Saturday, April 9, 2011

Joseph Priestley & the Millennium

This is an excellent article by Clarke Garrett, but you probably won't be able to read it without being part of an institution (like a college) that pays for a license. (You can always choose to buy it if you'd like.)

I think it helps to illustrate the Enlightenment theism that wasn't strict deism or orthodox Christianity that captured the mind of certain notable Founders. Though they may not have agreed with every jot and tittle of Priestley's theology, Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin, among others, were greatly influenced by it. Interestingly, Priestley's "rational Christianity" -- where brilliant minds like his could use their reason and brilliance to discover novel "rational" understandings of the Bible -- failed to accurately prophesize the events of their age.

Priestley believed the Book of Revelation foretold the triumphant success of the French Revolution. As John Adams explained the story:

Not long after the dénouement of the tragedy of Louis XVI., when I was Vice-President, my friend, the Doctor, came to breakfast with me alone. He was very sociable, very learned and eloquent on the subject of the French Revolution. It was opening a new era in the world, and presenting a near view of the millennium. I listened, I heard with great attention, and perfect sang froid; at last I asked the Doctor, “Do you really believe the French will establish a free, democratic government in France?” He answered, “I do firmly believe it.” “Will you give me leave to ask you upon what grounds you entertain this opinion? Is it from any thing you ever read in history? Is there any instance of a Roman Catholic monarchy of five-and-twenty millions of people, at once converted into intelligent, free, and rational people?” “No. I know of no instance like it.” “Is there any thing in your knowledge of human nature, derived from books or experience, that any empire, ancient or modern, consisting of such multitudes of ignorant people, ever were, or ever can be, suddenly converted into materials capable of conducting a free government, especially a democratic republic?” “No. I know of nothing of the kind.” “Well, then, Sir, what is the ground of your opinion?” The answer was, “My opinion is founded altogether upon revelation and the prophecies. I take it that the ten horns of the great beast in Revelations mean the ten crowned heads of Europe, and that the execution of the king of France is the falling off of the first of those horns; and the nine monarchies of Europe will fall, one after another, in the same way.”

31 comments:

Pinky said...

That's good stuff, Jonathan.
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Brad Hart said...

Very interesting, Jon. Thanks for posting this. I wonder if Jefferson, Adams, etc. bought into Priestley's assertion. As you point out, many of the key founders held his in high esteem.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Adams refused to enter the Priestley-affiliated church in Philadelphia while he was president and the capital was in Philly. In response to BradH's interrog above...

Daniel said...

Why did Adams avoid Priestly church? Do we know?

Jonathan Rowe said...

It was mainly over partisan politics. Priestley supported Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans not Adams' Federalists. American support for the FR was becoming partisan along these lines as well during this time.

Jason_Pappas said...

Interesting to find that in a letter to Jefferson, who also had great hopes for the French Revolution. In "John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty" C. Badley Thomspon does a good job reviewing Adams' constitutional thought. In the early 1780s Adams arguing with the French and predicted the failure of the French Revolution before it happened.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Heh---Priestley citing the Book of Revelations on the French revolution is close enough to Hal Lindsey for rock-n-roll! That should be enough give the Enlightenment apologists a boil.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Or it could lead to a more nuanced, accurate understanding of what "Enlightenment" was.

Pinky said...

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There ya go!
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We need more accurate understandings about a lot of things. It never happens with the ideologically crippled way of thinking.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Hal Lindsey, Child of the Enlightenment. Who knew?

Seriously, "Enlightenment" is commonly used in contradistinction to "religion." But as we see, in the Scottish and American contexts---the best loci of the era---that just ain't so.

Adams and Priestley here do show a healthy [?] anti-Catholicism. Fact was, the French clergy supported the revolution at first until it turned bloodthirsty and then directed itself at them.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Seriously, "Enlightenment" is commonly used in contradistinction to "religion."

Well if it is, it shouldn't be, hence the idea of an "Enlightenment" religion that is theistic. And it takes a rationalistic approach to the Bible as Word of God such that it believes in such things as "rational miracles" or "rational prophesies."

Jonathan Rowe said...

And yes, unfortunately, anti-Roman Catholic bigotry was part of this Protestant Enlightenment "theistic rationalism." They regarded the Roman Catholics as the most "superstitious" and hence the LEAST rational of the religions.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Stretching "rationalism" here. As Daniel argued on the other thread, it starts with a fideism and the Bible as the revealed Word of God, and only from that fideistic foundation did they apply reason.

