Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Deep Thoughts, by Benjamin Franklin

For all you fellow windbags on this blog, I thought you might appreciate these profound words of wisdom from the colonial Howard Stern...Benjamin Franklin.

In response to a letter from several scientists asking for Franklin to submit a scientific work for the Royal Academy of Brussels, Franklin wrote the following. Sometimes I wonder if we too look past the mark on the issue of religion and early America and if Franklin would respond to our blog in like manner. Enjoy.


(C. 1781) GENTLEMEN,

I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year, viz. "Une figure quelconque donnee, on demande dy inscrire le plus grand nombre de fois possible une autre figure plus-petite quelconque, qui est aussi donnee". I was glad to find by these following Words, "lAcadeemie a jugee que cette deecouverte, en eetendant les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITE", that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has not always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promisd greater_Utility.

Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

That so retaind contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.

Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.

My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mixd with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.

That this is not a chimerical Project, and altogether impossible, may appear from these Considerations. That we already have some Knowledge of Means capable of Varying that Smell. He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a Stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some Time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate Noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the Report, he may any where give Vent to his Griefs, unnoticed. But as there are many to whom an entire Vegetable Diet would be inconvenient, and as a little Quick-Lime thrown into a Jakes will correct the amazing Quantity of fetid Air arising from the vast Mass of putrid Matter containd in such Places, and render it rather pleasing to the Smell, who knows but that a little Powder of Lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our Food, or perhaps a Glass of Limewater drank at Dinner, may have the same Effect on the Air producd in and issuing from our Bowels? This is worth the Experiment. Certain it is also that we have the Power of changing by slight Means the Smell of another Discharge, that of our Water. A few Stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a disagreable Odour; and a Pill of Turpentine no bigger than a Pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing Smell of Violets. And why should it be thought more impossible in Nature, to find Means of making a Perfume of our Wind than of our Water?

For the Encouragement of this Enquiry, (from the immortal Honour to be reasonably expected by the Inventor) let it be considered of how small Importance to Mankind, or to how small a Part of Mankind have been useful those Discoveries in Science that have heretofore made Philosophers famous. Are there twenty Men in Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have pickd out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels! The Knowledge of Newtons mutual Attraction of the Particles of Matter, can it afford Ease to him who is rackd by their mutual Repulsion, and the cruel Distensions it occasions? The Pleasure arising to a few Philosophers, from seeing, a few Times in their Life, the Threads of Light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven Colours, can it be compared with the Ease and Comfort every Man living might feel seven times a Day, by discharging freely the Wind from his Bowels? Especially if it be converted into a Perfume: For the Pleasures of one Sense being little inferior to those of another, instead of pleasing the Sight he might delight the Smell of those about him, & make Numbers happy, which to a benevolent Mind must afford infinite Satisfaction. The generous Soul, who now endeavours to find out whether the Friends he entertains like best Claret or Burgundy, Champagne or Madeira, would then enquire also whether they chose Musk or Lilly, Rose or Bergamot, and provide accordingly. And surely such a Liberty of Expressing ones Scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human Happiness than that Liberty of the Press, or of abusing one another, which the English are so ready to fight & die for. -- In short, this Invention, if compleated, would be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing Philosophy home to Mens Business and Bosoms. And I cannot but conclude, that in Comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the Science of the Philosophers above-mentioned, even with the Addition, Gentlemen, of your "Figure quelconque" and the Figures inscrib�d in it, are, all together, scarcely worth a FART-HING.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Good Ol' Fashioned American Sex Scandals!

Sex scandals in government, politics and religion seem to be as American as apple pie these days. Whether it takes the form of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's recent escapades down to Argentina or former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's involvement with a high-class call girl service, sexual impropriety in the halls of power is becoming quite the past time these days.

But just how new is this phenomenon?

Have no fear fellow Americans; our generation is far from being unique when it comes to sexual deviance! Let us travel back to the time of America's founding to uncover a few parallel examples of leaders involving themselves in "inappropriate" sexual practices.

First off, we have the hero of American economics, Alexander Hamilton, who became our nation's first Secretary of the Treasury. In the latter part of his time in the Washington Administration, Hamilton was involved in an affair with a a Maria Reynolds, who duped the Secretary into believing she had been left destitute and needed his help. And though there is some truth to the notion that Mrs. Reynolds was in fact an abused and battered wife, the fact remains that soon after the two became acquainted, they began a long-term affair that Hamilton was eventually forced to admit to in public. The affair ruined Hamilton's personal reputation, as well as his larger political ambitions (much to the delight of the anti-Federalists!).

Then there is the case of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and this nation's 3rd president. As we all know, Jefferson has long been accused of having engaged in sexual relations with one of his slaves (Sally Hemmings) and even allegedly had a child with his "property." Jefferson never said anything publicly about the charges. However, in the early 1990s DNA testing on the Hemmings line revealed the strong presence of Jefferson DNA, evidence that is hard for the doubter to refute as Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis has pointed out.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, author Annette Gordon-Reed has thoroughly explored the Jefferson/Hemmings relationship, which she has described as being "a misunderstood but legitimate love affair." And while Jefferson would have certainly been condemned for having a relationship with a slave, we can only speculate as to the details surrounding their alleged union.

But the scandals don't stop there. Even the beloved Benjamin Franklin, one of America's most celebrated Founders, admitted in his autobiography to having sexual relations "with women of low character." While in England, the youthful Franklin regularly enjoyed sharing his bed with scores of prostitutes. Franklin later stated that it was a miracle he never acquired any diseases! Yes, Dr. Franklin was quite the Casanova in his day! But it didn't stop at youth. I think we all know how Franklin's life turned out so I'll just leave it at that.

And then there's the very popular but confrontational case of one West Ford, who some believe was the son of none other than George Washington. Author Linda Allen Bryant has probably done as much as anyone to force this issue upon the historical community. In her book, I Cannot Tell a Lie, Bryant argues that Washington was not only the father of a nation but also the father of a slave child. Bryant alleges that Washington began a relationship with a slave named Venus, however, it is important to point out that this entire allegation is based off of oral family history and historical speculation (for a good summary of the West Ford story click here).

There you have it! Sexual deviance is as timeless an institution as any other in this nation's proud history! Will American politicians ever learn? If history is a gauge of the future then the answer is a resounding HELL NO! We are doomed to see this pathetic cycle repeat itself soon enough. The only question I have is, who will be next?

Washington as Landes Vater

I ran across an interesting fact today as I was doing some reading on our nation's first president. Washington is commonly referred to as "the Father of our Country" but did you know that the title was first given to him in a German-American publication? In 1778 he was called Landes Vater (literally, Land's Father or Father of the Land). It took off from there.

Sehr gut!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"99 out of 100": Trinitarianism at the Founding

An American Creation Exclusive
by Tom Van Dyke

[Well, sort of exclusive. A little-known document dug up from the Founding era makes a shocking appearance here for nearly the first time on the internet, and things will never be the same...]

It's easy for us to slip into an epistemological nihilism about the religious landscape of the Founding: there were no Pew polls or polls of any kind back in the day. Who knows? One guess is as good as another.

And for a fellow who said his religion is private, we have more on Thomas Jefferson's musings on religion than from any other Founder. Together with his correspondence with the equally prolific John Adams, their confidential, post-presidential---voluminous---writings tend to get most of the ink. But while Adams and Jefferson were still in public life, they kept mum.

Mushed together with party boys Ben Franklin and Gouverneur Morris, who delighted [and delighted others] in their impiety, and negative inferences from the silences of men like Washington, Madison and Monroe, some historians have created a "Key Founders Theory," as if fewer than a dozen men could represent America's religion at the Founding.

Books upon books upon books have been based on this "Key Founders" method. But that's like looking for gold on the top of the rocks instead of under them, because the light is better. Unfortunately for all our wallets, nobody finds gold without panning for it or digging a little. Or a lot.

For what of the other 100-odd Founders, the signers of the Declaration, of the Constitution? What of the governors and legislators and delegates who ratified the Constitution, state by state by state? And what of Joe American? We're talking about a whole helluva lot of Americans here, not just a handful.

Now, one "key" Founder was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician, a surgeon in the Continental Army, and a signer of the Declaration. Seeking his support for a comprehensive plan for universal public education in 1786, Benjamin Rush wrote a letter to the British clergyman Richard Price, who was a long-time supporter of the American revolution and whose writings on religious tolerance and pluralism were of great influence in America, particularly in Rush's Pennsylvania:

"A small pamphflet [sic] addressed by you to the Congress, and the legislature of each of our States, upon the subject, I am sure would have more weight with our rulers than an hundred publications thrown out by citizens of this country.

