The “Deep State” of the 1790s?


Jedidiah Morse

Is there a “deep state” seeking to undermine the Trump presidency? Yes, if you define the “deep state” as men and women working to stop Donald Trump from undermining American democracy and institutions.

But for many Trump supporters, the “deep state” is a secret, shadowy, and sinister group of leftist politicians, government bureaucrats, Chinese officials and scientists, journalists, academics, and intellectuals seeking to destroy American values. Some even believe that Anthony Fauci is a “deep state doctor.” In this sense, the “deep state” hates America.  It has been created to invoke fear.

These conspiracy theories are not new.  In the late 1790s, Jedidiah Morse, the congregational minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and a well-known author of geography textbooks, drew national attention by suggesting that a secret organization called the Bavarian Illuminati was at work “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.” He was convinced that this group of atheists and infidels were behind the secular Jacobin movement in France that sought to purge the nation of organized religion. Morse believed that the Illuminati group was pursuing the same clandestine agenda in America and was working closely with Thomas Jefferson-led Democratic Republicans, the Federalists’ political rivals, to pull it off.

Morse learned about the Bavarian Illuminati from books published in Europe describing a network of secret lodges scattered across the continent. In a 1798 fast day sermon, he appealed to the worst fears of those evangelicals who remained concerned with the moral character of the republic. He described the Illuminati’s ominous attempts to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide (by declaring death an eternal sleep), advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy…decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.” The presence of the Illuminati in America should cause Christians to “tremble for the safety of our political, as well as our religious ark.” In another sermon on the subject, Morse printed a list of secret societies and Illuminati members currently working their sinister schemes in his Christian nation.

Soon Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards and the president of Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, expressed similar fears about the Illuminati and used his pen to sound the alarm. In a Fourth of July discourse entitled The Duty of Americans, at the Present Crisis, Dwight quoted from Revelation 16 to caution his listeners and eventual readers about “unclean teachers” who were educating innocent people in “unclean doctrines.” Such teachers were spreading throughout the world to “unite mankind against God.” As they performed their malicious work, the Bavarian Illuminati took cues from previous opponents of Protestant America–the Jesuits, Voltaire, and the Masons, to name a few.

Dwight called Americans back to God . This, he believed, was the only effective way of resisting such subversive threats to social virtue. “Where religion prevails,” he wrote, “Illuminatism cannot make disciples, a French directory cannot govern, a nation cannot be made slaves, nor villains, nor atheists, nor beasts.” Dwight reminded his readers that if this dangerous society succeeded in its plans, the children of evangelicals would be forced to read the work of deists or become “concubines” of a society that treated “chastity” as a “prejudice,” adultery as virtue, and marriage as a “farce.”

By the turn of the nineteenth century, news of the Illuminati had traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard and as far as the Caribbean islands. Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, and John Jay, a Federalist statesman, also bought into this conspiracy theory.

Critics of these evangelical Federalists argued that Morse and Dwight, both clergymen, spent too much time dabbling in politics instead of tending to the souls of the Christians under their spiritual care. Others accused these conspiracy theorists of having “overheated imaginations.” Eventually, Morse’s accusations against Democratic-Republican societies were unable to withstand the weight of evidence. As historian Jonathan Den Hartog has written, evangelical Federalists concerned about the preservation of a Christian nation “overplayed their hand” by propagating the Illuminati scare. In the process, they “called their standing a societal authorities into question, and ultimately weakened their position” as shapers of American culture.

The comparison between the “Deep State” and the “Illuminati” is not perfect. No historical analogies are. But sometimes, as we like to say, history rhymes.

Happy Birthday American Bible Society

Bible Cause CoverThe American Bible Society turns 201 today.  I am sure it is a day of celebration at their relatively new headquarters in Philadelphia.

Here is a taste of a piece I wrote for Christianity Today in February 2015.  The piece is drawn heavily from my 2016 book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

When Elias Boudinot tried to form the ABS in 1815, the idea of a national Bible society struggled to gain popular approval. The Philadelphia Bible Society (PBS) led the opposition. The PBS Board of Managers, led by President William White—also the Episcopalian Bishop of Pennsylvania—did not think that a national organization could distribute Bibles any better than the many state and local societies already in existence. Other PBS members, including Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, agreed.

White also argued that the timing was not right for a national society. The country was in a “difficult economic state” in the wake of the recent war with England, and as a result Americans would not be willing to support to new charities. The PBS managers also worried about competition between a new national organization and those state and local Bible societies that refused to join it. Such differences would divide the Bible cause in America and make it look “foolish” in the eyes of the world. These criticisms were included in a document circulated to Bible societies throughout the US for the purpose of convincing them to ignore Boudinot’s plan for a national society.

