Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I Do Solemnly Swear ...

Exactly eleven score and four years ago George Washington recited these words, "I do solemnly swear . . ." Four month ago, Donald Kennon, Chief Historian of the United States Capitol Historical Society, posted an article recapping the events for Washington's first inauguration. The article can be found at the January 8, 2013 entry,  U. S. Capitol Historical Society ~ A Blog for History.

Dr. Kennon notes:
Most scholars now accept that there is no credible evidence that Washington said “so help me God.” That, however, doesn’t mean that the oath itself lacked a religious connotation. It was taken on a Bible and, moreover, the wording of the oath, “I do solemnly swear,” was a clear and forceful reference to the religious sanction given to the oath.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Timothy Dwight on the Godless Constitution

Speaking of Timothy Dwight, his slam on the godlessness of America's Constitution can be viewed in its full context here.

As he put it in 1812:
The second of these reasons is, the sinful character of our nation. Notwithstanding the prevalence of Religion, which I have described, the irreligion, and the wickedness, of our land are such, as to furnish a most painful and melancholy prospect to a serious mind. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgment of God ; without any recognition of his mercies to us, as a people, of his government, or even of his existence. The Convention, by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction, or his blessing upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God. I wish I could say, that a disposition to render him the reverence, due to his great Name, and the gratitude, demanded by his innumerable mercies, had been more public, visible, uniform, and fervent.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Timothy Dwight on Bolingbroke

Eighth President of Yale Timothy Dwight -- that great foe of "infidelity" -- examines and criticizes Bolingbroke's creed in Dwight's classic, The Nature And Danger of Infidel Philosophy.

If you read it line by line, Dwight apparently sees Bolingbroke as a philosopher full of contradictions.  He accuses Bolingbroke of having a libertine and hedonistic philosophy.  I focus on how Dwight understands Bolingbroke's creed insofar as it relates to "Christianity" and "Deism."

This is a taste of Dwight's analysis:
[Bolingbroke asserted] 
That Self-love is the great Law of our nature; and yet, That Universal Benevolence is the great Law of our nature: That Christianity is a republication of the Religion of Nature, and a benevolent system; that its morals are pure; and that he is determined to seek for genuine Christianity with the simplicity of spirit, with which Christ himself taught it in the Gospel; and. yet, 
A great part of his Works, particularly of his Philosophical Works, was written for no other end, but to destroy Christianity. 
How to resolve the contradiction?  It's HOW Bolingbroke understands "Christianity."  Elsewhere Dwight informs:
Even now, Unitarians, as well as Infidels, hold out a distinction between the Gospel; that is, as they intend, the personal instructions of Christ; and the Epistles, which they consider as the mere Comments of Christ's followers. Thus Lord Bolingbroke declares the system of religion, both Natural and Revealed, to be excellent, and plainly taught; as it was taught by Christ, and recorded by his Evangelists: "a complete system to all the purposes of Religion*." nay, he speaks of it directly, as revealed by God himself. "Christianity, genuine Christianity," he says again, "is contained in the Gospel, it is the Word of God + ." 
At the same time, Lord Bolingbroke declares, that St. Paul has preached another Gospel; and that the New Testament contains two Gospels. In the same manner, Mr. Chubb declares, that St. Paul preached another Gospel, which was contradictor to that of Christ. Unitarians, also, are plainly unwilling to allow the same respect, and confidence, to be due to the Apostolic writings, which they appear to consider as due to the words of Christ; and, like the Infidels above mentioned, admit, that the Gospels possess a higher character than the Epistles.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Library Journal, "Best Sellers: Religion":

They list their top 20 for the from May 2012-April 2013 here. Below is the top 10:
1) Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD
Brown, Peter
Princeton University Press
2012. ISBN 9780691152905. $39.95

2) The Color of Christ: The Son of God & the Saga of Race in America
Harvey, Paul [NOTE: Ed Blum co-authored.]
University of North Carolina Press
2012. ISBN 9780807835722. $32.50

3) The War on Heresy
Moore, R.I.
Belknap: Harvard University Press
2012. ISBN 9780674065826. $35

4) New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America
Lynch, John
Yale University Press
2012. ISBN 9780300166804. $35

5) Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet
Turner, John G.
Belknap: Harvard University Press
2012. ISBN 9780674049673. $35

6) The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity
Wilken, Robert Louis
Yale University Press
2012. ISBN 9780300118841. $35

7) Why Tolerate Religion?
Leiter, Brian
Princeton University Press
2013. ISBN 9780691153612. $24.95

8) The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State
Miller, Nicholas P.
Oxford University Press
2012. ISBN 9780199858361. $35

9) The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution
Frazer, Gregg L.
University Press of Kansas
2012. ISBN 9780700618453. $34.95

10) Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation
Philpott, Daniel
Oxford University Press
2012. ISBN 9780199827565. $29.95

No surprise that 32% of Americans want a Christian constitutional amendment

By John Fea, writing at First Things here.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bolingbroke and the Influence of the "English Deists"

In his seminal paper on James Madison's faith, Dr. James H. Hutson wrote:
[A] statement in 1833 in which the aged ex-president lauded Christianity as the "best & purest religion" ... sounds very much like the deistical maxim, frequently indulged by Jefferson, that the "pure" religion of Jesus had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul and the early church fathers.
Some might find it strange that "deists" who aren't supposed to regard ANY special revelation from God to man as valid would have such a thing to say about Christianity. But Dr. Hutson, apparently, is familiar with that special breed of "deist" who did say such things.

These deists fall prey to the "No True Scotsman" accusation. So I guess they weren't "deists" then? Were they Christians? Well as "Christians" they fall prey to the "No True Scotsman" accusation too. Hence Dr. Gregg Frazer's opting for a new term: "theistic rationalists." Or we could settle for Dr. David L. Holmes' term "Christian Deists."

After reading Dr. Frazer's innovative thesis and subsequent excellent book I understood a lot of unitarians and divines who weren't quite orthodox Trinitarian Christians influenced the political theology of the American Founding. What Frazer's book understates is just how common this hybrid religion was among historical figures whom most scholars label "deists."

Dr. Joseph Waligore asserts arguably most of the names associated with deism -- at least most of the English ones -- believed in this hybrid religion that wasn't quite strict deism or orthodox Trinitarian Christianity.

And while Dr. Frazer's book does deal with Lord Shaftesbury -- the "English Deist" who wasn't quite a strict deist, disciple of John Locke and influencer of Ben Franklin -- it makes only small reference to Viscount Bolingbroke.

Frazer does mention that Allen Jayne makes an impressive circumstantial case for Bolingbroke's influence on Jefferson.  But Frazer, understandably, chooses to focus more on Joseph Priestley and Conyers Middleton as Jefferson's influences because Jefferson explicitly NAMED those two.

One reason, however, why minimizing Bolingbroke illuminates not is that Priestley's influence on Jefferson didn't really take hold until after 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was written.  (I'm not sure about the periods where Middleton's influence on Jefferson's was greatest).  So it's likeliest that the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration was Bolingbroke imbibed, rather than Priestley imbibed.

Indeed Bolingbroke used the term "Nature's God."  I have paid little attention to Bolingbroke because I concluded (wrongly) he was an ordinary deist and I wanted to focus more on those with the more middle ground position that accurately tracked the religious beliefs of the "key Founders."  Even if Bolingbroke, whatever his religious views, is responsible for the "laws of Nature and of Nature's God" in the Declaration, that phrase seems very amenable to strict deism.

But Bill Fortenberry turned my attention to Bolingbroke.  It turns out he was a "Christian-Deist" or "theistic rationalist," that he had a fascinatingly nuanced theological position AND it is now clear to me that Bolingbroke's influenced on Jefferson never waned.

Bolingbroke believed in the truth of both reason and revelation in a God speaking to man sense; but he thought Christianity corrupted by ecclesiastical influences, from the very start.  He was the quintessential "deist" about whom Dr. Hutson said lauded "the 'pure' religion of Jesus [that] had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul and the early church fathers."

Jesus' words, according to Bolingbroke, were "revelation." Insofar as the Gospel writers didn't deviate from the message and interpolations were not added, so too were the writings of other men. But out of all of them, St. Paul intermixed his own "artificial" pharisaical theology into the Bible.

