Thursday, October 13, 2011

John Jay's Archive, Richard Gardiner & Creedal Christianity

John Jay's correspondence is available at Liberty Fund. There is a lot of great stuff there.

Jay is a Founder, generally conceded as orthodox Christian. And he does offer some quotations that sound "Christian Nation" like. Certainly, Christian Nationalists have used (abused?) those quotations from Jay. Rev. Robert Jeffress recently used Jay's quotation to justify why he would vote for the "Christian" Rick Perry over the "non-Christian" Mormon Mitt Romney.

John Jay was a lifelong Anglican, a church warden, and was involved in the reformation of Anglicanism to Episcopalianism.

While investigating the exact religious beliefs of as many American Founders I could, I began to think very hard about the concept of creedalism, and that various Founders, in some way affiliated with churches connected to doctrinally orthodox creeds, could disbelieve at least some of what their churches officially endorsed.

In this debate over who exactly believed what, we look for smoking guns to "settle" the issue. Some use, in the absence of smoking gun quotations, formal affiliation to churches and their official doctrines, as shorthand for what exactly a Founder believed. Indeed, if one held an official position in said churches -- church warden, vestryman, godfather, etc. -- then one probably DID swear and oath to said church's official doctrines.

Enter the concept of an "Anglican Whig." According to Anglicanism's official doctrines, the King of England was both head of church AND state. And when Anglican church MEMBERS swore oaths they swore to remain loyal to the Crown. There was a term for the oath and doctrinal fundamentalists in the Anglican Church in late 18th Century America: Tories.

In order to claim America's Founders as orthodox Christians via their church affiliation, Christian Nationalists have to turn them into oath fundamentalists and argue something like if you are not an oath fundamentalist, you are a liar or a hypocrite. See for instance, Christian Nationalist Richard Gardiner making this argument.

Accordingly, because they violated their high church Tory oaths when they rebelled against the Crown, Anglican Whigs such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Henry, Jay and others were "liars when they swore to God to adopt the confessions of their churches when they became members of these churches" to use Dr. Gardiner's exact words.  (Again, I don't make that judgment; Christian Nationalists like Dr. Gardiner do.)

John Jay, unlike Washington and Madison, and like Jefferson was fairly explicit in detailing what he believed, religiously, in his private letters.  (Jefferson, the good Anglican he [not!], rejected every single tenet of orthodox Christianity.)

As I've written before, John Jay, though more apparently "biblical" and "Christian" than other Founders, was no "oath fundamentalist" regarding his Anglicanism-Episcopalianism.  Christian Nationalists may enjoy Jay's letter to Samuel Miller, Feb. 18, 1822, when he 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."

"No creed but the Bible" may make Jay sound like a good late 18th Century Quaker, but it does not represent what orthodox Anglicanism or Episcopalianism stood for at that time. Anglicanism, and then Episcopalianism, in its official doctrines endorsed not just "the Bible" as revelation, but also the Athanasian Creed and 39 Articles.

And indeed, when the Bible is unmoored from orthodox Trinitarian creeds, heresy in the form of biblical non-Trinitarianism inevitably results as it did in Jay's case. In his private letters, Jay's endorsement of "the Bible" but no "creeds" led him to seem not only utterly unconcerned with Anglican doctrine, but also to doubt the Trinity, or at least the understanding of the Trinity as represented by the Athanasian Creed (what his church, what he took official oaths to, endorsed). From the same letter to Samuel Miller, Feb. 18, 1822:

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.


Tom Van Dyke said...

And when Anglican church MEMBERS swore oaths they swore to remain loyal to the Crown.

Are you sure, Jon? I was under the impression it was only the clergy. You have a lot riding on this factoid.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I was basing this on my analysis of the vestrymen and Godfather oaths that GW swore to. Jefferson also swore to vestryman oaths (but not Godfather). Not sure what Jay as Churchwarden would have sworn to.

This is one of the vestrymen oaths that Lillback uses to prove GW's orthodoxy:

"I, A B, do declare that I will be conformable to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England, as by law established.,"

And then he extracts the Trinitarian content from said in order to prove GW's orthodoxy (my point was, look at the entire content and you get not just the Trinity, but also high church Toryism).

There's more. Some of those oaths do get more explicit. I'll post this and then follow up.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Searching my website before I shower and go see David Post at the David Library at Washington's Crossing (I may have to continue this when I get back late tonight).

Here is a link where you may have gotten the "ministers" factoid:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Here is one more until later, describing what those oaths look like. This is what I based my assertion that the oaths were "High Church" and demanded loyalty to the crown (and if you look at the 39 articles, they also demanded believers partake in communion):

"I, AB, as I do acknowledge myself a true son of the Church of England, so do I believe the articles of faith therein professed, and do oblige myself to be conformable to the doctrine and discipline therein taught and established; and that, as Vestryman of this Parish, I will well and truly perform my duty therein, being directed by the laws and customs of this country, and the canons of the Church of England, so far as they will suit our present capacity; and this I shall sincerely do, according to the best of my knowledge, skill, cunning, without fear, favor, or partiality; so help me God.

"George Washington signed the vestryman oath for Fairfax Parish in Alexandria on August 19, 1765 according to PICTORIAL FIELD BOOK OF THE REVOLUTION. VOLUME II, by BENSON J. LOSSING, 1850, Chapter 8, Footnote 30."

"I. Oath of Allegiance.

"I, A. B., do sincerely promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King George the Second, so help me God."


"II. Oath of Allegiance.

