Review: The Brethren

McConville, Brendan. The Brethren: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2021. 304 pp. $29.95 Hardback.

As historians seek to uncover the diverse voices of the American Revolution, many have turned their attention to the role of religious identity in the American war for independence. While scholars of American religion have identified the Great Awakening as a source of revolutionary sentiment among colonists, few have addressed the differences between different Christian traditions, especially among lower-class farmers.

Brendan McConville complicates our narrative of Christianity in early America with his study The Brethren: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America. McConville focuses on the yeomanry of coastal colonial North Carolina and the murderous conspiracy against a revolutionary government rule that went against the farmer’s religious values. These yeoman farmers saw their new American leaders seeking aid from the Catholic French and practicing a form of Christianity influenced by the Enlightenment, which removed mysticism from Scripture. As revolutionary leaders in North Carolina began allying themselves with the “heretical” Catholics and publicly questioning the legitimacy of the Bible, they became targets for protestant farmers. These farmers formed the “Brethren” and conspired against the state government. McConville argues that the Brethren’s coalition reflected how the understanding of liberty evolved from a moral pursuit into a strictly political one during the American Revolution.

McConville combs through colonial legal records and newspapers to piece together the experiences of the yeoman farmers and their beliefs, focusing on their perspective  rather than the rich political leaders of North Carolina. While many historians consider the zealous practices of Christianity at this time to either be overstated or isolated to a few communities, McConville reveals that these groups were a force large enough to inspire fear in local political leaders. Additionally, these men actively shaped local politics by expressing their beliefs and threatening violence. Analyzing this group of North Carolina farmers through the lens of politics and religion reveals a more complicated story about the founding of the United States.

McConville tells the story of the Brethren through ten short chapters. The first five contextualize the growing distress of ordinary farmers and their suspicion of revolutionary leadership. Due to a crashing economy and the individualization of religion, the yeomanry became sensitive to the social changes brought by the revolution. Growing republican sentiments and compulsory military service challenged the lifestyle of small farmers. The establishment of the Fifth Congress, which consisted of men with “heretical” beliefs, irritated an already unstable society. Destabilized by the war and a new government, North Carolina became contentious and unstable.

In the last five chapters, McConville traces the rise and fall of the Brethren. Examining depositions, legal petitions, and personal papers, McConville documents how the Brethren quickly gained followers on the eastern side of North Carolina. In 1777, their conspiracy gained traction among other yeoman farmers and became a growing concern for political leaders. The author highlights the significance of the Brethren’s uprising in chapter six. He contends that “they created the preconditions for a clash over the meaning of the Revolution itself in the summer of 1777 ” (126). Quickly after their rise, the Brethren reached the turning point of their conspiracy. In a plot to murder North Carolina delegates, John Lewellen planned a slave uprising as a diversion. The small number of yeomen farmers who relied on slave labour and greatly feared retaliation by enslaved individuals, went to the authorities and warned them about the plan. McConville proposes that this event reveals the yeoman farmers’ dedication to the racial hierarchy of their society, even above their religious convictions.

The threat of a slave rebellion was the downfall of the conspiracy, resulting in the swift punishment and dissolution of the Brethren. Lewellen was captured by the North Carolina militia and released on parole in 1777. The author argues that through the punishment of the yeomanry, North Carolina established a government based on values of the enlightenment and pushed its inhabitants to adopt “American” identity. Citizens of the state were to accept a separation between their religious values and the state. Disobedience would no longer be tolerated and patriotism was expected. In the end, he concludes that colonial culture was much more varied than historians have suggested, and that the Brethren serve as an example of how Protestantism complicated the development of a new nation.[1]

McConville’s study is the first to uncover the history of the Brethren, bringing this fascinating story to light. McConville contributes to the historiography of religion in colonial North Carolina, which has focused mostly on other protestant traditions such as the Quakers and the Moravians. Although the author is treading on new territory with neglected sources, his analysis only briefly mentions race and hardly discusses women at all. A budding historian may see an opportunity to elaborate on this interesting event through these lenses. If  scholars consider the experiences of farmer’s wives, we would likely see a complicated response to the rebellion. Women may have supported the Brethren when the war threatened to force their husbands and sons to enlist, but some may have been discontent with their husbands participating in violent activities that could endanger their families. By analyzing the experiences of women, we may see a more complex story of the Brethren.

The Brethren is a great example of how scholars can use sparse sources and some imagination to craft a compelling narrative and argument. As McConville shows, there are plenty of hidden stories in the archives.

Savannah Flanagan

Virginia Tech

Savannah Flanagan is a graduate student in the history department at Virginia Tech. She is currently researching Moravian Women in the 18th century North Carolina Piedmont. Follow Savannah on Twitter @savflanagan.

[1] Claude Van Tyne, The Loyalists in the American Revolution (New York: Peter Smith, 1929); Gerald W. Thomas, Rebels and King’s Men: Bertie County in the Revolutionary War (Raleigh, N.C.: Office of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 2013); Jeffrey J. Crow, “Tory Plots and Anglican Loyalty : The Llewelyn Conspiracy of 1777,” North Carolina Historical Review 55, No. 1 (Jan. 1978).