Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Founding Era Republican Enlightenment Clergy & Theology, Part I

As I try to get a clearer understanding of how Founding era Americans viewed the French Revolution, I've come across a rich source of "Christian" literature arguing on behalf of the French Revolution's principles. As I understand the history -- the French were quite popular in Founding era America; they were instrumental to securing American victory over the British, and American consensus initially strongly supported the French Revolution and thought (or perhaps hoped) it would be an extension of the American Revolution. As things started to go wrong, more Americans began to jump ship. And the end of Washington's Presidency coincided with the emergence of political parties (the Federalists v. the Democratic-Republicans) and the increasing awareness that the situation in France was getting worse. Support for the French Revolution became divided along party lines, with the Federalists becoming increasingly anti-French Revolution and sympathizing with the British and the Republicans maintaining support for the French.

Along the way, some orthodox Federalist Clergy labeled Jefferson an "infidel." They did so for a variety of reasons, in part for his excessive sympathy for the French, but also for things he wrote in "Notes on the State of Virginia." But, the Republicans had their clergy and theologians as well, many of whom defended Jefferson and the French Revolution on explicitly "Christian" grounds. Or, at least they presented their defense of such under the auspices of "Christianity." But what presented itself as "Christianity" was Enlightenment dogma mixed in with biblical language. I recently wrote about one of these figures -- Bishop James Madison. But there are more, one of whom I detail below and others in subsequent posts.

Note these defenders of Jefferson and the French Revolution were not Thomas Paine style deists. Though some of these enlightened clergymen may have appreciated the likes of Paine, Voltaire and Rousseau (to an extent) it was not open infidels rejecting the "Christian" label who had respectable platforms for reaching the public (the works of the hard infidels were widely read in certain circles, but also viewed as subversive; you can imagine them being mailed in brown paper envelopes). Rather, it was clergy and theologians teaching such things as the perfectibility of man was a "Christian principle." A recurring theme is that the French Revolution would triumphantly usher in a millennial republic of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." This should illustrate a danger to orthodox Christians who wish to read in "republicanism" to the biblical record that clearly *isn't there.*

Philip Hamburger writes about this dynamic in Chapter 6 of "Separation of Church and State," entitled Keeping Religion Out of Politics and Making Politics Religious. And the Liberty Fund reproduces many of these sermons edited by Ellis Sandoz.

First let us learn about the Tunis Wortman, a theologian. Sandoz notes:

Wortman’s background and activities before the 1790s are unknown. He appears first as a New York City lawyer and man of the Enlightenment, a French-style partisan of liberty, and an apostle of the millennial republic. He viewed the French Revolution as the continuation of the American Revolution and as the European phase of history’s progress toward universal peace.


This is from Wortman's, 1800 A SOLEMN ADDRESS TO CHRISTIANS AND PATRIOTS:

TO MY READERS

In the ensuing observations, I shall consider your duties as christians and as patriots. I shall make it my task to establish the following propositions.

1st. That it is your duty, as christians, to maintain the purity and independence of the church, to keep religion separate from politics, to prevent an union between the church and the state, and to preserve your clergy from temptation, corruption and reproach.

2d. That as christians and patriots, it is equally your duty to defend the liberty and constitution of your country.

3d. Although I am a sincere and decided opponent of infidelity, yet as it respects a president of the United States, an enmity to the constitution is the most dangerous evil; inasmuch as christianity is secure by the force of its own evidence, and coming from God, cannot be destroyed by human power; but, on the contrary, the constitution, is vulnerable to the attacks of an ambitious and unprincipled executive.

4th. That Mr. Jefferson is in reality a republican, sincerely attached to the constitution of his country, amiable and irreproachable in his conduct as a man, and that we have every reason to believe him, in sincerity, a christian.

5th. That the charge of deism, contained in such pamphlet, is false, scandalous and malicious—that there is not a single passage in the Notes on Virginia, or any of Mr. Jefferson’s writings, repugnant to christianity; but on the contrary, in every respect, favourable to it—and further, that there is every reason to believe the story of Mazzei a base and ridiculous falsehood.


Interestingly, Wortman defended Jefferson and called for separation of Church & State while attacking the harder "infidels."

If you are real christians, anxious for the honor and purity and interest of the christian church, you will feel a steady determination, to preserve it free from corruption. Unless you maintain the pure and primitive spirit of christianity, and prevent the cunning and intrigue of statesmen from mingling with its institutions; you will become exposed to a renewal of the same dreadful and enormous scenes which have not only disgraced the annals of the church, but destroyed the peace, and sacrificed the lives of millions. It is by such scenes and by such dreadful crimes, that christianity has suffered; by such fatal and destructive enormities which, since the days of Constantine, have been perpetrated without intermission, that the church has become debased and polluted; in language similar to that of Joshua, we have reason to exclaim there is an accursed thing within the tabernacle. The blood of many an innocent Abel has stained the ephod, the vestments and the altar. Religion has suffered more from the restless ambition and impiety of the church of Rome, than from all the writings of a Voltaire, a Tindal, a Volney, or even the wretched blasphemies of Paine.*

[...]

