Crossroads of the American Revolution Will Place Historical Marker Outside First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey

ETown Graveyard

In 2013 I did some consulting for a non-profit organization affiliated with the historic First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey.  My team conducted research on James Caldwell, the revolutionary-era pastor of the church.  You can read about our work here and here and here.  Some of you will also remember my January 2014 writing binge related to this project.  Somewhere on a flash drive I have that 40,000 word report.  I am sure some of it will eventually make its way into my current book project on the American Revolution in New Jersey.

I was thus pleased to see that the church, the burial ground, and the neighboring academy building (which sits on the site of the school where both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton studied before they went to Princeton and Kings College respectively) will be commemorated with a historical marker.  Here is a taste of a piece at Yahoo:

The story of the City of Elizabeth’s deep Revolutionary War heritage is now being told by two interpretive signs located outdoors on the campus of the historic First Presbyterian Church and burial grounds on Broad Street.

The signage will be unveiled on Monday, Nov. 4th, 2019 at 11am by representatives from the City of Elizabeth, The Elizabeth Destination Marketing Organization [EDMO], the Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads of the American Revolution, and the Snyder Academy.

The Elizabeth markers are a vital part of the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association’s statewide signage program to create a recognizable brand for more than 200 sites that tell the story of New Jersey’s crucial role in the war for independence. Featuring the six-pointed star used in the original United States flag, the signs are designed to make it easier for residents and heritage tourists to locate key Revolutionary-era historic sites and learn more about the state’s deep Revolutionary War heritage.

New Jersey saw more battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution than anyplace else, and families were deeply affected by the many years of conflict that took place at their front door,” said Janice Selinger, executive director of Crossroads of the American Revolution. “Crossroads is proud to highlight the many contributions of Elizabeth’s Revolutionary notables, especially as we work towards attracting more heritage travelers to discover the state’s contributions during the commemoration of the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026.”

“As the first capital of New Jersey and home to our first Governor, Elizabeth has played a vital role in our state’s and nation’s past,” said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage. “Now residents and visitors can learn about Elizabeth’s deep ties with the Revolutionary War through these informative signs and what better place to do so than in front of the City’s First Presbyterian Church, where the first Colonial Assembly met in 1668.”

Read the entire article here.


An Unusual Damage Claim Sheds Some Light on the Battle of Connecticut Farms


This summer, when I am not writing about the court evangelicals, I have been working on a book on the American Revolution.  On a good day I get in about five hours of research, and I am fortunate to have a couple of former students helping me.

One of my research assistants, Abigail, is transcribing damage claim reports from the Revolution.  These virtually untapped sources (at least for New Jersey, where I am working right now) tell us a lot about the kinds of goods ordinary people owned at the time of the Revolution.  They also give us a glimpse of the damage and destruction caused by both the Continental and British armies as they rolled through local communities.

Nearly all of the damage claims in New Jersey were filed by individual property owners, but every now and then we find a break in this pattern.  Today, as I was reading through the material Abigail transcribed, I found a note calling my attention to a claim from the Presbyterian “parish” at Connecticut Farms.  Here it is (with Abigail’s not to me embedded):

Damage Claim No. 22 (NJ0407) made at Connecticut Farms on May 28, 1789, for damage done on June 7, 1780. [Dr. Fea, this claim is for the Connecticut Farms parish (including a meeting house, parsonage house, barn, and chair and school houses) and not a person/family—very different from the other claims so far.]

§ “Inventory and Apprisal of the Property of the Parish of Connecticut Farms Burnt, taken and destroyed by the British Army or their Adherents on the 7th of June 1780”

· Items: 1 large well finished meeting house burnt (1500 L), 1 bell (65 L), 1 large Bible (1 L, 10 S), 1 velvet cushion for the pulpit (2 L), parsonage house 40 by 24 (250 L), 1 barn 24 by 24 (30 L), chair house (10 L), school house (15 L), sundry sacramental vessels, de—[?], 1 large silver cup (6 L), 2 large black tin cups (10 L), 2 large pewter platters (1 L, 4 S), 1 basin (3 S), 1 fine diaper table cloth (16 S), and cloth used at buryings (3 L), for a total of 1885 pounds, 3 shillings.

June 7, 1780 was the date of the Battle of Connecticut Farms.  The British planned for one final attack on Washington’s troops in the North.  Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen received a report that Washington’s army in Morristown had been reduced, through illness and desertions, to about 3500 men. Spies had informed him that mutinies were occurring in the ranks and morale was at an all-time low.  Knyphausen thought that the time was right to attack Morristown, capture Washington’s army, and perhaps bring an end to the war.

