Out of the Zoo: Hamilton’s Deathbed Conversion

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Alexander Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Church Cemetery.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about her paper on Alexander Hamilton’s religious faith. –JF

My “Age of Hamilton” class is well into its second act. After taking a couple weeks to discuss the musical Hamilton, we took a deep dive into the life of America’s 10-dollar founding father. We started off the semester discussing Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies and his education in New Jersey and New York. Next we paraded through the Revolutionary war alongside Alexander.  Then we discussed his contributions to the Constitution—at the Constitutional Convention and through the 51 Federalist papers that he wrote. At long last we’ve reached what seems to be the pinnacle of the course—Hamilton’s stint as the first secretary of the treasury—and soon enough we will come to Weehawken New Jersey, the stage of his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

As “Age of Hamilton” reaches its close in the next month or so, my classmates and I will be striving to finish our lengthy research papers for the course. As we scramble to gather sources and organize our thoughts for the assignment, we surely have gained a new understanding of the question Hamilton repeatedly poses: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Nonetheless, our minds are “at work” as we seek to flesh out various aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s life.

As you can imagine, the topics my classmates and I are pursuing for this assignment are quite diverse. My friend Chloe is researching Hamilton’s relationship with fellow revolutionary John Laurens. Another fellow history major is writing on Hamilton’s role in the Battle of Monmouth. My roommate Rachel is learning about 18th-century courtship for her paper, and several more classmates are researching the Reynolds Affair. While all of these potential topics intrigued me, I decided to take the semester to inquire into Alexander Hamilton’s religious faith.

My paper thus far is centered around Hamilton’s “deathbed conversion,” an event which, even after hours of research, still fascinates me. I’ve recently discovered that a large portion of Hamilton’s career was characterized by the apparent absence of religious devotion. Yet, at the end of his life, after a fatal shot through the abdomen from the pistol of Aaron Burr, Hamilton asked multiple times to receive communion from his deathbed. Hamilton first requested the sacraments from Episcopal bishop Reverend Benjamin Moore, who denied Hamilton’s wishes because he did not condone the practice of dueling.  Hamilton then turned to Presbyterian minister John Mason, who, like Moore, also refused. After some time though, Reverend Moore returned to Hamilton’s bedside and obliged to administer communion.

As I worked on this project over the weekend, I’ve realized there is still much work to do. I’ve researched and written some about Hamilton’s exposure to religion throughout his life, and have continued my inquiry into his “deathbed conversion.” Yet, at this point I am left with more questions than answers. What did Hamilton really believe about God? Why were the sacraments so important to him that he still desired them even after being turned down twice? Where will Hamilton spend eternity? Surely not all of these questions belong in my paper, but my research has led me to ask them nonetheless. As I seek solutions to some of these questions, I’m starting to realize that most will not be so easily answered. Some people living today cannot even articulate what they believe about God; therefore it’s no easy task to do the same for someone who died over 200 years ago. Thus, I will try my best to tread carefully, to keep my eyes open, and to do justice to the complexity that defined every aspect of Hamilton’s life, religious and otherwise.

Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

George Washington and American Jews

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On August 18, 2019, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island had its 72nd annual reading of George Washington’s letter to this Jewish congregation.  The speaker that day was Jed Rakoff, a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York.

The New York Review of Books is running an excerpt of Rakoff’s speech.  Here is a taste of Washington’s Legacy for American Jews: ‘To Bigotry No Sanction.’“:

George Washington’s letter of August 1790 (sixteen months after he became president) responding to a letter from Moses Seixas, Warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, is rightly celebrated as one of the definitive statements of religious freedom under the new US Constitution. Washington’s assertion that “the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” made clear that our nation’s first president would not permit the power of the new government to become an instrument of religious intolerance….

But is it still true? There may be cause to worry. Two years ago, in August 2017, neo-Nazi marchers, some of them carrying Nazi flags, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Some of these neo-Nazi demonstrators, carrying semi-automatic rifles, surrounded a local synagogue and posted messages online threatening to burn the temple down. Finally, James Alex Fields Jr.—a confessed Hitler admirer—intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring twenty-eight others.

Then, last October, an expressly anti-Semitic mass murderer entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing eleven members of the congregation and wounding several others. This, the single most violent anti-Semitic incident in US history, was followed, just a few months ago, by a synagogue shooting near San Diego, California, that left one Jew dead and several others injured.

