So, in this post, I attempt briefly to explain who St. Athanasius was, what he was famous for, and why certain founders (or their British influences) would speak negatively about him.
If you want to know more explicit detail about him, start off with his Wiki page and follow the sources in the footnotes there. As I see it, he was notable for three things I list below.
The first is that he played a leading role in the Council of Nicaea that was meant to clarify (small o) "orthodox" church doctrine and anathematize Arianism. The three most notable ecumenical creeds of the early church are as follows: 1. Apostles; 2. Nicene; and 3. Athanasian. People debate when the Apostles' creed was written; it could have been before or after the Nicene. The origins of the Nicene creed are clearer: it was done in 325 CE. Likewise the exact date of the Athanasian creed is debatable; but it appears to be somewhat after the Nicene.
All three of the creeds were meant to clarify the nature of God and anathematize heresy. All three are Trinitarian in their character. The Apostles' creed is the least specific, the Athanasian the most so, with the Nicene somewhere in the middle. The Athanasian creed gets so specific it became clumsy for some orthodox churches to use for liturgical recitation. But make no mistake, the purpose of these creeds was for the early church to clarify the "orthodoxy" of the collective, universal (i.e., small c catholic) church.
So one possible meaning of "Athanasius" or "Athanasian" to America's founders is Trinitarianism in the form of a creed. And the most notable Trinitarian creed is the Nicene (not the Athanasian, ironically) where the doctrine of the Trinity was firmly articulated and where St. Athanasius played a leading role in the process.
So to use the term "Athanasian" in a negative sense might mean a Founder is signifying his theological unitarianism. For instance, John Adams in 1815 comes out of his unitarian closet and attempts to straighten out Jedidiah Morse, a notable orthodox Trinitarian enemy of Unitarianism at the time. Adams states:
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 Lemuel Briant, Dr Jonathan Mayhew of the West Church in Boston, The Reverend Mr Shute of Hingham The Reverend John Brown of Cohasset, and 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, Tradesmen, Farmers? I could fill a Sheet, but at present will name only one. Richard Cranch a Man who had Studied Divinity, and Jewish and Christian Antiquities more than any Clergyman now existing in New England.
More than fifty years ago I read Dr Samuel Clark, Emlyn, and Dr Waterland. Do you expect, my dear Doctor to teach me any new thing in favour of Athanasianism?So when William Livingston slammed St. Athanasius in a letter to, again, Jedidiah Morse (but in 1787), he could have been signalling his unitarianism.
But St. Athanasius is also know for the creed which bears his name: the Athanasian creed. Ironically, scholars conclude he had nothing to do with the writing of that creed; it was as mentioned above, at Nicaea where Athanasius played the leading role. The Athanasian creed came later and is more wordy than the Nicene. The early church felt the need to add more words because it felt the need to further clarify what is orthodoxy, what is heresy.
The creed was adopted by not only the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Anglicans and many other (though certainly not all) orthodox Protestant churches.
One of the controversial "additions" that the Athanasian creed makes to the Nicene are the so called "damnatory clauses." It's the part at the end which says basically, not only do we believe in the Trinity and other aspects of orthodoxy against heresy, but if you don't believe in this, you are damned.
It's supposedly a "faith" of the universal church "which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved."
Now keep in mind that many orthodox Protestants affirm this creed. Just as many orthodox Protestants believe in a small c catholic or "universal" church. I have encountered a few orthodox Trinitarian Protestants who say they believe in everything the Athanasian creed says except for the damnatory clauses. Meaning that you can have a mistaken view that qualifies as heresy, but not necessarily soul damning heresy.
Most of the fulminations against the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian creed in the 18th Century come from unitarians (as far as I have seen). So for instance, as the Arian Richard Price noted in an address that George Washington endorsed:
Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.The third thing that Athanasius is notable for is his work in establishing what constitutes the canon of the Bible. In other words, he helped write the Bible. When we say "write the Bible," this is what we mean: If one wants to believe that the Holy Spirit breathed all scripture, fine. However the Bible didn't just fall out of the sky or wasn't just discovered written in gold plates as a complete set of books.
The Bible isn't a novel; it's a canon that had to be complied. And from day one, there were disagreements on which books belonged. From day one (the first century) believers had "scripture." But what they didn't have was a book of 27 that comprised the New Testament or a book of 66 or 73 or some other number that comprised the Old and New Testaments.
Many orthodox Protestants seem under the misimpression that once the ink was dry on the last book in the New Testament in the first century, that all true believers simply knew that it was these 27 books that comprise the NT and those 39 that comprised the OT.
The problem with this is that it's not true; or at least there is no historical evidence for it. Again, they all believed in *some* scripture, but the process for determining "it's these books and not those" took hundreds of years to settle. And in reality, it's still not settled in that Protestants, Catholics and the capital O Orthodox each have canons with slightly different sets of books.
Long story short: the heretic Marcion came forth with the first written canon that struck many in the community as whack. So the community of believers got together and started a long process that attempted to answer him and settle matters of orthodoxy and canonicity.
Some mistakenly believe that Nicaea settled the matter of the canon. In fact, that was John Adams' impression. But Nicaea didn't deal with the canon, rather the Trinity. The reason why someone might make this error is because Athanasius not only played a leading role at Nicaea, but also in establishing the canon of the Bible.
In fact, the earliest historians can trace a complete list of 27 books of the New Testament is to Athanasius in the year 367. Now, let me be clear on what is meant here. Yes, all the books in the canon may well have been written in the first century. But what we are looking for is evidence of "it's these 27, not those other books." Terms like "mostly the NT" or "basically" won't cut it. Yes, much earlier, we can demonstrate figures believing in groups of books that are part of the NT. But you don't get those 27 until Athanasius and 367.
And even then it wasn't settled; that's just the earliest we can find those 27 as defined as "the list" of books that comprise the NT. Though it became formalized in the Third Council of Carthage in 397 AD.
So if one takes issue with what constitutes the canon of scripture, especially the 27 books which make up the NT, one might take issue with St. Athanasius.