Thursday, January 29, 2015

That Religion in Which All Men Agree


Looking into spring, and venturing beyond my usual orbit, is this speaking engagement in Boston in April. Dr. David G. Hackett, Associate Professor of American Religious History at the University of Florida, will discuss his book That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture.

Wednesday, April 8 at 8 p.m. in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences, located at 685-725 Commonwealth Avenue, Room 211, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Presented by the American and New England Studies Program, Hackett will speak on “Enlarging the Field: Freemasonry in American Religious History.” Admission is free and open to the public, courtesy of both Boston University Lodge and the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.

I don’t think I will be able to attend, but I expect to review the book and share those thoughts here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Fea: "Southern Baptist Historians and Intellectual Leaders: Where Do You Stand on David Barton?"

From John Fea here. A taste:
Warren Throckmorton is right.  It is time for more Southern Baptist historians to call attention to the way David Barton uses the past to promote his culture-war agenda.  I don't know much about this event called The Summit, but it looks like a big deal.  Barton is one of the speakers.  Once again, his problematic views of the past are being promoted as the truth.

Monday, January 26, 2015

How Dark Were the Dark Ages?

A common impression has Galileo, John Locke and the Enlightenment dropping in from Mars one day in the 1600s to save mankind from sin and error pining, but Western Civilization was already off to a pretty good start.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Commentary: "Chip off the New Block"

Check it out here. A taste:
Walter Isaacson, most recently the biographer of Steve Jobs, tells the story in The Innovators. Technologies such as moveable type, the steam engine, and the microprocessor remake the world because they radically reduce the cost of a fundamental input to the economy. Transforming the economy, they soon transform society and thus politics as well.
In 1450, there were about 50,000 books in all of Europe, almost all of them held in monasteries and universities under the control of the Church. And then moveable type made books cheap. By 1500, there were 10 million books in Europe, almost none of them under Church control—and the Church soon faced the Protestant Reformation.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Reading the Republic

I found this video embedded below featuring Allan Bloom, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Eric Voegelin, and Frederick Lawrence.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Berns v. Jaffa

From Commentary Magazine here. A taste:
Harry V. Jaffa wonders “where in the world” I got my ideas about the founding principles. Well, I do not mind saying that I got them from, among others, the Harry V. Jaffa who wrote The Crisis of the House Divided. There he taught me that all the Founders “read the Declaration [of Independence] as an expression of the sentiments of Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government”; that in “Locke’s state of nature” men have rights but only “embryonic [rather than] genuine duties”; which means that “no man . . . is under an obligation to respect any other man’s unalienable rights until that other man is necessary to the security of his own rights”; that this priority of rights over duties gives rise to a political problem for which Jefferson (whose attempted remedy was “vitiated by his Lockean horizon”) had no solution ....

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Harry Jaffa & Walter Berns, RIP

Check out The American Spectator's observations here. It begins:
People here in D.C. who remember Walter will recall a witty and learned scholar, but they also remember an indefatigable dancer who, well into his 80s, energetically twirled his lovely wife, Irene, around an AEI ballroom. I recall a talk he gave about Jefferson. “Nature’s God,” said Walter. “What kind of a God do you think that was?”
Walter Berns did tell us what he thought of "Nature's God." I believed it when around 10 years ago I wrote an article quoting him that got published in "Liberty" Magazine (not the libertarian journal, where I've also published, but the one run by the Seventh Day Adventists).

This is what I quoted from Berns' book "Making Patriots":
The God invoked there is 'nature's God,' not, or arguably not, the God of the Bible, not the God whom, today, 43 percent of Americans . . . claim regularly to worship on the Sabbath. Nature's God issues no commands. No one can fall from his grace, and, therefore, no one has reason to pray to him asking for his forgiveness. He makes no promises. On the contrary, he endowed us with 'certain inalienable rights,' then left us alone, and with the knowledge, or at least the confidence, that he will never interfere in our affairs. Moreover, he is not a jealous God; he allows us—in fact, he endows us with the right—to worship other gods or even no god at all.
I've since modified my understanding. I do not believe the "Nature's God" of the DOI is necessarily the "God of the Bible." I also don't necessarily believe we have to ascribe Jefferson's personal theology to this "Nature's God." Jefferson's god, by the way, did not have the following attributes (which Jefferson personally rejected):
The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.
Rather, I see "Nature's God" as more of a lowest common denominator between and among Jefferson, the other writers of the Declaration (two who were unitarians, leaving an arguably majority of the DOI's writers unitarian), and the Continental Congress who took responsibility for it.