With approximately 6000 men from three different divisions under his command, Knyphausen’s army crossed Staten Island by boat on June 6, 1780 and landed at Elizabeth-Town Point. The following morning the British forces were met by Continental troops from New Jersey under the command of Colonel Elias Dayton whose troops slowed the British advance, but they were eventually forced to retreat to Connecticut Farms later in the morning.  By 8am, Knyphausen troops and the New Jersey Brigade under the command of William Maxwell clashed in Connecticut Farms.  With superior numbers, the British forced Maxwell to retreat to Springfield.  Knyphausen’s troops moved into Connecticut Farms, set part of the town on fire, and eventually halted his attack as the sun set.  At some time during the day George Washington arrived from Morristown and employed his personal guard in an attempt to stop the British advance.

The destruction of the parish property sheds light on one of the great mysteries of the battle. During the battle, Hannah Caldwell, the wife of the Elizabeth-Town Presbyterian clergyman James Caldwell, was shot to death by a British soldier as she stood in the window of the Presbyterian parsonage. News of Hannah’s death spread quickly.  New jersey Governor William Livingston received the news in a letter from brigadier-general Nathaniel Heard.  Greene informed Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth in Springfield that Hannah had been shot in a “barbarous manner.”

A rather lengthy letter describing the battle and Hannah’s death was published in the June 13, 1780 edition of the Pennsylvania Packet.  The unidentified author of the article believed that Hannah’s death was an attempt to punish James Caldwell, “an object worthy of the enemy’s keenest resentment,” for his patriotic activity and zeal.  The article implies that clergyman had a target on his back, but had always “evaded every attempt to injure him.”  Earlier in the day, the author claimed, a woman on the street in Connecticut Farms was approached by a British soldier who put a bayonet to her breast and threatened to kill her because she was the wife of James Caldwell.  The woman was spared when a young officer who knew her told the soldier that she was not Hannah Caldwell. Eventually, however, they did find the real Hannah. The author of the Pennsylvania Packet story described a British soldier coming to the window of the room of the Connecticut Farms parsonage where Hannah, her maid, and some of her smaller children were seated, and shooting Hannah in the lungs. Immediately following the shooting, a British officer and two Hessians dug a hole, placed the body inside it, and set the house on fire.  All of James Caldwell’s personal effects and papers were lost in the fire. Later an American officer managed to pull Hannah’s body from the grave and bring it to a “small house in the neighborhood.”  There was also a rumor circulating that the soldier who shot Hannah was later seen bragging about the killing.


The seal of Union County, New Jersey represents the “murder” of Hannah Caldwell

There is more to this story, and I hope to tell it soon.  But this damage claim is going to help me flesh out the impact of the American Revolution on religious life in this New Jersey town.  Not only was the church and the outbuildings burned, but the British troops desecrated several of the church’s sacred and sacramental objects. This was not an unusual practice, but such detailed damage claims, at least for New Jersey, are rather rare.

Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.

The Author’s Corner With William Harrison Taylor

HarrisonWilliam Harrison Taylor is Associate Professor of History at Alabama State University.  This interview is based on his new book Unity in Christ and Country: Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758-1801 (University of Alabama Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Unity in Christ and Country

WHT: This project had its origins during my time in graduate school. I was hoping to make my small contribution to our understanding of the American Revolution and I had decided that the best way for me to do so was by exploring the emerging religious marketplace. Presbyterians were still my primary focal point, but I was determined to examine the dimensions of how they were competing for membership against the myriad of democratically inspired churches. After a year or so of research I couldn’t overlook the obvious any longer. The more I read, the more it became clear that the loudest cry from the Presbyterian church was not one of competition, but rather for cooperation. Having decided to let the sources speak for themselves (wasn’t that kind of me?) I realized that by pursing their goal of Christian unity, the Presbyterians had a much broader influence than I originally envisioned and it was a story, I thought, that needed to be told.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unity in Christ and Country?

WHT: In Unity in Christ and Country I argue that during the revolutionary era, as the American Presbyterians began to actively pursue the elusive dream of Christian unity, they not only helped to shape the period, but they also unintentionally planted the seeds that kept unity beyond their grasp, split their church, and helped to divide the nation.

JF: Why do we need to read Unity in Christ and Country?