St. Paul was a loose paraphraser, a cabalistical commentator, as much at least as any ancient or modern rabbin; and though his gospel was, in the fundamental principles of it, the same as theirs, yet he mingled it up with so much of his own theology, that he might not improperly, and in our sense, call it his own, and that we may call him the father of artificial theology.  
The original gospel, such as the other apostles preached it, was a plain system of belief and practice, fitted for all times, and proportioned to all understandings. St. Paul's gospel, if it may be said to be fitted as much as the others for all times, of which I doubt, cannot be said to be proportioned to all understandings. It is evidently not so to the understandings of the deepest divines, and the most subtile metaphysicians; since they have been wrangling about it from that time to this, and have established the most opposite doctrines on the same texts, to the breach of all charity, and the disturbance of the Christian world. 
It may be said that some passages in the four gospels, and even some expressions of Christ recorded in them, have been liable to various interpretations, and have produced such disputes and contents as these which I ascribe to the writings of St Paul. But although this be undoubtedly true, the difference between the original gospel, and that of St. Paul is very real, and very manifest. One is a plain and clear system of religion, with here and there a doubtful phrase that casts no obscurity on the rest. The other is an intricate and dark system, with here and there an intelligible phrase that casts no light on the rest, but is rather lost in the gloom of the whole.  
It's clear where Jefferson derived his disdain for St. Paul.

I've always been surprised that while Jefferson rejected the entire Book of Revelation as not valid, Joseph Priestley, who termed the plenary inspiration of the Bible as "corruption of Christianity," believed in that book as valid revelation.  But Bolingbroke did not.

St. John had been long confined in the Island of Patmos, to which Domitian had banished him, and where it is pretended that he wrote the Apocalypse, that strange rhapsody of unintelligible revelations, as they are called most absurdly. It is much more probable, and more for the honor of the evangelist, as well as of Christianity, to believe that they were composed by Cerinthus, by a visionary of the same name as that of the apostle, or by some other enthusiast.
It's clear where Jefferson derived his disdain for the Book of Revelation.

So how, according to Bolingbroke, did Revelation end up in the Bible?
They were not admitted into the canon at Laodicea, nor would have been ever admitted to disgrace it, if Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian, in whom the love of mystery was a kind of delirium, and after their example several of the other fathers, had not crowded them into the canon by receiving them as canonical.
Bolingbroke had disdain for the early church fathers who selected the books that made it into the biblical canon.  The Bible did not, as some seem to pretend, just drop out of the sky from Heaven.  It is a series of books selected as canonical by the early church.

As the argument goes, the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible made sure the early Church selected the correct books.  Bolingbroke's problem was he thought this church was corrupt and uninspired.

These "Christian Deists" oft-speak of a primitive, uncorrupted "Christianity."  Folks sympathetic to the Christian Nation thesis oft-argue it was just Roman Catholicism with which these kinds of thinkers had problems.  No.  Certainly, the Roman Catholics were the worst from this perspective.  But it was the whole artifice of creedal, confessional Christianity.

But these corrupt "ecclesiastical councils" of the early church didn't just formulate the early orthodox creeds, they also selected the books that comprise the biblical canon.

So this method of the "Christian Deists" doesn't just deconstruct the orthodox creeds, but notion of the Bible itself.  They believed in "some revelation" (in a God revealing directly to man sense), but not the Bible.

Jim51 on Adams' 1/3 Quotation

In response to my last post Jim51 commented:
The quote comes from a letter to James Lloyd dated January 1815. This letter can be found in “The Life and Works of John Adams” Volume 10, page 108- edited by Charles Francis Adams, Little Brown and Company-1856. 
It does seem clear enough from the entire letter that, as you suggested, he was referring to the American public split regarding the French Revolution. This was in the context of a discussion regarding his missions to France during his administration which did get a small but temporary boost during the time that the French Navy was preying upon our shipping. 
I agree with you that Adams' memory of the political balance is kinder to himself than the reality seems to have been.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The limits of a Constitution

Bruce Frohnen addresses that topic in this post over at The Imaginative Conservative: What a Constitution Can, and Can't, Do.  A good read for those of use who are interested in American legal theory, or in constitutionalism in general.  Frohnen's comments on the need for constitutions to be followed in practice is one that is often overlooked in discussions about constitutional law. It isn't enough to enshrine a thought into a charter, that thought has to be able to converted into action.