It will only be necessary in this pamphflet [sic] to be wholly silent on those subjects in Christianity now which so much divide and agitate the Christian world. The wisest plan of education that could be offered would be unpopular among 99 out of 100 citizens of America, if it opposed in any degree the doctrine of the Trinity."

Rush to Price, May 25, 1786.

Rev. Price's strident anti-Trinitarianism [Jefferson kept his own a secret until he left public life] was coming to the fore around this time, and Rush's advice is clear---Price's influence would be diminished by his theological unorthodoxy.

In Ameri-kay, Ix-nay on the Inity-tray.

Some historians might say that Rush is prejudiced. True, he was a Trinitarian himself---but he was friend and correspondent to the pious [John Witherspoon], the impious [he was Franklin's frequent dinner companion], and the heretical [Price, Jefferson, Adams] alike. Neither was his Christian orthodoxy pure: Rush was heavily attracted to universalism, the belief that there is no hell and everyone will be saved.

Some historians might say that Rush's math is off. Surely true---it's not a scientific poll. Prudence dictates we dial back "99 out of 100" a bit. But shall we dial it back so far that "99 out of 100" becomes a minority? That would seem consummately cynical and dishonest absent strong evidence to the contrary. Non-Trinitarianism was growing a bit [and included many of Rush's own friends], but anti-Trinitarianism was a dead letter in America.

Dr. Rush's comment cannot be waved away or flushed down the memory hole. He was there in 1786, on the eve of the Constitution, at the Founding, and we weren't.

My thx to Jonathan Rowe for finding the gateway to The Letters to and from Richard Price: I was curious about Rush's original letter, which turned out to be far more explicit than I'd expected, with this "99 out of 100" business. I had seen Price's July 30 reply, and for the record, it was that to hush his anti-Trinitarianism "would be a hard restraint," especially since he was about to publish in England "a free discussion of these doctrines." [Strangely enough, Price did believe that Jesus was the Messiah and died for mankind's sins.]

For whatever reason, to my knowledge this section of Rush's letter becomes available in HTML on the internet for the first time here because my lazy self done typed it out. [It does appear in briefer form in James H. Hutson's The Founders on Religion, preview available here.] Why it's been so largely overlooked up until now, one cannot say, but it should never be ignored again by any sincere student of America's Founding.

And why so-called "Christian nationists" don't use it instead of so many crap arguments is beyond me. It should turn up on page 1 of a google. But that's their lookout, not mine.

Were the Majority of America's Founding Population "Orthodox Christians" or Something Else (Deist, Unitarian, Theistic Rationalist)

The answer is there is no clear cut answer; we probably will never know. When I wrote my "briefly noted" article for First Things on James H. Hutson's quote book on the Founding & Religion I stated:

While all the Founders believed in a powerful Providence, there was a split between those who affirmed the tenets of traditional orthodox Christianity and those who subscribed to an Enlightenment-influenced "theistic rationalism." While orthodox Christianity dominated the views of the population at large and probably a statistical majority of those who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution, an unconventional Unitarian theology seemed to engage the minds of certain key Founders—among them, those who played the most prominent roles in declaring independence and drafting the Constitution.

Were I to write another piece on the matter, I might use less strong words than "orthodox Christianity dominated the views of the population at large...." It's possible that most of the population were "orthodox Christians." It's likely that most were somewhat affiliated with a Christian system that professed "orthodoxy" and they didn't challenge said theological tenets. The more I think about it, however, the more I doubt that a statistical majority of Americans during the Founding era actually believed in things like Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and the infallibility of the Bible (i.e., "orthodoxy"). They might have; however, the record is just not clear that they did. The record IS clear that almost everyone from that era believed in Providence.

One notable study from that era showed that ONLY 17% were members of a church. That Founding era Americans were more likely to be in Taverns on Saturday nights than in Church pews on Sunday mornings. Other evidence shows that this may be a low ball. However the bottom line is that we just don't know whether a statistical majority of Founding era Americans accepted such theological tenets as Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc.

John Derbyshire once notably said something like "the lazy Christian mind is reflexively Deist." Indeed, evangelicals should understand this given that their faith stresses the "narrow gate." Roger Williams, a fervent evangelical-fundamentalist, interestingly enough, understood this dynamic and used it as a cornerstone for arguing in favor of separation of Church and State and religious liberty. Williams argued the inevitable not only existence but perhaps statistical majority of the "unregenerate" in any given population of "professing Christians" makes the idea of a "Christian Nation" blasphemous.

“Deism” as a significant theological conversation ended at the end of America's Founding era. However as a theological “reality” — something in which nominal Christians believe — I think various kinds of deism and unitarianism are not only alive and well today, but probably have always been, again perhaps always dominated "Christendom."

As Jefferson himself put it:

I remember to have heard Dr. Priestley say, that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all;…

– Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 22, 1813.
Forms of Deism and Unitarianism tried to give an intellectual account of this reflexive, default position into which nominal Christians fall. I can’t tell you how many professing Christians I speak with today — folks who haven’t spent too much time thinking about these issues — who believe God exists, that He wants humans to do good to other humans, that good people get into Heaven — but also that have no strong belief on matters like Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and infallibility of the Bible. A little while ago a Christian source did a story on this calling it a “new” religion of younger Americans. I noted that there was nothing “new” about this creed. Since the time of the American Founding it has arguably been the dominant creed, the “broad” gate, as opposed to the evangelicals’ “narrow” gate.

Why is this relevant: In arguing over America's Founding political theology, I oft-hear that we shouldn't focus on a "top down" view of things (i.e., the Christian-Deists/Unitarians/Theistic Rationalists elite "key Founders") but rather a "bottom up" view of things (i.e., the "orthodox" masses). Well, it's not clear that a statistical majority of Americans during the Founding era really were "orthodox Christians," but rather were nominal Christians who, if they really "candidly examine[d] themselves" would profess a creed something closer to Jefferson, Priestley, the "key Founders" than orthodox Christianity.

Chauncy on Edwards

One of the things that stunned me reading David Barton's article on Romans 13 was that he mistakenly believed Jonathan Mayhew (a principle ideological proponent of the American Revolution) was part of Jonathan Edward's "Great Awakening" movement, when the opposite is true; Mayhew was a chief theological opponent of Edward's "evangelical" like Christianity. Keep that in perspective when Barton rattles off names of people "responsible" for American independence: John Adams, Samuel Cooper, Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and George Whitefield. Barton says they are all "Christians," and indeed they all thought of themselves as "Christians." However, with the exception of Whitefield, they were all theological unitarians, whose "Christianity" (if it's even fair to term their theological system "Christian" since it denies the Trinity; most evangelicals don't think it is) was a different animal than that of the "orthodox."

This is big; if one wants to fully understand the political-theological driver behind the American Founding, one must understand this theological system and how it differed from both Deism and orthodox Christianity. These elite figures played extremely important roles in positing the "revolutionary" ideas that trickled their way down to the masses.

With that, check out this book of the correspondence of Richard Price, another key influence on the American Founding and expositor of a "rational Christianity" that was theologically unitarian and opposed to evangelical "fatalism." The correspondence sheds light on ideas going on in the minds of the elite who drove the American Founding:

The Doctrine of Fatalism, asserted and maintained in a book printed by Mr. Edwards, a minister in New-England, and reprinted in London a few years ago, has, by the assistance of some who were friends to these sentiments, unhappily taken a large spread, especially in the Colony of Connecticutt. The book I herewith send you (which is the only one I have as yet been able to procure) contains the whole of what the Propagators of Fatalism have to say in its defence, as it is the product of all their heads put together.1 I believe you never saw the Supreme Being, in any book, so explicitly and directly made the author and planner of moral evil. 'Tis to me astonishing that any man who professes a regard to the Deity, as these men do, should be able to speak of him as so ordering and disposing things as that moral evil should certainly be introduced into the world, and that it is desireable it should be, and for the greater good too, though great numbers on account of it shall suffer everlasting punishment. Nothing, as I imagine, could be said worse of the Prince of the power of the Air. I should be glad to have your th[oug]ts, when at leisure, upon this performance, especially that part of it which relates to the introduction of sin into the world, by the ordering and disposal of God, and for the good of the creation. This performance is supposed by too many to contain the truth, and to exhibit it in an unanswerable way.

