Monday, September 15, 2014

FRC Robert Morrison touches on Feeling Our History

FRC Robert Morrison has posted a historical travel log with the title, Feeling Our History, that can be found over at the Family Research Council blog. (Previously, on March 4, 2014, I featured Robert Morrison in an American Creation blog you can see here.)

At the concluding part of his recollections of visiting the Induction Day ceremonies at the Annapolis, Maryland, United States Naval Academy, the reminiscing Pastor has this to say:
And the Plebes raise their right hands and recite the Oath of Office. Many of their parents and many of us assembled as a cloud of witnesses will be in tears as these vibrant young people pledge their lives to protect and defend our Constitution. 
They end their recitation of the Oath with the same words spoken by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and by every other commander-in-chief: 
So Help Me God
You can run your hands over these words. They are engraved on a plaque affixed to the bulkhead (wall) in Bancroft Hall. You can feel your country’s history.
Robert Morrison is not the first person to promote this blatantly false notion that every president has ended a four-word religious codicil to their presidential oath. But it is a new twist when he identifies the president as the commander-in-chief , because he is now suggesting  that ending a military oath with "So help me God" should be understood as if it were a command issued by the President, as Commander in Chief.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lillian Gobitas Klose, RIP

See the NYT obit. A taste:
Lillian Gobitas Klose, whose refusal, on religious grounds, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a seventh grader in a Pennsylvania public school in 1935 ignited national indignation, as well as a roiling legal fight that led to an expansion of First Amendment rights, died on Aug. 22 at her home in Fayetteville, Ga. She was 90.
Her daughter, Judith Klose, confirmed the death.
Lillian Gobitas’s family belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and heeded a leader’s call to refuse to recite the pledge in compliance with biblical commands against idolatry....

Volokh: "Should atheists who refuse to say ‘so help me God’ be excluded from the Air Force?"

Check it out here. A taste:
So 10 U.S.C. § 502 expressly says that each person may swear or affirm. Likewise, 1 U.S.C. § 1 expressly says that an oath includes an affirmation. And an affirmation means precisely a pledge without reference to a supreme being. Given this context, it seems to me quite clear that “So help me God” in the statute should be read as an optional component, to be used for the great bulk of people who swear, but should be omitted for those who exercise their expressly statutorily provided option to affirm — because that’s what affirming means (omitting reference to a supreme being).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

‘Our Strongest Tower’

The British Museum, in its Twitter feed today, observes the anniversary of the departure of the Mayflower for the New World in 1620. The tweet contains this photo of a commemorative bronze medal struck in 1970:

The Latin inscription on the reverse translated: “The name of the Lord is our strongest tower,” which originates in Proverbs:

“The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is set up on high.” (18:10)

It is the motto of Plymouth, England.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bob Ruppert: "The Influence of “the Black Robes”

Check it out here. A taste:
Just as the clergy based their theology and Church structure on the law of God, so they based their political theories. Civil government had a divine origin and its purpose was “the good of the people.” A government that did not have this as its purpose, did not have a divine origin and thus did not have the sanction of God. In 1717, John Wise, in his treatise, A Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches, took it a step further when he said, “A democracy, this is a form of government, which the light of nature does highly value, and often directs to, as most agreeable to the just and natural prerogative of human beings …”
 [Hat tip: American Creation commenter JMS.]

Friday, August 29, 2014

Rod Dreher: "When The West Had An ISIS"

Check it out here. A taste:
Michael Brendan Dougherty remembers when the English state and its religious manifestation, the Church of England, behaved like ISIS toward the Irish:
Convert, leave, or die. That’s the trio of awful options ISS is giving to Christians in Iraq.
Sadly, there’s an all-too-familiar ring to this ultimatum. These were the exact options given to all Catholic clergy in Ireland when England instituted the penal laws against Catholics several hundred years ago.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Buzzfeed: "Nearly Every Founding Fathers’ Quote Shared By A Likely Future Congressman Is Fake"

Now that's a bad record.

A taste:
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation said it has “not found this particular statement in his writings” and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is the real source of the quotation.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

John Fea: "The Author's Corner with Barry Shain"

Check it out here. A taste:
JF: What led you to write The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context?
BS: I was motivated to write this book, in the main, by three goals: 1) to attempt to adjudicate between radically divergent claims concerning the standing of the Declaration of Independence’s briefly articulated political philosophy in leading the colonies to separate from Great Britain, in shaping American founding constitutional traditions, and in helping form America’s incipient political institutions; 2) to challenge the methodology, frequently encountered in political theory, in which historical documents are selectively chosen and mined to produce favored outcomes; and, 3) to begin a process of re-assessing the place of democratic republicanism in the thinking of those attending America’s first three continental political bodies.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bill Fortenberry on Matthew Stewart, "Nature's God"

Check it out here. A taste:
Thus we see that both Pope and Bolingbroke, the two people that Stewart credits with introducing the phrase “Nature’s God” into English, ...

Book TV: Matthew Stewart, "Nature's God"

Watch a clip below.

