Saturday, September 25, 2010

Was John Jay a Christian Hypocrite?

John Jay, not a "key Founder" but a 2nd tier Founder, is generally conceded as an "orthodox Christian." He certainly has a number of quotations that support the "Christian Nation" thesis. From most of what I've read, I'd say the categorization is accurate. Though, I've reproduced before, and will reproduce again quotations from Jay affirming the Bible, but doubting the Trinity.

In a letter to Samuel Miller, Feb. 18, 1822, Jay wrote:

"In forming and settling my belief relative to the doctrines of Christianity, I adopted no articles from creeds, but such only as, on careful examination, I found to be confirmed by the Bible."

To the Sola Scripturaist that sounds good. After all, church doctrine can be tainted with man's doctrines. But, Sola Scriptura without creeds led Jay to doubt the Trinity. From that very letter:

"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."

I want to focus more on Jay's disregard for creeds and how that relates to the political theology of the American Founding.

The late ME Bradford did a study where he "found" 52 out of 55 Founding Fathers in some way connected to churches that adhered to an orthodox creed. Christian Nationalists have run with that figure with a talking point that argues "52 out of 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were orthodox Christians."

Some Christian Nationalist (not sure if it was Bradford himself) mistakenly claimed the 52/55 figure found "membership" at a time when membership required oaths to official church doctrine.

I've looked into this in detail and the figure does not relate to "membership" but "affiliation." There is NO EVIDENCE that 52/55 took membership oaths (although some/many of them did). Alexander Hamilton, for instance (not one of Bradford's "Deists") had affiliations with both the Episcopalian and Presbyterian Churches (the two churches from whom he sought communion on his deathbed) but was never a MEMBER of either or any church during his adult life.

Bradford's figure is worthless. In fact, all 55, even his 3 "Deists" -- Franklin, Wilson, and Williamson -- had affiliations with churches that professed orthodoxy in their creeds.

Therefore, a counter to the Bradford figure that shows the vast majority of FFs connected to orthodox churches is that those affiliations were for social reasons, that, whether official members or unofficial affiliates, it was not uncommon for elites to belong to orthodox churches while disbelieving in what the churches taught as formal doctrine.

The response, I've heard, is that makes them hypocrites. Perhaps. And that's a charge those making the claim have deal with, not us who argue against Christian Nationalism. Keep in mind the Anglican Church preached loyalty to the crown as a political-theological doctrine. And many American Anglicans, most notably George Washington, remained so while rebelling against England. How is that any less hypocritical than disbelieving in the Trinity, even though your church holds to it as an official doctrine and may make you take an oath to it if you want to get involved in leadership positions(which again, many FFs used as a social network)?

But back to John Jay. He too was an Anglican who rebelled against Great Britain. In fact he was (apparently) a warden of this church.

I've seen many Christian Nationalists try to use church affiliation/membership, and especially leadership positions (which did require oaths) as shortcuts to prove the "orthodoxy" of a particular Founder. The shortcut is needed in the absence of quotations supporting the orthodox Christianity of a particular Founder. For instance, George Washington offers little if anything from his own mouth to prove he believed in the Trinity, Atonement, Resurrection of Christ. So Peter Lillback uses his Anglican affiliation as a surrogate.

Likewise with John Jay we could argue, since he was an Anglican, indeed a Church warden required to take oaths to official Anglican doctrine (which were orthodox), and since John Jay offered other quotations which seemed to support orthodox Christian doctrine, we could conclude Jay believed in official orthodox Anglican doctrines.

But no, the above offered quotations refute that. It's true that late 18th Cen. Anglicanism supported the idea of the Bible as divinely inspired in an inerrant, infallible sense (something to which Jay apparently believed). It also made the Trinity central to its creed. AND relied on official creeds like the Athanasian Creed and 39 Articles of Faith to clarify just how they interpreted Word of God. And those, apparently, to Jay at that point in his life, meant little if anything to him.

