Monday, August 18, 2008

The early days of the republic - Irving Levitas

The Chronicles Papers - Views of American Life - 1984, page 39.
A collection of newspaper articles originally carried by The Yonkers Jewish Chronicle (1976-1979) by Dr. Irving Levitas, 1910 - 1987.

The early days of the republic - Even during the War of Independence, between 1775 and 1783, there was an identity in the mind of the new Americans that they were reenacting the Exodus from Egypt and entering the land of Freedom. It must be remembered that it had been recommended by Franklin that the Great Seal of the new United States be engraved with a depiction of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. This was not accepted, although the idea it was to convey was presented again and again in sermons and pamphlets distributed during and after the Revolution.

It must be understood that any study of American history during the first century of its independence, and even before, requires a careful reading and study of the sermons delivered through the thirteen colonies, later the thirteen states. For the pulpit was the platform of public utterances, so closely were the interests of the new country and religion made. And, in reading the sermons made in 1774, 1775, through the early 1800s, one is actually reading what the literate men of the American community had to say. Thus, when the preacher William Gordon delivered a sermon exhorting his congregation to support the Revolution in Boston, in 1777, he entitled his sermon, The Separation of the Jewish Tribes, After the Death of Solomon, Accounted for, and Applied To The Present Day." And this was a sermon delivered at the Third Church of Roxbury, Mass., with the Massachusetts General Court in attendance. His theme was that, after the separation of the Kingdom of Israel from the Kingdom of Judah, and comparing Great Britain to the Kingdom of Israel, it was the Kingdom of Judah (by which he meant the new American Republic) that was to become the bearer of the Divine Law, not that of Israel, which was to become the "Lost Tribes."

And, in 1788, after the Revolution, another preacher, Samuel Langdon, was to deliver a sermon in New Hampshire, also before the General Court of the new state, entitled, "The Republic of the Israelites; An Example to the American States." Here, Reverend Langdon was to emphasize that, just as the early Israelites made their political behaviour reflect their religious beliefs, so, in this new republic, the public officials, and the general community, should always bear in mind that the Divine Creator was effective in politics as well as in religious ceremonies.

This idea of resemblance between Ancient Israel and the new United States was carried through the entire succeeding several decades. Thus, we find in a sermon in 1799, on the occasion of a Thanksgiving Service in Haverhill, Mass., a sermon preached by Abiel Abbot entitled," Traits of Resemblance in The People of the United States of America to Ancient Israel," the substance of which was that, amidst other so-called Christian states in Europe, here in the United States there was to be a government that was copied after the early Israelite government, without the "trappings" and "additions" of a later Christianity.

This whole Mood of identification with early Jewish Biblical history was accompanied, ... , by Messianic speculations regarding the return of the Jews to the then Palestine (present-day Israel). And, since we do have the Diary of a very prominent Christian minister of Newport, Rhode Island, which, as we have noted, had a large Jewish community, comparatively, we can read of these interests and identification with the Jews by the early American leaders.

It is the Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles that affords us this record. He served in Newport and was later to become Professor of Hebrew, and then President of Yale University. In this Diary, Stiles records again and again items he read about Jews of Hindustan (India), of China, in North Africa, and, significantly enough, the Jews of Palestine at that time. Not only did he read whatever he could about Jews, and reading Hebrew as he did, his library contained many books of great merit in Jewish scholarship and studies of the time, but he also made it a point to invite Jewish scholars and sages to his home and study to discuss Jewish subjects.

But his most interesting conversation, as recorded, are with "Sclichim," "Messengers from Palestine," who had come to the new country to collect funds for the Jews living in the land. It seems that in 1768, there had been a stir among the Jews of the colonies, who expected the Messiah to come in the summer of that year. Under the dates of July 26, and Aug. 3, of the that year, Stiles records that he had heard that the Jews of Newport and New York were packing their carriable possessions, expecting to follow the Messiah to Palestine that year. Stiles had long been interested in such Messianic speculation, having as a youth written to the "Greek priest or bishop" living in Jerusalem for information regarding the Jews of Palestine, and the possibility of such a return of the Jews.

