Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

They Changed a Nation

Amid church-and-state debates, let’s not forget how pastors shaped America.

Modern accounts of our history often ignore the extensive leadership role pastors had in the building of America. Early historians, however, proudly heralded the direct influence of our clergy in forging America into the great nation it became.

America’s pastors were closely involved in every aspect of securing what became our country’s civil and religious liberties. The examples are numerous, so I’ll document only a few here. (For further reading, go to and click on “Library.”)

Pastors and Government

Pastors were directly responsible for the republican form of government enjoyed in America today. The Rev. Thomas Hooker, who established Connecticut in 1636, preached a history-making sermon from Deuteronomy 1:13 and Exodus 18:21 about the biblical basis of government. He explained that:

“The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance”; “The privilege of election ... belongs to the people”; “They who have power to appoint officers and magistrates [that is, ‘the people’], it is in their power also to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place.”

Hooker’s sermon resulted in “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut”—America’s first written constitution and the direct antecedent of the federal Constitution.

The Pilgrims, following the teaching of their pastor John Robinson, organized a representative government with annual elections and enacted America’s first citizens’ bill of rights. Similar leadership by Christian ministers in other colonies produced the same practices. As Daniel Webster—known as the “Defender of the Constitution”—affirmed: “To the free and universal reading of the Bible in that age men were much indebted for right views of civil liberty.”

Pastors and Education

Pastors originated America’s system of education at both the lower and secondary levels. Academic institutions known worldwide today were established by America’s clergy.

Puritan minister John Harvard founded Harvard University; a group of 10 Congregational ministers founded Yale University; Presbyterian minister William Tennent’s Log College was the predecessor of Princeton University; Episcopal minister John Blair founded The College of William and Mary; and numerous other examples could be included.

In 1860, some 91 percent of all college presidents were ministers, as were more than a third of all university faculty members. As late as 1884, the majority of America’s 370 colleges—83 percent—still remained denominationally affiliated.

Pastors and Civil Liberties

Pastors introduced freedoms and opportunities in America not available even in the mother country of Great Britain. It is not surprising, then, that they stood at the forefront to resist encroachments on the civil and religious rights they had helped establish.

When crown-appointed Gov. Edmund Andros tried to seize the charters of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts and revoke their representative governments, opposition was led by the Revs. Samuel Willard, Increase Mather and John Wise. Quaker minister William Edmundson and the Rev. Thomas Harrison led the opposition when Gov. William Berkeley refused to recognize Virginia’s self-government, and the Rev. Samuel Cooper did the same when Gov. Thomas Hutchinson ignored the elected Massachusetts legislature.

A similar pattern of resistance followed when Gov. William Burnet dissolved the New Hampshire legislature, when Lord Botetourt of Virginia disbanded the Virginia House of Burgesses, when Gov. James Wright disbanded the Georgia Assembly and so on.

Pastors and the American Revolution

As the American Revolution approached, pastors remained on the front lines. In fact, at the vanguard of the opposition to the 1765 Stamp Act—which was an early harbinger of the rupture between the two nations that was soon to follow—were the Revs. Andrew Eliot, Charles Chauncey, Samuel Cooper, Jonathan Mayhew and George Whitefield.

Five years later, in 1770, ministers again stepped to the forefront, boldly denouncing the British abuse of power in the famous Boston Massacre. In fact, the Massachusetts House of Representatives even ordered that the Rev. Samuel Cooke’s sermon on the subject be printed and distributed.


As the imminent separation from Great Britain drew nearer, John Adams gratefully acknowledged that the “the pulpits have thundered.” He specifically identified ministers such as Cooper and Mayhew as being among the “characters ... most conspicuous, the most ardent, and influential” in “an awakening and a revival of American principles and feelings” that eventually led to American independence.

But pastors did not just infuse these “principles and feelings” that led to independence; they also entered the battlefield to secure them.

The courageous townsmen in the Battle of Lexington were from the congregation of the Rev. Jonas Clark, whose ringing of the church bell had first assembled them to meet British attackers. Early historian Daniel Dorchester reports that this pattern was common through the Revolution:

“Of Rev. John Craighead it is said that ‘he fought and preached alternately.’ Rev. Dr. Cooper was captain of a military company. Rev. John Blair Smith, president of Hampden-Sidney College, was captain of a company that rallied to support the retreating Americans after the battle of Cowpens.

“Rev. James Hall commanded a company that armed against Cornwallis. Rev. William Graham rallied his own neighbors to dispute the passage of Rockfish Gap with Tarleton and his British dragoons.”

So prominent were Christian clergy in the struggle that the British dubbed them the “Black Regiment” because of the black clerical robes they wore. Historian J.T. Headley reports that due to ministers’ courageous and influential leadership “there was a class of clergymen and chaplains in the Revolution whom the British, when they once laid hands on them, treated with the most barbarous severity.”

The British not only imprisoned, abused or killed many pastors but also targeted their churches for reprisal. They destroyed 10 of the 19 church buildings in New York City, most of the churches across Virginia, and more.

Pastors and Government Service

Christian pastors were also leaders in the national legislative councils. The Revs. Witherspoon, Joseph Montgomery, Hugh Williamson, John Zubly and many others served in the Continental Congress. Ministers served in their own state legislatures as well. The Rev. Jacob Green of New Jersey was made chairman of the committee that drafted the state’s original constitution in 1776; the Rev. Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg helped draft the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution; the Rev. Samuel Stillman helped draft the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, and there were others.

When hostilities ceased at the end of the Revolution, Christian ministers such as the Revs. Samuel Stanhope Smith, Jeremy Belknap, John Witherspoon and James Manning led in the national movement for a federal Constitution. When the new Constitution was submitted to the states for final ratification, nearly four-dozen clergymen were elected as ratifying delegates, and many played key roles in securing its adoption.

When the first federal Congress convened under the new Constitution, several ministers were elected to Congress. They included the Revs. Muhlenberg and John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, Abiel Foster, Benjamin Contee, Abraham Baldwin and Paine Wingate.

Whether this great legacy of ministerial involvement will continue remains in the hands of the modern-day church. Will we sit on the sidelines as uninvolved spectators, or will we provide the leadership the clergy provided in previous generations? For the Rev. Mathias Burnet in the 19th century, direct involvement was the only option. As he reminded Christians in 1803: “To God and posterity you are accountable for your rights and your rulers. Let not your children have reason to curse you for giving up those rights and prostrating those institutions which your fathers delivered to you!”

David Barton is founder and president of WallBuilders, an organization that chronicles America’s history, especially its moral, religious and constitutional heritage. Visit David online at

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