Tuesday, May 31, 2011

John Adams Bases Constitution's Success on Public Morality

Can the United States of America flourish or survive in the absence of religion and morality? John Adams, the second President of the United States, did not believe so. In a letter to the First Brigade of the Massachusetts militia, John Adams famously declared:
"[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
While many have taken Adams's words to mean he was endorsing an evangelical government and/or a "Christian nation," it's important that we not overreach or put words into his mouth. John Adams, in this letter, is not endorsing a particular Christian denomination nor is he advocating that the United States adopt the Bible as its legal structure in place of the Constitution. He's instead echoing the sentiments of his predecessor, George Washington, who stated that "religion and morality" are "indispensable supports to political prosperity."

Like Washington, Adams believed that morality and religion were inextricably intertwined. You can't have the former without the latter, and if you can find a latter system without the former, it is inherently flawed and should be set aside. A moral world view, underlined and shaped by religion, is essential to a healthy society, argued Adams. And the American Constitution was written with such a society in mind. Do we have such a society today?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Mark Noll: When Historians Attack

...and misuse their scholarly authority
One in a series
by Tom Van Dyke

[Previous in this series was a strong objection to a politically-tinged Washington Post op-ed by respected, acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis.

I rely here on Paul Harvey's essay "Jesus and Jefferson: Mark Noll Reviews Dochuk and Williams in The New Republic," since the full essay is behind TNR's subscriber-only firewall.

Over at his excellent groupblog Religion and American History, Paul Harvey writes

Here's a discussion of interest to many: Mark Noll reviews Daniel Williams' God's Own Party and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt in the most recent The New Republic.

Noll writes:
"...neither of these writers carries out the moral evaluation, that, especially, in tandem, their volumes make possible..."

But is it the historian's job to make such moral evaluations? And by what standard?

"Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right..."

Who decides "what is Christian?" The historian? The theologian? Which theologian? Ratzinger, Barth? Pat Robertson? Jim Wallis?

I realize Mark Noll is becoming the go-to gold standard for religion and history, but where is his theological authority in such matters?
"It would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named, if it had manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment."

Oh? Well, this is theology or contemporary partisan politics or both, but are such judgments the province of the historian? May a historian likewise criticize "social gospel" politics as un-Christian? By what authority?

As to the history of the thing, it seems to me Jesus and "Jefferson" had made peace long before Jefferson was born, in the pre-American Calvinist "resistance theory" that executed one British king and exiled another in the 1600s. [More on that here].

Is Calvinist resistance theory Christian? A theologian might dare say no [and some do, per Romans 13]; however, the historian must say yes, since the British Christians embraced it, as later did the Americans.

If "Jesus and 'Jefferson'" is a theological miscegenation, it was not a uniquely American phenomenon, nor only the province of the 20th century American "right." Further, the historian's job is to report what happened in the past and assess its prevailing norms, not substitute his own.

Much has been made of a certain "pseudo-historian" and the propriety of his mixing of history and partisan politics.

Mark Noll is no "pseudo-"historian, but an accomplished historian, an award-winning historian, and on the faculty at Notre Dame. Neither is he directly involved in partisan politics, as that other fellow is. And neither are Noll's words here strictly an attack, although they certainly are a critique of the modern evangelical "Religious Right."

[It should be noted Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind vaulted him into prominence as a public intellectual, its thesis basically that "there is not much of an evangelical mind." Coming from an evangelical himself, from a faculty member of an evangelical-minded college [Wheaton] at that, Noll certainly made his splash in the greater public sphere.]

Which is fine, for a public intellectual, even a theologian. But when one reads an acclaimed historian such as Dr. Mark Noll of Notre Dame reviewing history books in a respected intellectual journal such as TNR, it's surely proper for the reader to assume he has his historian hat on, not his theologian hat, not his political pundit hat.

I think Dr. Noll has mixed his hats here, and improperly: this review is neither fish nor fowl, but a miscegenation not unlike mixing Jesus and Jefferson, which he explicitly questions.

Perhaps Calvinist "resistance theory" was bad theologically; perhaps the American revolutionaries were theologically wrong in embracing it. Perhaps the Religious Right of the 20th century was wrong in picking up that tradition.

But there's a difference between those who make history and those who study it. The historian owes his readers the facts about the people of bygone days, not his opinion of them.

As for Mark Noll's personal "moral evaluations"; theological evaluations about "what exactly is Christian about the Christian right" or whether "[i]t would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named"; or his political evaluation of whether it "manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment," frankly, my dear, these things are above his pay grade as an historian: We shall make up our own minds, thank you, sir, and we all wear our own hats on religion and politics with equal authority. That's the American way.

Wiki tells us Mark Noll's scholarly credentials are these:

Noll is a graduate of Wheaton College, Illinois (B.A, English), the University of Iowa (M.A., English), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A., Church History and Theology), and Vanderbilt University (Ph.D, History of Christianity)

If Dr. Mark Noll wants to put on the theologian's hat, OK, or the political pundit's hat. But---and this goes for anyone else in his acclaimed and exalted position as an historian---he must make clear what hat he's wearing. Just let us know.

In reviewing two scholarly historical works here, albeit in TNR, the gentle reader could not be blamed for assuming Dr. Noll has his professional historian hat on, and not the political pundit's or theologian's.

The last thing the historian should do is mix in his own religion and politics! When Mark Noll is writing as a theologian---or personally as a Christian, or as an evangelical Christian---or as a partisan and/or pundit, all I ask is that he let us know which hat he's wearing. I hope I'm not being unfair here, asking that certain lines be drawn.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Influence of Franklin's "Join or Die" Cartoon

This post is a little different from our traditional material here at AC but since things have been a little slow I decided to go ahead and publish it here.

