By the Hand of Providence: How Faith Shaped the American Revolution

By the Hand of Providence: How Faith Shaped the American Revolution

by Rod Gragg


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The true drama of how faith motivated America’s Founding Fathers, from the Declaration of Independence to the signing of Britain’s peace treaty.

From the author of Forged in Faith comes the remarkable untold history of how the faith of our fathers critically influenced the outcome of the American Revolution and the birth of the United States of America.

“A page-turner that reads like a novel!”

Here, in the fascinating follow-up to his popular work Forged in Faith, award-winning historian Rod Gragg reveals how the American Revolution was fired and fueled by America’s founding faith—the Judeo-Christian worldview. Based on meticulous research and propelled by a fast-paced style, By the Hand of Providence uncovers the extraordinary, almost-forgotten history of the faith-based Revolution that secured American liberty and nationhood.

From the American people’s first resistance to attacks on their God-given or “inalienable” rights, through the dramatic battlefield events of the Revolution and General George Washington’s pivotal faith-based leadership, to the climactic surrender of Cornwallis’s British army at Yorktown, By the Hand of Providence exposes the long-overlooked but critical element that kept alive the American War for Independence and motivated the ultimate victory that established the United States of America.

In the words of George Washington: “The Hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith. . . .”

Graced by a fast-paced narrative and based on the extensive research Gragg has so notably applied to other events in American history, By the Hand of Providence is an insightful and fascinating account of the faith-based Revolution that secured American independence and nationhood.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451623529
Publisher: Howard Books
Publication date: 06/12/2012
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

A former journalist, historian Rod Gragg is director of the Center for Military and Veterans Studies at Coastal Carolina University, where he also serves as an adjunct professor of history. His works have earned the Fletcher Pratt Award, the James I. Robertson Award and other honors, and have been selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club, the History Book Club and the Military History Book Club.

Read an Excerpt


“By the Providence of Almighty God”

The red-coated regimental bands played “God Save the King” as the victorious British army marched into the conquered American capital. It was Friday morning, September 26, 1777, and Philadelphia had fallen to the enemy. Continental forces had engaged in valiant and bloody combat to defend the city, but had been unable to stop the British advance. Now the lead regiments of General William Howe’s fifteen-thousand-man army marched unopposed into Philadelphia on the same cobblestone streets recently abandoned by ragtag American troops. A week earlier, the delegates to the Continental Congress had packed up and left with as much dignity as possible, to reassemble first in Lancaster then farther away in York. Hosts of fearful Philadelphians had also fled—many with more haste than dignity. “Today many teams loaded with furniture and people [were] flying from Philadelphia,” penned an eyewitness. “Coaches, chaises and wagons loaded with fugitives [were] passing without intermission.” Wrote another: “Every face you see looks wild and pale with fear and amazement, and quite overwhelmed with distress.”1

Accompanied by their triumphant tunes, the British army filed through Philadelphia’s streets unopposed—as if on parade—its ranks broken only when a soldier here and there stepped aside to hurriedly gulp a cup of cider offered by Loyalist bystanders. Accompanying the red-coated British regulars were two battalions of German Hessians—mercenary troops hired by the British government to help suppress the Revolution. Although recognized on both sides as well-drilled troops, the Hessians were infamous for their brutality. Now they marched down Philadelphia’s streets “with the swing and swagger of an invading army.” The British army was experienced and well equipped—arguably the best military force in the world—and the victorious troops exuded confidence and discipline as they marched through Philadelphia, which was the largest city in America. Upon orders, they kept their battle flags encased and out of sight to avoid needlessly provoking the conquered Philadelphians. Such restraint appeared unnecessary, however: the city’s patriots were either gone or were staying indoors, and the files of British troops were met by crowds of cheering Loyalists. The American capital appeared thoroughly conquered.2

Two weeks earlier, at the Battle of Brandywine, this same British army had defeated a last-ditch American defense, inflicting almost twice as many casualties as it incurred. Soon afterward, at what would become known as the “Paoli Massacre,” the British army had demonstrated its deadly efficiency with a surprise nighttime bayonet assault on sleeping Continental troops near the town of Paoli, Pennsylvania. Scores of surprised and confused American soldiers had fallen to British bayonets. “[They] were running about, barefoot, and half-clothed, and in the light of their own fires,” a Hessian sergeant would later boast. “We killed three hundred of the rebels with the bayonet. I stuck them myself like so many pigs, one after another, until the blood ran out of the touch-hole of my musket.”3