Brayton: "More Christian Nation Nonsense"

Check it out here. A taste:
I always laugh when people cite the Puritans and their alleged influence on the founding fathers. The colony they established was a rather brutal theocracy that imprisoned, exiled and sometimes put to death even their fellow Christians if they were the wrong brand. Funny how they trusted themselves with such power.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Frazer Posts @ Fortenberry's

Check out this guest post by Dr. Gregg Frazer at Bill Fortenberry's website. A taste:
If someone merely quotes someone else talking about Christ, that does not tell us anything about what the person doing the quoting believes. If someone is raised in an orthodox environment and only mentions Christ as a young man, but as an adult at the time of the Founding says contrary things, the original quote tells us little about what he believed as “a founder.” If someone reports the subject of a conversation in which someone else mentioned the word “Christ,” that tells us nothing about the views of the reporter – especially when, in his commentary on the event, he expresses heretical views of his own about Jesus. If someone is defending a pastor and reports what the pastor taught, that tells us nothing about the beliefs of the defender. If, in that same situation, the defender uses the language of the judges/jurors to try to favorably influence them, that tells us nothing about the views of the defender. If, in more than 20,000 pages of someone’s writings, there is only one reference to “Jesus” or “Christ” and that is not in the person’s handwriting, but in the handwriting of an aide of his who was a Christian, that tells us little about that person’s belief in Christ. Use of the word “divine” must also be evaluated in context because in 18th century common usage, “divine” also meant simply “preeminently gifted or extraordinarily excellent” (like some people even today refer to symphonies or desserts as “divine” or to Bette Midler as “the divine Miss M”). It was also a common term for a merely human representative of God, such as pastors. When a 21st-century evangelical sees the word “divine,” he/she automatically assumes a reference to God – but not so in the 18th century. This is context. In the case of one of the key founders, quotes given in which he says “Christ” and even expresses belief in Christ actually make my point: he does not do so until after he has a conversion experience and is born again (long after he was a “founder”).
As a general rule, the public statements and pronouncements of politicians sensitive to public approval are not as reliable indicators of true belief as private statements which they did not expect the public to see. Like politicians today, they often had aides who wrote public documents. They wrote their own private correspondence, however, and, depending on the recipient, usually had no reason to hide their true beliefs. On numerous occasions, key founders aware of the heterodoxy they expressed in a letter, instructed the recipients of correspondence to return or to burn the letters to keep them from the public eye. Surely we are all aware of the propensity of politicians to “tickle the ears” of the public in order to become or remain popular – the key founders were no exception; they were not gods or demi-gods, they were merely political men (albeit much better ones than we have today).

Sunday, August 10, 2014

1776: News of the Declaration reaches London


From Fraunces Tavern Museum today:
On this day in 1776, news reaches London that the Americans had drafted the Declaration of Independence. Until the Declaration of Independence formally transformed the 13 British colonies into states, both Americans and the British saw the conflict centered in Massachusetts as a local uprising within the British empire. To King George III, it was a colonial rebellion, and to the Americans, it was a struggle for their rights as British citizens. However, when Parliament continued to oppose any reform and remained unwilling to negotiate with the American rebels and instead hired Hessians, German mercenaries, to help the British army crush the rebellion, the Continental Congress began to pass measures abolishing British authority in the colonies.

The Declaration of Independence was largely the work of Virginian Thomas Jefferson. In justifying American independence, Jefferson drew generously from the political philosophy of John Locke, an advocate of natural rights, and from the work of other British theorists. The declaration features the immortal lines "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It then goes on to present a long list of grievances that provided the American rationale for rebellion.

The ship carrying the first copy of the declaration to leave the USA was heading for London but hit stormy waters off the north coast of Ireland. It sought refuge in Londonderry and arrangements were made for the declaration to be sent on by rider to Belfast, where it would be met by another ship for delivery to King George III. However, the Belfast News-Letter's editor somehow gained access to the priceless document and duly published it, before King George III or Parliament had seen it, on the front page of the paper's August, 1776 edition. A terrific scoop - and one that stands the test of time.

Friday, August 8, 2014

William Livingston: "Primitive Christian"

William Livingston represents the truth that one errs when one looks superficially at the denominations America's Founders were associated with to try and determine what their religious convictions were.

The source of this common error is M.E. Bradford who derived the statistic using that formula, that 52 of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention were "orthodox Christians." I don't blame him too much for it. For him, this seemed to be a minor aside. Rather it was other, later Christian Nationalists who tried to run with the ball and turn it into a "meme."

Livingston was formally associated with the Presbyterians. That means then he was a good Calvinist who believed in TULIP and the Westminster and every other creed and confession associated with them, right?

Well, no.

Livingston, in fact, was a self professed "Primitive Christian," who believed in Jesus as Messiah (with NO evidence of believing in the Trinity) and the Old and New Testament, and nothing else.

There is nothing in Livingston's writings that laud the term "orthodox," in fact, to the contrary. As he wrote, "I believe that the word orthodox, is a hard, equivocal, priestly term, that has caused the effusion of more blood than all the Roman emperors put together."