Needless to say, Jews have not been the only victims of the acts of domestic terrorism that have become all too common in our country. Black and Hispanic people, and others, have suffered much worse, as recent events in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, so horribly attest. But that a violent hatred of Jews is once again rearing its ugly head in certain quarters is difficult to deny. Although in America, in contrast to anti-Semitism in many other parts of the world, this hatred and accompanying violence is mostly the work of small fringe groups of political extremists, it is apparent that such attacks are increasing in both number and ferocity. American Jews, so fortunate in so many ways, need to be more alert to these threats, both to others and to ourselves.

I do not wish to seem an alarmist, and all of this must be put in perspective. Despite the recent increase in anti-Semitism in the US, we Jews owe the overwhelming majority of our fellow Americans a huge debt, both for according us what Washington called our “natural rights,” and for increasingly welcoming us into the life of the American Republic without obliging us to abandon our traditions and beliefs. As Washington envisaged in his letter, Americans have in so many ways become “a great and a happy people,” Jewish Americans not least among them. But just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so we cannot be sure that such happiness will continue if we do not acknowledge, and confront, the growing dangers we face.

Unlike the Moses Seixas of May 1790, who feared to give offense, we must be like the Moses Seixas of August 1790, who asserted our rights, as Americans and Jews, to lead our daily lives free of fear.

Read the entire piece here.

Episode 50: The Religious Beliefs of the Adams Family

PodcastDon’t be confused by the title, we are not talking about the spooky family from the 1960s. Rather, in this episode, we turn to the religious history of one of America’s founding families. By focusing on the Adams family, one can trace the evolution of American religion as John, Abigail, JQA, and others wrestle with Providence, the Enlightenment, and a changing political landscape. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by Sara Georgini (@sarageorgini), the author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790

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In August 1790, President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and others traveled to Rhode Island.  On August 18, they stopped at the Touro Synagogue in Newport.  Later in the day, Washington wrote this letter to the congregation:

Gentlemen.

 

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address1 replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport,2 from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. 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; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

A President of the United States at a Jewish synagogue.

For more context on this letter and the trip click here.

*The New York Times* on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

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It’s been a crazy day.  Last night I was wrapping-up some writing on the Southern Baptist Convention, trying to finish some end-of- the-academic-year paperwork, scheduling some blog posts, and preparing for the Believe Me book tour.

Then Jeff Sessions referenced Romans 13 and The Washington Post asked me for some historical context. I have been answering questions all day.

Here is my contribution to Julia Jacobs’s piece at The New York Times:

Referring to the Bible in political speeches is nothing new, said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did so liberally, for example. But using Scripture as an enforcement tool for a particular federal policy is more concerning, Dr. Fea said.

“The founding fathers created the criminal justice system to be a largely secular criminal justice system,” he said. “They didn’t have in mind punishing criminals and condemning them using Bible verses.”

And the passage he chose drew considerable criticism. Historians and theologians took to the internet to point out that Romans 13 has been used to defend antiquated or outright contemptible points of view.

Before the nation’s founding, it was frequently used by Loyalists to oppose the American Revolution, Dr. Fea said. And in the 19th century, pro-slavery Southerners often cited the chapter’s opening verses to defend slavery — in particular, adherence to the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the seizure and return of runaway slaves.

Read the entire piece here.

*Was America Founded as a Christian Nation* (Revised Edition) is Now Easier to Find

RevisedSeveral of you have mentioned that it was hard to find the revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction on Amazon.  We have fixed the problem and the book is now easily accessible through an Amazon search.

Here is a description of the book:

John Fea offers a thoroughly researched, evenhanded primer on whether America was founded to be a Christian nation, as many evangelicals assert, or a secular state, as others contend. He approaches the title’s question from a historical perspective, helping readers see past the emotional rhetoric of today to the recorded facts of our past. This updated edition reports on the many issues that have arisen in recent years concerning religion’s place in American society—including the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, contraception and the Affordable Care Act, and state-level restrictions on abortion—and demonstrates how they lead us to the question of whether the United States was or is a Christian nation. Fea relates the history of these and other developments, pointing to the underlying questions of national religious identity inherent in each.