Upon his capture of Philadelphia, General Howe established a huge camp at Germantown on the city’s outskirts, and posted troops in force throughout the city. Artillery batteries were erected on the city’s riverfront, and infantry were placed at key points. Among these sites was the Pennsylvania State House—“Independence Hall”—where little more than a year before, members of America’s Continental Congress had passed the Declaration of Independence. Now one of the delegates’ worst fears had become reality: the British had captured the seat of the new national government, including the building and chamber where American independence had been debated and declared. Independence Hall—the new nation’s landmark of freedom—would soon become a prison hospital for captured American soldiers. In distant Europe, monarchs and military commanders learned of the capture of the American capital and assumed that the Revolution was over. Great Britain, they believed, had won the war.4

They were wrong. Defying all odds, the American cause would survive. Repeatedly, American forces would suffer battlefield calamities that should have ended the Revolution in a British victory. General George Washington’s army was repeatedly forced to retreat. Other American armies were defeated and scattered. Principal American seaports and cities fell to the enemy. New York City was occupied by the British for seven years. The national capital was captured and Congress was forced to flee. At various times throughout the war, American forces teetered on the edge of disintegration—poorly armed, inadequately equipped, sometimes near starvation—while facing the military superpower of the day. Yet Continental forces repeatedly survived, and would eventually prevail against all odds.5

For generations to come, historians would continue to examine the War for Independence, reanalyzing the astonishing events leading to the American victory. Time after time, British leaders were perplexed by America’s unexpected survival, and were stunned by the eventual outcome. How did it happen? George Washington had an answer, which he continuously restated in letters and speeches during and after the war. The success of American arms, Washington believed, was due to nothing less than what he called the “astonishing interpositions of providence”—the sovereign intervention of Almighty God. “To the Great ruler of events, not to any exertions of mine, is to be ascribed the favorable termination of our late contest for liberty,” Washington would pronounce at war’s end. “I never considered the fortunate issue of any measure adopted by me in the progress of the Revolution in any other light than as the ordering of kind Providence.”6

Washington was not one to make such statements lightly. He was a Virginia low-church Anglican whose expressions of faith were generally quiet, reserved, and carefully reverent. “We must … place a confidence in that Providence, who rules great events,” he once observed in a typical commentary, “trusting that out of confusion he will produce order, and, notwithstanding the dark clouds, which may threaten at present, that right will ultimately be established.” The “dark clouds” that preceded the American Revolution had gathered largely during Washington’s lifetime, and he had been personally involved in a remarkable number of those critical events. They were extraordinary preparation for the singular role of leadership he would assume—and he did not consider the Revolution or his preparation for it to be accidental.7

Washington’s faith in the sovereignty of God—“Providence” in the vernacular of his day—was a universal belief in eighteenth-century America. From Massachusetts to Georgia, “the idiom of religion penetrated all discourse, underlay all thought, marked all observances, gave meaning to every public and private crisis,” according to historian Patricia Bonomi, a twenty-first-century expert on Colonial America. American political thought at the time of the Revolution, twentieth-century Jewish historian Abraham I. Katsh would observe, reflected “the deeper meaning and higher purpose of a constant regard for principles and religious ideas, based on a profound sympathy for the Scriptures.…” The renowned historian Merle Curti would agree. “The Christian tradition,” he would note, “was the chief foundation stone of American intellectual development [in the Colonial era]. Whatever differences in ways of life and whatever conflicts of interest separated the country gentry and great merchants from the frontiersmen, poor farmers, artisans, and small shopkeepers, all nominally subscribed to Christian tenets and at least in theory accepted Christianity as their guide.”8

