Friday, January 24, 2020

Clarifying My Position on Categorizing America's Founders' Religious Beliefs

I have ordered Mark David Hall's new book and look forward to reading it. Let me say word about the dispute between Drs. Hall and Gregg Frazer on the categorization of terms to describe America's founders' religious creed and creeds.

We have "smoking gun" evidence that J. Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were not "orthodox Trinitarian Christians" and flunk the Athanasian test for what it means to be a mere "Christian."

There is also smoking gun evidence that a great deal of founders who tend to be more "2nd tier" were orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

My position is that the standard of scrutiny we apply in order to categorize a founder in a particular religious box is so strict that no one is entitled to a "default" position -- like "they were all Christians" (meaning to some/many "orthodox") except for a handful like Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin and a few lesser founders who were even more "deistic" than those three (Paine, Allen, etc.).

So take someone like John Marshall, an important and notable founding founder. But not a first tier "key" Founder like the first five Presidents, Franklin and Hamilton, etc. If you knew only a surface amount about him, you'd see that like a statistical majority of the Founders, he was an Anglican-Episcopalian. So if you wanted to fill in the details about what he "really" believed, you might look to the creeds, confessions and official positions of said church and make your categorizations accordingly.

But that would be wrong. That's a lazy error that those who are sympathetic to a traditional conservative Christian founding are likely to follow. It's just as wrong as the "they were all deists" or even concluding they were all the hybrid religion (whatever we call it).

The truth is we really don't know what a particular founder believed until we do the detective work. And when we do so for Marshall, this is what we discover.

From his daughter:
The reason why he never communed was, that he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society. He told her he believed in the truth of the Christian Revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church.
And another quotation from U.S. Senator and former Maryland Governor William Pinkney Whyte:
He was a constant and liberal contributor to the support of the Episcopal Church. 
He never doubted the fact of the Christian revelation, but he was not convinced of the fact of the divinity of Christ till late in life. 
Then, after refusing privately to commune, he expressed a desire to do so publicly, and was ready and willing to do so when opportunity should be had. The circumstances of his death only forbade it ... 
He was never professedly Unitarian, and he had no place in his heart for either an ancient or a modern agnosticism.
And as we know, fellow Anglican/Episcopalian George Washington systematically avoided communion as well. Was it because he had a religious creed similar to Marshall's? I suspect so, but would admit, it's not a "smoking gun." It's certainly on the table of plausibility.

Finally, we can note that this creed isn't "strict deism." It believes in the Christian revelation and a special place for Jesus, even if it does not affirm Jesus' full divinity. In terms of what to call it and whether such qualifies as "Christianity" I will let others judge and decide.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

The premise of this whole "controversy" is faulty. First, that the handful of "key Founders" are more important than the great mass of Americans who fought the revolution and ratified the Constitution.

Second, that their private beliefs about fine points of Christian doctrine are of any real historical importance beyond academic curiosity. The fact is that Jehovah was unquestionably and universally recognized as the God of the Founding, as President George Washington wrote to the Jews of Savannah:

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

Even the deist Ethan Allen wrote in his autobiography that he demanded the surrender of Ft. Ticonderoga "In the name of the Great jehovah and the Continental Congress." This story is undoubtedly false but it tells us reams about the religious landscape of Founding-era America. It is the American people whose story we are telling, and that of the Founding's public square, not the private sophistries of a small number of elites.