“We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues,” Fea writes in his preface. “It is easy for those who argue that America is a Christian nation (and those who do not) to appear on radio or television programs, quote from one of the founders or one of the nation’s founding documents, and sway people to their positions. These kinds of arguments, which can often be contentious, do nothing to help us unravel a very complicated historical puzzle about the relationship between Christianity and America’s founding.”

Trump and Huckabee Do American History

I am not really sure where to begin with this video.

Let’s take, for example, the scene of Lee and Grant shaking hands at Appomattox.  How can this be interpreted apart from Trump’s famous “very fine people on both sides” line after Charlottesville?  I think David Blight might have something to say about this.

What about the ominous music when Trump talks about “our media culture?”  This is yet another appeal to fear, the kind of appeal common among totalitarian rulers and strongmen.

Learn more about Mike Huckabee’s bad attempt at revisionism here.

(Thanks to Brenda Schoolfield for bringing this video to my attention).

My Podcast Conversation with Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers

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Bob Crawford plays bass for the Avett Brothers.  (I have also learned that the Avett Brothers are big deal).  He also has a history and theology podcast called The Road to Now.

Bob recently invited me on the podcast to talk about Christian nationalism, historical thinking, the founding fathers, and Donald Trump.  Listen here.

Learn more about the Crawfords and their beautiful daughter Hallie here.

Thank You “Otter”

RevisedI recently read this Amazon review of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”: A Historical IntroductionIt is written by someone who goes by the name “Otter.” He or she titled the review “Equal Opportunity Disorientation.” I have no idea who this is, but I think “Otter” captures well what I was trying to do in this book:

If you’re anxious to score debating points in the debate about whether America was founded as a Christian nation, avoid this masterful book.

If you want to appreciate the complexity of the issue, and if you prefer the truth to zinging your opponents, this is your one-stop shop.

With terrific scholarship, Fea makes sure that neither side of the debate comes out without rethinking itself.

Most helpfully, Fea surveys the abuse of the historical evidence by those who would seek to either return America to its “Christian roots” or to minimize America’s religious heritage. The book aims at a thorough and meticulous understanding of America’s relationship with religion, especially in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods: what did the early European-Americans think about religion and the state? What did they see as religion’s relationship to Revolution, or to civil law? What’s the best understanding between religious rhetoric and institutional commitments? Fea draws on a wide range of sources to paint a picture of enormous depth and complexity.

Secularists will be satisfied to learn that Fea, an evangelical, is by no means convinced by Dominionist arguments; evangelicals will be delighted to know that Fea refuses the axiom that religion in early America was an accidental and unimportant feature of the 18th century, irrelevant to our understanding of the past. Neither side will be entirely happy to find that he calls them to a higher level of discussion than is usual.

For those who read Fea, this whole thing is going to take a lot more work.

Thanks!

Religious Freedom in Historical Context

RagostaOver at Religion Dispatches, Frederick Clarkson interviews John Ragosta, the author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (University of Virginia Press, 2013).  January 16th is Religious Freedom Day.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Clarkston: What’s most striking to me about the Virginia Statute is the part that reads: “…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Jefferson emphasized that the bill was meant to protect everyone, including as he later wrote, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This idea–that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law–seems to be as relevant today as it was then.

Ragosta: Absolutely. The Statute was intended to create a free market of ideas, including religious ideas. Religion would thrive based not on government decisions but on what people believed and chose to support–the “voluntary principle.” The result was an explosion in religious ideas and denominationsand religious leaders were held responsible to their congregants rather than the government. Some conservative ministers who had initially opposed separating church and state admitted that it was the best thing that ever happened to the church.

People sometimes assume that if you want to keep religion out of government and government out of religion you are against religion; Jefferson suffered the same attack. But he and his evangelical supporters wanted a strict wall of separation between church and state–and yet [they] believed that there would be a vibrant religion on the “other” (non-government) side of the wall.

At the same time, while belief is completely free from government regulation and government cannot directly regulate the free exercise of religion, government can pass “neutral” laws (not targeted at religion) which may happen to be inconsistent with a person’s beliefs.

Jefferson used the obvious example of child sacrifice or a law which prohibited the slaughter of lambs when the military was in short supply of wool uniforms. The best modern example is laws against racial discrimination: While many people insisted that interracial dating or marriage violated their religion, the Supreme Court, in the 1983 case of Bob Jones University v. United States, rightly refused to grant an exemption to anti-discrimination laws based on religion.