A good Whig, Livingston hated doctrinal Anglicanism, especially the "Athanasian Creed," which is formally endorsed by not only the Anglicans, but also the Presbyterians (the group he was affiliated with!). This led me to conclude previously, perhaps accurately, Livingston a theological unitarian.

This is how Livingston described his creed:

“Primitive Christianity short and intelligible, modern Christianity voluminous and incomprehensible,” The Independent Reflector, no. XXXI, June 28, 1753.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The term "Primitive Christianity" and its connection to Deism & Unitarianism (and Mormonism & JWism)

If you look closely at the historical record, many of America's Founders speak positively of something known as "Primitive Christianity." I won't provide the quotations (just yet). You can either trust me or look it up yourself.

But what does that term mean? American Creation's Tom Van Dyke might answer Christianity "adulterated by man, i.e., the papists...." There certainly is a strong kernel of truth there, but also a larger picture as I explain below.

I've observed when certain figures -- some of America's Founders and their influences over whose proper religious categorization we argue -- refer positively to something known as "primitive Christianity," they mean they believe Christianity was corrupted by the "church" early on.

Now that's something in which a good evangelical or reformed Protestant can believe? Corruption in the church necessitated the Reformation. Well, not exactly as I will explain below.  Back then "primitive Christianity" was very often (though perhaps not always) a code word for Christian-Deism, Christian-Unitarianism, and today is something a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness would feel comfortable with.

You see, for many, perhaps most of these folks who valued "primitive Christianity," the Church at Nicea was already corrupted. And indeed, these folks think of the Nicene Church as a "Papist" one (and therefore illegitimate). The problem is Anglicans, capital O Orthodox Christians and most reformed and evangelical Protestants wish to claim and feel in communion with the Church at Nicea and the Nicene Creed.

Folks like certain Baptists who believe both in the Trinity but think the Nicene Church was already Roman Catholic are the oddball outliers among Protestant Trintarians. (See the fourth paragraph in this piece written by American Creation's Brian Tubbs, himself a Baptist pastor, on why Baptists might have such disproportionate oddball theology.) The Quakers who believe in the Trinity, but not creeds, likewise qualify as Trinitarians who might endorse the notion that the Nicene Church was corrupt and "real Christianity" was the "primitive" one of the ante-Nicene era.

But it's mainly those who reject the Trinity that are interested in attacking the Council of Nicea. Indeed, notable unitarians blame the doctrine of the Trinity on the "Papism" of Nicea. For instance, John Adams:

"The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage."

 -- To Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812.

And since the Church around the time of Nicea was the one who selected and finalized the books of the canon (i.e., "the Bible") some of the professors of "primitive Christianity" disregard entire books of "the Bible" and blame it on "Papism," i.e. the Church who wrote the Nicene Creed. (And not just "books" of the Catholic Bible, but of the Protestant Bible as well like the Revelation of St. John.)

It was this same mindset that led Christian-Deists and Unitarians like John Adams to both 1. reject the Trinity, and 2. think "the Bible" was an errant, corrupted book, that nonetheless contained "the Word of God" underneath the error and corruption.

In today's day and age, folks who believe in sacred scripture as the "Word of God," but not the Trinity (i.e., the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses) are ones likely to 1. have an affinity for the "primitive Christianity" of the ante-Nicene era and 2. seek to "restore" the faith to what it was before it got corrupted.

Friday, August 1, 2014 Ranks the Top 10 Presidents

In this 7-minute video, ranks the top 10 Presidents who (in their view) made the longest-lasting, most "positive" contributions in American history. Their list includes several early American Presidents, including of course George Washington whom they rank way too low in my opinion. Check out the video....

...and give us your thoughts. Do you agree with the rankings? Or do you, like me, feel that George Washington should be number one?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Marblehead Freemasons retrospective

On Thursday, April 8, 2010, I traveled to the “New Perspectives on American Freemasonry and Fraternalism” symposium, which would take place the following day at Lexington, Massachusetts. But before heading to my hotel in Lexington, I chose to visit the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society, where an exhibit of Masonic artifacts owned by Philanthropic Lodge, in celebration of the lodge’s 250th anniversary, was closing that very day.

Timing is everything.

My notes from this very enjoyable couple of hours are long gone, but I present here more than three dozen photographs of the exhibit and from the lodge itself, courtesy of Don Doliber, Philanthropic’s highly knowledgeable and motivated historian, who just happened to have made an unplanned visit to the museum when I arrived.

Don curated this collection of centuries-old artworks and other objects. It had been a long time since I’d seen a museum exhibit of Masonic artifacts, outside of a Masonic facility, this extensive and interesting. (One of these days I’ll have to scan and post the photos I shot at both New Jersey’s exhibit at Boxwood Hall in Elizabeth, and the Livingston Library’s exhibit at Fraunces Tavern Museum in Manhattan, both c. 2001.)

