Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Whither Christianity in the USA?

Jonathan Rowe, in the post below, writes of an 1833 sermon by Rev. Jasper Adams that became understandably famous, one that moved key Founding-era figures like John Marshall and Joseph Story [highly influential Supreme Court Justices each] to write to Rev. Adams in approval. Said Adams:

"A question of great interest here comes up for discussion. In thus discontinuing the connexion between Church and Commonwealth;--did the people of these States intend to renounce all connexion with the Christian religion! Or did they only intend to disclaim all preference of one sect of Christians over another, as far as civil government was concerned; while they still retained the Christian religion as the foundation of all their social, civil and political institutions?

Did Massachusetts and Connecticut, when they declared, that the legal preference which had heretofore been given to Puritanism, should continue no longer, intend to abolish Christianity itself within their jurisdictions? Did Virginia and S. Carolina when they discontinued all legal preference of the Church of England as by law established, intend to discontinue their observance of Christianity and their regard for its Divine authority? Did the people of the United States, when in adopting the Federal Constitution they declared, that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," expect to be understood as abolishing the national religion, which had been professed, respected and cherished from the first settlement of the country, and which it was the great object of our fathers in settling this then wilderness to enjoy according to the dictates of their own consciences?

The rightful solution of these questions has become important to the religion, the morals, the peace, the intelligence, and in fact, to all the highest interests of this country. It has been asserted by men distinguished for talents, learning and station, and it may well be presumed that the assertion is gradually gaining belief among us, that Christianity has no connexion with the law of the land, or with our civil and political institutions. Attempts are making, to impress this sentiment on the public mind.

The sentiment is considered by me, to be in contradiction to the whole tenor of our history, to be false in fact, and in the highest degree pernicious in its tendency, to all our most valuable institutions, whether social, legal, civil or political. It is moreover, not known to the preacher, that any serious effort has been made to investigate the relation which Christianity sustains to our institutions, or to enlighten the public understanding on the subject."

I couldn't agree more, and what we see here is that even the Founding didn't understand the Founding. Obviously, this question has been with us 200-odd years. A serious effort must be made "to investigate the relation which Christianity sustains to our institutions," better late than never, and now, more than ever.

Rev. Adams has further thoughts and arguments on the subject, so don't stop here. Read the whole thing.


Jonathan Rowe said...
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Jonathan Rowe said...


It's certainly not my intention to obliterate Christianity from the Founding. I do want folks to understand though that it existed alongside a handful of other ideological systems that also played indispensable roles like Greco-Roman, Enlightenment, and Whig principles.

Re "Christianity" itself, I want people to appreciate the diversity of sectarian beliefs and think about what common ground is possible.

Look at what John Marshall said about everyone being Christians. He's right in a sense that the "Churches" called themselves "Christian" and even the deistic and unitarian minded founding figures thought of themselves as "Christians." But that also means "Christianity" includes both the uber-heterodox Thomas Jefferson [who rejected every single tenet of orthodoxy, while calling himself a Christian and attending Anglican/Episcopal services] and the uber-orthodox Timothy Dwight.

I'm willing to agree that the proper term for this theological dynamic is up for grabs. However I DO want to get to the bottom of that dynamic and explain it for what it is.

Jonathan Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Our Founding Truth said...

Hey Tom,

Great post, and greater question you raise. I apologize for going off subject, but I found that quote by Madison that ratifiers of instruments are the most important. James Hutson has another quote by Madison on the same idea, but I don't have the book, and it doesn't come up on google.

“I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that is not the guide in expounding it, there may be no security ”

– James Madison (letter to Henry Lee, 25 June 1824)

Story says the same thing:

"The first and fundamental rule in the interpretation of all instruments is to construe them according to the sense of the terms and the intention of the parties.
Commentaries, p.383. Vol. III

Reading it again, I saw something else. He says the way ratifiers have accepted it is the only way it is legitimate. There goes the living Constitution theory.

Both Story and Marshall, even Kent for that matter, believed the Bible, as it is, was the Word of God. Should belief in the Trinity, or Deity of Christ be a big deal, since the problem is interpretation only?

If the public was Orthodox, which I believe, maybe they let the small minority like Jefferson, and Franklin, etc. to slide on the label "Christian."

Tom Van Dyke said...

If a fellow says he's a "Christian," and the other fellow says that "I think the System of Morals and his Religion as [Jesus] left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see," it would be silly politics to start a theological fight.

Interesting in Jasper Adams' 1833 sermon was that by that time, Jefferson and Franklin's heterodoxies were apparently well-known. Still, Adams writes [says]:

"What must have been the strength of the conviction of Christian Truth in the American mind, when the popular names of Franklin and of Jefferson among its adversaries, have not been able much to impair its influence."

Jonathan Rowe said...

If a fellow says he's a "Christian," and the other fellow says that "I think the System of Morals and his Religion as [Jesus] left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see," it would be silly politics to start a theological fight.

Why not? Before the modern era, that's all they had been doing (before their shared moral assumptions had taken the stage of public controversy): See Servetus v. Calvin.

Our Founding Truth said...

