Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Lehrman Institute's Essay on Founding Fathers & Religion

I can't remember whether I linked to this before. It sums up much of what we've reproduced at American Creation over the years. A taste:

The Founders' Private Religion 
When in 1820 he was 85, John Adams wrote: "My opinions...on religious subjects ought not to be of any consequence to any but myself."211 Religious reticence was a Founding trait. John Jay enjoyed the practice of religion but not the discussion of it. Jay Biographer Frank Monaghan wrote that "Jay conveniently made it a rule never to discuss his religious beliefs with a person with whom he was not in substantial agreement. One evening at Dr. Franklin's [outside Paris] he was engaged in a long conversation with a learned visitor, who suddenly turned the conversation to religion and laughed at the idea of the divinity of Jesus. Jay glared but said nothing, arose, turned on his heel and walked away. At another time a physician attending Jay began to scoff at the belief in a resurrection. Jay at once stopped him: "Sir, I pay you for your medical knowledge, and not for your distorted views of the Christian religion!"212   
The Founders differed in their attitudes toward religion, but generally they kept their own religious beliefs rather private. The nation's fifth president, James Monroe, was a nominal Episcopalian – attending St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House as President as occasionally did his predecessor, James Madison. The written record about what Monroe believed, however, is virtually nonexistent. Religious scholar John McCollister wrote: "The religious conviction of President James Monroe is best classified as 'decision by indecision....No records offer any evidence that Mr. Monroe rejected the Anglican faith; at the same time, we have no record that he endorsed it, either."213 
Even if their personal faith wavered, the religious practice of prominent Founders did not. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was devoted to attendance at Episcopal services. Historian Alf J. Mapp, Jr., wrote: "Many writers have assumed that his faithfulness was influenced not so much by personal conviction as by a desire to encourage the attendance of those whose conduct would otherwise deteriorate. Still other writers have suggested that he attended church in deference to his wife, Mary, the 'Dearest Polly' of his intimate correspondence."7 Biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote: "John Marshall never rejected the church openly, but his acceptance was environmental rather than doctrinal. Throughout his life the chief justice declined to become a member of any congregation, unable to believe in the divinity of Christ."214

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Joshua Brookes' Report on Jefferson on Washington

Numerous times I've reproduced the quotation from Thomas Jefferson where he notes that both George Washington and G. Morris were not believers in presumably some orthodox version of the Christian faith.

I've never (from what I remember) reproduced this from one Joshua Brookes. It's not from Jefferson's hand, but rather an eyewitness account from a personal meeting between Jefferson and Brookes. Below are the remarks that Brookes recorded Jefferson saying:
George Washington is a hard master, very severe, a hard husband, a hard father, a hard governor. From his childhood he always ruled and ruled severely. He was first brought up to govern slaves, he then governed an army, then a nation. He thinks hard of all, is despotic in every respect, he mistrusts every man, thinks every man a rogue and nothing but severity will do. He has no idea of people being left to themselves to act; he thinks that they cannot think and that they ought only to obey. As I lived near him and saw him every day, I thought I knew what was in his mind at that time, but afterwards I found that ideas were there that I had no conception of. If he had died when Congress met in New York, he would have been the greatest man that ever lived, but he is now losing his reputation daily. He is not the man he was, else he would not allow himself to be led as he does, or give his sanction to things he does sanction. He has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances but is an unbeliever.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Frazer Updates

Gregg Frazer sent me the following note, that serves as an update:

I was revisiting some things and realized that I never answered your criticism that I did not include Richard Price in my first book

My standards for who to include in the influences section were: a) for influences on political leaders, I only included those named by the political leaders themselves as their influences; b) for influences on the preachers, I only included Americans – those living in America.

Price was a Welshman/Englishman and was not identified by any of my eight guys as an influence on them.  I do not deny that he was influential, but I kept it to those named by the key Founders.

As with the definition of Christianity that I used [using the definition that the 18th-century American churches used], I didn’t want critics to question whether the people I identified actually influenced the respective political leaders.  You can’t argue with it when they themselves say they were influenced by them.

Incidentally, I have another book at the publisher that is due out in October.  It is a study of the political thought of the Loyalist clergy – i.e. the arguments against the Revolution made by the American clergymen who stayed loyal to Great Britain.  They covered all areas/fields of argument against the Revolution: biblical, legal, theoretical, practical, rational.
I look forward to the book and hope that it is as impactful as his first. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Waligore on Washington, Providence & Prayer II

Below is the second part by Joseph Waligore.

George Washington and prayers

There is no doubt that Washington frequently prayed as many visitors to his house reported seeing him in prayer, often early in the morning. In his book on George Washington’s religious beliefs, Peter Lillback argues that Washington’s frequent prayers meant that he had to be a Christian. Lillback states that Washington’s praying shows that he could not have been a deist because the deists abandoned “the practice of prayer. This was logical since there was little purpose in speaking to a Deity who on principle had abandoned all contact and communication with his creation.” Lillback then concludes that “Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism.”

If it were true that the deists had abandoned prayer, then Washington’s frequent prayers would prove he was not a deist. But the English deists believed in a deity who watched over his creation and the vast majority of them believed in miracles, revelations, and other forms of divine intervention in the world. They thus believed in a deity who was in constant contact with the world and for this reason a large number of English deists believed in prayer. Earlier chapters highlighted how Herbert of Cherbury, James Pitt, Thomas Amory, David Williams, Thomas Morgan, and Thomas Chubb all emphasized the importance of prayer, and the table on page thirty-nine shows that many other English deists emphasized prayer. But because it is so widely believed that the deists had a distant God and so eschewed prayer, I will give two more examples of the kind of attention the English deists focused on the importance of praying. One example is from an anonymous writer, and the other example is from Peter Annet.