The "Mr. Edwards" was the "Jonathan Edwards" of Great Awakening fame.

Poll Results: Which Event Had the Greatest Influence on the Revolution?

The results of American Creation's second poll are in, and it went all way down to the wire. After 112 votes cast on the question, "Which event had the greatest influence on the revolution" the winner is...


As I mentioned above, this one went all the way down to the wire. The French and Indian War finished in first place with 38 votes (34%), just barely enough to put it over its closest competition, which was the Stamp Act (finished with 37 votes). The Boston Tea Party ended in third place with 15 votes (14%) while the Declaratory Act came in 4th with 11 votes and the Boston Massacre ended in last with 10 votes.

Again, thank you to all who participated in this extremely "scientific" poll. Please check out and participate in our newest poll as well!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

King James: God Says Kings Are Like 'gods'

According to King James I, who ruled England and Ireland from 1603 and 1625 (and Scotland from even earlier), God held monarchs in very high esteem. So high, in fact, that monarchs are basically "gods."

In his famous (or infamous) Works (published 1609), King James I wrote:

"The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself are called gods. There be three principal similitudes that illustrate the state of monarchy: one taken out of the word of God; and the two other out of the grounds of policy and philosophy. In the Scriptures kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the divine power. Kings are also compared to fathers of families: for a king is truly Parens patriae, the politique father of his people. And lastly, kings are compared to the head of this microcosm of the body of man.

Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destrov make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, thev have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only. . . . "

Here's my question...

Where exactly in the Bible does God call kings 'gods'? I'm a pastor and I can't find it. Perhaps someone here can point it out.


Addendum: Tom Van Dyke, in the discussions, pointed out that James I was probably referring to Psalm 82 and John 10. So....

New Question(s) for the Discussion Area:

1. Is God deliberately referring to kings as "gods," or is Asaph mocking these kings for viewing themselves as "gods"? **For those who don't accept divine inspiration of the Bible, feel free to modify the question as follows: "Does Asaph believe God sees kings as lesser gods or is Asaph mocking kings that see themselves that way?"

2. Is Jesus endorsing the "Divine Right of Kings" (albeit as part of a larger discussion) in John 10?


FYI - I just published an article titled "Can Christians Rebel Against Government?" over at Suite101, where I'm the editor for the Protestantism section.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Good Article on the "Deism" & the American Founding

This article from Colonial Williamsburg shows that while deism was influential on the American Founding, there is much more to the story. Some highlights:

Because deism was never a formal sect and had no hierarchy to fix its principles, each adherent could bend it to individual liking, often moving it along traditional Christianity continuum as one manipulates a pointer along a slide rule. On one end of the scale, Washington could be ranked as a deist who attended church services, was a vestryman, quoted the Bible, commended religion, and prayed. At the other end stood Thomas Paine, who recorded his disdain for Christianity in The Age of Reason. In his view, God never communicated with men, Christianity was a fable, and miracles were fictions. Nonetheless, he said he was not an atheist. In a letter to Samuel Adams, Paine wrote that he penned The Age of Reason to keep the French from “running headlong into Atheism” during their revolution, and to ensure that they would hew to “the first article . . . of every man’s Creed who has any creed at all—‘I believe in God.’”


Colonial Williamsburg historian Linda Rowe said, “Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson all attended church services frequently to the end of their lives. They gave money to church building funds of several denominations, and attended Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Unitarian houses of worship. Most made no secret of their conviction that regular religious practice was necessary to public virtue upon which the survival of the republic depended.”

Franklin, whose life almost spanned the eighteenth century, mutated from defining himself as a deist to saying that deism had “perverted” his friends. In his forties, Franklin commended “the excellency of the Christian religion above all others ancient and modern.” As a senior citizen at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he suggested in vain that the participants pray for God’s guidance. “The longer I live,” he said, “the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs the affairs of men.” The same Jefferson who clipped the miracles from the New Testament also said, “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which” Jesus “wanted anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”

....Rowe said that “the appeal of moderate deism for Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and others was that it allowed for belief in a God who deserved to be worshipped by human beings but was not dependent upon biblical revelation, prophecy, and miracles as matters of faith. I say ‘moderate deism’ because none of these men completely abandoned the religious lessons upon which they were raised. They could be very critical of organized religion and theological twists and turns precisely because, in their view, these man-made institutions had corrupted the simple message of Jesus and obscured the best way to follow his teachings.”...


To some modern historians, “deism” is too simple a term to describe the complexity of the belief system of some Americans in the 1700s. The Reverend Thomas Buckley, SJ, professor of American religious history at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, said that belief is more complex than saying a person shrugged off Christianity and put on deism: “Too many historians keep calling the ‘founding fathers’ Deists. Even Thomas Jefferson on his worst days was not one of their ranks.” A better term than deist for most of them, Buckley said, is “rationalistic Christian.” Agreement on that point comes from Dreisbach, who said he thinks “there were relatively few Deists in America. There were a few elites who gravitated to a form of theistic rationalism, but we’re talking about a relatively few, albeit influential, elites.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

David Holmes on Unitarianism and the Religion of Thomas Jefferson

The following is a fantastic lecture given by David Holmes, professor of history and religion and author of the book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, which is considered by many to be THE litmus test on the religion and the founders. The videos are not too long but well worth your time. Holmes is a fountain of knowledge and his speaking ability makes this topic very easy to understand.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Part IV:

Part V:

Part VI:

Part VII:

Part VIII:

Part IX:

This I did not know

Last night I was reading The Political Philosophy of George Washington by Jeffry H. Morrison (published by John Hopkins this year) and I was astounded to discover that after the Revolution some of Washington's book purchases after the Revolution included material for the learning of Latin -- specifically a Latin grammar and two Latin-English dictionaries. He had to send away to England to get them. Washington was heavily read in the classics -- Seneca and Cicero were among his favorite classical authors in translation -- but I never knew he made attempts to learn their mother tongue.

There is no evidence, however, that Washington was able to learn Latin. He quotes Latin mottos from time to time, but none of his letters or later documents evidence a reading knowledge of the language.

I take great comfort in that -- that I too have failed at something that the great George Washington failed at! If one cannot share successes with the high and the mighty, perhaps it is something to share their failures????

Update: after some further digging, I went back to Morrison's book and found that I had mistakenly read the date of Washington's purchases. Washington didn't purchase the Latin books after the Revolution, he purchased them in 1760, before the French & Indian War! My apologies for not getting the timeline right.

KOI Responds To Frazer Again

"King of Ireland" sent me by email his latest response to Gregg Frazer on Romans 13 which you can read here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An Enlightened Dinner

Ok, there is nothing intellectual about this post. This one is for pure fun. With all of the AMAZING, INSPIRING posts that have appeared as of late, I thought a little mindless fun might be in order.

So here's the question: You are hosting a dinner in which you can invite five (5) guests. Here's the catch, the guests must be individuals we have mentioned on this blog. They must be individuals with a central role in the topic of American Creation. Who are your five guests and why?

In addition, here are some other questions regarding the "enlightened dream dinner:"

1.) What will you serve and why?
2.) Where will you host the event?
3.) Where will your guests sit?
4.) What will be the topics of conversation?
5.) What will be the entertainment?
6.) How would you sum up how this evening is most likely to go?

Ok, let's have some fun!

Hale v. Everett

You can read the entire decision of Hale v. Everett here.

It's an interesting case; parts of it are extremely disturbing. It reminds me of Harry V. Jaffa's dictum that we have to view the American Founding thru the lens of its ideals, not compromises with those ideals or else we get a "pro-slavery" Founding and originalism loses its moral authority. Yes, that gets us "out" of slavery but also "in" to other places. Using Jaffa's method, this case gets thrown into the ashcan of history.

This case, decided in 1868, has to do with a Society of Unitarian Christians, formed years back. New Hampshire had a "Protestant Establishment" complete with a religious test that excluded non-Protestants from public office. A minority within the Church didn't like the new minister, who was more or less a deist. He claimed that he was a "Protestant" and defined said creed by anti-Catholicism. The NH Supreme Court agreed that anti-Roman-Catholicism was indeed one element "Protestantism," but something more. They also struggle over whether Unitarianism is a sect of "Protestant Christianity." Philip Hamburger notes something similar in Separation of Church & State that anti-Roman Catholic bigotry was one thing that united both the Calvinists and the Unitarians in the North East. Hamburger also shows that many anti-Roman Catholic bigots became champions of the principle of Separation, once Catholics started getting their hands on government aid. True, but there is also a long ugly history of anti-Roman Catholicism with INTEGRATION of Church and State in America, as this very opinion demonstrates. Jews, Roman Catholics and others couldn't serve as politicians in New Hampshire. That, it seems to me, is far worse than anything Everson ever brought us. That's why I argue the "religious equality" value needs to be the driver for the Establishment Clause. And even if the EC is unincorporated and neutered, let the Equal Protection Clause do the work. Religious equality means, at least, government non-discrimination for all religions and lack thereof.