Hey Tom,

I wanted to post this quote Mr. Rowe posted in response to my ratifying instruments belief on an earlier post. I found this quote in Barton's Original Intent, then looked it up from Adams' writings. Here, first, is Rowe's comment:

The Declaration of Independence was never ratified.>

Now, the Father of the Revolution:

"Before the formation of this Constitution, it had been affirmed as a self evident truth, in the declaration of Independence, very
deliberately made by the Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled that...This
declaration of Independence was received and ratified by all the States in the Union, and has never been disannulled."

JANUARY 17, 1794.

It seems logical the ratification is the signatures of the various representatives.

Dude, this is what I'm fighting against. It's not just Rowe that doesn't fully educate himself on what we're talking about.

When blatant false representations are made to the public, I'm sorry, I'm going to say something, and refute it. Not only is it a lack of understanding, but it is dangerous, because of misrepresenting history.

Maybe he should read Barton if he already hasn't. If someone doesn't understand a fundamental principle such as the superiority of ratifying instruments, then we're in trouble.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Perhaps I should have been clearer in my very brief comment. "The Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Continental Congress on 4 July, 1776."

The DEC was not ratified by "the people" as the US Constitution was.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And I think your larger point was the same people who signed the DOI or ratified the US Constitution were the ones who constructed the state constitutions or otherwise were responsible for the religious language in said documents. I haven't seen the evidence of such. Further, as I noted (as with slavery) the states were a mixed bag, not all of them were orthodox and many of them for instance Virginia, Rhode Island, PA explicitly eschewed orthodoxy as having any kind of organic connection to civil law.

Tom Van Dyke said...

James, it would make me more comfortable personally if you addressed your remarks to all our readers, and to Mr.[!] Rowe when you want to speak to him. He's right here reading, and I've always felt it's impolite for any two people to speak of another in their presence and company to use the third person.

Our contributors, commenters and lurker readers are good Americans all, and we speak to all of them. They're on the whole no less fair [or defensive] than you and I are when they're presented with a principled counterargument, and you have presented many of late, much to your credit. 90% evidence, 10% opinion/conclusion/argument is a good way to go I think, and you have held up your end, your earlier forays onto this blog notwithstanding.

What you want, and what you're achieving, is that whether or not anyone agrees with your comments, they've learned something new, and are challenged to reconsider their opinions in light of new evidence. That's all you can ask, and all any honest writer can ask. Your comments add to the discussion more than dilute it, and I'm thankful. I've learned stuff.

I've found it's a bad bet in a public forum to defend anyone, David Barton, Rush Limbaugh, Leo Strauss, Plato. It's best to make your own arguments under your own name, so I hope you'll consider abandoning your pseudonym, your nom de plume---indeed your nom de guerre as you consider yourself in a "fight."

Perhaps it is a fight, but it's one that can't be won without heeding the words of the glorious GK Chesterton: "We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it."

As for the substance of your comment, James, that the Declaration of Independence was the heart and the spirit of the Founding and that the Constitution represents only the legalisms and the compromises---the formality and formalization---I could not agree more.

There is much in the literature and speeches of the Founding era to support that idea, including Jasper Adams' speech of 1833 that we've been discussing lately.

I honestly believe it's the truth of what was in the Founders' hearts and minds, every one of them, that our rights come from God and nowhere else.

Our Founding Truth said...

As for the substance of your comment, James, that the Declaration of Independence was the heart and the spirit of the Founding and that the Constitution represents only the legalisms and the compromises---the formality and formalization---I could not agree more.>

My sentiments exactly. In Original Intent, David Barton does a good job in Ch. 14 showing the interdependence and inseparability of the Declaration, and Constitution that ran well into the twentieth century. Separating them is of recent origin.

As that Adams quote clearly shows, the principles in the DOI is Law, for the States (People) ratified it.

I looked at Wilson's other writings on the Law of Nature, which reinforces my earlier interpretation of his theories on reason:

"The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is, indeed, preposterous to separate them from each other. The object of both is ― to discover the will of God ― and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end."
Works Vol. I

Reason can NEVER be separated from Revelation, they are a package deal. Wilson says to understand God's will, they must be together. This proves the LONANG in the DOI is both.

I never knew this principal until tonight by reading David Barton's book. It's in Original Intent, Ch. 11. I've read that quote several times, but it didn't hit me until tonight.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As that Adams quote clearly shows, the principles in the DOI is Law, for the States (People) ratified it.

James, I think you are mistaken and misunderstand what Adams meant by "ratified." The US Constitution was ratified by 13 states individually in an official sense at state ratifying conventions. The Declaration of independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. There were no state ratifying conventions. The states' delegates were represented by the Continental Congress. You can still make the argument that their "intent" was more important than the intent of the authors and drafters. But I still have seen no evidence tying the men who voted to declare independence or the men who voted for the Constitution in the states' ratifying conventions that tied them to them the provisions in the state constitutions with explicitly biblical or sectarian language.

Most notable Founders hated such sectarianism and played active roles to remove such language in the state constitutions that would require things like for instance belief in the divine inspiration of the entire bible or trinitarian religious tests.

Jonathan Rowe said...

James Wilson was a very interesting thinker; he's certainly a better authority to which to turn for the laws of nature and nature's god than Blackstone. However, Wilson's opinions are not determinative. Jefferson and Adams also dithered on the proper relationship between reason and revelation and they made clear they believed the Bible partially inspired and that man's reason was the final test for truth and determining what revelation from God is legitimate.