This is exactly what is at issue in the claims for exemptions from laws dealing with LGBTQ rights. Government cannot tell a church that it must marry gay people (that would be a direct regulation of religion), but government can say that if you want to run a business (using public streets, public utilities, police and fire protection, etc.), you cannot discriminate against customers based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Of course, if people don’t like particular laws, they can be changed, but Jefferson was very clear that you can’t use religion or religious freedom to claim an exemption from an otherwise valid law.

Read the entire interview here.

Christ Church in Alexandria is a Church, Not a Museum

George_Washington_memorial_-_Christ_Church_(Alexandria,_Virginia)_-_DSC03516In case you have not heard, an Episcopalian church in Alexandria, Virginia is taking down a plaque memorializing George Washington.  When Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington owned a pew.  He attended the church whenever he was in town to conduct business.  It is located about nine miles from Mount Vernon. Washington also served as a vestryman in the church.

According to this piece in The Washington Times, Christ Church will also be removing a memorial marker dedicated to another famous parishioner: Robert E. Lee.

Here is a taste:

While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said in a letter to the congregation that went out last week.

The decision was also announced to parishioners on Sunday.

The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.

Read the entire piece here.

Let’s remember that Christ Church is a functioning congregation.  If the leadership of this congregation believe that people will be offended by commemorative material related to Washington or Lee, or if they believe that these plaques will somehow hinder the advancement of the Gospel in their midst, then the materials should definitely be removed from the sanctuary.  Finally, I am not sure political figures or military generals belong in a church sanctuary.  I would say the same thing about the American flag.

I am also glad to see that the church will be creating a separate space where the commemorative items can be explained and contextualized:

The new display location will be determined by a parish committee. That location will provide a place for our parish to offer a fuller narrative of our rich history, including the influence of these two powerful men on our church and our country,” she said in the email. “We look forward to this opportunity to continue to learn more about our own history and find new ways to introduce it to the wider community.

Read the statement from the Senior Warden of Christ Church here.

Were the Founding Fathers Deists?

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Tom Paine

If I had a dime for every time I heard this….

Over at the blog of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, political scientist Mark David Hall argues that the reports of founding father deism are largely exaggerated.  I made a similar argument in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a taste of Hall’s piece:

Given the numerous, powerful, and clear claims that that the Founders were deists, it is striking that there are few instances of civic leaders in the era openly embracing deism or rejecting orthodox Christian doctrines. In 1784, Ethan Allen published Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, the first American book advocating deism. The book sold fewer than two hundred copies, and after its publication Allen played no role in American politics.

A decade later, Thomas Paine published a defense of deism entitled The Age of Reason, but he was born and raised in England and lived only twenty of his seventy-seven years in America, so one can reasonably ask if he should be counted as an American Founder. Paine wrote and published his volumes in Europe, and when he returned to America in 1802 he was vilified because of them. These cases suggest that whatever attraction deism had among a few elites, expounding such views in public was quite imprudent.

We know from private letters and diaries that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams rejected basic Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. However, with a few minor exceptions they came to regret, they kept their heterodox views far from the public’s eye.

George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton are regularly referenced as Founders who embraced deism. Yet to my knowledge no writer has ever produced a public or private letter, journal entry, or text showing that these men rejected orthodox Christianity or embraced deism.

Before proceeding, we should note that if deism includes the idea that “God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs,” then one could argue that not one of these men was a deist, as all of them spoke or wrote about God’s intervention in the affairs of men and nations. Washington, for instance, referred to “Providence” at least 270 times in his writings. It is likely that Allen and Paine referred to God’s intervention in human affairs merely for rhetorical purposes, but there are good reasons to believe that even Founders who rejected some tenets of orthodox Christianity, such as Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, continued to believe in miracles.

By my count, then, there are exactly two Founders—Allen and Paine—whom we may confidently label “deists.” And one of the two is arguably not an American Founder.