In 1765, an anonymous writer who called himself “Rational Christian” published a book in which he wrote God was so good and loved every person so much that “The love of God is the most natural and rational passion that can take place in the mind of man . . . [a] man must be insensible to all the feelings of virtuous humanity, who can be so ungrateful as not to love his father, his friend, and benefactor.” He claimed that people who acknowledge their “dependence on a superior being, who are conscious that this being is able and ready to assist them, will naturally pray to him.” Prayer also drew us closer to God because it made us more humble, charitable, and forgiving, and thus “fitter objects of the favour of God, . . . [who] never withdraws himself from his creatures.”9

Rational Christian believed that because God was so good, it was our duty to publicly pray to him and worship him; this set a good example for others and made piety more widespread. Nevertheless, he valued private prayer and worship even more as then a person was collected within himself and his devotions purer. During his private prayers, he particularly felt God’s presence, asserting, “At such time, methinks I see the omniscient eye penetrating my very soul.” Even more than setting aside certain arranged times for public or private prayer, he emphasized spontaneous prayer to God, which he called “internal heart-worship.” He thought this worship could happen at any moment when we are particularly struck by God’s wisdom or goodness. During such times, there “is an immediate call upon us, to express our love and reverence. Adoration of his power, and gratitude for his goodness, are, as it were, spontaneously wafted up to heaven, from a good and pious heart.”10

Peter Annet was one of the few English deists who denied both miracles and revelation, but he considered prayer one of the main components of true religion. In recommending prayer, he was not referring to petitionary prayer, that is prayer which asked God for things, but instead prayer which helped a person develop a closer relationship with God. This kind of prayer, Annet believed, helped people to subdue their passions and submit to God’s will. He said of prayer, “It keeps up a Dependence on Deity in the Minds of the People, and so may be a Means to help to subdue the Mind to Virtue, and Submission to God’s Will.” Annet believed that prayers, if done fervently and sincerely, brought people closer to God. He compared a person praying to sailors tossing an anchor to a rock: the sailors “pull as if they would hale the Rock to them, but they hale themselves to the Rock.”11 Annet believed as a person prayed and became closer to God, a person was transformed; he declared that intimacy with God helps a person because it “clears his Apprehensions, and informs his Judgment, producing Satisfaction and Serenity, Joy and Tranquility.” Annet advised his readers to become closer to God through prayer, so “that the Divine Fragrancy may flow over [into them]. So thou Reader shalt be filled with God, and the Rays of the Divinity will enoble thy Thoughts, adorn thy Speech and direct thy Ways.”12

The view of prayer shared by Peter Annet and Rational Christian was shared by a large number of English deists, and so Lillback is mistaken to say Washington was not a deist because he prayed. Another contemporary scholar, Michael Novak, makes a different point about how Washington’s prayers meant that he was not a deist. Novak states that Washington prayed for specific things that the deist God never performed; rather, Washington prayed for God to do actions that only the Christian God performed. Novak claims that the actions Washington prayed for were “the sorts of actions only the God of the Bible performs: interposing his actions in human events, forgiving sins, enlightening minds, bringing good harvests, intervening on behalf of one party in a struggle between good and evil.” Because he claims that Washington could not have been praying to the deist God, Novak concludes, “Washington cannot be called a Deist—at least, not in a sense that excludes his being Christian.”13
 Some English deists did pray for God to interpose in human events. In the introduction to this book, it was shown that Herbert of Cherbury believed God gave him a divine sign after he prayed about whether he should publish the first deist book by an Englishman. Thomas Chubb also thought God sometimes gave us the things we asked for in prayer,14 while Thomas Amory believed God helped a person be more charitable and loving if she prayed for those qualities.15 Nevertheless, Novak is right that the English deists did not pray for God to help their side in their struggle for liberty or for better harvests. But that is probably because in the eighteenth century the English people did not need these things. If we look at the French revolutionary deists, however, a different picture appears. In the 1790s, the French desperately needed better harvests and help in their struggle for liberty, so they often prayed for God to give them these things. For example, Silvain-Phalier Lejeune, who had been elected to the National Convention and was the official agent of the revolutionary French government in eastern France, recited a public prayer which had been previously approved by the local revolutionary committee. In this prayer, he asked God to do the very things Novak claimed the deist God never did. Lejeune started his prayer by saying, “God of all bounties … take this generous and brave nation under your divine protection, we who only fight for equality.” Then he went through a long list of things he asked God to bless, including the French armies and their fields. Lejeune prayed, “Bless, O my God, . . . our armies, fill our legislators with your light and . . . make the work of our farmers prosper, they who nourish our many battalions.”16 At the same time, an unknown deist named Jacques Piron wrote a prayer he was hoping the government would use in their festivals to honor God. Piron’s prayer went, “Supreme Being . . . bless our work and make our fields flourish . . . we supplicate you to pardon our sins . . . we invoke you for our country, bless us with your benefits, Give the light of wisdom to our legislators, aid the courage of our warriors.”17

Washington’s prayers do not show that he could not have been a deist. The English deists often prayed very reverentially to God. Furthermore, the French deists prayed for God to bring good crops and help them in their struggle for liberty. These were not things that only the Christians thought their God did; many deists thought their God did these things too.

Just as his belief in Providence and prayers not show Washington was a Christian, neither does the fact that he often attended Christian worship or read the Bible.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Waligore on Washington, Providence & Prayer

And how it relates to Deism.