James Madison was right when he argued government needs to stay as far away from involving itself in doctrinal issues.

Founding Father's Day

On this holiday when Americans remember and celebrate their fathers, I’m reminded of the gratitude we owe to the nation’s founders.

Watching the convulsions in Iran this past week, where a rigged election seems to have taken place, I’m especially grateful to the Father of our Country.

Though many urged him to become a king, George Washington voluntarily relinquished the presidency after two terms in office, handing over the executive office to his duly elected successor John Adams without tumult or strife, establishing a precedent for the orderly transfer of power in the U.S. that has endured to this day.

Accused of aristocratic pretensions, Washington revealed his true nobility not by amassing power, but in his willingness to give it up.

Whatever one’s opinion of George W. Bush, he got on a plane for Crawford, Texas, on Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day and flew into the sunset, the way he was supposed to—the way it’s happened with 43 presidents since Washington served. So conservatives were appropriately angry last week when CBS News tacitly compared Bush to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust denying, anti-Semitic bully who is the current president of Iran. Unlike the scene Tehran, there were no mass rallies, no riot police gassing protesters when George Bush lost the vote. Just a peaceful, democratic succession.

In 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution codified the two-term rule for the presidency. But before then, from Washington’s time up to Roosevelt’s extraordinary run in the White House, it was nothing but the power of precedent and George Washington’s towering example that prevented the nation’s leaders from grasping at lifetime tenure.

Iranians are naturally suspicious of the United States, which helped overthrow their popularly elected government back in the 50’s. Still, President Ahmadinejad might find a lesson in history here:

Graceful farewells are the signature of great leaders.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

New Article From David Barton on Romans 13

David Barton posted an article in May 2009 on Romans 13 and rebellion. I think I can take credit for the online chatter that led to Barton's article. Barton's article makes some good and interesting points, but also a few major errors.

As we read the article and think about the issue I think we should keep in mind saying the Declaration of Independence was done on behalf of "Christian principles," is not unlike saying the Civil War was fought on behalf of "Christian principles." Both sides in both wars were predominately demographically professing "Christians." And both sides could quote the Bible and traditions in Christianity for their respective positions. Even today many "Christian Nationalists" are neo-Confederates (unlike Barton).

Barton starts out by quoting some of today's orthodox evangelical leaders who reject the Christian Nation thesis by holding to the traditional view of Romans 13.

First John MacArthur:

People have mistakenly linked democracy and political freedom to Christianity. That’s why many contemporary evangelicals believe the American Revolution was completely justified, both politically and scripturally. They follow the arguments of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are Divinely endowed rights. . . . But such a position is contrary to the clear teachings and commands of Romans 13:1-7. So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the Founding Fathers. 1

Next, Oklahoma church leader Albert Soto:

The Colonists’ act of rebellion flies in the face of [Romans 13:1,2]. Did they overlook this verse? No, these were not men ignorant of Scripture. In fact, they used Scripture to support their cause in the most devious of ways. The deception that prevailed during this period of history was immense. God and Scripture was the vehicle of mobilization that unified the cause, gave it credence, and allowed the Deist leaders at the top to move the masses toward rebellion. Scripture was the Forefathers’ most useful tool of propaganda. 2

And then Dr. Daryl Cornett of Mid-America Theological Seminary:

Deistic and Unitarian tendencies in regards to religion. . . . were of such strength that even orthodox Christians were swept up into rebellion against their governing authorities. . . . Those Christians who supported physical resistance against the tyranny of Britain generally turned to Enlightenment rhetoric for validation, propped up by poor exegesis and application of the Bible.

Barton accurately notes "the topic of civil disobedience and resistance to governing authorities had been a subject of serious theological inquiries for centuries before the Enlightenment." But he mistakenly claims for his side a number of pre-Enlightenment theologians who addressed the issue of Romans 13 and rebellion:

This was especially true during the Reformation, when the subject was directly addressed by theologians such as Frenchman John Calvin, 4 German Martin Luther, 5 Swiss Reformation leader Huldreich Zwingli, 6 and numerous others. 7


The Quakers and Anglicans adopted the position set forth by King James I (and subsequently embraced by Dr. Cornett, Rev. MacArthur, and others of today’s critics), but the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists, and most other denominations of that day adopted the theological viewpoint presented by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Rutherford, Poynet, Mornay, Languet, Johnson, and other theologians across the centuries.

While I can't speak for all of the above named figures (many of them who did indeed argue that men had a right to resist tyranny or the "licentiousness of kings" based on some "living" arguably warped notion of Calvin's interposition) a number of the figures, most notably Calvin himself and Luther were squarely on the other side and held NO right to rebellion against tyrants. Calvin and Luther, were they alive, and applying their understanding of Romans 13 would have sided with the British.

Barton also elides the fact that, though there was a pre-Enlightenment tradition of resisting civil magistrates (ala Rutherford), it was in fact Enlightenment sources (many of them deists and unitarian) that most influenced the American Revolution. Indeed Barton is unaware that Jonathan Mayhew was a unitarian Enlightenment preacher!

Reflective of the Founding Father’s belief that they were not rebelling against God or resisting ordained government but only tyranny was the fact that the first national motto proposed for America in August 1776 was “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” 17 – a summation of the famous 1750 sermon 18 preached by the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mayhew (a principle figure in the Great Awakening).

Mayhew was actually a principle theological ENEMY of Jonathan Edwards' "Great Awakening."

There's a lot more to Barton's article, which perhaps I or others will get to later.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Odds & Ends

First you can listen to Ed Brayton interviewing me on his AM public radio show Declaring Independence, where we talk about the FFs and religion. I've done a number of these radio shows and can attest it's an entirely different experience than blogging/writing. I have a friend who is a much more accomplished writer than I who simply won't do these live speaking things because of a bad experience. Even being the call in guest on an AM radio show has its particular dynamics to learn (which I'm still learning!). For instance, it's likely that they won't hear you as clearly as you might think (and not as clearly as the host). So you need ESPECIALLY to slow down and clearly enunciate every word, even to the point of speaking with an affect.

This interview was done on a stressful day at work; one nice thing about Ed interviewing me was that when I had a few brain farts and misspoke -- Ed knows the record so well that he immediately corrected me. For instance, I knew that Madison, Hamilton and Jay were the three authors of the Federalist Papers and meant to name them; but I mistakenly said "Jefferson" instead of "Madison"; a less well informed host wouldn't have caught that. Overall I think I did okay but forgot to take my xanax before the interview.

On the show we invoked Dr. Gregg Frazer and how evangelicals who largely make up the "Christian America" crowd have a tight definition of "Christianity." Gregg's message to them is if we define "Christian" this way, the key FFs weren't Christian and America's Founding political theology was not "Christianity." But Gregg's thesis goes beyond simply the evangelical definition of "Christianity" which might exclude Roman Catholicism, but rather defines "Christianity" by its historic orthodoxy (i.e., the Nicene Creed) which includes, among others Roman Catholics, Anglicans, etc. All of the official Churches in 18th Century America save the Quakers adhered to this lowest common denominator understanding of "Christianity." BUT, by these standards America's key Founding Fathers and its political theology were not provably "Christian."

The irony is, this is not necessarily a "loss" for orthodoxy, but a victory. This definition concedes "Trinitarian orthodoxy" as the authentic historical understanding of the faith. A victory for orthodoxy in this regard, however, requires sacrificing American political theology as authentically Christian. Consequently a more broadly defined, ecumenical, perhaps theologically liberal bar lowering for "what is Christianity?" arguably leads to the conclusion that America did have a "Christian" Founding.