Here is a brief lodge history, found on Philanthropics website:

Philanthropic Lodge was originally chartered as ‘The Marblehead Lodge’ in 1760 by St. John’s Lodge No.1 under the Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. As this Marblehead Lodge was constituted during the reign of King George III, it was considered an English provincial lodge and all ritual was conducted in accord with English Masonic customs. Thus the Philanthropic Lodge seal bears the initials “F&AM” referring to the “Free and Accepted Masons” traditions of England.

In those early days only 2 degrees were granted to members. Candidates were made Entered Apprentices and Fellow Craftsmen and then were voted members of the lodge. Most of the business was conducted on the 1st Degree. For the first few years, as was the English custom, only the Master was granted the 3rd Degree of Master Mason. Within 18 years the Third Degree was granted to all members.

A 1760 candidate was John Pulling, Jr. (1737-1787), a Marblehead shipmaster, who lived in Boston in 1775. Paul Revere said to John Pulling in April, 1775: “...if the British march by land or sea tonight, hang a lantern aloft in the belfry tower in the North Church Tower, one if by land and two if by sea, I on the opposite shore will be.” … and the rest is history. It is also said that Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), later 5th Vice President of the United States in 1813, became a member of the Marblehead lodge in 1769.
Its name was changed to “Philanthropic Lodge” in 1797 during the tenure of M.W. Paul Revere, Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts. The official seal designed sometime after 1798 consists of a 1-inch diameter circle, on the outside of which are the words, “Philanthropic Lodge, F. & A. M., Marblehead, Mass.” Inside the circle is a representation of the Good Samaritan pouring oil and wine into the wounds of a stranger, and above the inside edges of the circle are the words, “This Do Ye.”

The laying of the cornerstone and dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument took place on June 17, 1825 with Grand Lodge Officers and Bro. Marquis de Lafayette present. A delegation from Philanthropic Lodge also attended. Secretary Collyer wrote: “ was contemplated that there was the largest assembly of people that ever met at one time in the United States of America.”

Philanthropic Lodge originally met at the home of Bro. (Commodore) Samuel Tucker on what is now Prospect Street, Marblehead. Since then, the Lodge has met in several places, one believed to be Tucker Street opposite the end of Mason Street. For the last 63 years we have called 62 Pleasant Street, home.

On March 21, 2006, Philanthropic lodge approved its merger with Wayfarers Lodge of Swampscott by a unanimous vote. On October 5, 2006, M.W. Jeffrey Black Hodgdon for Massachusetts conducted the merger ceremony. With that ceremony, 146 Masons from Wayfarers were enrolled in Philanthropic Lodge.

Philanthropic Lodge is the 3rd oldest Masonic Lodge in Massachusetts and the 19th oldest Masonic Lodge in the United States. It currently enjoys one of the largest memberships (546) in Massachusetts.

Enjoy this look back at a remarkable Masonic lodge’s commemoration of its 250th anniversary in 2010.

Don Doliber, historian of Philanthropic Lodge in Marblehead, Massachusetts, strikes a pose with the portrait of Elbridge Gerry, also a lodge member in the late eighteenth century. Don curated the exhibit presented by the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society in the winter and early spring of 2010.

Bro. Edward Fettyplace (1722-1805) was a charter member of the lodge in 1760.  He held various positions in local government during the Revolution, and served as First Lieutenant of the schooner Franklin in 1776. Read more about this ship below.

Captain Joseph Lemon Lee (1785-1819).

Richard Girdler, a sea captain (1761-1847) joined the lodge in 1834. Portrait painted by William Bartoll.

Don's ancestor John Doliber (1768-1829) joined the lodge in 1809. He too was a sea captain,  owner of the vessels Union, Friendship, Two Sisters, and Five Sisters. Artist unknown, but possibly painted in France.

Philip Bessom (1746-1836) joined the lodge in 1797. Soldier, sea captain, Marblehead Selectman, and Representative to the Massachusetts General Court.

Possibly the lodge's warrant. My notes are gone. Perhaps someone from Philanthropic could leave a comment below.

One sees these punch bowls in Masonic collections up and down the East Coast, and elsewhere I'm sure. This one is of Chinese manufacture, mid nineteenth century. Known as Armorial or Societal China, such pieces were commissioned by American and English consumers. Masonic symbols were sent to China for the porcelain artists to copy.

Dr. Elisha Story (1743-1805) joined Philanthropic Lodge in 1778. A participant in the Boston Tea Party, he also stole a British cannon from Boston Common. Joined the Sons of Liberty, served as a doctor to Colonel Little's Essex regiment, and fought as a volunteer at Lexington and Bunker’s Hill. He aided General Washington on his campaigns to Long Island, White Plains, and Trenton. He was a doctor for the rest of his life at the practice he settled in Marblehead. 

Dr. Story's medical kit. It is said he used this during his service in the Revolution.

