Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Denominational Affiliation Tells Us Little

I recently was involved in a discussion where, alas, the name of David Barton came up. At this point, I think Barton is a distraction from the issues that interest us on religion and the American Founding. I prefer not to talk about him but move on to better things. If he writes another baboon like "The Jefferson Lies," I will cover it. But otherwise I'm no longer interested.

But I do want to note something I think important. Gregg Frazer wrote a critique of Barton's "America's Godly Heritage" found here. Let me quote from it:

Let us begin with monumental unsupported assumptions presented as fact. The video begins with the claim that 52 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were “orthodox, evangelical Christians.” Barton does not supply any source or basis for this astounding claim, but I strongly suspect that the source is M.E. Bradford’s A Worthy Company. It is, to my knowledge, the only “study” that attempts such a determination and that produces 52 as a result. The extent of Bradford’s evidence is simply a list of the denominational affiliations of the 55 delegates. Mere affiliation with a denomination is, of course, no evidence whatever of “orthodox, evangelical” Christianity. This is particularly true since, in order to get to 52, one must include the two Roman Catholics. If mere denominational affiliation is proof of orthodox Christianity, one must also wonder why Barton is concerned today, since 86% of today’s Congress is affiliated with Protestant or Catholic denominations (compared with just 75% of the national population). Today’s Congress is apparently more “Christian” than the American public.

Frazer's point speaks for itself; but let's also note who the three supposed "deists" were: James Wilson, Ben Franklin, and Hugh Williamson. Now, none of these three "fit" the definition of "deist" that most scholars posit. Though, all three perhaps were heterodox "Christian-Deists"/unitarians/theistic rationalists of some sort. Mark David Hall convincingly argues Wilson's views were in accord with orthodox Christianity (but personally I don't see the smoking gun evidence that Wilson was an orthodox Christian).

But the larger point I wish to make is Bradford's notion is largely worthless. Denominational affiliation proves very little. Thomas Jefferson who rejected every single doctrine of Christian orthodoxy was not only affiliated with the Anglicans-Episcopalians, but was at one point a vestryman in said church. Moreover, all 55 of the delegates arguably could be proven to have such affiliations. 

Look, this is an intense debate subject to the most rigorous of scrutiny. And "both sides" equally share a burden of coming forth with smoking gun evidence to demonstrate their contentions. We've put "the key Founders" under the microscope and have found evidence of the heterodoxy of Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. And also good reason to believe Madison, Washington and Hamilton (before his end of life conversion) were not orthodox Trinitarians either. Further, we've found evidence of orthodoxy for such figures as Sherman, Jay, and many others.

But, there are plenty of lesser figures whom we simply haven't looked at in such intense detail. And it's wrong to assume one way or the other that they were orthodox Christians or some kind of unorthodox deists. Again denominational connection proves very little. Take for instance, George Clymer (who died in my zip code, lol)

Admittedly, I haven't studied the man in much detail. But this is taken from a site that seems sympathetic to the "Christian America" perspective. Let me quote it (and note, I haven't verified these details):

Religious Affiliation: Quaker, Episcopalian ?

Summary of Religious Views:

Clymer's father was Anglican. His mother had been raised as a Quaker, but she was rejected from that faith for marrying a non-Quaker. Because both his parents died when he was very young, Clymer was raised by Quaker relatives, but it appears that he did not become a Quaker himself, since his wife was disowned by the Quakers for marrying him. In general, religion seems not to have played much of a role in Clymer's adult life. At his request, Clymer's body was interred in a Quaker burial ground.

This doesn't sound like much of an "orthodox evangelical Christian" to me. But we do see the nominal connection to the Quakers and Anglicans. 


Joshua Horn said...

It looks like your link to Mark David Hall on James Wilson is wrong....

Jonathan Rowe said...

Many thanks. I'm going to fix it now.