Sunday, March 7, 2010

William Livingston, Unitarian

I finally made my way over to the David Library in Washington's Crossing (not too far from where I live). I think one reason why I haven't been spending more time there is so much of what I am looking for is available online.

If you are looking for newish stuff, then copyright law prevents complete free access. However, given the late 18th, early 19th Century is "public domain," the originals from that period are freely available.

For instance, at the library I found a letter from William Livingston, Governor of New Jersey (1776–1790) during the American Revolutionary War and a signer of the United States Constitution, where he seems to deny the Trinity to the very orthodox Jediah Morse.

And when I came home, I found it online via googlebooks:

"Rev. Sir: I received your letter of the 26th of October yesterday. Since I sent a description of three of our Counties to Mr. Whittlesey, (whose death I sincerely deplore,) I have received that of one or two others, which shall be at your service, when you do me the pleasure of what you have given me the agreeable expectation,—I mean a personal visit at my Hermitage, alias Liberty Hall, in the vicinity of Elizabethtown.

"That I have received the descriptions of so few of out Counties as you mention, I now find, or at least am told, is my own fault. Although I had a number of copies made of your queries, immediately after you delivered them to me last fall and, as I thought a sufficient number to give one to each of out Council, yet some members of that Body tell me they went home without one, and that I promised to send them after the rising of the Legislature; but that they never received them. If the case be really so, (of which, however, I have not the least recollection, nor greater faith than I have in St. Athanasius!) I can atone for my neglect only by delivering them at our present sitting, and pressing those members to transmit to me their answers as speedily as possible. The Legislature expecting to adjourn next week, it is probable that I may receive them seasonably enough before your intended publication. ..."


In short, Livingston was accused of making a gaffe. In the context of saying he didn't have "the least recollection" of the incident, he said had no greater faith the incident happened than he has in St. Athanasius. St. Athanasius, of course, was to the unitarians of the Founding era, the man chiefly responsible for fabricating the Trinity.

The notion that I'd sooner believe in the Trinity than I would that, seemed to be a running joke among men involved in the Revolution. We've already seen evidence that Baron Von Steuben made the same joke to Timothy Pickering (causing Pickering to become a unitarian).

35 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...


The notion that I'd sooner believe in the Trinity than I would that, seemed to be a running joke among men involved in the Revolution.


Seems reasonable. How widespread is difficult to say.

The internet gives this quote, from what it says was from Livingston's numerous published defenses of Christian'ty:

“I believe the Old and New Testaments without any foreign comments or human explanations….I believe that he who feareth God and worketh righteousness will be accepted of Him…”

This of course, would make him in the eyes of most, still a Christian.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes and there is much more to that creed (which I think you'd like). Look for it in the near future (you might want to google the rest yourself).

I'm trying to a complete list of these articles of Livingston's creed online. It is a satire and an extremely anti-clergy and anti-creed creed.

bpabbott said...

"This of course, would make him in the eyes of most, still a Christian"

Agreed ... with the exception of the ecclesiastical authorities ;-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Absolutely. The clergy are troublemakers. Mostly, Trinitarianism was a non-issue outside the churches. There were no Trinity wars; no burning of unitarians.

cartwright said...

Servetus et al, notwithstanding.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - "...no burning of unitarians."

cartwright - "Servetus et al, notwithstanding."

Technically, I think that Servetus et al might be considered proto-Unitarian (I stand to be corrected). It would appear that, at least in England, the burning and killing of anti-trinitarians had pretty much run its course by the time of the "Unitarians," strictly speaking.

From Wiki:

Some of the et al - "England: Between 1548 (John Assheton) and 1612 we find few anti-Trinitarians, most of whom were either executed or forced to recant. Those burned included George van Parris. (1551), Flemish surgeon; Patrick Pakingham (1555), fellmonger; Matthew Hamont (1579), ploughwright; John Lewes (1583); Peter Cole (1587), tanner; Francis Kett (1589), physician and author; Bartholomew Legate (1612), cloth-dealer, last of the Smithfield victims; and the twice-burned fanatic Edward Wightman (1612). In all these cases the anti-Trinitarian sentiments seem to have come from Holland; the last two executions followed the dedication to James I of the Latin version of the Racovian Catechism (1609)."

...

"The term "Unitarian" first emerged in 1682, and appears in the title of the Brief History (1687)."

jimmiraybob said...

I have to admit that the “twice burned” reference to Edward Wightman (1612) was intriguing and, looking to procrastinate some more today, I looked it up.

