Sunday, April 19, 2020

Mark David Hall explains the argument of his chapter "The Myth of the Founders' Deism"

Mark David Hall sent me the following, in his continuing dialog with Gregg Frazer about Hall's new book:
It strikes me that readers of America Creation might not think it is interesting to demolish the myth that many or most of the founders were deists because everyone knows they weren't.  That is why I set up the chapter with a clear definition of deism, and then gave many examples of authors who claim many or most of them were deists.   
From chapter one: 
In the eighteenth century, deism referred to an intellectual movement that emphasized the role of reason in discerning religious truth. Deists rejected traditional Christian doctrine such as the incarnation, virgin birth, atonement, resurrection, Trinity, divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, and miracles. For present purposes, this last point is critical; unlike most Christians, deists did not think God intervenes in the affairs of men and nations. In Alan Wolfe’s words, they believed that “God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs.” In this chapter, I demonstrate that there is virtually no evidence that America’s founders embraced such views. 
In the endnote to the last sentence, I write: "There is no single definition of deism, but the one offered above is widely used. Compare with Christopher Grasso, Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 26 (“‘Deism’ is usually associated with belief in a noninterventionist Creator, reliance upon what reason can discern in the natural world, and skepticism about miracles, mysticism, the divine inspiration of the scriptures, and the divinity of Christ”).  
Later in the chapter, I consider a definition of deism that allows God to intervene in human affairs, and state that this concept is often called "soft deism" and "theistic rationalism."  Gregg was quite upset that I conflated "soft deism" and "theistic rationalism," but I see very little light between these two.  Nevertheless, if I get to make revisions for the paperback edition, I'll make it clear that at least in Gregg's mind there is a difference.  I then demonstrate that there is very little reason to believe that "most" or "many" of America's founders were "soft deists," although it is a definition that describes well the religious beliefs of a few founders.  
In a debate, Steven Green suggested I was attacking a straw man on this point.  I am not.  Here are examples of authors claiming most or many of America's founders were deists (or something similar):

“The Founding Fathers were at most deists—they believed God created the world, then left it alone to run . . .”
 Gordon Wood, American Heritage Magazine
“the Founding fathers themselves, largely deists in their orientation and sympathy . . .” Edwin Gaustad, A Documentary History of Religion in America  
“The reaction to the Great Awakening provided an American Unitarian boost that made Deism the religion of the educated class by the middle of the eighteenth century. Legal scholar William Lee Miller writes that the chief founders of the nation were all Deists—he lists Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Paine, though many more leaders of the founding era could be added . . .” Garry Wills, Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America 
“deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic” . . . “[the]
Founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.” Geoffrey R. Stone, “The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?”

“the Founding Fathers were. . .  skeptical men of the Enlightenment who questioned each and every received idea they had been taught.” Brooke Allen, Moral Minority 
“The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists or nineteenth century Unitarians . . . They were not, in any traditional sense, Christian.” Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America 
“America’s Founders were philosophical radicals.” Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic     
[and then in the endnote I add: "See also Hughes, Myths America Lives By, 50 (“most of the American Founders embraced some form of Deism, not historically orthodox Christianity”); Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, 108 (“[m]any of the nation’s original Founders subscribed to some version of religious rationalism”); Steven Green, Second Disestablishment, 87 (“Although many of the nation’s elites privately embraced deism, The Age of Reason and other works popularized irreligion among the laboring and working classes”); Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House: American History & the Truth of Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 85 (“Many of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ were not Christians in any orthodox sense.”); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 38-39 (“No doubt many of [the founders were deists], although it has been argued that the greatest of them might have been atheists.”); C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1981), 24 (“Deism . . . provided that political philosophy which would produce the American Revolution”); Bill PressHow the Republicans Stole Christmas: The Republican Party’s Declared Monopoly on Religion and What Democrats Can Do to Take it Back (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 43 (“[the Founders] did believe in God, but most of them only in the Enlightenment or deist sense of God as ‘watchmaker’—a Supreme Being who created us, then wound us up and let us run on our own.”); Beard and Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, 449 (“When the crisis came, Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, and many lesser lights were to be reckoned among either Unitarians or Deists.  It was not Cotton Mather’s God to whom the authors of the Declaration of Independence appealed; it was to ‘Nature’s God’”)."    [emphasis added.  If I get to make revisions, I'll add a few recent claims of this nature, including one by the activist Andrew Seidel.] 
Let me emphasize that this chapter is a project of destruction.  I would like to think that I demolished the claim that most or many of America's founders were deists.  But I never say that because they were not deists that they must have been orthodox Christians.  That does not follow, and no matter how many times Gregg accuses me of making this argument I simply don't make it.  But don't take my word for it; read the chapter for yourself and let us know who is right.  


