Romans 13 and the Patriots

RevisedCheck out Lincoln Mullen‘s recent piece at The Atlantic on the use of Romans 13 in American history.  He correctly notes that Romans 13 was not only used by Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution, but also by patriots who tried to interpret the verse to justify rebellion against George III.

Here is what I wrote on this subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

The patriots used phrases such as “passive obedience” and “unlimited submission” to describe this Anglican view of the relationship between Christians and civil authority.  They spend hundreds of pages trying to counter it.  The most outspoken defender of such a patriotic interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 was Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church.  Mayhew was a liberal Congregationalist and forerunner of the Unitarian movement in New England.  He was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason.  His sermon on Romans 13, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” was preached in 1750 on the celebration of the one-hundreth anniversary of the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War.  Despite the fact that Mayhew’s sermon was published a quarter-century prior to the outbreak of revolutionary hostility in Boston, John Adams, reflecting on the causes of the Revolution, wrote in 1818: “If the orators on the fourth of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they out to study…Dr. Mayhew’s sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance.

Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government, regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy.  But the real issue at hand was the extent to which such “subjection to higher powers” should be practiced.  Mayhew concluded that sometimes resistance to civil authority might be justified.  According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason.  Paul’s primary audience in this passage was those in the first-century Roman church who did not show proper respect to civil authority and were of a “licentious opinion and character.”  Moreover, Romans 13 could not conceivably require submission to all rulers, but only to those rulers who were “good.”  Rulers who “attend continually upon the gratification of their own lust and pride and ambition, to the destruction of the public welfare,” were not worthy of a Christian’s submission.  Mayhew argued, “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief.”  It is “blasphemy,,” he continued, to “call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.”  It follows that when a ruler becomes tyrannical, Christians “are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage.”  Perhaps the most ironic think about Mayhew’s argument is the way he managed to transform Romans 13 from a verse teaching submission to authority into a verse justifying the execution of Charles I and, for that matter, all rebellion against tyrannical government.  Charles I, he concluded, had failed to respect the “natural and legal rights of the people,” against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.”  As a result, resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from “slavery, misery, and ruin.”

For Mayhew, it was “obvious” to any rational person exercising common sense that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 did not teach submission to a government perceived to be tyrannical.  How could God require his people to live under oppression?  God has promised his people freedom.  But such an interpretation required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond a plain reading of these texts.  In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong does of the idea of political philosophers such as John Locke. In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), a pamphlet designed to explain why the Glorious Revolution (the removal of English monarch James II from the throne) was justified.  Locke taught that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property.  His justification of resistance to government had a profound influence on the leaders of the American Revolution, but it ran counter to the teachings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.  This tension did not stop clergy from interpreting these passages through the grid of Locke’s revolutionary teachings.

Let’s be clear.  Romans 13 teaches that Christians should submit to government,  but it does not seem to require unconditional submission.  It is not an easy verse to apply and we must be very careful about applying it universally.

Were high taxes (Stamp, Townsend, etc.), “no taxation without representation,” the Coercive Acts, or British military presence in the  American colonies (“standing armies”) so atrocious that Christians had a legitimate reason to violate Romans 13?   I don’t think so, but others, like Mayhew, disagree.  (Let’s remember that Romans 13 also tells Christians to pay their taxes).

Is the stripping of children from their families at the Mexican border atrocious enough for Christians to violate Romans 13?  I would say yes.  Of course this entire point is moot because, as far as I understand it, there is no American law requiring ICE officials to take children away from their parents.

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!

Christian Nationalists Making the Usual Mistakes About American History

Perkins

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, was not very happy with Paul Rosenberg and Frederick Clarkson’s recent Salon article on Religious Freedom Day.  He writes:

When Americans celebrate Religious Freedom Day tomorrow, not everyone will be happy about it. Liberals are already blasting the tradition that honors the 1786 signing of one of the most influential documents in American history: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Now, more than 230 years into the tradition that sparked a revolution, the Left is ready to recast history.