One of my American Creation co-bloggers, Eric Alan Isaacson, a prominent attorney and a Unitarian Universalist, gave his understanding of "what is Christianity" in a comment at Positive Liberty, responding to my contention that Mormons might not be "Christians" as so historically defined:

Hi Jonathan,

I’m troubled by those who insist that only people who believe in one way can be “true Christians.” If Mormons consider themselves followers of Jesus, that’s good enough for me to regard them as Christians. If Trinitarian Evangelicals regard themselves as followers of Jesus, I’ll consider them Christians too — even though, so far as I can tell, Jesus never claimed to be God.

If someone like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley honored Jesus and endeavored to follow his teachings, they should not be denied the name “Christian” merely because others who claim that name have embraced any number of extra-biblical doctrines.

I’ve heard Catholics occasionally say that theirs is the only “true church,” suggesting perhaps that Protestants are not truly Christians. I’ve heard Protestant preachers denounce the Pope as the Anti-Christ, insisting that Catholics can’t be true Christians because they follow the Pope rather than Christ.

I must confess, such attitudes offend my sensibilities.

And yet, I find you, an open-minded and liberal chap, adopting the same stance, and suggesting that Unitarians and Mormons can’t be Christians.

I am reminded, quite frankly, of how New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 1868 the Dover, New Hampshire, First Unitarian Society of Christians’ chosen minister — the Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbot — was insufficiently “Christian” to serve the Congregation that had called him. Justice Jonathan Everett Sargent’s opinion for the court quoted passages from Abbot’s sermons, to show that the minister was too open-minded to serve his congregation.

The Rev. Abbot, after all, had once preached:

Whoever has been so fired in his own spirit by the overwhelming thought of the Divine Being as to kindle the flames in the hearts of his fellow men, whether Confucius, or Zoroaster, or Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed, has proved himself to be a prophet of the living God; and thus every great historic religion dates from a genuine inspiration by the Eternal Spirit.

In another sermon, Rev. Abbot even declared:

America is every whit as sacred as Judea. God is as near to you and to me, as ever he was to Moses, to Jesus, or to Paul. Wherever a human soul is born into the love of truth and high virtue, there is the “Holy Land.” Wherever a human soul has uttered its sincere and brave faith in the Divine, and thus bequeathed to us the legacy of inspired words, there is the “Holy Bible.”

“If Protestantism would include Mr. Abbot in this case,” Justice Sargent opined for New Hampshire’s highest court, “it would of course include Thomas Jefferson, and by the same rule also Thomas Paine, whom Gov. Plumer of New Hampshire called ‘that outrageous blasphemer,’ that ‘infamous blasphemer,’ ‘that miscreant Paine,’ whose ‘Age of Reason’ Plumer had read ‘with unqualified disapprobation of its tone and temper, its course vulgarity, and its unfair appeals to the passions and prejudices of his readers.’”

Hale v. Everett, 53 N.H. 9, 16 Am. Rep. 82, 1868 N.H. LEXIS 47 (1868). See Charles B. Kinney, Jr., Church & State: The Struggle for Separation in New Hampshire, 1630-1900 113 (New York: Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1955) (“One of the more celebrated cases in New Hampshire jurisprudence is that of Hale versus Everett.”); Carl H. Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 1385, 1534 n.541 (“As late as 1868, the state supreme court decided that a Unitarian minister would not be allowed to use the town meeting house because of his heterodoxy, and in spite of being called and settled by a majority of the community.”).

You might suppose that being run out of the pulpit would sour the Rev. Abbot in his attitudes toward those who thought themselves more orthodox than he was. You would be wrong. Abbot went on to edit The Index, and on his retirement from that position in 1880 addressed those who gathered in his honor: “I know we are here Unitarians and Non-Unitarians, and I rejoice to stand with Christians, with Catholic and Protestant Christians alike, for justice and purity; and I will always do so. These things are more important than our little differences of theological opinion.” Farewell Dinner to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, on Retiring from the Editorship of “The Index” 14 (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1880) (remarks of Rev. Abbot, June 24, 1880).

It may be noted that Frederick Douglass praised Rev. Abbot for doing “much to break the fetters of religious superstition, for which he is entitled to gratitude.” Farewell Dinner, supra, at p. 48 (letter of June 15, 1880, from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. M.J. Savage).

I think it a tremendous mistake, Jonathan, for you to side with the likes of Justice Sargent, who think they are entitled to determine who can, and who cannot, be called a true “Christian.” In truth, Justice Sargent may have been somewhat more liberal in his attitudes than you are – for he and the New Hampshire Supreme Court at least accepted the notion that one can be a genuine Unitarian Christian, even as they ruled that Rev. Abbot was far too unorthodox even to preach in a Unitarian church.

Peace be with you!

Eric Alan Isaacson

So ultimately whether the key FFs were "Christian" and America was founded to be a "Christian Nation" boils down to how one approaches the issue, how one defines "Christianity." One could say America's key Founders were "Christians" and America was founded to be a "Christian Nation" in a broader unitarian sense of the term.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Mystery Hid From Ages and Generations, Part I

I am going to reproduce Rev. Charles Chauncy's "The Mystery Hid From Ages and Generations" in portions. I am also going to edit the lowercase "s" because in the original style they look more like "f." This helps sheds light on Dr. Gregg Frazer's assertion that ministers like Chauncy, while they held reason and revelation largely agreed, resolved apparent differences between them in favor of reason, not revelation. Hence reason trumps revelation. That's not what Chauncy and others necessarily claimed to do (he's claiming to derive his authority from the Bible's text). But, I want us to ask whether that is in fact what Chauncy DID. What follows is the three and a half pages. The original can be read in its entirety here.



AS the First Cause of all things is infinitely benevolent, 'tis not easy to conceive, that he should bring mankind into existence, unless he intended to make them finally happy. And if this was his intention, it cannot well be supposed, as he is infinitely intelligent and wise, that he should be unable to project, or carry into execution, a scheme that would be effectual to secure, sooner or later, the certain accomplishment of it. Should it be suggested. Free agents, as men are allowed to be, must be left to their own choice, in consequence whereof blame can be reflected justly no where but upon themselves, if, when happiness is put into their own power, they chuse to pursue those courses which will end in misery: The answer is obvious, Their Creator, being perfectly benevolent, would be disposed to prevent their making, or, at least, their finally persisting in, such wrong choices; and, being infinitely intelligent and wise, would use suitable, and yet effectual, methods, in order to attain this end. Should it be said further. Such free agents as men are may oppose all the methods that can be used with them, in consistency with liberty, and persist in wrong pursuits, in consequence of wrong determinations, to the rendering themselves finally unhappy: The reply is, This is sooner said than proved. Who will undertake to make it evident, that infinite wisdom, excited by infinite benevolence, is incapable of devising expedients, whereby moral agents, without any violence offered to their liberty, may certainly be led, if not at first, yet after various repeated trials, into such determinations, and consequent actions, as would finally prepare them for happiness? It would be hard to suppose, that infinite wisdom should finally be outdone by the obstinacy and folly of any free agents whatsoever. If this might really be the case, how can it be thought, with respect to such free agents, that they should ever have been produced by an infinitely benevolent cause? If the only good God knew (as he must have known, if he is infinitely intelligent), that some free agents would make themselves unhappy, notwithstanding the utmost efforts of his wisdom to prevent it, why did he create them? To give them existence, knowing, at the same time, that they would render themselves finally miserable, by abusing their moral powers, in opposition to all that he could do to prevent it, is scarcely reconcilable with supremely and absolutely perfect benevolence; which, in this case, one would be ready to think, must have withheld the gift of existence.

But however uncertain the final state of men may be, upon the principles of mere reason, the matter is sufficiently cleared up in the revelations of scripture. For we are here informed, not only that men were originally made for happiness, but that they shall certainly attain to the enjoyment of it, in the final issue of things. The salvation of the whole human kind is indeed the great thing aimed at, in the scheme, the bible has opened to our view, as now in prosecution, by the benevolent Deity, under the management of that glorious personage, Jesus Christ; who, we are there assured, will go on prosecuting this design, till all the individuals of the human race that ever had, now have, or ever will have, existence, shall be fixed in the possession of complete and everlasting happiness.