WHT: From what I have read, reading is thought to be a great exercise for the prevention of Alzheimer’s, so there’s that. However, if you already have your Alzheimer’s preventative reading regimen in place, you may still find this book helpful if you are interested in learning more about the dynamics and influence of people’s faith during the American Revolution. Included are stories where belief transformed the understanding of who should hear the good news, encouraged people to struggle and fight against tyrannies (real and perceived), and fostered desires for temporal and spiritual unity where once animosity and self-interest prevailed.  Granted, these stories don’t all have pleasant endings, but that is partly why they can be useful.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WHT: I had some excellent story-tellers for professors as an undergraduate—Kit Carter and Allen Dennis standout in particular—who had a big impact on my decision to primarily study American history.  Yet, while they helped steer me to graduate study in American history, their work was aided by a foundation laid much earlier.  During most summers while I was growing up my family would trek to various places around the country as part of my dad’s job.  We drove everywhere and along the way we were forced to visit (at least at first) to what felt like every historical landmark within a hundred miles of our route.  I might not have admitted it then (what self-respecting and properly annoying teenager would give their parents the pleasure?) but I came to enjoy those side trips. Being so often immersed in an historical environment such as Colonial Williamsburg or Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri sparked an appreciation of the American past that not yet run its course.

JF: What is your next project?

WHT: Currently, I am exploring the depths of American anti-Catholic sentiment in the years leading up to the War for American Independence. Whether this will turn out to be anything more than my previous attempt to study the competitive nature of the Presbyterians in the religious marketplace remains to be seen. Still, my early reading suggests that there is much more to this relationship than has yet been revealed. Hopefully, the more I read, the more I will find to support this early optimism.

JF: Thanks, Harrison!

The Author’s Corner with Gideon Mailer

John Witherspoon.jpgGideon Mailer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This interview is based on his new book, John Witherspooon’s American Revolution:  Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States  (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

GM: Since my undergraduate days, I have always been interested in the links between Anglo-Scottish unionism and the formation of American religious, intellectual, and constitutional identity. I first came across Witherspoon in undergraduate work on religion in colonial America. I had just been working on New England religious foundations for a previous module. I had read much about the “Puritan Origins of the American Self” (I was a big Bercovitch fan!). Yet I found out that the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence was a Scottish Presbyterian; not a New England Congregationalist or a Virginia Anglican.

Fast-forward a decade, to a four-year postdoctoral research fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and an Assistant Professorship at University of Minnesota, Duluth: Witherspoon continued to provide a rich case study to explore the wider intellectual, religious, and constitutional framework of the American Revolution. After all, he fought on behalf of Britain against Jacobite rebels in 1745, yet only a few decades later supported the American revolutionary cause against that same British state.

As I soon realized, a lot of what we have come to call “The American Enlightenment” – the consolidation of rational thought and a growing trust in individual moral perception – has been linked to Witherspoon’s influence after his arrival in America. Having left Scotland, he is said to have brought aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment to America. Yet I was intrigued by the associated paradox: how could an evangelical theologian, focused on sin and damnation, have inspired Enlightenment ideals in America? And how could a religious proponent of Anglo-Scottish unionism help to inspire American revolutionary ideology?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

GM: The book questions whether the United States could have been founded according to Enlightenment principles – notions of innate sympathy, rationality, and ethical discernment – even while those principles accompanied the onset of rebellion and the chaotic disintegration of an empire. Tracing the wider meaning of Witherspoon’s move from Scotland to America, the book uncovers the broader constitutional and civic contexts that framed Witherspoon’s use of moral sense reasoning, but which also afforded him an opportunity to critique its role in religious and political discourse.

JF: Why do we need to read John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

The book is useful, I hope, in its attempt to integrate the political and religious influences of the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England on subsequent American history. It traces the tension between the Scottish Enlightenment and Protestant evangelicalism and the place of that tension in the developing philosophies of American independence and American constitutionalism. That America’s founding incorporated potentially contradictory philosophical ideas is important to note – and perhaps explains a lot about subsequent history! More broadly, the book contributes to an expanding field on the role of Presbyterianism in the political theology of the American Revolution and the subsequent founding.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

GM: I was one of the last cohort to study for the old style “A-Levels” at school in the UK. By sheer luck, one of our teachers was able to offer a module in colonial American history. Most A-Level history students in the UK, at that time, studied the Tudors and Stuarts, Victorian Britain, and 20th century World History. I was lucky to study American history. I was attracted to the field, thinking it would provide an escape from kings, queens, and capricious European dynastic alliances. I was a little naïve, therefore; but wanted to become an Americanist since then.

JF: What is your next project?

