Thursday, July 16, 2009

Were the Anglican Whigs Hypocrites

A huge number of America's Founding Fathers were Anglicans then Episcopalians. Official church doctrines and oaths administered by the church held as a matter of political theology the right of the King of England to rule and demanded submission to his authority. Likewise the Tory ministers like Samuel Seabury argued the traditional understanding of Romans 13 that demanded unlimited submission to rulers.

It should be no surprise that a great many American Anglicans were Tory loyalists for that very reason. But a great number of them, surprisingly, rebelled.

This relates to the controversy of Trinitarianism and the Founding in the following sense: There were a great many non-Trinitarians in Trinitarian Churches in both American and England. They called themselves "dissenters." See Franklin describe this dynamic -- and his own status as a "dissenting Christian" -- in his letter to Ezra Stiles where he wrote:

Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. 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: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed,... [Bold mine.]

These "dissenters" in England were men like Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, who thought of themselves as "unitarian Christians" or "rational Christians" and believed orthodox Trinitarian doctrines were "corruptions" of Christianity. That's the relevance of Franklin's use of the term "corrupting changes" -- that was a term of art defined by Priestley as original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement and plenary inspiration of the Bible. These dissenters were disproportionately Whig (but not all; some Tories were unitarians as well). Dissent plays an extremely important role in America's Founding principle. America was founded on principles that got Algernon Sidney's head chopped off by the ruling authorities a generation earlier.

How this relates to Washington and the other Anglicans and Trinitarianism: Peter Lillback has explicitly argued (I remember Michael Novak arguing something similar but in a far more cautious tone) that Washington was orthodox Trinitarian because the Anglican Church to which he belonged was orthodox. And if he belonged to a church that recited Trinitarian creeds while not believing in them, then he was a hypocrite. And how dare we "secular scholars" lay such a charge of hypocrisy against the father of our country.

When explaining why Washington systematically avoided communion, Lillback vociferously argues against the idea that it was because Washington disbelieved in the atonement, which, it seems to me, is the most logical explanation. And it was John Marshall's explicitly proffered reason for not communing in that very Church.

Instead Lillback argues it was likelier because the King of England was head of this Church and many of its ministers and Bishops were officially Tory (like the aforementioned Seabury). And he didn't want to commune with THEM.

That could be the reason -- it's sheer speculation and no likelier than GW disbelieved in the atonement explanation. Yet, it seems to me this raises all of the same hypocrisy issue that come with non-Trinitarians worshipping in Trinitarian churches. In both instances -- someone who disbelieves in the Trinity OR one's church's official doctrines regarding the theological authority of the King to Rule -- one is a dissenter. And either dissenters are hypocrites for belonging to churches in whose doctrines they disbelieve or they are not.

The Anglicans who held official positions in their church -- for instance, Washington, Thomas Jefferson and George Wythe, all vestrymen -- took oaths, not just to the Trinity but of allegiance to the King of England. So in the simple act of revolting, many Anglican Whigs violated those oaths they took in their church. Though people never violate their sacred oaths like "till death us do part."

Does that make them hypocrites?


Tom Van Dyke said...

It was the clergymen who swore to the king, and it gave many or most of them a lot of trouble.

When stuck, some of them figured the Glorious Revolution in there somewhere, but most clergymen stayed loyal according at least to the Wiki.

"Hypocrite" is a kinda boring line of argument. It requires everyone except the person making the charge to be a sitting duck. Life---and conscience---are more, um, nuanced than that.

Jonathan Rowe said...

You are right that most clergyman stayed loyal. But other officials and many laymen stayed loyal; and I'd imagine their political-theological Anglicanism complete with the oaths that they took may have weighed on their consciences.

The one newly appointed Bishop who was a Whig -- one the FFs loved and considered honest -- Bishop James Madison, as we have seen, his Whiggery led him to believe in some out there things.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Did others than the clergy swear loyalty?

folk notions said...

The dissension of American Anglicans during this time was not the first - a century earlier approximately 2,000 Anglican clergy with Puritan leanings left the clergy in 1662 when they were forced to renounce taking up arms against the King and conform to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

So, though the Anglican church taught unlimited allegiance to the King, many Anglicans were unwilling to affirm this.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, Mr. Notions. The English Civil War of the 1600s has great relevance to the religio-political landscape of the American Revolution.

I hope you'll stop by again. I looked at your blog and like your approach to source documents, to understand the writers as they understood themselves.