Per Wiki:

"Wightman's trial was played out against the backdrop of the so-called 'Vorstius Affair', involving the intense opposition on the King’s part to block the appointment of the German academic Conrad Vorstius to the University of Leiden. Vorstius was being accused of atheism, Arianism and heretical opinions about the Holy Spirit."

"After months of being subjected to a series of conferences with 'learned divines', Wightman was finally brought before Bishop Neil for the last time. According to Wightman, the Bishop told him 'that unless I did recant my opinions he would burn me at a stake in Burton before Allholland day next.'[18] The final verdict and list of charges included 'the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cerinthus, Valentinian, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, Manichees, Phontinus, and of the Anabaptists and other arch heretics, and moreover, of other cursed opinions belched by the instinct of Satan'.

"He was ordered to be placed 'in some public and open place below the city aforesaid [and] before the people burned in the detestation of the said crime and for manifest example of other Christians that they may not fall into the same crime...'[19]"

"When he was finally brought to the stake his courage had all but left him. As the fires were lit he is said to have quickly cried out to recant, although by then he had been ‘well scorched’. But this would not last, since 2 or 3 weeks later he was again brought before the courts and, no longer fearing the searing flames, refused and ‘blasphemed more audaciously than before’[20]. The King quickly ordered his final execution, and on April 11, 1612, he was once more led to the stake.

"'[Wightman] was carried again to the stake where feeling the heat of the fire again would have recanted, but for all his crying the sheriff told him he should cost him no more and commanded faggots to be set to him whence roaring, he was burned to ashes.'"[21]

Apparently, Wightman has the distinction of being "'…the last person in England to be burned at the stake for heresy'..."[27]. Apologies if this has already been treated here in the past.

cartwright said...

Re: jimmiraybob said,

"Technically, I think that Servetus et al might be considered proto-Unitarian (I stand to be corrected)."

I think that's moot. TVD's comment didn't refer specifically to uppercase Unitarians, but to any non-trinitarian. ("There were no Trinity wars")

Incidentally for trifles, on the Nontrinitarianism page, it mentions Thomas Aikenhead who was indicted for:

"That ... the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra's fables, in profane allusion to Esop's Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Mahomet to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ".

Bashing Ezra even. Aikenhead makes Dawkins look like Gould.

bpabbott said...

Wow! Aikenhead makes the comments of the "new atheists" sound very mild!

jimmiraybob said...

I'm with bpa - yikes. Although PZ Myers (Pharyngula) does come to mind. :)

Tom Van Dyke said...

It was certainly a big deal in Europe. In fact, Dr. Priestley felt obliged to leave England after a mob burned his house, laboratory and library and settled in America in 1794, where he lived and died unmolested.

Which was sort of my point. America had long been a mecca for heretics, including Anabaptists.

http://www.anabaptists.org/history/ss8001.html

cartwright said...

To Tom Van Dyke,
It does go against your point that "This of course, would make him in the eyes of most, still a Christian."

Non-trinitarians are not Christians in the eyes of Trinitarians.

cartwright said...

This is the problem Mitt Romney has a candidate with certain Christians. (Those trinitarians who would never vote for a nontrinitarian.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Non-trinitarians are not Christians in the eyes of Trinitarians.

Yes, but they are to historians, or in the least meet "Judeo-"Christian. And this is a history blog.

This is the problem Mitt Romney has a candidate with certain Christians. (Those trinitarians who would never vote for a nontrinitarian.)

Certainly there are some. There are hardcore Protestants they consider the Roman church the Whore of Babylon, too, whom I imagine wouldn't vote for a Catholic.

So what?

Jon has tried to make hay of ex-Cincinnati pitcher-cum-evangelical preacher Frank Pastore.

Pastore insists that Mormons aren't Christian. Fine. As a clergyman, he's paid to make theological trouble.

;-)

But even he wrote in 2007


Though I could vote for Romney, my ballot should not be seen as an endorsement of Mormonism. Conservative Mormons are among the finest people I've ever met, and they are critical allies in the culture war. I appreciate their contribution to advancing our shared values. Yet as we make common cause, I should not be asked or feel pressured to compromise, weaken, or dilute my theology. Allies need not obfuscate distinctives. We can unite politically and socially to advance our cause, but we must not blur the lines between our distinct religions.

...

I'll vote for Romney if he wins the Republican nomination. And I will continue to contend for the historic Christian faith with the sharply-dressed Mormon missionaries who come to my door."


But we needn't go all the way to the Mormons. Pastore no doubt wouldn't consider Livingston a Christian either [see above quote]. So what? For anyone who "believe[s] the Old and New Testaments," "Christian" is the most descriptive term.

cartwright said...

Re: Tom Van Dyke said,
Yes, but they are to historians, or in the least meet "Judeo-"Christian. And this is a history blog.

So when you said,
This of course, would make him in the eyes of most, still a Christian.

by "most" you meant historians and not Livingston's peers?

That's an odd reading. Since when do historians define theology? But I don't even think that Livingston fits a historian definition of Christian anyway, without a qualifier. Historians would say he is a Christian by a certain broad definition, but they would also have to allow that different peoples had different definitions, that "Christian" is contextually dependent where it counts in practicality, within society in a time and place.

If we are talking about the FFs time and place, Livingston would be an infidel to some and a fellow Christian to others. That goes today as well with Romney.

As far as Romney goes, I think those who like to offer paeans to the FFs should note that several of the first presidents were likely non-trinitarians.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Uh, I think we acknowledge that around here, cartwright. In spades, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

But if Jews and Christians worship the same God, and even most theologians say they do, then surely so did orthodox and unitarian.

And that, my friend, is where the rubber meets the road. The squabblings of churchmen make up most of the controversies of the time, and churchmen don't get to write the history.

cartwright said...

Re: Tom Van Dyke said,
but if Jews and Christians worship the same God, and even most theologians say they do, then surely so did orthodox and unitarian.

A Jesus worshiped as God is a different God than of the Jew or nontrinitiarian, theologically speaking.

It's not clear what your point is here though. That every religious sect is the same from some arbitrary perspective? If so, then what of it, in how that view relates to the founding?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Do you even read this blog, cartwright? Just asking, because we speak of the Founding's political theology all the time.

What is the difference in political theology whether Jesus is divine or is merely, as the "pope" of the unitarians William Ellery Channing said,

"The word UNITARIANISM, as denoting this opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this town and its vicinity [Boston---TVD], and the commonwealth...We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren."

Until someone comes up with a substantive counterargument, the working answer here is, no difference in political theology.

And it's generally agreed---even by Christians---even by EVANGELICAL Christians these days---that Christians and Jews worship the same God.

So, c'mon, man, bring some facts or something to the table, not just skepticism and negation. Anybody can do that.

cartwright said...

Re: Tom Van Dyke said,
Do you even read this blog, cartwright?

Not religiously, but occasionally.

Tom Van Dyke said,
Just asking, because we speak of the Founding's political theology all the time.

How did what I say imply that I wasn't aware of that?

Tom Van Dyke said,
What is the difference in political theology whether Jesus is divine or is merely, as the "pope" of the unitarians William Ellery Channing said,

Difference in what context? To a particular FF? To modern day claims about religion and the founding? To what?

Certainly there is not a necessary correlation between one's personal theology and politics, but certainly as well, it can't be said there is never a correlation.

To a Unitarian of the day, for example, they might be more likely to have a different view of religious tests than a Calvinist.

You could also see among the different trinitarian sects different political emphases. Anglicans were more against revolution than other sects. Baptists were more known for their support for separation than others. Today, certain sects may be more against abortion or capital punishment than others.

Religion would not like matter much on the question of a bicameral legislature, but on certain issues where politics intersects with religion it certainly can matter.

One's religion can make a difference in one's politics. I don't see how that is a controversial claim. If there were unanimity in politics and theology of every single FF, we would have a different outlook on the founding.

Tom Van Dyke said,
Until someone comes up with a substantive counterargument, the working answer here is, no difference in political theology.

Is this then your point in saying "This of course, would make him in the eyes of most, still a Christian"? Is that the answer to my question of what is your point? Is it your contention that the various shades of the FFs religion are irrelevant to their politics?

It is undeniable there is some difference in politics coinciding with particular religious views, though not necessarily. It ultimately depends on the individual and the issue.

The theology question is also relevant to today's politics. To a modern Christian Nation-ist or to a pro-active secularist, it might make a difference in the strength of their claims as to the nature of American government or character, whether there were any nontrinitarian FFs or not.

What's your counter-counter-argument?

Tom Van Dyke said...

One's religion can make a difference in one's politics. I don't see how that is a controversial claim.

Gee, do ya think?


It is undeniable there is some difference in politics coinciding with particular religious views, though not necessarily. It ultimately depends on the individual and the issue.


Wow. I never thought of it that way. Maybe, maybe not, is what you're saying. It all depends on the individual.

That's brilliant, man. Thx for straightening me out. Keep them pearls of wisdom coming. Pretty soon we won't need to write this blog atall.

bpabbott said...