Of all these slichim, it was rabbi Chayim Isaac Carigal that impressed him the most. He first met this shliach in 1773 and continued his correspondence and meetings with him until 1775 when Carigal was to return to Palestine, who had been born in Hebron, was traveling through Europe, North Africa and the English colonies of the New World (the Bahamas, the south and the north), seeking aid for the Jews of Palestine. He spoke a Hebrew that impressed Stiles (probably a Sephardic Hebrew), and he also knew Arabic, Syriac and Spanish. Thus attesting to his Sephardic lineage.

Carigal was not the only Jewish scholar Stiles was to meet. There was R. Moses Malkai, R. Moses Bar David, R. Tobiah Ben Jehudah, R. Bosquita, and R. Samuel Cohen. In his diary note for 1783, he records that only two were Ashkenazim, Bar David and Cohen.

Besides such conversation with "messengers," Stiles was to serve as a close of his Jewish neighbors. He defended Aaron Lopez before the Rhode Island Court when Lopez was accused of having been a Tory. His friendship with Touro has already been noted (and he further records that he attended the first ceremony of a boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah in Newport, with Touro.) He translated Hebrew letters from Europe and Palestine for those Jews who could not read the. And, in an interesting case, he was to serve as an intermediary between Jews and Christians.

The case was this: in 1772, the Christian teacher of Hebrew at Harvard University had died. In seeking a replacement, the Overseers of Harvard were informed of a very competent melamed named Judah Monis, who was teaching in Boston. They approached Monis, who accepted the offer. However, there was a hurdle to jump. Harvard's rules at that time permitted on Christians to teach, it being in many respects, a theological school for Christian ministers. They so informed Monis, who accepted the offer, and converted to Christianity on March 27, 1772. Monis thus became the first Jew, even as a convert, to teach at Harvard University. And it was the same Monis who was to write the first Hebrew Grammar in the New World, in 1735.

Significantly enough Stiles did not accept the theory that the Indians were the "Lost Ten Tribes," and riduculed those who did. He felt that the Ten Tribes were to be found in India.

32 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jews, Mr. Soller? Jews in America, Mr. Soller? Jews at the founding of America, Mr. Soller?

What a timely topic.

Why, we were just discussing the Jewish people on this very blog just the other day. Perhaps our friend and faithful commenter Pinky has a few words to add here. He was very chatty on the subject of Jews in America and Jews in general in a previous comments section. He was even related [by marriage] to one once. He's practically Jewish himself.

Perhaps someday soon he'll even sign his real name to what he writes, as most of us do around here. Since Pinky tells us he's 77 years of age, what might he have to lose?

Pinky said...

You know my name. It's Phil Johnson.
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I found Soller's post to be quite interesting and especially from what I know about the Jewish People from having read Karen Armstrong's work, The Battle For God. http://www.amazon.com/Battle-God-Karen-Armstrong/dp/0345391691
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Check it out.
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Pinky said...

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But,. maybe it's not enough to say that Ray Soller's post on Jews in early America is interesting.
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Actually, it points up the idea of Super Nationalism that was mentioned earlier in these blogs. Judaism was a commonality held by a large and significant number of people around the world from as far away as China and India through Africa, in Europe and all the way into the Colonies. Jews made up a national people even though they had no specific territory to call their own country. (See some work by Talcott Parsons-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talcott_Parsons
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It is an entire discussion all its own and this site may not be the place for it. Yet, our American heritage was heavily influenced by Judaism as can be seen in Soller's good post. Even so, Monis became a "converso" in order to obtain that position at Harvard. I think it points up what happens when powerful forces try to kill an idea--it cannot be done. America owes a great deal to the ideas of Judaism--and vice versa.
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Matt Huisman said...

Interesting link on the origins of the Great Seal.

After declaring independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress charged Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin with recommending a design for the new nation’s seal. For the reverse of the Great Seal they agreed on a scene from the Exodus—Moses’ arm outstretched over the Red Sea, the Israelites crossing through the parted waters protected by a divine pillar of fire, and Pharaoh’s drowning army.

That's some fairly strong imagery connecting this country with the central storyline of the Bible. There seems to be, at a minimum, a nod to something beyond Deism here.

For the pulpit was the platform of public utterances, so closely were the interests of the new country and religion made.

That's quite a comment. Someone ought to jump in and water that one down a little, no?

Pinky said...