GM: The project is tentatively titled The Character of Freedom: Slavery and the Scottish Enlightenment. It builds on research I have begun to synthesize. It assesses the relationship between American moral philosophy (particularly as inspired by Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Presbyterian thought) and slavery from the colonial era, through the American Revolution, and into the antebellum period.

JF: Thanks, Gideon! 

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 8


David Rittenhouse

OK.  This is my last post in what turned out to be a rather long series on the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.  Read the entire series here.

In this post I am sharing some of my ongoing research on the religious affiliations of the signers of the Constitution.  As you can see, I still have work to do. If you know anything about the religious affiliation of these guys please shoot me an e-mail or comment below.

So far my research has revealed a very large number of Presbyterians and German Reformed signers. (By the way, why aren’t more people writing about the German Reformed population in Pennsylvania?  We haven’t had a book on them in years!)

What do the religious affiliations of the signers have to do with the religious dimensions of the Constitution discussed in the previous seven posts? I don’t know.  Maybe nothing. But I do think that it is a question worth asking.

Here are the signers:

Philadelphia City

Timothy Matlack: Free Quaker

Frederick Kuhl: Anglican

James Cannon: Probably Presbyterian

George Schlosser: Probably Lutheran

David Rittenhouse: Presbyterian


Philadelphia County

Robert Loller: Presbyterian (Abington)

Joseph Blewer: Probably Anglican (Southwark)

John Bull: ? (Providence Township)

William Coates ? (Northern Liberties)


Bucks County

John Wilkinson: Free Quaker (Wrightstown)

Samuel Smith: ? (Buckingham)

John Keller: Probably Lutheran (Haycock Township)

William Van Horne: Baptist (Southampton)

John Grier: Presbyterian (Plumstead)

Abraham Van Middleswarts: ?

Joseph Kirkbride: Free Quaker (New Britain)


Chester County

Benjamin Bartholomew: Baptist (Devon)

Thomas Strawbridge: ? (Londonderry)

Robert Smith: Presbyterian (Uwchlan)

Samuel Cunningham: Probably Presbyterian (Nantmeal)

John Mackey: Presbyterian (New London)

John Flemming: Presbyterian (Valley Township)


Lancaster County

Philip Marsteller ?  (Lebanon)

Thomas Porter: ? (Drumore)

Bartram Galbreath: Presbyterian (Donegal)

John Hubley: ? (Lancaster)

Alexander Lowrey: Presbyterian (Donegal)


York County

James Edgar: Presbyterian (York)

James Smith: Probably Presbyterian (Susquehanna)


Cumberland County

John Harris Jr.: Presbyterian (Paxton)

Jonathan Hoge: Presbyterian (East Pennsboro)

William Clarke: ? (Middletown)

Robert Whitehill: Presbyterian (Paxton)

William Duffield: Probably Presbyterian (Mercersburg)

James Brown: Probably Presbyterian (Carlisle)

Hugh Alexander: Probably Presbyterian (?)

James McLain: Probably Presbtyerian (Antrim)


Berks County

Jacob Morgan: Anglican (Carnarvon)

Gabriel Hiester: Probably German Reformed (Bern)

Benjamin Spyker: German Reformed (Tulpehocken)

Valentine Ecker: German Reformed (Wolmesdorf)

Charles Shoemaker: Lutheran (Windsor)

Thomas Jones Jr.: ? (Heidelberg)


Northampton County

Simon Driesbach: German Reformed (Lehigh)

Jacob Arndt: German Reformed (Forks)

Peter Burkholder: ? (Whitehall)

Jacob Stroud: ? (Stroudsburg)

Neigal Gray: Presbyterian (Allen Township)

Abraham Miller (?)

John Ralston: Presbyterian (Allen Township)


Bedford County

Benjamin Elliott: Presbyterian (Huntingdon)

Thomas Coulter: ? (Cumberland Valley)

Rev. Joseph Powell: Baptist (Southampton)

John Burd: ? (Bedford)

John Cessna: ? (Friend’s Cove)

John Wilkin: ? (Bedford)

Thomas Smith: Anglican (Bedford)


Northumberland County

William Cooke: ? (Northumberland)

James Potter: Probably Presbyterian (Northumberland)

Robert Martin: ? (Wyoming)

Matthew Brown: Presbyterian (White Deer Hole Valley)

Walter Clark: Presbyterian (Buffalo Valley)

John Kelley: Presbyterian (Buffalo Valley)

James Crawford: Probably Presbyterian (Pine Creek)