jimmiraybob said...

Joseph Waligore*, who I believe has commented here in the past, presents a case for “Christian Deism.” I believe that he applies this construct to some of the founders.

Please discuss.

*Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

No tilting at windmills or strawmen here.

Mark David Hall's citation and refutation of two of America's most best-known history commentators--Gordon Wood and Garry Wills--alone make his book and thesis invaluable.

“The Founding Fathers were at most deists—they believed God created the world, then left it alone to run . . .” Gordon Wood, American Heritage Magazine

“The reaction to the Great Awakening provided an American Unitarian boost that made Deism the religion of the educated class by the middle of the eighteenth century. Legal scholar William Lee Miller writes that the chief founders of the nation were all Deists—he lists Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Paine, though many more leaders of the founding era could be added . . .” Garry Wills, Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America

Paine? Migod, Paine argued the Bible extensively in "Common Sense." Read for yourself.

jimmiraybob said...

Thank you TVD for your kind and supportive encouragement.

And I agree with you that the term "deist" should be retired. Too vague and too ripe for tilting at windmills and building strawmen.

But still, Christian Deist? Pick a lane.

jimmiraybob said...

“The word [jrb-deist] has become a loaded one. Many people, from the outset, made it a bogey, a term of denigration for an “unbelief” they were targeting. Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president during the [jrb-American] Revolution complained:

’[Timothy Dwight] brings in the Roman Catholics and a number of Protestant erroneous divines as subserving the cause of Deism…. Calvinists think Arminians and Arians and Socinians subserve Deism. Arians and Socinians think Calvinists, President [Jonathan] Edwards and New Divinity all subserve Deism. The Church of England [subserve Deism].2’

“The main point to begin with is that none of men [jrb-“chief founders of the nation”] listed by Miller [jrb-“legal scholar William Lee Miller], or comparable figures, was an Evangelical in the pre-Enlightened or resistant-to-Enlightenment sense.” 1

1 Gary Wills, 2007. Head and Heart: American Christianities pp. 153-154.

Note: subserve: to promote the welfare or purposes of

Tom Van Dyke said...

Nice we agree, although "theistic rationalist" as a replacement for "deist" only adds to the confusion.

I have not studied Waligore's thesis, but I would say that if you believed that the Bible was of divine origin [even if adulterated over the centuries], you were SOME sort of Christian. For God to cross the barrier between eternity and the temporal is a metaphysical game-changer.

As for what "Evangelical" means, that too is fraught. Today's Evangelical is probably a fundamentalist, but that's a movement that originated at the turn of the 20th century as a reaction to theological liberalism and "critical theory" that reduced the Bible to a heavily flawed and adulterated piece of literature.

The problem with Gregg Frazer's argument is that he ascribes everything outside his own evangelical-fundamentalist Protestantism to secular Enlightenment, but Jonathan Edwards, the classic evangelical "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" fire and brimstone guy, was quite a fan of Locke. If anybody was a Christian, Edwards was!

The thing is, the Reformation did not end with Luther and Calvin. It was a continuously evolving [and also liberalizing] jumble of theologies, and the historian-sociologist is not the one to decree which were Christian and which were not.

In Calvin's time, unitarianism was a capital offense; by the time of the American revolution it was just one Protestant theology among many.

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