Experience suggests a more satisfactory but a more fatal reason; the crimes and abuses which have been committed in its name, cruelty and persecution, and intolerance have raised up an host of enemies, and accounts for the zeal, the bitterness and the vehemence of their opposition. It is the departure from the original purity of the system; the alliance with courts; the impurities and prophanity of spurious, amphibious, hermorphredite priests, the innumerable atrocities and persecutions, which have been perpetrated in the name of the most high, that has produced or encouraged the school of infidelity, and occasioned many an honest mind to believe that the establishment of christianity, is incompatible with civil freedom. Let me conjure you, then, to purify the altar, to keep things sacred from intermingling with things prophane, to maintain religion separate and apart from the powers of this world; and then, to use an expression similar to that of the infidel Rousseau, you will hasten the æra when all mankind shall bow at the feet of Jesus.


But what kind of "Christian" was Wortman? Four years earlier in 1796 in an "Oration on the Influence of Social Institutions," he noted that the spirit of the age (enlightenment) had "exalted the human character to a state of splendid greatness and perfectibility that no former age has ever yet realised or experienced." He cited Godwin for the proposition of the mind's "plastic nature" and railed against the "monkish and dishonorable doctrine which teaches the original depravity of mankind," which Wortman termed a "false and pernicious libel upon our species." Eventually human progress would perfect mankind. As Wortman wrote, mankind would "continue to make accelerated advances in wisdom and in virtue until he hath rendered himself the vanquisher of misery and vice, and until 'Mind hath become omnipotent over matter.'" (For more see the above link to Hamburger's "Separation of Church and State.")

In subsequent posts I'll detail more enlightened "Christians" who sympathized with Jefferson & the French Revolution. I don't think their views represented "mainstream" thought for the Founding era, but they were "the base" of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans who represented half of America towards the end of the "Founding Era" (the 1790s).

18 comments:

Pinky said...

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I'm glad you found this information in your research. It was well taken as a good lesson of history.n Thank you.
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Wortman seems to be the type Christian that follows the Jesus who exemplifies and finally dies for all innocent "little ones" rather than the Calvinists that teach all human beings are utterly depraved and born in sin.
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Too bad we don't have many Wortmans today.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

I think it's overly generous to call Tunis Workman a "theologian," but let's take him at face value, and as a gentleman of some influence.

4th. That Mr. Jefferson is in reality a republican, sincerely attached to the constitution of his country, amiable and irreproachable in his conduct as a man, and that we have every reason to believe him, in sincerity, a christian.

5th. That the charge of deism, contained in such pamphlet, is false, scandalous and malicious—that there is not a single passage in the Notes on Virginia, or any of Mr. Jefferson’s writings, repugnant to christianity; but on the contrary, in every respect, favourable to it...


Well, we see where the public Jefferson pulled the wool over everyone's eyes.

I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson is a deist—there is nothing in the wretched pamphlet of ———, to convince me of that fact. It is a groundless calumny. If it was truth, it could be supported by better evidence."

Ha. We have it now, but too late. But Workman continues:


Suppose, for a moment, that there are three candidates for the presidency—Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Adams, and Mr. Pinckney—that Mr. Jefferson was in reality a deist, but a decided friend to the republican constitution of his country—that the two others were very pious & sincere christians, but secretly friends to aristocracy or monarchy, & hostile to the spirit of the present constitution, which of the three would be the most dangerous man?"

A good point. Elsewhere he flat-out accuses Jefferson's 1800 election opponent Adams of being an anti-American crypto-tyrant:

6th. That Mr. Adams is not a republican, agreeably to the true intent and meaning of the constitution of the United States.

And after Adams and the Federalists' fairly tyrannical 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, it was a valid criticism.

So, Wortman alleges Pinckney and Adams to be "secretly friends to aristocracy or monarchy, & hostile to the spirit of the present constitution." That only leaves Jefferson.

