Patriotism and American Presbyterian History
By Peter Lillback

Should Presbyterians be patriotic? To answer this question, let’s start by clarifying some basic theological principles and considering the origins of the American Presbyterian tradition.

What is Patriotism?

The word “patriotism” is derived from the Latin word, pater, meaning “father.” A patriot possesses a love for one‘s homeland that mirrors the natural affection a child feels for one’s father. Beyond natural affection, some see a biblical duty to honor one’s native land as an expression of obedience to the Fifth Commandment. As a father in a family is to be obeyed, so our biblical duty of obedience and honor extends to other spheres of authority, including the government.  

Evidence from early American Presbyterians reveals a deep love for their newly adopted homeland.

Another encouragement for patriotism issues from our duty to the Second Great Commandment. We are called by God to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:38-39). By inference, those that share our land of birth and our communities are also neighbors. In this context, patriotism is a general love for our fellow countrymen. Evidence from early American Presbyterians reveals a deep love for their newly adopted homeland.  

Presbyterian Theology and Patriotism

Presbyterian theology has embraced the biblical teaching that Christians in this world are exiles (Hebrews 11:13-16; 1 Peter 1:1), with our true citizenship being in heaven (Philippians 3:20). The church’s longing has not been primarily national, but global spiritual concern (Matthew 28:19-20), for the ultimate destiny of souls (Matthew 10:28; John 3:16). 

Yet as all Reformational churches understood, the magistrate and civil government are part of the Christian’s worldview. Following the teaching of Paul in Romans 13:1-7, Jesus in Matthew 22:21, and Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17, the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions have included the magistrate in their systems of doctrine (e.g. “Westminster Confession,” Chapter 23; “Belgic Confession,” Article 36).  

As magisterial reformers, Protestants have recognized that service for the state, and even leadership therein, are expressions of obedience to God. Even the deadly duty of the soldier under just government has been included as an aspect of the Christian’s duty (“Westminster Larger Catechism,” Questions 135-136).  

Historically, America has been impacted by Calvinistic churches, such as English Puritans and Congregationalists, Scots Irish Presbyterians, Dutch and German Reformed, and French Huguenots. The conjunction of community and church led to patriotic sympathies for blessings in a new land that have shaped Reformed and Presbyterian believers.

Early American Presbyterianism Patriotism

The Scots Irish emigration of Presbyterians was motivated by a desire for freedom and a quest to escape persecution. Scholars calculate that some 500,000 Scots Irish Presbyterian immigrants from Ulster had come to the colonies when America declared its independence. 

Scots Irish immigrant Francis Makemie (1658-1708) was an early organizer of Presbyterian churches. As he planted churches, he experienced colonial persecution for his ministry and convictions. He was ultimately vindicated, and the news of America’s fledgling religious liberty encouraged a growing exodus to America from Northern Ireland. The persecuted Scots Irish Presbyterians were finally free to practice Presbyterian distinctives in the New World, which included their being relieved from paying taxes for a church to which they did not adhere. By 1706, the first presbytery was established in Philadelphia.  

A decisive influence in the training of American Presbyterian clergy was the Log College established in 1727 by William Tennent, Sr. It was a private source of training for the ordination of Presbyterians who could not attend Harvard or Yale, which were the only schools that could provide an ordained educated clergy in early America. From the Log College, graduates emerged who provided ministers for the growing Presbyterian movement. Log College alumni also supported the Great Awakening and the evangelistic ministry of George Whitefield. 

This growth of Presbyterian churches created the need for a college to train pastors and leaders. In 1746 alumni of the Log College who favored the Awakening formed the College of New Jersey. The school is known today as Princeton University. Developing from the college, Princeton Theological Seminary was born in 1812.

Whitefield’s impact on the patriotism of early Presbyterianism stems in part from a powerful warning he gave on April 2, 1764, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. According to William Gordon in his history of the United States, Whitefield revealed to Rev. Samuel Langdon and other ministers: 

I can’t in conscience leave the town without acquainting you with a secret. My heart bleeds for America, O poor New England! There is a deep-laid plot against both your civil and religious liberties, and they will be lost. Your golden days are at an end. You have nothing but trouble before you. My information comes from the best authority in Great Britain. I was allowed to speak of the affair in general but enjoined not to mention particulars. Your liberties will be lost.

Whitefield’s somber revelation was taken seriously and impacted American Christian leaders who supported Whitefield’s ministry.

John Witherspoon: Patriotic Presbyterian Statesman Minister

A few years after Whitefield’s warning, the College of New Jersey needed a new president. Scottish Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon was recruited, arriving in New Jersey in 1768. Witherspoon was a minister, scholar and a descendent of John Knox, Scotland’s Reformer. Witherspoon’s leadership made a lasting impact on the college, American Presbyterianism, and the formation of the United States.  

He began political service in the New Jersey State Convention in 1774. In 1775, he gave eight deeply patriotic recommendations to the Continental Congress. The first three state, “(1) To profess loyalty to the King, and ‘our backwardness’ to break connection with Great Britain, unless forced thereto; (2) To declare the firm resolve never to submit to the claims of Great Britain, but deliberately to prefer war with all its horrors, and even extermination, to slavery; (3) To resolve union and to pursue the same measures ‘until American liberty is settled on a solid basis,’ and Massachusetts in particular is restored to its right.”

When asked if America was ripe for independence, he famously remarked that the nation was not only ripe for independence but rotting for the lack of it.