No different method than the Roman church used, except reaching different conclusions.

The book of Revelation and "rationalism" do not fit together in the same box.

Jon, I'm not going to take Pinky's spitballs when I'm not the one that's letting this discussion get imprecise. Semler, one of the seminal "rationalists," explicitly rejected Revelations as a Jewish, non-Christian book. Here.

Your use of "rationalism" in this context is no more than "Biblical exegesis" or simply, "theology." Calvin came up with TULIP. The unitarianism of the Founding era is exegesis, simply coming to a a different theological conclusion than trinitarianism.

This is "rationalism", an identifiable current of thought with identifiable thinkers and methods. "Rationalism" isn't a generic and vague wave of the hand vs. orthodoxy.

Priestley is a hodge-podge, as is John Adams. "Dissenter" is about as definitive we can get, and that's really more descriptive than definitive since it covers such a wide swath of theologies. It can tell us what they weren't ["orthodox"], not what they were.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"No different method than the Roman church used, except reaching different conclusions."

There is a BIG glaring difference between the "Protestant" rationalism that rejected orthodoxy and Roman Catholic Aristotelian rationalism: Protestantism anti-authority feature, which combined with Aristotle's rational method combined to "let reason loose." Rome's authority structure could reign reason in; Protestantism, unless it was a very top down authoritative version of the faith couldn't do that. Hence, the Enlightenment.

"The book of Revelation and 'rationalism' do not fit together in the same box."

Unless talking about a "rationalistic" understanding of the Book of Revelation: Joseph Priestley's.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You've just equated the Enlightenment with Protestantism. I tend to agree with that, esp in the Scottish and American contexts. But it would come as a shock to most secularists' understanding of "Enlightenment."

As for Priestley, per the materials I linked, "rationalism" simply doesn't fit. That's fideism and Hal Lindsey all the way.

Pinky said...

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Galileo was not being anti-Christian when he declared that nature is the true Word of God regarding things scientific as opposed to the Bible and the tradition of what was then accepted as Christian Authority.
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But, he was shown the instruements to be used in his torture unless he recant his "enlightened" declarationsa. He caved and--after which--spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.
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All the while holding to his belief in God.
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Spitballs?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

You didn't tell the whole story. I'm not in the mood for your anti-Catholic crap.

http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/science/sc0033.html

Pinky said...

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bpabbott said...

Tom, the link you provided looks misleading to me.

Although it can be argued that Galileo threw down the gauntlet he was certainly persecuted, by the church, for his heliocentric views.

The Church's hostility extended beyond his death.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That's not what the article says, Ben. It says

The first thing to remember is that Galileo's heliocentric theory, although sternly opposed by theologians who embraced the Ptolemaic model — according to which all heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolve around the earth — wasn't the real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties.

Neither is detouring into Galileo particularly relevant here. If folks are interested in the whole story, they'll read the link.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The Anglo-American Enlightenment certainly had the character of a freethinking "Protestant rationalism."

Pinky said...

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I certainly didn't "detour" this discussion. My only point--in support of the claim that Christianity was involved in the Enlightenment--was that Galileo's scientific approach to reality was not an anti-Christian action; but, that it was part of his belief in the supremacy of God over everything else.
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But, my comment was used by another to upset this thread.
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So, don't blame me.
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Pinky said...

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Protestant rationalism" is also known by some as Christian Liberty. I think the Enlightenment is deep[ly rooted in it by whatever name it is known.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Not the Enlightenment of Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau. That's been my core point.

Pinky said...

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What I mean to convey, Tom, is that the Enlightenment didn't just spring into existence like some mushroom on some early summer morning. It was a long time coming and there was much travail in its birthing.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

"Priestley is a hodge-podge, as is John Adams."

In other words, a hybrid which is exactly Gregg's theistic rationalist thesis. Right?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sure, and so's Hal Lindsey. He's been quite "rational" with his exegesis of Bible prophecy. Wrong, but rational.

You're not arguing actual theology, Jon, just terms. And it was quite unfair to clip one sentence out of context.

Priestley is a hodge-podge, as is John Adams. "Dissenter" is about as definitive we can get, and that's really more descriptive than definitive since it covers such a wide swath of theologies. It can tell us what they weren't ["orthodox"], not what they were.