Elbridge Gerry painted by William Goodwin. From the lodge’s website: 'Elbridge Gerry was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts on July 17, 1744. He studied at Harvard to be a merchant, graduating in 1762. He was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1773 and was selected to attend the Provincial Congress in 1774. He was a member of the Marblehead Lodge of Masons. He signed the Declaration of Independence. He was then appointed to the Continental Congress, where he was engaged in committee work on commercial and naval concerns. He attended the Constitutional Convention in 1798 but was opposed to the new Federal Constitution, refusing to sign it. He was elected to the first two Congresses from Massachusetts and, in 1797, was one of several envoys sent to France. He was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1810 and 1811. He was much criticized for redistricting the state to the advantage of his own party (Democratic-Republican). That incident was the source of the term gerrymandering. In 1812 he was elected Vice President of the United States. He died in office, on November 23, 1814, at the age of 70.'

John Glover (1732-97) joined the lodge in 1760 as a Charter Member. An illustrious military career before and during the Revolution. Google him.

Elisha Story was Philanthropic's fourth Worshipful Master at the time of George Washington's death in 1799.  For thirty days after Washington's death, the brethren wore armbands similar to this one.

Philanthropic Lodge's Master's gavel, fashioned from wood taken from the USS Constitution.

Medallion profile of George Washington, carved as a decoration for Washington's visit to Salem and Marblehead in 1789. Attributed to Samuel MacIntyre.

Click to enlarge.

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Click to enlarge. Masonic apron from the museum's archives.

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Replica of the Masonic apron of Richard Harris, a Charter Member of the lodge, and its second Worshipful Master. The original apron is among the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Library and Museum in Lexington.

250th anniversary apron depicts the lodge emblem and the historic square and compasses you'll read about below.

Click to enlarge. Captain James Mugford was not a Freemason. A Marblehead hero of the Revolution, he commanded the Franklin, which captured the HMS Hope.

Samuel Russell Trevett (1751-1832). Served in the British army before the Revolution, fought against Britain in the Revolution, and fought the British again in 1812, when he was captured. He was Philanthropic's third Worshipful Master in 1781. In 1779, he was co-owner of the brig Freemason.

Shot of the museum.

Philanthropic Lodge is located at 62 Pleasant Street, just around the corner from its previous digs, appropriately on Mason Street.

A Masonic temple. Remember those?

If I understand correctly, this flag flew on the USS Constitution during its July 21, 1993 voyage, its first in 116 years.

Masonic apron made of kangaroo skin, given to Bro. Floyd Soule during his trip to Australia in he may be properly attired there.

Past Master apron of W. Chester Damon, who presided over the lodge in 1931-32.

Best I can tell, this is an invitation to a Brother to attend the lodge's St. John's Day festivities, year unknown.

Click to enlarge. A Dudley Masonic Emblem pocket watch. Read more about that here.

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Click to enlarge. There are so many Masonic treasures in the possession of Philanthropic Lodge, including this priceless pair of Great Lights kept at the lodge. The brethren call the set the '1776 Square & Compass.'

On May 17, 1776, the schooner Franklin, commanded by Captain James Mugford, captured the Royal Navy schooner Hope, which wound up providing essential materiel for Gen. George Washington’s forces at Cambridge. Mugford, not a Freemason, was killed in action later that year. The compass, termed a 'divider,' and the square are believed to have been the working tools of the British ship’s navigator. Bro. James Topham, a descendent of Mugford, donated the compass to Philanthropic Lodge in 1858, and then gave the square in 1862. The have been used to make Masons in Philanthropic ever since.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

NY Times: church clues of early America

A story in Tuesday’s New York Times on archives found in churches.

In Church Attics, Clues to the Private Life of Early America

By Michael Paulson
July 29, 2014

STURBRIDGE, Mass. — Sarah Blanchard was sorry she skipped a worship service. Sarah Wood apologized for denouncing infant baptisms. And as for the Cheneys, Joseph and Abigail? Well, “with shame, humiliation and sorrow,” they acknowledged having had sex before marriage.

More than 250 years ago, their confessions of sin were dutifully logged by the minister of the church here, alongside records of baptisms, marriages and deaths, notes about meetings heated and routine, accounts of finances, texts of sermons, and, in some cases, personal accounts of conversion experiences from young adults.

Now, in a regionwide scavenger hunt, a pair of historians is rummaging through New England church basements and attics, file cabinets, safes and even coat closets, searching for these records of early American life. The historians are racing against inexorable church closings, occasional fires, and a more mundane but not uncommon peril: the actual loss of documents, which most often occurs when a church elder dies and no one can remember the whereabouts of historical papers.

“I have seen them be destroyed, lost, covered with mold or just forgotten,” said the Rev. Janet Leighninger, the pastor of the Federated Church of Sturbridge and Fiskdale here. “And as finances get tighter, as they are everywhere, and as congregations shrink, and they are doing that in many places, it becomes a matter of, ‘Do we do the ministry we are called to do, or do we preserve the past?’ ”

The historians — James Fenimore Cooper Jr., a professor of history at Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, the executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston — are trying to persuade small town church leaders to turn over their records for digitization and preservation. They are focusing largely on Massachusetts because the record keeping there was especially careful, and on congregational churches, or their successors, because those were the official churches in colonial Massachusetts. “There is no other discrete set of sources that will similarly transport us into colonial America,” said Dr. Cooper, who has been searching for hidden church records for years. Among the treasures he has described: a 1773 application from a slave named Cuffee to join a church in Middleboro.