"I, A. B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge and promise, testify and declare, in my conscience, before God and the world, that our sovereign Lord, King George the Second, is lawful and rightful King of this realm and all other his Majesty's dominions and countries hereunto belonging...."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, I'm trying to hang with you just clear the accuracy hurdles. I'm not really enlisted in either Gardinier's or Lillback's arguments as particularly significant. The argument of the D of I is that the king relinquished his sovereignty because of his bad acts and indeed it says he not only "usurped" but "abdicated," which meant all oaths were off.

BTW, George II died in 1760. I assume the oath was updated in 1765 to reflect the ascension of George III, but every little bit counts.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I have to go and reexamine these oaths. It certainly is a tricky argument. You do have to wonder where the DOI gets the "jurisdiction" to make for a loophole in Anglican oaths.

Likewise when a new King takes power, I'm sure Anglicanism in its canon laws had some kind of succession rules where you don't need to "retake" all of your vows to the new King.

Brad Hart said...

Maybe I am being a bit too simplistic here, but as I have argued before, maybe the founders (and the justification for the Revolution itself) were not as concerned about religious matters as we think? This goes back to my Romans 13 argument. Though religion was important for many, I still maintain that the reasons and justifications for the Revolution were not as religiously motivated as we sometimes think.

Religion was just one of the 31 flavors.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think you are right in the sense that while the Founders were all "religious" in the sense of believing in God, Providence, and in some broad sense, the Christian religion, they were freethinkers on religion and tended not to be "doctrinally correct." They didn't get hung up on following everything their churches officially taught; the Anglican fundamentalists remained Tories.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think you're right about the Revolution not being about religious faith, so much as political and economic liberty!

The Puritans had their own government, so to speak in the "commonwealth", which was a bibilical foundation. The Romans 13 passage would have been understood within its religious domain.

If the Revolution was really because of taxation and Representation, then it was about money and political power! Therefore, the DoI was a declaration of autonomy from the Crown, as there was no "divine right of Kings".

All the revolutonaries were seen as "God's sons", as a natural right and these natural rights were to be affirmed by a "legitimate government". A good government was to affirm the right of the individual corporately. This is what we have in our Bill of Rights, isn't it?

bpabbott said...


I generally agree with that.

Perhaps the Founders were focused problems of a more serious nature in the here and now.

In spite of there diverse religious opinions, religion looks to have been more of a uniter for them, than a divider.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What I've taken away from all this, esp Jon Rowe's work on Romans 13 etc., is that there was a deep need to square revolution with their religious consciences.

Geez, Paine's "Common Sense" is half Bible study and argument.

Link for the 100th time, but WTH:

Jonathan Rowe said...

In Lillback's book he tries to paint the Whigs as "low church latitudinarian Anglicans"; I wouldn't have a problem with that term except Lillback contrives it to be something constrained along orthodox Trinitarian creedal grounds.

John Jay was one example Lillback names for quintessential "low church latitudinarian Anglican."

The way I see it, the "doctrinally correct" Anglicans were Tories. The Whigs -- call them "low church latitudinarian Anglicans," were freethinkers; that is they weren't doctrinally correct. Even though they came to, in many ways, radically different personal conclusions about the nature of God and the Bible, freethinking and doctrinal incorrectness (and of course being Whigs) were what Anglicans Thomas Jefferson and John Jay had in common.

Phil Johnson said...

The very idea that the state is made up under religious authority stands in opposition to what the Founders were bringing into being.
When politicians, hoping to gain favor of the voting public, then as well as now, make statements regarding their stand on any issue, it is with the knowledge that their comments must appeal to a the great majority of a wide variety of thinkers out here in the voting sector. So their speech is stategized to appeal to as broad a section of the voting public as is possible. To imagine they put personal principles ahead of the public mood is naive. Politicians are known for their ability to play with the truth.
And, it's plain dumb to think otherwise.
As important as the law is, lawyering can get us into some pretty far fetched views of reality.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The way I see it, the "doctrinally correct" Anglicans were Tories. The Whigs -- call them "low church latitudinarian Anglicans," were freethinkers; that is they weren't doctrinally correct. Even though they came to, in many ways, radically different personal conclusions about the nature of God and the Bible, freethinking and doctrinal incorrectness (and of course being Whigs) were what Anglicans Thomas Jefferson and John Jay had in common.

Jon, that's an unsustainable stretch to pair John Jay and Jefferson in any meaningful fashion. it's more a rhetorical trick than a meaningful historical statement.

First of all, "freethinker" as a historical term connotes a rejection of the authority of scripture. Jefferson certainly fits that, taking the razor blade to the Bible, throwing out what he didn't like.

By contrast, John Jay measures everything by Biblical authority. you have just a single quote here where he measures Jesus' divinity against the Bible and comes up only with a theological reservation---not an outright rejection---finding it only of "questionable orthodoxy."

Elsewhere in John Jay's writings, we find an explicit acceptance of the Atonement, another of your rubrics re Orthodoxy:

"The Bible will also inform them that our gracious Creator has provided for us a Redeemer in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed – that this Redeemer has made atonement “for the sins of the whole world,” and thereby reconciling the Divine justice with the Divine mercy..."

So basically, your thesis rides on a single quote that carries a reservation on a single piece of normative Christian dogma. Hardly enough to associate Jay with "freethinkers," esp Jefferson, who rejected all scriptural authority and church dogma.

"Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privledge and interest of our Christian Nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."

Dude was hard-core. Christian nation! More from Brad Hart here: