Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Lehrman Institute's Essay on Founding Fathers & Religion

I can't remember whether I linked to this before. It sums up much of what we've reproduced at American Creation over the years. A taste:

The Founders' Private Religion 
When in 1820 he was 85, John Adams wrote: "My opinions...on religious subjects ought not to be of any consequence to any but myself."211 Religious reticence was a Founding trait. John Jay enjoyed the practice of religion but not the discussion of it. Jay Biographer Frank Monaghan wrote that "Jay conveniently made it a rule never to discuss his religious beliefs with a person with whom he was not in substantial agreement. One evening at Dr. Franklin's [outside Paris] he was engaged in a long conversation with a learned visitor, who suddenly turned the conversation to religion and laughed at the idea of the divinity of Jesus. Jay glared but said nothing, arose, turned on his heel and walked away. At another time a physician attending Jay began to scoff at the belief in a resurrection. Jay at once stopped him: "Sir, I pay you for your medical knowledge, and not for your distorted views of the Christian religion!"212   
The Founders differed in their attitudes toward religion, but generally they kept their own religious beliefs rather private. The nation's fifth president, James Monroe, was a nominal Episcopalian – attending St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House as President as occasionally did his predecessor, James Madison. The written record about what Monroe believed, however, is virtually nonexistent. Religious scholar John McCollister wrote: "The religious conviction of President James Monroe is best classified as 'decision by indecision....No records offer any evidence that Mr. Monroe rejected the Anglican faith; at the same time, we have no record that he endorsed it, either."213 
Even if their personal faith wavered, the religious practice of prominent Founders did not. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was devoted to attendance at Episcopal services. Historian Alf J. Mapp, Jr., wrote: "Many writers have assumed that his faithfulness was influenced not so much by personal conviction as by a desire to encourage the attendance of those whose conduct would otherwise deteriorate. Still other writers have suggested that he attended church in deference to his wife, Mary, the 'Dearest Polly' of his intimate correspondence."7 Biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote: "John Marshall never rejected the church openly, but his acceptance was environmental rather than doctrinal. Throughout his life the chief justice declined to become a member of any congregation, unable to believe in the divinity of Christ."214

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Joshua Brookes' Report on Jefferson on Washington

Numerous times I've reproduced the quotation from Thomas Jefferson where he notes that both George Washington and G. Morris were not believers in presumably some orthodox version of the Christian faith.

I've never (from what I remember) reproduced this from one Joshua Brookes. It's not from Jefferson's hand, but rather an eyewitness account from a personal meeting between Jefferson and Brookes. Below are the remarks that Brookes recorded Jefferson saying:
George Washington is a hard master, very severe, a hard husband, a hard father, a hard governor. From his childhood he always ruled and ruled severely. He was first brought up to govern slaves, he then governed an army, then a nation. He thinks hard of all, is despotic in every respect, he mistrusts every man, thinks every man a rogue and nothing but severity will do. He has no idea of people being left to themselves to act; he thinks that they cannot think and that they ought only to obey. As I lived near him and saw him every day, I thought I knew what was in his mind at that time, but afterwards I found that ideas were there that I had no conception of. If he had died when Congress met in New York, he would have been the greatest man that ever lived, but he is now losing his reputation daily. He is not the man he was, else he would not allow himself to be led as he does, or give his sanction to things he does sanction. He has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances but is an unbeliever.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Frazer Updates

Gregg Frazer sent me the following note, that serves as an update:

I was revisiting some things and realized that I never answered your criticism that I did not include Richard Price in my first book

My standards for who to include in the influences section were: a) for influences on political leaders, I only included those named by the political leaders themselves as their influences; b) for influences on the preachers, I only included Americans – those living in America.

Price was a Welshman/Englishman and was not identified by any of my eight guys as an influence on them.  I do not deny that he was influential, but I kept it to those named by the key Founders.