Read the entire piece here.  HT: Jonathan Rowe

The Bible and the Constitution

reading-the-bible-with-the-founding-fathersIn a recent article at The Hill, American University political scientist Daniel Dreisbach reminds us that the Bible was important in the framing of the United States Constitution. (See his visit to the Author’s Corner here).  I appreciate Dreisbach’s work.  Many friends who take a more secular approach to the ideological origins of the Constitution have asked me what I think about Dreisbach’s views on the Bible and the founding.  Frankly, I think his book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers is excellent for what it does, namely showing that the Bible should not be neglected as a source of inspiration and ideas for many of the founding fathers.   In his interview with me about the book, Dreisbach wrote:

I contend that the Bible had a significant, yet often overlooked, influence on the political thought and discourse of the American founding and, therefore, it should be studied alongside other influences on the founding generation, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism.  The book examines the extensive and diverse uses of the Bible in the political discourse of the founding era, combining careful historical research, elementary political theory, and biblical interpretation.

I imagine that Dreisbach has no problem with the idea that the Bible was one of many sources that informed the thinking of the founding fathers.

Here is a taste of Dreisbach’s piece at The Hill: “Liberty under law was always rooted in biblical principles.”

Legal commentators have pointed to additional examples of the Bible’s influence on specific constitutional provisions, including provisions on cruel and unusual punishment, the number of witnesses required in cases of treason, affirmation in the alternative to an oath, and corruption of blood.

Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 readily conceded that the document they wrote was imperfect, there was a consensus that it was the best that could be framed under the circumstances. And some, such as Benjamin Rush, “believed the hand of God was employed in this work,” just as surely as “God had divided the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel.”

Even the skeptic Benjamin Franklin, while disclaiming that the Convention’s work was “divinely inspired,” remarked that he could not conceive such a momentous achievement as framing “the new federal constitution” without it “being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent and beneficent Ruler.”

Commentators today may disagree that the Constitution was a product of Divine Providence or that it contains elements informed by Christianity, but the Bible was undisputedly among the intellectual sources that influenced the founders. Acknowledging the Bible’s often-neglected contributions to the founding project enriches our understanding of the nation’s great constitutional experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law.

As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, the Bible was important to the founding generation.  I was particularly interested in how the Bible was used, but Driesbach’s work goes much deeper and reveals just how much the eighteenth-century was saturated with biblical ideas.  Of course how that history is used today raises a very different set of issues and questions.  This is part of the reason I wrote a followup to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? titled Why Study History?

The Freemasons and Christian America

FreeMasonryI have done and continue to do a lot of talks on my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  One of my favorite parts of every lecture is the question and answer period.  At nearly every presentation someone will ask me a version of these two questions:

  • Doesn’t the Treaty of Tripoli make it clear, once and for all, that we were not founded as a Christian nation?
  • What does the fact that many founding fathers were Masons tell us about whether or not they believed they were founding a Christian nation?

I write about the Treaty of Tripoli at the beginning of the book, but I say nothing about the Masons.  If there is a third edition of the book, I think I will need to add something about the founding fathers and their relationship to Freemasonry.

Over at JSTOR, Peter Feurerherd has a short piece on Masons in America.  It is a nice starting point on this topic.

Here is a taste:

The United States Masons (also known as Freemasons) originated in England and became a popular association for leading colonials after the first American lodge was founded in New Jersey in 1730. Masonic brothers pledged to support one another and provide sanctuary if needed. The fraternity embodied European Enlightenment ideals of liberty, autonomy, and God as envisioned by Deist philosophers as a Creator who largely left humanity alone.

Those theological views created friction with established Christian churches, particularly Catholics and Lutherans. While the Masons captured the allegiance of much of the early Republic’s elite, the group did fall under widespread suspicion. The William Morgan affair of 1826—when a former Mason broke ranks and promised to  expose the group’s secrets—threatened its demise. Morgan was abducted and presumed killed by Masons, and the scandal proved a low point in the public image of the fraternal order.

The anti-Mason backlash grew. Abolitionists like John Brown railed against the often pro-slavery Masons. Prominent figures including John Quincy Adams, a former president and former Mason, and publisher Horace Greeley joined in the widespread castigation. Future president Millard Fillmore called Masonic orders nothing better than “organized treason.” In 1832, an anti-Masonic party ran a one-issue candidate for president. He captured Vermont’s electoral votes.