John Weitzel: ? (Sunbury)


Westmoreland County

James Barr: Presbyterian (Ft. Barr)

Edward Cook: Presbyterian (Fayette City)

James Smith: Presbyterian (Bedford)

John Moore: Presbyterian (New Alexandria)

John Carmichael: Presbyterian (Franklin)

John McClelland: Presbyterian (Franklin)

Christopher Lobingier: German Reformed (Mount Pleasant)


Ben Franklin: President

John Morris: Secretary

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series

pa-consEarlier this week C-SPAN was at Messiah College to film a lecture in my “Pennsylvania History” course for its “Lectures in History Program.”  I was scheduled to teach the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 on Monday. I probably could have picked another, perhaps more exciting, topic for C-SPAN, but I have been spending time thinking about this state constitution lately and thought I could use it to make some larger points about Carl Becker’s famous statement about the Revolution as a debate over “home rule” and “who would rule at home.”

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was the most democratic state constitution in the newly established United States.  It had a unicameral legislature and a plural executive.  Power rested in the legislature. While there were other states (Vermont and Georgia) that had unicameral legislatures, the Pennsylvania government was unique because it gave the right to vote and the right to hold office to all males, regardless of wealth or land ownership.  This meant that the one-house legislature was virtually unchecked by a governor or an upper-house.  Members of the legislature had to swear an oath of loyalty to this new government.  Proceedings were open to the public and published in newspapers in both English and German.  This was democracy at work.  Several historians and political scientists have pointed to the influence of Thomas Paine on its framers.

My intention in this post and others that follow is not to provide a full history of the Pennsylvania Constitution. (Paul Selsam’s 1935 The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 is still the best book on the subject).  Rather, I am particularly interested in some of the religious dimensions of the constitution and the religious context that may or may not have shaped some of it. Stay tuned for more posts over the next several days.

A Hessian Tries to Understand Religion in Revolutionary America

HeinrichsJohann Heinrichs was a member of the Hessian jager corps occupying Philadelphia in January 1778.  In this letter to friend in Hesse, dated January 18, 1778, he tries to make sense of the religious influences on the American Revolution.

He writes:

Call this war, dearest friend, by whatsoever name you may, only call it not an American Revolution, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.  Those true Americans, who take the greatest part therein, are the famous Quakers.  The most celebrated, the first ones in entire Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and Boston are, properly speaking, the heads of the Rebellion.

Source: Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XXI:2 (1898)

Thanks to Chris Juergens for bringing this letter to my attention.

Is Heinrich’s confused about Quakers leading the charge or is he referring to the so-called “weighty friends” in Philadelphia who did support the Revolution?

New Jersey Forum Wrap-Up

Last Saturday I had the honor of presenting one of the keynote addresses at the New Jersey Forum, a biennial conference on New Jersey history organized by the New Jersey Historical Commission. This year the conference was hosted and co-sponsored by Kean University in Union as a celebration of New Jersey’s 350th anniversary.

My lecture was titled “New Jersey’s Presbyterian Rebellion.”  It focused on some of my research on Presbyterians and the American Revolution (currently on hold at the moment while I finish this American Bible Society project) and some of the thoughts I hope to include in a new narrative history of the revolution in New Jersey that will appear in a few years with Rutgers University Press. I focused my discussion of the Presbyterians in revolutionary New Jersey on John Witherspoon (a man), the Greenwich Tea Burning (an event), and Elizabeth-Town (a town). 
I also attended a great breakout session on pre-revolutionary New Jersey.  Jonathan Sassi of CUNY-Staten Island presented a very interesting paper on anti-slavery in New Jersey prior to the Revolution (1773-1775).  He focused on the attempt of New Jersey Quakers to get the colonial legislature to pass an abolition bill.  Ironically, this bill was derailed by the American Revolution. In the end, New Jersey proceeded down the path of gradual, not immediate emancipation. This story is chronicled quite well in James Gigantino’s book, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865).
I was thoroughly entertained by Brian Regal‘s presentation on the origins of the so-called “Jersey Devil.”  Regal traced the history of this New Jersey folk tale back to the 17th century Leeds family of the Pine Barren region and explained how the Leeds Devil became the “Jersey Devil” thanks to a curiosities museum in Philadelphia who tried to use the legend (and a kangaroo from Albany) to attract visitors.
Timothy Hack of Salem County Community College offered a historiographical overview of the American Revolution in New Jersey and challenged future historians to bring African Americans, women, religion, loyalists, and the Atlantic world into the narrative of the revolution in the colony. (Challenge accepted!).  He also challenged museums and historical sites to plan early for the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution by making documents accessible to researchers.  Hack called for an updated version of Larry Gerlach’s collection, New Jersey in the American Revolution, 1763-1783.
Finally, Chris Belitto, a church historian and medievalist at Kean, gave a fascinating talk on the way that New Jersey revolutionaries John Kean and William Livingston employed the classics in their arguments for independence.  Belitto’s talk made me realize that I need to know a lot more about Livingston as I move forward with my work on Presbyterians and New Jersey.
It was also a pleasure to chat with so many friends and colleagues from the New Jersey history community, including Jean Soderlund, Richard Waldron, Niquole Primiani, Jonathan Mercantini, Joseph Klett, John Fabiano, Tom Winslow, Rich Rosenthal, Richard Veit, and Karl Neiderer.
As a kid who grew up in the Italian-Slovakian New Jersey working class and was a first-generation college student, it was an amazing honor for me to get to speak at the 350th anniversary celebration of my home state.  I want to thank Sara Cureton, Niquole Primiani, and the rest of the conference organizers for inviting me.
While I was writing this post I noticed that Mary Rizzo, a public history professor at Rutgers Camden, storified the conference tweets.  Thanks, Mary.