Matt opines, "That's some fairly strong imagery connecting this country with the central storyline of the Bible. There seems to be, at a minimum, a nod to something beyond Deism here."
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Taking into consideration that the Bible was the most widely circulated publication and that the pulpit was the dominating media (Television is today) that represented the central point of public communication, it doesn't seem like you have much to stand on in your conclusion. Those beginning days when free thinking was only a seed planted in the ground of American thought show us more about how we processed information in this great experiment at building a new social order in the world than they point to your hinting toward some religious "truth".

Matt Huisman said...

I'm not making a truth claim here, Pinky. I'm suggesting that the three supposedly lighty-years-away from orthodox founders are making a connection to something far beyond Providence or Natural Law.

Pinky said...

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So, then, Matt, what is it you mean to connote?
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Obviously, you have something up your sleeve.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

Matt,

The Great Seal, yes. This arguably shows how the FFs and the preachers they followed misrepresentd or "read in" political liberty where the original story teaches no such thing. See my post below on how the biblical covenant is un-democratic. Every time the Bible mentions "liberty" it refers to spiritual liberty or freedom from sin or sin's consequences, not political liberty.

The Whigs had an interesting habit of reading in 18th century notions political liberty to past ages. For instance, Christian historians (like our friends at the Acton Institute) like to stress how Greco-Roman society really didn't have any serious notions of political liberty. However there was LOTS and LOTS of appealing to pagan Greco-Roman antiquity in support of political liberty by the FFs. George Washington's idol Cato was a pagan Roman figure who did the very un-Christian thing of commit suicide instead of submitting to political tyranny.

The Founders read in 18th century notions of liberty into both Christian and classical narratives.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Something else to keep in mind is how the FFs like Jefferson, Franklin and Adams thought parts of the Bible were true -- the rational parts. As such they had no problem picking and choosing biblical metaphor and mixing and matching with pagan metaphor as well.

Those three proposed two other images for the Great Seal (I don't have time to look for a link right now) both from pagan history. One was Hercules and the other was the Anglo-Saxon pagan Hengist and Horsa (not sure if I spelled that right).

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Let's just be thankful that they decided to design a new seal at all, rather than using the image that appeared on the Journal of the Proceedings of Congress in 1774. Yikes.

Brad Hart said...

Jon states:

"Something else to keep in mind is how the FFs like Jefferson, Franklin and Adams thought parts of the Bible were true -- the rational parts. As such they had no problem picking and choosing biblical metaphor and mixing and matching with pagan metaphor as well."

In my opinion this stands contrary to any assertion that our founders embraced a Judeo-Christian heritage and/or teachings when founding the country.

For our FFs to pick and choose the rational parts of the Bible and omit the miracles, as Jon points out, hints to the fact that the Founders were skeptics at best of the Judeo-Christian teachings found in scripture.

Certainly biblical teachings were used to support the cause for revolution as Ray points out. However, these same teachings were not used in the formation of the American republic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh there's a lot further to go before that pronouncement is proved, Brad. A handful of guys who had to keep their religious beliefs secret is hardly the last word.

Neither has anyone made the case that a belief in divine providence is a product of reason, not faith.

Brad Hart said...

I think it does, Tom. We've discussed ad nauseum on this blog how the majority of our founders can best be defined as unitarian, Theistic Rationalists, etc. These are hardly the terms of a devout supporter of orthodoxy.

Pinky said...

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#1. Orthodox Christianity
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#2. The Enlightenment
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#3. Deism
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#4. Unitarianism
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#5. Transcendentalism
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#6. Millenialism
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#7. Social Gospel
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#8. Christian Fundamentalism
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#9. Christian Nationalism
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#10. What's next?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Pinky,

Your 10 list reminds me that, over here, we've carved out our own unique corner on the blogsphere. That's tough to do.

Re Tom v. Brad, I know Tom can dispute that the majority of the FFs were "theistic rationalists"/"unitarians." To tell the truth, I'm not sure what the majority believed in. In fact, almost all were formally or nominally connected to Trinitarian Churches, and this includes just about all of the "theistic rationalists." But I'm pretty sure it was more than those 5 or 6 whose religious creed we've studied in detail will turn out to be "theistic rationalists." We've only identified a handful of orthodox Christians as well (Witherspoon, S. Adams, Boudinat, etc.). And one of those orthodox Christians, John Jay, is on record as saying the following on the Trinity:

It appeared to me that the Trinity was a Fact fully revealed and substantiated, but that the quo modo was incomprehensible by human Ingenuity. According to sundry Creeds, the divine Being whom we denominate the second Person in the Trinity had before all worlds been so generated or begotten by the first Person in the Trinity, as to be his coeval, coequal and coeternal Son. For proof of this I searched the Scriptures diligently -- but without Success. I therefore consider the Position of being at least of questionable Orthodoxy.