In that letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, Jay was being a very bad orthodox Anglican from that perspective. If he affirmed the Trinity from Sola Scriptura but disregarded the creeds and 39 Articles of Faith, we could say Jay was being a good orthodox Christian, but not a very good Anglican (that's what evangelicals might wish because, as mostly non-Anglicans, they don't care about Anglican doctrine). But he doesn't even do that. Rather, he sounds more like a quasi-Quaker whose belief in "no creed but the Bible" led them to be wobbly on the Trinity and other orthodox doctrines.

But anyway, the Jay quotes support the notion that many late 18th Cen. American orthodox Churches functioned as social networks and members and affiliates didn't necessarily believe in what their churches held as a matter of official doctrine. The official doctrines of those churches CANNOT be used as shortcuts to determine what the Founders believed.


Tom Van Dyke said...

John Jay's a hypocrite for saying, hey, these Christian unitarians might have a point there about the Trinity not being supported by the Bible?

Whenever Christians break the stereotype of being mindless fideistic robots, they're not Christian?

Christians are as human as most normal people. They doubt, they sin.

You have a point about Lillback using Anglican orthodoxy and trying to apply that to Washington's mind, but John Jay checking out the claims of unitarianism is miles away from the discussion of Christianity and the Founding.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, you've established that Jay had doubts about church creeds and certain aspects of doctrinal orthodoxy. Yet, given the criteria of John 3:16 and Romans 10:9-10, we can still safely conclude that John Jay was a Christian.

I agree that Bradford's 52/55 claim (which others continue to parrot) is a fundamentally flawed claim, for the reasons you cite. However, you commit a fallacy yourself when you argue that a majority of the FFs associated with Christian denominations for "social reasons." It's undoubtedly true that SOME FFs did, but you can't say that most of them did. To make such a claim, you would need some kind of evidence that speaks to each individual's motive. I don't think you have enough evidence to use the word "majority."

Jonathan Rowe said...


You may be right that I should have chosen my words more carefully. I meant to assert the social dynamic thing existed in more than a nominal number of Founders and to get at what they really believed, we need more that just church affiliation.

I also would give Jay the benefit of the doubt and term him a "Christian" according to your criteria.

I'm actually stressing this dynamic because I've witnessed and personally been involved in some debates where church doctrine is raised as a surrogate for an FFs religious belief. And when the social club dynamic is raised, a common response is "you mean they were hypocrites." I'm thinking of, among others, Lillback and also a fellow named Richard Gardiner. He's not a bad historian, but he shoots too far with certain claims. (And he can be quite nasty too when he posts under his pseudonyms.) Ray Soller and I have both been subject to his ad hominems.

Ray Soller said...

Jon, would that be the same pastor Richard Gardiner who is mentioned in this news article, Minister reprises 'under God' sermon, of eight years ago?

Brian Tubbs said...

If Lillback is being nasty toward you, that is indeed a discredit to him.

I would say, though, that the "hypocrite" argument has merit in SOME cases. For instance, Washington's case. I know we differ on that, but I do think that Washington was a man who took integrity and honesty VERY seriously.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Not Lillback who said anything nasty. As far as I know, he has never acknowledged me in a public forum. Rather it was Richard Gardiner, the person linked in Ray's comment.

Ray Soller said...

I don't know how far John Jay and the first tier of FFs relied upon Blackstone, but Blackstone defined:

1) Basis of Judicial Oaths. The belief in a future state of rewards and punishments, the entertaining just ideas of the attributes of the Supreme Being, and a firm persuausion that he superintends and will finally compensate every action in human life, are the grand foundation of judicial oaths, which call God to witness the truth of those facts, which perhaps may only be known to him and the party attesting. All moral evidence, all confidence in human veracity [are] weakened by apostasy, and overthrown by total infidelity.

2) Blasphemy. An offense against God and religion is that of blaphemy against the Almighty, by denying His being or providence, or by contumelious reproaches of Christ. Also all profane scoffing at the holy scriptures, or exposing them to contemot and ridicule. This is punished by fine and imprisonment, or infamous coporeal punishment.