In Salon, hardly the bastion of conservative thought, Paul Rosenberg tries to persuade readers that freedom is the oppression, insisting that when Christians talk about religious liberty, it’s really just code for “theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs inscribed in government.” Taking aim at FRC in particular, Rosenberg points to Frederick Clarkson, who insists that our Church Ministries team has been “empowered to advance a dangerous suite of theocratic and persecutory policies” (while producing absolutely zero evidence to the effect). Instead, he talks suspiciously about our Culture Impact Teams (CITs), our network of on-the-ground activists in churches across America. Operating under the authority of the church’s leadership, CITs serve as the command center for a church’s efforts to engage the culture.

Then he starts to play fast and loose with the Constitution.  He quotes Rosenberg: “I think if we got serious about taking Jefferson and Madison’s foundational ideas of religious equality under the law into the 21stcentury, Christian nationalism would crumble.”  And then Perkins adds: “Our own Constitution closes with the words, ‘In the year of our Lord, 1787.’ That’s a reference to Jesus! The signers not only embraced Christianity, they anchored our most important document in it.”

OK.  I have written about this before.  First, the Constitution says “year of our Lord.”  It does not say anything about Jesus.  Second, this phrase hardly serves as an “anchor” of the Constitution.  Third, “In the year of our Lord” was a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date.  We need to be careful about giving it too much theological meeting.  Fourth, it is worth noting that an appeal to God does tell us something about the eighteenth-century world that the founders inhabited.  We don’t sign documents like this today.  Fifth, because the phrase “In the year of our Lord” is boilerplate, it was probably not added until after the delegates had left Philadelphia.  Sixth, the minutes of the Constitutional Convention reveal that there was no discussion about the phrase “In the year of our Lord.”  In other words, NO ONE said anything like: “Let’s end the document with the phrase ‘In the year of our Lord’ because it will send a message to everyone that we are creating a Christian nation.”

Perkins is correct when he says that Jefferson included the writing of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom on his tombstone.  Jefferson was a champion of religious freedom.  He believed that everyone had the right to worship God freely without government interference.  Jefferson did not comment on whether or not it was appropriate to have a Ten Commandments display in a courthouse or a prayer before a football game.  It is very difficult to appeal to his writings (or the writings of James Madison) to argue for or against such things.

Perkins writes: “Before President Trump, Jefferson would barely recognize his country.”  Really?  Jefferson lived in a different era, but he would certainly be able to spot Christian nationalists like Perkins.  He did battle against them in his own day (Christian Federalists) and would probably do battle with them today.  Jefferson regularly slammed pious New Englanders and their Christian political establishments.  He worried that they were trying to create a Christian nation, not a nation informed by religious liberty.

I have mixed feelings about this whole religious liberty debate:

  1. When Christian Right evangelicals talk about religious liberty they use this idea in a negative way–to protect themselves and their views.  In other words, they are rarely interested in articulating a positive view of religious liberty that defends the right of all people to worship freely.
  2. There are real religious liberty issues at stake in our country right now.  Will Christian institutions who uphold traditional views of marriage, for example, remain in a position to receive government funds or maintain a tax-exempt status?  I wrote about this yesterday.

On the one hand, people like Rosenberg and Clarkson need to offer a vision of religious liberty that protects the rights of churches, Christian schools, and other Christian institutions to practice their faith in the way they see fit, even in areas of sexual politics.  Frankly, I think Hillary Clinton’s failure to defend religious liberty in this way may have, among other things, cost her the election in 2016.

On the other hand, Christian Right activists like Perkins need to stop manipulating history.  When it comes to Jefferson, Perkins could probably learn a great deal from what David Barton went through when he published The Jefferson Lies.  In the end, if Perkins believes in liberty then he cannot, at the same time, defend the idea that the government should privilege one form of religious belief over another.

 

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

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?

c955d-thomas_paine_rev1

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?

New Review of *Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?*

RevisedRobert Weir of the University of Massachusetts reviews the revised edition at the website of the Northeast Popular Culture Association.  Here is a taste:

In a careful analysis of Founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Witherspoon, Fea employs the very important concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that is, adherence to Christian doctrine and practice of its precepts. Although he agrees with those who deny that Franklin and Washington were Deists and that Jefferson was an atheist, all three flunk the orthodoxy test, and most slaveholders resorted to selective Bible reading to justify the practice and come up short on the orthopraxy standard. Moreover, it takes more to be called a Christian than merely seeing it as admirable or useful for keeping public order. Attempts to make Jefferson into a Christian, therefore, must be seen as sophistry; Jefferson did, after all, slice all references to Jesus’ divinity from his personal Bible.