"Nature" means understood by reason unassisted by special revelation. As it were, "Nature's God" is what we can understand about God from reason unassisted by special revelation.

My conclusion then is "Nature's God" defines as a Providential God whose attributes we can understand by reason alone. This is a God to whom among others, Jews, Christians, Unitarians, Universalists, Muslims, Mormons, unconverted Great Spirit worshipping Native Americans, and self understood Deists (yes, there were self understood "Deists" who believed in Providence) could imagine they believe.

This God is, as much as possible the one who could be "all things to all people," the uniter, not the divider.

The God of generic monotheism, understood by reason, unassisted by the Bible.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Franklin Provides Key Support For Lindsey's Original Unitarian Church in England

Check the details here.
...Theophilus Lindsey (1723–1808), a clergyman who had deserted the Church of England a few months before, was opening a chapel to house what proved to be the first enduring Unitarian congregation in England. Lindsey had been one of the latitudinarian Anglicans who had petitioned Parliament to abolish subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles as a requirement for holy orders and university degrees.5 After the petition was rejected and the reform movement lost headway, he resigned his living and in November, 1773, came to London to organize a congregation on Unitarian principles “to celebrate and perpetuate the worship of the one only God of the universe.”6 Priestley, Price, and other friends helped him engage a room in Essex House and convert it into a temporary chapel; and Franklin and Le Despencer contributed to the cost.7...

I. To Lord Le Despencer.

Craven Street, Sunday morning, 8 o’clock. [April 17, 1774]
Dr. Franklin presents his respects to Lord Le Déspencer, and acquaints him, that Mr. Lindsey’s Church opens this Day at 11 o’clock, in Essex House, Essex Street, Strand; and that if his Lordship continues his intention of being there, Dr. F. will be ready to attend him.
Endorsed: 17 April, 1774. Dr. Franklin.
Ten years later, Franklin was still concerned that Lindsey and his church be supported.

Franklin Gently Proselytizes for Unitarianism

In my last post I wrote "[Ben Franklin] seemed to gently proselytize for unitarian sermons and expressed concerned at least one of those ministers was properly supported."

Regarding the latter assertion, I noted Franklin's letter to John Calder (one that denies certain parts of the Bible as divinely inspired) where in 1784 he wrote:
By the way how goes on the Unitarian Church in Essex Street? and the honest Minister of it, is he comfortably supported?
That "honest Minister" was none other than the legendary Theophilus Lindsey.

What about the "gentle proselytizing"? In 1774, when Lindsey started the Unitarian Church in Essex Street, Franklin enclosed, in a letter to an orthodox Christian correspondent, Lindsey's "The Book of Common Prayer Reformed According to the Plan of the Late Dr. Samuel Clarke …[,] the new liturgy that Lindsey devised for his Unitarian congregation in London...."

To which the orthodox Thomas Coombe replied:
Mr. Lindsey’s production was a curiosity that I had for some time been wishing to see. I had heard of his fame, but knew nothing of his particularities, till I saw his book, which appears to me to be the weak effort of a discontented and disordered mind. Dr. Clarke, you remember, proposed some alterations in our Common-Prayer Book; but the dreadful elisions which Lindsey has made, shew that he disapproves of the spirit of the whole.1
In short, the gentle proselytizing failed. 

Fortenberry Self Publishes Book on Franklin

I've spent a great deal of time arguing with Bill Fortenberry on the religion of the American Founders. He's a smart guy who does meticulous research. But, as is often the case, the differences come in how we "understand." How we put facts together and the conclusions we draw.

He wrote a book on Ben Franklin's religion which you can purchase here. I do expect to get through it and provide critical feedback.

(He sent me a free copy.)

I have studied Franklin's writing on religion a great deal. Still, there is a lot out there and a closer and more careful reading of the record can yield new discoveries and understandings. Still, I've seen a lot both from Franklin and from Fortenberry.

As I told Bill in an email I will read what he wrote with an open mind. But given what I've already seen, I strongly doubt he -- by using facts or logic -- will convince me I have it wrong.

Though I do suspect that, if his conclusions differ substantively from mine, there will be lots of sophisticated twists and turns to navigate.

On point of agreement, before reading anything, I may have with Mr. Fortenberry is I think Franklin was a theist who believed in an active personal God. I think he understood himself to be a "Christian" in some sense. I think he believed parts of the biblical canon were divinely inspired in a God speaking to man sense and disbelieved in other parts.