Tom, being rude and obnoxious isn't constructive.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You shoulda seen the original draft. You know how I feel about sophism, Ben. It's one thing to disagree, another to turn every discussion into a meaningless deconstruction of terms.

bpabbott said...

I'm in agreement that in this case much of what has been presented to oppose your (TVD) comments was accompanied by little support. For example, that "Non-trinitarians are not Christians in the eyes of Trinitarians".

The claim implies a prejudice of the part of a majority of Trinitarians. I don't think such a wide spread prejudice can be demonstrated ... either today or in the day of the founding.

Or "A Jesus worshiped as God is a different God than of the Jew or nontrinitiarian, theologically speaking."

Since the Jew, the Unitarian, and the Trinitarian all agree there is only one God, they must each be pursuing a relationship with the same God, even if their theological views indicate their respective Divinity has characteristics different than that of the others (i.e. different perspectives of the one God).

I recall a primary founder expressing such a sentiment, but don't recall which one ... I would appreciate a reminder ;-)

cartwright said...

That's brilliant, man. Thx for straightening me out. Keep them pearls of wisdom coming. Pretty soon we won't need to write this blog atall.

Still no answer to my question of what is your point. Just more non-responses, more diversions from not being able to explain yourself. Yawn.

cartwright said...

bpabbott said,
I'm in agreement that in this case much of what has been presented to oppose your (TVD) comments was accompanied by little support. For example, that "Non-trinitarians are not Christians in the eyes of Trinitarians".

Really? I already gave Servetus as an example. And for the FFs' day, we can see that Jefferson, for instance, was called an atheist.

The claim implies a prejudice of the part of a majority of Trinitarians. I don't think such a wide spread prejudice can be demonstrated ... either today or in the day of the founding.

If the question is what the majority of trinitarians felt in that time, I don't know how you can answer that. Does somebody have that answer? Perhaps that the likes of Jefferson and Adams were elected president might favor that view, if we assume that trinitarians would not elect someone they didn't consider a Christian. However, whether this is so, it still leaves the question of whether the minority viewpoint should be dismissed as historically or politically irrelevant as TVD seems to want to do (barring any further elaboration from him). Speaking of elections for example, a big enough minority view can sway elections one way or another. This is why I keep asking what his point is. Simply stating a fact is nice, but obviously there is a prevailing context here concerning separation, constitutional interpretations, etc, and so it would be even nicer if it were noted whether or not a fact is presented as evidence for or against some larger point.

In our present time on this trinitarian/non-trinitarian question, I do believe the vast majority of trinitarians would say that those who rejected the divinity of Jesus were not true Christians. I can't cite a poll on the question, but from my experience of Christians today, I'd be very surprised to hear otherwise. We can ask any trinitarian here how they would answer that.

Whichever is the case, I'd still like to know how it is relevant to TVD's idea of his undeniable "political theology" whatever he means by that, especially how it relates to us today. If he is trying to say theistic belief was a minimum standard for acceptance (which would be a backtrack from his claim that Livingston was considered a Christian), he might have a point since it was a big slam was to call someone an atheist (though Muslims were below Christians and Jews, even it still above atheists). It still is so today. On that I can cite polls that show atheists are ill considered as presidential material. A pro-theist prejudice among the majority may be a historical and modern fact, but such ignorant bigotry is not necessarily to the nation's credit, nor should necessarily be promoted, nor is it necessarily relevant to constitutional questions.

bpabbott said...

"If the question is what the majority of trinitarians felt in that time, I don't know how you can answer that. Does somebody have that answer? Perhaps that the likes of Jefferson and Adams were elected president might favor that view, if we assume that trinitarians would not elect someone they didn't consider a Christian."

I think this comment is essentially consistent with Tom's comments on this point.

If I recall correctly, none of the first 5 Presidents made a declaration of faith that included the Trinity. From that, it is difficult to conclude that Trinitarianism was a big deal.

cartwright said...

bpabbott said,
I'm in agreement that in this case much of what has been presented to oppose your (TVD) comments was accompanied by little support. For example, that "Non-trinitarians are not Christians in the eyes of Trinitarians".


bpabbott, here's something else relevant to the question, quoting from the Channing letter that TVD has cited,

My selfrespect too is wounded, by coming into contact with assailants, who not only deny us the name of Christians, but withhold from us the treatment of gentlemen.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Whichever is the case, I'd still like to know how it is relevant to TVD's idea of his undeniable "political theology"".

I'm confident Tom hasn't commented on his political theology. Much less asserted it to be undeniable.

My understanding of Tom's point is that belief in the Trinity was of little importance in the political landscape of the founding period. As far as that being undeniable, I don't recall Tom taking such a strong position.

