Saturday, March 13, 2010

William Livingston, Hater of Creeds and Ecclesiastical Authority

I've been researching the religion of notable Founding Father William Livingston, a signer of the Constitution and former governor of New Jersey. In my last post on the matter, I noted Livingston slammed the Athanasian creed -- the quintessential Trinitarian creed which the unitarians of America's Founding era criticized.

Researching the matter further, I came across Livington's personal Thirty Nine Articles on religion which again slammed the Athanasian creed (and thereby the Trinity). Those and Livington's other writings found in the Independent Reflector can be found in this book.

Unfortunately, google books blocks important parts of Livingston's writings and the entire Thirty Nine Articles haven't yet been uploaded to the public domain provisions of the Internet.

So I went to the David Library in Washington's Crossing and researched them. Unfortunately, the microfilm copies I made don't read well enough for me to post them (for now). But, the good news is I read the entire articles and you will just have to trust my honesty and independent verification of the record.

The articles are a brilliant satire against the notion of "orthodoxy" or "religious correctness." Among other things, the articles chiefly target ecclesiastical authority, Roman Catholic doctrine, the Thirty Nine Articles of Faith of the Anglican Church, and the concept of orthodox Trinitarianism itself. Nowhere in the articles is the Trinity and cognate orthodox doctrines defended. The 39th Article of Livingston's Creed reads:

I Believe, that this Creed is more intelligible than that of St. Athanasius; and that there will be no Necessity for any Bishop to write an Exposition on the Thirty Nine Articles of my faith.

In Livingston's Thirty Nine Articles we see an important but not too well understood zeitgeist of America's founding era "Protestant Christianity." It's where Roman Catholicism and ecclesiastical authority are so suspect that doctrines like original sin, trinity, and even the "right" (that is the traditional) books and copy of the biblical canon become associated with such and, consequently, are written off as human corruptions.

The Quakers, as it were, who lack ecclesiastical authority and creeds become the most authentic expression of "Christianity," except for their theological refusal to take up arms against political tyranny.

And yes, that is expressed in Livingston's creed: See Article VI.


Jared A. Farley said...

Wow, who knew? Kudos on the research work.

Tom Van Dyke said...

i don't know if you used 1833 biography of Livingston as one of your sources, Jon, but I read quite a bit of it.

it seems Livingston made his bones in joining Dr. Charles Chauncy [among others] in opposition to the Church of England appointing [Episcopalian] bishops in America. The text says even the American C of E-ers were opposed.

His 39 Articles is a semi-parody of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church [1563].

In his article 5, he associates "orthodoxy" with papism.

7 reads:I believe that to defend the Christian religion is one thing and to knock a man on the head for being of a different opinion is another thing.


15. I believe that a man may be a good Christian though he be of no sect of Christendom.

Such fellows were popular in the Founding era, not being seen as part of the sectarian wars. [Although early on, Livingston's Presbyterian-aligned faction lost a key election to the Episcopalians.]

There's a lot more here than just the unitarian "flag." The 1833 biography was an interesting window into the controversies of the time. I couldn't stop reading after getting past Livingston's 39 Articles.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yup I read that one, but wanted to have access to all 39 articles, which unfortunately the biography doesn't give.

Reading the articles, Livingston was as much, if not more a "proto-Quaker" as a "proto-unitarian."

Of course, there is the problem with the Quakers and their refusal to take up arms. If that issue were nipped in the bud, I wouldn't be surprised if most of the "key" and many "non-key" Founders like Livingston made a mass exodus out of their churches and to Quaker churches.

Michael D. Hattem said...

"The Quakers, as it were, who lack ecclesiastical authority and creeds become the most authentic expression of "Christianity," except for their theological refusal to take up arms against political tyranny."

Indeed, Livingston was a strong proponent of what in the eighteenth century was referred to as "primitive Christianity," i.e., a Christianity shorn of all the extraneous doctrines and sacraments appended to it down through the centuries.

For centuries, theologians had been producing “voluminous Treatises of learned Absurdity, and scholastic Gibberish” full of “cabalistical Jargon." He couldn't understand why “there should be a Necessity for countless Systems to explain what could not be misunderstood, and to illustrate with endless Comments, what was wrote in Sun-Beams.”

Livingston's primitive Christianity required only two “positive Precepts,” those being that “it enjoins its Disciples as often as they break Bread, to commemorate the Death and Sufferings of their Master, and to baptize their Proselites as an Initiation into his Religion.” In the end, he wrote, “All the Faith it requires is, that Christ was the promised Messiah, and its moral Directions may be contained in a Sheet of Paper.”

These ideas are addressed throughout The Independent Reflector (1752-3), which came out over a decade before the Bishop controversy, his columns in Hugh Gaine's New-York Gazette entitled, "The Watch-Tower" (1754), and the American Whig columns in the 1760s during that controversy. He most directly addresses in [William Livingston], “Primitive Christianity short and intelligible, modern Christianity voluminous and incomprehensible,” The Independent Reflector, no. XXXI, June 28, 1753.