The “Deep State” of the 1790s?

Morse

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.

Exploring Religious Disestablishment: State by State

DissentI am glad to see the release of Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833. Carl Esbeck of the University of Missouri and Jonathan Den Hartog of Samford University have edited a very useful book for anyone interested in the relationship between church and state in early America.  Authors include Evan Haefeli, James Kabala, Shelby Balik Kyle Bulthuis, Brian Franklin, and John Witte.  By the way, some guy from Messiah College who has a blog wrote the essay on New Jersey.

Over at the Age of Revolution blog, Den Hartog introduces us to the themes of the book.  Here is a taste:

The American Revolution came about through a sequence of fractures in the ties between the colonies and Great Britain. One of those fractures arose from an important call from the Continental Congress. On May 15, 1776, Congress approved a resolution urging each of the colonies “to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”[1] This invitation immediately called into question the charters and habits under which the colonies had been operating in a British constitutional and legal regime. It thereby forced the new states to question and modify long-standing arrangements, potentially transforming many aspects of American life.

One key element of those reconsiderations was the public place of religion for the states. In 1776, various forms of church establishment stretched from Georgia and South Carolina to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Although “establishment” has often been used to mean financial support for the official church, in reality, these establishments often connected with many other aspects of colonial life, property holding, and governance.[2] It was in the states that Americans experienced the most issues around “church and state.” The states thus provide the best location in which to examine how Americans pursued religious liberty in a revolutionary moment. Although much ink has been spilled about the First Amendment, even more significant change occurred at the state level.

The process of religious disestablishment in the states provides a fascinating story in political and legal innovation. It transformed conceptions of ties between religion and politics, religion and the law, and the citizen’s relationships and duties. It produced a unique American model of religious liberty for all, voluntary support of the churches, and non-sectarianisn (non-preferentialism) in governmental approaches to denominations. It’s a story that needs to be told.

In order to examine religious disestablishment at the state level, Carl Esbeck and I recently co-edited a volume entitled Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the American States, 1776-1833(University of Missouri Press, forthcoming November 2019). We recruited twenty-one scholars to analyze how establishment and disestablishment operated at the state level. These scholars—historians, political scientists, and legal experts—brought their distinctive insights, as they each took up one specific state. The range of investigation took in the original thirteen states, along with other early-admitted states such as Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Contributors also examined the special cases of Ohio (admitted from the Northwest Territory), Louisiana and Missouri (additions from the Louisiana Purchase), Maine (carved out of Massachusetts), and Florida (gained from Catholic Spain).

Read the entire piece here and then buy this book for your personal and university library.

George Washington Asks for a Ride to Church

Trinity

Federal Hall, Wall Street, and Trinity Church, 1789

Historian Jonathan Den Hartog of the University of Northwestern is working on a project on John Jay at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington this month.  At his Facebook page he shared this great 1789 letter from Washington to John Jay.

The President of the United States presents his Compliments to Mr Jay, and informs him that the Harness of the President’s Carriage was so much injured in coming from Jersey that he will not be able to use it today. If Mr Jay should propose going to Church this Morng the President would be obliged to him for a Seat in his Carriage.

The letter is dated “April-Dec. 1789.” Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, so it is unclear if he is POTUS yet.  There is no place mentioned on the letter, but all signs point to New York.  This was the site of the Federal Government until 1790 and it was the home state of Jay.  I would guess Washington needs a ride to New York’s Trinity Church where Jay was a church warden.

Hey, we all need a ride to church every now and then.

ADDENDUM: See the comments section.  It looks like GW was probably asking for a ride to St. Paul’s Chapel, not Trinity Church.  Nice work!