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.

 

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 6

phillymap

Philadelphia from the Jersey side of the Delaware River, late 18th c.

For earlier installments in this series click here.

It is now time to turn to the text of the Constitution.  What does it say about religion?

The preamble of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 states:

We, the representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, in general convention met, for the express purpose of framing such a government, confessing the goodness of the great Governor of the universe (who alone knows to what degree of earthly happiness mankind may attain, by perfecting the arts of government) in permitting the people of this State, by common consent, and without violence, deliberately to form for themselves such just rules as they shall think best, for governing their future society, and being fully convinced, that it is our indispensable duty to establish such original principles of government, as will best promote the general happiness of the people of this State, and their posterity, and provide for future improvements, without partiality for, or prejudice against any particular class, sect, or denomination of men whatever, do, by virtue of the authority vested in use by our constituents, ordain, declare, and establish, the following Declaration of Rights and Frame of Government, to be the CONSTITUTION of this commonwealth, and to remain in force therein for ever, unaltered, except in such articles as shall hereafter on experience be found to require improvement, and which shall by the same authority of the people, fairly delegated as this frame of government directs, be amended or improved for the more effectual obtaining and securing the great end and design of all government, herein before mentioned.

If you have been following along with this series, you should not be surprised by this reference to “the great Governor of the universe.”  This is similar to the claim in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable Rights or the similar reference to “Nature’s God.”  These are traditional eighteenth-century references to a providential God who rules over the earth and the universe and presides over human governments.  I don’t think we should read anything more into this statement.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 begins with a “Declaration of Rights.”  Article 1 states “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”  Unlike the Declaration of Independence, which was written a couple of months earlier and affirmed in the same building–the Pennsylvania State House–the Pennsylvania Constitution does not state that the rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness come from a “Creator.”  (But perhaps the framers believed that this was already covered in the preamble).

Article 2 of the Declaration of Rights focuses specifically on religion:

That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

This is pretty boilerplate stuff for Pennsylvania.  Religious freedom is afforded to everyone who “acknowledges the being of a God.”  Of course it is worth noting that religious freedom is NOT afforded to people who do not believe in God.  Most likely the framers could not imagine a scenario in which someone who did not believe in God would have a need for religious freedom.

Compare this statement with the two previous (pre-American Revolution) Pennsylvania governments.

William Penn’s 1682 Frame of Government was loaded with religious language, but on the issue of religious freedom the proprietor wrote:

That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.

This statement says a bit more about God than the 1776 Constitution. Religious freedom is afforded to those who believe in a providential creator-God.

The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, which served as the source of government from 1701 and 1776, states:

BECAUSE no People can be truly happy, though under the greatest Enjoyment of Civil Liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of their Consciences, as to their Religious Profession and Worship: And Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits; and the Author as well as Object of all divine Knowledge, Faith and Worship, who only doth enlighten the Minds, and persuade and convince the Understandings of People, I do hereby grant and declare, That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

In this statement Penn says a little bit more about God, but the religious freedom protection is basically the same as the 1682 Frame of Government and the 1776 Constitution.  Religious freedom is afforded to those “who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World….”

In our next installment we will discuss the Pennsylvania Constitution’s religious “test oath.”  Stay tuned.

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 5

Muhl 2

Henry Melchior Muehlenberg

For earlier installments in this series click here.

In the last installment we discussed a request made to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention from Philadelphia Presbyterian ministers George Duffield and William Marshall asking the members to exempt clergy from the “burthen of civil offices.”

On the same day, September 25, 1776, the convention received another letter from two clergymen.  The minutes read:

A letter from the Rev. Messrs. Muhlenberg and Weynberg, praying for an addition to the 47th article of the proposed frame of government, confirming the incorporations for promoting religious and charitable purposes, was read, and ordered to lie on the table.

The authors of this letter were Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the most prominent Lutheran minister in colonial America, and Caspar Diederus Weyberg, the pastor of the German Reformed Church on 4th and Race St. in Philadelphia.

The “47th article of the proposed frame of government” is a reference to what became, in the final draft of the Constitution, the 45th article.  (A draft of the Constitution was published in the press for the consideration of the people. Muhlenberg read it some time before September 16, 1776).

