Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Replacing One Myth With Another:

I still regularly discuss the Founding Fathers/what religion were they? issue because it still keeps coming up, especially around July 4! The notion that the Founders were all Deists is indeed a myth. However, the Christian Right tends to replace that myth with another.

Exhibit A, Brannon Howse's most recent Worldview Weekend article:

The strategy of secular humanists is simple: If you say something often enough, people tend to believe it. So, in various forms, they repeat the myth that America’s Founders held to a secular, deistic worldview.


Howse's article adopts the same strategy -- keep repeating something long enough in his "Christian Nation" circles that people will believe it. This works in closed off systems where people dialog only with other folks in their system. This is one reason why I try to, when I can, penetrate those systems and dialog with folks from both the secular left or religious right who may view the issue differently. The Internet gives us that opportunity. And the American Creation blog is founded with that purpose of getting folks from different perspectives together to analyze the issue of religion and the American Founding.

But anyway back to Howse's article. In order to "prove" almost all of America's Founders were "Christian," Howse cites the research of Dr. M. E. Bradford of the University of Dallas which purported to find the following:

He discovered the Founders were members of denominations as follows: twenty-eight Episcopalians, eight Presbyterians, seven Congregationalists, two Lutherans, two Dutch Reformed, two Methodists, two Roman Catholics, and three deists.15

Notice Dr. Bradford’s study found that only three out of fifty-five Founders were possibly deists. These are Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.


I've seen it further argued that since Church membership at that time involved sworn oaths to God, that these men took sacred oaths attesting to their orthodox Christian faith. The problem is Bradford's research doesn't support the conclusions for which "Christian America" advocates argue. All Bradford found was some kind of formal or nominal affiliation with a Christian Church that professed orthodoxy (as all of them did) on behalf of those 52 men. I know for certain he didn't find official Church membership or sworn oaths to the creeds of orthodoxy because I've personally studied the religious history in meticulous detail of a number of Bradford's "Christians" and know there is no evidence for many of them of official Church membership or sworn sacred oaths to orthodox Christianity.

Take for instance, Alexander Hamilton, of one Bradford's "Christians" and one of the most notable Founders. This was a man who never joined a Church, even after he became a Christian! And Hamilton demonstrated no evidence of orthodox Christianity during the time in which he was involved in founding America. The historical record doesn't show Hamilton becoming an orthodox Christian until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel.

Or take James Madison, another of Bradford's "Christians." There is no evidence that he was either confirmed or a communicant in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. No evidence shows he ever took any sacred oaths to orthodox Christian doctrines.

George Washington did take oaths to the doctrines of the Anglican/Episcopal Church when becoming a Vestryman and then a Godfather in said Church. However, Thomas Jefferson took those oaths when becoming a Vestryman and he was a man who explicitly rejected every single tenet of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity.

Or consider G. Morris, another of Bradford's "Christians," of whom the orthodox Christian Roger Sherman said:

With regard to his moral character, I consider him an irreligious and profane man—he is no hypocrite and never pretended to have any religion. He makes religion the subject of ridicule and is profane in his conversation.


In short, all Bradford demonstrated is some sort of formal or nominal connection to a Christian Church that professed orthodoxy. But virtually all of the notable Founders whom we think of as "Deists" likewise, you'll see if you dig deep enough, had connections to Christian Churches. And this applies to all three of Bradford's "Deists."

Indeed Howse's article alludes to this: "Hugh Williamson, though, was licensed to preach by the Presbyterian Church, which makes it questionable just how serious a deist he really was."

I know little about Hugh Williamson, but have studied the religion of Ben Franklin and James Wilson in detail and know both of them had connections to both Presbyterianism and Anglicanism/Episcopalianism.

Again Howse's article notices the unsound classification of Bradford's "Deists":

Benjamin Franklin clearly was a deist as a young man, but he later became disenchanted with deism. While Franklin probably never became a Christian in the orthodox sense, he came a long way from deism in his eighty-four years.16 At the Great Convention it was Franklin who called for prayer, declaring that “God governs in the affairs of men.”17 (Remember, according to deism, God does not so intervene.)


