Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Founders on Original Sin & Human Nature:

America's Key Founders (you know them, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, et al.) either outright rejected original sin, or if they believed in it at all had a more positive, Arminian view of human nature, and rejected Calvin's total depravity.

First, Thomas Jefferson, in his October 31, 1819 letter to William Short, listed original sin with every other tenet of orthodox Christianity as things he rejected. Quoting him:

* e. g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.

Franklin rejected original sin in his 1735 A Defense of Mr. Hemphill’s Observations:

But lest they shou’d imagine that one of their strongest Objections hinted at here, and elsewhere, is designedly overlook’d, as being unanswerable, viz. our lost and undone State by Nature, as it is commonly call’d, proceeding undoubtedly from the Imputation of old Father Adam’s first Guilt. To this I answer once for all, that I look upon this Opinion every whit as ridiculous as that of Imputed Righteousness. ’Tis a Notion invented, a Bugbear set up by Priests (whether Popish or Presbyterian I know not) to fright and scare an unthinking Populace out of their Senses, and inspire them with Terror, to answer the little selfish Ends of the Inventors and Propagators. ’Tis absurd in it self, and therefore cannot be father’d upon the Christian Religion as deliver’d in the Gospel. Moral Guilt is so personal a Thing, that it cannot possibly in the Nature of Things be transferr’d from one Man to Myriads of others, that were no way accessary to it. And to suppose a Man liable to Punishment upon account of the Guilt of another, is unreasonable; and actually to punish him for it, is unjust and cruel.

John Adams likewise rejected original sin:

The origin of mal moral [moral evil -- Ed.] is liberty, the self determining power of free agents, endowed with reason & conscience & consequently accountable for their conduct....I have read the Holy Fathers of the Hindus, of the disciples of Pythagoras of Frederick of Prussia of Soame Jenings of Dr. Edwards & many others and am no more satisfied than with Eve's apple. I have no difficulty about it. I am answerable for my own sins because I know they were my own fault; and that is enough for me to know.

-- John Adams to Francis van der Kemp, February 23, 1815. Taken from James H. Hutson, The Founders on Religion, pp. 200-01.

James Madison, in Federalist 10, did not, as some argue, endorse the notion of Calvinist total depravity, but rather Arminian partial depravity, believing man's nature capable of great good or great evil. As he wrote:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

Alexander Hamilton, whom some have termed the Rousseau of the right, sounds positively humanistic in Federalist 22 when he notes the people not God form the solid basis of America's Constitution:

The fabric of American Empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.

This neatly comports with Rousseau's notion of "the general will." Hamilton's confidence in humanity is also decidedly anti-Calvinistic, and, if Christian at all, clearly Arminian influenced. As George Willis Cooke aptly noted:

The doctrine of degrees, as taught by the Calvinists, was the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings. On the other hand, when the people claim the right to rule, they modify their theology into Arminianism. From an age of the absolute rule of the king comes the doctrine of human depravity; and with the establishment of democracy appears the doctrine of man's moral capacity.

Though some Arminians remained Trinitarian, they had a tendency to "slip" into unitarianism and rationalism. Indeed when studying Founding era literature one frequently sees unitarian rationalists like Jonathan Mayhew also referred to as "Arminians."

Barry Shain refers to these Arminian/unitarian/rationalist types as "Christian humanists," because they often presented their ideas under the auspices of "Christianity." Notice how Franklin's above quoted passages argues true Christianity rejects original sin! Most evangelicals and Catholics, however, would argue, like Mormonism, this isn't Christianity, regardless of what it terms itself. Dr. Gregg Frazer, an evangelical, terms this belief system of America's key Founders not Christianity but theistic rationalism. In other words if that these "Christian humanists" rejected nearly every single tenet of traditional Christianity (see Jefferson's above quoted remarks) doesn't separate them from "Christianity" then what does?


Phil Johnson said...

Your paper presents us with another good set of questions any rationalist should be able to discuss.

It is interesting to note that when rationalists consider Christianity, they often come up with totally different conclusions than those held by "orthodox" or "traditionalist" Christians.

Brad Hart said...

Nice post. I see it as further evidence to support the "theistic rationalism" or "unitarianism" of our major founders.