The wisdom of the American Founders, particularly in regard to religion, is that they were able to take their ideas and craft them into principles that both protected freedom and reflected the values and practices of late-colonial and early-republican America.

Revolutionary Principles

Keeping with Brian Tubbs' latest post at American Creation on the American and French Revolutions, I note that we (myself, co-bloggers, readers) have uncovered some interesting not too well known facts on these sister events.

For instance, there's a quotation by John Adams that speaks of 1/3 of the American population being in favor, 1/3 being on the fence, and 1/3 being against "the event." Most folks familiar with the quotation think it refers to the American Revolution. But a closer reading of the context of the quotation reveals Adams may well have been speaking of Americans' view of the French Revolution. (Somewhere in American Creation's archives exists the evidence for this assertion.)

Perhap we should take Adams' thoughts with a grain of salt. All human beings have selective memories that support their agendas. And Adams had an anti-French Revolution (and pro-unitarian) agenda. (On his pro-unitarian agenda, the quotation below shows Adams claiming theological unitarianism was ramptant in Massachussettes by 1750; I've seen one source claim at least one of the figures below was improperly put in the unitarian box; though I take Adams at his word that most of these names are properly categorized:
I thank you for your favour of the 10th and the pamphlet enclosed, "American Unitarianism." I have turned over its leaves and have found nothing that was not familiarly known to me.

In the preface Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New England. I can testify as a Witness to its old age. Sixty five years ago my own minister the Reverend Samuel Bryant, Dr. Johnathan Mayhew of the west Church in Boston, the Reverend Mr. Shute of Hingham, the Reverend John Brown of Cohasset & perhaps equal to all if not above all the Reverend Mr. Gay of Hingham were Unitarians. Among the Laity how many could I name, Lawyers, Physicians, Tradesman, farmers!

-- John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, May 15, 1815. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress.)
We all know how the French Revolution turned out (historical hindsight is 20/20). What is interesting is how Americans, especially America's Founders, viewed the event before it went wrong. (Similar to public opinion on America's second Iraqi War before the invasion and 10 years after).

After meticulously reading the record, I would take Adams' 1/3 sentiment as a self serving lowball against the French Revolution. Though, admittedly, I'm more familiar with what the Founding Fathers said about the French Revolution than the average American man in the streets during the Founding era.

John Adams, with his suspicion of the revolution before it began, was the unoptimistic outlier. From what I have seen, most Founders, with their Enlightenment optimism, supported the French Revolution at the beginning and had great hopes for its success. This makes sense given France was a key ally in the American Revolution.

Also, the political theology of the French Revolution also was not atheistic as some mistakenly believe. As I noted here, like the American Revolution, it was a theistic event. For a while, perhaps being blinded by their anti-Roman Catholic bigotry, Protestant Christians in America viewed the French Revolution as a "Protestant Christian" event. See for instance, this post and this page on the notable orthodox Protestant minister Ezra Stiles (President of Yale) and his support for the miltiancy of the French Revolution until his death in 1795.

Over time, though, it did become clear that the theistic or deistic policial theology of the French Revolution with its worship of the "Supreme Being" was less compatible with traditional notions of Christianity.

Unlike the American, perhaps it was a case of trying to do too much too soon.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Do Americans Increasingly Identify With the French Revolution Instead of Their Own?

Conservative columnist and pastor David R. Stokes argues that Americans increasingly seem to identify with and prefer the values of the French Revolution as opposed to their own Revolution. He writes that, when it comes to the political and social climate of the United States of America, "the spirit of 2013 is more like the spirit of 1789 than 1776."

If the American people indeed are favoring the ideals of the French Revolution over the American Revolution, they do so at their own peril. The French Revolution brought about social anarchy, violence, and ultimately dictatorship - and much suffering throughout the continent of Europe. The American Revolution, by contrast, produced the longest-serving, freest, and most successful Republic in human history. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a philosopher to see which legacy should be preferred.