J. Patrick Mullins
Visiting Assistant Professor
Saginaw Valley State University 

Anti-Popery, the Protestant Interest, and the Radicalization of
New England Dissenters in the First Bishop Controversy

 The Contested Roots of American Liberty
Regional Meeting of the Philadelphia Society
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
October 14, 2006


In his 1977 study, The Sacred Cause of Liberty, historian Nathan O. Hatch contended that the imperial wars between Britain and France—climaxing with the French and Indian War—made New England’s Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministers politically conscious by combining the religious evil of Roman Catholicism with the political evil of French despotism. At least by 1760, such pastors had come to identify Puritan values with Whig values and religious liberty with civil liberty. They remained loyal to Great Britain until 1765, when the Stamp Act struck directly at New England’s civil liberty. Thereafter, dissenting clergymen began increasingly to see British tyranny, rather than Catholic heresy, as the primary instrument of Antichrist in his persecution of God’s chosen people.[i]

The weakest link in Hatch’s brilliant analysis of clerical political commitment is his answer to the question of just when and why Yankee clergymen began to view Britain as the antichristian threat to their religious and civil liberties. Despite their lack of full civil rights in England under the Test and Corporation Acts, dissenters on both sides of the British Atlantic were fiercely loyal to the Hanoverian monarchy as the defender of “the Protestant interest” against Catholicism and “the dissenting interest” against high-church Anglicanism. The dissenters’ loyalty to the Crown waned rather quickly once they saw evidence that the British state had come under the sway of high-church Anglicans sympathetic to Catholicism and hostile to nonconformity. The political radicalization of New England’s dissenting clergy began during the First Bishop Controversy, over the two years preceding the Stamp Act Crisis. As we will see, the primary agent of their radicalization was Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, pastor of the Congregationalist meeting-house in Boston’s West End from 1747 to 1766.[ii]

In 1758, George II invested Thomas Secker with the Archbishopric of Canterbury. Secker was born into a Presbyterian family, and he brought all the zeal of the convert to his primacy over the Church of England. The great goal of his ecclesiastical career was to reform and advance the fortunes of the Church in Britain’s American colonies by establishing episcopates there. He assured his American ally Dr. Samuel Johnson, a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (or SPG), that they should prudently withhold any public call for a colonial bishop until the end of the Seven Years War, at which time Parliament would begin debating a new colonial policy. On February 10, 1763, Britain signed the Peace of Paris with Spain. On March 30, Secker wrote Johnson that, with the next Parliament, the time to push for an American bishop would finally be at hand.[iii]  [iv]

For years, Jonathan Mayhew took every opportunity to criticize the SPG publicly and angrily. Like many of his fellow dissenters, he thought the nominally non-sectarian missionary group should convert Indians and slaves to Christianity rather than convert Congregationalists and Presbyterians to Episcopalianism. The objective of the SPG seemed nothing short of producing an Anglican majority in New England. By the time the archbishop set in motion his campaign for a colonial episcopate, Mayhew had already unleashed a literary broadside against the SPG in the public press. His 1763 book, Observations on the Charter and Conduct of the Society, accused the SPG of waging a “spiritual siege of our churches, with the hope that they will one day submit to an episcopal sovereign.” Its goal was nothing less than “to dissolve and root out all our New-England churches.” If the Church of England succeeded in “episcopizing” New England, the Church’s political hegemony would be sure to follow, with the franchise and political office confined to Episcopalians by a Test Act in New England as they were in Old England, followed by taxes levied on the people “for the support of bishops and their underlings.” In closing, Mayhew exhorted “the people of New-England to stand fast in the liberty wherewith CHRIST made them free; and not to return under that yoke of episcopal bondage, which so miserably galled the necks of our Forefathers.”  [v] [vi]  [vii]  [viii]

            Mayhew’s Observations was a call to arms, and he was eager to carry the fight to the enemy’s home ground. A week after the pamphlet’s publication, he sent a copy to his wealthy and influential friend, the English Whig activist and antiquarian, Thomas Hollis, urging him to secure a London reprint. His book agitated dissenters on both sides of the Atlantic against any steps toward a colonial episcopate. Young John Adams bemusedly wrote a friend that New England’s high-church Anglicans, dazed by the good doctor’s onslaught, “have Christen’d the Observations, the Devils Thunder Bolt.” Fearful that Mayhew had destroyed any hope of a colonial episcopate, Archbishop Secker decided to withdraw the SPG from New England and respond to Mayhew’s criticisms personally in print.  [ix]  [x] [xi] 

