Sunday, July 26, 2009

Moncure D. Conway on Washington's Religion

As you can see the dispute over the Founding Fathers' religion has been going on for some time. Even though the letter was written to the New York Times in 1897, the points are still apt. Moncure Conway was a freethinker who did some notable scholarship on George Washington's religion, in particular his lack of Christian orthodoxy.

Even though Conway terms Washington a "Deist," the evidence he then cites, while it does point away from Washington's orthodox Christianity, also somewhat belies the notion that GW was a strict Deist. For instance, Deists don't tend to think any of the Bible is a "benign light," yet unitarians and "Christian rationalists" do believe parts of scripture are benign and enlighted, and it's only those parts in which they tended to believe. Conway also terms Washington a Socinian. Socinians are not Deists, but Unitarians who believe Jesus was not God but 100% man on some kind of divinely inspired moral mission. The 1783 Circular to the States to which Conway refers was not written in Washington's hand but was signed by him. It refers to Jesus as "the Divine Author of our blessed Religion," and if unitarian, seems more Arian, which believes Jesus a divine but created and subordinate being, than Socinian, which views Jesus as only human. This and in one other public address to Delaware Indians, neither written in Washington's hand, but both signed by him, are the only two places Washington discusses the name or person of Jesus at all! This makes it a little tough for those of us who want to with certainty place Washington in a religious box. James Madison and a number other of Washington's contemporaries noted, other than believing in an active personal God Washington seemed not to have formed definite opinions on Christian or other theologies. So it's entirely possible that whereas Jefferson and others actively disbelieved in doctrines like the Trinity, Washington was agnostic on those matters. In any event, let me reproduce the passage where GW appeals to revelation for authority, one of the few places he does so. It is done in an enlightenment rationalistic context:

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.


Tom Van Dyke said...

"Enlightenment rationalistic context" certainly works in opposition to

the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition


and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation...

speaks for itself. Bold face mine, but geez, "enlightenment rationalism" wants to take credit for everything, even when evidence to the contrary is right in front of it in black and white.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"pure and benign light" is enlightenment speak.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Revelation" is religion-speak.

Can we link "pure and benign light" to human reason in Founder quotes? Not at all---unlike the Enlightenment on the European continent, Americans saw reason as corruptible by the passions. You've seen the quotes, Jon, from folks like John Adams and James Wilson.

Now, this goes to the core of the Founding-era worldview. Some claim it was a full-on Calvinistic view of man's "depravity," and although I think that's too strong, it was indeed present among many of the orthodox, and those like Madison or John Adams, in contrast to Rousseau, held a less than rosy view of man [and his reason] than "pure and benign."

Jonathan Rowe said...

"But the origin of the AMERICAN REPUBLIC is distinguished by peculiar circumstances. Other nations have been driven together by fear and necessity—the governments have generally been the result of a single man’s observations; or the offspring of particular interests. IN the formation of our constitution, the wisdom of all ages is collected—the legislators of antiquity are consulted—as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. In short, in it an empire of reason."

-- Noah Webster, "An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution"
Philadelphia, 17 October 1787

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, and Washington said the American government was the product of man's efforts, and so did Adams. This is not in dispute. The Founders did not claim that God wrote the constitution, which was a proper humility, since it contained some shameful compromises that we're all aware of. [Slavery, for those who came in late.]

This discussion cannot be reduced to quote wars that ignore the larger context. You know well that Noah Webster's more youthful enthusiasms for "reason" were replaced by a deeper appreciation of the Bible's effect on the Founding and the necessity to preserve its principles. You also know well that human reason unassisted was distrusted in the Founding era, even by men like John Adams who were not Trinitarians.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't think I ignore the larger context. I remember in one letter Adams elevated man's reason so far over revelation that he noted if God Himself revealed the doctrine of the Trinity to him with Moses on Mt. Sinai, he still wouldn't believe it because man's reason proves 1+1+1 = 3 not 1.

You can say this was an after the fact statement; but so too were all of Noah Webster's orthodox Christian musings on the Founding. They were done, not because of any honest assessment but rather because he became an orthodox Christian and what human reason did in France scared the shit out of him.

Tom Van Dyke said...

1+1+1=3. There you go with the Trinity again. There are at least 100 Biblical arguments against the Trinity

...well known to John Adams.