-- John Jay to Samuel Miller, February 18, 1822. Jay Papers, Columbia University Library.

Statements like that should tell us that it's not at all clear that almost all but a handful of Founders were orthodox Christian, as some argue (not saying that Tom necessarily argues this).

Pinky said...

Jonathon, I think it can safely be said that if--and that's a big IF--orthodox Christianity were such an important thing, the people would have taken arms against the Founders for not making America a Christian Nation beyond all shadows of a doubt.
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Period.
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bpabbott said...

Matt: "That's some fairly strong imagery connecting this country with the central storyline of the Bible. There seems to be, at a minimum, a nod to something beyond Deism here."

This point has been responded to many times already, but as I've been unable to post earlier and have been waiting to respond ... better late than never ;-)

The symbolism (imo) is appropriate as it would be quickly recognized by a great number of citizens, and is a good example of deliverance from the tyranny of government. I don't see any merit to your implication that Jefferson/Adams/Franklin where intentionally suppressing Deism or advancing Judaism. Even an atheist such as myself would be inclined to favor the symbolism that would be most widely recognized and effective ;-)

In any event, you bring up a point of curiosity for me. The Jefferson Bible was an editing of the NT. Thus, it is rather clear which parts he thought improper. I'm not familiar with any detailed record of Jefferson's, Franklin's, or Adam's critical thoughts on the OT. Might anyone have some comment/info regarding that?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ben. Well offer more of that in the future!

bpabbott said...

Jon, I look forward to it :-)

bpabbott said...

Tom: "Oh there's a lot further to go before that pronouncement is proved, Brad. A handful of guys who had to keep their religious beliefs secret is hardly the last word. Neither has anyone made the case that a belief in divine providence is a product of reason, not faith."

I don't think there is anything to be "proven".

It is a question of likelihood, and such is always subject to individual interpretation and opinion.

Does anyone hold the position that we are not all at liberty to reach our own opinions ... religious or otherwise?

Does anyone hold the opinion that our nation's founders intended the Federal government to dictate proper religious beliefs and/or opinions?

I think the answers among those of us who frequent this blog are "no" and "no" ... but please correct me if I have misspoke.

Matt Huisman said...

For our FFs to pick and choose the rational parts of the Bible and omit the miracles, as Jon points out, hints to the fact that the Founders were skeptics at best of the Judeo-Christian teachings found in scripture.

I'm not trying to make a major point here, but given what you just said, you wouldn't think they'd be using an image of the Israelites crossing through the parted waters protected by a divine pillar of fire.

Do I think it mean these founders were orthodox themselves? No. But I do view this as a nod to those who are inspired by something beyond providentialism.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Honesty Matt, I think it was part of the Whig misuse of history that saw the story of Exodus as something to do with a general norm of political liberation from tyranny. They did the same rewrite of the history of Cato of Utica from pagan antiquity.

Matt Huisman said...

Every time the Bible mentions "liberty" it refers to spiritual liberty or freedom from sin or sin's consequences, not political liberty…The Founders read in 18th century notions of liberty into both Christian and classical narratives.

This just won’t do. I’ll hear the arguments about the spiritual makeup of the founders, the population, etc. What you’re describing here is a hijacking of Christianity by the founders – and, apparently, nobody noticed. You know those Puritans, always letting things slip by.

[Reformed] Christianity makes a claim on the whole person – it says that God is interested in every aspect one’s life. The idea that it has nothing to say regarding political liberty to the individuals involved in legislating, administering, adjudicating, protecting, etc. would be foreign to any believer. (I should add that our understanding of “providentialism” – a frequently used term around here - is a direct outgrowth of this understanding.)

