Presbyterianism and the American Revolution

In delivering his historical address at the 100th anniversary of Hanover Street Presbyterian Church, Dr. Lafayette Marks, who was pastor at the time noted that “… there is much that might be said of the influence of Presbyterianism in the communities where it flourished, and of its bearing upon the civil and political affairs of our country. It has been, both in this and other lands, the main bulwark of civil and religious liberty. It is a notorious fact, that in its form, it is closely allied with the structure of our civil government. The Revolution of 1776, so far as it was affected by religion, was largely a Presbyterian measure. It was the natural result of those principles implanted in her sons by the English Puritans, the Scotch Covenanters, the Dutch Calvinists, and the French Huguenots. Our Presbyterian ancestry were among the first to set their seal to that immortal document, the Declaration of Independence. Chief Justice Tilghman has remarked that the framers of the United States Constitution borrowed very much of the form of our Republic from that form of church government developed in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Moreover, Presbyterianism erects around itself no barrier of exclusivity; it unchurches none; its hands have never been stained with the blood of persecution; it inscribes upon its banner of truth, forbearance and love; it welcomes to a fellowship in Christian labor all who ‘call upon the same Lord, both theirs and ours.’ We take a just pride therefore in her history, and challenge the respect of all that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.”

Delaware shared in the tension preceding the American Revolution by refusing to obey the Stamp Act in 1765. When the Continental Congress met to vote on the Declaration of Independence, the delegates were deadlocked. Caesar Rodney traveled from Dover to Philadelphia on July 1, 1776, to break the tie and vote for independence. Delaware adopted its first constitution on Sept. 21, 1776. On December 7, 1787, it became the first state to ratify the federal Constitution.

As the Revolution approached, several Delaware ministers and elders were conspicuous in the formation of public opinion, and later, in the conduct of the war. John Miller at Dover, Matthew Wilson at Lewes, and Thomas Read at Drawyers were outspoken and tireless in their advocacy of America’s cause. There was not a single Presbyterian minister in the state who was a Tory, Dr. Christie writes.

Thomas Read bears special mention because after the war, in 1797, he was called to the pastorate of the Second Presbyterian Church. Here is how Judge James L. Latchum, in his 1972 history of Hanover, tells the story of Dr. Read’s part in the war:

“Before coming to Wilmington and during the American Revolution, Dr. Read was a tireless and outspoken advocate of the cause of the colonies. When he was pastor of Old Drawyers, General Washington’s Continental Army was encamped near Stanton, Delaware, for the purpose of opposing General Howe’s British forces on their march northward from Elkton. Washington found it necessary to fall back to a more advantageous position before engaging the on-coming British forces.

“Washington, becoming concerned about the disposition of his own troops in the presence of an approaching larger and better disciplined British Army and not being acquainted with the roads leading to Chadds Ford, called a meeting of his staff close to midnight on April 3, 1777. Colonel Duff of Washington’s staff advised: There is but one man in this whole country who can extricate us from our present difficulty — Dr. Thomas Read.’ Washington ordered: ‘Mount and bring him without a moment’s delay.’ After riding five miles in haste, Colonel Duff reached Dr. Read’s house about midnight and within an hour both, after hard riding, returned to Washington’s headquarters. Dr. Read then mapped out the whole of the adjacent country side with all the roads and by-roads accurately marked out. By means of this assistance Washington was able to effect a safe retreat across Chadds Ford, where a general engagement (the Battle of the Brandywine) was afterwards fought.

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