The records, especially those that are not bound into books, are often in poor shape. In Sturbridge, a church member in 1896 described a set of papers as “much worn and mutilated”; now, more than a century later, those same papers are in a faded yellow envelope marked “extremely poor condition.” The churches themselves, which are Protestant and are called Congregational because each is independent and has the authority to make its own decisions, are endangered as well. There remain 372 in Massachusetts affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the largest congregational denomination, down from 625 in 1932.

The record-retrieval effort is painstaking. Every summer, Dr. Cooper (no relation to the 19th-century author; his grandparents were just admirers) and Dr. Bendroth travel from church to church, trying to persuade ministers and lay leaders to part with treasured documents. In some cases, churches are excited to do so. But for some of the churches, letting go of documents is difficult — the papers, even if brittle and faded, are a form of patrimony, like silver and pewter communion vessels, to be treasured.
One evening this summer, Dr. Cooper visited the Federated Church of Sturbridge and Fiskdale, a congregation that resulted from a merger of several different churches and that is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Churches, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The congregation’s records — at least those representing its congregational past, which began in 1736 — had been retrieved from a safe at a member’s office.

As about a dozen members of a church council sat on folding chairs and tired couches, Dr. Cooper made his pitch. He showed them an iPad photo of a recent church fire in Somers, Conn., as a cautionary tale, and he urged them to make a permanent, but revocable, loan of the records to the Congregational Library, which could store them in a climate-controlled rare book room. After a number of questions about security, access and backup plans, and a brief closed-door debate, the congregation agreed. Ms. Leighninger called the decision a relief and a godsend, because the records would be protected and available to genealogists, historians and anyone else through the library’s digital archive.

Dr. Cooper methodically went through dozens of documents, looking for those published before 1860, and choosing about 25 he deemed of historical significance. There were letters bound with string, accounts of “meetings of the brethren,” lists of “confessions for scandals and offenses,” and ledgers detailing the activities of the Sturbridge Ladies Benevolent Society. He packed them in boxes and loaded them in his red Prius before walking across the street to take pictures of the historic cemetery in the fading light. The next day, in Dudley, Mass., where a congregation was established in 1732, Thompson Boyd, a history teacher who volunteers as the church’s historian, showed Dr. Cooper a page from a Bible translated into Algonquian by John Eliot, who was seeking to convert the local Nipmuc Indians. There were also notes for an 1822 sermon (opening line: “The corruption of mankind is very great”); molten metal from the church’s bell before it was destroyed by fire; and shards of glass from a stained-glass window before it was blown out in a hurricane. The church’s documents had been kept in a narthex cloakroom for years, but were recently moved into a locked fireproof file cabinet.
Mr. Boyd said he would have to discuss with his church’s council whether to allow the transfer of the documents to Boston for safekeeping, noting that from time to time people stop by looking for records of their ancestors, and that they like seeing the original papers.

“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “I still use them. But what if something happens to me?”

A few hours later, Dr. Cooper and Dr. Bendroth visited an evangelical congregation in Hopkinton, Mass. Faith Community Church is the successor of the original Congregational church in town, founded in 1724, and had the original records carefully cataloged, boxed and stored in a locked basement room, alongside an early pastor’s 1740 Queen Anne side chair with a bullet hole in the back.
The documents included a list of excommunicants and notification of a fine levied against a local man who resisted joining the Army during the Revolution, as well as multiple “relations” — letters describing faith journeys. They include one from Benjamin Pond, who described how, despite being raised in a Christian home, he had fallen “into a state of stupidity and wickedness” until, after multiple deaths in his family, including of his child, he had a conversion experience. “That’s the first time that’s been heard in 200 years,” Dr. Bendroth said after reading Mr. Pond’s relation. “I just think that’s really amazing.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

WSJ: "Book Review: 'Nature's God' by Matthew Stewart & 'Independence' by Thomas P. Slaughter"

From the Wall Street Journal here. A taste:
It's not clear, in any case, why Mr. Stewart thinks we are in danger of forgetting radical influences on the founders. Those connections were marvelously documented in "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" (1967), Bernard Bailyn's study of Revolutionary-era pamphlets, in which he revealed the influence of England's 18th-century "commonwealth men"—republican reformers in Parliament during the 1720s, especially John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon—on the American Founders. A generation later, Gordon Wood (Mr. Bailyn's student at Harvard) produced "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" (1991), a study of the social and political effects of the Independence.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Frazer: "Problems with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God (not in any particular order)"

Note: Dr. Gregg Frazer sends over what is reproduced below:

Problems with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God (not in any particular order):

Thesis: “Spinoza is the principle architect of the radical philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American Republic, and Locke is its acceptable face.  So-called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.”

