No King of Kings”: Reading Worship Politics in Revolutionary America

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Sara Georgini, Massachusetts Historical Society
Church records tell half the tale of how people “lived” religion in the run-up to and bloody progress of the American Revolution. How did colonial Christians turn their “hearts and minds” to full-scale war? The politics of worship, evident in the Books of Common Prayer amended by colonists-turned-citizens throughout the 1770s and 1780s, may hold fresh clues. There, in critical annotations and liturgical edits made to daily worship, Anglicans/Episcopalians imprinted a new language of selfhood and statehood. They roadtested nationalist rhetoric and shifted around the sacraments to suit local needs. The laity’s handwritten edits—scraping off “King of Kings”—operated as cultural cues. Using prayer books to “tell” regional turns in revolutionary thought, I show when and why northern and southern laity drew on Christianity’s power to legitimate revolution.

When parishioners recited preset intercessions, they reiterated a hierarchy of social concerns and referenced an English heritage of state-sponsored spiritual welfare. Protestants boasted a long line of doctrinal editors from Reformation to Revolution, and prayer book changes were normal. Often, they occurred at general conventions after clerical votes, and not at the hands of lay readers. The Revolution’s fiery worship politics accelerated that change. In Boston, for example, a quartet of Anglican churches—led by patriot vestry—pasted over or scratched out prayers for the royal family. Read as cultural artifacts, these prayer books anthologize the popular scale of dissent, and expose the thorny “Christian” process of democratic change at its core. As palimpsests, these books denote key phases of congregational reinvention and local laicization. Paging through the early, amended Books of Common Prayer recaptures the material story of America’s transition from colonialism to independence. Pew by pew, we can see beyond the church record to glimpse when Americans turned away from a king, and toward their country.

Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>