The American Revolution's fight for religious freedom

The water-stained diary pages recovered from the body of pastor Rev. Moses Allen showed the religious persecution inflicted by the British, faced by a Jewish colonel in the Continental Army.

The Battle of Long Island in the US Revolutionary War. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Battle of Long Island in the US Revolutionary War.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Revolutionary War may have been about more than just taxation without representation, with newly discovered documents showing the fight of a Jewish soldier against antisemitism.
Currently being sold by the Raab Collection, the water-stained diary pages were recovered from the body of pastor Rev. Moses Allen, a patriot who was captured by the British army near Savannah, Georgia, in the winter of 1778.
Col. Mordecai Sheftall, a prominent member of the Savannah Jewish community and the highest ranked Jewish officer in the Continental Army, was captured along with his son by the British. According to the Raab Collection, Allen was persecuted for preaching freedom to his congregation, while Sheftall was singled out for his Jewish faith.
Allen and the Sheftalls were taken aboard the prison ship Nancy. At the beginning of 1779, Allen attempted to escape by swimming to shore, but drowned. Recovered from his body, however, were diary pages describing the fall of Savannah to the British, as well as the “bravery and persecution” of Sheftall.
According to a letter Sheftall wrote to a friend years later, which is also being sold alongside the diary pages, the colonel offered the British captain money to allow him to bury Allen.
“Some few days after he was picked up… I offered him [the captain] two half [dollars] out of three that I had for as many boards as would make a coffin for the poor parson… yet this fellow refused to let me have the boards, saying Rebels had no business with coffins,” the letter detailed.
“It is a privilege to carry such a powerful and evocative reminder that there are those who stood in the face of tyranny to stand up for religious freedom,” said Nathan Raab, historian and principal of the Raab Collection.
This previously untold story adds a new dimension of religious freedom and antisemitism in the Revolutionary War.
The Jewish aspect of the war was widely documented, with congregations in New York, Newport, Philadelphia and Savannah playing important roles. One notable story was that of Haym Salomon, a wealthy Jew who, at the end of the revolution, essentially financed the rest of the war.
In recognition of their efforts, America's first president, George Washington, wrote a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. In it, he promised a separation between church and state, as well as freedom of religion, stating that the US government will give “to bigotry no sanction [and] to persecution no assistance.
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants," he wrote: "while every one [sic] shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”