This, I am sensible, is very contrary to the common opinion, which supposes that the greatest part of mankind will be finally miserable, notwithstanding the appointment of Jesus Christ to the office of a Saviour, and all that God has either yet done, or will hereafter do, under his ministration, in order to prevent it. Nay, it is the opinion of some, that the elect (a very small number comparatively considered) are the only ones, the benevolent Deity has concerned himself for, so as effectually to secure their salvation; having left all others, whom he might as well have saved, had he so pleaded, to bring upon themselves remediless and eternal ruin, for the praise of the glory of his justice.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Old School" Scholarship on Washington's Religion

John E. Remsburg (1848-1919) was, in his day, a well-known historian of early American history -- particularly religious history -- and skeptic of American religion in general. As the author of 12 books on the topic of religion and early America, Remsburg was well versed in the historical material surrounding the founders. Here are some of the things he had to say -- in 1906 mind you -- on the religious beliefs of George Washington:


Was Washington a church member? Was he in any sense a Christian? In early life he held a formal adherence to the church of England, serving, for a time, as a vestryman in the parish in which he resided. But this being merely a temporal office did not necessitate his being a communicant, nor even a believer in Christianity. In his maturer age he was connected with no church. Washington, the young Virginia planter, might, perhaps, with some degree of truthfulness, have been called a Christian; Washington, the Soldier, statesman and sage, was not a Christian, but a Deist.

This great man, like most men in public life, was reticent respecting his religious views. This rendered a general knowledge of his real belief impossible, and made it easy for zealous Christians to impose upon the public mind and claim him for their faith. Whatever evidence of his unbelief existed was, as far as possible, suppressed. Enough remains, however, to prompt me to attempt the task of proving the truth of the following propositions:

That Washington was not a Christian communicant.
That he was not a believer in the Christian religion.


Was Washington A Communicant?
Washington was not a communicant. This fact can be easily demonstrated. A century ago it was the custom of all classes, irrespective of their religious beliefs, to attend church. Washington, adhering to the custom, attended. But when the administration of the sacrament took place, instead of remaining and partaking of the Lord's Supper as a communicant would have done, he invariably arose and retired from the church.
The closing years of his life, save the last two, were passed in Philadelphia, he being then President of the United States. In addition to his eight years' incumbency of the presidency, he was, during the eight years of the Revolutionary war, and also during the six years that elapsed between the Revolution and the establishment of the Federal government, not only a frequent visitor in Philadelphia, but during a considerable portion of the time a resident of that city. While there he attended the Episcopal churches of which the Rev. William White and the Rev. James Abercromble were rectors. In regard to his being a communicant, no evidence can be so pertinent or so decisive as that of his pastors.

Bishop White, the father of the Protestant Episcopal church of America, is one of the most eminent names in church history. During a large portion of the period covering nearly a quarter of a century, Washington, with his wife, attended the churches in which Bishop White officiated. In a letter dated Fredericksburg, Aug. 13, 1835, Colonel Mercer sent Bishop White the following inquiry relative to this question:

"I have a desire, my dear Sir, to know whether Gen. Washington was a communicant of the Protestant Episcopal church, or whether he occasionally went to the communion only, or if ever he did so at all. ... No authority can be so authentic and complete as yours on this point."

To this inquiry Bishop White replied as follows:

"Philadelphia, Aug. 15, 1835.

"Dear Sir: In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say that Gen. Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister. Mrs. Washington was an habitual communicant.

... I have been written to by many on that point, and have been obliged to answer them as I now do you. I am respectfully.

"Your humble servant,

(Memoir of Bishop White, pp. 196, 197).


The Rev. E.D. Neill, in the Episcopal Recorder, the organ of the church of which it is claimed Washington was a communicant, says:

"As I read, a few days ago, of the death of the Rev. Richard M. Abercrombie, rector of St. Matthew's Protestant Episcopal church in Jersey City, memories of my boyhood arose. He was born not far from my father's house in Philadelphia and was the son of the Rev. James Abercrombie, a fine scholar and preacher, who had in early life corresponded with the great lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and in later years was the assistant minister of Christ's and St. Peter's churches, in Philadelphia, where my maternal ancestors had worshiped for more than one generation. One day, after the father had reached four score years, the lately deceased son took me into the study of the aged man, and showed me a letter which President George Washington had written to his father, thanking him for the loan of one of his manuscript sermons. Washington and his wife were regular attendants upon his ministry while residing in Philadelphia. The President was not a communicant, notwithstanding all the pretty stories to the contrary, and after the close of the sermon on sacramental Sundays, had fallen into the habit of retiring from the church while his wife remained and communed."

Referring to Dr. Abercrombie's reproof of Washington, Mr. Neill says:

"Upon one occasion Dr. Abercromble alluded to the unhappy tendency of the example of those dignified by age and position turning their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The discourse arrested the attention of Washington, and after that he never came to church with his wife on Communion Sunday."

The Rev. Dr. Wilson, in his famous sermon on the Religion of the Presidents, also alludes to this subject. He says:

"When the Congress sat in Philadelphia, President Washington attended the Episcopal church. The rector, Dr. Abercrombie, told me that on the days when the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was to be administered, Washington's custom was to rise just before the ceremony commenced, and walk out of church. This became a subject of remark in the congregation, as setting a bad example. At length the Doctor undertook to speak of it, with a direct allusion to the President. Washington was heard afterwards to remark that this was the first time a clergyman had thus preached to him, and he should henceforth neither trouble the Doctor nor his congregation on such occasions; and ever after that, upon communion days, he 'absented himself altogether from the church.'

The Rev. Bird Wilson, D.D., author of the "Memoir of Bishop White," says:

"Though the General attended the churches in which Dr. White officiated, whenever he was in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary war, and afterwards while President of the United States, he never was a communicant in them" (Memoir of Bishop White, p. 188).

The Rev. Beverly Tucker, D.D., of the Episcopal church, has attempted to prove that Washington was a churchman. But while professing to believe that he was a communicant before the Revolution he is compelled to admit that there is a doubt about his communing after the Revolution. He says:

"The doubt has been raised partly on the strength of a letter written by Bishop White in 1832. He says that Washington attended St. Peter's church one winter, during the session of the Continental Congress, and that during his Presidency he had a pew in Christ church, 'which was habitually occupied by himself, by Mrs. Washington, who was regularly a communicant, and by his secretaries. This language is taken to mean, and probably correctly, that Washington did not commune."

Dr. Tucker is evidently not acquainted with Bishop White's letter to Col. Mercer in 1835. There is no question as to the meaning of that letter. Continuing, Dr. Tucker says:

"The doubt rests again on the recollection of Mrs. Fielding Lewis, Nelly Custis, Gen. Washington's step- granddaughter, written in 1833, who states that after the Mount Vernon family removed from Pohick church to Christ church, Alexandria, the General was accustomed, on Communion Sundays, to leave the church with her, sending the carriage back for Mrs. Washington."

Washington's biographer, the Rev. Jared Sparks, who seems to have entertained the popular notion that Washington was in early life a communicant, admits that at a latter period he ceased to commune. He says:

"The circumstance of his withdrawing himself from the communion service at a certain period of his life has been remarked as singular. This may be admitted and regretted, both on account of his example and the value of his opinions as to the importance and practical tendency of this rite" (Life of Washington, Vol. ii, p. 361).

Origen Bacherer, in his debate with Robert Dale Owen in 1831, made an effort to prove that Washington was a Christian communicant. He appealed for help to the Rev. Wm. Jackson, rector of the Episcopal church of Alexandria, the church which Washington had attended. Mr. Jackson was only too willing to aid him. He instituted an exhaustive investigation for the purpose of discovering if possible some evidence of Washington having been a communicant. Letters of inquiry were addressed to his relatives and friends. But his efforts were unsuccessful. While he professed to believe that Washington was a Christian, he was compelled to say:

"I find no one who ever communed with him" (Bacheler-Owen Debate, Vol. ii, p. 262).

This, as might be supposed, did not satisfy Mr. Bacherer, and he entreated the rector to make another attempt. The second attempt was as fruitless as the first.' He writes:

"I am sorry after so long a delay in replying to your last, that it is not in my power to communicate something decisive in reference to General Washington's church membership" (Ibid., ii, p. 370.)

In the same letter Mr. Jackson says:

"Nor can I find any old person who ever communed with him."

The "People's Library of Information" contains the following:

"The question has been raised as to whether any one of our Presidents was a communicant in a Christian church. There is a tradition that Washington asked permission of a Presbyterian mister in New Jersey to unite in communion. But it is only a tradition. Washington was a vestryman in the Episcopal church. But that office required no more piety than it would to be mate of a ship. There is no account of his communing in Boston, or in New York, or Philadelphia, or elsewhere, during the Revolutionary struggle."

