Saturday, July 28, 2012

Throckmorton on Barton's Response

Warren Throckmorton has a new response to Barton's recent attack on his critics. I agree with Throckmorton that Barton misrepresents when Jefferson became heterodox. As Dr. Throckmorton writes:
The primary question of fact Barton addresses is Jefferson’s faith. He says Jefferson was unorthodox in the last 15 years of his life. Jefferson was unorthodox as an older man but he began his skepticism of the Trinity before 1788 (he died in 1826), if we can believe his letter to J. P. Derieux — a letter that Barton does not cite in The Jefferson Lies.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The primary question of fact Barton addresses is Jefferson’s faith. He says Jefferson was unorthodox in the last 15 years of his life.

The primary question for the rest of us outside the Barton Bubble is that Jefferson kept his personal unorthodoxy hidden during his public life.

While it's true that everybody suspected, there's a difference between being agnostic on the Trinity ["difficulties"] and being anti-Trinitarian ["rejected"]---between being soggy on the normative Christian doctrines and being actively hostile to them.

The anti-Barton forces---the anti-Religious Right forces---tend to paint Jefferson's departures from orthodoxy with one big brush, regardless of whether he wrote something as a president or as a retired old man.

I don't think Barton has it exactly right here, but I think he's got more of a point than his critics admit, that the Jefferson of earlier years is not the same militant anti-Trinitarian of his letters from later life.

And for those of us outside the Barton Bubble, it really doesn't matter all that much either way.

jimmiraybob said...

The argument that Jefferson (or fill in the blank with another founder) was hiding his true convictions prior to and during his presidency and that this somehow invalidates anything that he/they may have thought post participation in public life always intrigues me.

First, I think that one has to realize that the colonial charters and many early state constitutions perpetuated ancient religious bigotries and chauvinism. The governing elite were expected to comply with institutionalized adherence to Christianity (or more generally to monotheism and rewards and punishments beyond the grave(1)), as regionally defined, or face being ostracized, disenfranchised or even criminally prosecuted.

And, to say that most of the founders were Orthodox Christians flies in the face of sectarian persecutions occurring in the colonies leading up to the Revolution, Constitutional ratification, and Bill of Rights, including physical loss of religious freedom and political franchise and even violence. This suggests that many of the founders, rather than actually being orthodox in their Christianity, may have been hiding or tempering their true convictions in order to pass for orthodox enough, so as to not be disenfranchised, either at the state or national level or both. It also flies in the face of lamentations from the pulpits that the colonies/early states were full of the ungodly and heathen and calls for a countervailing revival of Christianity following the founding/framing.

Most of the founders may well have self identified as Christian in some context ranging from culturally Christian to nominally Christian to devout and practicing Christian; or, from today’s vantage point we might do the same if enough information is available. A wide enough definition of Christianity might put most or all of the founders in the broader Christian box but narrower definitions based on diverse definitions and practices of orthodoxy among the colonies and early states would place most of the founders in the heterodox to heretic camp by someone’s estimation, depending on who you talked to at the time. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the first to accuse Jefferson of being an atheist and/or Deist and/or heretic were Christians in his own time, not the secularists of today.

If and when Jefferson, and others, played their heterodox religiosities close to the vest it was because the political system was still stacked to act as a coercive force leading to a limited expression of conscience.

It is well documented that Jefferson was a free thinker at least as early as his letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1787(2). And even earlier by his own words contained in his letter to JPP Derieux July 25 1788 (3),

“The person who becomes sponsor for a child, according to the church in which I was educated makes a solemn profession, before god & the world, of faith in articles, which I had never sense enough to comprehend and it has always appeared to me that comprehension must precede assent. The difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity & Trinity have, from a very early part of my life, excluded me from the office of sponsorship, often proposed to me by friends,…”

I won’t even bring up Jefferson and Pagan Epicureanism.

Continued below

jimmiraybob said...

And as far as whether Jefferson was “agnostic” about the Trinity, and this has gone round and round here, he never accepted, or accented to, the doctrine of the Trinity because it was an incomprehensible concept; beyond reason – Jefferson’s scalpel as to what was to be accepted or rejected. As attested to above, Jefferson rejected even offers by his friends to be Godfather, to sponsor to a child, because he could not and did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity. And there’s no evidence that he ever relented to accept the doctrine solely on faith alone as opposed to reason. Agnosticism would at least allow some possibility of being true, whether by reason or faith.

In general, Barton, the political operative/activist, aside from being severely factually challenged, is too simplistic and his historical interpretation too Manichean and he fails to bring his work within the larger purview of respectable academic historians (whether liberal or conservative or even conservative Christian). But yes, if you sift the dung heap there are kernels, if not diamonds. So, there’s that.

1) Broad enough to even get the Roman imperial Pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate/Philosopher into colonial office.


3) Thomas Jefferson to J.P.P. Derieux (July 25, 1788), transcription form

Tom Van Dyke said...

The same mush of insignificant factoids that Barton is guilty of, topped off with an absurdity worthy of Barton himself: Emperor Julian the Apostate actively suppressed Christianity; Jefferson kept his theological disagreements mum.

There could not be a worse example for your "secularist" thesis, nor a better one for Barton's anti-secularist one.

HistoryGrad12 said...


I am so glad to have found this site. Your insights on the Founders is very enlightening. I am a newly graduated historian. I will be looking forward to learning from you while adding my perspective as I grow as a professional historian.

jimmiraybob said...


Welcome aboard. It can get lively, stiff upper lip and all. :)