As with the definition of Christianity that I used [using the definition that the 18th-century American churches used], I didn’t want critics to question whether the people I identified actually influenced the respective political leaders.  You can’t argue with it when they themselves say they were influenced by them.

Incidentally, I have another book at the publisher that is due out in October.  It is a study of the political thought of the Loyalist clergy – i.e. the arguments against the Revolution made by the American clergymen who stayed loyal to Great Britain.  They covered all areas/fields of argument against the Revolution: biblical, legal, theoretical, practical, rational.
I look forward to the book and hope that it is as impactful as his first. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Waligore on Washington, Providence & Prayer II

Below is the second part by Joseph Waligore.

George Washington and prayers

There is no doubt that Washington frequently prayed as many visitors to his house reported seeing him in prayer, often early in the morning. In his book on George Washington’s religious beliefs, Peter Lillback argues that Washington’s frequent prayers meant that he had to be a Christian. Lillback states that Washington’s praying shows that he could not have been a deist because the deists abandoned “the practice of prayer. This was logical since there was little purpose in speaking to a Deity who on principle had abandoned all contact and communication with his creation.” Lillback then concludes that “Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism.”

If it were true that the deists had abandoned prayer, then Washington’s frequent prayers would prove he was not a deist. But the English deists believed in a deity who watched over his creation and the vast majority of them believed in miracles, revelations, and other forms of divine intervention in the world. They thus believed in a deity who was in constant contact with the world and for this reason a large number of English deists believed in prayer. Earlier chapters highlighted how Herbert of Cherbury, James Pitt, Thomas Amory, David Williams, Thomas Morgan, and Thomas Chubb all emphasized the importance of prayer, and the table on page thirty-nine shows that many other English deists emphasized prayer. But because it is so widely believed that the deists had a distant God and so eschewed prayer, I will give two more examples of the kind of attention the English deists focused on the importance of praying. One example is from an anonymous writer, and the other example is from Peter Annet.

In 1765, an anonymous writer who called himself “Rational Christian” published a book in which he wrote God was so good and loved every person so much that “The love of God is the most natural and rational passion that can take place in the mind of man . . . [a] man must be insensible to all the feelings of virtuous humanity, who can be so ungrateful as not to love his father, his friend, and benefactor.” He claimed that people who acknowledge their “dependence on a superior being, who are conscious that this being is able and ready to assist them, will naturally pray to him.” Prayer also drew us closer to God because it made us more humble, charitable, and forgiving, and thus “fitter objects of the favour of God, . . . [who] never withdraws himself from his creatures.”9

Rational Christian believed that because God was so good, it was our duty to publicly pray to him and worship him; this set a good example for others and made piety more widespread. Nevertheless, he valued private prayer and worship even more as then a person was collected within himself and his devotions purer. During his private prayers, he particularly felt God’s presence, asserting, “At such time, methinks I see the omniscient eye penetrating my very soul.” Even more than setting aside certain arranged times for public or private prayer, he emphasized spontaneous prayer to God, which he called “internal heart-worship.” He thought this worship could happen at any moment when we are particularly struck by God’s wisdom or goodness. During such times, there “is an immediate call upon us, to express our love and reverence. Adoration of his power, and gratitude for his goodness, are, as it were, spontaneously wafted up to heaven, from a good and pious heart.”10

Peter Annet was one of the few English deists who denied both miracles and revelation, but he considered prayer one of the main components of true religion. In recommending prayer, he was not referring to petitionary prayer, that is prayer which asked God for things, but instead prayer which helped a person develop a closer relationship with God. This kind of prayer, Annet believed, helped people to subdue their passions and submit to God’s will. He said of prayer, “It keeps up a Dependence on Deity in the Minds of the People, and so may be a Means to help to subdue the Mind to Virtue, and Submission to God’s Will.” Annet believed that prayers, if done fervently and sincerely, brought people closer to God. He compared a person praying to sailors tossing an anchor to a rock: the sailors “pull as if they would hale the Rock to them, but they hale themselves to the Rock.”11 Annet believed as a person prayed and became closer to God, a person was transformed; he declared that intimacy with God helps a person because it “clears his Apprehensions, and informs his Judgment, producing Satisfaction and Serenity, Joy and Tranquility.” Annet advised his readers to become closer to God through prayer, so “that the Divine Fragrancy may flow over [into them]. So thou Reader shalt be filled with God, and the Rays of the Divinity will enoble thy Thoughts, adorn thy Speech and direct thy Ways.”12