The 45th article in the draft version of the Constitution that was published for the consideration of the people of Pennsylvania read “Laws for the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution.”

Historian J. Paul Selsam, author of The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democracy (1936) picks up the story from here and adds additional context. (I have added a few parenthetical notes):

The Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, senior minister of the united German Lutheran Congregations in Pennsylvania, from whose [October 2, 1776] letter the following account is taken, stated that on Monday, September 16, “The Provost of the College [William Smith, Provost of the College of Philadelphia] came to him unexpectedly “and said that the condition of the Christian religion seemed in danger after independence had been declared and a new form of government was in process of formation; that no care at all had been taken to acquire even the outer ramparts…”  The Provost showed Rev. Muhlenberg a paragraph which he thought should be added to the forty-seventh section.  The latter was pleased with the paragraph but believed they could do little about it.  “What can despised preachers effect with a Rump Parliament?” he wrote.  An informal gathering of a few of the leading ministers was held to discuss the question, and Muhlenberg remarked at the meeting that “it now seems as if a Christian people were ruled by Jews, Turks, Spinozists, Deists, perverted naturalists.”  The ministers “were learned pillars,” he said, “and would have much to answer for if they were now silent.”  The Reverend Dr. Alison [Presbyterian Francis Alison, Vice-Provost of the College of Philadelphia] did not feel alarmed, saying that “it was of no consequence and it would be sufficient if the officials would only give testimony to the Supreme Being as creator and preserver of all things.”  This statement evoked some discussion, but the meeting accomplished nothing.

This group decided to meet again and to invite more protestant preachers.  At a meeting the following day the Provost and Vice-Provost of the College [Smith and Alison] and five ministers decided to request the Convention to annex to the forty-seventh section the paragraph which they had drawn up.  One of their number was appointed to go to Dr. Franklin, and President of the Convention, “to ask permission to wait upon him.”  Franklin “condescendingly sent word,” says Muhlenberg, “that he would come to us.”  he met with them and after being shown the said paragraph, promised to present it to the Convention.  Rev. Muhlenberg discussed the matter with the Lutheran Church Council that afternoon.  He was supported unanimously, so a petition to the Convention was drawn up and signed by the Rev.  Weyberg on behalf of the Reformed.  It was presented to the Convention on September 25, and after being read was ordered to lie on the table. The petition  asked the Honorable Convention to annex or add unto the 47th Section of the proposed Plan the following Words viz: ‘and all religious Societies and Bodies of Men heretofore united and incorporated for the Advancement of Virtue and Learning and for other pious and charitable Purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the Enjoyment of the Privileges, Immunities and Estates, which they were accustomed to enjoy and might or could of Right have enjoyed under the Laws and former Constitution of this State.”  It closed by stating, “A Serious Attention to, and condescending compliance with our our humbler Petition will rendre great Satisfaction, Security and Ease to all regular Christian societies and Denominations in this State and especially to your humble Petitioners…”

The paragraph the ministers suggested was adopted, for section 45 of the final draft (corresponding to the forty-seventh section of the one which appeared in the press) contained their suggestion with only a few minor changes.  The substitution of “religion” for “virtue” was the most important.

Here is the exact text of Section 45:

Laws for the encouragement of virtue, and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution: And all religious societies or bodies of men heretofore united or incorporated for the advancement of religion or learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities and estates which they were accustomed to enjoy, or could of right have enjoyed, under the laws and former constitution of this state.

So what is going on here?

First, it is clear that Muhlenberg, Weyberg, and the Philadelphia clergy who they represented, wanted to make sure that the 1776 Constitution said something about the importance of religion to a healthy republican government.  It also appears, from Muhlenberg’s notes, that some of these clergymen (Alison excepted) wanted a more overtly Christian statement about the relationship between religion and the new Pennsylvania government in order to prevent it from being run by Jews, Muslims (“Turks”), and other unbelievers.

We don’t know if they were happy with the finished product.  Section 45 of the final draft mentions the promotion of “virtue, and the prevention of vice and immorality” as well as the place of “religious societies” in the “advancement of religion or learning, or other pious and charitable purposes.”  Perhaps these clergy understood “virtue” to mean Christian virtue.  And perhaps they concluded that “religious societies” meant Christian religious societies.  I don’t know.  Whatever the case, as we will see in future posts in this series, they did get an overtly Christian test oath for officeholders.