My two favorite lines: a) Locke and Spinoza produce a “deeply atheistic proof of a God.”
b) Consciousness “may be found in animals, plants, and even frying pans and thermostats.”

Stewart argues that people falsely identify many with Christianity and that we should not accept their use of that term uncritically. He then enormously expands the meaning of “deism” (without substantiation or support) and expects the reader to accept his use uncritically. Regarding the examples that he does give to try to show this very broad notion of deism, some were instances of opponents calling someone a “deist” as an epithet – i.e. derogatorily; some were simply references to unitarianism, and some merely denials of orthodox Christianity.  Later, he also takes derogatory charges of “atheist” as proof of someone’s atheism.

This leads to another problem: like the prominent “Christian America” advocates, Stewart assumes (without proving) a false dichotomy: that one was either a Christian or a deist (i.e. that those were the only options).  So Christian America advocates find a quote that “proves” that someone disbelieved a deist tenet and proclaim them a “Christian.” Stewart does the same thing in reverse: if someone is not incontrovertably an orthodox Christian, he proclaims them a “deist.” [of course, there was at least one other option: theistic rationalism]

Stewart makes far too much of the content of individual’s libraries.  One need not agree with every book in one’s library.  I have LOTS of books with which I disagree (including Stewart’s) and others that I have not read.  One must have the books of those with which one disagrees in order to deal with them knowledgably.  Stewart assumes that if a particular person had a certain book in his library he must have agreed with it.  The Christian America people do that, too.

He also makes far too much of notes taken on texts.  His assumption is that if someone copied something from a text or took  notes on it, that the individual was, by that action, showing agreement with the text/passage.  The simplest way to demonstrate the falsehood of this notion is to confess that I took LOTS of notes on Stewart’s book – the margins are filled – but I agreed with very little of it.  If someone using Stewart’s methodology were to pick up my copy of his book, they might conclude that I loved it because I took so many notes.

Related to this, Stewart also makes a specific error made by the guru of the Christian America movement – he acts on the assumption that Jefferson’s Notes on Religion reflect Jefferson’s own opinion rather than merely encyclopedic entries of what others believed.  The fact that Jefferson begins a relevant section with “Locke’s system of Christianity is this” and that most of it is nearly verbatim from Locke does not dissuade Stewart or that guru from attributing it to TJ.

In this same vein, Stewart (like his Christian America counterparts) assumes without demonstrating that students agree with all that their teachers believe/teach.  As a college professor, I only wish that were true. J  This saves them from having to show that someone believed what they attribute to them [which they often did not] – they just have to show that their teacher believed it.

Another annoying tactic that Stewart shares with his counterparts on the other side of the argument is regularly suggesting that first drafts and/or initial discussions tell us more of what someone wanted or thought than their final draft!  He does it re the Declaration and the Bill of Rights.  I confess I’ve never understood this logic when used by the Christian America people and I don’t understand it here: what someone REALLY wants or REALLY means is what they rejected/changed?  Hmmmm.

Stewart suggests throughout that the whole American project was an assault on religion -- particularly orthodox Christianity.  Apparently, the political aspects were more or less a byproduct.  Also, his analysis is all about the Revolution; for Stewart, revolutionary thought is definitive for “the American Republic.”  This, of course, ignores the significant changes that came due to experience in the critical years between 1776 and 1787.

Related to that, to accept Stewart’s thesis, one must believe that Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, a twentysomething Ben Franklin who never grew up [America’s Peter Pan], and a partially and conveniently quoted Thomas Jefferson were THE key political/historical figures in the establishment of America.  Others matter only tangentially.

To accept his thesis, one must believe that the Revolutionary/Founding writers did not know who their REAL influences were.  They quoted (as Stewart admits in a footnote) men such as Pufendorf, Grotius, Beccaria, Blackstone, Montesquieu, Vattel and others – but the real driving intellectual forces on them were the ancient Greek Epicurus and the early modern Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. More precisely, it was Epicurus channeled by and improved by Spinoza. Stewart wrote an earlier well-received book on Spinoza and sees the modern world through Spinozist eyes – and says we should, too.  There are a number of hyperbolic statements to this effect.

He gives a very poor, deficient, and one-sided account of Franklin’s prayer proposal at the Constitutional Convention.  It fits his argument the way he selectively and creatively reports it, though.

In order to be able to use his favorite adjective – “Locke-Spinoza” – Stewart terribly abuses John Locke to the point that Locke scholars will not recognize him.  He quotes Locke partially (with his own commentary interspersed to make it look like Locke’s), regularly uses ellipses to change the meaning of Lockean statements, and quotes Locke out of context.  These are also all very familiar tactics for Stewart’s Christian America counterparts.  He takes a square Locke and forces him into a round Spinoza.  He does the same regarding Jefferson – Jefferson is forced to conform with Spinoza whether he will or not.  To be fair, Stewart gives a warning/explanation for his distortion of Locke – he explains that he (basically) subscribes to the Straussian notion of “esoteric” interpretation (while disagreeing with what Strauss does with it).  In other words, as Stewart takes it, Locke did not know what he meant or was too cowardly to say what he meant, so Stewart must channel the real Locke and explain what he meant to say or would have said if he had the nerve.  This, presumably, makes it fine to ignore parts of sentences that are inconvenient and places in which Locke’s words are diametrically opposed to what Stewart wants from him.  Often, what Stewart leaves out of a passage or where he cuts it off is more telling than what he quotes.