Joseph Waligore sent over another excerpt from his forthcoming book on Deism that relates to George Washington's belief in a Providential God. I am going to publish it in two posts. The first is below.
On the morning of March 5, 1776, George Washington was with the troops of the American army in Boston, encouraging them to fight bravely if the British attacked. So far in their war for independence, the Americans had yet to win a significant victory. Things were looking bleak, and it was a major defeat for the Americans that the British troops were in control of Boston, the center of resistance to British rule and one of the most important cities in America. However, the previous night the Americans had managed to secretly drag cannons up Dorchester Heights, a bluff of land that was within cannon range of the British troops. The British either had to dislodge the Americans from Dorchester Heights or evacuate Boston. Otherwise, the Americans would just rain cannonballs on the British troops. Furthermore, the British attack had to happen immediately since the longer the Americans were on the hill, the better they could fortify their position and resist any assault. The British general ordered the troops to immediately attack, but a wind and snow storm arose, which was so violent, the British troops were unable to move. By the time the storm was over, the Americans had so fortified their position, the British called off their assault and chose to evacuate Boston instead. George Washington claimed it was God who had caused the storm and helped the Americans win their first major victory of the war. He claimed that the storm that prevented the British attack “must be ascribed to the interposition of that Providence, which has manifestly appeared in our behalf through the whole of this important struggle.” He then said, “May that Being, who is powerful to save, and in whose hands is the fate of nations, look down with an eye of tender pity and compassion upon the whole of the United Colonies; may he continue to smile upon their counsels and arms, and crown them with success, whilst employed in the cause of virtue and mankind.”1

Unlike the religious beliefs of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, Washington wrote extremely little about his religious beliefs. Those who think he should be considered a Christian, often focus on two major pieces of evidence. One, he believed God miraculously helped the Americans during their war for independence. Two, he often prayed, and particularly he often prayed for God’s help in worldly events. When it is assumed deists had a distant and withdrawn God who never intervened in the world, then these two points are good evidence that Washington was not a deist, or not exclusively a deist. However, when one gets a better historical understanding of deism, these two points tell us nothing at all about whether Washington was a Christian or a deist.

Providence and the deists of the French Revolution

As shown by Washington’s statement that the Boston storm was an act of God, he believed God intervened to help the Americans win the Revolutionary War. Because many scholars define a deist as a person who believed in a distant, inactive deity, the scholars then assert that Washington could not have been a deist. For example, Vincent Phillip Munoz declared that “Washington’s belief in divine providence means, by definition, that he could not be labeled a deist.”2 A number of scholars go even further and claim that when Washington was mentioning the interposition of Providence, he must have been referring to the Christian God because only the Christian God helps people in a providential way. So Kristo Miettinen declared, "’Providence’ is not some squishy generic God-term. . . . Deists, to the extent that they invoked God as Providence, were making an explicitly Christian theological claim.”3

While the English deists believed in an active God who cared about people, they did not mention God helping countries fighting for their liberty. This, however, was most likely due to historical circumstances: the English deists were writing at a time when England was generally secure from foreign invasion, and none of them were worried about their freedom. Thus we should not make any claims about the deist God being unconcerned with helping countries based on the English deists. We should instead look at the large number of French deists who were fighting both internal oppressors and foreign invaders during the French Revolution. These French deists continually claimed God miraculously helped their revolution survive, and unlike the American deists, almost all of these French deists despised Christianity, equating it with pure superstition. Thus anything the French deists claimed about God, they were referring purely to the deist God.

I have been arguing throughout this book that the deist God was more completely good and fair than the Christian deity. It is not clear that there is any necessary link between a good deity and one who helps nations become free. Nevertheless, if a good deity is one that helps downtrodden countries fight for their liberty, the deists believed in that kind of deity also.

In 1789, the French Revolution began when the Bastille prison was stormed and its prisoners were released. As the Revolution progressed, one of the most important questions was whether the king, Louis XVI, should be deposed, or whether the country should try to forge a constitutional monarchy like England. This question was especially troubling as the other European monarchs, led by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, threatened to invade France if they mistreated the king or the royal family. The other monarchs saw the mistreatment of the French king as a matter of concern to all the monarchs. The French soon imprisoned the king and his queen, Marie Antoinette. This caused the monarchs of Europe to unite, and the French were soon at war with Prussia, Spain, Naples, Netherlands, Portugal, Britain, and the Holy Roman Empire. The situation for the French Revolution was dire at first as many people inside France, especially the Catholics, were against the Revolution, and the French army was so disheartened that in one of the early battles, the French soldiers all fled.

Many of the prominent leaders of the French Revolution, including Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins, Maximilien Robespierre, and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, were deists. Considering the rest of Europe was attacking France, and the French themselves were divided over the Revolution, the French situation in the early 1790s was similar to the American situation at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Just as Washington thought God helped the Americans in their fight for liberty, so too did the French deists think God’s Providence helped the French in their struggle for liberty.

The best-known example of a French deist claiming God providentially helped the French Revolution came from Maximilien Robespierre, the most prominent of the radical revolutionary leaders. Robespierre claimed God had purposively killed the leader of the countries that were attacking France, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Despite being a healthy man in his forties, Leopold suddenly and mysteriously died at the beginning of March in 1792. His death was a great blow to the anti-French forces, and Robespierre claimed God killed Leopold in order to help the French defeat the foreign powers who were attacking France. A short while after Leopold’s death, Robespierre spoke to the Jacobin club, the most radical faction of revolutionary leaders. Robespierre declared that France had been menaced by foreign armies organized by Leopold II, as well as civil war, and traitors in the army. At this time of deep trouble, he claimed that “Providence, which always watches over us much better than our own wisdom, by striking Leopold dead, disrupted for some time our enemy’s projects.” Then another revolutionary leader, Marguerite-Élie Guadet, interrupted Robespierre. Gaudet said that “I do not see any sense in this idea” of providence. He claimed that the French did not fight “for three years to rid ourselves of the slavery of despotism, to afterwards put ourselves under the slavery of superstition.” After Gaudet spoke, a commotion broke out in the hall, with some people murmuring and some applauding. Robespierre could have replied that he was just speaking rhetorically, and he did not really believe in Providence. Instead, he repeated his claim saying that “the eternal Being influences essentially the destiny of all nations, and he appears to me to watch in a particularly singular manner over the French Revolution.” Finally, he declared that the belief in God’s providential care “is a heartfelt belief, it is a feeling with which I cannot dispense.”4