In 1754, Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin became one of the earliest political cartoonists in American history. As a printer, Franklin had regularly published political commentaries on various issues. His "Join or Die" publication, however, was uniquely different and would be remembered for generations to come.

During the early part of 1754, Franklin became gravely concerned about the security and future of the British colonies. As war between Britain and France loomed on the horizon, Franklin believed that colonial unity was becoming increasingly important. In Franklin's mind, each individual colony was going too far in its own direction, and thus neglecting the greater needs of the American colonies as a whole. As a result, Franklin created his "Join or Die" cartoon to serve as an appeal for unity. The cartoon (originally done as a wood carving) was posted not only in Franklin's paper, but was distributed across the colonies. The snake (each section representing an individual British colony), was purposely cut into pieces, suggesting that death would come not only to the snake, but to the colonies as well if they chose to stay divided. (It is also worth noting that 18th century society believed that a snake would come back to life if its pieces were all put together and buried before sundown).

During the French and Indian War, Franklin's "Join or Die" slogan was used as a battle cry, inspiring colonies to unite against the French. In the years prior to the American Revolution, Franklin would again use his "Join or Die" logo to promote union with the British (Franklin even suggested to Parliament that the colonies could be joined with Great Britain in the original Acts of Union, which had united Scotland and England). England's passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 gave Americans a cause to rally around. Naturally, Franklin's slogan was brought out of the closet, this time to rally against the British.

With the onset of the American Revolution, patriots from across the colonies used Franklin's "Join or Die" cartoon to promote the cause of independence. The slogan could regularly be seen in the windows of shops, on flags, and in newspapers.

Years later, Northerners would again resurrect Franklin's political cartoon to promote the cause of unity in the early years of the Civil War. There are even more recent instances of "Join or Die" being used to promote a political cause. During the 2000 presidential election, Republicans raised the banner of "Join or Die" to promote unity in the party. After President Obama's election, the "Join or Die" slogan (and the rattlesnake slogan in general) became a favorite for the Tea Party.

But why the fascination with rattlesnakes?

Early American society had a strange interest in the rattlesnake, so much that it was even considered a candidate (along with the turkey) for the national symbol of the United States. Americans loved the rattlesnake for several reasons:

1.) It was believed that the rattlesnake was indigenous to only North America.
2.) The rattlesnake has no eyelids and is therefore always vigilant.
3.) It was believed by colonists that the rattlesnake never picked a fight but also never retreated once attacked.
4.) Colonists believed that a den of rattlesnakes maintained more unity amongst its members than any other specie of animal life.

But like "E Pluribus Unum" and other early American beliefs, the rattlesnake went the way of the Dodo Bird. Much to the relief of many early American Christians, who saw the rattlesnake in the same light as the evil serpent from the Garden of Eden, the mighty American eagle soared to the top of the list and eventually became America's official symbol (much to the dismay of Benjamin Franklin, who called the eagle "a ravenous vulture of the sky."). Despite its fall from grace, the rattlesnake still maintains a popular place in American culture.

Tomorrow's post: The Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" Flag.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pastor Rutherford and the Star-Spangled Banner: 2.0

A few months ago, Pastor Dudley Rutherford of Shepherd of the Hills Church, posted a controversial video on youtube of the history of the Star-Spangled Banner. The original video (which has since been removed) was met with severe criticism for several historical errors (you can read our blog's original criticism of the video by clicking here).

In the weeks following, Pastor Rutherford admitted that his original video was not as historically accurate as he had hoped. In consequence, he apologized for the errors and promised to revise his presentation, taking greater care to ensure that the correct history of the Star-Spangled Banner (and the bombardment of Fort McHenry) was presented.

I am now pleased to present the new and improved history of the Star-Spangled Banner by Pastor Dudley Rutherford:

Overall, I think Pastor Rutherford did a wonderful job. Of course the video isn't meant to be for historical purposes alone, but is mainly a patriotic tribute to the people and the events behind our nation's flag and anthem, and on those merits Pastor Rutherford gets an A+.

But of course, as is the case with any presentation of history (whether it be for academic or entertainment purposes) there are always things that can be done better. My only critique for Pastor Rutherford would be that at times his video makes the bombardment of Ft. McHenry look worse than it really was. As Americans, we often overemphasize the events of Ft. McHenry (and many other events from our nation's past) because...well...it makes us look and feel better. Of course this is a very mundane critique and I could easily be accused of nitpicking but hey, this is a history blog; it's what we do best!

In conclusion, kudos to Pastor Dudley Rutherford for endeavoring to get the history right. As I said before, I know professional historians, who when criticized, are unable to see past their Ph.D.'s and consider other perspectives. Yes, Pastor Rutherford's first video was no good but his final draft is excellent. And in the end, isn't this what all good historical inquiry is about?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Libertarianism?

This is a bit off-topic, but I hope I will be forgiven. On previous occasions, I have expressed the opinion that the libertarian character of America and the American Revolution is largely due to Reformed Christianity, and I have cited the articles of contemporary hardline Reformed Christian and libertarian think-tank American Vision, which follows in the footsteps of the Christian Reconstruction of Rousas John Rushdoony and Gary North, for corroboration. For example, see
However, some have expressed skepticism to me, saying that Christian Reconstructionists are just theocrats who want to kill adulterers, and are hardly libertarians. Now, I have mostly been reading 16th-18th-century expressions of Reformed Christianity, and I have yet read very little contemporary Christian Reconstructionism, but I found some interesting passages in an article by Joel McDurmon I wanted to share.

Murray Rothbard had written an article, World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals (compare two other articles by Rothbard, The Progressive Era and the Family and Origins of the Welfare State in America ), to which Gary North responded with Millenialism and the Progressive Movement. Rothbard wrote another article, Kingdom Come: The Politics of the Millenium, and to that McDurmon responded with Murray Rothbard on the Kingdom: A Response:
The error here lies in assuming that CRs [i.e. Christian Reconstructionists] wish to “seize power” or “take over the reins of government” at all. This is certainly not the case, and few CRs if any have ever argued for the seizure of government power. On the contrary, R. J. Rushdoony, Gary North, Gary DeMar, Greg Bahnsen, and others have consistently, clearly, and soundly denounced the use of coercive State power and advocated free markets. I myself have more than once written that were CR to achieve its goals it would first require a massive revival of Christianity, and secondly would result in the greatest roll-back of State power in human history. We would experience the greatest ascendancy of human freedom and prosperity on record (or not on record, for that matter).


For these contradictions and other reasons I and nearly all other CRs reject the interpretation that the millennium is a physical, literal, and coercive rule of Christ Himself on earth. We see it as a gradually growing spreading kingdom persuading hearts of individuals first, then families, then leading to reforms of both church and state. It is a bottom-up, Spirit-led, long-term, peace-seeking enterprise. During this long process, there are at various times and places different degrees of sinner, saved, and saint mingled in the process; though, the further we progress, the greater the number of believers and the deeper influence the Gospel will have on each of them. Until this “golden age” comes per God’s providence, no amount of human effort can speed it up, and no amount of changing of institutions of government will help the cause or even itself last.


CRs do desire to limit the effects of blasphemy and family-destroyers in society, and very tough questions arise as to the who, what, and how in that regard, as Rothbard rightly notes. I believe, personally, that the move closer to a civil government that honors civil law requires God’s advances first, as I said, it will never do to change the laws first, impose them by force, and then pretend that we’ve advanced the kingdom. Yet I believe that as the kingdom advances, we will grow closer to a society free of the adultery, sodomy, blasphemy, etc, that Rothbard lists. Thus there is what I would call a divine irony in biblical civil law: the closer we get to achieving it the less we would need it, and by the time we arrive a establishing it as civil law it will be almost entirely a formality (though “in place” entirely in earnest).

In fact, Rothbard himself seems, unbeknownst to himself, to provide the evidence that traditional, conservative Reformed Christianity is libertarian, and that the postmillenialism (meaning that Jesus will return at the end of a 1000 year kingdom that man must inaugurate, implying social and political activism by man) of the Social Gospel Progressives was not the only form of postmillenialism, and that the postmillenialism of traditional Reformed Christians required that Christians inaugurate a laissez-faire regime. Rothbard wrote in "The Origins of the Welfare State", note 8,
Those two great ideological and political opponents of the late 1880s and early 1890s, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, embodied this battle within the Presbyterian Church. Cleveland, an old-fashioned Calvinist Presbyterian from Buffalo, was the son of a Calvinist clergyman, a Democrat [meaning he was laissez-faire and classical liberal], a "wet" on liquor, and a personal bon vivant ; the prim, dour Harrison was a pietist Presbyterian from Indiana, and a Republican [meaning he was a Social Gospel Progressive]. See Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888 — 1896 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 79 — 80.
Rothbard himself said that the classical liberal, laissez faire Cleveland was an "an old-fashioned Calvinist Presbyterian"! Rothbard himself seems to admit that authentic, traditional Reformed Christianity is libertarian. If so, then the postmillenialism of those Reformed Christians, i.e. the requisitive social and political activism they would have believed they had an obligation to engage in in order to prepare the world for the return of Jesus, would have been libertarian, whereas the un-traditional Social Gospel Progressives saw postmillenialism as requiring a welfare state.

So whenever I claim, in the future, that the Puritans and Reformed Christianity had a libertarian character that went well with (if if it wasn't lineally responsible for) classical liberalism and Whiggism, I'll refer back to this. Obviously, none of this proves that the Puritans were proto-libertarians, but it makes it at a least reasonable and defensible claim, when the Puritans' intellectual and ideological heirs are libertarians who espouse Austrian Economics and one of them (Gary North) worked as a research assistant for Ron Paul.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thomas Jefferson Chews Out End of Worlder

With polite code.

From Thomas Jefferson to Reverend David Austin, January 21, 1802. The good Presbyterian Reverend convinced a following in New Jersey that Christ would return in May, 1776, the fourth sabbath. After he went bankrupt he "flooded" Jefferson's administration with requests for government jobs (see Lenni Brenner's book, p. 165).

To which TJ responded:

Having daily to read voluminous letters & documents for the dispatch of the public affairs, your letters have condemned a portion of my time which duty forbids me any longer to devote to them. Your talents as a divine I hold in due respect, but of their employment in a political line I must be allowed to judge for myself, bound as I am to select those which I suppose best suited to the public service. Of the special communications to you of his will by the supreme being, I can have no evidence and therefore must ascribe [all of] them to the false perceptions of your mind. It is with real pain that I find myself at length obliged to say in [common] terms what I had hoped you would have inferred from silence. Accept my respects & best wishes.

It's The End of the World As We Know It (Yet Again)

And I Feel Fine

Today is the Rapture! That's right, in only a few hours time the world's righteous will be called up into heaven while the rest of us heathen, Theistic Rationalist, infidels are forced to roam the earth, lamenting our foolish choice to not believe in Harold Camping's apocalyptic prediction. Let the weeping and gnashing of teeth begin!

