Friday, January 8, 2010

Political Theology and the Establishment of the Episcopate in Founding Era America

Rev. Brian Tubbs' post at American Creation on Samuel Seabury raises vitally important points, not well enough understood by students of religion & the American Founding.

Seabury was the first Episcopal Bishop consecrated in America ("On March 25, 1783, ten Connecticut clergy elected Samuel Seabury as their bishop.") Seabury was also a devout loyalist whose political-theology informed his defense of Toryism.

Also, Seabury was, as Rev. Tubbs noted, the "farmer" to whom Alexander Hamilton referred in his classic "The Farmer Refuted." There Hamilton, arguing the cause of revolution, invoked, not the Bible or orthodox Christian doctrine, but the natural law of "Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui" that may (or not) be compatible with the Bible/orthodox Christianity.

The good Bishop's idea of "unlimited submission" to government that Hamilton et al. opposed dominated the historic Christian understanding -- of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant variety -- for over 1600 years, until the era of "revolution." Yet, the "Whig" understanding of a right to revolt (or "resist") as per Romans 13, as with other "Christian heresies" like theological unitarianism and universalism, perhaps could trace many years before "Enlightenment." The theological-philosophical roots of such understanding certainly can.

Yes, some dissident/heretical doctrines within Christendom trace hundreds, some over a thousand years before Enlightement. After all, refuting Arianism (a form of unitarianism) motivated the Nicene Creed in 325 AD. Yet, "Enlightenment theology" -- especially the American and British variety -- disproportionately embraced heresies like unitarianism, universalism, and the right to revolt in the face of Romans 13.

Rev. Tubbs, in his post, notes Peter Lillback's book "George Washington's Sacred Fire," which recites important facts on the late 18th Century American Anglican/Episcopal dynamic. Yet, Lillback's account is woefully inadequate (ironic in that Lillback took 1200 pages to make his case!).

The biggest problem with Lillback's tome is his construction of false dichotomies. Either GW was "Deist" or "Christian" (which Lillback reads as "orthodox Christian"). Since Lillback demonstrates GW wasn't a "Deist," then he must have been an "orthodox Christian." Arguably the book demolishes a strawman GW "Deist" and props up a false "orthodox Trinitarian" Washington.

Lillback's Chapter 15 on "George Washington, the Low Churchman" exemplifies this logically fallacious paradigm. Accordingly, "high church Anglicanism" -- by its nature "Toryish" -- was characterized by adherence to traditional "Church of England" customs and apostolic authority. "Low church Anglicanism" -- "Whiggish" -- was characterized by a more decentralized local church autonomy that adhered to Calvinistic "biblical" authority. Of course, according to Lillback, low church Anglicanism, even of the "latitudinarian" variety Washington embraced didn't stray from orthodox Christian, biblically infallible grounds.

And therein lies the fatal error in Lillback's model: 1) Low church, 2) latitudinarian, 3) Whiggish 4) Anglican-Episcopalian, ESPECIALLY IN 5) VIRGINIA, oft-slipped into deistic, unitarian, Enlightenment, infidel "theology," despite Lillback's failure to show the movement strictly adhered to "orthodoxy."

This FIVE POINT theology forms a lowest common denominator between Thomas Jefferson (heterodox) and Patrick Henry (orthodox). That is, demonstrating GW fit these five points (which he, Henry, Jefferson, George Mason, James Madison, John Marshall, George Wythe, and other notables did) no more demonstrates GW "orthodox" than "heterodox."

Briefly, consider proven deistic-unitarian minded Anglicans, Jefferson & Wythe, as Vestrymen for said church in VA, and Marshall's daughter's testimony that he refused communion because he was a unitarian (disbelieved in Christ's Atonement, what the Act symbolized). The same can be said of Washington (though GW never disclosed his reasons for avoiding communion).

Lillback's discussion of the original American Episcopal Bishops likewise demonstrates a false dichotomy that attempts to constrain "high" and "low" church Episcopalianism within the bounds of "orthodoxy." Lillback notes Bishop Seabury of New England the quintessential "high church" Episcopalian. He then notes "Virginia" ("lower" in America geographically, a metaphor for high v. low church Anglicanism) typified the "low Church" and invokes and Bishops William White (of Philadelphia) and Samuel Provoost (of New York) as "low churchers." Accordingly, Provoost was the quintessential low churcherer, with White, though a Whig/committed revolutionary, somewhere in between because he more sympathized with the Tory-Anglican hierarchy. (See Lillback, "Sacred Fire," Chapter 15.)

That enables Lillback to fabricate a narrative -- as badly speculative as anything Paul F. Boller posited in "George Washington & Religion" (the scholarly standard bearer work that Lillback fails to rebut, insofar as Boller casts doubt on GW's status as an orthodox Christian) -- of GW not wanting to commune in Philadelphia under the leadership of the Bishop William White and Rev. James Abercrombie because they were too "Tory" sympathetic (even though White was a Whig).

