Monday, July 19, 2010

Deists in Disguise

One more for now from Rev. Samuel Miller.

In this interdisciplinary field of history/politics/theology the biggest challenge I've faced as someone thinking about trying to "cross over" more into "real" publishing is novelty. Finding and doing things that haven't been done by someone before.

I've concluded that the "key Founders" -- the FFs on American currency -- if pushed would have considered themselves "Christians" not "Deists." Though they may have endorsed an understanding of Deism that didn't view itself as incompatible with "Christianity." Yet many in the academy endorse the line "the FFs were Deists not Christians."

I think this much is understood by a number of notable scholars. But not enough.

HOW did this come to be? The real story is less well understood.

The standard line from "Christian America" is the FFs were virtually all "Christians" and the bad, secularist revisionists "stole" that heritage, knowingly and duplicitously.

That narrative, of course, is as phony as "the Founders were all Deists" narrative.

I have found that the self understood "rational Christianity" of Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, and perhaps Madison, Washington, G. Morris and others was considered "not Christian" and, in principle, no better than "Deism" by prominent Founding and post-Founding era conservative clergy. The D. James Kennedy's of the day, many of whom occupied prominent places in the academy back then. And they, accordingly, deserve a large portion of the responsibility for the idea that secular scholars later ran with: The Founders were "Deists."

That kind of irony, I dig.

The figures in question include Timothy Dwight, Jedidiah Morse, Bishops Samuel Seabury and William White and Rev. Samuel Miller. James Renwick Willson was even less respectable than the figures thus named. But he deserves particular notable mention for his sermon on the American Presidency that most scholars misidentify as Bird Wilson's.

With that, here Rev. Samuel Miller illustrates this mindset in his letter where he argues that Unitarians, though they call themselves "Christians" are really "Deists in disguise."

[Paragraph breaks added for clarity.]

You are now, I trust, prepared, without hesitation, to answer the questions which were asked toward the close of the first Letter;—viz— What estimate you ought to form of the opinions of Unitarians? How you ought to treat their persons? How to consider their preaching? How to act with respect to their publications? Whether you ought to regard them as Christians at all? Whether their congregations ought to be called churches of Christ? And whether the ordinances which they administer ought to be sustained as valid?

You are prepared, I hope, to decide, promptly and without wavering, that they are By No Means To Be Considered As Christians, in any scriptural sense of the word; that their preaching is to be avoided as blasphemy; their publications to be abhorred as pestiferous; their ordinances to be held unworthy of regard as christian institutions; and their persons to be in all respects treated as Decent And Sober Deists In Disguise.

Such is the estimate which I feel constrained to form for myself; and, of course, that which I wish to impress upon your minds. And, if I do not deceive myself, you have seen enough to preclude all doubt as to its justice. If they reject every fundamental doctrine of the religion of Christ, they, of course, reject Christianity; if they reject christianity, they, surely, are not christians; if they are not christians, their congregations, evidently, ought not to be called churches, nor their ordinances considered as valid: and, these things being so, you ought to regard a proposition to go and hear them preach, or to read their publications, as you would a proposition to hear a preacher of open infidelity, or to read an artful publication of a follower of Herbert or of Hume.

I have said, that Unitarians ought to be considered and treated as Deists In Disguise. I beg that this language may not be misconstrued. It is by no means my intention to intimate, for I do not believe, that Unitarians are, as a sect, a set of hypocrites; that they profess one thing, and really believe another. I have no reason to doubt that they are as sincere in their profession of belief, that is, that they as really believe what they profess to believe, as any of us all. But my meaning is, that, while they assume, and insist on retaining the christian name, their creed really does not differ much, in substance, from that of serious Deists.

Now, if this be the case, and if the fact that they are substantially Deists, be, in effect, concealed from popular view by the name which they bear, what is this but being Deists under the christian name, in other words, Deists in disguise? I certainly take no pleasure in using offensive language. On the contrary, I can truly say, that every thing of this kind which I have employed in these Letters has been extorted from me by a painful sense of duty; but my obligation to state that which I deem both true, and highly important to the best interests of mankind, is paramount to all considerations of delicacy or ceremony.

6 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...


In this interdisciplinary field of history/politics/theology...