The view of prayer shared by Peter Annet and Rational Christian was shared by a large number of English deists, and so Lillback is mistaken to say Washington was not a deist because he prayed. Another contemporary scholar, Michael Novak, makes a different point about how Washington’s prayers meant that he was not a deist. Novak states that Washington prayed for specific things that the deist God never performed; rather, Washington prayed for God to do actions that only the Christian God performed. Novak claims that the actions Washington prayed for were “the sorts of actions only the God of the Bible performs: interposing his actions in human events, forgiving sins, enlightening minds, bringing good harvests, intervening on behalf of one party in a struggle between good and evil.” Because he claims that Washington could not have been praying to the deist God, Novak concludes, “Washington cannot be called a Deist—at least, not in a sense that excludes his being Christian.”13
 Some English deists did pray for God to interpose in human events. In the introduction to this book, it was shown that Herbert of Cherbury believed God gave him a divine sign after he prayed about whether he should publish the first deist book by an Englishman. Thomas Chubb also thought God sometimes gave us the things we asked for in prayer,14 while Thomas Amory believed God helped a person be more charitable and loving if she prayed for those qualities.15 Nevertheless, Novak is right that the English deists did not pray for God to help their side in their struggle for liberty or for better harvests. But that is probably because in the eighteenth century the English people did not need these things. If we look at the French revolutionary deists, however, a different picture appears. In the 1790s, the French desperately needed better harvests and help in their struggle for liberty, so they often prayed for God to give them these things. For example, Silvain-Phalier Lejeune, who had been elected to the National Convention and was the official agent of the revolutionary French government in eastern France, recited a public prayer which had been previously approved by the local revolutionary committee. In this prayer, he asked God to do the very things Novak claimed the deist God never did. Lejeune started his prayer by saying, “God of all bounties … take this generous and brave nation under your divine protection, we who only fight for equality.” Then he went through a long list of things he asked God to bless, including the French armies and their fields. Lejeune prayed, “Bless, O my God, . . . our armies, fill our legislators with your light and . . . make the work of our farmers prosper, they who nourish our many battalions.”16 At the same time, an unknown deist named Jacques Piron wrote a prayer he was hoping the government would use in their festivals to honor God. Piron’s prayer went, “Supreme Being . . . bless our work and make our fields flourish . . . we supplicate you to pardon our sins . . . we invoke you for our country, bless us with your benefits, Give the light of wisdom to our legislators, aid the courage of our warriors.”17

Washington’s prayers do not show that he could not have been a deist. The English deists often prayed very reverentially to God. Furthermore, the French deists prayed for God to bring good crops and help them in their struggle for liberty. These were not things that only the Christians thought their God did; many deists thought their God did these things too.

Just as his belief in Providence and prayers not show Washington was a Christian, neither does the fact that he often attended Christian worship or read the Bible.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Waligore on Washington, Providence & Prayer

And how it relates to Deism.