Speaking at the 2014 New Jersey Forum

I am honored to be giving one of the plenary addresses at the 2014 New Jersey Forum, held this year at Kean University in Union, New Jersey on November 21 and 22.

The conference theme is “New Jersey at 350: Innovation, Diversity, Liberty.” My talk will be at 9:30am on Saturday, November 22 and it is entitled “New Jersey’s Presbyterian Rebellion.”

I am looking forward to the lecture, but I am also thrilled to see so many outstanding scholars who are connected to the conference, either through organizing it or presenting at it.  They include Ronald Becker, Sara Cureton, Larry Greene, Timothy Hack, Mary Rizzo, Brooke Hunter, Joseph Klett, Maxine Lurie, Jonathan Mercantini, Richard Veit, Graham Hodges, James Gigantino, Alison Isenberg, Spencer Crew, Jonathan Sassi, Jean Soderlund, Jonathan Lurie, Brian Greenberg, and Neil Maher.

I hope to see many of you next weekend!  This is going to be a great conference.

Pennsylvania Presbyterians and the American Revolution at Geneva College

Last night I had a great time giving a public lecture at Geneva College on some of my work related to Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  I am guessing that about fifty or so students and faculty came out to John White Chapel on the Geneva campus to learn more about the relationship between Presbyterians, the Paxton Boys, and the American Revolution.  Thanks to Geneva College history professor Greg Jones for inviting me, introducing me, and organizing the lecture.  He has been a great host.

I spoke about the way in which Pennsylvania Presbyterians used the tragic events of the Conestoga Massacre to gain political power in the Pennsylvania assembly and eventually lead the colony into the American Revolution.  Since Geneva College is a Presbyterian college (Reformed Presbyterian) I got some great excellent questions from the audience, some of which I have never fielded before.  The questions surrounded the relationship between Presbyterian post-millennial theology and Enlightenment progress, the connections between the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Presbyterian involvement in the Revolution, and the role that the legacy of the English Civil War played in the so-called “Presbyterian Rebellion.”  One of the questions was asked by the president of Geneva College.  College presidents rarely show up for my lectures!

I came away from the lecture convinced that I need to talk more with Presbyterian church historians and historical theologians about this project.

Today I will be teaching Greg Jones’s class on Colonial America and Historical Thinking.  It should be fun.

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I recently reread Kevin Kenny’s Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment.  It is a wonderful introduction to the Paxton Boys story and I highly recommend it.  While Peter Silver interprets the Paxton saga through the lens of race, and Patrick Griffin interprets it through the lens of British liberties, Kenny argues that the Paxton Boys were motivated largely by a desire for land, personal security, and vengeance.  As he writes on p. 231: “Their concerns remained, as ever, resolutely local.”

Kenny spends more time than Griffin and Silver exploring the Paxton Riots in the context of Presbyterianism, but religion is not his primary interpretive lens.  After reading Peaceable Kingdom Lost I think I can put together a pretty good narrative chapter on the riots as a Presbyterian event so I decided to submit a proposal to this conference.  I typed it up in a hotel room in Indiana, PA the night before one of my daughter’s volleyball tournaments and submitted it with an hour to spare before February 1 (the deadline for submissions) came to an end.  (The next morning my daughter told me she was mad at me for not getting this done sooner as she needed her rest for the tournament.  I felt much better after they won the tournament!). 