So if Bradford's classification of the "Deists" is unsound, then what makes the Worldview Weekend crowd assume that his classification of the "Christians" is sound?

My meticulous detective work shows that the key players at the Constitutional Convention -- far more than just "3" -- were neither Deists nor orthodox Christian, but somewhere in between. What we've seen above from Franklin -- belief in a Providential God who intervenes in the affairs of man, but rejection of orthodox Christian doctrines -- is actually the creed of most of America's key Founders, including Hamilton, Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Wilson, J. Adams, Jefferson and many lesser founders like Williamson.

12 comments:

bpabbott said...

I don't think I'll ever understand why so many of faith think that others of faith would so eagerly choose the dogma provided by their religion over the reason provided by their minds.

Even if *all* the framers/founders were Trinitarian Christians, it would *not* mean that our Nation was intended by them to be a sectarian one.

Further, even if all were Deists, it would not mean that they intended to banish the inspiration of organized religions from its borders.

Pinky said...

.
This professor of history:
http://www.gettysburg.edu/podium/gettysburg_gallery/guelzo_daily/index.dot

In a lecture series I have from The Learning Company, Professor Guelzo clearly defines Benjamin Franklin as a Deist and lists what that Founding Father has to say about "his own Deism" which does not include the idea that God does not intervene in human affairs. Here is Franklin's list as it is given in lecture # 8:

1. That there is a God who made all things.
2. That he governs the world by his providence.
3. That he ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer, and thansgiving, but that the most acceptable service to God is doing good to man.
4. That the soul is immortal.
5. And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.
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Jonathan said...

I wouldn't call Ben Franklin a "Deist" but a "theist."

Brad Hart said...

I agree with Jon. Even though Franklin called himself a thorough Deist, he exhibited traits that are more common of a theist.

Just because Franklin called himself a deist does not mean that the discussion is closed. After all, Jefferson called himself a Christian, but I am willing to bet that most of us would question that declaration.

Brad Hart said...

One other thing. Franklin was never opposed to the doctrine of Christ. In his letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790, Franklin stated:

"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity."

Franklin was never opposed to follwoing the dorctines of Christ, so long as they were found to be unchanged by corrupt ministers and preacher. A true diest would never have subscribed to such a creed.

Jonathan said...

Another thing is if you look at the passage right after Franklin calling himself a Deist he says:

“[I] began to suspect that this Doctrine tho’ it might be true, was not very useful.”

And then continued,

“…Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such; but I entertain’d an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered. And this persuasion, with the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me, thro’ this dangerous time of youth, and the hazardous situations I was sometimes in among strangers, remote from the eye and advice of my father, without any willful gross immorality or injustice, that might have been expected from my want of religion.”

Pinky said...

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I get to have some special authority on this day as it is my 77th birthday.
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I am a Christian.
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But, I do not believe in the divinity of Jesus. Nor do I believe in the immortality of the soul. But, I allow as how I could be wrong.
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Benjamin Franklin was a Deist because he declared himself to be.
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Brad Hart said...

First off, Happy birthday!

As to your comment, if we consider Franklin to be a deist simply because he declared himself so (even though Jon Rowe has pointed out that he really wasn't very passionate in that belief), we would also have to classify Jefferson as a Christian, since he declared himself as such.

Pinky said...

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Well, that's the way the ball bounces.
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At least around here.
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People get to declare their own beliefs.
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And, it's one of the reasons the Founders didn't want a state religion.
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Have a Great Fourth of July, everyone!!
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What a wonderful country!

Jonathan said...

Have a great July 4 and happy birthday. Look in the future for more stuff from me on Franklin. In other writings, he presented his heterodox beliefs under the auspices of "Christianity." Franklin called himself a "Christian," "Deist," and a "Unitarian."

Pinky said...

Franklin sounds like the sort of person I would have liked to have known personally.
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I'm learning some things about Jefferson and his brand of republicanism that are beginning to change my mind about him.
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So, far, I am learning that I still am not too old to learn. Who knows what will come next?
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Happy Independence Day!

Pinky said...

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And, I do appreciate every paper I read here. It appears to be one of the best sites of its type on the 'Net.
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I don't come here in search of agreement; rather, to learn.
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Thanks to all.
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