The same is true with Jefferson, although Stewart actually quotes passages from Jefferson which contradict Stewart’s take and he just moves on.  One of those cases is absolutely critical for Stewart’s whole thesis.  He argues that the first sentence of the Declaration is the key to the whole American enterprise and that they key to that sentence is the idea that God and Nature are synonymous (not related – synonymous).  He says that Jefferson held this view (pretty important since he wrote the sentence) – but quotes from Jefferson on pages 189, 190, and 194 clearly show Jefferson saying the contrary!  Undeterred, Stewart proceeds as if his take is confirmed.

Also re Jefferson: Stewart takes very seriously Jefferson’s statement: “I am an Epicurean” – not so much Jefferson’s statement: “I am a Christian” or his statement: “I am a sect unto myself.”

As noted briefly above, Stewart – like many who desperately want Franklin to be a deist – keeps Franklin at 19 years of age or in his twenties.  Stewart’s Franklin apparently died at 28.  He quotes Franklin’s famous/infamous confession that he became a deist (at age 19), but somehow (like others) misses Franklin’s statement two pages later that he grew out of it.  Stewart is also apparently unaware of Franklin’s essay On the Providence of God in the Government of the World in which he explicitly rejects deism as irrational (at the ripe old age of 24).  Stewart also cites Franklin’s Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity to show Franklin’s agreement with Stewart’s thesis, but Franklin wrote that at age 19 and years later considered it an embarrassment – he burned as many copies as he could find. Stewart says “he never gave reason to think that he [Peter Pan Franklin] ever departed from the convictions acquired as [a] youthful bibliophile” [meaning his twentysomething position].

The book vastly overemphasizes Hobbes’s influence in America.

Stewart seriously mangles the meaning/interpretation of several biblical passages.  At one point, he admits concerning a passage written by the apostle Paul: “the ultimate implications of this intuition about God are dramatically different from anything Paul seems to have contemplated.” Then that should call into serious question your implications/interpretation!

Stewart has his own idiosyncratic notion of the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment.  By his account, it does not – and was not designed to – guarantee religious freedom.

He constantly uses unqualified, universal terms such as “the founders of the American Republic” and “America’s founders” when ascribing ideas – as if they were all of the same mind.  I doubt that  he’s ever heard of Roger Sherman.

His constant condescending, arrogant, and rather snarky jabs at anyone foolish enough to be religious or to believe in God is equal parts annoying and inappropriate in an academic work.  The last chapter is devoted to making fun of religion and those who are superstitious or gullible enough to believe in something beyond Nature.  “Alert” readers or persons are those who share his views.  Conventional religion relies on “make-believe” and “self-deception,” but his preferred philosophers produce “knowledge.”  Philosophical assumption and/or “doctrine” is fact/”truths.”  Those who refuse to bow to the “obvious” superiority of atheism, simply show “the tenacity of their ignorance” and promote “hallucinations of divine agency.”

He argues that deism was not limited to the elite (pg. 37), then proceeds to talk throughout about the difference betweent the views of the elite and those of the common people who were conventionally religious (e.g. pgs. 32, 35, 68, 73, 122, 274, 404-05).

He argues without substantiation re the Great Awakening: “the revival, while pretending to unite the nation, in reality unified it only in the belief that there are aliens in our midst.” 

He criticizes “enthusiasts” for making personal, sensory judgments, but approves of so-called “deists” making them – ostensibly because he approves of the judgments.

Like certain groups today, he attempts to stifle alternate views and studies with which he would disagree: “The new Christian nationalists [which, in his example, includes Mark David Hall, Daniel Dreisbach, et al and yours truly] represent a powerful force within American history, but their success consists chiefly in creating the illusion of a debate where in substance there is none.  … scholars tout their ‘even-handedness’ by giving equal credence to every ‘narrative’ of the history, however fatuous.  A version of this false equivalence can be found in [Hall, Dreisbach, & Morrison’s] The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life.”  Those who do not know should be aware that there are no chapters from the “Christian America”/David Barton extreme in this book – they are all written by established scholars in the field from places such as Stanford, George Mason, American University, James Madison Univ., Notre Dame, Univ. of Texas, etc.  But because they do not subscribe to Stewart’s “everyone was an atheist deist” view, their views are “fatuous” and unworthy of inclusion in discussion!

Stewart may have included his own marching orders on page 333: “Like revolutionaries throughout history, Young and his gang understood that in order to change the future it is necessary first to change the past.”  That appears to be Stewart’s real project.