But what of the charges he's an infidel? Don't worry about it, sez Wortman:


"Mr. Jefferson, in such case, even if he had the intentions, could not be of the smallest disservice to religion: thanks to heaven, christianity has taken too deep a root to be capable of being shaken by the opinions, or even the enmity of any president. I know of no other method by which religion can be injured by any government in this country, except by its setting one powerful church above the heads of the rest. But this Mr. Jefferson is incapable of doing; for according to such position; he would be equally indifferent to all; in this sense, strange as it may appear, christianity would have much more to apprehend from a bigot than an infidel. But let us imagine for a moment, that an enemy to the constitution should be elected president of the United States. Gracious heaven! I shudder when I contemplate the picture! Our liberties prostituted—our religion at the mercy of one intolerant church—for every tyranny must & will have its establishment. Our civil constitution abandoned, or what is worse, mutilated, and distorted, and deformed into every protean shape; and the fruits of our glorious revolution—of the blood of our fathers, of the miseries of our families and our children—of the burning and ravaging of our towns, and of the desolation of our villages gone—gone forever!! These are serious—these are impressive considerations. Tell me christian! which of these alternatives is the most pregnant with calamity?

[Bold face mine.]

Now, it seems clear that Wortman acknowledges here that "[C]hristianity has taken too deep a root" in America to be eradicated by politics.

I don't see how this can't be fairly read as America being in some real sense a "Christian nation," even if its central government is not explicitly so.

We note here that although Wortman was quite right about Jefferson's ability to damage Christianity in 1800, the central government of 2009 is inarguably much stronger and pervasive, if only for its interpretation and subsequent enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified 1n 1868.

Could "the enmity of a president" [or Congress, or most importantly, the courts] be of "the smallest disservice to religion" [and here, Wortman uses "religion" and "Christianity" interchangably]?

Well, yes, I think it could be of considerable disservice.

As for the rest of Wortman, his anti-clericalism is typical of the Founding, although his belief in the perfectibility of man and man's institutions warrants further study for pervasiveness and inherent truth.

As for the French Revolution, once it showed its true colors, and tested the perfectibility of man and man's reason, untethered from the natural law, well, I think there were few Americans who observed the results of that tragic experiment who were anxious to repeat it.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

I agree that present government is more hostile to traditional religion's privilege in the public square as compared to the way it existed during the Founding.

Though, I think believers should understand that the worst of what Courts sympathetic to the ACLU have done is like swatting away some gnats. As Madison himself noted in the Mem. & Remon., Christianity itself flourished with "miraculous aid," during times that were a Hell of a lot worse (under pagan Roman rule).

As for my terming Wortman a "theologian," his address is reproduced in the Liberty Fund in Ellis Sandoz's collection of sermons. Originally I thought he was a minister until I read up on him and saw that he wasn't a "Rev."

Tom Van Dyke said...

No problem on those grounds, Jon. I meself wouldn't credit many "Rev's" to be theologians, either, just as not everyone is an historian or a philosopher who opines on those topics.

I agree that present government is more hostile to traditional religion's privilege in the public square as compared to the way it existed during the Founding.

Ah. That's just something I want us to all be clear on, as we look at the Founding for clues about the present day.

And mebbe that hostility is as it should be---that has to be discussed as a separate topic, and preferably not on this blog except in the late-comment BS sessions.

But I think your average American would be surprised that the Founding was friendlier to the free expression of religion than is the case today.

To touch on Pinky's charge that I've been a closet American nationist all along, that's simply not so. When I started studying this stuff, I was under the impression that I think many or most Americans are under---that the Founding was pretty deistic, and that there wasn't much concern about the content of the Bible or Christianity. I thought that if I was going to find Christianity in the Founding, it would be through the echoes of pre-Reformation theologian/philosophers like Aquinas on Enlightenment figures like Locke.

That influence was certainly there, but I also discovered the effect of the Reformation---Protestantism---and a lot less of the Enlightenment than I anticipated. It appears that the Enlightenment is largely superfluous or at least coterminous, as the currents of contemporaneous Christian thought accommodate both it and the Founding.

Imagine my surprise.

As Madison himself noted in the Mem. & Remon., Christianity itself flourished with "miraculous aid," during times that were a Hell of a lot worse (under pagan Roman rule).

This is certainly something that the evangelical types like Gary North, yr pal Gregg Frazer, and the very Roman Catholic Robert Kraynak are coming to terms with.

The irony to me is that it's the liberal &/or secularists like Wortman who may have the most to worry about. Christianity will get along fine without them.

But if it was indeed the currents of Christian thought and not Enlightenment-secular thought that was bringing about the human progress they observed and believed would move toward some sort of human perfection, what will be the result of tearing away the Christian foundations of the progress?

Some wonder; not all of them are Christians.

More here, see also the comments section for my note on Habermas.

Jonathan Rowe said...

This is getting a little off topic. But I am not convinced that Christian foundations (other than the shell of innovations they might have given us) are necessary for the flourishing of human society. Capitalism, property rights, work ethic, rule of law, and a degree of liberty are necessary. As a libertarian I'd grant far more liberty than what I observed as "necessary." But places like Singapore, Hong Kong and post WWII Japan show that you can be a modern capitialistic, cosmopolitan, industrialized society without "Judeo-Christian" foundations.

