Friday, March 23, 2012


Over at my home blog, this post on Alexander Hamilton's religion, for some reason, is generating a lot of views.

It summarizes the scholarly consensus on Hamilton's religion. While he may have had a conventionally religious youth (as did virtually all of the Founders) and died a Christian death, in between he was not identifiably a "Christian" as defined by orthodox standards. But he was something. What was it? Most scholars would use the term "deism." Dr. Gregg Frazer says no, "theistic rationalism" is better. Dr. Frazer has a book coming out soon that I hope we all get. If things go according to plan I am going to be involved in an "event" this summer with Gregg on the book.

Some interlocutors at American Creation object to the term "theistic rationalism." I didn't use it in my above linked piece on Hamilton. As a courtesy to them when discussing what a particular Founder believed, I try not to load the writing with terms to which they would object, but rather find a denominator.

So this is the term I used, in context:

... I'm not so sure how seriously to take Hamilton's crack on "purgatory." That's certainly part of Roman Catholicism, an orthodox faith; but most reformed/evangelical Protestant creeds of the Founding era, like those today, reject purgatory. The more "enlightened" Protestant Christian unitarian-universalists, however, did believe in Protestant Purgatory, where good people went to Heaven, bad people were temporarily punished there.

"Enlightened" Protestant Christian-unitarian-universalism. Both with small "u's" on purpose (so as not to confuse with official denominations). I think it's without question an accurate description of what Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin clearly believed. AND what Hamilton probably believed during the time in which he did his work "Founding" America, until his son died. Though that term is too cumbersome. It is important to note, this creed DID usually present itself as a form of "Christianity" -- "rational Christianity."


Mark D. said...

I think that's right, Jon. Hamilton would have identified himself as a Christian throughout his life, but his religious views did vary. There is no question that Hamilton was a more orthodox religious believer towards the end of his life, inspired to more conventional piety and faith after the death of his son Philip. During his more influential period, from what I have read, his religious views were pretty much as you describe them. Good work providing some needed clarity on this topic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not following where Hamilton's lack of religiosity in the middle period of his life equates to a change in his personal theology.

A lot of people are religious when young, and again moreso when old, and more occupied with the concerns of this mortal coil in between. but I don't see where Hamilton's beliefs went from "orthodox" to "theistic rationalist" and then back to "orthodox" again.

There's a middle missing here. In fact, the woman he married was both very orthodox and devout. Just because he wasn't religiously observant in his middle period doesn't mean he was theological unorthodox.

Jonathan Rowe said...



Tom: The closest Hamilton comes to describing theistic rationalism during that time period was when he described what he is looking for in his wife:

"As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in God and hate a saint."

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's kind of a joke. "I want to marry a woman who's a prig and a pious drag?"

Jonathan Rowe said...


I admit there are no "smoking guns" with AH. I see it as more of a totality of the evidence.

What do you think about his clumsy Christian death.

I'm paraphrasing, so we can go to the sources if this is in dispute. But he hadn't yet joined an orthodox church from which to seek communion, but admitted he had been "intending" to. He finally did get his first adult communion after he was shot and just before he died.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't take a lot of meaning out of being non-observant in the middle years except that ritual organized religion isn't important to the person at a certain time in their lives. More a postponement than an apostasy.

Non-observance doth not a theistic rationalist make. Hamilton in particular was very devout as a young man, and there's no hard evidence he changed his theology at any point in his life.

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Jonathan Rowe said...

"non-observant in the middle years except that ritual organized religion isn't important ....

Non-observance doth not a theistic rationalist make."

I'm reading an advance copy of Gregg's book where instead of discussing Madison, Hamilton, G. Morris, and Wilson separately, he lumps them in one chapter. He notes one thing that unites them is their seeming utter indifference towards "doctrine" (save belief in Providence).

They were all "devout" theists. They did not (with the exception of Hamilton at the end), identifiably, place their faith in the Triune God.

Tom Van Dyke said...

They were all "devout" theists. They did not (with the exception of Hamilton at the end), identifiably, place their faith in the Triune God.

"Identifiably" being the main weasel word here. As they say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Jonathan Rowe said...

In that chapter Gregg seems less concerned with trying to disprove that they were orthodox Trinitarian Christians and more showing what those "key Framers" believed was COMPATIBLE with theistic rationalism.

Though he does suggest if they were orthodox Christians they would have left more evidence, like what Hamilton left at his death.