Shortly after the Philadelphia Bible Society published its formal objections to a national Bible society, Boudinot wrote a point-by-point rebuttal from the bed in the back room of his Burlington, New Jersey, home (he was suffering from a bad case of gout). Boudinot would have certainly agreed with the words of an anonymous clergyman who published a similar essay in support of a national society: “The very fact of there being so many separate and independent societies is proof enough that they are individually weak; that no one can have the ability of extending its operations much beyond the limits of the district in which it is located.” Using words that echoed the sentiments of those politicians (such as Boudinot) who also defended the United States Constitution, the clergyman added, “Can there be a union of the people for political purposes, and not one for those of a moral and religious nature?”

When it came to the Philadelphia Bible Society’s concern over the potential of animosity and disunity among the various Bible societies in the United States, Boudinot took the high road. The purpose of a national society was to overcome such petty jealousies by forcing those involved in Bible distribution to “forget our differences and recognize our common relation to the same divine master and our common obligation to support His cause in the world.” In the end, if the Philadelphia Bible Society did not want to join a national society, Boudinot asked that its managers would, at the very least, allow the society to function without publicly opposing it.

Read the rest here.

American Bible Society’s Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is a Go


In Summer 2015 the American Bible Society moved from New York City to Philadelphia. It currently rents two floors in the Wells Fargo building at 5th and Market streets.  And according to this article at, it is ready to move forward with its $60 million dollar Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

Full disclosure:  At a very early stage of this project I served as a historical consultant.  I attended one meeting and offered some suggestions.  I am no longer involved in the project.

Here is a taste of the article:

This $60 million project seeks to help explain the influence of the Bible on American history. It also hopes to activate the ground floor of the fortress-like Wells Fargo building, improving its interactions with its surroundings.

At Wednesday’s Art Commission’s conceptual review of the project, the managing director of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, Patrick Murdock, laid out the Society’s vision with an assist from the project’s architects.

The Center will seek to enliven the underutilized mid-block pedestrian path just to the north of the Wells Fargo building, which connects 4th and 5th streets.

The public space will feature a new 14,100 square foot building, a restructured garden, wood benches, and a stage area will cover the delivery ramp that trucks use to access the building’s basement. It could be used for performances or gatherings, open to the public, even when it isn’t being put to official use.

All told, the new project covers a total of well over 50,000 square feet.

I wrote about this project in the Epilogue of my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

Here is a taste:

This brings us to the recent ABS decision to leave New York City after 199 years and move the organization to Philadelphia, where it now occupies two floors in the Wells Fargo Building on 401 Market Street, just steps from Independence Hall.  The move was driven by financial concerns.  The 1865 Broadway Bible House needed 25-50 million dollars’ worth of repairs in order to meet the city building code.  The ABS owned both the twelve-story building and thirty-seven additional stories of New York City airspace.  For [CEO Roy] Peterson, the decision to sell the building and move to another location was a matter of Christian stewardship.  He imagines what the ABS will be able to do with the money from the sale in terms of promoting its agenda of scripture engagement….

Peterson has also managed to do some revisionist history to help justify the transition to Philadelphia.  He suggests that despite the ABS’s 199-year presence in the city, New York was never the Society’s true identity.  On one level, Peterson is correct.  The ABS was founded in New York because of the hospitality of the New York Bible Society, which supported [founder Elias] Boudinot’s plan for a national Bible society and agreed to host the meeting that established it.  While it was certainly possible that the ABS might have ended up in another city, the fact remains that it did end up in New York and it remained there for two centuries.  It is hard to dismiss two centuries of history.  If, as Peterson notes, the ABS “inadvertently” made New York its identity when “it was never supposed to be our identity,” the fact remains that between 1816 and 2015 the American Bible Society was a New York City institution.

Peterson is quick to note that Philadelphia was Elias Boudinot’s hometown.  According to his will (a copy of which Peterson, at least at the timer he was interviewed, had sitting on his desk), Boudinot had left land to the city.  The new ABS president is not willing to go any farther with this argument other than to note that an ABS move to Philadelphia, at least as history is concerned, may not be as random as some would like to make it out to be. Bible Cause Cover Peterson, however, is more certain about how the transition to Philadelphia will allow the ABS to connect itself once again to the story of the United States.  What better place for the ABS to celebrate its bicentennial in May 2016 than the place where America was born?  This was a place where God and country came together in 1776, and with the ABS only a stone’s throw away from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Peterson is hoping that the Society can help middle-class Americans remember that fact.