Robespierre was far from the only French deist who thought Providence had a part in the death of Leopold II of Austria. Another prominent leader of the radical revolutionary faction, Georges Auguste Couthon, agreed. Couthon said of Leopold’s death that “Providence, who always has greatly served the revolution, has killed Leopold, one of our most cruel enemies.” Couthon often talked about Providence helping the French Revolution, but the event that Couthon thought most showed God’s miraculous Providence was the attempted assassination in May of 1794 of the revolutionary leaders Robespierre and Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois. Couthon wrote that the assassination failed even though the assassin had planned it well, because “in truth there was a miracle.” Couthon then went on to describe the event in detail. First, the assassin presented himself at Robespierre’s home, “but Heaven wished that he not be admitted.” Then the assassin went to the door Robespierre always entered and left his home. Couthon claimed, in a passage he did not explain, that “Robespierre’s custodian spirit (génie conservateur) made him take a different route that day.” When he could not kill Robespierre, the assassin went to Collot’s home. This time the assassin was able to find Collot and get very close to him. The assassin tried to shoot Collot once, but the pistol did not go off. The assassin fired a second time and, even though he was standing right next to Collot, the assassin missed him. Couthon finished by writing, “I wish to say again that it is by a miracle that Robespierre and Collot escaped. When one is guarded by Providence and the virtue of the people, one is well-guarded . . . it is the supreme Being who guards us.”5 It was not just Couthon who thought God was personally protecting Robespierre. Another French revolutionary leader, Louis Legendre, asserted that the assassin tried to kill Robespierre, “but the God of nature did not suffer that the crime was successful.”6

Robespierre, Couthon, and Legendre were major political leaders during the Revolution, and one can always wonder about the sincerity of political leaders talking of God helping their cause. But a large number of French deists who were not political leaders made the same claim about God helping the Revolution. For example, Jean-Baptiste Febvé was an obscure official in the criminal bureau of the department of Meurthe. In 1794, in the city of Nancy, Febve gave a long speech honoring God for all the help God had recently given the French. He declared, that the only way to explain all the miracles of the French Revolution was “the power of divine Providence. . . . The projects of the enemies of liberty were always confounded, their criminal maneuvers discovered, their plots always destroyed. . . . The most formidable powers of Europe were allied against France, and France was victorious… doesn’t this show well enough the existence of a Supreme Being who protects the French nation?” Another example is a speech in 1797 given by Louis Dubroca, a former Catholic priest who had become a prominent deist leader. In this speech, which was read to many deists gathered throughout France to worship God, Dubroca proclaimed that it was all due to God’s help that France had won the war. He declared,
Oh God . . .we love to proclaim that it was you who guided in combat the invincible battalions of our troops, who roused the heroic fighters, and who aided their generous devotion by victory. They fought for their fatherland, for their liberty, how could you, God powerful and good, not sustain a cause so beautiful? … when you have crowned a peace which fulfills our wishes, who is able to doubt your Providence did not itself preside over the new destiny of France, that the republic is not your work?7
Dubroca proclaimed that no one could doubt that God guided the French troops in battle and presided over the establishment of the French Republic.
Deists are commonly seen as so emphasizing natural laws, that they believed that God never broke these natural laws. I have argued throughout this book that the English and American deists did not fit this stereotype, and they believed in miracles and other forms of divine intervention. The French Revolutionary deists were so far from fitting this stereotype that they saw God and nature as their allies helping them defeat their enemies. For example, when bad weather shipwrecked some English warships on the French coast, Georges Auguste Couthon wrote, “it is evidently Providence which produces these miracles.” In her book on the way nature was pictured in the French Revolution, Mary Ashburn Miller claims it was common for the French revolutionaries to see nature itself as a “revolutionary and providential force. Nature became a space of particular providence, not just a regulating system.”8

Deists living during the French Revolution in the 1790s, who were very anti-Christian, continually claimed God was providentially helping them by defeating the plans of their enemies. Thus there is no connection between believing in God’s providential help and being a Christian. So Washington’s belief that God miraculously intervened during the American Revolution gives no support to him being a Christian.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Frazer on Metaxas' Book on America as a "Republic"

When Eric Metaxas' book "If You Can Keep It" came out in 2016, I don't remember paying much attention to it. With Warren Throckmorton's post, the book is somewhat current again. Throckmorton's post links to among other things, Gregg Frazer's review of it. From Frazer:
Metaxas seems to make the common error of determining religious belief by denominational affiliation. He declares John Adams to have been “a committed and theologically orthodox Christian” (56). But Adams vehemently rejected the deity of Christ, the atonement, the Trinity, and eternal punishment in hell. Adams said that placing all religion “in grace, and its offspring, faith” is “anti-Christianity.” He believed the best source for “orthodox” theology was the Hindu Shastra, that philosophy was at least equivalent in authority to the Bible, and that pagans who became “virtuous” went to heaven. Adams outrageously said he wouldn’t believe in the Trinity even if God himself told him on Mt. Sinai that it was true.

Having decided that Plymouth was the first colony, Metaxas (like many on the Christian Right) proceeds as if the Pilgrims and Puritans founded America rather than simply Massachusetts (189). It’s worth mentioning that roughly 150 years passed between Plymouth and the founding of the United States. He proceeds as if John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” pronouncement was meant for—and applies to—all of America for all time and not simply to the colony the Puritans were establishing in pursuit of God’s will (234). It’s important to note that seven of the twelve other colonies were not founded for religious reasons. As for the success of Winthrop’s “city on a hill” vision, Metaxas claims the Puritans’ “distinctly biblical model carried on beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the United States of America (215).” In fact, before the 17th century ended, the descendants of the original Puritan settlers were heavily engaged in the slave trade and making rum. Similarly, because he approves of its guarantee of religious freedom, Metaxas claims that the charter of Rhode Island speaks for all of America (72). This is particularly ironic since the Rhode Island colony was founded by castoffs seeking the religious freedom denied them by the Puritans.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Waligore on the Kinds of Deism that Influenced Ben Franklin, Part III

By Dr. Joseph Waligore. See Below:

The Pythagorean influence on Franklin  
Franklin never wrote about his relationship to Dr. Lyons, but there is no doubt that Franklin was influenced by the Pythagoreans just like Dr. Lyons was. The only question is how deep the Pythagorean influence was.
About a year after he befriended Lyons, Franklin went back to Philadelphia. There he soon embarked on a project to systematically develop more virtuous habits in his life. In this endeavor, he daily examined himself concerning personal virtues he wished to develop. The thirteen virtues he focused on included temperance, frugality, moderation, and humility. He spent a day on each virtue, keeping a careful ledger of whether he had succeeded that day in practicing that particular virtue. There is no doubt that Franklin was influenced by the Pythagoreans in starting this project because he explicitly declared in his autobiography that he was encouraged to start this project by reading a celebrated Pythagorean text, The Golden Verses of Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans, along with other ancient philosophers they influenced, had long emphasized the importance of self-examination if a person wanted to become more focused on divine matters, and this tradition was emphasized in The Golden Verses. In his autobiography, right before discussing his daily efforts to examine himself about the virtues, Franklin asserted, “Conceiving then, that, agreeably to the advice of Pythagoras in his Golden Verses, daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.”11 In a manuscript note to his autobiography, Franklin even stated that the appropriate part of Golden Verses should be added to his autobiography, although this did not happen. In 1758, though, Franklin published a an essay “A Letter from Father Abraham to His Beloved Son.” In this essay he again stated that the idea of a “daily strict Self-Examination” was very ancient as it was “recommended by Pythagoras, in his truly Golden Verses, and practiced since in every Age, with Success, by Men of all Religions.”  He then included the parts of the Golden Verses that inspired him to start his program of daily examination. 12 
 After Franklin started his project of developing the virtues, the next major statement of his religious beliefs was entitled “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion.” In this piece, Franklin asserted that a supreme God existed, but he was so infinitely above people that he desired neither their worship nor their praise, nor was he concerned with their fate. This supreme and distant deity then created many lesser deities, and each of these lesser deities created their own solar system. Franklin declared that these intermediary deities created us and cared for us and so they were worthy of our prayers and praise.13 
Scholars have had a difficult time understanding this statement of Franklin’s religious beliefs. The most popular explanation is given by Kerry Walters, who sees it as an attempt of Franklin to reconcile the distant God of deism with the caring God of his youth.14 The trouble with this explanation is that none of the English deists believed in a  distant, uncaring deity. Indeed, as the earlier parts of this chapter have shown, six of the deists Franklin read believed God or angels still directly communicated with people or gave them guidance. Matthew Stewart, in his book on the secular ideas of the Founding Fathers, categorizes Franklin as an Epicurean.15 Epicurus was one of the most secular of the ancient philosophers: he believed there were gods, but these gods never involved themselves in human affairs at all. This description fits Franklin’s supreme God, but his intermediary deities are very different from Epicurean deities as they care about humans and help them. So Franklin was not a follower of Epicurus. 
Scholars like Walters and Stewart, because they are unaware of the spirituality the English deists, miss a much better explanation for the religious ideas found in Franklin’s “Articles of Beliefs”: the considerable similarity of Franklin’s theology to the Neoplatonists, a philosophical school in late antiquity that merged the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato. As the classical scholar John Burnet noted, “The Neoplatonists were quite justified in regarding themselves as the spiritual heirs of Pythagoras; and, in their hands, philosophy ceased to exist as such, and became theology.”16 The Neoplatonic philosophers stressed the supreme God’s transcendence and remoteness from the material world and human concerns, just like Franklin’s supreme God. At the same time, they (especially Iamblichus, one of the most prominent Neoplatonists) also stressed that there were many intermediary deities between the supreme God and humans. The Neoplatonists thought these deities cared for humans and we should worship them.17 Franklin never shared why in 1728 he believed in intermediary deities, so we can never really know his reasons, but the theology of his “Articles of Belief” was a Pythagorean-Neoplatonic theology, and not an Epicurean one. 
Another belief Franklin had that was associated with the Pythagoreans was his belief that some dreams revealed the future to him. When he was serving as America’s ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin often had long discussions with many intellectuals. One intellectual he often talked with was the French philosopher Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis. In his memoirs, Cabanis recounted a conversation in which Franklin asserted that he had dreams which accurately revealed to him the future. As the scholar Alfred Owen Aldridge reported, Cabanis wrote that “Franklin believed he had more than once received a revelation in his dreams of the outcome of his affairs and despite his otherwise strong mind devoid of his prejudice, he could not give up faith in these inner voices.”18 We have no idea when Franklin adopted his belief in prescient dreams or who, if anyone, influenced him to believe in them. But Dr. Lyons and other Pythagoreans emphasized the importance of these types of dreams. 
One of the key beliefs of the Pythagoreans was reincarnation. There is no clear evidence Franklin believed in it, but there is some evidence he might have. As a young man in 1728, Franklin had composed his own mock epitaph which read: 
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author. 
It is not clear what Franklin means in this epitath. The first part obviously means the worms will eat his body. But it is not clear what he means when he writes that “the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.” He could mean that God will give him a more pure body in heaven. Or it could mean that after learning lessons in this life, he will reincarnate somewhere else in a better edition of himself. We cannot know what he meant, but there were at least nine other deists who believed in reincarnation. Besides Thomas Tryon, the English deists John Holwell and Soame Jenyns believed in it, with Jenyns emphasizing that reincarnation was the only way to reconcile God’s goodness with people’s earthly suffering. Other deists who believed in reincarnation were the Scottish deist Lord Monboddo, the French deist Pierre Dupont, the Dutch deist Isaac Titsingh, and the German deists Theodor Ludwig Lau and George Schade.19 While those deists are relatively obscure, there is one famous deist who believed in reincarnation: the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Lessing stated a belief in reincarnation in several of his works and often discussed his previous lifetimes with his brother. We cannot know if Franklin was referring to reincarnation with this epitath, but there were at least nine other deists who believed in it. 
A final matter showing the possible influence of the Pythagoreans on Franklin was his vegetarianism. It was standard practice in the eighteenth century to refer to a vegetarian as a Pythagorean as the Pythagoreans were the most prominent advocates of that kind of diet. It is well-known that Benjamin Franklin occasionally practiced vegetarianism. In his autobiography, he portrayed his vegetarianism as purely a practical way to save money and time. It might be that simple, but a number of scholars have contended that Franklin was a master of masking his true beliefs behind a façade. So in his writings, Franklin often created pseudonymous personas such as Silence Dogood and presented his beliefs through these characters. This style of writing allowed Franklin to present his beliefs in a form his readers were more comfortable with. It is also likely that in his autobiography and letters he was not presenting a straight-forward statement of his true past or of his real beliefs. Some scholars, most especially Jerry Weinberger, who titled his book Benjamin Franklin Unmasked, argue that Franklin was hiding behind the mask or persona of a gentle tolerant deist, while he actually held much more skeptical or radical beliefs including not believing in God at all.20 But skeptics or atheists afraid of persecution or social ostracism were not the only people to hide their true beliefs: the Pythagoreans also believed that the spiritual elite should hide their spiritual truths from the common herd. So in making light of his vegetarianism, Franklin could have been masking his Pythagoreans beliefs. 
We know that Franklin was influenced by the Pythagoreans because he stated that he started one of his most celebrated projects, the endeavor to develop the virtues, because he read a Pythagorean text. His first statement of his religious beliefs, the “Articles of Belief,” also advocated a Pythagorean cosmology. Furthermore, like the Pythagoreans he believed in prescient dreams and occasionally practiced vegetarianism, and he might have believed in reincarnation. In his concern for the ancient Greek spiritual tradition, Franklin is like many other English deists that he read when he was a teenager.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Waligore on the Kinds of Deism that Influenced Ben Franklin, Part II