On the other hand, I don't see him as a Trinitarian. Though I do search for more of a smoking gun case like we have with Jefferson and J. Adams of identifying as a unitarian. I would say the preponderance of the evidence demonstrates him to be unitarian. He attended unitarian services when it was controversial to do so; and he seemed to gently proselytize for unitarian sermons and expressed concerned at least one of those ministers was properly supported.

I don't think Franklin had a problem with the orthodox Trinitarian theology in which he didn't believe, provided it yielded virtue or good works, which was his test of whether a religion was laudable.

And I think Franklin rejected "Sola Fide" (that men are saved by faith alone) while accepting some combination of works, faith and grace for salvation.

I also think he believed in purgatory and endorsed some kind of universalistic faith -- one that taught a future state of rewards and punishments -- but where no one suffered anything like what Jonathan Edwards described in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Friday, January 9, 2015

I Love Mankind, It's People I Can't Stand

Although great friends after their post-presidential reconciliation in 1812,  in a letter a year later, John Adams lowers the boom on Thomas Jefferson's democratic radicalism.  The problem isn't religion or politics, it's people:

"Checks and Ballances, Jefferson, however you and your Party may have ridiculed them, are our only Security, for the progress of Mind, as well as the Security of Body.—Every Species of these Christians would persecute Deists, as Soon as either Sect would persecute another, if it had unchecked and unballanced Power. Nay, the Deists would persecute Christians, and Atheists would persecute Deists, with as unrelenting Cruelty, as any Christians would persecute them or one another. Know thyself, human Nature!  
"I am not Sure, that I am yet ready to return to Politicks."

Right Wing Watch: "Even In Victory, David Barton Misrepresents The Truth"

Check it out here. A taste:
A lot of folks who try to use Barton's materials, he said, have often found themselves dismissed because "oh, you're quoting Barton, he's a discredited historian, he makes up his history. Well, guess what? For those people who have used those quotes and been beat up for it, this now vindicates them as well."
"We don't want people to be drug down because we get beat up," he said. "We want them to be able to use historical quotes and not get their brains beat in and so this really is a vindication for everybody who is concerned about original intent and everybody who wants to quote things about the faith of the Founding Fathers or things like that. Now you've got a way when they said 'oh, that's all made up,' no, no, no, here's a judgment, here's a defamation suit, here's the court judgment that says that stuff was defamatory, that was false and defamatory."
Barton's lawsuit focused solely on the claim that he was known for speaking at white supremacist rallies and had nothing to do with the shoddy nature of the pseudo-history that he regularly produces ....

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Check it here. A taste:
Priestley corresponded with both Adams and Jefferson. Both men urged Priestley to settle in their region of the country, with Adams singing the praises of New England, Jefferson those of Virginia (9). Both men met Priestley in Philadelphia, and both attended services in the Unitarian Church where Priestley occasionally preached. All three were members of the American Philosophical Society. The affection that the two aging revolutionaries felt for Priestley never waned. In 1813 Adams wrote “I never recollect Dr. Priestley, but with tenderness of Sentiment. Certainly one of the greatest Men in the World.” But the New Englander added, “certainly one of the weakest” (10). To Jefferson, Adams wrote that same year, “Oh! That Priestley could live again! and have leisure and means.” And a few weeks later, Adams exclaimed, “Will it not follow, that I ought to rejoice and be thankful that Priestley has lived?” (11). Jefferson, whose intellectual debt to Priestley was great, once simply told the scientist, “Yours is one of the few lives precious to mankind for the continuance of which every thinking man is solicitous” (12).

It was the French Revolution that revealed the early differences between Priestley and Adams. ...

A Constitutional Right to "Pursue Happiness"?

When someone like David Barton makes a statement like what we see next, the tendency is to pounce on it and make him look stupid. Carl Trueman wrote:
One of the great traits of many Americans is that they want to be kind and they want to be affirming. They even have a constitutional right to pursue happiness.
Trueman is actually, in my opinion, a brilliantly good scholar. Not joking. I've also witnessed Andrew Sullivan, another very smart British expatriate make the same error. And in a similar context (LGBT rights; though Sullivan was discussing same sex marriage if I remember it right).

Of course the US Constitution doesn't say that men have a "right" to pursue happiness, like it says we have a right to freedom of speech or free exercise of religion. Rather the Declaration of Independence asserts it.

But I do see some truth to the assertion. It's the notion that the D.O.I. is part of the organic law of the United States and has some authority as law in constitutional interpretation.

This is a contentious assertion. And as such it requires an argument. Timothy Sandefur makes the argument. Others have made it before him. I think the fact that smart folks like Trueman and Sullivan could have something like that roll off their tongues so instinctually supports the argument. Something was in the "air" back then. I think that's what it means to be "organic."

