Michael Medved, author of The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic,
opines at Prager U...
A group blog to promote discussion, debate and insight into the history, particularly religious, of America's founding. Any observations, questions, or comments relating to the blog's theme are welcomed.
Among the many congratulatory letters George Washington received after assuming the presidency was one from “the Convention of the Universal Church, assembled in Philadelphia.” “SIR,” it began, “Permit us, in the name of the society which we represent, to concur in the numerous congratulations which have been offered to you.” The letter reassured the president that “the peculiar doctrine which we hold, is not less friendly to the order and happiness of society, than it is essential to the perfection of the Deity.” One of its signers, Universalist minister John Murray, had known Washington since serving as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War. The minister and his second wife, Judith Sargent Murray, had even stopped to dine with the Washingtons on their way to the Convention. Thanks in large part to their efforts, universal salvation was no longer an obscure creed espoused by a scattered few. Now the Convention sought to establish Universalism as a recognized, socially responsible faith.
Washington responded favorably. “GENTLEMEN,” he began, thanking them for their well-wishes, “It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing: for their political professions and practices, are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society.” Such affirmation of the Universalists’ civic friendliness, from none other than the first president of the newly United States, must have gratified the Convention. They were well aware that other Protestant clergy, especially the Calvinists, disdained their “peculiar doctrine.”
Thomas Jefferson had a complicated relationship with the Bible.
By the time he was elected the nation’s third president in 1801, the Founding Father had become a champion of separation of church and state. His Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to First Amendment safeguards on religious freedom in the Constitution, passed the state’s general assembly in January 1786. When campaigning for president, Jefferson was berated by his opponents for being “anti-Christian” and “an infidel.” Once in office, Jefferson hosted what is believed to be the White House’s first iftar — the sunset meal to break daily fasts during Ramadan — in 1805.
Jefferson kept his own religious views private. But he always wrestled with the veracity of the New Testament. That’s when his penknife came in handy.
Jefferson believed that in order to glean the most from the New Testament, Jesus’s moral teachings needed to be separated from the miracles in the Gospels that he found suspect. He ordered six volumes — in English, French, Latin and Greek — and took a blade to their thin pages, rearranging Jesus’s teachings in chronological order and cutting out what he saw as embellishments that he didn’t believe. He felt those core teachings provided “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
Jefferson pasted his preserved passages on blank sheets of paper and sent the scrapbook off to a book binder. In 1820, when Jefferson was 77 years old, the small, red volume of roughly 80 pages was complete.
Titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” Jefferson leaned on its lessons in the last years of his life. Harry Rubenstein, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, described the book, known as the “Jefferson Bible,” as well-worn and riddled with dog-eared pages.Continue reading here.
At Dr. Finley’s school, I was more fully instructed in those principles by means of the Westminster catechism. I retained them without any affection for them until about the year 1780. I then read for the first time Fletcher’s controversy with the Calvinists, in favor of the universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Rev. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient Calvinistical and my newly adopted Arminian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White, Chauncey and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of those authors future punishment, and of long duration.Curiously, one name missing from Rush's list is that of the other most notable Universalist of America's Founding era, John Murray. The article sheds light on why that might be so [it relates to Murray's denial of temporary punishment in the afterlife]:
During the Revolutionary Era and Early Republic, the two leading universalists in America were Winchester and John Murray; the latter was a onetime friend of George Whitefield who eventually came to embrace the universalist views of a Welsh minister named James Relly. Both Relly and Murray had been pro-revival Calvinists prior to their conversion to universalist sentiments. In 1770, Murray relocated to America and spent the next forty-five years promoting the universalist cause from Virginia to New England. Murray met Winchester shortly after First Baptist Church of Philadelphia split over Winchester’s views. The two men became friendly acquaintances, and on August 5, 1785 Murray and Winchester founded a Universalist Society in Oxford, Massachusetts. ...
Though the two men were co-laborers for the universalist cause in the mid-1780s, they represented two distinct versions of universal restoration.42 Following Relly, Murray argued for what might be called a Calvinistic version of universalism that affirmed unconditional election and effectual atonement, but applied them to all of humanity. Murray argued that all people are presently reconciled with Christ, even if they do not know it, and are thus ushered into Christ’s presence upon their death. For Murray, conversion was about awakening to the reality that you are already saved; Christians are those who simply live in light of that reality.43 Murray denied that there would be any punishment for sin in the afterlife, believing that sin is punished temporally in the present life; this emphasis on temporal punishment marked a key difference between Murray and Winchester.
Winchester advocated a different understanding of universal restoration. James Leo Garrett argues Winchester built his cases for universalism around three key ideas: God’s love is his central attribute, Christ’s atonement is general in its provision, and salvation is inclusive of all people.45 Unlike Murray, Winchester argued for the necessity of post- mortem punishment as a means to reform unrepentant sinners and reconcile them to God. Eventually, all people would be purged of their sin and be saved. For Winchester, conversion was about resting in the saving work of Christ in this life and avoiding God’s just punishment of sinners in the next life.46 Though a universalist, Elhanan Winchester was in every other respect a mainstream evangelical.I think that Winchester's view of "future punishment, and of long duration" probably predominated among then Universalists. However, one still can't discount Murray's influence during the American Founding. In 1775, George Washington defended Murray as a chaplain during the revolutionary war when the "religiously correct" sought to disqualify Murray for the position because of his universalism.
The Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka, Gitchi Manitou of Native American cultures) is a beautiful example of a non-theistic belief in an active, personal, non-anthropomorphic Deity that is intertwined with the fabric of the Universe itself on the large scale and yet is personally engaged with the web of living things and the world on an earthly scale. These cultures are not completely homogeneous, and there are a variety of creation mythologies that need not concern us as (in my opinion at least) these cultures have always been aware that their mythologies are myths, that their legends are legends, that their sacred stories are stories, and thus they have avoided the curse of socially enforced orthodoxy or any sort of insistence on ``belief''. The myths themselves are intended and used as teaching stories that guide individual behavior in ways that support the individual and the community, not as metaphysical speculation. These religions also seem to lack the hellfire and damnation meme - the Great Spirit doesn't punish people for being bad, doesn't inflict eternal torment on people for ``not believing in It''. In these cultures, a life out of balance with the Great Spirit, with the earth, with the community is its own punishment.
Silence fell between the two men. Abigail sent Jefferson a letter of condolence after the death of his daughter Polly in 1804, but their tentative correspondence almost immediately went nuclear. Friendship was finally restored through the efforts of Benjamin Rush, a colleague from the Continental Congress, who conducted a two-year campaign of exhortation, flattery and guile. Among Rush’s stratagems was telling Adams that he had had a dream in which Adams broke the ice by writing Jefferson. Adams finally did so on New Year’s Day, 1812. Enemies no more, the two corresponded until the end.