Unless we find evidence outside the natterings of clergy, we're really only doing one out of three. I just haven't run across the evidence that normal people [heheh] cared much.

As we saw, John and Samuel Adams made a revolution even though we find out that John leaned unitarian. We know that until the unitarians started legally taking over churches c. 1810-1820, Trinitarians and unitarians shared the same pews [and pulpits!].

Nobody---even clergy---seemed particularly bugged in real life that Franklin was agnostic on Christian doctrines like the Trinity. The revivalist Whitefield and Franklin were friends.

And Franklin, Jefferson and John Adams contributed to the support of churches, not necessarily their own. In fact, John Adams, a bigtime anti-papist, was on the committee that helped raise funds for the first Catholic church in Boston!

Although his defenders denied his unorthodoxies, there were doubts, but Jefferson got plenty of "evangelical" votes anyway, since he was seen as a reliable protector of the rights of the minority sects.

Ethan Allan [the bottom of the Deist barrel, quickly reached] wrote a best-selling memoir, and claimed he defeated the British "in the name of Jehovah!"

There was a debate between Calvinist Samuel Adams and unitarian William Ellery Channing on the Trinity [JQ Adams said he thought Sam won]. I cannot think if the split were that drastic, the men could have taken the stage together to debate. [You might find that one interesting, though. I've never dug into it.]

It seems to me that the rise of unitarianism [1815-1845?] was a bit of a bump, a fad, and was counterbalanced by the Second Great Awakening. Theologically, it's interesting, but historically, mostly interesting because the unitarian takeover of the Congregationalist churches led to the disestablishment of the last state church in America: Congregationalism, Massachusetts, 1833.

There was a point where I thought the FFs were all unitarians, but that turned out not to be so. Further, I was surprised to learn that unitarianism of John and Abagail Adams and Channing wasn't as radical as it seemed like modern UUism, or even the English version of Priestley and Belsham. It still believed Jesus was some sort of Messiah and the Bible was God's Word.

John Adams' thanksgiving proclamation of The Father of Mercies, The Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit seems much more Trinitarian than some mainline Protestant versions today.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Presbyterians tried these:

• Sun, Light and Burning Ray

• Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb

• Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace

• Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River

• Fire That Consumes, Sword That Divides, and Storm That Melts Mountains


Eh. Mankind has already tried the Sun God thing, and too much of Him gives you skin cancer. "Our Rainbow Who Art (Am, Is) Wherever" makes me want to fetch my Divine Coloring Book. With the recent floods in the northeast, overflow is counterintuitive: Dear Overflow, leave us alone, willya? And here in California, a Storm That Melts Mountains caused a landslide that almost took out my patio deck.

I don't think the Presbs go nearly far enough.

--Solar, Wind, and Clean-Burning Hydrogen Power (Enviro-God)
--Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Holy Flamingo (Kung-Fu God)
--Owner, Driver, Pit Crew (NASCAR God)
--Apatosaurus, T. Rex and Archaeopteryx (Jurassic God)
--Pop, Snap & Crackle (Breakfast God)
--Tinker to Evers to Chance (Teamwork God)
--Townshend, Daltry, Entwistle (The Writer, The Song and The One Who Played Bass God)
--Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness (Separation of Church and God God)

Well, it's quite a fruitful vein. One Presbyter said you might as well call 'em Huey, Dewey and Louie, but I think he isn't quite down with the Spirit of the thing. The Deity Formerly Known as The Triune God has got to get into the 21st century.

[The latter bit is from an old post.]

Pinky said...

.
The advent of modernity blew hot blasting winds that cut deep into the ice of traditional teachings sculpting out new ideas.
.
Unitarian thinking was/is one of the results.
.
Of course the traditionalists were upset. They always are.
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Or, as Philipp Melanchthon thought in the 1500s, unitarianism---the return of Arianism---was a natural result of Protestantism.

Since Michael Servetus is a pre-Enlightenment figure, this has some currency.

Brad Hart said...

Good post, Jon!

King of Ireland said...

As Tom states, if we open the question up the the full 2,000 years of Christian thought, then the re-emergence of Arianism(and other anti-trinitarian doctrines) becomes just that; nothing NEW.