By Joseph Waligore. See below:

Three deists who believed angels still communicated with people 

Franklin’s first taste of the English deists came through reading Thomas Tryon, who was well-known in both England and America for advocating vegetarianism. While often depicted as a mere health-food advocate, he was also a deist. His book Knowledge of a Man’s Self the Surest Guide to the True Worship of God included a long chapter entitled “Of True and Universal Religion.” Here Tryon expressed the typical deist position that there was one universal religion which taught that God was completely good, and God only wanted people to love him and be virtuous. Tryon believed that every human being who had ever lived was aware of this religion, but, over time, priests and ministers had convinced and coerced people into performing meaningless ceremonies and believing mysterious doctrines.2

Tryon was a follower of Pythagoras, the early Greek philosopher. Pythagoras was passionate about mathematics, and was reputed to have discovered the Pythagorean theorem about the length of the sides of a triangle which had a right angle in it. He also believed that everything was ultimately composed of numbers, although what this meant to him we do not currently understand. While he was very intellectually oriented, he established an ascetic, religious community where people ate vegetarian food. The people in this community were noted in antiquity for never sharing their spiritual secrets with the common people. Later Pythagoreans emphasized that angelic-like beings communicated with people during their dreams. Tryon was like the Pythagoreans, not only in his emphasis on vegetarianism as an ascetic practice, but also in his belief that angelic beings still directly communicated with people. Tryon believed that the real reason Christians thought divine communications had ceased after biblical times was because people were no longer practicing true Christianity. He identified true Christianity with a mystical kind of Christianity which he believed was compatible with his Pythagoreanism. He thought it was reasonable to believe divine communications and visions have actually increased in later, post-biblical times since the good spirits were inflamed with the same zeal for spreading the glory of God now as formerly, and people still needed it. For this reason, he asked, “why then should we think all intercourse cut off between us and these blessed spirits have ceased?”

In his book Pythagoras His Mystick [sic] Philosophy Reviv’d; or, the Mystery of Dreams Unfolded, Tryon gave very explicit instructions on how people could prepare themselves to receive angelic communications in their dreams. To attract the attention of good angels, people first needed to purify their bodies by avoiding tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and meat. Then they need to divest themself of all worldly cares and focus their attention on godly matters. Such preparation opened the way for divinely inspired dreams. In these dreams, good spirits warned people of impending dangers and reveal spiritual secrets. Tryon stressed the importance of discretion if such angelic communications occurred. “Above all things,” he insisted, one should not tell the common multitude about their angelic visitations “for nothing drives away, and offend [sic] the divine Powers & good Angel Guardians more then [sic] to publish mysteries to the profane multitude.”3 In his emphasis on vegetarianism, asceticism, angelic communications, and not sharing their secrets with the common people, Tryon was following the ancient Pythagorean tradition.

In 1724, when he was eighteen, Franklin traveled to London and got a job at a printing shop. There he helped set the type for the William Wollaston’s deist book The Religion of Nature Delineated. In this book, Wollaston, like Tryon, emphasized that divine beings directly communicated with people by placing ideas and suggestions into people’s minds. Wollaston contended that God or the angels influenced us “by means of secret and sometimes sudden influences on our minds,” or by “suggestion, and impulse, or other silent communications of some spiritual being.” He said these direct influences caused a person to want to avoid a street where a building was about to fall or where a dangerous enemy was lying in wait for him. Through such divine communications, God or the angels care for us without altering any laws of nature. Wollaston thought these influences happened “so frequently” that anyone who closely observed his thoughts and actions could observe them. He also thought that these divine influences had important consequences in world history: he cryptically suggested that God planted the idea into Hannibal’s mind to never directly attack Rome, and thus Hannibal lost his chance to destroy Rome.4

After setting print Wollaston’s book, the young Franklin encountered Dr. Lyons, who in 1721 wrote the book The Infallibility of Human Judgment. While current scholars of English deism never list him among the English deists, eighteenth-century Germans considered him a noteworthy English deist.5 Moreover, eighteenth-century French thinkers considered his book such an articulate exposition of deist ideas that it was clandestinely circulated in manuscript form in France.6 Scholars of American deism are aware that Lyons was a deist because he befriended Franklin while Franklin was in London. These American scholars, though, have not noticed that Lyons had many religious beliefs and was particularly influenced by Pythagorean philosophy. Indeed, Lyons venerated Pythagoras, calling him “this Great Man” and “our Divine Philosopher,” and Lyons shared many Pythagorean beliefs.7