Then again, when was the United States “founded?” Did it come into being under the Declaration of Independence? If so, the Declaration indeed mentions God and makes appeals to the guidance of Providence. Fea finds this at best anecdotal evidence, as those references do not specify the Christian God and the document’s overall intent was exactly as embedded in its title—to serve as a political treatise justifying rebellion. If “founding” came with the adoption of the Constitution, all ambiguity disintegrates, as it does not contain any mention of a deity.

But what if the nation was founded through the practice of democracy? What is meant by a “nation?” Had 19th century Americans been polled, they would have asserted that the United States was indeed founded as a Christian nation. Christianity was the prevailing belief of nearly every Euro-American of the day, and few would have imagined a “wall” between church and state. Jefferson used that term, but within the context of forbidding the establishment of any official church. The Founders feared the sort of exclusivity that precipitated Europe’s wars of religion or Puritan bigotry, but most would have viewed some variety of Protestantism as necessary for public morality and a healthy body politic. Moreover, until the Civil War settled the question, the republic was often referenced as these, not theUnited States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention God, but state constitutions uniformly did so and meant the Christian God. Even after the Civil War, there is little in the historical record to challenge evangelical beliefs that America was founded as a Christian nation until the Supreme Court did so beginning in the 1960s.

Fea is willing to concede the evangelicals’ view that this has been a Christian nation, but he also shows how moments in history have forced a broadening of what that means. For example, the post-World War II period has seen the Cold War evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the Americanized Catholicism of John Kennedy, the activist Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political born-again movements that have coalesced around conservative Republicanism. Consider how markedly the materialism of the last of these departs from the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century or the Jesus Freaks movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, argues that modern evangelicals have essentially merged Christianity with capitalism as if Adam Smith had become an honorary member of the Trinity. I wish Fea had tackled this. Because he avoids siding with anyone, the bulk of his post-Civil War analysis centers on evangelical belief rather than orthopraxy. FitzGerald shows the deep roots of evangelical materialism, leading me to wonder how Fea would explain Christian Donald Trump voters, given that Trump doesn’t pass muster as either an orthodox believer or as a Christian practitioner. I also wanted to hear from liberal Christians like Jim Wallis or Randal Balmer. Lea sometimes falls into the trap of saying that a thing is true if enough loudmouths say so. Not so if orthopraxy is the ultimate Christian sniff test.

Read the entire review here.

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:

My Interview With History News Network

RevisedI talk with Erik Moshe about American history, Christianity, historical thinking and, of course, the POTUS.

Here is a small taste:

If you could give court evangelicals an extensive history lesson, what would you teach them?

I would teach them about change over time. No matter what the founding fathers believed about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding, we no longer live in a Christian nation. This means that evangelicals need to work harder at thinking about pluralism. It all comes down to how we live together with our deepest differences. The longstanding “culture wars” remind us that evangelicals and nonevangelicals are really bad at this. I have argued elsewhere that the study of history might help us on this front.

Read the entire interview here.

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:

David Barton Can’t Let Go Of This John Adams Quote

This appeared on Barton’s Facebook page today:

Barton Quote

Sounds pretty good if your a Christian nationalist.  But let’s take a deeper look at this quote.

I have excerpted the pertinent parts of the letter below.  Warren Throckmorton, who wrote about this letter yesterday on his blog, has highlighted those passages that Barton quotes in the above meme.

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.”* Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. 

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. 

Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

A few comments:

  1. This is a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson dated 28 June 1813. I do not own this document. I read it at Founders Online, a National Archives database of the writings of the Founding Fathers.  Don’t be fooled by David Barton when he tells you that he has some special insight into the nation’s founding because he owns original documents.  Most of what he owns is accessible to anyone via this database. I found the document in less than a minute.  You can too.  I encourage you to match Barton’s selective use of quotes with the actual documents in the database.
  2. Barton is always complaining that so-called “liberal” historians use ellipses to leave out parts of documents that mention God or religion.  Notice the quote in the above meme.  Then read the actual letter.  It seems to me that the material left out by Barton’s ellipses goes a long way toward helping us understand what John Adams really meant here.  It looks like “liberal” historians are not the only ones who have this problem.
  3.  In the first paragraph, Adams is describing the religious affiliations of the men present at the Continental Congress.  Notice that the list includes “deists” and “atheists” along with more traditional Christian denominations.
  4.  In the second and third paragraphs, Adams notes that the group who met in Philadelphia was so religiously diverse that the only ideas holding them together were the “general principles of Christianity.”  What does he mean by this phrase?  It is hard to tell at first glance.  But if there were indeed “deists” and “atheists” in the room, these “general principles” must have been understood by Adams as a system of belief that was far less orthodox than the Christianity of the ancient creeds.  An “atheist” might be able to find common ground around a Christian moral code (say, for example, the Sermon on the Mount), but could not affirm the existence of God. A “deist” would have rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and, in some cases, God’s providence in human affairs, but he could certainly unite behind a moral code based on the teachings of Jesus. (I titled my chapter on the highly unorthodox Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus”). So let’s return to our original question.  What did Adams mean when he said the Continental Congress was held together by “the general principles of Christianity?” If we take the beliefs of the “atheists” and the “deists” (and, I might add, the “universalists, “Socinians,” and “Preistleyans”)  seriously, the “general principles of Christianity” was a phrase Adams used to describe a very vague moral code that all of these men–the orthodox and the unorthodox–could affirm.
  5. The third paragraph also affirms that these men were united by the “general principles of English and American liberty.”  This tells us that in addition to some very basic moral principles compatible with the ethical teachings of Christianity, the founders shared a common belief in liberty.  This should not surprise anyone.  A belief in liberty was part of their English heritage.  No English heritage of liberty, no American Revolution.  As I tell my classes, the English taught the colonists how to rebel.
  6. The fourth paragraph tells us that Adams believes that these “general principles” of Christianity and liberty could be easily affirmed by a host of secular writers, including Hume and Voltaire, two of the Enlightenment’s staunchest critics of organized Christianity. These “general principles of Christianity” must have been pretty watered-down if Hume and Voltaire could affirm them.  Again, the reference here is to a vague morality, not the particular teachings of orthodox Christianity.

In the end, if we look at the parts of the letter Barton does not mention in his meme we would get a very different view of the role of Christianity in the American founding than the Christian nationalist message he wants to convey to his Facebook followers.  This is cherry-picking at its finest.

(Thanks to Warren Throckmorton for the inspiration to write this post).

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.

Ben Franklin’s Faith

FranklinIf you are following our #ChristianAmerica? tweetstorm this weekend @johnfea1 ( a tweet every 30 minutes!), you know that we have not said much yet about Ben Franklin. Stay tuned. We will have a lot to say about him tomorrow.

In the meantime, check out Thomas Kidd‘s recent piece at The Washington Post: “How Benjamin Franklin, a deist, became the founding father of a unique kind of American faith.”

Here is a taste:

Franklin adhered to a religion that we might call doctrineless, moralized Christianity. This kind of faith suggests that what we believe about God is not as important as living a life of love and significance. Franklin grew up in a devout Puritan family in colonial Boston, but by his teen years the bookish boy began to doubt key aspects of his parents’ Calvinist faith. Abandoning Christianity altogether, however, was not a realistic option for someone as immersed as Franklin in the Bible’s precepts and the habits of faith.

Although Franklin did at times toy with some radical anti-Christian beliefs, he settled on the conviction that Christianity was useful because of the way it fostered virtue. Franklin wearied of how colonial Americans incessantly fought about theological minutiae. But he still believed that Christianity represented a preeminent resource for benevolence and charity, qualities he considered essential to any worthwhile religion.

Read the rest here.

Kidd has just published a religious biography of Franklin.  Some of you may recall his recent visit to The Author’s Corner to discuss it.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Fourth of July Weekend Experiment

Jersey

What does a historian do on a holiday weekend when the archives are closed, he can’t get around well due to an injured leg, and his family is out of town?  He hangs out with his dog Jersey and does this:

Check out #ChristianAmerica? Twitter (don’t forget the question mark) or follow along @johnfea1.  We will be tweeting every 30 minutes during the weekend.  Tell your friends to join us for a 4th of July weekend history lesson on religion and the American founding!