Peterson wants to the ABS, with a soon-to-be constructed Bible Discovery Center highlighting the history of the Bible in the United States, to become a Philadelphia tourist attraction.  He estimates that after three years in Philadelphia over 250,000 people will come to the Bible Discovery Center to “hear the story of the Bible.”  Peterson wants the “best of the best” to help him in the construction of this Discovery Center, and that is why he has turned to the Green family, the owners of the retail craft store Hobby Lobby.  The Greens made national headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have to violate their conscience by conforming to a part of the Affordable Care Act that would have forced them to provide certain contraceptives to Hobby Lobby employees.  In the last several years, the Greens have been active in a host of philanthropic activities on behalf of the evangelical community and are currently a major ABS donor.  Peterson is excited that the Greens have been willing to help the ABS Bible Discovery Center get off the ground by sharing some of the intellectual property it has gathered in the process of building their soon-to-be-opened Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

My Latest on David Barton and Thomas Jefferson

Bible Cause CoverCheck out my piece on David Barton, Thomas Jefferson, and the American Bible Society at The History News Network.  Here is a taste:

In a video he released in May 2015, Barton is pictured in the Wallbuilders library among the thousands of early American documents that he has collected over the years.  He holds up an American Bible Society certificate signed by John Jay.   He also shows an original 1816 ABS Bible and a copy of the 1816 ABS constitution.  As Barton speaks into the camera he discusses the career of Elias Boudinot, the ABS founder and a former President of the Continental Congress.  His point cannot be missed.  Many of the men responsible for the creation of the United States believed that the Bible should play an important role in American life. 

Barton is right.  The founders of the American Bible Society were an impressive bunch. But if these men were alive today they would be shocked, if not appalled, to learn that David Barton, the country’s most prominent defender of the Christian republic they hoped to construct, is now singing the praises of Thomas Jefferson.  Boudinot, Jay, Cone, Day, and the other ABS builders of a Christian America (we can also add Francis Scott Key and John Quincy Adams, and John Marshall to that group) were engaged in an early 19th-century culture war for the soul of the new nation against a group of skeptical intellectuals that embraced and promoted a secular vision of America’s future. 

Read the rest here.

Here is the video I mention in the piece:

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #88

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I am still doing secondary reading for Chapter Five.  Today I spent a couple of hours with Paul Boyer’s Urban Masses and Moral Order in America and Curtis Johnson’s Redeeming America: Evangelicals and the Road to the Civil War.

Boyer reminded me that the Board of Managers of the ABS in the early nineteenth century were some were the wealthiest men in the United States.  Johnson reminded me that a combination of the Board’s wealth and its Calvinism led frontier settlers to reject its mission.  Elias Boudinot modeled the ABS on the First Bank of the United States so it is not surprising that he received resistance from common evangelicals–mostly Baptists–on the frontier who sensed a cabal of wealthy Calvinists who wanted to use their wealth and theology to create a Christian nation

After completing my reading today I was also reminded that writing history requires constant engagement with secondary sources.  We may come up with a great idea for a book or article, and spend months pondering such an idea, but the idea is only developed and refined in conversation with others, namely the historians who have thought about the same things we are thinking about.  So stop thinking about your project and get to work!

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #4

Want to get some context for this post?  Click here.

I managed roughly six of hours of work today on the American Bible Society (ABS) project.  In preparation for the first chapter of the manuscript I read two documents written by Elias Boudinot, the first president of the organization and the brainchild behind its founding. 

In 1814, Boudinot, while serving as President of the New Jersey Bible Society, wrote a circular letter to most of the country’s Bible societies asking them to unite in a national organization that would disseminate the Bible throughout the United States and abroad.

The Philadelphia Bible Society was one of the local societies that opposed the idea of a national Bible organization.  This morning I read the objections of the Philadelphia Bible Society and Boudinot’s response to them.

There have been a lot of logistical things to think about this week.  This afternoon I had a meeting with Katie Garland, my graduate assistant (from the University of Massachusetts) on this project.  As I have noted in a previous post, Katie is working on the life of the ABS in the period between 1865-1918.  So far she has put in about 80 hours of work–enough to establish a chapter outline for this period .  Here are the themes of those chapters:

  • The ABS and Reconstruction
  • The ABS and Westward expansion (including Chinese immigration and work with Native Americans)
  • The ABS response to the financial panic of 1873 and the decline of the auxiliary program.
  • The ABS in the world (this chapter will probably run from 1830-1900)
  • The ABS’s response to immigration, industrialization (and its consequences), and higher criticism of the Bible
I am also in the midst of planning next week’s research trip to the ABS headquarters in New York City. Since my time in New York is limited, I need to plan carefully.  I must concentrate on the research materials that are only available in the ABS archives and not get caught up with materials that I can easily access on line or through records that the ABS archivist had digitized for me.  It looks like I will be spending most of my time reading The Bible Record, the monthly magazine of the organization.

I had hoped to start writing my first chapter this week, but I am less optimistic about getting started on this than I was twenty-four hours ago.  We will see what happens.  Stay tuned.

Not All Presbyterians Were Radical Whigs in April 1776

This morning I was reading the memoirs of Elias Boudinot (1740-1821), a Presbyterian lawyer from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, the president of the Continental Congress (1782-83), and the first president of the American Bible Society (1816).

