Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

In my last post, I noted George Washington's letter to REVEREND JOHN LATHROP praising the original Humane Society of Massachusetts which Rev. Lathrop helped found.

That group is still around. You may view their official site here.

As this relates to Washington and religion, in "George Washington's Sacred Fire," Peter Lillback cites Washington's thoughts on Lathrop's sermon as evidence of his orthodox Christianity. Indeed, Lillback repeatedly notes Washington's special praise for the address, that he received it with "singular satisfaction." Lillback also claims said Humane Society was "deeply committed to historic Christianity." (p. 671.) Lillback's book defines "historic Christianity" as "orthodox."

The problem is, it's likely that Rev. Lathrop was not an orthodox Christian AND a number of the founders of the Humane Society were committed Unitarians.

From the official site:

Formally established in 1786, The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts elected James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts and the founder of Bowdoin College, to be its first president. The other original trustees were Rev. John Clarke, Dr. Aaron Dexter, Rev. Dr. Simeon Howard, Rev. Dr. John Lathrop, Rev. Samuel Parker, Dr. Isaac Rand, Dr. John Warren, Dr. Thomas Welsh, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse and Judge Oliver Wendell. In 1791, The Humane Society was formally incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

One of those unitarians, Dr. Waterhouse, corresponded with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson felt comfortable writing what follows to Dr. Waterhouse:

... The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.

1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.

These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.

1. That there are three Gods.
2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
3 That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.

Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists, as Athanasius and Calvin? ...

Regardless of whether the members of the Humane Society or, for that matter, Washington himself, were as extreme unitarians as was Jefferson, they all shared a very man centered theistic creed.


Tom Van Dyke said...

they all shared a very man centered theistic creed

This was not proved by this post.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well proving it would take a lot longer than the amount of words I wanted to write.

I see a distinction between the "theists" whose worldview (if you will) was more "good of man" as opposed to "glory of God" oriented.

The "orthodox" esp. the Calvinists were more "Glory of God" oriented. All of the figures in my post including GW, TJ, BF and those ministers were more "good of man" theists.

I thought it esp. relevant to note this given the post is about the HUMANE society.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I dunno. Seems like the same sort of leaps Lilliback is guilty of. I'll take your word it had a high proportion of unitarians, but Calvinism isn't the last word on Christianity. Not-Calvinist isn't necessarily "man centered the[ism]." "Unitarian" isn't necessarily man centered theism. Even Jefferson's musing that slavery might be ended by "supernatural interference" isn't man centered theism.

And not that I want to defend him, because I disagree with his thesis, but perhaps Lilliback had some reason to think the Humane Society was "deeply committed to historic Christianity (p. 671.)" and just didn't make that up out of whole cloth. Perhaps.

The Humane Society seems to me to have an inordinate lot of "Reverends," and let's keep in mind there were few philanthropic societies at that time, least of all "ecumenical" [non-sectarian ones].

The Humane societies don't seem to me to be particularly Christian, but these days we tend to read "secular" into anything that wasn't explicitly Christian, and I think that's a big mistake.

But from a history of the Massachusetts chapter, I found this, which is pretty religious, and might be what Lilliback is referring to.

* At the anniversary of " The Royal Humane Society, " in 1804, it was stated
that since its institution in 1774, a period of only thirty years, two thousand eight
hundred and fifty-nine persons of all ages and conditions had been recorded in
its books as rescued from imminent peril and restored to life; and that four
thousand five hundred and eighty-seven individuals had been rewarded by its
funds for humane exertions. It was customary, also, at those anniversaries, to
assemble as many as could be collected of the persons thus recovered, who went
in procession and were seated together in a conspicuous part of the church. On
one occasion, the numbers of this singular company exceeded seven hundred;
and their anthem of thanksgiving was that of the healed King of Israel. " The
grave cannot praise Thee : Death cannot celebrate Thee : they that go down
to the pit cannot hope for thy truth. But the living, the living, he shall praise
Thee, as I do this day."

A Hymn was composed by Mrs. Morton, for the anniversaries of our own
Society, one stanza of which is supposed to be sung by the persons recovered. The
Hymn itself was repeatedly sung by Mrs. Graupner, and others, as appears in the
notices of the occasion, at the time ; but we believe, that in no instance, was there
an assemblage of the persons restored.

The following is the well-known stanza: —

" Since twice to die is ethos* alone,
And twice the breath of life to see,
Oh ! may we, prostrate at thy throne,
Devote our second lives to Thee."

...which is pretty Christian.

eli said...

This is only an incidental point, but it sounds to me like Thomas Jefferson didn't know his Judaism.

Jesus couldn't have wanted to "reform" Judaism along these lines - he was affirming basic Judaic belief.

Points 1 and 3 on Jefferson's list were the Shema - the most fundamental and central declaration of Judaism. Point 2 was a Pharisaic belief, and therefore very common and accepted, as the Pharisees were I believe the most influential teachers of the day.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This is only an incidental point, but it sounds to me like Thomas Jefferson didn't know his Judaism.

Thomas Jefferson didn't know a lot of things, although he was convinced he did.

II. Jews.

1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.

2. Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.
---Letter To Dr. Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803.

jimmiraybob said...

Here's another source of info on the Humane Societies.

eli said...

Tom, thanks for the link.

PS - I hope you don't cringe at gratuitous compliments, but: I found your blog a month or so ago and I'm delighted by what I've read. You've got Unitarianism, Romans 13, the Enlightenment, Murray Rothbard(!), Leo Strauss... These just happen to be most of what I've been thinking about the past couple of years. And your atmosphere of good will and openness is a pleasant bonus that makes it a lot of fun to read along.