This rapture hype has been a unique anomaly to follow. I guess that in light of the other apocalyptic predictions that are hovering about (i.e. the Mayan calendar, climate change, the swine flu, etc., etc., etc.) none of us should be all that surprised when we see Camping receiving all kinds of media attention. And even though the overwhelming majority of us accept the reality that Camping is an obvious fraud and that we can all expect to return to work come Monday, I am amazed at how many "experts" are weighing in on such a silly little story. Everyone from historians to scientists, theologians to sociologists have added their $0.02 to the ongoing rapture dialogue, providing detailed insight as to why we can look forward to yet another Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas season.

But none of this is new.

Ever since our conception as a nation, Americans have been anxiously awaiting the end of days that have been prophesied of since the beginning of Christian theology. Whether it has taken the form of Christopher Columbus' bold prediction that Jesus Christ would return after the "savage" Indians of the New World were converted to Christianity, The Shakers, who predicted that the world would end in 1792, or Charles Wesley (one of the founders of Methodism) who declared the end of the world to take place in 1794, apocalyptic predictions have been a major component to American religious DNA. Heck, even some of our nation's most skeptical founders couldn't help but be interested in all the end-of-days rhetoric whirling around them:

Although you and I are weary of Politicks, You may be surprised to find me making a Transition to such a Subject as Prophecies. I find that Virginia produces Prophets as well as the Indiana Territory...they are not much more irrational than Dr. Towers who wrote two ponderous Vollumes...to prove that the French Revolution was the Commencement of the Millennium, and the decapitation of The King of France but the beginning of the series...the King of France who had been executed, was the first of the Ten Horns of the great Beast...Napoleon is Antichrist...the City of London is or is to be the Head Quarters of Antichrist.(John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, February 10, 1812).
And though the list of former doomsday practitioners could go on for volumes, I would like to focus on one particular apocalyptic prediction that seems to have a few similarities to the one we have today.

The Story of William Miller

Most Americans have probably never heard of William Miller. Miller (whose teachings eventually led to the creation of Seventh-day Adventists, Advent Christians, Millerites and even Jehovah's Witnesses) was a Baptist preacher from the early 19th century. While living in New York during the era we call the Second Great Awakening, Miller became deeply troubled by the Christian doctrines surrounding death and the afterlife. As a result, Miller actually spent a brief period of his life juggling between the doctrines of deism and Protestant Christianity. After a few years of sincere study, however, Miller became convinced that Jesus Christ was indeed the Savior of mankind. As he stated in hisApology and Defence:

Suddenly the character of a Savior was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed that there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to Himself atone for our transgressions, and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin. I immediately felt how lovely such a Being must be; and imagined that I could cast myself into the arms of, and trust in the mercy of, such an One.
In addition to accepting the entirety of Jesus Christ's human sacrifice for the sins of mankind, Miller also came to the conclusion that the Bible itself foretold of his eventual return to the earth; his "Second Advent" as it was called. In a manner similar to that of Harold Camping today, Miller somehow deciphered the hidden chronology inside of the Bible, which revealed the date that Christ could be expected to return. Relying on a passage from the Book of Daniel (8:14 to be exact), Miller eventually came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ's Second Coming would take place in the year 1844. Eventually Miller and his "Millerites" would narrow it down even further, hailing October 22, 1844 as the official date.

Of course nothing of note happened on October 22, 1844. In what became known as "The Great Disappointment", Miller and his followers were forced to accept the reality that Jesus Christ had not returned to the earth. Long story short, Miller's credibility was shot and he and a large number of his followers faded away into oblivion (it is worth noting that Miller never gave up on his hope for the "Second Advent". He vehemently defended his beliefs all the way to his death in 1849).

What is interesting to note about Miller's end of the world prediction is how even its utter failure inspired scores of Millerites to break off and create their own movement. Instead of recognizing the failure of Miller's prediction, many came up with alternative interpretations for what had happened on October 22, 1844. In what became known as the doctrine of Divine Investigative Judgement (which is still a fundamental component of Seventh-day Adventist theology to this day), Hiram Edson and a few others taught that the judgment of God's professed people began on October 22, 1844 when Christ entered the "Holy of Holies in the heavenly sanctuary." Using scripture to defend their position (see Daniel 7:9-10, 1 Peter 4:17 and Revelation 20:12), Edson & Co. were able to "vindicate the saints" before God.

In addition to this unique interpretation, others came up with the "shut door" doctrine, which juxtaposed the events of October 22, 1844 with Jesus' 10 Virgins parable. The "shut door" suggested that the sincere followers of Christ (those who truly waited for him as the brides waited for the bridegroom) would be accepted into the kingdom, while the foolish brides would be cast out. In other words, Christ had seen and recognized those who were waiting for him on the date predicted, and their efforts would not be in vain. In many ways, this interpretation would be repeated at a later date by another Miller break off (the Jehovah's Witnesses) who also had specific dates for Jesus' return to the earth. When he didn't appear in person, leaders were quick to make the assertion that Christ had "returned in spirit."

In conclusion, regardless of whether or not you believe in the Rapture today, a future date or not at all, American religion is likely to continue to employ the end-of-days doctrine that has become so very popular in our society today. And keep in mind this: Harold Camping may seem like just another geriatric nut-job but the movement he has created may lead to even bigger things.

Just look at what William Miller's prediction caused.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More on "Judeo-Christian"

At Religion in American History here. See in particular this comment by author Kevin M Schultz here. And this too.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Russell Kirk on the faith of Washington and Lincoln

A little bit off topic because it deals with Abraham Lincoln as well as George Washington, but I thought it was worth sharing:
Once I heard a popular speaker declare that what modern America needs is “old-fashioned religion, the sort of religion that Washington and Lincoln had.” Now that would be a most imperfect sort of religion: for Washington’s eighteenth-century conformity was scarcely more than moralism, and Lincoln was a Christian only in the vaguest of senses, if a Christian at all. Every American president employs the phrases of Christian piety; but very few presidents have been conspicuously devout. Lincoln began as a naive sceptic; he received next to no religious instruction of any description; solitary reading of the Bible gave majesty to his mind and his style, but never brought to him any faith less cloudy and austere than a solemn theism. Yet there have been few Americans more thoroughly graced with the theological virtues, charity most of all. The New Testament shines out from his acts of mercy, and the Old from his direction of the war. 
From The Measure of Abraham Lincoln by Russell Kirk, originally published in The Month, vol. 2 (April 1954), pgs. 197-206.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


This is something American Creation has yet to really touch. Hat tip First Things to this article. As it notes, the term was not invented until around the 1950s. President Eisenhower summed it up:

“Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

But as a commenter at First Things noted, George Washington and the other "key Founders" anticipated this concept, citing Washington's letter to the Jews. Yet, Washington also believed Muslims and unconverted Native Americans worshipped the same God Jews and Christians did, suggesting the need for a broader, more inclusive term like "theism" or "Providentialism."

Quote of the day: on avoiding making an idol of constitutions

"Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Coventant -- too sacred to be touched."

- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, quoted in The Essential Wisdom fo the Founding Fathers, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi (Fall River:  2009), pg. 47.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Washington's Farewell Address and its origins

Over at the The University Bookman online, John Bowling has published an article outlining some of the history behind one of the greatest statements of American domestic and foreign policy ever made:  The Farewell Address Revisited.  As Bowling points out, President Washington's address wasn't solely the work of our first and greatest president, but was also the work of two other Founding Fathers as well, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.  That said, Washington was actively involved in the composition of the text, so much so that it is clear that he is its actual author, as the textual history of the address demonstrates.  As Bowling puts it:
It is fortunate that all the working drafts of the Address have survived, down to interlinings and inkblots, so that Washington’s primary authorship is categorically clear. Hamilton did not write it. Washington did, to a far greater extent than any contemporary American President since Calvin Coolidge.
Washington's advice regarding foreign policy and his heart-felt sentiments regarding the Union and liberty are well worth pondering, and Bowling does an excellent job explaining the structure and content of Washington's ideas as expressed in the address.  Well worth a read.

(Cross-posted over at my own blog, Ordered Liberty.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Huck Gets His History On (or Off)

So Mike Huckabee isn't running for president in 2012 (hard to believe that candidates are ALREADY starting to jockey for position in the 2012 race when 2011 is still just getting started).

But that doesn't mean that he hasn't been making waves.

Over the past couple of months, Huckabee has been focusing his attention on history, "positive" American history to be exact. Huckabee's newest project, entitled "Learn Our History", attempts to present an "objective", pro-American interpretation of our nation's past, free from the smears and errors of current historical revisionists:

Many of our schools and teachers today haven't found ways to make history for kids fun. Instead, they’re teaching with political bias that distorts facts for the sake of political correctness. As a result, our national pride and patriotism are in jeopardy.
And on his Fox show:

Of course this isn't the first time Huckabee has been caught in a historical tug-o-war. It was only a couple months ago that Huckabee stated made the claim that all Americans needed to listen to pseudo-historian and Christian Nation Apologist David Barton at gunpoint if necessary. And during the 2008 presidential primaries, it was Huckabee who regurgitated the Barton myth that "The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave people, most of whom, by the way, were clergymen." In addition, it was Huckabee who asserted his belief that the Constitution needed to be amended to fit the standards of God's holy word (the Bible).

And though I personally have no problem with Huckabee's desire to promote patriotism and a love for America's beautiful heritage, I do question his objectivity. After all, isn't it both necessary and appropriate for historians to point out the negative aspects of our past? This is where Huckabee is, in my opinion, in error. The perceived "attacks" on Huckabee's new project are not exclusively based on a hatred for America but rather on his clear bias. Maybe Huckabee's intentions are pure but it's hard to believe he is free from the "political bias" he laments. When his presentation praises all things Reagan, but never make mention of FDR in his WWII cartoon, one has to wonder how he came to such conclusions.

Of course this is all to be expected. Since when has a political pundit NOT used history to further his/her agenda? It's just further evidence that the culture warriors lack the true historical integrity needed to sustain any legitimate discussion on our nation's TRUE history.

I guess the old adage is true: political history isn't history; it's politics.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Christian Restorationism in America

From Three Unique Perspectives

First off, my deepest apologies for my lengthy absence from this blog. I have been very busy as of late and unfortunately haven't been able to engage in blogging. I have really missed everyone and look forward to rekindling my blogging habit.

One of the interesting components of American religion is how the doctrines, traditions and creeds of traditional (and dare I say European) Christianity were given a uniquely American flavor once they crossed the Atlantic. This natural evolution of American religion fused the traditional liturgies, customs and doctrines of the Old World with the emerging democratic, capitalistic practices of the New World, creating new and exciting interpretations of what it truly meant to be Christian.

Today I want to present three unique viewpoints from three very different individuals (Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Smith), each of whom attempted to discover the "original" version of Christianity as outlined by Jesus Christ himself. By asserting the need for a RESTORATION of Christ's original gospel (or the original meaning behind his message), these three individuals were essentially able to detour around traditional European Christianity, thus creating a doctrine unique to their respective viewpoints. Of course, these three individuals are far from being the exclusive competitors in the quest for Christ's Christianity. Virtually every religious leader, movement and church has attempted to stake such a claim for themselves in the hopes of attaining legitimate credibility for their movement. With that said, these three individuals represent three important general movements in the story of American religious history, and I believe their stories help to shed light on the complex yet beautiful tapestry that is American Christianity.

Roger Williams

As our first test subject I offer up the infamous rogue Puritan preacher, Roger Williams. As we all know, Williams was a deeply inquisitive man. His knack for questioning everything around him (particularly the religious beliefs and practices of his day) caused Williams to constantly push the envelope in Puritan America. Though he originally embraced Puritan theology, Williams' concerns that Puritanism still maintained an attachment to the Church of England, which he saw as a continuation of Roman Catholic dominion as the Antichrist, caused him to adopt a more Separatist perspective. Inspired by these anti-Church of England sentiments, Williams embraced the admonition of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:17 to, "come out from among them, and be ye separate."

Williams not only decided to completely separate himself from any attachment to the Church of England, but also chose to separate from the home world itself. Upon his arrival to the "New World," Williams took his religious views even further. Instead of following the traditional beliefs of the early Puritans in Massachusetts, Williams chose to criticize his new neighbors for what he saw as a lack of penance on their part. While Massachusetts Puritans were happy to accept both the godly and ungodly in their worship services (with an exception being made for the Lord's Supper) Williams believed that those outside of God's grace should not be permitted to worship with elect. In other words, those who had not yet experienced God's saving grace could not even attend the same services as those that had received God's grace (See The Hireling Ministry None of Christs). In addition, Williams also believed that any person who had not repented for his/her former association with the Church of England was in danger of losing their salvation. As Williams stated:

"why although I confesse with joy the care of the New English Churches, that no person be received to Fellowship with them, in whom they cannot first discerne true Regeneration, and the life of Jesus: yet I said and still affirm, that godlie and regenerate persons are not fitted to constitute the true Christian Church, untill it hath pleased God to convince their soules of the evill of the falce Church, Ministry, Worship etc. And although I confesse that godly persons are not dead but living Trees, not dead, but living Stones, and need no new regeneration, yet need they a mighty worke of God's Spirit to humble and ashame them, and to cause them to loath themselves for their Abominations or stincks in Gods nostrils..." (The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 1, 350).
These religious views, which eventually landed Williams in trouble with the Puritans of Massachusetts, only tell part of the story. Williams' departure to Rhode Island actually caused him to further question his faith. Williams began to question the validity of his baptism and those of his followers, which eventually helped to spawn the Anabaptist movement. As Williams continued to ponder the Bible and its teachings, he eventually came to the shocking conclusion that no church had the authority to assemble in Christ's name. His reasoning was simple: The apostles commissioned by Christ had been his personal ministers on earth. Until Christ returned to the earth and renewed the apostleship, no person/persons had the right or authority to gather as a Christian Church. In other words, Roger Williams began to believe that a complete and total RESTORATION of Christ's gospel, complete with the authority of the holy apostleship, had to return to the earth, or no religion could rightfully act in the name of God. Williams makes this belief clear when he writes:

I desired to have been dilligent and Constant Observer, and have been my selfe many ways engaged in City, in Countrey, in Court, in Schools, in Universities, in Churches, in Old and New-England, and yet cannot in the holy presence of God bring in the Result of a satisfying discovery, that either the Begetting Ministry of the Apostles or Messengers to the Nations, or Feeding and Nourishing Ministry of Pastors and Teachers, according to the first Institution of the Lord Jesus, are yet restored and extant" (The Complete Writing of Roger Williams, vol. III, 160).
Williams continues his argument:

"If Christs Churches were utterly nullified, and quite destroyed by Antichrist, then I demande when they beganne againe and where? who beganne them? that we may knowe, by what right and power they did beginne them: for we have not heard of any new Jo: Baptist, nor of any other newe waye from heaven, by which they have begunne the Churches a newe" (John Winthrop Papers, vol. III, 11. Quoted in Roger Williams: The Church and the State, 52, by Edmund Morgan).
What is interesting about these comments (which eventually led to Williams' exile from Massachusetts) is how similar they are to those made nearly 200 years later by Mormon Founder Joseph Smith (to be discussed later). His call for a restoration of the holy apostleship essentially attempts to negate the Christianity of Europe, which in Williams' mind was never legit to begin with.

Thomas Jefferson

Up next is America's favorite founding skeptic, the author of the DOI itself. As most already know, Jefferson was no friend to traditional Christianity. His altering of the Bible and statements in opposition to the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, etc. are all evidence that Jefferson disapproved of traditional Christianity. Yet with that said, it is also important to remember the fact that Jefferson called himself a "true Christian." How exactly did he justify this claim?

He did so by insinuating that Jesus himself was not the savior of mankind but instead a marvellous (perhaps the greatest) philosopher of all-time. As Jefferson stated:

"It is the innocence of his [Jesus'] character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquences of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire."
This was the lost truth of Christianity that Jefferson hoped to RESTORE. As he stated in an 1818 letter to Wells and Lilly of the Classical Press:

"I make you my acknowledgement for the sermon on the
Unity of God, and am glad to see our countrymen looking that question in the
face. it must end in a return to primitive Christianity"
[my emphasis].