But Lillback's most serious error in his discussion on original American Episcopal Bishops is that by omission. As noted, Lillback names the "three" original bishops -- Seabury (N.E.), White (Phila.) and Provoost (NY). Yet, Lillback, rightly invokes Virginia as typifying the "low church" Anglicanism to which GW adheres but fails to discuss the actual FOURTH original American Episcopal Bishop: James Madison, first cousin of his namesake.

If VA -- where GW and a slew of notable Anglican-Episcopal Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Madison, Henry, Mason, Marshall and many others) hailed -- why avoid Madison, the FOURTH Episcopal bishop consecrated in America? The timeline of Madison's appointment is congruent with the rest. As this official source notes:

On March 25, 1783, ten Connecticut clergy elected Samuel Seabury as their bishop. Seabury traveled to England, but English canon law prevented the consecration of any clergyman who would not take the Oath of Allegiance to the English Crown. Seabury then sought consecration in the Scottish Episcopal Church, where he was ordained on Nov. 14, 1784 in Aberdeen. Thus, Seabury became the first bishop of the American Episcopal Church.

By 1786, English churchmen had helped change the law so the Church of England could offer episcopal consecration to those churches outside England.

On Feb. 4, 1787, the Archbishop of Canterbury and three other English bishops consecrated William White as Bishop of Pennsylvania and Samuel Provoost as Bishop of New York. Soon after, James Madison was consecrated in England as the Bishop of Virginia and President of The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

And the following from Colonial Williamsburg notes: "On 19 September 1790 in Lambeth Chapel, Canterbury, England, Madison was consecrated bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of London and Rochester."

BJM garnered praise from America's "Virginian" Founders, at least from Jefferson who loved him. I don't know if BJM were unitarian like Jefferson. David Holmes in his seminal book, categorizes BJM as "orthodox." I know the harder orthodox types suspected BJM of being an "infidel." And that's because BJM peddled Enlightenment, revolutionary, indeed pro-French revolutionary, natural theology. He was the quintessential, not only American Whig, but Jacobin.

That is, Madison typified the kind of "rational Christian" who thought the French Revolution extended the American, that the Bible taught a "Republic," not a "Kingdom" of Heaven, and that "revolutionary republican" principles would continue "until the complete restoration of the human race to their inherent rights be accomplished, throughout the globe." A "republic" of "liberty, equality, and fraternity," that America initialized and France would perfect.

Again, all this presenting itself under the auspices of "Christianity" not "Deism." This what it meant to be a "low Church Anglican" in late 18th Century America as much as anything "orthodox" or "Calvinistic."

Ultimately, the historical truth Lillback avoids because he doesn't like the results is, "low church Episcopalianism" of late 18th Century America, by its decentralized, Protestant nature, unmoored from hierarchical authority, "slipped" into rationalistic, enlightement, deistic-unitarian theology as easily as it did biblical Calvinism.

Indeed, even in "high church" New England, the "Whig" Anglican-Episcopalian "King's Chapel" became "Unitarian" in 1786 (arguably the first "official" Unitarian Church in America) resulting from a conflict with, you got it, Bishop Samuel Seabury.


Erich Kofmel said...

Check out my blog, the "Political Theology Agenda":


Tom Van Dyke said...

"low church Episcopalianism" of late 18th Century America, by its decentralized, Protestant nature, unmoored from hierarchical authority, "slipped" into rationalistic, enlightement, deistic-unitarian theology as easily as it did biblical Calvinism.

Please argue this further, Jon. I'm not getting the Low Church-to-deism link yet, or that the [American] Epicopalians rejected the Trinity as "unitarians," although I'm aware of one exception. But unitarianism was more a New England Congregationalist thing.

Neither does it matter much, since founding era unitarianism was still Bible-based, and held Jesus as on a unique and divine mission. But one load at a time. I'm just not getting this sweeping generalization of the Low Church as deistic, until further evidence is submitted.

Jonathan Rowe said...

That wasn't the point. And either I wrote with too strong language or you misread what I wrote.

The point was to cast doubt on Lillback's monolithic position that "Low Church" "latitudinarian" Anglicanism was orthodox/biblical/Calvinistic.

Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry were both low church latitudinarian Anglicans.

Daniel said...

The central crisis of the Enlightenment was the rejection of authority. Low church Anglicanism represented a break from central authority; naturally a dissident or heretic would be attracted to the form of church that was less associated with traditional central authority.

There may be a sense in which the low church approach creates a slippery slope to heresy. After all, if the traditional authority is no longer correct, why should any authority be beyond question? But that was the slippery slope of the Enlightenment, which included scepticism, not just of religion, but even of the authority of the sense impressions or of (in the case of David Hume) the reality of cause and effect.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Perfectly put, Daniel.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm still not following the argument here, Jon. Can you encapsulate it in a sentence or two?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Low Church, Latitudinarian Anglican doesn't necessarily equal orthodox Christian, Calvinistic, devotion to biblical infallibility, though it certainly could; there were a lot of those kinds of LCLAs (Patrick Henry comes to mind).

There were also Jeffersons and Madisons among that group. They were (perhaps) of the mass of members who got up and turned their backs on the Lord's Supper during communion time. Nelly Custis testified GW wasn't alone in that regard.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, I think you're caricaturing Lillback a bit. But be that as it may, I'll speak for myself here.

I don't think there's a necessary direct line from Low Church Anglicanism to Deistic rationalism. There COULD be such a line in the case of SOME founding era Anglicans, but it's not a necessary one.

Yes, Low Church Anglicanism undermined the Catholic/Anglican concept of apostolic succession. And, yes, it gave local churches autonomy from hierarchy. And, yes, it undermined the notion of institutional revelation - i.e., that God reveals Himself through the Church (as opposed to being through the Scriptures).

But, as an evangelical, I would say all the above are GOOD things. :-) And I am most certainly still in the "orthodox" camp, in that I embrace the Deity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, biblical authority, etc.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I may have overstated my thesis. Let me clarify: Low Church Latitudinarian Anglicanism (esp. in VA) could and did draw a line to the more orthodox, Calvinistic, biblical theology that you would feel comfortable with (i.e., Patrick Henry). OR it could slip into deistic-unitarian theology (ala Jefferson, Wythe, perhaps Madison, Washington).

Again I note B. James Madison. I'm not sure if he were "unitarian" like "Jefferson"; he may have remained orthodox. But based on some of his OTHER positions, one should be able to see how BJMadison could have easily fell into a Jeffersonian unitarian rationalistic theology. He was suspected of this and for good reason.

Brian Tubbs said...

I would also say that the more doctrines we add to the "orthodox" column, the tougher it is to say that ANY of our Founders were "orthodox" Christians.

For my own part, when it comes to assessing whether a Founder was "Christian," I believe in the KISS principle. :-) I keep it simple.

Did the person believe in Jesus Christ as his or her divine and risen Savior? (Romans 10:9-10).

I believe most of the Founders, including Washington, would've said "yes" to that question. Only a few, like Franklin, Jefferson, and probably Adams, would've hedged or said "no."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Brian if that means the Trinity -- and I agree that the Nicene Creed is a good way to keep a "simple" definition of "Christianity" -- I don't at all see only a few as "not Christian." Those who were "not Christians" in this sense probably extends well beyond Jefferson, Franklin and J. Adams.

Washington and Madison are tougher because of their reticence to put their theological cards on the table. But the evidence that they believed Jesus an Incarnate God, 2nd Person in the Trinity and "risen" Savior is sparse to say the least.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Likewise a bit of clarification: When you say "divine" what do you mean? When speaking Christology on these threads, I tend to be more specific than "divine" because Arians (a popular form of unitarianism during the Founding era) believed Jesus a "divine" being who was created by but surbordinate to God the Father. There is a difference between being a "divine Son of God" and God the Son, second person in the Trinity.

Referring to Jesus as the "divine author of our Holy religion" is something that is arguably compatible with Arianism.

I have a piece of evidence from the Arian Richard Price agreeing with GW's 1783 Circular that was written by an aid but signed by Washington.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Likewise I think a lot of FFs that ultimately I feel comfortable putting in the "orthodox" box, doubted the Trinity.

John Jay, for instance, probably would have answered "yes" to the question

Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your divine and risen Savior? (Romans 10:9-10).

However he still doubted/questioned the Trinity.

"It appeared to me that the Trinity was a Fact fully revealed and substantiated, but that the quo modo was incomprehensible by human Ingenuity. According to sundry Creeds, the divine Being whom we denominate the second Person in the Trinity had before all worlds been so generated or begotten by the first Person in the Trinity, as to be his coeval, coequal and coeternal Son. For proof of this I searched the Scriptures diligently -- but without Success. I therefore consider the Position of being at least of questionable Orthodoxy."

-- John Jay to Samuel Miller, February 18, 1822. Jay Papers, Columbia University Library.

Tom Van Dyke said...

An interesting quote, Jon. But historically speaking, not enough to characterize him as other than "Christian."

Brian, I've seen no evidence that GWashington accepted Jesus' divinity. For the record.

Tom Van Dyke said...

We're getting into some deep Protestant water here. Locke read the theologian Jacobus Arminius [d. 1609], not the other way around. What is this "Enlightenment theology?" Which influenced which?

"Semi-Pelagianism," contra Calvin, advanced the concept of free will and held that man was still capable of reason, right reason. It's "common knowledge" that it was the Enlightenment that got Western man thinking and rational again, but is that really so? "Semi-Pelagianism" was held as popery in disguise! [Yes, that includes Aquinas.]

Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a MUST READ piece:

The terms we have used are too loose. We must look more closely into both the one and the other. We must analyse the character of the societies and look behind the loose, general terms.

When we do this, we soon discover a very important fact. We find that each of those Calvinist societies made its contribution to the Enlightenment at a precise moment in its history, and that this moment was the moment when it repudiated ideological orthodoxy. In fact, we may say that the separate Calvinist societies of Europe contributed to the Enlightenment only in so far as they broke away from Calvinism.

This may be connected with a change in the character of Calvinism. For there is no doubt that such a change took place. Calvinism in the sixteenth century may have retained some traces of the intellectual distinction of its founder, some residue of the Erasmianism which lay behind it. But in the next century it is very different. Read (if you can) the writings of the great doctors of seventeenth-century Calvinism, the heirs of Calvin and Beza, Buchanan and Knox. Their masters may have been grim, but there is a certain heroic quality about their grimness, a literary power about their writing, an intellectual force in their minds. The successors are also grim, but they are grim and mean. Perkins and “Smectymnuus” in England, Rivetus and Vo√ętius in Holland, Baillie and Rutherford in Scotland, Desmarets and Jurieu in France, Francis Turrettini in Switzerland, Cotton Mather in America—what a gallery of intolerant bigots, narrow-minded martinets, timid conservative defenders of repellent dogmas, instant assailants of every new or liberal idea, inquisitors and witch-burners! But however that may be, the facts can hardly be denied. Once we look at the circumstances in which each of those societies I have named became in turn the home of the pre-Enlightenment, we discover that in every instance the new ideas which interest us spring not from the Calvinists but from the heretics who have contrived to break or elude the control of the Calvinist Church: heretics whom the true Calvinists, if they could, would have burnt.

But in order to illustrate this conclusion, let us look briefly and in turn at the Calvinist societies which I have enumerated, and the circumstances of their enlightenment.

First Holland. Here the facts are well known. The rise of liberal ideas in Holland, which was to make Leiden the seminary and Amsterdam the refuge of advanced thinkers in all the sciences, was made possible not by the Calvinist Church, but by its critics, its heretics...From Arminius and Grotius, the spiritual and the secular disciples of Erasmus, the line of descent leads, through Episcopius, Limborch and Leclerc, unmistakably to the Enlightenment.

That's Grotius, the big natural law dude. Arminian.

Brad Hart said...

I think this will solve things:

Daniel said...

You posted that link before and I didn't save it. Wow. The quotation raises all sorts of questions and ideas. Thanks. I have save the link and will be doing some reading.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Had I posted that link before, Daniel? I didn't remember it, not had it bookmarked either. I'm still getting up to speed on the history of Reformation thought, as my background is Roman Catholic, and frankly, I didn't know much about its history of thought either until looking into the history of ideas that led to the Founding.

But what I do see is a "Calvinist Narrative" that the "secular" narrative is in opposition to. Calvinists past [or neo-Calvinists of today] misoverestimate John Calvin himself, while underrating the intellectual sophistication of his successors [like Hugo Grotius or Jonathan Edwards, who was quite up on his Locke], and try to make the theology of the American Founding into something you'd hear from a 2AM televangelist.

The secular narrative overplays its hand in favor of the Enlightenment as reason vs. revelation, albeit I think from a lack of genuine understanding and therefore a deafness to Christian thought---they read Locke or even John Adams and do not hear its echoes. [Locke himself said many men held opinions that were derived from the Gospels, and didn't even know it.]

But the hagiography of the 19th century turning George Washington into Jerry Falwell, and the imaginations of today's Calvinistically inclined seeing Calvin and the Bible in the Founding documents when it's not there, well, that was enough for honest [albeit theologically underinformed] secularists to say, hey, wait a minute.

I think they swung the pendulum back way too far against Christianity for genuine historical truth and understanding, but when I read Dr. Lilliback basing a claim for Washington-as-Falwell on a single quote ["divine author of our religion"] that Washington signed but likely did not author, well, that's just bad history, and I can't blame the secularists for squawking.

For now, this Arminianism and its descent from Erasmus [who never left the Roman church] is damned interesting, I agree. Erasmus and the Founding is pretty fresh ground.

Brian Tubbs said...

"Brian, I've seen no evidence that GWashington accepted Jesus' divinity. For the record."

Washington's affiliaton with the Anglican / Episcopal Church is evidence. You may consider it refutable evidence, but it's still evidence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Direct evidence, then. And the indirect evidence is conflicting.