3.2. The apocalypticism of the American War of Independence


At first, the American colonies were only extensions of the European powers. The rules of cohabitation and administration on the new continent were dictated by the crowns of Europe. And, like on the old continent, in America people were also paying taxes for supporting kings and queens. After two centuries of colonization the two shores of the Atlantic came to be very different from a cultural point of view. The rapid increase of population made the colonies a veritable political power, America had way more resources compared to the rusty Europe, the religious fanatics were demanding a clear delimitation between the redeemed and the damned, and the people born in America felt no connection to Europe. At the beginning of the 18th century America was no longer populated by European colonists and an invading European culture, but by Americans and an independent American culture. Consequently, the problem was not if, but when a movement of independence was going to burst.

Historically speaking, the American War of Independence (or the American Revolution) lasted between 1775 and 1783 and covered the eastern and northeastern parts of the United States and the southeastern part of Canada. The war was fought between Great Britain and 13 British colonies in North America. On July 4, 1776, these colonies proclaimed their independence and formed the state union called the “United States of America.” In 1778 major European powers joined the colonists against the British, decisively inclining the balance in favor of the new American nation.

Currently, scholars still debate whether or not the American War of Independence was a direct product of the First Great Awakening. Joseph Tracy, the preacher and the historian who coined the expression “Great Awakening,” depicted this phenomenon as a precursor of the war.1011 But because between the two events there was a temporal distance of approximately 30 years, the awakening is usually seen as having a major role, but not decisive, in the triggering of the revolution. The First Great Awakening strengthened the sense of belongingness of the settlers, created a collective identity and played a crucial role in the development of American democracy. Likewise, the American Revolution fused the religious beliefs and political claims against England and gave a new meaning to the concept of freedom. During the conflict, the religious discourse emphasized the so-called “theology of the covenant” – the idea that America was at the core of God’s work and the inhabitants of the New World were the new Israel. God was protecting America in order to become the “city upon a hill” imagined by Winthrop: an exemplary theocratic community that prepared the establishment of the Millennium. By contrast, the British dominion received demonic features, being compared to the Egyptian or Babylonian captivity.

The Millennium was highly expected by the Americans at the time of the revolution, but there was no consensus regarding the way it would be established and the role of the people in this process.1012 Millenarism contributed to the development of a revolutionary consciousness: the struggle against the British Empire was not only a political one, on the right to impose taxes in the colonies, but also a religious one, decisive for the future of America and of the entire world. Despite the predeterminist Calvinism promoted during the First Great Awakening, in the middle of the 18th century postmillenarism gained momentum in the region of New England. The reaffirmation of the free will put an enormous pressure on the shoulders of the Americans; as the Israelites failed in their mission to become the spiritual core of the world, in the same way the Americans could miss their chance to become the new chosen people. The colonists had to decide if they would continue alongside the British beast or they would build the new Zion on their own. God offered them the conditions to fight and prosper, but it was their choice if they assumed this responsibility or not. The Millennium was a target that could be reached through the work of both sides, people and God, and not solely through the all-powerful will of the latter. On May 19, 1780, due to massive fires in the nearby forests, the sky of New England suddenly darkened. For a couple of days the Sun and the Moon were red and the people believed that the end was at hand. But Abraham Davenport, an important member of the legislature of Connecticut, boldly stated: “Let God do His work, we will see to ours. Bring in the candles.”1013

Europe was dominated by the hierarchical mentality: titles and the position on the social ladder were as valuable as gold. The secular writers of the Enlightenment considered that freedoms are based on a balance of power divided between kings, elites and crowd, and that social stability requires respect for the privileged classes. The “divine right of the kings” empowered the royal ruler to treat the land and the people as his personal objects, which can be transmitted to his children. But America was a new land that demanded new ideas. The traditional image of social stratification was challenged through the preaching of the biblical concept of equality between people regardless of social status, race or moral skills. Preachers of all kinds sought to repudiate the corrupt, unequal, materialistic and acquisitive Old World dominated by the Papacy.1014 Benjamin Franklin, an ardent supporter of the evangelical movement, embraced egalitarian democracy, while revivalists such as George Whitefield were the fiercest defenders of religious freedom. There was the feeling that America must be different and exemplary, but in the sense that the world had to adapt to America, not vice versa. This feeling acted as a driving force behind the revolutionary concepts of republicanism – the belief that the sovereignty belongs to the people, and not to a hereditary ruling class – and American exceptionalism – the belief that America and the American people hold a special place in God’s plans for the world.1015

The pamphlet Common Sense of Thomas Paine expressed for the first time the idea that America was not an extension of Europe, but a new land, with riches and opportunities that greatly surpass the ones of the Old World. Published for the first time anonymously in January 1776, Paine’s work was an immediate success.1016 The historian Gordon Wood described Common Sense as the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary age.1017 Compared to the number of settlers of the time, Common Sense has been the best-selling pamphlet in American history. At a moment when the independence was still an undecided issue, Common Sense argued in its favor by exaggerating its importance:

The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth. ‘Tis not the affair of a city, a county, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent – of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now.1018

Paine wrote and argued in a style accessible to the common people. By avoiding ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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