From the beginning, America was forged in faith—the Judeo-Christian worldview of the Bible. In 1607, when the first successful English colony in North America was established at Jamestown, Virginia, its royal charter declared the colony’s mission in part to be the “propagating of Christian Religion.” Although many of Jamestown’s early colonists showed more interest in gold than God, even rowdy Jamestown reflected a biblical faith. A chaplain held services in a crudely constructed church, and settlers were expected to attend prayer services twice daily, two worship services on the Lord’s Day and regular communion. When the colonists fell into near mutiny over Jamestown’s “Common Store” system—a socialistic policy that equally rewarded those who worked and those who loitered—Captain John Smith implemented a compulsory work program based on the New Testament admonition “if any would not work, neither should he eat.”9

A few years later, Virginia governor Thomas Dale enacted a code of laws founded on biblical principles: “I do strictly commaund and charge all Captaines and Officers … to have a care that the Almightie God bee duly and daily served, and that they call upon their people to heare Sermons, as that also they diligently frequent Morning and Evening praier themselves by their owne exemplar and daily life, and dutie herein, encouraging others thereunto.…” Although harshly enforced, Dale’s faith-based laws provided the discipline needed for the colony to survive. In 1619, Virginia’s newly established House of Burgesses—America’s first legislative assembly—established a precedent with faith-based self-government. The first session of the House of Burgesses was held in Jamestown’s log church, its first official act was an opening prayer, and among its first legislative actions were statutes requiring church attendance on the Lord’s Day, and mandating that Sundays be kept “in holy and religious order.” Two years later, Virginia’s constitution dedicated the colony to “the Advancement of the Honour and Service of God, and the Enlargement of His Kingdom.”10

Thirteen years after Jamestown was founded in Virginia, another English colony was established in America with an even stronger faith-based foundation. It was Plymouth Colony, established on the coast of modern Massachusetts by the people who would become known as the Pilgrims. The driving force of the one hundred–plus colonists who landed near Cape Cod in 1620 were thirty-five “Separatists”—so named because they had separated themselves from the Anglican Church of England, believing that every local church should be independent and self-governing. Early Separatist leaders had been executed in England, and sect members had suffered ridicule, threats, and persecution. After temporary self-exile in Holland, a group of Separatists put together a plan for a colony in the New World, obtained a charter, were joined by a larger group of non-Separatists, and set out across the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower—bound for the northern reaches of Virginia.11

They missed. Stormy weather drove them far to the north, and there—in what would become New England—they planted a faith-based colony in the wilderness. “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land,” Pilgrim leader William Bradford would report, “they fell upon their knees & blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast & furious ocean.…” They also immediately drafted a founding document for governing their colony—the Mayflower Compact. As the Virginians had done with the House of Burgesses, the Pilgrims based their government on biblical precepts. The opening line of the Mayflower Compact—“In the name of God, Amen”—acknowledged the God of the Bible as the authority for law and culture in the Pilgrims’ New World colony.12

The Compact stated the motivation that had driven the Plymouth colonists to risk all to establish a new life in a new land: “Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts.…” Through this founding document, the Pilgrims pledged to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick,” and to establish and obey “just and equal laws … for the general Good of the Colony.” It was a mighty precedent for the construction of American law and culture. While humbly acknowledging fidelity to king and country, the Mayflower Compact clearly recognized the biblical precept that all authority—even that of a king—was granted by the grace of God, and was subordinate to the “Higher Law” of Scripture.13

In 1630, shiploads of English Puritans followed the example set by their Pilgrim cousins and began arriving on the wooded shores of Massachusetts. The Puritans were so named because they wanted to purify the Church of England of what they deemed to be unbiblical doctrines and practices. By the early seventeenth century, England was officially Protestant, and so were most of its people. The Protestant Reformation had come to England during the reign of the mercurial King Henry VIII, who at first persecuted Protestants, then, when it suited his self-serving purposes, turned against the Catholics and established the Protestant Church of England—the Anglican Church.14

In 1517, a century before the Pilgrims’ journey, Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest in Germany, had sparked the Protestant Reformation by calling for the Church to return to key biblical doctrines many Christians believed had been distorted or abandoned in the early Middle Ages. He reaffirmed salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone rather than by faith and works, and upheld the authority of Scripture over church tradition and church leadership, including papal authority. Church officials in Rome excommunicated Luther, but the Reformation flooded Western Europe with a Bible-centered revival—and a political transformation. With its emphasis on the authority of Scripture as the Higher Law, the Reformation persuaded countless commoners that every person, whether a prince or a pauper, was of equal value to God. It also spread the belief that God’s law, as revealed by Scripture, superseded man’s law—including the authority of princes, queens, and kings.15