The tradition of Washington's wishing to unite with a Presbyterian minister in communion, like many other so-called traditions of the same character, has been industriously circulated. And yet it is scarcely possible to conceive of a more improbable story. Refusing to commune with the members of the church in which he was raised, and the church he was in the habit of attending, and going to the priest of another church -- a stranger -- and asking to commune with him! Had Washington been some intemperate vagabond, the story might have been believed. But Washington was not an inebriate, and was never so pressed for a drink as to beg a sup of sacramental wine from a Calvinistic clergyman.

Gen. A.W. Greely, U.S.A., in an article on "Washington's Domestic and Religious Life" which was published in the Ladies' Home Journal for April, 1896, says:

"But even if he was ever confirmed in its [the Episcopal] faith there is no reliable evidence that he ever took communion with it or with any other church."

Some years ago, I met at Paris, Texas, an old gentlemen, Mr. F.W. Miner, who was born and who lived for a considerable time near Mt. Vernon. He told me that when a boy he was once in company with a party of old men, neighbors in early life of Washington, who were discussing the question of his religious belief. He says that it was admitted by all of them that he was not a church member, and by the most of them that he was not a Christian.

Mr. George Wilson of Lexington, Mo., whose ancestors owned the Custis estate, and founded Alexandria, where Washington attended church, writes as follows: "My great-grandmother was Mary Alexander, daughter of 'John the younger,' who founded Alexandria. The Alexander pew in Christ church was next to Washington's, and an old lady, a kinswoman of mine, born near Alexandria and named Alexander, told me that the tradition in the Alexander family was that Washington NEVER took communion."

In regard to Washington being a vestryman, Mr. Wilson says: "At that time the vestry was the county court, and in order to have a hand in managing the affairs of the county, in which his large property lay, regulating the levy of taxes, etc., Washington had to be a vestryman."

The St. Louis Globe contained the following in regard to the church membership of Washington:

"It is a singular fact that much as has been written about Washington, particularly with regard to his superior personal virtue, there is nothing to show that he was ever a member of the church. He attended divine service, and lived an honorable and exemplary life, but as to his being a communicant, the record is surprisingly doubtful."

In an article conceding that Washington was not a communicant, the Western Christian Advocate says:

"This is evident and convincing from the Life of Bishop White, bishop of the Episcopal church in America from 1787 to 1836. Of this evidence it has been well said: 'There does not appear to be any such undoubtable evidence existing. The more scrutinously the church membership of Washington is examined, the more doubtful it appears. Bishop White seems to have had more intimate relations with Washington than any clergyman of his time. His testimony outweighs any amount of influential argumentation on the question.'

The following is a recapitulation of the salient points in the preceding testimony, given in the words of the witnesses. It is in itself an overwhelming refutation of the claim that Washington was a communicant:

"Gen. Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister." -- Bishop White.

"On sacramental Sundays, Gen. Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the Congregation." -- Rev. Dr. Abercromble.

"After that, [Dr. Abercrombie's reproof,] upon communion days, he absented himself altogether from the church." -- Rev. Dr. Wilson.

"The General was accustomed, on communion Sundays, to leave the church with her [Nelly Custis], sending the carriage back for Mrs. Washington. " -- Rev. Dr. Beverly Tucker.

"He never was a communicant in them [Dr. White's churches]." -- Rev. Dr. Bird Wilson.

"I find no one who ever communed with him." -- Rev. William Jackson.

"The President was not a communicant." -- Rev. E.D. Neill.

"This [his ceasing to commune] may be admitted and regretted." -- Rev. Jared Sparks.

"There is no reliable evidence that he ever took communion." -- Gen. A.W. Greely.

"There is nothing to show that he was ever a member of the church." -- St. Louis Globe.

"I have never been a communicant." -- Washington, quoted by Dr. Abercrombie.

The claim that Washington was a Christian communicant must be abandoned; the claim that he was a believer in Christianity, I shall endeavor to showy is equally untenable.

Was Washington A Christian?
In the political documents, correspondence, and other writings of Washington, few references to the prevailing religion of his day are found. In no instance has he expressed a disbelief in the Christian religion, neither can there be found in all his writings a single sentence that can with propriety be construed into an acknowledgment of its claims. Once or twice he refers to it in complimentary terms, but in these compliments there is nothing inconsistent with the conduct of a conscientious Deist. Religions, like their adherents, possess both good and bad qualities, and Christianity is no exception. While there is much in it deserving the strongest condemnation, there is also much that commands the respect and even challenges the admiration of Infidels. Occupying the position that Washington did, enjoying as he did the confidence and support of Christians, it was not unnatural that he should indulge in a few friendly allusions to their religious faith.
In his "Farewell Address," the last and best political paper he gave to the Christian religion is not once named. In this work he manifests the fondest solicitude for the future of his country. His sentences are crowded with words of warning and fatherly advice. But he does not seem to be impressed with the idea that the safety of the government or the happiness of the people depends upon Christianity. He recommends a cultivation of the religious sentiment, but evinces no partiality for the popular faith.

In the absence of any recorded statements from Washington himself concerning his religious belief, the most conclusive evidence that can be presented is the admissions of his clerical acquaintances. Among these there has been preserved the testimony of his pastors, Bishop White and Dr. Abercromble.

In a letter to Rev. B.C.C. Parker of Massachusetts, dated Nov. 28, 1832, in answer to some inquiries respecting Washington's religion, Bishop White says:

"His behavior [in church] was always serious and attentive, but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to declare that I never saw him in the said attitude. ... Although I was often in company with this great man, and had the honor of dining often at his table, I never heard anything from him which could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion. ... Within a few days of his leaving the presidential chair, our vestry waited on him with an address prepared and delivered by me. In his answer he was pleased to express himself gratified by what he had heard from our pulpit; but there was nothing that committed him relatively to religious theory" ("Memoir of Bishop White," pp. 189-191; Sparks' "Life of Washington," Vol. ii., p. 359).

The Rev. Parker, to whom Bishop White's letter is addressed, was, it seems, anxious to obtain some evidence that Washington was a believer in Christianity, and, not satisfied with the bishop's answer, begged him, it would appear, to tax his mind for some fact that would tend to show that Washington was a believer. In a letter dated Dec. 21, 1832, the bishop writes as follows:

"I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance upon Christian worship, in connection with the general reserve of his character" ("Memoir of Bishop White," p. 193).

Bishop White's testimony does not afford positive proof of Washington's unbelief, but it certainly furnishes strong presumptive evidence of its truth. It is hardly possible to suppose that he could have been a believer and have let his most intimate Christian associates remain in total ignorance of the fact. Bishop White indulges a faint hope that he may have been, but this hope is simply based on his "constant attendance" at church, and when we consider how large a proportion of those who attend church are unbelievers, that many of our most radical Freethinkers are regular church-goers, there are very small grounds, I think, upon which to indulge even a hope. But even this "constant attendance" on the part of Washington cannot be accepted without some qualification; for, while it is true that he often attended church, he was by no means a constant attendant. Not only did he uniformly absent himself on communion days, but the entries in his diary show that he remained away for several Sundays in succession, spending his time at home reading and writing, riding out into the country, or in visiting his friends.

But if Bishop White cherished a faint hope that Washington had some faith in the religion of Christ, Dr. Abercrombie did not. Long after Washington's death, in reply to Dr. Wilson, who had interrogated him as to his illustrious auditor's religious views, Dr. Abercrombie's brief but emphatic answer was:

"Sir, Washington was a Deist."

Washington rarely attended, as we have seen, any church but the Episcopal, hence, if any denomination of Christians could claim him as an adherent, it was this one. Yet here we have two of its most distinguished representatives, pastors of the churches which he attended, the one not knowing what his belief was, the other disclaiming him and asserting that he was a Deist.

The Rev. Dr. Wilson, who was almost a contemporary of our earlier statesmen and presidents, and who thoroughly investigated the subject of their religious beliefs, in his sermon already mentioned affirmed that the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected -- George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson -- not one had professed a belief in Christianity. From this sermon I quote the following:

"When the war was over and the victory over our enemies won, and the blessings and happiness of liberty and peace were secured, the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and, after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it. ... There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God's laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public profession of Christianity. ... Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian."

