Lessons From the American Revolution for the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine

by Very Rev. Dr. John A. Jillions

Image: Statue of Paul Revere near Old North Church, Boston, Massachusetts. iStock.com/Kirkikis

Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is still uncoiling, but the destruction he is inflicting on the people of Ukraine has already succeeded in uniting the fractious Orthodox churches in Ukraine around defense of their homeland. He has also ensured that the Patriarchate of Moscow—so closely aligned with Vladimir Putin—has no future in Ukraine, whatever its canonical claims. The Orthodox Church is devoted to preserving good order and canonical tradition, but there are times when canons must yield to reality, and in Ukraine, it should have been obvious decades ago that Moscow’s ecclesiastical oversight of Ukraine was impossible. Certainly after 2014 with Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his carving out of Donbas, and his war of occupation that left 14,000 Ukrainians dead in eight years. This was a glaring pastoral reality that Patriarch Bartholomew recognized in granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018 despite canonical controversy. Now, among the Orthodox churches in Ukraine faced with uniting against Moscow’s monstrous war, there is already talk of a union council. And maybe the rest of the Orthodox world will eventually catch up and see the pastoral wisdom of Patriarch Bartholomew’s action.

Here, the history of the Church of England during the American Revolution in 1775-1783 offers some valuable lessons. As David L. Holmes wrote in an important article on which this essay is based:  

Technically speaking, the Anglican Church in America was an innocent bystander in the American Revolution. But since it lived in the neighborhood of one of the participants and was intimately related to the other, it emerged with a terrible beating. The war raised questions of patriotism, of loyalty, and of the obligations of Christians at a time of war…

(David L. Holmes, “The Episcopal Church and the American Revolution,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 47, No. 3 (September, 1978), pp. 261-291, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42973625, 261.)

In 1775, when the first shots in the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord, the Church of England had over 400 congregations and 300 clergy serving the thirteen colonies. But by then the Anglican Church in America had been fracturing for many years over its alignment with King and Parliament. The parishes here were overseen by the Bishop of London, adding to the growing chasm between the experience of the old country and the new. Colonial Anglicans even rejected the offer to have their own bishop, because already a new republicanism was emerging in both civil and church governance, with more simplicity, less reverence for hierarchy, more freedom and privileges for lay leaders and local priests, and above all, no interference from Parliament in the affairs of what was quickly emerging as a sovereign nation.

This ecclesiastical conflict was inevitable given the structure of the Anglican Church. Indeed, as part of his ordination every priest had to swear allegiance to the King as civil and ecclesiastical “Supream Governour”:

I __ do utterly testifie and declare in my conscience, That the King’s Highness is the onely Supream Governour of this Realm and all other His Highnesses Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spiritual or Ecclesiastical things or causes…

The priest also had to swear he would follow the Book of Common Prayer, in which prayers for the King and Royal Family were embedded throughout. The English Prayer Book of 1775 included such prayers in the order for daily morning and evening prayer, the Litany, the order of communion, and a special service on October 25th to commemorate the beginning of the reign of George III. 

Loyalty to their ordination oaths and Anglican tradition led most of the clergy to oppose the break with Great Britain, especially in the northern colonies where clergy (about 80% Loyalist) were still largely supported financially by stipends coming directly from the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. In the southern colonies, where financial support was local, clergy loyalty was proportionately more local (only about 25% were Loyalist), and most supported American sovereignty.

The divisions heated up when continental and provincial congresses in 1775 and 1776 ordered churches to hold days of fasting and prayer for the American cause. Some Anglican clergy complied but still read the prayers for the King and English government, which of course sparked even more internal congregational dissent. But once the Declaration of Independence was adopted, there was no evading the changed reality in areas controlled by the American forces. “From that time on, supported by subsequent state laws, prayers for the King or for the English government represented an act of ‘high treason’” (Holmes, 270). Most Loyalist clergy either suspended public worship or fled to Canada, England, or areas under British control. Some became chaplains to British forces. 

In early 1779, while the outcome of the war was still far from certain, the Connecticut Anglican clergy who remained (all of them Loyalists) asked for advice from the Bishop of London as to  whether they might resume public worship but omit the prayers for the king and government. “Although the English bishops felt it inadvisable to rule on so delicate a question, they would trust the Connecticut clergy to do ‘as they shall judge best for the Interest of the Church,’ so long as their decision did not involve substituting prayers for the Congress.” (Holmes, 272).

Standing up for their Anglican tradition meant that Loyalist clergy, even those who might have been sympathetic to the American cause or wanted to remain neutral, put themselves at great risk.

[It] seems clear that the average loyalist rector who remained in his parish during the war—despite all the care he might take to make no political comments—ran the risk of having his house ransacked, his private his library destroyed, his livestock killed, and insults, fines, threats, mob attacks, stonings, duckings in creeks and other personal indignities.

(Holmes, 276)

The Revolutionary War formally ended in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Eight years of war had devastated the colonial Anglican Church, and in many areas, there were no clergy at all. But it was clear to those who remained that change was inevitable. Already in 1780 a church convention in Maryland started using a new name, “The Protestant Episcopal Church” (later adopted by the first General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, in 1785). Remarkably, in less than a decade after the war, the church was “sufficiently alive to select a new name, to harmonize loyalist, patriot, and churchmanship factions within it, to form a central organization, to create a constitution satisfactory to the parishes in all 13 states, to secure the historic episcopate, and to adopt a Book of Common Prayer modified to meet the needs of American independence” (Holmes, 284). Most instructively, it was the Loyalist Samuel Seabury of Connecticut (1729-1796)—who had vigorously resisted the revolution and spent time in a patriot prison—who was the first Episcopal bishop in America and had the leading role in both creating the Episcopal Church, and in maintaining communion with the Church of England.

While Putin’s barbaric war against Ukraine might seem very far removed from King George III’s war, the American War of Independence offers some striking lessons for the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine as they unite to defend their people.

  1. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (Moscow Patriarchate) must separate entirely from the Patriarchate of Moscow with its subordination to Putin’s regime and military, just as Anglicans in America had to break with King George and the Church of England. It is pastorally impossible for the bishops, clergy and faithful of Ukraine to be associated with a church so closely tied to Putin and the Russian State, which is literally stealing, killing and destroying (John 10:10).
  2. The Orthodox Churches of Ukraine can work even now to unite on their own terms, shaped by their Ukrainian experience, bring reconciliation, and hold a union council to build an autocephalous Church of Ukraine that embraces all the Orthodox of Ukraine, just as the Episcopal Church in the United States eventually brought together “Loyalists” and “Patriots” and formed a uniquely American Episcopal Church.
  3. The Orthodox Churches of Ukraine, once united, will eventually be in a position to restore broken communion and canonical peace within the Orthodox world, including (although this will surely take much longer) with the Orthodox Church of Russia—now a pariah in global Christianity—just as the Episcopal Church in the United States over time restored peace with the Church of England and became a valuable and recognized part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

May there be a swift end to Putin’s terrible war on the people of Ukraine. And out of the rubble, God grant that there might emerge a united and strengthened Orthodox Church of Ukraine.


Fr. John A. Jillions is the former chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, England. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.