Hell, much of secular Europe are pretty damn nice, civilized places to live as well. I would concede they do have a bit of problem with replacement levels.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, these democratic republics are less than 50 years old. To quote Chou en-Lai about the effects of the French Revolution, it's too soon to tell.

Just as I set to close up for the night, the missus read me the front page of the LA Times.

Seems democracy in South Korea is impossible without chainsaws, sledgehammers, and turning the fire extinguishers on the opposition.

http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-fg-korea-fight28-2009jan28,0,181812.story

What I do like about Benedict Anderson and his "Imagined Communities" [thx, Brad] is that Anderson looks at the entire world and its entire history, unlike almost all would-be historians, philosophers and sociologists.

But I do pray that my comment above isn't just lost in the mush here. I shy away from justifying myself, but it seems it's necessary to establish one's bona fides as a human being before other human beings will open their ears to you.

Since we have a small circle here, I was really hoping I could just repel the ad homs every once in awhile instead of daily.

You understand.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And since our circle is small I'll react to your latest comment with something more explicit than what I wrote in my previous concept. As a libertarian, I have to concede that places like South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and now China & Vietnam are doing well without the degree of political liberty I value.

From a strict utilitarian perspective the problem with communism wasn't that it didn't value human liberty but that Marxist economics didn't work.

So they've managed to transition to flourishing economies by adopting capitalism and property rights, all the while maintaining Iron First authoritarian (some might say totalitarian) rule. Though there are different degrees of "authoritarianism." I can deal with a Singapore, South Korea, or Hong Kong (the latter being my favorite) which are more moderate (comparatively speaking) than China or Vietnam.

Or to use the American example: What Rudy Guiliani did in NYC as mayor. He didn't value liberty above all else. But I see his "quality of life" project as one that was secular, more authoritarian than I prefer (I think the porno shops at Time's Square have their rights too), but one that ultimately worked and NYC (despite what Guiliani's critics say) nonetheless remained the "free" pluralistic, cosmopolitan, vibrant city that it is.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, and Amsterdam is revolting against its libertarianism/ libertinism of late, for utilitarian reasons. What might that tell us?

Pinky said...

J. Rowe writes, "This is getting a little off topic. But I am not convinced that Christian foundations (other than the shell of innovations they might have given us) are necessary for the flourishing of human society. Capitalism, property rights, work ethic, rule of law, and a degree of liberty are necessary."
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Maybe it's off topic and maybe not.
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The purpose of society is plainly stated in the Declaration of Independence, ie., "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. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed."
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This reiterates what the ancient greeks had to say on the subject and I am almost certain our Founding Fathers were influenced by their philosophies.
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Society is formed for the happiness of the members. Plain and simple.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "[...] and Amsterdam is revolting against its libertarianism/ libertinism of late, for utilitarian reasons. What might that tell us?"

Shear coincidence I think, but Alonzo Fyfe has a post today titled, Desire Utilitarianism and Political Libertarianism

Jason_Pappas said...

Given 17 centuries of Christian incorporation of Greco-Roman ideas, from Ambose to Aquinas and beyond, it isn’t surprising to see classical ideas in Christian garb. The early Church fathers used to claim that Cicero and Plato stole their ideas from the Jews (see Copleston) and consequently are the rightful property of the faith. It’s quite common for a Christian to see Christianity in everything that is good. Thus, it isn’t odd to see Wortman say that since Jefferson walks and talks like a Christian, he must be a Christian.

Pinky said...

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How can anyone refute a person who speaks of ancient Greece when their name is Jason Pappas?
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Your point is well taken, J.P..

Tom Van Dyke said...

"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.

Where did the Greeks say this?

Pinky said...

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Did ANYONE say the Greeks said, "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."?

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When you assume my intentions, you make an ass of you and me.
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Jason_Pappas said...

Rights are actually Stoic in origin. I talk about it in my blog some time ago. Cicero was the major source for European & American writers especially in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. In any case, read that first quote in my link and decide for yourself.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, not only Cicero, but quoting Leo Strauss from his seminal "Natural Right and History." Excellent. I hope you'll stick around awhile, Jason.

Whether Cicero was the major source of that era's thinking is of course arguable, since he'd already been swept up by the Christian tradition. But I 'feel" Cicero in George Washington's writings more than any other influence, and his quote about universal justice being the same everywhere anywhen is echoed by Edmund Burke in a speech about Britain's doings in India.

Cool.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree that Jason's post was excellent and relates to the study we do here. Look for me to do a front page post about it in a few days.

Jason_Pappas said...

Thanks for the warm welcome and for giving me more to read! I’ve been reading more than I've been blogging since there’s so much to dive into. However, I’ll drop a few comments to get feedback and hopefully encourage debate.

(I thought I posted a comment like this yesterday but perhaps it never went throught.)