J.D. Bowers: "From Consensus to Conflict, to Contact A Reappraisal of the Early History of American Unitarianism"

J.D. Bowers is one of the great modern scholars of Unitarianism. Check it out here. A taste:
... [T]hose who followed Priestley s teaching and continued to link English Unitarianism with its manifestations in America, took on a new character as they struggled to contend with losing their identity, dwindling numbers, and little influence over the direction of liberal religion in the nation.

However small the legacy, it was still visible and represented a potential threat. The sustained prominence of Unitarianism in England, Priestley s stature (even in death), lingering pockets of support, and new challenges all seemed to sustain Priestleyan Unitarianism. Certainly Channing felt the pressures. In the years leading up to his formal proclamation he spent considerable energy both denouncing Priestley and making sure that all ties between Socinians and Arians were severed. Channing s evidence was less based on theology and more based on the prevailing sentiment of the majority of ministers throughout New England. In giving to the whole collection the name Unitarianism and in exhibiting this to the world as the creed of the Liberal Christians in this region, is perhaps as criminal an instance of unfairness as is to be found in the records of theological controversy. [9] Twenty years later, nearing the end of his life he called Socinianism a millstone around the neck of Unitarianism and lamented that Dr. Priestley s authority had fastened this doctrine on his followers. He later noted that with Priestley, I have less sympathy than with many of the Orthodox. I hold little sympathy with the system of Priestley and Belsham, and stand aloof from all but those who strive and pray for a clearer light, he noted.[10] It was clear that if being associated with Priestley was what it meant to be a Unitarian, then Channing, nearly thirty years after Priestley s death, wanted nothing to do with such tenets. Thirty years of vehement opposition and hostility had not yet assuaged the anger or dimmed the force of Priestley, something which Channing intended to end. In a sermon delivered before First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, Channing refused to mention Priestley by name and yet spent the bulk of the homily denouncing his theological ideas, noting that Priestley s ideas had done real harm to the liberal movement and to Unitarianism. The rejection of Christ s divinity was simply not acceptable.

Enter Belsham and the English Unitarians. It was Belsham who denounced Channing and who maintained that it was his attempts to deny association between English and American Unitarianism that were the most destructive. Arians were polytheistic, he noted, and were oblivious to the consequences of their own positions. Unitarianism, had it been allowed to follow Priestley s theology, would have fared far better in the American religious landscape since Socinianism was not a theological hypocrisy. Arians were not, simply put, Unitarian.[11]

Thus, the vast majority of American Unitarians throughout the 1820s and the following decades clearly sided with Channing and identified with the Arian theology. The game was won. ...
Hat Tip: JMS.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Critical Commentary: "Belsham’s Unitarian New Testament (1808)"

In a recent post I noted a John Adams' letter that describes certain notable English divines stating "Unitarianism and Biblical Criticism were the great Characteristicks of them all."

From what I can tell, these theological unitarians believed in direct revelation in a God speaking to man sense; but I also see them as skeptical towards the infallibility of the biblical canon. Hence Adams' lauding their "biblical criticism." They weren't trying to "debunk" the Bible like an atheist or strict deist would. Rather, clarify the proper understanding by removing the errors.

With that, see this post by a traditional conservative Christian entitled Belsham’s Unitarian New Testament (1808) which criticizes what Thomas Belsham did to the Bible. Belsham is one of those Unitarians to whom Adams referred.

A taste:
... Though not yet formulated as an article of faith, reason was even then accepted in practice as the highest tribunal of human appeal.” 9 In a book published in 1798, Belsham indicated his awareness of the incompatibility of the New Testament with Unitarianism by arguing, just as Ellis did later, that not everything in the Bible is inspired, true, and authoritative. “The scriptures,” he wrote, “contain a faithful and credible account of the christian doctrine which is the true word of God: but they are not themselves the word of God, nor do they ever assume that title: and it is highly improper to speak of them as such, as it leads inattentive readers to suppose they were written under a plenary inspiration to which they make no pretension, and as such expressions expose christianity unnecessarily to the cavils of unbelievers.” 10

In line with this critical attitude toward the Bible, we find that the Introduction of the “Improved” version (section 2) refuses to grant the canonicity of some books of the New Testament (Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude, and the Revelation), and its editors even deny that there can be a final and authoritative determination of the limits of the canon. ...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

David Ricardo, Unitarian

Apparently, according to this source. Ricardo is one of the fathers of modern classically liberal economics. He is best known for the "comparative advantage" theory on which modern free trade theory is based.