In January 1764, Secker completed his Answer to Dr. Mayhew’s Observations, aimed to calm America and reassure Parliament. Although he published the fifty-nine-page pamphlet anonymously, the archbishop addressed church policy with the authority and assurance of a leading prelate. Readers of the London and Boston editions immediately guessed his authorship. Secker adopted a mild, reasonable, and conciliatory tone. He denied any design to convert all dissenters to the Church of England, maintaining that Episcopalians no more wanted “to episcopize New-England” than dissenters wanted “to presbyterianize England.” Secker insisted that the Church of England desired only two or three American bishops for strictly pastoral and administrative purposes, without any disciplinary power over the dissenting majority. Forgetting for a moment the Test and Corporation Acts, mandatory tithing, ecclesiastical courts, and the bishops’ bench in the House of Lords, Secker maintained that prelacy had imposed no “bondage” in England and so would not oppress America. “Therefore the Doctor would not need to be at all anxious for the Liberty of his dear Country,” Secker assured Mayhew.[xii] [xiii]

Unpersuaded, Thomas Hollis wrote Mayhew that he had been friends with Secker for twenty years, but the primate’s determination to impose bishops on America convinced him, “pass me the boldness of the expression, to drop him wholly.” In a second April letter, Hollis reported to Mayhew that the archbishop’s Answer had not swayed many minds in London. He urged Mayhew, as he had the preceding December, to hammer Secker for going soft on Catholicism, whose rapid growth in England in the early 1760s gravely alarmed many British dissenters.[xiv]

            The Boston pastor responded to the archbishop in June 1764 with his Remarks on an Anonymous Tract. While complimenting his adversary for his liberality and fairness, Mayhew wrote that Secker’s contentions had not altered his opinion of the Anglican Church and its ambitions for America. Historical experience made clear that bishops have “commonly been the most useful members, or instruments, that the crown or court had, in establishing tyranny over the bodies and souls of men.” If Parliament introduced bishops to America, Mayhew did not expect that they would impose religious despotism immediately. “People are not usually deprived of their liberties all at once, but gradually, by one encroachment after another, as it is found they are disposed to bear them,” Mayhew sagely observed, “and things of the most fatal tendency are often introduced at first, under a comparatively plausible and harmless appearance.” Applying a central tenet of Country Whig political thought, he wrote that the best way to stop tyranny lay in “opposing the first attempts.” “Obsta principiis, was never thought an ill maxim by wise men,” he taught, and “[a]ll prudent men act upon the same principle.”  As for a bishop, American dissenters were “desirous to keep the apprehended evil at as great a distance as may be.” Mayhew insisted that colonial opposition to an episcopate was due not to paranoia but to prudence.[xv] [xvi]  [xvii] [xviii]

            In his Answer, Secker had noted in passing that the presence of Anglican bishops in New England should not be so offensive to Congregationalists, since Catholic bishops exercised their pastoral functions in England without offending Episcopalians. Both Hollis and Mayhew found this casual remark highly alarming. By way of preface to his response, Mayhew reaffirmed that he was “a warm friend to religious liberty in the largest sense,” favoring tolerance of sectarian differences, “where the differences are merely of a religious nature, or such as do not affect the liberty, safety and natural rights of mankind.” The Roman Catholic Church could not be tolerated, though, because of its radical hostility to constitutional government and individual rights, particularly liberty of conscience.[xix] 

Applying evidence provided by Thomas Hollis, Mayhew claimed that Catholicism flourished in London because magistrates no longer enforced the penal laws prohibiting public Catholic worship—a claim that the archbishop’s remark confirmed. Following France’s defeat in Canada and the end of the Jacobite threat, the British state did increasingly indulge open worship by English and foreign Catholics. Like Hollis, Rev. Caleb Fleming, and other Protestant dissenters in England, Mayhew was disturbed by the growth of Catholicism in Britain over the last few years. He reminded his readers of the atrocities committed by Catholics against Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as the civil and religious usurpations by Britain’s Catholic monarchs. The Boston minister growled:

Are all their diabolical treacheries and cruelties buried in oblivion? Can they who believe the Pope’s supremacy over all Kings, and consequently deny the independency of the British crown and empire, possibly be good loyal subjects to King GEORGE, or any other protestant King? Are there no laws now in force against papists? or is there no-body to execute them? Is the sword of the law rusted in the hands of the magistrates, as well as that of the Spirit, where it is said so rarely to come, in the mouths of the prelates?[xx]

