s mother Sarah. Despite the fact that her husband was an Anglican vestryman, Sarah found Presbyterian pastor Samuel Davies’s preaching irresistible, and she joined his maverick congregation. Henry family tradition holds that Sarah would take twelve-year-old Patrick to the evangelical Presbyterian meetings, and require him to repeat the biblical text and essence of the sermon to her. Although we do not know if Patrick Henry ever experienced evangelical conversion himself, he certainly never forgot the feel of those meetings. Like numerous populist politicians who have followed him, Henry adapted the evangelical style to politics. He later insisted that Samuel Davies not only delivered finer sermons than any preacher he ever encountered, but that Davies was the “greatest orator he ever heard.”
Evangelical preachers such as Davies appealed to and stuck with Henry because they relied on emotional appeals delivered in the common language of the people. Where the established churches of the colonies emphasized the people’s duty to attend the official congregations, the evangelical “dissenters” emphasized the people’s right to pursue their own spiritual happiness, regardless of what the authorities told them. This moral, emotional challenge to established authority transferred subtly to the crisis with Britain that began in the 1760s.
Historians have argued a great deal about the extent to which the Great Awakening fueled the American Revolution. Most would agree that while the Great Awakening had some kind of conditioning effect on American culture prior to 1776, the Revolution itself had more to do with taxes and politics than religion. Still, it is notable how often the Revolution’s popular paeans to liberty came packaged in an evangelical style. The Great Awakening, after all, was the greatest cultural and social upheaval in the British colonies prior to the Revolution, beginning just thirty-five years before the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the evangelicals’ attacks on the established churches also entailed an indirect popular attack on the state.
Prominent signs of this evangelical influence on the Patriots’ appeals to the people could be found even in unexpected places. Compare Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. These were, respectively, the most important speech and the most important pamphlet of the Revolution, and both Paine and Henry delivered them in evangelical cadences, even as Paine would become known later as a skeptical critic of Christianity. Among the most rousing sections of Common Sense, for instance, was when Paine took readers to Israel’s original political sin in I Samuel 8, when the Israelites insisted that they have a king in spite of God’s warnings against it. More people likely heard Common Sense recited aloud in taverns and coffeehouses than read it silently to themselves, and those readings took on the tenor of revivals for liberty.
Fights over taxes and representation may have been the immediate precipitants of the Revolution, but the Patriots couched their appeals for liberty in a revivalist mode. If we fail to notice this, we might also miss the critical role of religion in the Revolution, just like many modern readers might miss those references to Jeremiah peppered throughout “Liberty or Death.”