If the doubtful expression of certain aspects of the Trinity which were of "guestionable orthodoxy" fell within the purview of "contumelious reproaches of Christ," then that could reasonably be counted as one of the "Offences Against God and Religion." (See Never Before in History: America's Inspired Birth, pg. 62, by Gary Amos & Richard Gardiner.

Russ said...

I think Jay is being misread here, as is the nature of evangelicalism. The specific point of doctrine Jay was questioning, usually called the eternal generation of the son, does not entail a denial of the trinity as such. Jay begins by explicitly affirming the trinity as biblical, and doesn't seem to deny that there is an eternal second person of trinity, only whether that second person is eternally begotten as the son.

The Westminster confession explicitly affirms eternal generation of the son, but subscription to the confession in America was a matter of affirming the "system of doctrine" contained in the confession, not every detail. Anglicans were even looser on the details of the 39 Articles. Really, in this history of the doctrine of the trinity, this seems fairly minor compared to, say, the West's (Catholic and Protestant) insertion of filioque into the creed.

This was not a strange quirk of Jay, either. Given the date, I assume Samuel Miller (of Princeton Seminary) was looking for material for a book he published in 1823, _Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ: Addressed to The Rev. Professor Stuart, of Andover_ (available on google books).

It's really the very nature of evangelicalism to stress the authority of scripture alone over any creed or confession (beyond what the first two generations of reformers would have considered appropriate). Even those who strongly defend the doctrine do not do so primarily on appealing to the creed, but by biblical exegesis. Eternal generation of the son has been subsequently denied by several later evangelicals and fundamentalists, including Oliver Buswell (who served as President of Wheaton), self-appointed orthodoxy watchdog Walter Martin of the Christian Research Institute, and for a long time, John MacArthur (who eventually changed his position), and Robert Reymond (PCA minister who taught (teaches?) at Knox Theological Seminary, founded by D. James Kennedy, who I'm sure everyone on this blog is familiar with). Many fundamentalists still fight over the issue, usually termed "eternal sonship."

Jonathan Rowe said...


Many thanks for this. I just wrote a response that got eaten up.

So this will be shorter. You may be right on what Jay really meant. But I see his quote just as much supporting a fall into Arianism or some other kind of non-Trinitarianism than maintaining belief in Trinity without belief in Christ's eternal Sonship.

Pinky said...

2) Blasphemy. An offense against God and religion is that of blasphemy against the Almighty, by denying His being or providence, or by contumelious reproaches of Christ. Also all profane scoffing at the holy scriptures, or exposing them to contempt and ridicule. This is punished by fine and imprisonment, or infamous corporeal punishment.
I think of blasphemy as the act of speaking on behalf of God--and not in denying His being or providence which is, entirely, something else.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But I see his quote just as much supporting a fall into Arianism or some other kind of non-Trinitarianism than maintaining belief in Trinity without belief in Christ's eternal Sonship.

If Russ is correct, that subjective statement doesn't hold, Jon. This deserves closer study. It's a big gulf between a fine point of doctrine and nonTrinitarianism.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'd like to read the whole letter to Miller in context. So far I've found pieces of it only.

When Jay writes --

"I therefore consider the Position of being at least of questionable Orthodoxy."

-- it depends on what he means by "the Position." Does "the Position" mean "the Trinity" -- at first glance that's what I thought. Or does it mean those justifications for it that include doctrines like "eternally begotten" that are hard to comprehend and understandably disputed.

In any event, I don't dispute Jay was an orthodox Christian. Though, if he were an anti-creedal orthodox Trinitarian evangelical, that still doesn't fit with being a good Anglican. And that fits with my argument about churches being used as social clubs and not as surrogates for determining an FFs religious belief.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Insinuating John Jay was a hypocrite is a mighty charge. If being a "good Anglican" or a "good x" means accepting every bit of doctrine without question, there is pretty much no such thing as a "good x."