Having accused the Church of England of negligence in arresting the spread of Catholicism, Mayhew further reminded his readers of those times in Britain when “the pernicious practices of papists, and the increase of popery there, have been winked at.” Collusion between the British state and the Catholic Church was obvious during the Stuart dynasty. Mayhew added that there have also been “other times” when British ministers of state turned a blind eye to Catholic worship in return for support in Parliament from “the wealthier papists.” Under such corrupted ministries, magistrates accordingly became lax in enforcing the penal laws. Meanwhile, the Anglican clergy, “especially those of superior rank, and who aimed at riches or higher preferment, or both, observing the conduct of the ministry. . . , wholly connived also at the practices of papists, and the progress of popery.” Thanks to such corruption of government ministers, members of Parliament, magistrates, and bishops, “cruel, blood-thirsty and rebel-hearted roman-catholics, had hardly any opposition made to them, or anything to fear in England, either from law or gospel.” Mayhew was careful not to specify in what “times” such corruption of the British state had occurred.[xxi]

Deftly integrating Protestant dissent with Country Whiggism, Mayhew argued that the toleration of Catholicism by Britain’s Church and state would lead to their corruption, which would in turn produce civil and religious tyranny, as it had during the Stuart era. “By such-like means has the Scarlet Whore,” Mayhew declaimed, “with whom the Kings and great men of the earth have committed fornication, at certain seasons got fairly mounted on her horned beast, and rode, with the cup of abominations in her hand, almost triumphant thro’ England.” Stepping back from this apocalyptic climax, the Boston pastor added unconvincingly, “Such has heretofore been the state of things in England. How it is at present, I pretend not particularly to know.” Mayhew might well have evaded a sedition charge by this hedge, but he maintained that “popery was fast gaining ground” in England in 1764. His implication was clear that Catholic corruption of Britain’s Church, Parliament, ministry, and perhaps even king had already begun. Archbishop Secker declined to respond to Mayhew’s pamphlet, and the First Bishop Controversy ended with this thinly veiled allegation that Hanoverian Britain might soon join Bourbon France and Spain among the nations in thrall to the Papacy.[xxii]

New England’s dissenters—and particularly its Congregationalist and Presbyterian clergy—premised their allegiance to Britain to a great degree on the protection their churches received from the Crown against persecution by Roman Catholics and high-church Anglicans. Mayhew’s claim that the Church of England and even Britain’s civil government were increasingly friendly to Catholics—and hostile to dissenters—had explosive implications for New England’s allegiance to the Crown. If Britain, admired by dissenters as the scourge of popery, were to become its instrument, then Britain would become New England’s enemy rather than its defender. The First Bishop Controversy prompted dissenting clergy to consider whether Britain—under George III and such Tory advisors as the Earl of Bute and George Grenville—had finally succumbed to the temptations of Rome.

New England clergymen had—from the first settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts-Bay, and Connecticut—abominated the Pope as the Antichrist described in the Book of Revelations. In his Sacred Cause of Liberty, Nathan O. Hatch argued that the threat of Catholic expansionism during the French and Indian War politicized the Yankee clergy, making them more sensitive in the 1760s to British threats to civil and religious liberty. According to Hatch, in the wake of the Stamp Act Crisis, “New England ministers decided that the Pope of Rome no longer served as the primary embodiment of Antichrist and that Satan had redirected this evil power through another agency, that of oppressive and arbitrary civil governments.” New England’s fury at the Quebec Act of 1774, by which Parliament legalized Catholicism in Canada, suggests otherwise. So does the 1776 sermon by Connecticut minister Samuel Sherwood, in which he exhorts his congregation to rise up against, in Hatch’s own paraphrase, “the ‘antichristian tyranny’ which the British government represented; because the king’s chief ministers had sipped the golden cup of fornication with ‘the old mother of harlots’.” New England’s dissenting clergymen feared and hated popery quite as much at the beginning of the Revolutionary War as they did at the end of the French and Indian War.[xxiii]

These pastors redirected the main thrust of their millenarian rhetoric from France to Britain, but not because they thought the Pope was no longer the principal agent of evil in the world. Jonathan Mayhew persuaded them during the First Bishop Controversy that popery had begun to corrupt the British state itself, as it previously had the French and Spanish states. Mayhew thereby gave the dissenting clergy—even normally apolitical evangelicals and politically conservative Calvinists—urgent cause to shift the focus of their dread of Antichrist from France to Britain. In April 1764, George Whitefield, English father of the Great Awakening, warned two New Hampshire pastors, “There is a deep laid plot against both your civil and religious liberties, and they will be lost.” Rev. Francis Allison, vice-provost of the College of Philadelphia, wrote Mayhew’s admirer Ezra Stiles that he feared Episcopalians were scheming to “induce the English Parliament to produce a test; or at least confine all offices in the army and Revenue to members of the Episcopal Church.” In August 1764, Rev. William Gordon of New Hampshire wrote Dr. Joseph Bellamy of Connecticut about dissenters’ widespread concern “that the government will send over some Bishops to settle in America,” adding, “once Episcopacy has got a footing, there’s no knowing where it will stop.” Beginning in 1763 and 1764, fear of episcopacy and popery united nonconformist clergymen—Congregationalist and Presbyterian, Calvinist and Liberal, New Light and Old Light—as they had not been since the Great Awakening. By unifying them in defense of their churches, and mobilizing them against royal authority, the Bishop Controversy transformed the New England clergy into the “black regiment” of the Patriot movement. [xxiv]