This does not elevate "human reason unassisted" above the "pure and benign light of revelation."

As for Noah Webster becoming more appreciative of the role of the Bible in a decent civilization, damn right the reification [deification---yes, they had a "Goddess of Reason!"] of reason in the abomination called the French Revolution should have given any sane man pause.

And did.

Jonathan Rowe said...

But Tom,

There were also rationalistic arguments against the Trinity and THOSE were the ones J. Adams and Jefferson (perhaps Franklin; we don't know enough) choose to adopt.

Adams letter was the clearest CASE I can think of as regards elevating reason over revelation.

Still John Adams (and Jefferson and Franklin) were never fans of "human reason unassisted." They all believe the Bible's role was to support the findings of man's reason.

And I think that the PRINCIPLES of the American Founding were parallel to those of the French, but more moderate. And could have, if not for the moderation, compromises with ideals, and take it slow approach, had the same results.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Adams letter was the clearest CASE I can think of as regards elevating reason over revelation.

But the Bible doesn't say Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity. If it did, you'd be correct. Reason interprets revelation; of this there is no controversy. Even the Five Points of Calvinism are interpretation.

As for the pure and benign light of revelation, Adams himself writes of Christianity:

“Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation, could ever have discovered or invented it.”---John Adams

And as you well know, Jon, that quote is entirely in context.

And as you well know, Jon, there are plenty of quotes from Adams that question the purity and benignity of human reason. You put Christianity on trial for the point of Trinitarian doctrine, but reason must be put in the docket as well before you elevate to the higher place.

King of Ireland said...

We are off on trying to lump theology on salvation in with theology on civil government. There were different views on the former that did not keep people from rallying around the latter. Washington's use of the word Revelation confirms this. He believed in the rights of man to rebel against a tyrant that was at the heart of the DOI. So did Keteltas. Does it matter for the sake of discussions about civil government that one may or may not have been a Trinitarian?

I imagine that Washington would have felt a lot like the guy from your post yesterday if he were to have sat through Keteltas' sermon on God pleading the cause of the people. It was a standard evangelical exhortation. But I am sure he spirit leaped when he listened to the part about God pleading the cause of the people in America. My spirit sure did.

So does Washington go up to him at the end and tell him that it would have been nice to unite with him for the cause of liberty but conscience would not let him because of the first part of the sermon. Some do think that way. But it is irrational.

Tom Van Dyke said...


From the internet:

"Samuel Adams and his cousin John were delegates to the first continental congress. They knew that Massachusetts was somewhat dreaded and distrusted by the other colonies, especially by Pennsylvania and New York, on account of her forwardness in opposing the British government.

While there was genuine sympathy with her situation, there was at the same time great reluctance to bringing on a war. The rigid Puritanism of Massachusetts was also held in disrepute. Samuel Adams felt it necessary to be conciliatory, and it was easy for him to be so, for he was large-minded and full of tact.

A motion to open the proceedings of the congress with prayer was opposed by John Jay, on the ground that Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers could hardly be expected to unite in formal worship. Then Samuel Adams got up and said, with perfect sincerity, "He was no bigot and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country. He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but he had heard that Mr. Duche deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayers to the congress." This was a politic move, for it pleased the Episcopalians, who were the dominant sect in New York, Virginia, and South Carolina; and it produced an excellent impression in Philadelphia, where Duche was the most popular preacher of the day. It was thought that the men of New England were not so stiff-necked as had been generally supposed, and there was a reaction of feeling in their favor."

King of Ireland said...

Good supporting quote Tom. I think this is where the frame of debate needs to move and away from swapping quotes about what a few of the founders may have believed about salvation issues. I know Barton and co. started it and looked real bad when some of the quotes turned out to be wrong but it their error was more in letting the frame of the debate shift to that pissing contest instead of an honest study of the political theology and how it shaped the political philosophy of the time.

I read today that the translations that the French and Americans had of Lockes Treatise left at the first part. The only part that people saw was the second one. It was done by the French supposedly. They wanted to claim the ideas but run away from theology that they were grounded in. Talk about liars!