Dr. Wilson's sermon was published in the Albany Daily Advertiser in 1831, and attracted the attention of Robert Dale Owen, then a young man, who called to see its author in regard to his statement concerning Washington's belief. The result of his visit is given in a letter to Amos Gilbert. The letter is dated Albany, November 13, 1831., and was published in New York a fortnight later. He says:

"I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been rievously at fault, I met an honest man and sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor's residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently approaching fifty years of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken a part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not. ... I then read to him from a copy of the Daily Advertiser the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, 'Washington was a man,' etc., and ending, 'absented himself altogether from the church.' 'I indorse,' said Dr. Wilson, with emphasis, 'every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr. Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was -- for I well remember the very words -- 'Sir, Washington was a Deist.'"

In concluding the interview, Dr. Wilson said: "I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he pledges himself as a believer in Christianity. I think anyone who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more.),

In February, 1800, a few weeks after. Washington's death, Jefferson made the following entry in his journal:

"Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice" (Jefferson's Works, Vol. iv., p. 572).

Jefferson further says: "I know that Gouverneur Morris, who claimed to be in his secrets, and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in that system [Christianity] than he did" (Ibid).

Gouverneur Morris was the principal drafter of the Constitution of the United States; he was a member of the Continental Congress, a United States senator from New York, and minister to France. He accepted, to a considerable extent, the skeptical views of French Freethinkers.

The "Asa" Green mentioned by Jefferson was undoubtedly the Rev. Ashbel Green, chaplain to Congress during Washington's administration. In an article on Washington's religion, contributed to the Chicago Tribune, B.F. Underwood says:

"If there were an Asa Green in Washington's time he was a man of no prominence, and it is probable the person referred to by Jefferson was the Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green, who served as chaplain to the Congress during the eight years that body sat in Philadelphia, was afterwards president of Princeton College, and the only clerical member of Congress that signed the Declaration of Independence. His name shines illustriously in the annals of the Presbyterian church in the United States."

Some years ago I received a letter from Hon. A.B. Bradford of Pennsylvania, relative to Washington's belief. Mr. Bradford was for a long time a prominent clergyman in the Presbyterian church, and was appointed a consul to China by President Lincoln. His statements help to corroborate the statements of Dr. Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Mr. Underwood. He says:

"I knew Dr. Wilson personally, and have entertained him at my house, on which occasion he said in my hearing what my relative, the Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green of Philadelphia, frequently told me in his study, viz., that during the time that Congress sat in that city the clergy, suspecting from good evidence that Washington was not a believer in the Bible as a revelation from heaven, laid a plan to extort from him a confession, either pro or con, but that the plan failed. Dr. Green was chaplain to Congress during all the time of its sitting in Philadelphia; dined with the President on special invitation nearly every week; was well acquainted with him, and after he had been dead and gone many years, often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist."

Mr. Underwood's article contained the following from the pen of Mr. Bradford:

"It was during his [Dr. Green's] long residence in Philadelphia that I became intimately acquainted with him as a relative, student of theology at Princeton, and a member of the same Presbytery to which he belonged. Many an hour during my student and clergyman days did I spend with him in his study at No. 150 Pine street, Philadelphia, listening to his interesting and instructive conversation on Revolutionary times and incidents. I recollect well that during one of these interviews in his study I inquired of him what were the real opinions Washington entertained on the subject of religion. He promptly answered pretty nearly in the language which Jefferson says Dr. Rush used. He explained more at length the plan laid by the clergy of Philadelphia at the close of Washington's administration as President to get his views of religion for the sake of the good influence they supposed they would have in counteracting the Infidelity of Paine and the rest of the Revolutionary patriots, military and civil. But I well remember the smile on his face and the twinkle of his black eye when he said: 'The old fox was too cunning for Us.' He affirmed, in concluding his narrative, that from his long and intimate acquaintance with Washington he knew it to be the case that while he respectfully conformed to the religious customs of society by generally going to church on Sundays, he had no belief at all in the divine origin of the Bible, or the Jewish-Christian religion."

The testimony of General Greely, whose thorough investigation of Washington's religious belief makes him an authority on the subject, is among the most important yet adduced. From his article on "Washington's Domestic and Religions Life" I quote the following paragraphs:

"The effort to depict Washington as very devout from his childhood, as a strict Sabbatarian, and as in intimate spiritual communication with the church is practically contradicted by his own letters."

"In his letters, even those of consolation, there appears almost nothing to indicate his spiritual frame of mind. A particularly careful study of the man's letters convinces me that while the spirit of Christianity, as exemplified in love of God and love of man [Theophilauthropy or Deism], was the controlling factor of his nature, yet he never formulated his religious faith."

"It is, however, somewhat striking that in several thousand letters the name of Jesus Christ never appears, and it is notably absent from his last will."

"His services as a vestryman had no special significance from a religious standpoint. The political affairs of a Virginia county were then directed by the vestry, which, having the power to elect its own members, was an important instrument of the oligarchy of Virginia."

"He was not regular in attendance at church save possibly at home. While present at the First Provencal Congress in Philadelphia he went once to the Roman Catholic and once to the Episcopal church. He spent four mouths in the Constitutional Convention, going six times to church, once each to the Romish high mass, to the Friends', to the Presbyterian, and thrice to the Episcopal service."

"From his childhood he traveled on Sunday whenever occasion required. He considered it proper for his negroes to fish, and on that day made at least one contract. During his official busy life Sunday was largely given to his home correspondence, being, as he says, the most convenient day in which to spare time from his public burdens to look after his impaired fortune and estates."

Dr. Moncure D. Conway, who made a study of Washington's life and character, who had access to his private papers, and who was employed to edit a volume of his letters, has written a monograph on "The Religion of Washington," from which I take the following:

"In editing a volume of Washington's private letters for the Long Island Historical Society, I have been much impressed by indications that this great historic personality represented the Liberal religious tendency of his tune. That tendency was to respect religious organizations as part of the social order, which required some minister to visit the sick, bury the dead, and perform marriages. It was considered in nowise inconsistent with disbelief of the clergyman's doctrines to contribute to his support, or even to be a vestryman in his church."

"In his many letters to his adopted nephew and young relatives, he admonishes them about their manners and morals, but in no case have I been able to discover any suggestion that they should read the Bible, keep the Sabbath, go to church, or any warning against Infidelity."

"Washington had in his library the writings of Paine, Priestley, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and other heretical works."

Conway says that "Washington was glad to have Volney as his guest at Mount Vernon," and cited a letter of introduction which Washington gave him to the citizens of the United States during his travels in this country.

In a contribution to the New York Times Dr. Conway says:

"Augustine Washington, like most scholarly Virginians of his time, was a Deist. ... Contemporary evidence shows that in mature life Washington was a Deist, and did not commune, which is quite consistent with his being a vestryman. In England, where vestries have secular functions, it is not unusual for Unitarians to be vestrymen, there being no doctrinal subscription required for that office. Washington's letters during the Revolution occasionally indicate his recognition of the hand of Providence in notable public events, but in the thousands of his letters I have never been able to find the name of Christ or any reference to him."

There is no evidence to show that Washington, even in early life, was a believer in Christianity. The contrary is rather to be presumed. His father, as Dr. Conway states, was a Deist; while his mother was not excessively religious, His brother, Lawrence Washington, was, it is claimed, the first advocate of religious liberty in Virginia, and evidently an unbeliever, so that instead of being surrounded at home by the stifling atmosphere of superstition, he was permitted to breathe the pure air of religious freedom.

It is certain that at no time during his life did he take any special interest in church affairs. Gen. Greely says that "He was not regular in church attendance save possibly at home." At home he was the least regular in his attendance. His diary shows that he attended about twelve times a year. During the week he Superintended the affairs of his farm; on Sunday he usually attended to his correspondence. Sunday visitors at his house were numerous. If he ever objected to them it was not because they kept him from his devotions, but because they kept him from his work. In his diary he writes:

"It hath so happened, that on the last Sundays -- call them the first or seventh [days] as you please, I have been unable to perform the latter duty on account of visits from strangers, with whom I could not use the freedom to leave alone, or recommend to the care of each other, for their amusement."

When he visited his distant tenants to collect his rent, their piety, and not his, prevented him from doing the business on Sunday, as the following entry in his diary shows:

"Being Sunday, and the people living on my land very religious, it was thought best to postpone going among them till to-morrow."

His diary also shows that he "closed land purchases, sold wheat, and, while a Virginia planter, went fox hunting on Sunday."

He did not, like most pious churchmen, believe that Christian servants are better than others. When on one occasion he needed servants, he wrote:

"If they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mahomedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."

These extracts contain no explicit declarations of disbelief in Christianity, but between the lines we can easily read, "I am not a Christian."