And on another occasion:

"The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers...Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages." [my emphasis]. (Thomas Jefferson, The writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 7, H.A. Washington, ed., pp210, 257).
Later in his life, in a letter to Francis van der Kemp, Jefferson stated:

"I trust with you that the genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored: such as it was preached and practised by himself. very soon after his death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye" [my emphasis].
For Jefferson, the restoration of Christ's true message was not the reinstitution of the holy apostleship as Williams and Smith desired, nor was it found in Williams' Puritan doctrine of God's supreme grace. Instead, it was the simple message of doing good to others with out the fanfare of ceremonial rituals and communion with the Holy Spirit:

My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's [doctrine], that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power.
(Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Parker, May 15, 1819).
As evidenced above, Jefferson's love for Jesus came not from a pious devotion to orthodoxy, but from a sincere appreciation of his message of love. In this respect, Jefferson's restoration subverts all of traditional Christianity by eliminating the divinity of the child of Bethlehem and placing him with the likes of Plato and Aristotle.

Joseph Smith

And last but not least, we look at the founder of Mormonism, whose interpretation of Christian restorationism embodies the fundamental doctrine of the church he helped to create. As a young man in western New York, Smith was a first-hand witness to the excitement and fervor brought on by what historians now call the Second Great Awakening:

There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country, indeed the whole district of the Country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people…Priest contended against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 269-270).
For Smith, this state of religious fervor caused deep concern, so much so that he eventually prayed to God for guidance, only to receive a heavenly manifestation that eventually culminated in what Smith called the Restoration of Jesus Christ's pure gospel:

To find ourselves engaged in the very same order of things as observed by the holy Apostles of old; to realize the importance and solemnity of such proceedings, and to witness and feel with our own natural senses, the like glorious manifestations of the power of the priesthood; the gifts and blessings of the Holy Ghost; and the goodness and condescension of a merciful God, unto such as obey the everlasting gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, combined to create within us sensations of rapturous gratitude, and inspire us with fresh zeal and energy, in the cause of truth.
For Smith and the Mormon movement in general, this restoration of the priesthood and the apostleship became the cornerstone of their faith; a faith that was able to side-step the Christianity of old Europe by exposing its lack of authenticity. Like Williams and Jefferson before him, Smith's version of Christian restorationism did not rely on the pillars of traditional orthodoxy but still made a claim to legitimacy. It is therefore no wonder why Mormonism has been able to survive and thrive in the "New World" for over a century.

In conclusion, though Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Smith may share little in common with regards to their personal religious convictions, their quest to arrive at the true nature of Christ's teachings, without the aid of traditional European doctrines, helps us to see a small segment of the uniqueness of American Christianity. Whether it takes the form of revamping traditionally held beliefs (Williams), removing long-held superstitions (Jefferson), or rewriting the story altogether (Smith), Christian Restorationism in America has given the masses a plethora of beliefs to choose from.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger Comments Problem

Dear Sirs or Madams, To Whom This May Concern:

There have been lively discussions in several of our comments sections that have been sadly interrupted---many pithy comments suddenly disappeared.

Turns out Blogger, our blog server, seems to have lost the comments from the past few days, but hopes to restore them soon, and we hope the discussions will pick up where they left off.

[HT to faithful friend-of-the-blog Ben Abbott.]

In the meantime, feel free to use this as an open comments thread. David Barton, boo, hiss. Down with theocracy and liars for Jesus. George Washington didn't say "SHMG." [Most probably did not, absent better evidence.] John Adams disbelieved in the Trinity. [Definitely.] Theistic Rationalism. All dogs go to heaven. Calvinist resistance theory. John Locke, Imago Dei. Roger Williams, libertarian. St. Thomas Aquinas, inventor of truth, justice and the American Way. Mormons, just because, and why not!!!?

Here's hoping we get back to normal soon, or what passes for normal around here.

Love to all,

Monday, May 9, 2011

Two Conflicting Traditions

There's an interesting article over at the Council of Humanism website, The article, Church and State: A Humanist View by Vern L. Bullough, starts out with this paragraph:

There have been two conflicting traditions in the United States about the relationship between church and state. The first is exemplified by the holiday of Thanksgiving, which emphasizes the religious foundation of the United States. The Pilgrim fathers set out in the New World not only to worship as they wanted but to establish God's kingdom. They had the truth and all others were wrong; church and state were one. The second tradition comes from the time of the writing of the American Constitution, when our deistic, freethinking Founding Fathers (no mothers) embodied in the Constitution the principle of separation of church and state.

Here's a section that drew my attention:

The general pervasiveness of Christian assumptions about morality and family was reinforced by the so-called Mormon cases, the first of which Reynolds v. United States, which reached the Supreme Court in 1878 and established monogamy as the norm, ruling that it was the basis of Western (read mainstream Christian) societal life. In a sense, this was a double-edged decision because the Justices, in their effort to outlaw the Mormon practice, in effect asserted that marriage could be regulated by law, guaranteeing the states the right to issue licenses and to control marriage independent of the church.

Another one of the Mormon decisions marked the most far-reaching secular claims of government. The case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. United States (1890) upheld the constitutionality of a law adopted by Congress in 1887 that annulled the charter of the Mormon church and declared all the property forfeited except a small portion used exclusively for worship. In a sense, however, this case represented not so much a conflict between church and state, but a statement of the dominant religions in United States against the feared Mormons.

The way I interpret the decision is that the Court was able to assert the supremacy of state over church because it was basically concerned with what Mormonism was doing to good Christian belief, and in this it had the almost unanimous support of all the other churches in the United States. In fact, as late as United States v. MacIntosh (1931), the Court went so far as to declare that Americans were a Christian people. The actual case dealt with a conscientious objector who had applied for citizenship and been denied. He appealed, and the Court decided that, unless Congress ruled otherwise, obedience to the laws of the land was required since such laws were not inconsistent with the will of God, i.e., as interpreted by mainstream Christian thinkers.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Cromwell and the Constitution

I have been interested in, and therefore studying, for some time now, what I consider to be the Reformed Christian (Calvinist) origins of American government. Right now, I am reading a book about precisely that subject, viz. Foundation of American Freedom by A. Mervyn Davies (New York/Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), and a particularly fascinating section of the book is found at pp. 162-5, and I thought American Creation readers would appreciate it.