I am still trying to figure out how and if to explain the Paxton Riots in the context of the American Revolution.  Contrary to many nineteenth and twentieth-century historians, Kenny makes it clear that the Paxton Boys were not harbingers of the American Revolution in the sense that they fought for “liberty and equality for all.”  While they fought against propriety privilege in colonial Pennsylvania, they were more concerned with self and local interests.

For Kenny, the Paxton Boys were harbingers of the American Revolution in the sense that their harsh treatment of native Americans reached “fruition during the American Revolution, when exterminating the Indians became an act of patriotism.”

From reading Silver, Griffin, and Kenny I have collected a nice list of primary sources that I need to read.  I am putting together a comprehensive list of Paxton-related pamphlets and will soon be making the ten mile trip to the Dauphin County Historical Society to read the papers of John Elder.

Stay tuned.

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I want to continue with my thoughts on Patrick Griffin, The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764.

Griffin offers a slightly different interpretation of the Paxton Riots than Peter Silver does in Our Savage Neighbors. As I discussed in a previous post in this series, Silver’s interpretation of the riots is focused almost entirely on race.  Griffin, while not ignoring that race was a factor, interprets the riots through British rights language.  In other words, the Paxton Boys believed that they had legitimate grievances against the Pennsylvania Assembly. They did not feel that they were being represented by the provincial government and thought that the government was not doing enough to deal with the Indian problem on the frontier in the wake of Pontiac’s Rebellion.  The riots were a manifestation of their fight for the rights afforded to all British subjects. Griffin writes:

But the [Indian] wars had revealed as never before their [Scots-Irish] marginal status in Pennsylvania and their impotent voice in an empire that they believed they had a significant hand in fashioning and defending.  

And this:

…for these people holed up in small forts in times of dangers on a bleeding frontier or fleeing east from dispossessed Indians, British liberty took on new, troubling meanings.  Britishness underscored a right to life and property, a liberty that negligent government officials alienated at their own peril.  For frontier settlers, however, the unifying logic of such concepts could also justify the slaughter of Indians both hostile and friendly.

Griffin’s book has me more optimistic about the possibility of a religious (Presbyterian) interpretation of the Paxton riots.

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I just reread Patrick Griffin‘s excellent, The People With No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764. I actually reviewed this book about ten years ago for the Journal of Presbyterian History, but this time around I was reading it with different eyes–the eyes of a historian working on a specific project related to Presbyterian life in the era of the American Revolution.

Griffin’s central argument is that eighteenth-century Ulster Presbyterians reinvented themselves as full-fledged members of the British Empire despite living lives on the geographical margins of that Empire. They did this by embracing mobility, Reformed Protestantism, and the language of British rights.

One of Griffin’s subtle arguments in the book centers on the identity of post-Great Awakening Presbyterians in British North America.  While he does not deny that Old Side and New Side Presbyterians had their differences following the 1758 reunion, he tends stress the sense of unity and consolidation that emerged in the wake of these divisive revivals.

Only a few historians have noticed the culture of consensus that emerged in the denomination between roughly 1745 and 1770.  Over half a century ago, Dietmar Rothermund developed this trend toward unity in Layman’s Progress: Religious and Political Experience in Colonial Pennsylvania. Robert Ferguson (The American Enlightenment) and Steven Bullock (Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order) also discuss it, albeit in the larger context of pre-revolutionary culture.

Griffin attributes this post-Awakening unity to a growing sense of Britishness among the Ulster Presbyterians in America,  He writes (p. 158):  “By the 1760s, these men and women achieved elusive unity after years of socioeconomic and religious strife.  They overcame division by rallying around a familiar concept, Britishness.”

In The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I also explored in depth this sense of community, harmony, and solidarity among post-Awakening Presbyterians, but I chalked it up to the influence of the British Enlightenment on the denomination and its leaders.  I think Griffin and I were barking up the same tree.

Why is this renewed sense of unity so important?  It is important because Presbyterians had to overcome their Great Awakening differences as a prerequisite for the establishment of a nearly unified front against what they perceived to be the tyranny of the British Empire in the years between 1765 and 1776.  This is the way I hope to take my argument in this project, expanding on what I wrote in The Way of Improvement Leads Home and what I argued in a 2008 essay in the Journal of Presbyterian History entitled “In Search of Unity: Presbyterians in the Wake of the First Great Awakening.”