The man wrote and commentary on the book or Romans and some call him a closet atheist! It seems he broke matters down to the law of faith and the law of works. The first one said that the only way to fulfill the law was through faith that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God. The second was through perfection. Though he stated that while a pursuit of the latter was not conducive to salvation, that it was worthwhile for the progress of society. Thus, he kept salvation and human institutions separate in his discussions.

If he or his ideas are evidence for the "Enlightenment Rationalist" column that is crazy. One would have to ignore his theological writings to come up with this. He seems to have known the Bible a lot better than most Pastors I know and applied it a lot in his writings.

Locke is ground zero in this debate.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think the bottom line re Adams/reason/the trinity is that he held that which man discovers from reason is God's first revelation to man and that when that revelation was CLEAR no further revelation was needed or could contradict it. Adams said this numerous times as did other founders and patriotic preachers. The Bible was necessary when the first revelation was "unclear" as it oft-was. But on the Trinity, the first revelation was clear that one is not three.

King of Ireland said...

John when you say Revelation do you mean from God?In other words, what is the definition of Revelation we are using here? This is important because I think Frazer believes that Revelation is only from the scriptures opposed to Aquinas who believed in general revelation from nature and all. If both of the above on true, and I am not at all clear on what Frazer believes he just made one comment that seemed to say that, then Frazer is going to label people rationalist that other camps would not. I might add wrongly so.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Frazer doesn't believe in natural law (even Aquinas' kind).

I'm trying to use their language when I talk about first and second revelations. They believed what man discovers from nature using reason was the "first" revelation of God to man; the other revelation coming from the Holy Books was the "second" second revelation of God to man. We've gotten into some disputes about what they mean by "first" and "second," first in time or first in priority. J. Adams, from my reading of his letters, means both. If written revelation appeals to contradict reason (even if you witnessed God himself speaking those words) then don't believe it.

King of Ireland said...

Jon stated:

"Frazer doesn't believe in natural law (even Aquinas' kind)."

Then of course he is going to label anyone who is open to revelation(insight from God in my way of defining it) outside of scripture and a "rationalist". I am not Locke expert but a lot of his language about reason seem to mean to use your brain when deciding what is revelation from God or not.

In other words, if we all agreed for arguments sake that the book of Matthew was inspired and of divine origin Locke would still tell someone who wanted to cut their hand off for masterbating to use reason.

To me the words themselves are not the revelation it is when those words connect God and man ending with man's better understanding of God. He is arguing the same stuff it seems that Aquinas was. I think they are on solid ground in that Romans talks about God being revealed through what is made. I do not know why Frazer and company would ignore that?

J brings up a good point about Locke and Jefferson in Abbot's post today that Locke opened the door for Jefferson to cut up the NT. I think Jefferson took what he was saying 38 steps further, in that it seems that Locke did not question the inspiration of the Bible, but it is this can of worms opened that most Evangelical Christian's do not want to see.

Why? A lot of their precious dogma because debatable. I am all for it. Who says what is scripture and what is not? I believe it is the transcended parts that seem to be consistent throughout. It is the principle approach rather than the doctrine approach. Makes a lot of people nervous!

Where do you think Adams and Jefferson were as compared to Locke and Aquinas on this issue?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Frazer details this in his thesis. He recognizes that Aquinas was a "rationalist," but that he believed revelation trumps reason if the two conflict. He argues (rightly in my opinion) Jefferson, J. Adams and others flipped that on its head and heldif the two conflict reason trumps revelation. He is not as explicit about Locke and that's probably because Locke was a slippery character. But I think he probably thinks Locke believed reason trumps revelation just like J. Adams, Jefferson and OTHERS believed.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Both Locke and John Adams argue that it's "rational" for God to have had Jesus, Moses, et al., to perform miracles, so that God's word would be better heard and its divine authority unquestioned.

In fact, Adams' argument [a diary entry in 1754, as I recall], restates Locke's argument in "A Discourse of Miracles"

pretty much exactly.

As you know, I consider Adams a pretty derivative thinker, so that comes as no surprise to me.

King of Ireland said...


When you say he says reason trumps revelation is revelation the Bible? In other words, they could just be saying that if some Church teaching does not make sense you go with reason. Or they could just be saying like Locke did that all so called revelation, meaning insight from God about God, be checked by reason? Blind faith is not a good thing. I hope I am asking good questions I really want to understand this whole topic of reason and revelation. I think it is hard to follow because revelation means different things to different people.