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!

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!

Jefferson on Islam

TJ-Quran-195x300Over at Immanent Frame, the discussion of Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders continues.  In the latest installment, Nadia Marzouki of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes:

Among the scholars who have most inspired my work as a political scientist are multiple historians—whether intellectual, legal, or religious. From James Kloppenberg and Samuel Moyn, to Anver Emon and Patrick Boucheron, scholars of history have offered some of the most rigorous and original contributions to ongoing debates about democracy and religious freedom. History avoids the pitfalls that often characterize other disciplines, especially mine, including an excessive focus on the present and on refined quibbles about methods and positionality, sometimes at the expense of relevance. Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran is one of the most significant illustrations of the need for more history in current academic and political disputes about secularism and citizenship. Hers is not a history of the supposedly linear process of integration of American Muslims. In lieu of the traditional “from migrants to citizens” narrative, Spellberg argues that Muslims were thought of as citizens by the Founding Fathers themselves. The estrangement of Muslims from the American nation and the construction of Muslims as foreigners are products of later developments of the nineteenth century.

In 1765, Thomas Jefferson, then a law student at the College of William and Mary, acquired an English translation of the Qur’an. His fascination with Islamic law and culture led him to defend the rights of Muslims as citizens. Sometimes derided as an “infidel” president, much like Barack Obama three centuries later, he insisted that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom should “comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination,” and argued that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Tracing the genealogy of Jefferson’s understanding of Islam, Spellberg establishes the importance of John Locke’s definition of religious freedom to Jefferson’s own thinking.

Spellberg’s work corrects the mistaken belief that the encounter between Islam and America is something recent, and instead analyzes this encounter not as a shock between two constituted bodies but as an open set of hybrid and ambivalent phenomena. Her goal is not to pacify the history of the relations between Islam and the West, nor does she seek to deny the erratic character, often invisible and numerically limited, of the Islamic presence in Europe and America before the nineteenth century. Rather, an essential implication of Spellberg’s study is the repositioning of Islam within the interiority and intimacy of Western societies. Her book suggests that one cannot think properly about some fundamental ideals of liberal democracy and secular America independently of their relation, if only in theory, with Islam. This epistemological postulate of a constitutively networked and co-extensive relation of Islam and America opens up new perspectives of research, distinct from the traditional theodicy of the progressive acceptance of religious minorities and based on a robust understanding of political liberalism—which is often too promptly reduced to imperialism in a large part of the broad corpus of secularism studies.

Spellberg posits that the encounter between Islam and America is not the outcome of a slow teleology of integration but a point of departure that captures the foundational ambivalence of American liberal-secular democracy.

Read the entire piece here.

Immanent Frame Forum on Islam and the Founding Fathers

TJ-Quran-195x300The other day I was Skyping with a colonial America class at another college.  One of the students asked me what the founding fathers would have thought about Islam.  I answered the question, but after I got done with the class I realized I should have also recommended Denise Spellberg’s 2013 book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.

Check out the recently announced forum at Immanent Frame on Spellberg’s book.

Here is what you can expect:

Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an was released in 2013, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States. As we were reminded during the 2016 election season, both of President Obama’s campaigns for presidency were marked by accusations that he was a practicing Muslim and debates as to the legitimacy of a president with such a religious identity. Spellberg’s book was published as a timely history of the religious freedom debates during the founding of the United States, emphasizing the choice that the Founding Fathers made to create a new nation open to all religions. As Spellberg describes in her historical account, Thomas Jefferson argued for the inclusion of Muslims without knowing a Muslim individual; his theoretical sense of welcome toward them extended hospitality and legal protection to other religious minority groups at the time, including Jews and Catholics.

Detailing these debates around religious pluralism, Spellberg contributed to the defense against Islamophobia championed by those such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in response to questions of Obama’s Muslimness asked, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country?” Now, in 2017, Powell’s question back to his interviewers is more potent, as support for Muslim Americans as fully American citizens seems to be up for debate. Though similar conflicts are happening in other countries as well, the history of American religious pluralism as a founding principle shapes the conversation in a certain way in the United States.

In this short series, four scholars reflect on re-reading Spellberg’s text in 2017.

Follow along here.