Just as Tryon thought angels communicated with people, Lyons asserted that divine beings cared for people by putting helpful guidance, commands, thoughts, and strong emotions into their minds. Lyons declared, “A judicious and curious Observation of these Things will lead a Man to the Sight of several Matters of Fact, which discover a certain secret interposing Power, which is commonly call’d Providence.” He emphasized this providence worked in two ways. One way was divine beings putting commands or thoughts into people’s minds, with Socrates being the best-known example of this phenomenon. He asserted that chance, natural consequences, and Providence are “distinguishable to the Wise; to whom the Story of Socrates’s Daemon will not seem impossible, there being suchlike real Matters to be frequently observ’d.” Providence also worked by inciting strong emotions in a person’s mind and thus helping him or her avoid danger. He declared that sometimes “there are also some sudden and strong Emotions exciting Men to Actions they can see no reason for, which appear afterwards to have been necessary for the avoiding an unknown (tho’ imminent) Danger.”8

Most significantly for discussing Franklin, Lyons believed that dreams often tell people about the future. Lyons claimed that knowledge of the future via dreams is “an evident Matter of Fact . . . against which very few are able to shut their Eyes, and which needs no Argument or Persuasion to defend or prove it.” He claimed the knowledge of what was going to happen in the future was “presented to us, sometimes by a real View of the Thing it self, or by symbolical Representations.” So he asserted that “if a Man dreamt he was cutting or killing another, this may perhaps be only an Endeavour of the Mind to explain to him, that some Person will do him an injurious Action the next Day.” Lyons did not know how prescient dreams worked, but, among other ways, he hypothesized it might work because people are “assisted by some other Daemon or Spirit.”9

The Pythagoreans strongly stressed the division between the foolish, common people who were centered on worldly things and the spiritual elite, who cared about God and divine matters. The Pythagoreans were forbidden to share their religious beliefs with the masses and instead only shared their spiritual teachings with the elite few. Lyons concurred with these views, talking of the “Fools” who were stuck in common opinions versus “the Wise” who understood the reality of divine messages. While he did not disclose significant spiritual secrets in his book, he hinted he knew of deeper spiritual knowledge. Immediately after discussing prescient dreams and divine suggestions, he asserted, “let the Curious follow these delightful Processes for themselves, which will sufficiently reward their Industry.” He claimed that if people followed the hints he was giving them, “The Temple of Knowledge is open’d, the Bars removed, and a Clue of Thread in their hand, with which they may enter the Labyrinth, and search all its secret Recesses, without confounding or losing themselves.”10

Monday, February 26, 2018

Waligore on the Kinds of Deism that Influenced Ben Franklin

Joseph Waligore has sent over a chapter of a book he is working on about English and American Deism. The chapter is about the kind of Deism that influenced Ben Franklin. I am going to publish it in three parts. Below is part one.

The earlier chapters demonstrated the English deists, the ones who influenced the Founding Fathers before they declared their independence, believed in an active God who performed miracles. In fact, the English deists young Franklin read were so far from believing in a non-intervening deity that their deity was more active than the Protestant deity. Protestants generally believed God and the angels had directly communicated with people in biblical times from the Garden of Eden to Jesus’ time. But almost all the English Protestants in the early eighteenth century believed this communication had ceased once the Christian church had been established near the end of the first century C. E. On the other hand, classical philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Marcus Aurelius believed God, gods, angels, or angelic-like beings never stopped directly communicating with people and actively guiding them. This means any English deist who asserted that God or angels still communicated with people was clearing showing that he was not a stereotypical Enlightenment thinker who emphasized a cold, distant, and withdrawn deity. Instead, he was showing that he shared the Greek philosophers’ spiritual worldview or at least was deeply influenced by it. 
When Franklin was formulating his ideas about deism as a teenager, scholars know that he studied seven English deists because he mentioned reading them in his autobiography, quoted them, or encountered them in London. These seven were Anthony Collins, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Thomas Tryon, Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, William Wollaston, and Doctor Lyons. All seven of these deists were deeply knowledgeable about the Greek philosophical tradition. For example, in his most influential book, A Discourse of Free-thinking, Anthony Collins called Socrates the first free-thinker. (Free-thinker was often synonymous with deist during the eighteenth century.) Collins then listed other Greek and Roman sages as free-thinkers, and later on he worked on a project to translate Cicero, one of the most important Roman philosophers.1 The same goes for the other six deists. Of these seven English deists, six believed divine beings directly communicated with people by giving them messages to help them or guide them. Most importantly, these deists explicitly claimed divine communications were still happening nowadays, and so these deists were not influenced by their mainstream Protestant contemporaries. Three of these deists, Shaftesbury, Thomas Gordon, and John Trenchard, believed God communicated with people and this did not stop when the Protestants claimed it did. More interestingly three deists, Thomas Tryon, William Wollaston, and Dr. Lyons, believed angels or angelic-like beings still communicated with people.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

On Science: Against the Slanders of the Secularists

[In rebuttal to a recent comment at AC repeating the common tropes against Christianity re science, we present James Hannam, a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge and the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (published in the UK as God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science).]

From a blog run by Nature magazine. Galileo is not the whole story, in fact not the story at all: Galileo was the exception, not the rule.

Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages

Few topics are as open to misunderstanding as the relationship between faith and reason. The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed. Indeed, many of the alleged examples of religion holding back scientific progress turn out to be bogus. For instance, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway. Popes haven’t tried to ban zero, human dissection or lightening rods, let alone excommunicate Halley’s Comet. No one, I am pleased to say, was ever burnt at the stake for scientific ideas. Yet, all these stories are still regularly trotted out as examples of clerical intransigence in the face of scientific progress.

That support took several forms. One was simply financial. Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus. And after some debate, it accepted that Greek and Arabic natural philosophy were essential tools for defending the faith. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organisation in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world. The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. And of course, modern genetics was founded by a future abbot growing peas in the monastic garden.