Second, Section 45 seems to affirm the same religious liberties guaranteed to the people of Pennsylvania in the second section of the Constitution’s “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania.”  More on that later.

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 4

Duffield

Rev. George Duffield

For earlier installments in this series click here.

On September 25, 1776, after the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention crafted a bill of rights and were nearly completed with a frame of government, it received this letter from two Philadelphia Presbyterian ministers:

A letter from the Rev. Messrs. Duffield and Marshall, praying that the clergy of this state may be exempted from the burthen of civil offices, and setting forth their reasons for such an exemption, was read, and ordered to lie on the table for consideration.

I am assuming the first person listed as George Duffield, the pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church (Pine Street) in Philadelphia.  He would later serve alongside Anglican/Episcopalian William White as a chaplain to the Continental Congress. (William Duffield represented Cumberland County at the convention, but he was not a clergyman).  The reference to “Marshall” is probably William Marshall, Duffield’s associate pastor at Pine Street.

I wish I knew the “reasons” why Duffield and Marshall asked for an exemption.  The best I can do is speculate in light of other state constitutions that forbade clergy from holding public office.  I wrote about some of these constitutions here and here.

It is interesting to note that Duffield and Marshall saw participation in “civil offices” as a “burthen” (burden) to their calling as ministers of the Gospel.  In other words, political activity got in the way of their religious duties to the church and they did not want this to happen.  Apparently the members of the convention disagreed or at least didn’t think such an amendment was important.

In the end, the proposal was never considered again and the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 did not forbid clergy from civil officers.

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 3

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Bishop William White House, Philadelphia

For earlier installments in this series click here.

In our last installment we discussed the religious oath that needed to be affirmed by the members of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention.

In this post I want to call your attention to the religious practices of the convention itself.

On Wednesday, July 17, 1776, the records of the convention note:

Resolved, That the Rev. Mr. William White, be requested to perform divine service tomorrow before this convention, that we may jointly offer up our prayers to Almighty God, to afford us his divine grace and assistance in the important and arduous task committed to us, and to offer up our praises and thanksgivings for the manifold mercies and the peculiar interposition of his special providence, in behalf of these injured, oppressed, and insulted United States.  Col. Matlack and Mr. Clymer are appointed to wait on the Rev. Mr. White, and furnish him with a copy of the foregoing resolve.

On Thursday, July 17, 1776, the records of the convention note: “The Rev. Mr. White attending, agreeably to the request of yesterday, and having performed divine service, and being withdrawn, it was Ordered, on motion, that Mr. Matlack and Mr. Clymer wait upon that gentleman, with the thanks of the convention for his services.”

The reference here is to Rev. William White.  He was the twenty-eight-year old assistant minister of Philadelphia’s Christ Church.  White was an Anglican who supported the American Revolution.  He would later serve as Chaplain of the Continental Congress and the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

These were the only two times that White’s name is mentioned in the records of the convention.  It was obviously important to the members of the convention that the proceedings be opened with prayer and a “divine service.”

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series: Part 2

pa-consRead the Part 1 here.

The Pennsylvania Constitution Convention of 1776 met from July 15, 1776 to September 28, 1776. Benjamin Franklin was chosen as President of the convention on the second day (July 16, 1776).

Members of the convention were required to take an “oath or affirmation” as a qualification for participating.  This was the same profession of faith required of those sitting in the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference in Philadelphia, the conference serving as the revolutionary government of Pennsylvania.

The oath/affirmation read:

I do declare, that I do not hold myself bound to bear allegiance to George the third, king of Great Britain, & c. and that I will steadily and firmly, at all times, promote the most effectual means, according to the best of my skill and knowledge, to oppose the tyrannical proceedings of the king and parliament of Great Britain, against the American Colonies; and to establish and support a government in this province, on the authority of the people only & c.  That I will oppose any measure that shall or may, in the least, interfere with or obstruct the religious principles or practices of any of the good people of this province, as heretofore enjoyed.

