Thursday, August 30, 2012

Joseph Priestley as a Baseline

Since Thomas Jefferson's religious views are in the news, perhaps we should appreciate Joseph Priestley's theology as a possible baseline for judging Jefferson's.  Jefferson was a self proclaimed "sect" unto himself.  And he was bigheaded. So he disagreed with Priestley on a few things.  As we will see below, Priestley believed in the Resurrection and Jefferson did not.  Yet out of all of the "authorities" out there for whom Jefferson professed respect, Priestley got Jefferson's highest regards.

I observe non-sequiturs regarding Jefferson's writings, particularly the Jefferson Bible.  Let us assume that Jefferson believed in the divine inspiration of what made it into his cut up Bible.  Then what?  I think it proves that he wasn't a strict deist.  

But what was he and what does it prove?  Let me give an example of a non-sequitur I observed Glenn Beck make to David Barton on this.  They were marveling over the fact that Jefferson apparently left in supernatural passages, not consistent with strict deism.  Beck said something along the lines of (and Barton nodded his head), if TJ believed in Jesus' miracles, then he believed in his divinity.

That is a non-sequitur.

Joseph Priestley did not believe in Jesus' divinity, but believed in his miracles, resurrection and the divinity of Jesus mission.  Priestley thought 1. original sin, 2. trinity, 3. incarnation, 4. atonement, and 5. the plenary inspiration of scripture were false "corruptions" of true Christianity ("rational Christianity").  I (mistakenly?) thought Priestley believed in the virgin birth.  Maybe he did at one point.  I thought I read something from Priestley that argued for the compatibility of both the virgin birth AND Jesus 100% human, 0% divine nature.  The logic went something like this: those who argue for a divine Jesus say the virgin birth necessarily means Jesus is divine. No.  That is a non-sequitur.  Why?  Jesus was sent to be a second Adam to correct the first's errors. And the first Adam also was of divine origin but was 100% human, 0% divine.

That is just a paraphrase of what I remember.  I will have to read up on where I got it from and the context.  And that's because when Joseph Priestley proselytized his Socinian rational Christianity to the Jews, he made it quite clear that he disbelieved in the Virgin Birth along with the Trinity, etc.  As he wrote to them [paragraphs added for clarity]:
You expect that your Messiah will be lineally descended from David, and therefore you cannot be reconciled to the idea of Jesus being that Messiah, because Christians say that he had no human father; so that according to your rules of genealogy, he could not be said to be the son of David. But it is no where said that the person who is characterized by the title of Messiah, should be descended from David, but only that prince under whom you are to enjoy. 
However, the history of the miraculous conception of Jesus does not appear to me to be sufficiently authenticated.  The evidence of it is by no means the same with that of his public life, his miracles, his death and resurrection, which are all that the truth of Christianity requires, (and of which there were many witnesses,) and the original Gospel of Matthew, received by your countrymen, did not contain it. 
Your sacred books, as well as ours, being written by men, neither of them can be expected to be, entirely free from mistakes, or exempt from interpolations. Yours, as you must acknowledge, have, in a course of time, suffered in these respects. But it is sufficient for us both, that the great events, on which every thing that is of importance to our religion depends, are true. As to any thing that is not necessarily connected with such events, and therefore is not supported by their evidence, we should think ourselves at liberty to receive or reject it, according to its separate evidence.  
Myself, and many other Christians, are no believers in the miraculous conception of Jesus, but are of opinion, that he was the legitimate son of Joseph, who was of the family of David; and such seems to have been the opinion of the great body of Jewish Christians, who had more opportunity of informing themselves concerning the fact than the Gentiles had. But we are not less firm believers in all the public transactions of the life of Jesus, in his miracles, his death, and his resurrection ; and consequently, in his divine mission. With respect to his supposed miraculous conception, and other articles relating to Christianity, but not essential to it, do you examine and judge for yourselves.
So there you go:  You could disbelieve in 1. original sin, 2. trinity, 3. incarnation, 4. atonement, 5. virgin birth, and 6. the infallibility of the Bible, BUT STILL believe in Jesus' miracles, resurrection, and the divinity of his mission.  That's what Jefferson's theological mentor believed.  Though, as noted, Jefferson did not, like Priestley, believe in Jesus' resurrection.  

Keep these things in mind when interpreting the Jefferson Bible.


JMS said...

Jon – great post.

As Gregg Frazer and others have noted, Joseph Priestly had a long friendship with Benjamin Franklin, as well as the most influence on Thomas Jefferson’s religious views. I recommend highly science writer Steven Johnson’s very engaging book about Joseph Priestley, “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.” Johnson notes that, “Priestley, who died in 1804, was mentioned by name 52 times in the 165-letter correspondence between John Adams and Jefferson from 1812 until 1826; Franklin, five times; and George Washington, three.”

Best known to chemists as one of the discoverers of oxygen, Priestley was also one of the founders of English (“flowing from his joint efforts with Theophilus Lindsey to establish the church, marked by the opening of Essex Street Chapel in 1774”) and American Unitarianism (I also recommend J.D. Bowers’ book, Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America,; a political thinker whose ideas helped shape our American political system; and an educator who, among other contributions, advised Thomas Jefferson on the curriculum for the University of Virginia.

As David Holmes notes, “when Jefferson lived in Philadelphia he attended Joseph Priestley's Unitarian Church” (and as Bowers notes, “organized as a formal and legal society, the Philadelphia Unitarians were the first to openly lay claim to the denomination in the United States”).

Jonathan Rowe said...


Thanks for this. Agreed. I've done some work highlighting the theologies of Priestley, Price, Lindsey, Chauncy, Mayhew and others. Their "unitarianism" was far more influential than Deism for the sole reason that Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin's theology was closer to THAT than to strict deism. And even if Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin were only three, those three wrote the DOI, comprises the 2nd and 3rd Presidents of the United States among other things.

Barton tried to answer this on the John Stewart show and said something dumb like "unitarians were evangelical." NO. But there is a smart, nuanced answer to give: They were far more religious than the strict deists; they believed in something divinely special about Jesus, albeit in an unorthodox way (that is Jesus was NOT 2nd Person in the Trinity); they also believed in the divine inspiration of scripture; again in an unorthodox way (the Bible was inspired but fallible, that is it contained interpolations; or the "official" canon of the Bible may be in error, etc.). It could be argued, in some meaningful (albeit unorthodox) way, they were "Christians" as they identified themselves. It all depends on how to define and understand that term.