After describing how the English Civil War failed due to a disagreement between the center (Cromwell and Ireton) and the left-wing (Rainborough and Wildman), about whether suffrage should be extended only to property-owners or to all men, Davies says that the same basic conflict occurred in Philadelphia in 1787, about whether representation in Congress should be popular or aristocratical. (Elsewhere in the book, Davies, like Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, argues that the left-wing of Calvinism, such as the Levellers and Roger Williams, were the truest of all Calvinists to the fundamental principles of Calvinism. Cf. John Wingate Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, p. xiv, quoting George Cranmer: "If the positions of the [Protestant] Reformers be true, I cannot see how the main and general conclusions of Brownism [i.e. Independency or Congregationalism] should be false.")

Davies continues,
If the London convention had had a Benjamin Franklin to lend his conciliatory genius to settling this dispute, who knows? perhaps England would have set up a successful constitutional republic. And, by the same token, if there had been no Franklin at Philadelphia, it is even possible that the American Republic would never have been established. One vote might have made all the difference, for only one vote carried the compromise plan which saved the Philadelphia convention from dissolution. By such slender threads do the destinies of nations sometimes seem to hang!

England actually came closer to setting up an American-styled republic in 1649-50 than most people realize. While it is, of course, perfectly true, as Charles M. Andrews says, that the seventeenth century shows "only an English world in America with little in it that can strictly be called American," the paradoxical thing is that for a little while the seventeenth century also fosters the illusion of an American world in England with little in it that can strictly be called English! If it is true, and of course it is, that the story of American settlements cannot be properly be understood except as seen against the background of English history, it is no less true that the story of English constitutional experiments in the Commonwealth period cannot properly be understood except as viewed in the perspective of the United States' Constitution. In fact, one might almost call this brief period in English history a sort of prevue of the American idea.

Such a thought would scarcely occur to an English historian concerned with nothing more than the history of his own country. For to him the constitutional developments of the period cannot appear other than as abortive experiments-a dead end so far as the future course of his country is concerned. How differently they appear to an American historian interested in the origins of the American system of government! He sees this same dead end to be a most important link in the chain of development connecting Philadelphia with Runnymede. What is merely an almost irrelevant offshoot of English history to the English historian is part of the main trunk of American history to the American historian.


As George Burton Adams puts it:
It was American, not English, constitutional law which was here making its first beginning, its first essays in imperfect and half-conscious formulation, and it was in America that these principles were developed from this beginning in unbroken growth into the government of a great people. (Constitutional History of England, p. 322.)


The extent to which "American" ideas of government were circulating in England at this time may be best seen by examining the nature of the proposal that was offered in the House of Commons under the title of "The Agreement of the People." What a big landmark in human thought about government this agreement was may be judged from Adams' description of it.
... It implied that the people of England by an agreement formally entered into were to make a written constitution in order to establish a government and define its powers. ... The foundation upon which it rested, the agreement of the people, is the same as that upon which our constitutions rest and it was here proposed for the first time in history as the foundation of a national government. The similar compacts which had preceded it in America, though they came from the same ultimate sources, and were truly intended to establish "a Civil Body Politick," served for little communities of people in which an actual democracy was entirely feasible, and representative institutions, as an expedient for working a democracy on a great scale, had no need to be considered for a long time. The Agreement of the People was seriously intended as the constitution of a great nation. It must be regarded, however, as more than merely the first written constitution proposed for a great state. It was a constitution distinctly of the American type.

Notice how Adams there not only equated the English Civil War's "Agreement of the People" with the American Constitution, but also the New England Puritan town covenants too he related thereto.

(By the way, I am very much enjoying Davies's book, and I highly recommend it. I would say it goes very well with Benjamin Hart's Faith & Freedom: The Christian Roots of American Liberty and Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism. I learned of Davies's book in an article by Gary DeMar at American Vision, The Scourge of Unbridled Democracy. I will say that I am myself an anarcho-capitalist, but my inspiration was the writings of the Reformed Christians, perhaps much as Murray Rothbard became an anarcho-capitalist thanks to Thomas Aquinas. To quote A Religious History of the American People by Sydney E. Ahlstrom, "There is much truth in the Roman Catholic claim that if Luther had possessed a profound knowledge of Saint Thomas or even of the full tradition of medieval exegesis of Saint Paul, he would have been spared much anguish. But these points are at best academic, for the assault on Thomism had begun even before the Angelic Doctor's death, and it had contiuned unabated." When I was looking at the recommended reading list in DeMar's God and Government: A Biblical, Historical and Constitutional Perspective, I was amazed to see that in the list of recommended books on economics - where DeMar specifically stipulates that he is including only books written from a Biblical, Christian perspective; even if the non-Christian or non-Biblical books are true and good, he says, they are not included - is listed Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson!! I have no idea how a book based on Frédéric Bastiat is considered Biblical and Christian, but I won't complain! I jokingly asked some fellow Austrian Economics-loving friends of mine, whether they thought DeMar excluded Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard from his list, because DeMar seriously disagrees with them, or because however hard it may have been to justify considering Hazlitt (and therefore Bastiat) as "Christian" and "Biblical", it would have been even harder to include two atheistic Jews, Mises and Rothbard, as such!)