Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Falling short of its promise -- Alf Mapp's The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America's Founder's Really Believed

When I finished reading Alf Mapp's Faith of Our Fathers: What America's Founders Really Believed in September of 2007, I posted a quick review to Amazon.com. Since the book, and my review, relate to the subject matter of the American Creation blog, I figure I'll reproduce it here . . .

a great idea, poorly executed

Mapp's The Faiths of our Fathers is a light read, appropriate for high school students perhaps. But the editing is poor, factual assertions are inaccurate, and all too often the analysis is weak and deep understanding absent.

The book opens on a note both strong and true: "There was no monolithic national faith acknowledged by all Founding Fathers. Their religious attitudes were as varied as their political opinions." (pp. 1-2). Yet Mapp does not quite deliver on the promise of clearly explaining the Founding Fathers' many heterodoxies.

Consider Thomas Jefferson. Mapp observes that one of Thomas Jefferson's "dearest friends was Joseph Priestley, a liberal clergyman as well as a distinguished scientist," (p. 14), but he fails to note that Jefferson attributed to Priestley's Unitarian theology the foundations of his own religious faith. Mapp acknowledges that "Jefferson rejected the trinitarian concept of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Spirit)." (p. 11). But the word "Unitarian" appears not even once in the chapter of the faith of our nation's third President, who earnestly expressed hope that Unitarianism would soon become our nation's the general religion.

Mapp's chapter on John Adams opens by giving the impression that Adams was bound by "Puritan and Calvinist doctrines," (p. 56), though what Mapp means to say is far from clear, as his discussion of Adams's religious beliefs quickly demonstrates that our nation's second President - rejecting such fundamental doctrines as eternal hell and the divinity of Christ - was anything but a Calvinist.

Mapp tells us that Adams declared: "An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent, omnipotent, omniscient author of this stupendous universe, suffering on a cross!!! My soul starts with horror at the idea, and it has stupefied the Christian world. It has been the source of almost all the corruptions of Christianity." (p. 62). Many of today's evangelicals - who insist that only those who believe Jesus was God can call themselves Christians - would have to deny that Adams was a Christian. By their standard, three of our nation's first six presidents - John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams - were not Christians. One can only wonder why Mapp never points this out.

Mapp says that Adams also "declared his disbelief in demoniacal possession," and then "[a]nticipating the anger his declaration would provoke in some quarters, he wrote, 'Howl, snarl, bite, ye Calvinistic, ye Athanasian divines, if ye will. Ye will say I am no Christian. I say ye are not Christians, and there the account is balanced.'" (p. 61). In context, however, the quoted phrase - which appears in a September 14, 1813, letter to Thomas Jefferson - relates not to Adams's disbelief in demoniacal possession, but to his rejection of the Calvinists' doctrine of eternal damnation. Yet Mapp does adequately convey Adams's inability to believe that a loving God would consign human beings to eternal hell: "My adoration of the author of the universe is too profound and too sincere." (p. 61).

Many have noted the role that religion has played in objections to the institution of slavery. Of James Madison, our federal Constitution's principal author, Mapp writes: "His determined, lifelong opposition to slavery also cost him support and perhaps some personal friendships. But, though a master of compromise in negotiation, he would not compromise on what he regarded as a major moral issue." (p.50). Yet Madison did compromise on precisely this issue. The Constitution that he did so much to frame, that he signed, and whose ratification he vigorously promoted, included both a clause protecting the slave trade from federal regulation (Article I, sec. 9, cl. 1), and also the notorious fugitive-slave clause, mandating that escaped slaves be returned to their owners: "No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due." (Article 4, sec. 2, cl. 3).

As Mapp tries to outline the religious beliefs of eleven Founding Fathers, he unfortunately gets many points of American religious history dead wrong. He confuses two distinct groups, the Pilgrims and the Puritans, for example, when he writes: "At home in England and during their self-imposed exile in Holland, the Puritans had been rebels. But in Massachusetts they had built their own society, which they were confident was ordained by God." (p. 26). In fact, the Puritans who would dominate the government of Massachusetts came direct from England. And although lay people are apt to confuse the Puritans with the Pilgrims, those Separatist "rebels" who spent some time in Holland, it is surprising to find such confusion in a book about the religious background of our nation's Founding Fathers.

This is by no means the only confusion in Mapp's book. Mapp tells us, for example, that by George Washington's time, "Anglicans constituted the established church of England and its colonies." (p. 66). That, of course, is gross overstatement. For Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware had no established churches while throughout New England - excepting establishment-free Rhode Island - the established churches were Congregationalist, not Anglican.

Discussing Benjamin Franklin's beliefs, Mapp even confuses polytheism and pantheism. (p.32).

Poor editing causes problems throughout. When Mapp purports to quote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for example, he adds to the Statute's text lines coming instead from Thomas Jefferson's 1787 Notes on Virginia, to the effect that "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." (p. 8). The title of the landmark 1947 Supreme Court opinion, Everson v. Board of Education, so influenced by Jefferson's wall of separation between church and state, is given as "Emerson." Mapp is off by two decades when he writes: "In 1775, following Braddock's defeat and the experience of remaining unharmed when several bullets pierced his coat, Washington exclaimed in a personal letter: 'See the wondrous works of providence!'" (p.73). The year was 1755, not 1775.

And if I, as a casual reader, can spot these errors, there must be many more.

In all, this is a book based on a great idea that opens with great promise, but that falls short of its potential.

Eric Alan Isaacson

4 comments:

Pinky said...

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It is more an introductory book into the questions about America's Founding Fathers and about what they believed. A good book for anyone from the seventh grade on up.
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Quoting Eric's post, "At home in England and during their self-imposed exile in Holland, the Puritans had been rebels. But in Massachusetts they had built their own society, which they were confident was ordained by God." (p. 26). In fact, the Puritans who would dominate the government of Massachusetts came direct from England.
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I'm not sure of your point here, Eric; but, Mapp isn't saying that the Puritans came directly from any place other than England.
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Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Hi Pinky,

I quoted the passage in question to show that Mapp confuses the Puritans with the Pilgrims. It was the Separatist Pilgrims who endured a "self-imposed exile in Holland," and not the Puritans, as Mapp has it.

It doesn't bother me much that people frequently confuse the Puritans and the Pilgrims. But it's a mistake that someone like Mapp, in writing a book on American intellectual history, really should not make.

By the way - - here's a link to Gregg Frazer's review of Mapp's book (which I have to acknowledge is more sophisticated than my own):
http://www.claremont.org/publications/pubid.394/pub_detail.asp

And here's a link to Jon Rowe's comments on Frazer's review:

http://jonrowe.blogspot.com/2005/01/faith-of-our-founders-over-at.html

I probably should have googled these things before writing and posting my own review.

Eric

Pinky said...

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Re: Mapp's little book.
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Every once in a while, I pick it up and read a few pages. I'm 3/4 of the way through Alexander Hamilton.
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It's a lite read and I can't see how it was ever expected to be more than an historical sampler. As long as the reader isn't looking to do any serious study, it certainly gives one a pretty good idea of the variety of religious thought that is exemplified by the Founding Fathers. It is almost, if not entirely, an entertaining and fun book to read.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree that Mapp sort of phoned this one in.

Many parts of it read like a first draft.