Catholic archbishop Murphy Cardinal O'Connor believes in "universal reconciliation," although "hell" is normative Catholic theology. But O'Connor's still a Catholic in good standing---he's a cardinal!

According to Russ, John MacArthur's been on both sides of the issue. I don't hesitate to say he was a "good x" either way.

You're tilting at a technique you say Lillback uses, but your method is no more tenable the other way. And if Russ is right, questioning John Jay's Trinitarianism is completely inapplicable here. It deserves at least far more investigation of the original Jay letter before breaking out the "h-word" [hypocrite].

Jonathan Rowe said...


This is more than Jay taking an issue with the Anglicans on the matter of eternal Sonship. Rather, this is him saying "I don't give a shit about creeds, just the Bible. And that's where I find the Trinity." That might make one a good evangelical orthodox Christian and perhaps a good Baptist. But, arguably, it makes one not so good an Anglican. That is, if one assumes church is more about heritage and club membership. To a lot of believers today and in the FE that's exactly what church was.

I don't have a particular problem with this kind of religious worship; I don't have a problem with cafeteria Catholicism or any form of Christianity. It's the folks that do have a problem with this kind of Christianity who would say, "he wasn't being a good Anglican." Perhaps I should have worded my comment more carefully.

But I do think I worded the hypocrite claim carefully. If you read my comments here closely on the hypocrite claim you see I never accused him of so being just raised the issue. And again, it's the folks who would say, if you don't believe in your churches official doctrines, you should leave or you are a hypocrite who likely would or should affirmatively answer that question on Jay.

Theresa Bruno said...

I am a practicing Catholic and don't understand why some insist on clinging to the supposed faith of the founding fathers. Whether most were orthodox Christians or not, that shouldn't change an individual's faith nor does it change the fact that we are free to worship as we chose.

As for the founding fathers themselves, I believe it is difficult to ascertain what they truly believed. Faith and religious conviction evolve over a lifetime. No one can say for certain what a certain person believed at a certain moment in time.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

But I do think I worded the hypocrite claim carefully. If you read my comments here closely on the hypocrite claim you see I never accused him of so being just raised the issue.

Uh huh. It's an unfair technique to insinuate what the evidence does not prove. Are the Tea Parties racist? Is Obama a socialist?

It's the folks that do have a problem with this kind of Christianity who would say, "he wasn't being a good Anglican."

I don't know who these "folks" are. You write zillions of posts with them in mind, but as Russ pointed out, even John Macarthur had the same doubts as John Jay did. At what point does the doctrinal McCarthyism stop?

"Do you now or have you ever believed that Jesus was not eternally begotten?"

"Do you now or have you ever doubted any of the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession?"

As Ms. Bruno notes, what someone believed [or doubted] at some point in their life doesn't tell us a whole lot.

I mean dude, when it comes to Protestantism, you're more Catholic than the pope and more inquisitive than the Inquisition. The Founding wasn't about that, and frankly, even today's culture wars aren't. Right now, the leading proponent of an American "political theology" is a Mormon.

Mark in Spokane said...


I rank Jay as a "key founder" not because he is in the top tier, but because he was a critical participant both in the resolution of the Revolution and the foundation of the early Republic. Aside from his role as a co-author of The Federalist, Jay was an incredibly important diplomat (re: the "Jay Treaty" with Britain) and he was the very first Chief Justice of the United States. Jay was also a presidential contender for the Federalist Party -- he only bowed out because of his wife's ill health. In addition, he served as President of the Continental Congress in 1778-79,

In his political work at the state level, Jay was not only a governor of New York State, he was a persistent and ardent abolitionist, finally leading that state to begin to abolish slavery in 1799. Jay exemplified the Federalist and northern approach to emancipation at the state level.

So, while definitely not a Washington or a Hamilton, Jay meets the test, I think, for being a "key founder."