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.