Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Religion and the Fight for American Independence

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Commander of the Continental Army, George Washington

As commander of the Continental Army, George Washington had to use different strategies at different times to deal with religious denominations that were either hostile to or ambivalent towards the American Revolution.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Religion offered many American revolutionaries moral approval of their opposition to British rule. Not all religious sects or religious believers, however, supported the Revolutionary War. Using primary documents, this lesson explores how religion aided and hindered the American war effort; specifically, it explores how Anglican loyalists and Quaker pacifists responded to the outbreak of hostilities and how the American revolutionaries enlisted religion in support of the fight for independence.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the leaders of the American Revolution employ religion to support the war effort?
  • How did different religions react to Revolution?

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss and analyze how the leaders of the American Revolution employed religion in the war effort.
  • Explain the particular problem the Revolutionary War posed for Anglican clergy.
  • Discuss how Anglican "loyalists" reacted to the Revolutionary War.
  • Discuss and debate how General George Washington dealt with Quaker pacifism during the Revolutionary War.


The activities in this lesson relate to how America's revolutionary leaders enlisted the support of religion for their cause and how the religious beliefs of Anglican loyalists and Quaker pacifists affected the fight for American independence. Additional background information is provided within the activities section below.

Religion and the Fight for Independence

The leaders of the American Revolution used religion in different ways to support the war effort. Religious ministers served as military chaplains and some even took up arms, leading Continental troops in battle. George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, saw chaplains as critical to the war effort and asked Congress that they be offered salaries generous enough to attract "men of abilities" to the job. Moreover, he expected his soldiers to attend Sunday worship services whenever possible; it was important, he wrote, "to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used of our safety and defence." (General Orders, July 4, 1775, Writings of George Washington, 3:309) He further believed that it would improve his men's morale, as well as reduce "profane cursing, swearing and drunkenness [ibid.]

In addition to employing chaplains for itself and the armed forces, the Continental Congress declared official days for fasting and thanksgiving throughout the war. As discussed in the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource, "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," some members of the Congress were guided by "covenant theology," a Reformation doctrine that held that God bound himself in an agreement that stipulated that a nation would be prosperous or afflicted, depending on their general obedience or disobedience to God.

Anglican Loyalists

Not all colonists supported independence from England, and religion was a reason for disagreement. The previous lesson, "Religion and the Argument for American Independence," explored how many revolutionary Americans believed that obedience to God required revolution against the King of England. However, historians estimate that up to 20 percent of the American population remained "loyalists" who supported the King. Many loyalists were Anglicans; that is, members of the Church of England. During the Revolutionary War, Anglican clergy in America found themselves in a precarious position. Anglican ministers were bound by oath to support the King, the official head of the Anglican Church, but this was the very king against whom Americans were rising up in rebellion. The Revolution, not surprisingly, divided and deeply damaged the Church of England in America. Many clergymen returned to England, leaving their denominations with little or no leadership. New leadership, moreover, could not be quickly found. Since there was no bishop in America, ordination required travel to England. It also required the ordained to swear an oath of allegiance to the English Crown, which few Americans at the time were willing to do. After the Revolution, the Church of England was forced to find new ways to maintain its institutions and its new leaders. Those who remained part of the Church gathered for a general convention in 1785, at which time a new name was adopted—the Protestant Episcopal Church (known today as simply the Episcopal Church). For more background about the Anglican Church in early America see Christine Leigh Heyrman's essay "The Church of England in Early America" from "Divining America" linked from EDSITEment-reviewed site TeacherServe.

Quakers & Pacifism

Quakers (more formally known as The Society of Friends or Religious Society of Friends) faced a different problem than the Anglicans. As early as 1660, Quakers had publicly declared pacifism as part of their way of life and, accordingly, most Quakers refused to take up arms in the Revolutionary War. This led some Americans to be suspicious of the Quakers despite the fact that they had long been a fixture in Colonial America (Quakers began to immigrate to the American colonies in the 1660s, settling particularly in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. By the early 18th century, Quaker meetings were being held in every colony except Connecticut and South Carolina). Americans who believed that they were fighting and sacrificing their own lives for freedom reacted differently to the Quakers' refusal to take up arms. Some acknowledged and accepted the Quakers' belief as an authentic religious practice; others saw Quakers as failing to fulfill their duties to the cause of American freedom.

George Washington dealt with the Quakers in a charitable but sometimes stern manner. At times, he sought to accommodate the Quakers' refusal to bear arms. When the war shifted to Pennsylvania in early 1777, for example, he wrote to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety that

it is absolutely necessary, that every Person able to bear arm (except such as are Conscientiously scrupulous against it in every Case), should give their personal Service, and whenever a part of the Militia is required only, either to join the Army or find a Man in their place. (George Washington to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, 19 January 1777, Writings of George Washington, 7:35)

Washington did not mention the Quakers by name, but it is fair to assume that he anticipated their religious objection to military service and sought to exempt them. Later in that same year, he sent home several Virginia Quakers who had been drafted into the militia. At other times, however, Washington acted harshly toward the Quakers, especially those in Pennsylvania whose neutrality was interpreted by many to be, in effect, pro-British Toryism. In May 1777, he wrote to Pennsylvania Governor William Livingston:

I have been informed by Colo. Forman, that the Quakers and disaffected are doing all in their power to counteract your late Militia Law; but I hope, if your Officers are active and Spirited, that they will defeat their evil intentions and bring their Men into the Field. (George Washington to Governor William Livingston, 11 May 1777, Writings of George Washington, 8:44-45).