Now, when you get to Jefferson and his scissors or Semler flatly decreeing that Revelations is Jewish eschatology and impossible to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, you're getting into genuine "rationalist" territory, reason trumping revelation instead of trumping mere traditional interpretations of it.

But you can't get that umbrella to cover Washington, and it can barely cover Franklin's single recorded doubt about Jael in the Book of Judges.

And Adams' 1+1+1=3 was a hypothetical; he was never actually put to that test.

So, once again, we end up with Jefferson and Franklin and John Adams somewhat, not the "Founding Fathers."

The problem with Gregg's "theistic rationalist" is that it takes differences in interpretation and lumps them in with wholesale rejections based upon reason. Adams is not Paine, whom he criticized roundly.

Paine, now there was a "theistic rationalist."

""[Thomas Paine's] political writings, I am singular enough to believe, have done more harm than his irreligious ones. He understood neither government nor religion. From a malignant heart he wrote virulent declamations, which the enthusiastic fury of the times intimidated all men, even Mr. Burke, from answering as he ought. His deism, as it appears to me, has promoted rather than retarded the cause of revolution in America, and indeed in Europe. His billingsgate, stolen from Blount's Oracles of Reason, from Bolingbroke., Voltaire, Berenger, &c., will never discredit Christianity, which will hold its ground in some degree as long as human nature shall have any thing moral or intellectual left in it. The Christian religion, as I understand it, is the brightness of the glory and the express portrait of the character of the eternal, self-existent, independent, benevolent, all powerful and all merciful creator, preserver, and father of the universe, the first good, first perfect, and first fair. It will last as long as the world. Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation, could ever have discovered or invented it. Ask me not, then, whether I am a Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian. As far as they are Christians, I wish to be a fellow-disciple with them all." --John Adams, letter to Benjamin Rush on 21 January 1810

King of Ireland said...

Jon stated:

"Or it could lead to a more nuanced, accurate understanding of what "Enlightenment" was.

This is your purpose in this Jon. I disagree on some of the finer points of this discussion and obviously feel that the frame of discussion needs to shift to overall ideas not personal beliefs, but I do value your work and have learned from it.

King of Ireland said...

Jon stated:

"There is a BIG glaring difference between the "Protestant" rationalism that rejected orthodoxy and Roman Catholic Aristotelian rationalism: Protestantism anti-authority feature, which combined with Aristotle's rational method combined to "let reason loose." Rome's authority structure could reign reason in; Protestantism, unless it was a very top down authoritative version of the faith couldn't do that. Hence, the Enlightenment."


This is Goldstone's argument at Cato Unbound that I refer to in a post above. I think he is wrong in this aspect of an otherwise sound argument.

I make my case from the History of European Republics like Aragon in Spain and others. In fact, I am beginning to think, and do not have the formal education to study thorough enough to form conclusions, that those who, "let reason loose" may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and handed us the seeds for a hedonistic society that the founders would have been mortified with.

Much like the French Revolution evolved into.

King of Ireland said...

Tom stated:

"You're not arguing actual theology, Jon, just terms"

The glaring crack in Frazer's thesis that obviously no one in the Christian circles will challenge him on and no one in the "rationalist" camp can in that they have never studied nor understand the WHEAT of the theological arguments needed to discuss this topic.


Thus, the tact of picking the low hanging fruit like Barton's errors and even picking Barton himself to waste time on.

I know this is buried way down here under a bunch of posts and comments but so I hope we can carry on this aspect of the discussion in the comments section of my post.

King of Ireland said...

Tom stated:

"The problem with Gregg's "theistic rationalist" is that it takes differences in interpretation and lumps them in with wholesale rejections based upon reason. Adams is not Paine, whom he criticized roundly"

A legitimate question for a scholar to answer from anyone who would ask. I have seen no response from Greg. In my mind, til he has one I think he should consider re-working his doctural thesis to address these concerns.

Yes, I know what I am saying. And yes, I am charging that his thesis was not properly scrutinized before they allowed him to publish it. My issue is not with him but with my Christian brothers and sisters having a lower standard than the "world" they want to speak to.

A topic that Ed Brayton hits on and is exactly right. My issue with Ed is that if Greg was not on his side he would shred him just like Barton.