For Washington, chaplains not only supplied moral guidance but appealed for God’s support in battle, which was vital. He believed that the war’s outcome rested in God’s hands, and he ordered his soldiers to attend “divine service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.”

We cannot fully understand the revolution without recognizing such appeals for God’s favor on the battlefield. Both the founders and ministers understood these ideas because they knew scripture, one of the major sources of American patriotism. Colonists fought the Revolutionary War in a society in which the Bible was the most read, most owned and most respected book. John Adams once told Thomas Jefferson, “The Bible is the best book in the world.” Perhaps more important, Adams also called the Bible the world’s “most Republican book” — scripture inspired morality, but it also fueled patriotism.

Even those colonists who normally had no use for the Bible found it helpful during the revolution. Thomas Paine would attack Christianity and call the Old Testament “a history of wickedness,” more appropriately judged “the word of a demon than the word of God.” But he did not publish these radical statements until after the revolution. In 1776, Paine quoted scripture like a revival preacher. His “Common Sense,” the most influential patriotic pamphlet of the revolution, had the feel of a sermon, deploying the King James Bible against King George’s tyranny. Scripture, Paine argued, clearly revealed God’s “protest against monarchial government.”