Joseph Waligore sent over another excerpt from his forthcoming book on Deism that relates to George Washington's belief in a Providential God. I am going to publish it in two posts. The first is below.
On the morning of March 5, 1776, George Washington was with the troops of the American army in Boston, encouraging them to fight bravely if the British attacked. So far in their war for independence, the Americans had yet to win a significant victory. Things were looking bleak, and it was a major defeat for the Americans that the British troops were in control of Boston, the center of resistance to British rule and one of the most important cities in America. However, the previous night the Americans had managed to secretly drag cannons up Dorchester Heights, a bluff of land that was within cannon range of the British troops. The British either had to dislodge the Americans from Dorchester Heights or evacuate Boston. Otherwise, the Americans would just rain cannonballs on the British troops. Furthermore, the British attack had to happen immediately since the longer the Americans were on the hill, the better they could fortify their position and resist any assault. The British general ordered the troops to immediately attack, but a wind and snow storm arose, which was so violent, the British troops were unable to move. By the time the storm was over, the Americans had so fortified their position, the British called off their assault and chose to evacuate Boston instead. George Washington claimed it was God who had caused the storm and helped the Americans win their first major victory of the war. He claimed that the storm that prevented the British attack “must be ascribed to the interposition of that Providence, which has manifestly appeared in our behalf through the whole of this important struggle.” He then said, “May that Being, who is powerful to save, and in whose hands is the fate of nations, look down with an eye of tender pity and compassion upon the whole of the United Colonies; may he continue to smile upon their counsels and arms, and crown them with success, whilst employed in the cause of virtue and mankind.”1

Unlike the religious beliefs of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, Washington wrote extremely little about his religious beliefs. Those who think he should be considered a Christian, often focus on two major pieces of evidence. One, he believed God miraculously helped the Americans during their war for independence. Two, he often prayed, and particularly he often prayed for God’s help in worldly events. When it is assumed deists had a distant and withdrawn God who never intervened in the world, then these two points are good evidence that Washington was not a deist, or not exclusively a deist. However, when one gets a better historical understanding of deism, these two points tell us nothing at all about whether Washington was a Christian or a deist.

Providence and the deists of the French Revolution

As shown by Washington’s statement that the Boston storm was an act of God, he believed God intervened to help the Americans win the Revolutionary War. Because many scholars define a deist as a person who believed in a distant, inactive deity, the scholars then assert that Washington could not have been a deist. For example, Vincent Phillip Munoz declared that “Washington’s belief in divine providence means, by definition, that he could not be labeled a deist.”2 A number of scholars go even further and claim that when Washington was mentioning the interposition of Providence, he must have been referring to the Christian God because only the Christian God helps people in a providential way. So Kristo Miettinen declared, "’Providence’ is not some squishy generic God-term. . . . Deists, to the extent that they invoked God as Providence, were making an explicitly Christian theological claim.”3

While the English deists believed in an active God who cared about people, they did not mention God helping countries fighting for their liberty. This, however, was most likely due to historical circumstances: the English deists were writing at a time when England was generally secure from foreign invasion, and none of them were worried about their freedom. Thus we should not make any claims about the deist God being unconcerned with helping countries based on the English deists. We should instead look at the large number of French deists who were fighting both internal oppressors and foreign invaders during the French Revolution. These French deists continually claimed God miraculously helped their revolution survive, and unlike the American deists, almost all of these French deists despised Christianity, equating it with pure superstition. Thus anything the French deists claimed about God, they were referring purely to the deist God.

I have been arguing throughout this book that the deist God was more completely good and fair than the Christian deity. It is not clear that there is any necessary link between a good deity and one who helps nations become free. Nevertheless, if a good deity is one that helps downtrodden countries fight for their liberty, the deists believed in that kind of deity also.

In 1789, the French Revolution began when the Bastille prison was stormed and its prisoners were released. As the Revolution progressed, one of the most important questions was whether the king, Louis XVI, should be deposed, or whether the country should try to forge a constitutional monarchy like England. This question was especially troubling as the other European monarchs, led by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, threatened to invade France if they mistreated the king or the royal family. The other monarchs saw the mistreatment of the French king as a matter of concern to all the monarchs. The French soon imprisoned the king and his queen, Marie Antoinette. This caused the monarchs of Europe to unite, and the French were soon at war with Prussia, Spain, Naples, Netherlands, Portugal, Britain, and the Holy Roman Empire. The situation for the French Revolution was dire at first as many people inside France, especially the Catholics, were against the Revolution, and the French army was so disheartened that in one of the early battles, the French soldiers all fled.