Admittedly, Galileo was put on trial for claiming it is a fact that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than just a hypothesis as the Catholic Church demanded. Still, historians have found that even his trial was as much a case of papal egotism as scientific conservatism. It hardly deserves to overshadow all the support that the Church has given to scientific investigation over the centuries.

As always, read the whole thing.

[NB: No actual scholars or scientists were harmed in the writing of this post.]

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pinker: "The Enlightenment Is Working"

Steven  Pinker, writing about his new book in The Wall Street Journal, here. A taste:
The headway made around the turn of the millennium is not a fluke. It’s a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.
Comment: Reflect on the word "progress" and "progressive." "Progressive" has come to be associated with a left political movement. But let's reflect on its literal sense. Human Progress. It's not the Left-Progressives who are behind this excellent site that validates Pinker's thesis and data.

I think someone like Peter Thiel, who isn't as optimistic as Pinker, as almost like a visionary prophet for human progress, especially as viewed through a technological lens. His thesis is that we have been stagnating since the 1970s. Yet, much of Pinker's data has shown how much better the rest of the world has become since 70s. Yes, the least well off parts of the world. And they've become better off while taking advantage of the breakthroughs of the 1st world which Thiel sees as stagnating since 1970.

Information Technology of course, is excepted. (And what a big exception it is.)

Regarding the "Enlightenment" part of the thesis, it helps to look at periods on a timeline. The way I see it, Enlightenment ended around 1800, the very year in which all of this progress started to take off. It could be what triggered the growth is that's when aliens or spirits started diffusing knowledge down to humanity. But that, alas, is not a falsifiable hypothesis, with the current level of empirical understanding we have.

So I'm assuming and concluding it was the seeds planted by the Enlightenment figures like America's Founders and their influences. Men like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, all of whom were either actual or armchair scientists and wanted to put man's focus on figuring out how material things work and how we can improve things.

As Franklin put it:
I have been long impressed with the same sentiments you so well express, of the growing felicity of mankind, from the improvements in philosophy, morals, politics, and even the conveniences of common living, and the invention and acquisition of new and useful utensils and instruments; so that I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will, before that period, be produced; and then I might not only enjoy their advantages, but have my curiosity gratified in knowing what they are to be. I see a little absurdity in what I have just written, but it is to a friend, who will wink and let it pass, while I mention one reason more for such a wish, which is, that, if the art of physic shall be improved in proportion to other arts, we may then be able to avoid diseases, and live as long as the patriarchs in Genesis; to which, I suppose, we should have little objection.
It's interesting to see how Franklin mentions wanting to live 200-300 years in the future to see how all of this unfolds. He wrote the letter in 1788. Meaning Franklin wants to see 1988-2088. In other words, right now. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Alex Knepper on Strauss & Christianity

Alex Knepper gained notoriety as a very young, bright writer a number of years back. He has since gone on to get his Master's Degree degree from St. John's College, one of the places that specializes in studying the thought of Leo Strauss, along with Strauss' followers and critics.

This is what he posted on Facebook today:
There is a criticism that the Straussian account of the history of ideas willfully denies Christianity a place at its table. Of course Strauss believes that an artful writer knows how to communicate with silence. And the relative silence of the Straussian account of the history on Christianity, of which it is hardly ignorant, surely testifies to its antagonism toward it. Insofar as there is an elusive or storytelling element to any historical account*, the storyteller can consciously arrange his presentation to suit his preferences and goals, without deceiving himself about what he is doing. Strauss, in choosing to write out certain elements of thought in history, is always silently opining on how he thinks Christianity ought to be viewed: as a great and horrible tragedy inflicted on Europe which all true philosophy has always fought to overturn. Christianity's foreground presence in the works of many philosophers -- say, Locke -- speaks merely to their historical situation and is not indicative of their true opinions. Such philosophers invoked Christian doctrine in a way that weaponizes it against itself, in a conscious attempt to undermine it for the long-term. Strauss, and Straussians perhaps, seem to believe that the time has passed in which the threat of Christian persecution is so great that it requires that kind of appeasement any longer, and we are now freed to speak of philosophers' true intentions without genuflecting to the conventions of the common people of the time. (Whether liberals in 2018 demand genuflection from true philosophers is another question.) 
h/t Jon Rowe

This is the original comment I left that led to Knepper's thought and hat tip:
Some of my interlocutors who think the Straussian history of ideas inadequate like to play this game where they demonstrate more authentically Christian sources for "good" ideas that Locke gave the Anglo-Enlightenment. They usually trace the ideas to obscure medieval Catholic thought (i.e., "the schoolmen").   
I think we can do something similar with Rousseau's egalitarianism. A lot of Whig opposition "republicans" like Harrington. Those who used biblical language for redistribution under the auspices of agrarian laws. Even the term Utopia -- an island where both wealth and poverty were abolished -- comes from Catholic Thomas Moore.
This was Alex's original comment to which I responded:
The difference between European liberalism and American liberalism can, with only a bit of exaggeration, be explained by reference to the fact that the American Founders just barely missed the emergence of Rousseau on the scene. They built a regime fundamentally grounded and fixed in the thought of John Locke and various contemporaries (eg, Montesquieu), which has since then absorbed only a refracted view of everything which has dialectically proceeded from Rousseau. Hence, for instance, the otherwise near-inexplicable fact that the thought of Herbert Spencer resonated with Americans more than that of his contemporary Marx. Certainly much so-called 'continental' philosophy and political theory remains totally elusive to Americans. 
This is not to say that Rousseau would necessarily be more pleased with Europe in 2018 than with America: Rousseau was not above playing with the fire of populism, the popular denigration of the arts and sciences, or the glorification of militarism; there is no necessary support for a larger welfare state in Rousseau, no necessary support for liberal internationalism, no necessary support for multiculturalism -- the list goes on (though we can be sure that he considered himself part of a spiritual 'elite' exempt from ordinary laws and customs) -- but merely that, as a regime built on fixed ideas, America receives the insights of Rousseau and everything proceeding from his thought, or at any rate what it represents, through a refracted lens and hence will never see eye-to-eye with 'the continent.'