Friday, June 15, 2012

Comment I Left Categorizing Religious Beliefs of America's Founders

Co-blogger Tom Van Dyke is arguing the controversy at Warren Throckmorton's blog here. This is a long comment I left:

You might want to check out American Creation where we feature news about Dr. Gregg Frazer's new book (and other things as well, including news on Drs. Throckmorton and Fea).

The "key Founders" -- the first 4 Presidents, Ben Franklin, James Wilson, G. Morris and A. Hamilton -- were not "strict Deists" in the absentee Landlord sense.  Yet, they weren't "Christians" in the orthodox sense either.  They were, as Dr. Frazer categorizes them, "theistic rationalists" which is somewhere in between.  The theistic rationalists were theological unitarians.  So others might term them "unitarians."  There are smoking guns that prove this the case with Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin.  The others rely more on circumstantial evidence.  They were all theists (that is believed in an active personal God).  Hamilton was not provably an orthodox Christian until the end of his life (after his son died in a duel).  The other FFs were not provably orthodox Christians during any time in their adult life when they did the work "Founding" the nation.  I'm not aware of other key Founder than Hamilton having an end of life conversion to orthodox Christianity.  George Washington, for instance, died a Stoic death where he asked for no ministers and said no prayers.  But you never know what's going on in someone's head and heart before they take their last breath.

David Holmes prefers to term the key Founders "Christian-Deists," as opposed to the non-Christian deism of Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine and Elihu Palmer.  But those three were the only notable "strict Deists" among the Founders.  (It's debatable whether Palmer was a notable Founder).

There were a lot of orthodox Christians among the 2nd and lower tier Founders.  They include John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry.

With regards to the rest, well, we just don't know.  Proving they had some kind of formal affiliation with an orthodox Church -- which THEY ALL DID -- really proves nothing other than they had some kind of formal affiliation with an orthodox Church.

It would be error to assume, as some do, the rest were "all" something.  Elias Boudinot and Fisher Ames were probably orthodox Christians.  Benjamin Rush was an orthodox Christian Universalist who believed in the doctrine of universal salvation, believing all would be saved through Christ's universal, as opposed to limited Atonement.  Timothy Pickering was a unitarian, and William Livingston may have been.  John Marshall was a unitarian who converted to orthodoxy shortly before he died.  Joel Barlow was either a strict deist or perhaps an atheist.


jimmiraybob said...

Jon They were all theists (that is believed in an active personal God).

Jon, can you flesh this out a bit? I know people today that profess a close personal relationship with their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (which I believe is an orthodox Christian position in some sense). It is a one on one relationship, they communicate with God through prayer and God intervenes in their personal lives.

Is this the kind of active personal God that you say they all believed in?

Jonathan Rowe said...

It means simply an interventionist God. Or one who is concerned with the affairs of man. Like a God who would favor the Americans over the Brits in the revolutionary war.

jimmiraybob said...

I think the the phrase interventionist God/Deity/Great Author of the Universe presents a more accurate portrayal, to a modern reader, of the so called top tier FFs who appear to have had a general providential notion of human events even if that notion was detached from specific doctrine or dogma.

Just looking at Washington's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1789, the appeal to providence appears to be on the scale of nations and not individuals: "Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits,..."

Phil Johnson said...

Did any of the Founders question the concept of Salvation? Did they all believe it meant that the soul would exist in Heaven and that the unsaved would spend eternity in Hell?
It seems to me that some believed religion was necessary to keep the general public in line and maybe not much more. George Washington?


Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, Franklin was agnostic about doctrines such as the Trinity. He is not an anti-Trinitarian like Jefferson and JAdams. As for Washington and esp Madison, we do not know.

Further, the neologism "Judeo-Christian" is often employed to explicitly acknowledge unitarianism and a rejection of the Trinity.

Show me evidence where a Founder rejected God leading the Israelites out of Egypt. I don't think it exists. For instance, JAdams did not reject the Bible in toto, and believed that the Biblical miracles were entirely possible.

John Adams 1756:

"The great and Almighty author of nature, who at first established those rules which regulate the world, can as easily suspend those laws whenever his providence sees sufficient reason for such suspension. This can be no objection, then, to the miracles of Jesus Christ. Although some very thoughtful and contemplative men among the heathen attained a strong persuasion of the great principles of religion, yet the far greater number, having little time for speculation, gradually sunk into the grossest opinions and the grossest practices. These...could not be made to embrace the true religion till their attention was roused by some astonishing and miraculous appearances. The reasoning of philosophers...could not overcome the force of prejudice, custom, passion, and bigotry. But when wise and virtuous men commissioned from heaven, by miracles awakened men's attention to their reasonings, the force of truth made its way with ease to their minds."

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think w/ Franklin you could make the case that he politely denied the Trinity to Ezra Stiles. The dissenters he referred to were his unitarian friends in the Club of Honest Whigs. He also signals in that letter Joseph Priestley speak when he uses the term "corrupting Changes." BF also endorsed the Arian Richard Price's "rational Christianity" and took folks with him to RP's church.

I think that's enough to put him in the "Unitarian" box. But I agree he was more gentle and less militant than the anti-Trinitarians Jefferson and J. Adams.

Re the others, I conceded in the OP no smoking guns. That's why I said the evidence was circumstantial. Still legit. Just not beyond a reasonable doubt.

RE Adams & miracles, yes Gregg's book mentions that passage in support of his thesis. Adams didn't reject the Bible in toto because he wasn't a Deist. He doesn't accept it as inerrant or infallible either. According to the theory, these things had to pass the theistic rationalists' smell test of reason. For some of them, like Adams, miracles did; for others, miracles didn't. The Trinity didn't pass J. Adams's "reason" smell test.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Many orthodox are "rational" enough to reject creationism for evolution, or to conclude that the sun probably didn't stand still in the sky for Joshua.

And again, Dr. Frazer expends much energy vs. a "christian" Founding, where the claim is really for a "Judeo-Christian" one, making the question of the Trinity moot.

There is not one Founder [exc Paine and perhaps Jefferson] who explicitly denies that his God is NOT the God of the Bible, and/or that the Bible is 100% fiction.

Franklin remains agnostic,

and I'm not convinced that Jefferson ever held that the Bible was pure fiction. [He liked the image of the burning pillar leading the Israelites out of Egypt that he made it his personal seal.]

"In his second inaugural address (1805), Jefferson again recalled the Promised Land. "I shall need...the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life."

If you remember your Straussian technique of esotericism, although it's necessary to conceal, it's impermissible to lie. By invoking this Being, Jefferson would be explicitly lying. I don't recall Jefferson ever going as far as explicitly lying, but mebbe I'm wrong.

As for the rest of the Founders, again, there is precious little evidence to offer that any of them save Paine believed that the Judeo-Christian God was a fiction.