The Reformation and its emphasis on the authority of Higher Law was suppressed by three of the four leading world powers—Spain, Portugal, and France. In England, however, the Reformation and its biblical doctrines took root and flourished. The first published translation of the Bible in English gave the common people of England personal access to the Scriptures—and the country was transformed. “The whole moral effect … was simply amazing,” English historian John Richard Green would later conclude. “The whole nation became a church.”16

By the early 1600s, many people in England weighed everything according to a biblical worldview—including government. Already, they cherished individual rights and a representative form of government—the legacy of the canon law of Christianity and the English Constitution it had inspired. The English Reformation inspired the English people with an even greater commitment to Higher Law and the God-given rights of the individual. Most committed of all were the Puritans, who believed in “covenant theology.” Scripture revealed that God had established covenants with his people through the ages, they believed, and government therefore should be a contract—a covenant—between the governing and the governed. Covenant theology held that even kings and queens were subject to God’s Higher Law and were biblically obligated to recognize the God-given right to individual life and liberty.17

Covenant theology and the Puritan desire to “purify” the Church of England—the official government denomination—were not popular with English monarchs. Neither was the Puritan belief that all people were equal before God. King James I vowed to “harry them out of the land, or else do worse,” and his son and successor, King Charles I, permitted Anglican officials to persecute them. Puritan preaching was restricted, their books and tracts were banned, and many Puritans were whipped, tortured, branded, or imprisoned. Facing increased persecution, scores of Puritans prayerfully chose to follow the Pilgrims to America. Between 1630 and 1640—in what became known as the Great Migration—more than twenty thousand Puritans immigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony, bringing with them the seeds of Bible-based liberty.18

Although far from perfect, the Puritans’ Massachusetts Bay Colony was based on biblical principles and became an influential model for other colonies. Many of the fundamental rights that would be championed by America’s founding fathers, such as representative self-government, regular elections, and respect for private property, were inspired by the Puritans. The Judeo-Christian worldview became the foundation for American law and culture, as expressed, for example, in the 1643 Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England: “Whereas we all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely, to advance the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and to enjoy the liberties of the Gospel in purity with peace.…”19

At times, some Colonial Americans appeared to forget the persecution they and their ancestors had suffered in the Old World and repeated the same sins in the New World. But the New was not the Old, and religious intolerance would not last in the Bible-based culture of Colonial America—too many colonists were unwilling to stand for it. Instead, gradually, steadily, there arose an American tradition of religious tolerance, based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was advanced by such people of faith as Roger Williams in Rhode Island, William Penn in Pennsylvania, Cecilius Calvert in Maryland, and countless unnamed American colonists who rejected religious persecution. Colonial Americans eventually established laws and government that reflected biblical values and principles while allowing full freedom of faith and conscience for all. The foundation of American liberty was the Judeo-Christian worldview, and a keystone in that foundation was religious freedom.20

Colonial America was overwhelmingly Protestant. Jewish communities were sprinkled throughout the Thirteen Colonies, and a minority Catholic community was clustered in Maryland, but Colonial America was marked by a multitude of Protestant denominations. The Church of England was the official state church in Colonial America, but by the dawn of the eighteenth century, Anglicans were clearly outnumbered by members of the so-called dissenter denominations—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, and others. Colonial America was distinguished by a variety of denominations, some of which were at times competitive, but it was overwhelmingly united by the commonly-shared Judeo-Christian worldview. With its unique combination of Bible-based faith and freedom, America was a land like no other.21

By the early 1700s, however, some feared America’s heritage of faith was growing dim. Biblical principles continued to shape American law and culture, but some feared America’s foundational faith was fading, undermined by prosperity in the cities and a scarcity of clergy and churches on the frontier. “Church discipline was neglected, and the growing laxness of morals was invading the churches,” reported a New England pastor. “The difference between the church and the world was vanishing.…”22