Feuerherd’s post draws heavily from two scholarly articles:

More on David Barton’s Use of That John Adams Quote

Barton Quote

Yesterday we did a lengthy post showing how Christian Right activist David Barton manipulated a John Adams quote to make it sound like Adams supported the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Barton is up to his old tricks here.  He is being deliberately deceptive. He seems to have no problem manipulating the past in this way to promote his agenda.

After I published my post, Southern Methodist University historian Kate Carte Engel took to twitter to give her take on Adams, Christianity, and the American founding.

Here it is:

Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.

John Boles Reassesses Thomas Jefferson

BolesOver at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry interviews John Boles, author of the recent Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty.  Reviewers are calling Boles’s book the best one-volume history of Jefferson in nearly fifty years.

Here is a taste of the interview:

What’s your position on the Sally Hemings debate ?

I believe that they had a long-term essentially consensual affair, and that in a different world they may have gotten married. She was technically, legally a slave. There was a law in Virginia that said that a free man could not marry a slave. She also was the half sister of his wife. There also was a law in Virginia that said that a man could not marry the sister of his deceased wife. So even if Sally Hemings were white and free, Jefferson could not have legally married her. He also had promised his wife he’d never remarry.

I don’t know if I want to say it’s absolute love, but it comes pretty close to that. After all, she looked very much like his wife. A lot of people just say offhand, he’s a powerful white man, she’s a black woman, it’s rape. Annette Gordon-Reed says, while that may be usually true, it’s not always true. And if we say that of every single situation like that, then we’re depriving everybody of any sense of agency.

Gordon Wood wrote that you sometimes allow your sympathy for Jefferson to get the better of you in your treatment of race and slavery. Another reviewer accused you of introducing “bizarre semi-justifications and rationalizations to soften the brutal reality of Jefferson’s callous racism.”

I don’t think what I’m saying is a bizarre rationalization. What I’m trying to do is to try to explain, if I can, why Jefferson acted and believed the way he did. One way is to say he’s a white racist, end of story. I’m trying to say there’s more to the story. And I’m disappointed that he doesn’t come down the way I would have. But he’s not living in 2017.

We’re living at a time when protesters at Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William & Mary, and elsewhere have covered statues of him with sticky-notes calling him a “racist” and “rapist.” At a recent conference, the slavery scholar Hilary Beckles, head of the University of the West Indies, suggested that we should take down statues of Jefferson, just as we took down statues of King George after the Revolution. What’s your response?

That’s a very ungenerous way of looking at the past. And, actually, a lot of the things Jefferson says about liberty and freedom is the language that eventually is employed by those later on who do end up addressing the racial problems. In a lot of ways, he’s surprisingly modern. The Statute for Religious Freedom is one of really the great events in Western history. So things like that we just shouldn’t remember? No.

Read the entire interview and the introduction here

Barton: God Brings Bad Weather Because of Abortion

purembb

In 17th-century New England, the Puritans set out to forge a “City on a Hill,” a society based upon the teachings of the Bible as they understood them.  They believed that they were a new Israel and thus lived in a covenant relationship with God.  When God was displeased with the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony he punished them with earthquakes, Indian attacks, bad weather, and a host of other calamities.  Whenever one of these calamities took place, Puritan ministers mounted their pulpits to deliver jeremiads, sermons designed to call the Puritans back to their covenant relationship with God.

David Barton, the GOP activist and culture warrior who uses the past to promote his political agenda, apparently still lives in 17th-century New England.  He believes that the United States exists in a covenant relationship with God not unlike that of the Puritans. On his recent show Wallbuilders Live he went so far as to connect bad weather with abortion.  (This is not unlike his earlier attempt to connect low SAT scores to the removal of Bible reading and prayer in public schools).

Here is what he said:

So we understood and that’s why if you look back on WallBuilders website we have a section in the library of historical documents. We have now 850 actual proclamations that we own that were issued by governors. And they could be Founding Fathers governors like John Hancock, or Sam Adams, or signers of the Declaration like all for Oliver Wolcott, or Samuel Huntington, signers of the Constitution like John- We’ve got their proclamations.

And so often their proclamation says, “Man, we’ve got to have God’s help with the weather. We have to pray, and repent, and fast because something is going on wrong with the weather and our crops need rain.” We understood that.