During the British occupation of Philadelphia, Washington's ire peaked. When giving orders to impress supplies from the countryside, Washington twice commanded his officers to "take care, that the unfriendly Quakers and others notoriously disaffected to the cause of American liberty do not escape your Vigilance." (George Washington, Power to Officers to Collect Clothing, Etc., November 1777, Writings of George Washington, 10:124) In March 1778, Washington went so far as to order his officers to prevent Quakers from entering Philadelphia so they could not attend their religious services, "an intercourse," Washington explained, "that we should by all means endeavour [sic] to interrupt, as the plans settled at these meeting are of the most pernicious tendency." (George Washington to Brigadier General John Lacey, Junior, 20 March 1778, Writings of George Washington, 11:114)

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Religion and the Revolutionary War Effort

In this activity, students will examine different ways the leaders of the American Revolution used religion to support the war effort.

For background information, direct your students to the web page, "Religion and the Congress of the Confederation, 1774-89", which is part of "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," a web resource linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed website History Matters.

Show students the following documents, available at "The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress," part of the EDSITEment-reviewed resource the American Memory Project. More legible, excerpted versions are available on pages 1-2 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson.

Tell your students that they are one of Washington's soldiers. Ask them to write a three paragraph letter to a friend or relative. In their letter the students should address the following questions: 1. Why do they think General Washington issued these orders? 2. If they were commander of the army, would they issue similar commands? 3. Would they be enthusiastic to follow General Washington's religious requirements and expectations?

Actvity 2. Anglican Loyalists

In this activity, students will explore how clergy who remained loyal to the King of England reacted to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War by examining a letter from Charles Inglis, an Anglican clergyman who remained in British-controlled New York for most of the Revolutionary War.

A. Divide the class into small groups, ask the students in each group to read as homework one of three sections of Charles Inglis' Letter to the Secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, available from the EDSITEment-reviewed site "TeachingAmericanHistory.org." Excerpts are included on pages 3-5 of the Text Document. In class the next day ask the students to gather in their groups to outline the main points of Inglis' letter to ensure that they understand Inglis' position. A worksheet has been provided for this purpose on page 6 of the Text Document.

B. After the students have completed their worksheets, direct an in-class discussion based on the following questions:

  1. When was this letter written? Is this significant? If so, why?
  2. Does Inglis's letter represent only his own thinking or does it reflect the ideas and feelings of other Anglicans in the former colonies? If the latter, is the letter intended to present the position of all Anglicans in the United States?
  3. How does Inglis justify/support his assertions? Is his position legitimate?
  4. What is the tone of this letter? What does the tone of the letter tell us about Inglis?
  5. How does it influence our reading of this document and how we use it for historical purposes?
Activity 3. General George Washington and Quaker Pacifism

In this activity, students will examine how pacifist Quakers responded to the Revolutionary War and also how George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, reacted to the refusal of many Quakers to take up arms.

A. Ask the students to read aloud the Quakers' September 28, 1789 letter to Washington, available at Teaching American History. Read and discuss the passage using the following questions as guidelines:

  1. What is the main argument the Quakers put forth in the letter?
  2. What points do they use to support the main argument?

A worksheet for this purpose is available on page 7 of the Text Document.

B. Share with your students the following letters from George Washington, all of which at least implicitly mention the Quakers. These are available in their entirety at the site of the George Washington Papers, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project. Brief excerpts are included on page 8 of the Text Document:

C. Inform the students that Washington wrote a letter in response to the Quakers' message of September 28, 1789. But before providing them with Washington's letter, have students play the role of Washington. Ask them to imagine that they are George Washington and have them compose a letter in response to the Quakers using the documents presented above. A worksheet has been provided for this purpose on page 9 of the Text Document. Students can compose their letters individually, in small groups, or in class as a whole.

D. Read aloud, post, or distribute George Washington's letter to the Annual Meeting of Quakers found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "TeachingAmericanHistory.org." Have students compare their letters to Washington's actual letters. A worksheet has been provided for this purpose on page 10 of the Text Document. Conclude the activity by discussing to what extent the students' letters correctly anticipated Washington's actual letter. Teachers might also ask students to think about why their letters differed from Washington's.


Having completed the lesson, students should be able to construct a five paragraph essay on any of the following questions:

  • How did the leaders of the American Revolution employ religion to aid the war effort?
  • On what grounds did Loyalists such as Charles Inglis criticize the American Revolution?
  • How did General George Washington handle the Quakers' pacifism?

Extending The Lesson

To extend Activity 1, read aloud and provide the students with a copy of the Proclamation of a Day of Solemn Fasting and Humiliations, 11 December 1776. Ask the class to discuss or debate whether it is appropriate during war time for the government to request its citizens to perform religious activities such as fasting and prayer.

To extend Activity 2, direct the students to read Charles Inglis's anonymous response to Thomas Paine's Common Sense, entitled, "The True Interest of America Impartially Stated," which argues for reconciliation between Britain and the American Colonies. The document may be found at the site "From Revolution to Reconstruction," which is linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. In a class discussion, ask students to summarize Inglis's responses to Paine and to explain whether or not they find Inglis's positions persuasive.

To extend Activity 3, direct the students to engage in a discussion of whether they think Quakers should have been excused from military service on account of their conscientious objection to war. Alternatively, you might instruct your students to write a short essay explaining whether they believe the Quakers should or should not receive an exemption from military service.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Maria Victoria Muñoz, Omaha South High School (Omaha, NE)
  • Vincent Phillip Muñoz, Tufts University (Boston, MA)


Activity Worksheets