Also, Resolved, That no person elected to serve as a member of convention, shall take his seat or give his vote, until he shall have made and subscribed the following declaration.

I do profess faith in God, the father, and in Jesus Christ, his eternal son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God blessed for evermore; and do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the old and new testament, to be given by divine inspiration.

In order to participate in the writing of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 one had to  uphold a belief in the Trinity and the divine inspiration of the Bible.  70 members of the convention took this oath/made this affirmation, including Ben Franklin.

As I wrote in the first post in this series, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 set up the most democratic government in America.  Yet participation in the construction of this constitution was limited to Christians.

 

Was George Washington a Christian?

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This comes from the archives.  I wrote it back in 2011 when I was doing a weekly column at Patheos.  Here is a taste:

On Monday we will once again celebrate George Washington’s birthday. (He was actually born on February 22, 1732.) Over the course of the last year I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Washington for my book on Christianity and the founding of the American republic. In a chapter entitled “Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?” I explore his religious beliefs and wonder whether or not we can truly call him a Christian. Washington’s faith is not easy to pin down.

I am not the only one who has wondered whether or not Washington was a Christian. His contemporaries also wondered. Reverend Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and one of the leaders of the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening, felt confident that Washington was a Christian, but he was also aware that “doubt may and will exist” about the substance of his faith.

Today, Washington’s faith has become a minor battlefield in America’s ongoing culture wars. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister and the coauthor of the best-selling Left Behind novels, has called Washington “a devout believer in Jesus Christ” who, in good evangelical fashion, “had accepted Him as His Lord and Savior.” Peter Lillback, the current president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has written over 1,100 pages in an attempt to prove that Washington was “an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ . . .” In contrast, Joseph Ellis, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing about the American founders, has described Washington as a “lukewarm Episcopalian.” Writer Brooke Allen recently concluded that “there are very real doubts as to whether Washington was a Christian or even whether he was a believer at all.”

Who is right? Or, more importantly, what is at stake in deciding who is right? In recent years Washington’s faith has become heavily politicized. It is often used to promote a particular political platform in the present. The argument goes something like this: “If George Washington was a Christian, then America must be too” or “If Washington was not a Christian, then he must have desired the United States to be a secular nation.”

Most historians agree that Washington was quiet about his faith. Unlike John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin, he did not leave behind definitive statements about what he believed. Neither was he particularly curious about theology or other religious matters. His religious reading was confined largely to sermons purchased by his devout wife, Martha.

We do know that Washington was a firm believer in what he called “Providence.” He used this term 270 times in his writings, usually employing it as a synonym for the Judeo-Christian God. This was an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God who created and ordered the universe, but whose purposes remained mysterious. Washington’s God was active in the lives of human beings. He could perform miracles, answer prayer, and intervene in history to carry out his will. Yet Washington never tried to predict what God was doing in history. Instead, he acted in history—often with great valor and determination—and let God’s purpose be done.

Washington was christened into the Anglican Church. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was known in Virginia plantation circles for her piety. George’s religious upbringing included regular reading of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. He attended Anglican (later Episcopal) churches most of his life and even served his Virginia parish in leadership roles.

Read the entire piece here.  Happy Birthday, George!

Thomas Jefferson Remembers the Debate Surrounding His Statute of Religious Freedom

va-statuteHere is what Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1821 “Autobiography” about the passing of his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786). Note the part at the end about the rejection of a proposal to mention “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion” in order to accommodate Jews, Muslims, Hindus and “infidels.”

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan (Muslims), the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

The Author’s Corner with Daniel L. Dreisbach

reading-the-bible-with-the-founding-fathersDaniel L. Dreisbach is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.  This interview is based on his new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?

DD: I am a student of the role of religion in the American founding.  In my reading of primary sources, I have encountered numerous quotations from and allusions to the Bible, including references to biblical texts that I did not expect to see in this literature.  This prompted my interest in the place of the Bible in the political discourse of the age. 