Jonathan Mayhew’s Whiggish association of religious tyranny with civil tyranny—combined with his dissenting association of high-church Anglicans with Catholicism—spurred Yankee divines to oppose British aggression after 1763 as ardently as they had opposed French aggression before 1763. Before the rise of the stamp-tax spectre, Mayhew’s works on the First Bishop Controversy helped convince American and British dissenters that American and British churchmen conspired to crush the colonies’ religious and political self-government. By the time Parliament passed statutes striking directly at the colonies’ political autonomy, the West Church divine had already mobilized New Englanders for the defense of their rights. With passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, Parliament stuck its nose into a hornet’s nest too recently stirred by Thomas Secker’s prelatical crook. [xxv] 

[i] Hatch, Sacred Cause of Liberty, pp. 38, 46, 82-83.

[ii] For New England dissenters’ attachment to Britain as defender of the “Protestant interest,” see Thomas S. Kidd, The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004); Kidd’s otherwise fine study does not distinguish the Protestant interest from “the dissenting interest” and therefore does not detect the highly conditional nature of the dissenters’ attachment to Hanoverian Britain, in which lay their shift of allegiance during the Revolution.

[iii] Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre, pp. 215-217.

[iv] Knollenberg, “Hollis and Mayhew,” p. 131; Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre, p. 220.

[v] Jonathan Mayhew, Observations on the Charter and Conduct of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts: Designed to Shew Their Non-Conformity to Each Other (Boston: Richard and Samuel Draper, Edes and Gill, Thomas and John Fleet, 1763), pp. 6-7.

[vi] Mayhew, Observations, pp. 53-57, 107.

[vii] Mayhew, Observations, p. 155.

[viii] Mayhew, Observations, p. 157, 175.

[ix] Knollenberg, “Hollis and Mayhew,” p. 138; Harrison Gray to Jasper Mauduit, Boston, May 3, 1763, Mauduit Papers; Mayhew Papers, Folder No. 70.

[x] Mayhew Papers, Folder No. 72.

[xi] Knollenberg, “Hollis and Mayhew,” pp. 142-143.

[xii] [Thomas Secker], An Answer to Dr. Mayhew’s Observations on the Charter and Conduct of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (Boston: Reprinted by R. and S. Draper, Edes and Gill, T. and J. Fleet, 1764 [London, 1764]), pp. 5-7, 9, 29, 47, 54.

[xiii] Secker, Answer to Observations, pp. 51-57.

[xiv] Mayhew Papers, Folder No. 74; Lyman Butterfield, ed., Adams Family Papers, Vol. I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 20; Knollenberg, “Hollis and Mayhew,” pp. 143-148; Thomas Hollis, The Memoirs of Thomas Hollis, ed. Francis Blackburne  (London, 1780), pp. 96, 227-228, 490.

[xv] Jonathan Mayhew, Remarks on an Anonymous Tract, Entitled An Answer to Dr. Mayhew’s Observations on the Charter and Conduct of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, Being a Second Defence of the said Observations (Boston: R. and S. Draper, Edes and Gill, and T and J. Fleet, 1764), pp. 3-4, 83, 12; for American Patriots’ use of the Whig interpretation of history, see H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).

[xvi] Mayhew, Remarks, pp. 57-61.

[xvii] Mayhew, Remarks, pp. 59-67.

[xviii] Mayhew, Remarks, p. 62-63.

[xix] Mayhew, Remarks, pp. 70-71.

[xx] Mayhew, Remarks, p. 73.

[xxi] Mayhew, Remarks, pp. 74-75.

[xxii] Mayhew, Remarks, p. 75.

[xxiii] Hatch, Sacred Cause of Liberty, pp. 17, 87, 21.

[xxiv] Ruth H. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 57-58; Francis D. Cogliano, No King, No Popery: Anti-Catholicism in Revolutionary New England (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), pp. 43-45, 49-51, 55.

[xxv] Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre, pp. 244-245.