Saturday, January 2, 2010

George Washington, Art. VI, Cl. 3 and the Swedenborgs

John Fea's post (through Tom Van Dyke) on the persistence of religious tests during and after the American Founding certainly puts history into much needed context. America, at the state level, wasn't "secularized" when the US's mainly secular Constitution was ratified.

Below I offer something from George Washington for more context. For good or ill, this political-theological-historical (sometimes legal and philosophical) study in which we are involved gets invoked in modern day political-culture war battles. The "Christian America" side may read the history Dr. Fea uncovered (as I've seen them) as illustrating an "ideal" that Christian religious tests -- at the state level -- are an acceptable and/or desirable part of America's "Christian heritage." Religious tests were not implemented at the federal level, they note, because competition among the "Christian sects" made it impractical.

These same folks oft-hold President Washington out to be some kind of ideal "Christian statesman."

We've already seen Benjamin Rush, Ben Franklin and Richard Price criticize Pennsylvania's Christian religious test as "un-Declarational." And it should be noted that PA didn't abolish its Christian religious test but replaced it with one that was generically theistic (as I've noted before).

What follows -- and what hopefully complements my post on Rush, Franklin et al. -- is George Washington on Art. VI. Cl. 3., in a letter to the Swedenborgs on the matter.

What's notable about the SWEDENBORGS, as the recipients of Washington's letter:

"Christian Nationalists" like David Barton oft-argue America's political theology was "Christianity generally," not any kind of sectarian Christianity. Further, if they define it at all, "Christianity generally" means Sola-Scriptura or "the Bible says." Because evangelicals, as it were, disproportionately argue the "Christian Nation" thesis, they either 1) equate such "Christianity generally" with orthodox doctrines (with responses like "the Bible clearly teaches the Trinity, etc."; or 2) duck the question. (For instance, if one believes Mormonism meets the minimal definition of "Christianity," one gets a radically different understanding of "Christianity generally.") Likewise, they see Art. VI, Cl. 3 as reinforcing the "Christianity generally" thesis.

Note, there is Founding era rhetoric that supports the "Christianity generally" contention. However -- it's beyond the scope of this blogpost to argue the point sufficiently (perhaps I will in a published article or book) -- "Christianity generally," as Founding era political theology, by logical necessity transcends orthodox Trinitarian/Sola-Scriptura doctrine -- and morphs into something the orthodox deem "unitarian" or "theistic rationalist."

Case in point, as noted Christian Nationalists attempt to make Art. VI. Cl. 3 "fit" with their "general Christianity" thesis. Yet, as we will see below Washington held the Swedenborgs to be EQUALLY PROTECTED under Art. VI. Cl. 3. And the Swedenborgs 1) were not orthodox Trinitarians (they weren't unitarians either) and 2) weren't Sola-Scripturaists but added revelation to the Bible's text.

Also pay special attention to the way Washington discusses the no religious test clause. There is not a hint of "oh these things are just peachy, but at the state level," but rather sees banning religious tests, in principle, as laudably exemplifying the "enlightened Age...of equal liberty" that was the "boast" of the American Founding.

With that, here is the address:

To the members of the New Church at Baltimore.


It has ever been my pride to mind the approbation of my fellow citizens by a faithful and honest discharge of the duties annexed to those Stations to which they have pledged to place me; and the dearest rewards of my Services have been those testimonies of esteem and confidence with which they have honored me. But to the manifest interpretation of an over-ruling Providence, and to the patriotic exertions of United America, are to be ascribed those events which have given us a respectable rank among the nations of the earth.

We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age & in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets, will not forfeit his protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.

Your Prayers for my present and future felicity were received with gratitude; and I sincerely wish, Gentlemen, that you may in your social and individual capacities, taste those blessings which a gracious God bestows upon the Righteous.

G. Washington


Tom Van Dyke said...

Y'know, I'm a pretty good Googler, and I saw pages and pages of "secular" accounts of how the Pennsylvania religious tests were discarded in 1790, but not one mentioned that they still left in a religious test afterall!

Except, 50 or so entries deep, our own Jonathan Rowe! The 1790 "liberal" version:

Sec. 4. That no person, who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments, shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this commonwealth.

Well done, JR. It shows the truth still lies largely buried and undiscovered.


As for sola scriptura, I think most evangelicals realize that Catholics aren't sola scriptura; indeed that was a major reason for the Reformation.

I do not think they envision a return to any regime that cuts out Catholics. Or Jews, whom Washington also wrote a similar letter to. In fact, the "liberal" 1790 PA constitutional amendment was preceded by a concerted effort by PA Jews to get rid of a requirement for belief in the "New" Testament.

A victory for Judeo-Christianity, one might say.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks for the link. It's something which should be put on the frontpage.

Ray Soller said...

For anyone who wants to read an extensive examination surrounding the initial inclusion and subsequent liberalization of religious test oaths from the Pennsylvania state constitution should read the essay, Prelude to Article VI: The Ordeal of Religious Test Oaths in Pennsylvania by Stephen A. Smith, University of Arkansas, 1992, that's posted at

Here's my favorite snippet taken from Noah Webster (March, 1787):

After legislative repeal of the political loyalty oaths in Pennsylvania, Noah Webster urged repeal of the religious tests as well. The repeal of the political oaths, he wrote, was "a prelude to wiser measurers; people are just awakening from delusion. The time will come (and the day may be near!) when all test laws, oaths of allegiances, abjuration, and partial exclusions from civil offices will be proscribed from this land of freedom. . . . They originated in savage ignorance, and they are the instruments of slavery."[73] Such rhetoric had a certain resonance that would be endorsed by the Republicans and would not be disputed by the Constitutionalists.

[73] Noah Webster, On Test Oaths, Oaths of Allegiance, & Partial Exclusions from Office