Although scholars have noted in passing that the founding generation was well acquainted with the Bible and frequently referenced it in their private expressions, few have examined closely the Bible’s influence on the political culture of the age, giving attention to specific biblical texts and themes that appealed to the founders and may have informed their political pursuits.  Indeed, some historians contend that the era, sandwiched between two great spiritual awakenings, was an enlightened age when rationalism was in the ascendancy and the Bible was, if not rejected outright, relegated to the sidelines.  Because so little scholarly attention has been focused on the Bible in the founding era, at least compared to the extensive scholarship on Enlightenment and republican influences, I thought this topic merited further inquiry.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?

DD: 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.

JF: Why do we need to read Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?

DD: If I am correct that the Bible was an important, yet often ignored, source that informed the political thought and discourse of the founders, then this book will enrich our understanding of the founding.  The Bible was the most frequently cited literary work in the political literature of the founding era.  Simply counting the number of biblical citations in the founders’ rhetoric, however, tells us little about the Bible’s contributions to the founding.  I hope this book advances the conversation beyond the observation that the founders frequently quoted the Bible and engages deeper questions about how the Bible was used in political discourse and how it may have influenced the founding project.     

Among the questions that excite my curiosity are these:  which biblical texts appealed to the founding generation, how did they use the Bible, and why did they think these texts were so pertinent, so vital to their own time and place?  I emphasize in the book that a study of the founding generation’s uses of the Bible must be attentive to why and how the Bible was used and not merely to the fact that the Bible was read and referenced.  Drawing on some of the most familiar rhetoric of the era, I examine the founders’ diverse uses of the Bible, ranging from the essentially literary to the profoundly theological.  Recognition of these distinct uses is important insofar as it is misleading to read spiritual meaning into primarily literary, political, or rhetorical uses of the Bible or vice versa.

Another question worth exploring, I believe, is did the Bible inform the founding generation’s political thought and influence their political and legal projects?  I see evidence that the founders looked to Scripture for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority and other concepts essential to the establishment of a political society.  Many in the founding generation saw in the Bible political and legal models – such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law – that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities.  The political discourse of the founding, for one example, is replete with appeals to the Hebrew “republic” as a model for their own political experiment.  In an influential 1775 Massachusetts election sermon, Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College and later a delegate to New Hampshire’s constitutional ratifying convention, opined:  “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic. . . .  The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model …; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments.”  Most of what the founders knew about the Hebraic republic they learned from the Bible.  These Americans were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions apart from the Hebrew experience, and, indeed, they studied these traditions both ancient and modern.  The republican model found in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, reassured pious Americans that republicanism was a political system favored by God.

More generally, but no less significant to the founders’ political vision, many in the founding generation believed the Bible was an indispensable handbook for republican self-government.  In a republican government, the founders believed, the people must be sufficiently virtuous that their personal responsibility and discipline would facilitate the social order and stability necessary for a regime of self-government.  And the Bible was an ideal tool for developing civic virtue.  Believing that “without national morality a republican government cannot be maintained” and that “[t]he Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth,” John Adams described the Bible as “the most republican book in the world.”  In other words, the Bible nurtures the civic virtues that give citizens in a republic the capacity for self-government.  Such sentiments were commonplace in the political discourse of the founding. 

A study of the Bible in the political culture of the founding era gives us insights into one source of ideas that shaped the founders’ political thoughts and the political and legal systems they sought to establish.  These insights, I hope, will enhance our understanding of ourselves as a people, our history, and the American experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DD: My parents loved history and reading about history, and they passed on that love to me, exposing me to great works of history and biography.  In graduate school and law school I was drawn to political and constitutional history.  Specializing in church-state law encouraged me to develop this interest because, as Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge observed in 1947, “No provision of the Constitution is more closely tied to or given content by its generating history than the religious clause of the First Amendment.  It is at once the refined product and the terse summation of that history.”  My first book, Real Threat and Mere Shadow (1987), examined the Court’s use of history in church-state jurisprudence.  Much of my subsequent research has expanded on the questions and themes raised in that book, especially questions about the prudential and constitutional role for religion in American public life.

JF: What is your next project?

My frequent collaborator Mark David Hall and I have co-edited several books that examine religion’s influence (or lack thereof) on the political thought and actions of both famous and forgotten founders.  In that same vein, we are currently editing a collection of original essays that looks at religion’s influence on important American jurists from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!  This is great stuff.