Rather I've inferred him to be making the observation that belief in the Trinity didn't play a significant role the the political landscape of the founding ... i.e. belief in the Trinity wasn't an important component of that period's political theology.

Re: "[...] how it relates to us today."

Except for being a part of our history, it doesn't.

bpabbott said...

If someone has asserted there was no bigotry of no non-Trinitarians, I've missed it. The point is that such prejudice was not a significant factor in the politics of the founding.

cartwright said...

I cross-posted the last one.

bpabbott said,
I think this comment is essentially consistent with Tom's comments on this point. If I recall correctly, none of the first 5 Presidents made a declaration of faith that included the Trinity. From that, it is difficult to conclude that Trinitarianism was a big deal.

Well there is the one question of whether Christianity required trinitarianism, and then the subsequent question of whether it was a political requirement, and the two aren't necessarily interdependent. I think it's fair to say it was more a big deal theologically than politically, and politically it was becoming less an issue over time.

From a secular/theocratic perspective, which is my interest, I think this relates to whether any sectarian differences, including between theism and non-theism, should matter in a government context, that is, to whether we can broadly extrapolate from "unitarians are OK and government shouldn't and cant't favor trinitarians over unitarians, one sect over another" - to "atheists are OK and government can't and shouldn't favor theism over non-theism."

cartwright said...

bpabbott said,
I'm confident Tom hasn't commented on his political theology. Much less asserted it to be undeniable.

I didn't mean his personal theology, but his idea of the political theology of the founders.

My understanding of Tom's point is that belief in the Trinity was of little importance in the political landscape of the founding period. As far as that being undeniable, I don't recall Tom taking such a strong position.


Just that there is no "substantive counterargument."

Rather I've inferred him to be making the observation that belief in the Trinity didn't play a significant role the the political landscape of the founding ... i.e. belief in the Trinity wasn't an important component of that period's political theology.


If that is the extent of his point, then I'm with him on the undeniable side. I don't know that it is though.

Re: "[...] how it relates to us today."

Except for being a part of our history, it doesn't.


That's silly. Of course the history relates to present day constitutional questions, to the character of the nation, whatever one's view is.

bpabbott said.
If someone has asserted there was no bigotry of no non-Trinitarians, I've missed it. The point is that such prejudice was not a significant factor in the politics of the founding.

That wasn't for an argument against "no prejudice" it was for an argument that non-trinitarians were considered Christians.

bpabbott said...

"Of course the history relates to present day constitutional questions, to the character of the nation, whatever one's view is."

I don't see it. How does political theology raise constitutional questions?

Does this comment suggest that citizens who vote their theology, or politicians who pander to theological positions, are in violation of constitutional law?

Is this comment associating political theology with legislated theology?

If the first, then I think the suggestion is incorrect. The constitution doesn't constrain such behavior, the constitution protects it. If the second, then I think politics and governance are being conflated.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Ben, I think you've accounted for my position well.

My example of Rev. Frank Pastore illustrates the point---Mitt Romney the Mormon doesn't share Rev. Pastore's theology, but they share the same political theology.

Would Pastore prefer an orthodox Bible guy like Mike Huckabee? I'd say it's 98% Would he prefer a Catholic over a Mormon? Not if the Catholic were Ted Kennedy, we can be assured of that. Kennedy would have been an 80% match on theology, a 0% match on political theology. Romney, perhaps 20% of the former, but 100% of the latter.

I seem to recall reading of a fellow who was elected governor or something in the 1800s of a state that had religious tests for state office. It was pretty well known he was probably an atheist, but nobody ever pressed the point. I think this reveals how important [or rather, unimportant] such things were in the realm of private belief and individual conscience.

On the other hand, a vociferous antiTrinitarianism or anti-theism [think Dawkins, Hitchens] would certainly have torpedoed a candidacy.

As for non-theism slipping its nose under the tent, all I can say is that I don't see the Founders being favorable to treating it the same in the public square: there was definitely a prejudice for the God of Providence as a reality, not a mere belief.

Neither do I think the constitution requires it, and in argument, I submit that no way the 14th Amendment would have been ratified by the states if they knew that one day 100 years later, 14A would be interpreted to make the mentions of the Almighty in their state constitutions unconstitutional. If the constitutional principle of "no preference for theism" argument holds, which at the present rate, someday it will, the Almighty will indeed be unconstitutional.

bpabbott said...

"Thx, Ben, I think you've accounted for my position well."

Glad to hear it. I was a bit concerned I might have been inching out to the tip of a limb only to find it cut off ;-)

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