Witherspoon attended the Second Continental Congress in 1776 and was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, which led to the Revolutionary War.  A Hessian officer called the American Revolution a “Scots Irish Rebellion.” A British parliament member quipped, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” Witherspoon, the Presbyterian Scottish parson from Princeton, paid a dear price when two of his sons died in the war.

Witherspoon’s far-reaching patriotic impact on the new nation is seen in his students. These included James Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth president. Madison stayed after graduating from Princeton in 1771 to study Hebrew with Witherspoon. Witherspoon’s other influential students include one U.S. vice president, 12 members of the Continental Congress, five framers of the Constitution, 28 senators, 49 U.S. representatives, and three U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Patriotic Presbyterians and the American Revolution 

When the outbreak of hostilities occurred, the news aroused the Scots Irish Presbyterian settlers in the mountains of North Carolina around Charlotte. Although scholars dispute its authenticity, some allege that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was signed on May 20, 1775, in response to news of the bloodshed  at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. What is not disputed, however, is that Scots Irish Thomas Polk and Ephraim Brevard drafted the Mecklenburg Resolves, dated May 31, 1775. These reframed the government of Mecklenburg, essentially breaking ties with Great Britain.  

The news of Lexington and Concord also stirred the Synod of New York and Philadelphia to issue a Pastoral Letter dated May 22, 1775, regarding the looming revolution. The letter is entered in their minutes and notes that 500 copies were to be printed. The presbyters’ counsel reveals their patriotic fervor as they sought to care for their churches at that weighty moment. 

The Synod of New York and Philadelphia, being met at a time when public affairs wear so threatening an aspect, and when (unless God in his sovereign Providence speedily prevent it) all the horrors of a civil war throughout this great Continent are to be apprehended, were of opinion, that they could not discharge their duty to the numerous congregations under their care, without addressing them at this important crisis … .

We do therefore, Brethren, beseech you in the most earnest manner, to look beyond the immediate authors either of your sufferings or fears, and to acknowledge the holiness and justice of the Almighty in the present visitation….intreat him to pour out upon all ranks a spirit of repentance and prayer. Fly also for forgiveness to the atoning blood of the great Redeemer….

Let therefore, everyone, who from generosity of spirit, or benevolence of heart, offers himself as a champion in his country’s cause, be persuaded to reverence the name, and walk in the fear of the Prince of the Kings of the earth, and then he may, with the most unshaken firmness, expect the issue either in victory or death.

This call by an American Presbyterian synod for participation in the cause of liberty, even unto death, is a remarkable expression of patriotism. No wonder, then, that Princeton graduate Israel Evans from Pennsylvania, the third generation of Welsh pastors, became a Presbyterian Chaplain in Washington’s army. He served from Quebec to Yorktown. General Washington read and commended one of his printed sermons. A painting of Chaplain Evans hangs in the office of the Army Chief of Chaplains in the Pentagon. 

Presbyterian minister James Caldwell, another patriot and Princeton graduate, pastored in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and served as a chaplain and quartermaster general in the Continental Army.  He was known as the “Fighting Parson” by the patriots and the “Black Rebel” by the British. He preached on Sundays carrying pistols, and then he led his soldiers during the week. In the 1780 battle with Hessians at Springfield, New Jersey, when the wadding for the cannon had run out, Caldwell took the Isaac Watts hymnals from First Presbyterian Church and gave them to the American soldiers saying, “Give ‘em Watts, boys.”  

Not all Presbyterian ministers, of course, sided with the American cause. John Joachim Zubly from Savannah, Georgia is an example. Zubly was born in Switzerland and had been ordained in the German Reformed Church. Having immigrated to America, he was called as the first pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. He was a thoughtful author and served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress but left when it was found that he was in correspondence with the royal governor of Georgia. Zubly experienced persecution and personal loss for his convictions that led him to support the loyalists’ position.  

And finally, Presbyterian churches furnished soldiers for the patriot’s cause. One of the oldest PCA churches is Manor Church in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The church’s records show that two members of its session served as commissioned officers, General Samuel Cochran and Lieutenant Thomas Love. Although differing in rank, they shared the same tent and held daily “family worship”, morning and evening, singing the psalms and kneeling together in prayer. 


Patriotism is a significant part of the Presbyterian legacy in the United States.  Support for patriotism has warrant from common human experience as well as biblical and theological reasons. Clearly, the Presbyterian tradition of patriotism is underscored not only by our remarkable early patriotic history in America, but by Presbyterians’ continuing service for our nation begun by our forebears.

Patriotism is seen in ministers who serve as chaplains in the military, by members who are military personnel seeking to defend just war principles by active duty, by elders who lead in government service and elected office, by worship leaders who encourage members to pray for their nation and to act as citizens who are salt and light in a world of unbelief.  

In doing these things, Presbyterian patriots seek to fulfill the words of the American version of the “Westminster Confession.” Our Confession was amended to conform with the American experience under the patriotic moderator John Witherspoon at the first American General Assembly held in Philadelphia in 1789.  The American “Westminster Confession” on the Civil Magistrate, chapter 23, paragraph 3 states, 

…as nursing fathers it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest…It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever, and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

And this understanding of the magistrate leads to the duties outlined in the following paragraph, WCF 23:4: 

It is the duty of the people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’s sake.

To fulfill these responsibilities with conviction is nothing less than Presbyterian patriotism of the highest order.

Rev. Dr. Peter Lillback (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is president and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Scroll to Top