Then came an event that transformed Colonial America, restored its biblical foundation, united its people, and left the culture awash in faith on the eve of the Revolution. Known as the Great Awakening, it was an epic-sized revival of Christianity that swept floodlike through Colonial America. It began in full in the summer of 1743, with a solemn, unemotional sermon delivered by the Reverend Jonathan Edwards at a Congregationalist church in Enfield, Connecticut. A brilliant scholar and theologian who would later become president of Princeton University, Edwards preached a sobering call to salvation through Jesus Christ. A wave of conversions swept through the congregation, then through the region, all of New England, and eventually all of the Thirteen Colonies. It was further fueled by the preaching of English evangelist George Whitefield—the most famous preacher in the world at the time—whose Gospel message attracted crowds numbering in the thousands.23

As Colonial America approached the Revolution and nationhood, the hearts and minds of the American people were reinforced and molded by the biblical doctrines that were revived through the Great Awakening. Under its pervasive influence, they overwhelmingly rejected the humanistic worldview of Europe’s Age of Reason—the Enlightenment deism, rationalism, and atheism that was becoming faddish among some at the time. The Judeo-Christian worldview remained America’s consensus philosophy, and on that foundation America’s founding fathers would establish a new nation that was forged in faith. The Bible thus remained the guidebook for life, law, and government, and the local church became a “school of democracy,” teaching the biblical principle that life and liberty are intended as God’s gift of grace to all. Americans did not believe that God existed for America, but that America should exist for God.24

A citizen’s first responsibility, Colonial Americans generally believed, was to live righteously according to biblical standards of morality. A biblical faith was the foundation of responsible citizenship, they believed. “[He] who neglects his duty to his Maker,” observed Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, “may well be expected to be deficient and insincere in his duty towards the public.” A government’s first responsibility, Americans also believed, was to govern righteously according to the Word of God, for it was from God, not man, that genuine liberty originated. “They looked up to Heaven as the source of their rights, and claimed [those rights] not from the promises of kings, but from the parent of the Universe,” observed David Ramsay of South Carolina, who was a member and President pro tempore of the Continental Congress.25

Ramsay, who became a noted American historian, would later describe the political mind-set and motivation of the typical American at the time of the Revolution:

The political creed of an American colonist was short but substantial. He believed that God made all mankind originally equal: That he endowed them with the rights of life, property, and as much liberty as was consistent with the rights of others. That he had bestowed on his vast family of the human race, the earth for their support, and that all government was a political institution between men naturally equal, not for the aggrandizement of one, or a few, but for the general happiness of the whole community. Impressed with sentiments of this kind, they grew up, from their earliest infancy, with that confidence which is well calculated to inspire a love for liberty, and a prepossession in favor of independence.

On the eve of the Revolution, Americans generally respected the preeminence of God’s Higher Law, and expected those in authority to abide by it—even king and Parliament.26

© 2011 Rod Gragg

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 "By the Providence of Almighty God" 5

Chapter 2 "For Such a Time as This" 17

Chapter 3 "A Kind of Destiny" 35

Chapter 4 "The Lord Fighteth for Them" 51

Chapter 5 "The Sacred Cause of Freedom" 67

Chapter 6 "A Signal Stroke of Providence" 89

Chapter 7 "By the Hand of Providence" 105

Chapter 8 "Under the Smiles of Heaven" 125

Chapter 9 "Grace to Repent of Our Sins" 141

Chapter 10 "Fight Against Them That Fight Against Me" 157

Chapter 11 "Such Astonishing Interpositions of Providence" 177

Chapter 12 "He Has Approved Our Beginnings" 193

Acknowledgments 219

Notes 221

Bibliography 257

Index 275

What People are Saying About This

Steven Woodworth

“Fascinating. . . . Gragg shows the decisive importance that Americans of the 1770s and ’80s attributed to the providential intervention of God in the momentous events of the Revolution.

Edward G. Longacre

“By the Hand of Providence skillfully examines the faith-based core beliefs of the revolutionaries—and convincingly refutes the contention that George Washington was an uncommitted Christian or a deist.”

Harry Reeder III

“Rod Gragg has done it again! A page-turner that reads like a novel! I found myself not only wanting to devour the next page, but praying for our nation, ‘O Lord, do it again.’”

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