With respect to political liberty, orthodoxy begins by recognizing it as addressing issues of justice. Was Christianity really in need of an infusion of “18th century notions” to be relevant here? Or was it the other way around? It’s all well and good to prefer political liberty to the divine right of kings – but why? If you’re going to say that rights are guaranteed by “We the people…”, you’re going to want to know something about who those people are (and why you shouldn’t fear a tyranny of the majority).

Whoever we end up giving credit to for our founding ideals, it’s hard to deny that they had some pretty good material (the people) to work with.

Jonathan Rowe said...

What you’re describing here is a hijacking of Christianity by the founders – and, apparently, nobody noticed.

Well there's a long and rich nuanced story behind this; we can discuss it more as time goes on. I really wish Dr. Frazer's thesis was turned into a book already; he is in the process of submitting it. In the mean time Kraynak's book describes this and so to Noll, Hatch and Marsden's. And yes, Christian folks did notice: their names were the Tories.

Pinky said...

Jonathon's post struck my curiosity. I tried to learn a little about Christians being Tories and found this link: http://www.anabaptists.org/history/rev-war.html
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Not all Christians were Tories. But, even today, I know some strong Reformed Baptists who have an inordinate respect for the Brits--I would say they would have been numbered among those who favored the King during the Founding War.
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Matt Huisman said...

And yes, Christian folks did notice: their names were the Tories.

Fair enough. I like the little that I've read from Frazer, and will wait for more along that line.

For the time being, I still submit that Romans 13 is a relatively minor (and certainly not a divisive issue) within orthodox Christianity. The idea that those who participated in the Revolution could not possibly have been acting Biblically seems a stretch to me.

bpabbott said...

Matt: "The idea that those who participated in the Revolution could not possibly have been acting Biblically seems a stretch to me."

Matt, No one is taking that position.

In Jon's words: "[the founders were rationalists] who believed that reason was the ultimate determiner of what counts as revelation."

No one is claiming that some, or even all, did not embrace some Biblical sentiments ... unless you mean to imply that the founders embraced an absolute adherence to the literal Bible ... but I don't expect so.

Matt Huisman said...

Jon's point (one of many, actually) is that Christian orthodoxy does not support rebellion, and therefore, the Revolutionary War is not a legitimate orthodox movement. My reply is that the basis of his understanding, Romans 13, is 1) not (anything approaching) significant orthodox doctrine and 2) has a longstanding in-house discussion regarding it's interpretation.

But in the name of clarity, let me change that last sentence to...

The idea that those who participated in the Revolution could not possibly have been acting within orthodoxy seems a stretch to me.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Matt I think you are right that one reason why many orthodox Christians could support a notion of Romans 13 that was less than orthodox is precisely because it is such a minor doctrine in Christendom. Though when speaking about whether the American Founding is compatible with orthodox Christianity, Romans 13 takes a much more important role.

bpabbott said...

Matt: "The idea that those who participated in the Revolution could not possibly have been acting within orthodoxy seems a stretch to me"

Matt, are you taking the position that the Revolution was a manifestation of the influence of orthodox Christianity on the founders?

I find these kind of discussions interesting when both sides are able to provide a factual basis for their positions.

Jon has provided evidence that the NT was counter to revolutionary sentiments, and there are ample examples where Jefferson is critical of Paul ... perhaps other founders were as well, but I don't recall any examples at the moment.

Can you provide a reference which directly indicateds that any of the founders directly relied on the NT as a source of inspiration for the revolution?

Matt Huisman said...

...are you taking the position that the Revolution was a manifestation of the influence of orthodox Christianity on the founders?

I can't say, Ben. I'm merely responding to Jon's assertion that it couldn't have been and still be considered orthodox.

Jon holds that MacArthur's understanding of Romans 13 is orthodox - no rebellion against civil authority is permitted. The trouble is that even MacArthur qualifies this when he states that:

There is only one occasion tolerated in Scripture for violating the command to obey the government: when it demands us to do what God has forbidden us to do, or demands us not to do what God has commanded us to do.

Now, even if faced with a civil authority that needed to be resisted, MacArthur would still strongly disagree with the methods of the Revolution. But you can see where many earnest orthodox Christians would see this as requiring them to openly resist an unjust secondary authority.

bpabbott said...

Matt, thank you for the clear reply!

Unfortunately "Fay" has left my home without power and me with EDGE only Internet access on my spiffy new 3G iPhone :-(

I am eager to reply, but will have to wait on Progress Energy!