Of course little of this historiographical nitpicking will find its way into my manuscript.  I am trying to write this book for a general audience and I am afraid that many readers unfamiliar or uninterested in Presbyterian history may find this stuff a bit dry.  This was a problem I faced in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Scholars of early American religion liked the first couple of chapters dealing with Presbyterian post-Awakening politics, but I lost a lot of my general, non-scholarly readers in those first two chapters–chapters that I thought were necessary to set the context for Philip Vickers Fithian’s life.  Many general readers who came to public talks where I expounded on Fithian’s fascinating life story told me later that they skipped over the first two chapters and picked up the story in chapter three, the point in the book where the biographical narrative begins to pick-up steam. The challenge for this project will be finding a way to tell this story of post-Awakening unity without losing my readership as the narrative builds toward the Revolution.

I want to mention a few things about Griffin’s take on the Paxton Riots as well, but I will save that for my next “Project Reading” post.

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

In my attempts to better understand the place of the College of New Jersey in the American Revolutionary War I recently finished David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing and William Stryker’s The Battles of Trenton and Princeton.  Despite the fact that Stryker’s book is over 100 years old, I found it to be very useful.  The narrative was compelling and his gathering of primary sources (mostly letters and lists of soldiers) at the end of the book saved me some time tracking them down individually.

Neither author extends his treatment of the college’s role in the battle beyond the classic institutional histories of Princeton (MacLean and Wertenbaker), but their work did provide me with some important background to the New Jersey military history of 1775-1776.  I hope to have a chapter in the manuscript on Presbyterians–both ministers and laypersons–in the midst of the military conflict.

Help Me Find a New Working Title for My Book Project

As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am working on a book on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  I recently decided to abandon my original working title “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic” for several reasons.  First, I want to extend the project into parts of the South and the southern backcountry (not just the Mid-Atlantic).  Second, I do not want the word “Presbyterian” in the title of the book–it makes it sound too denominational.  (There are other reasons as well, but these will suffice).

So I have come up with a slew of possible titles–all short, catchy, and adapted from actual things that revolutionary-era Presbyterians said in either public or private writings.  I have changed my subtitle to “Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution.”

Here is where I need your help.  Which one of these titles sounds best?  I am thinking mostly in terms of marketability here.  I would greatly appreciate hearing your suggestions in the comments section or on Facebook. Thanks!

The Lord of History is on Our Side: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

Land of Light and Liberty: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

The Kind Hand of Providence: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

Justified Before God and Man: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

Beseeching God For Victory: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

God Save His People: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

The Noblest Work of God: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

For God and Nation: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution (“For God and County” is already taken by several other books).

God Created Us Free: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

Favored by Heaven: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

By the Blessing of God: Presbyterians and the Coming of the American Revolution

Thanks so much for your help!

Project Reading

I just finished the first volume of John Maclean’s History of the College of New Jersey (1877).  I read Maclean while I was working on The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but this time around I was looking for different things. (My notes from my earlier reading are pretty sketchy. I was basically just looking for references to Philip Vickers Fithian and the Princeton classes of 1771 and 1772).

Maclean was president of Princeton from 1854-1868 and clearly loves the college where he spent his entire academic career. His history borders on hagiography in places (as is the case with most 19th century institutional histories), but it is generally a solid chronicle of college life at Princeton through the Civil War era.

What I like about Maclean is his use of primary sources.  While I wish he would have more footnotes, he does reproduce dozens of letters, trustee minutes, and commencement exercises from the eighteenth century.  Some of these sources I have not been able to find in archives, making Maclean’s work very useful to my project.

Stay tuned.

Project Reading

I just finished Varnum Lansing Collins’s President Witherspoon, a two-volume biography of John Witherspoon published in 1925. It remains the best biography of Witherspoon out there.  No other study is as comprehensive.  Jeffry Morrison’s John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (2007) focuses almost entirely on Witherspoon’s political thought in the context of the Revolution (see my review of it here) and L. Gordon Tait’s The Piety of John Witherspoon is more concerned with his religious life.  Collins has written the only book I know that chronicles Witherspoon’s life from beginning to end–from Scotland to Princeton.

When I read these old biographies I focus more on facts and evidence than I do on interpretation.  Collins obviously likes Witherspoon, and the biography has several hagiographical moments, but works such as this remain valuable in my attempts at mastering the general flow of Witherspoon’s life and imagining how I am going to piece these stories into my larger study.  Because President Witherspoon is so meticulously researched and loaded with reprints of primary sources, I have been able to develop a long list of documents I will need to consult down the road.