Many of the prominent leaders of the French Revolution, including Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins, Maximilien Robespierre, and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, were deists. Considering the rest of Europe was attacking France, and the French themselves were divided over the Revolution, the French situation in the early 1790s was similar to the American situation at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Just as Washington thought God helped the Americans in their fight for liberty, so too did the French deists think God’s Providence helped the French in their struggle for liberty.

The best-known example of a French deist claiming God providentially helped the French Revolution came from Maximilien Robespierre, the most prominent of the radical revolutionary leaders. Robespierre claimed God had purposively killed the leader of the countries that were attacking France, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Despite being a healthy man in his forties, Leopold suddenly and mysteriously died at the beginning of March in 1792. His death was a great blow to the anti-French forces, and Robespierre claimed God killed Leopold in order to help the French defeat the foreign powers who were attacking France. A short while after Leopold’s death, Robespierre spoke to the Jacobin club, the most radical faction of revolutionary leaders. Robespierre declared that France had been menaced by foreign armies organized by Leopold II, as well as civil war, and traitors in the army. At this time of deep trouble, he claimed that “Providence, which always watches over us much better than our own wisdom, by striking Leopold dead, disrupted for some time our enemy’s projects.” Then another revolutionary leader, Marguerite-Élie Guadet, interrupted Robespierre. Gaudet said that “I do not see any sense in this idea” of providence. He claimed that the French did not fight “for three years to rid ourselves of the slavery of despotism, to afterwards put ourselves under the slavery of superstition.” After Gaudet spoke, a commotion broke out in the hall, with some people murmuring and some applauding. Robespierre could have replied that he was just speaking rhetorically, and he did not really believe in Providence. Instead, he repeated his claim saying that “the eternal Being influences essentially the destiny of all nations, and he appears to me to watch in a particularly singular manner over the French Revolution.” Finally, he declared that the belief in God’s providential care “is a heartfelt belief, it is a feeling with which I cannot dispense.”4

Robespierre was far from the only French deist who thought Providence had a part in the death of Leopold II of Austria. Another prominent leader of the radical revolutionary faction, Georges Auguste Couthon, agreed. Couthon said of Leopold’s death that “Providence, who always has greatly served the revolution, has killed Leopold, one of our most cruel enemies.” Couthon often talked about Providence helping the French Revolution, but the event that Couthon thought most showed God’s miraculous Providence was the attempted assassination in May of 1794 of the revolutionary leaders Robespierre and Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois. Couthon wrote that the assassination failed even though the assassin had planned it well, because “in truth there was a miracle.” Couthon then went on to describe the event in detail. First, the assassin presented himself at Robespierre’s home, “but Heaven wished that he not be admitted.” Then the assassin went to the door Robespierre always entered and left his home. Couthon claimed, in a passage he did not explain, that “Robespierre’s custodian spirit (génie conservateur) made him take a different route that day.” When he could not kill Robespierre, the assassin went to Collot’s home. This time the assassin was able to find Collot and get very close to him. The assassin tried to shoot Collot once, but the pistol did not go off. The assassin fired a second time and, even though he was standing right next to Collot, the assassin missed him. Couthon finished by writing, “I wish to say again that it is by a miracle that Robespierre and Collot escaped. When one is guarded by Providence and the virtue of the people, one is well-guarded . . . it is the supreme Being who guards us.”5 It was not just Couthon who thought God was personally protecting Robespierre. Another French revolutionary leader, Louis Legendre, asserted that the assassin tried to kill Robespierre, “but the God of nature did not suffer that the crime was successful.”6