Well, today 52 percent of Christians think that God does a really lousy job with the weather. Maybe it’s not his choice that is doing it. Maybe it’s our own sin or our own unrighteous policies. Maybe it’s because we love killing unborn kids, 60 million of them. Maybe God says, “I’m not going to bless your land when you’re doing it.”

I believe in God.  I also believe he may have something to do with the weather. I also believe that abortion is a moral problem.  This probably separates me from many of my secular readers.

But I do not claim, like Barton, to have a hotline to the will of God on these matters. In fact, as I argued in Why Study History?, this kind of providentialism is arrogant, idolatrous, and fails to acknowledge the mystery and otherness of God.  To suggest that bad weather is connected to abortion is simply bad theology.  And yes, if the founding fathers made this connection it would still be bad theology.  And yes, it would still be bad theology if David Barton had a primary document that revealed the founders making such a connection.

What also strikes me about this episode of Wallbuilders Live is Barton’s rant on human sinfulness.  He says:

And there’s really three areas that I can quickly point to and pretty much tell whether someone has a basic general understanding, a very broad Biblical teachings. If they have any Biblical literacy at all, even if they themselves are not Christians, it used to be as Tim pointed out, just the culture itself had a pretty good degree of Biblical knowledge and literacy. We understood a lot of Biblical idioms, and phrases, and whatnot, knew where they came from. We knew heroes of the Bible even if people weren’t Christian.

But if I start with the question, “Is man inherently good? Does man generally tend to be good?” If you answer that “yes” that means you don’t understand Bible. Because the Bible says, “No, man does not tend to be good. Man will always be wrong. 

He’ll do the wrong thing. History proves that time and time again. When you leave man to his own ways, he doesn’t get better, he gets worse. unless God intervenes and changes his heart and he moves in the right direction.

And that’s a scriptural teaching, Jeremiah 17:9, the heart of man is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Who can predict it? What you can predict is that it will do the wrong thing.

And so you see secular governments across the world end up being oppressive.  They end up killing in the 20th Century, killing hundreds of millions of people in secular governments.

So, the heart of man is not good. If you think man inherently tends to be good…

I actually agree with Barton’s understanding of human nature.  But unlike Barton, I would also apply this belief to the founding fathers.  Last time I checked they were also human beings.  And perhaps their sinfulness explains something about the character of the American founding.

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Kidd

FranklinThomas Kidd is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.  This interview is based on his new book Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Ben Franklin?

TK: This book is a sort of follow-up to my 2014 biography of George Whitefield, the great evangelist of the eighteenth century. Franklin was the key publisher of Whitefield’s journals and sermons in America, but they also became close friends. They were two of the biggest celebrities in the Anglo-American world, yet the faiths of the evangelical Whitefield and the “thorough deist” Franklin would seem to have been worlds apart.

In researching Franklin’s religious journey, however, I came to believe that Franklin’s Puritan background exercised a major influence on his adult life. Although Franklin maintained doubts about basic Christian beliefs, the deep imprint made by his parents’ piety and his thorough knowledge of the King James Bible hardly dissipated when he discovered deism as a teenager.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Ben Franklin?

TK: Franklin arguably represented the American epitome of the “Enlightenment,” with his scientific discoveries, incessant charitable projects, and worldly-wise skepticism. But as Franklin’s long life proceeded, his skepticism was restrained by the weight of his Puritan background, by ongoing relationships with evangelicals like Whitefield and Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom, and by the seemingly providential events of the American Revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read Ben Franklin?

TK: If all we know of Franklin’s religion is the Autobiography’s description of how he jettisoned his parents’ faith and became a deist, we miss the extraordinary religious depth of his life and writings. Franklin not only published a great deal of religious material as a printer, but even as an author he seems to have published more on religious topics than any other eighteenth-century American layperson. Some of Franklin’s writing on religion, especially in the 1730s, displayed an amazing sophistication and polemical edge, even on complex topics like the imputed righteousness of Christ.

JF: You are a very productive scholar.  Any writing tips for us mere mortals?

TK: I frequently write about productivity and the writing process in my weekly newsletters. The advice I keep coming back to, however, is the importance of making daily writing progress, even if it is only a couple hundred words. Writers get in trouble when they let their projects languish for weeks and months at a time.

JF: What is your next project?

TK: I am writing a two-volume American History textbook for B&H Academic, which (Lord willing) should be out by 2019.

JF: Thanks, Tommy!