Boudinot was a strong supporter of the American cause, but in the months leading up to July 4, 1776 he was a bit more conservative than some of his fellow Presbyterian Whigs. Boudinot thought that John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, was moving far too quickly toward independence in some of his speeches and political activities.

In April 1776, Boudinot attended a meeting of the Board of Trustrees of the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian school in Princeton that Witherspoon had transformed into a bastion of American patriotism. After a routine day of business, Boudinot found it odd that Witherspoon did not show up for the second day of meetings.  What college president skips out on a meeting of his own Board of Trustees?  There must have been something more important to tend to.  And there was.

Witherspoon had left the Trustees meeting to give a speech to a gathering of New Jersey county representatives who had answered an anonymous call in a New York newspaper to come to New Brunswick for the purpose of discussing a “matter which greatly concerned the province.” As the delegates learned upon their arrival to New Brunswick, it was Witherspoon himself who had called this meeting for the purpose of “declaring a separation from Great Brittain.”

Meanwhile, on his return to Elizabethtown following the College of New Jersey Trustees meeting, Boudinot and his traveling companion, William Peartree Smith, stopped at New Brunswick to feed their horses. They soon learned that Witherspoon was not only the driving force behind the delegates meeting, but he was also planning a speech later that afternoon to try to convince the delegates to support independence.  Concerned that Witherspoon’s ideas were too radical, and perhaps wondering what kind of revolutionary fire Witherspoon was going to try to ignite among the gathering of delegates, Boudinot and Smith decided to make a stop at the meeting before heading to Woodbridge for dinner.  Here is his description of what happened that afternoon in New Brunswick:

We accordingly attended the Meeting in the Afternoon when Dr. W rose and in a very able and elegant speech of one hour and an half endeavoured to convince the audience & the Committee of the absurdity of opposing the extravagant demands of Great Brittain, while we were professing a perfect allegiance to her Authority and supporting her courts of Justice.  The Character of the speaker, his great Influence among the people, his known attachment to the liberties of the People, and the artful manner in which he represented the whole subject, as worthy their attention, had an effect, on the assembly that astonished me.

Boudinot was obviously impressed by Witherspoon’s rhetorical skills, but he was also angered by the Princeton president’s political scheming.

I never felt myself in a more mortifying Situation.  The anonymous publication; The Meeting of the Trustees of the College but the Day before made up wholly of Presbyterians; Their President leaving them to attend the meeting & avowing himself the Author of it; The Doctor known to be at the head of the Presbyterian Interest; and Mr Smith & Myself both Presbyterians, arriving at New Brunswick in the morning, as if intending to go forward & then staying an attending the meeting, altogether looked so like a preconcerted Scheme, to accomplish the End, that I was at my wit’s end, to know how to extricate myself from so disagreeable a situation, especially as the measure was totally ag[ainst] my Judgment.

I am still trying to decipher what Boudinot is saying here, especially related to his remark that the Princeton board meeting was scheduled a day before the New Brunswick meeting and the former meeting was “made up wholly of Presbyterians.”  Does this means tha Boudinot believed that Witherspoon scheduled the New Brunswick meeting at the time he did precisely because he knew there would be a large number of Presbyterian patriots down the road in Princeton who might come to New Brunswick to support his political ends?

Whatever the case, Boudinot would not allow Witherspoon to dominate the New Brunswick meeting. When the opportunity arose, he gave a thirty-minute extemporaneous speech opposing Witherspoon’s plea for independence.  Boudinot claimed that Witherspoon’s plan:

…was neither founded in Wisdom, Prudence, nor Economy; That we had a chosen Continental Congress, to whom we had resigned the Consideration of our public affairs; That they, coming from every part of the Union, would best represent all the Colonies not thus united.  They would know the true Situation of our Country with regard to finances, Union & the prospects we had of a happy reconciliation with the Mother Country…”

Of course Boudinot could not have been more wrong about the Continental Congress. Two months later its members would take the radical step of breaking with England. And it would be Witherspoon, representing the New Jersey delegation, who would end up signing the Declaration of Independence.

But on this particular day, Boudinot was victorious. After his dissenting remarks, Witherspoon responded and a debate between the two Presbyterians ensued on the floor of the meeting.  When Boudinot sensed that he had the upper hand and had won over the delegates with his rhetoric, he called for a vote on independence. Witherspoon was not happy:

The Doctor was a good deal out of humoor & contended warmly against a vote, but a large Majority of the Meeting insisted on a Vote, which, being taken, out of 35 Members, there were but 3 or 4 who Voted for the Doctors proposition, the rest rejecting it with great warmth.  Thus ended this first attempt to try to the pulse of the People of New Jersey on the Subject of Independence….”

Stay tuned for more stuff like this when and if I ever complete my manuscript: “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.”  I am hoping to make some good headway this summer.