Robespierre, Couthon, and Legendre were major political leaders during the Revolution, and one can always wonder about the sincerity of political leaders talking of God helping their cause. But a large number of French deists who were not political leaders made the same claim about God helping the Revolution. For example, Jean-Baptiste Febvé was an obscure official in the criminal bureau of the department of Meurthe. In 1794, in the city of Nancy, Febve gave a long speech honoring God for all the help God had recently given the French. He declared, that the only way to explain all the miracles of the French Revolution was “the power of divine Providence. . . . The projects of the enemies of liberty were always confounded, their criminal maneuvers discovered, their plots always destroyed. . . . The most formidable powers of Europe were allied against France, and France was victorious… doesn’t this show well enough the existence of a Supreme Being who protects the French nation?” Another example is a speech in 1797 given by Louis Dubroca, a former Catholic priest who had become a prominent deist leader. In this speech, which was read to many deists gathered throughout France to worship God, Dubroca proclaimed that it was all due to God’s help that France had won the war. He declared,
Oh God . . .we love to proclaim that it was you who guided in combat the invincible battalions of our troops, who roused the heroic fighters, and who aided their generous devotion by victory. They fought for their fatherland, for their liberty, how could you, God powerful and good, not sustain a cause so beautiful? … when you have crowned a peace which fulfills our wishes, who is able to doubt your Providence did not itself preside over the new destiny of France, that the republic is not your work?7
Dubroca proclaimed that no one could doubt that God guided the French troops in battle and presided over the establishment of the French Republic.
Deists are commonly seen as so emphasizing natural laws, that they believed that God never broke these natural laws. I have argued throughout this book that the English and American deists did not fit this stereotype, and they believed in miracles and other forms of divine intervention. The French Revolutionary deists were so far from fitting this stereotype that they saw God and nature as their allies helping them defeat their enemies. For example, when bad weather shipwrecked some English warships on the French coast, Georges Auguste Couthon wrote, “it is evidently Providence which produces these miracles.” In her book on the way nature was pictured in the French Revolution, Mary Ashburn Miller claims it was common for the French revolutionaries to see nature itself as a “revolutionary and providential force. Nature became a space of particular providence, not just a regulating system.”8

Deists living during the French Revolution in the 1790s, who were very anti-Christian, continually claimed God was providentially helping them by defeating the plans of their enemies. Thus there is no connection between believing in God’s providential help and being a Christian. So Washington’s belief that God miraculously intervened during the American Revolution gives no support to him being a Christian.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Frazer on Metaxas' Book on America as a "Republic"

When Eric Metaxas' book "If You Can Keep It" came out in 2016, I don't remember paying much attention to it. With Warren Throckmorton's post, the book is somewhat current again. Throckmorton's post links to among other things, Gregg Frazer's review of it. From Frazer:
Metaxas seems to make the common error of determining religious belief by denominational affiliation. He declares John Adams to have been “a committed and theologically orthodox Christian” (56). But Adams vehemently rejected the deity of Christ, the atonement, the Trinity, and eternal punishment in hell. Adams said that placing all religion “in grace, and its offspring, faith” is “anti-Christianity.” He believed the best source for “orthodox” theology was the Hindu Shastra, that philosophy was at least equivalent in authority to the Bible, and that pagans who became “virtuous” went to heaven. Adams outrageously said he wouldn’t believe in the Trinity even if God himself told him on Mt. Sinai that it was true.

Having decided that Plymouth was the first colony, Metaxas (like many on the Christian Right) proceeds as if the Pilgrims and Puritans founded America rather than simply Massachusetts (189). It’s worth mentioning that roughly 150 years passed between Plymouth and the founding of the United States. He proceeds as if John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” pronouncement was meant for—and applies to—all of America for all time and not simply to the colony the Puritans were establishing in pursuit of God’s will (234). It’s important to note that seven of the twelve other colonies were not founded for religious reasons. As for the success of Winthrop’s “city on a hill” vision, Metaxas claims the Puritans’ “distinctly biblical model carried on beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the United States of America (215).” In fact, before the 17th century ended, the descendants of the original Puritan settlers were heavily engaged in the slave trade and making rum. Similarly, because he approves of its guarantee of religious freedom, Metaxas claims that the charter of Rhode Island speaks for all of America (72). This is particularly ironic since the Rhode Island colony was founded by castoffs seeking the religious freedom denied them by the Puritans.