Robert Cornwall said...

Whether unitarian or not, most of the founders were heavily influenced by John Locke. His political theories insisted on government based in a social contract. But more important for this discussion was his "anthropology," his view of the human psyche. Locke taught what that we are born as a blank slate -- a tabula raza -- upon which experience writes. If we are born in such a way, as "blank slates" then there is little place for original sin -- that is, nothing is passed down. Of course, from a contemporary perspective we know that genetics is much more determinative than either Locke or the Founders understood. But, that of course doesn't mean one must adopt a doctrine of original sin.

And of course, one needn't be Calvinist to embrace original sin. Arminians weren't necessarily opposed to the idea. They simply had a broader sense of the atonment than did the Calvinists.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You are spot on with Locke and the incompatibility between Tabla Rasa and Original Sin. I'm working on a new post that addresses this issue.

Arminianism and original sin are certainly compatible. My point would be besides a broader sense of the Atonement, Arminians' view of human nature is somewhat cheerier than "total depravity."

Phil Johnson said...

Original sin.

Brad Hart said...


I think those would be the ACTUAL WORDS of John Locke..."Phhht!"

Lindsey Shuman said...

If I am not mistaken, didn't Locke believe in original sin? If not, does anyone have any sources of Locke refuting that belief BESIDES his Tabula Raza?

Phil Johnson said...

Original sin, in and of itself, is an effective hammer with which the priesthood nails their victims down.

But as if that weren't enough, the rest of the tools keep the "sinner" under control.

Deserving to be swept into Hell's eternal damnation is an awesome blueprint.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Stay tuned in the future for more posts on Locke. My understanding is it's Tabla Rasa plus the fact that when Locke explicated what he saw as the fundamentals of Christianity in "The Reasonableness of Christianity," original sin and the trinity were left off the list. It wasn't so easy then to say "I don't believe in the Trinity," because one could be executed for heresy.

This led to rumors that Locke was a Unitarian and Locke defended himself by stating "I didn't deny the Trinity," (he gave a Clintonesq. answer).

A lot of unitarians back then, like Locke and many of America's Founders didn't want to be associated with "Deists" but rather with "Christians," and were content to unite with Trinitarian Christians on those doctrines in which they agreed. Hence they could simply downplay or not mention things like original sin or the Trinity and focus on the common grounds that they had with Trinitarians.

But the orthodox Trinitarians wanted nothing to do with these unitarian heretics.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I addressed the above quote from Benjamin Franklin in The Hidden Facts of the Founding Era. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote:

When we read the actual statement from Mr. Franklin, it becomes obvious that he was not rejecting the concept of original sin but rather that of imputed guilt. Mr. Franklin was very much correct in his conclusion. Guilt cannot be passed from one person to another. Each individual is declared guilty or not by his own actions and not those of anyone else. This is precisely what is taught in the Scriptures, for we read in Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” Many have argued in the past that the idea of imputed guilt is presented in the teachings of Paul in Romans 5:12 which states that “as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” However, this passage actually refutes the concept of imputed guilt, for it clearly states that death has come upon every man because every man has sinned. Death came into the world because of Adam’s sin, but death comes upon every man because of his own guilt. Thus Mr. Franklin was correct in his rejection of the concept of imputed guilt.

But what of his simultaneous rejection of imputed righteousness? To understand what Mr. Franklin was referring to here, we must consider a statement that he made in a previous section of the pamphlet. To explain what he meant by “imputed righteousness,” Mr. Franklin wrote, “I shall here transcribe the Reasonings of a Pious and learn’d Divine, the late Rev. Mr. Boyse of Dublin in Ireland.” Here is the text that Mr. Franklin presented from Mr. Boyse:

[follow link for quote]

From this extract, we can see that by rejecting the concept of imputed righteousness, Mr. Franklin was rejecting the teachings of antinomianism. The term “antinomianism” is used to describe the belief that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to certain individuals regardless of their obedience or disobedience of any commandment including the command to believe on the name of Jesus Christ for salvation. In other words, antinomian philosophy teaches that certain individuals are incapable of being cast into hell because God views them as possessing the righteousness of Christ whether they asked for it or not.