"Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.
"This is what is called the law of nature, 'which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original.' Blackstone."
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.
Friday, December 17, 2021
Hamilton Cited Blackstone For The Opposite Position
Sunday, October 10, 2021
Liberalism v. Republicanism and the American Founding
On page 161 of "The Closing of the American Mind," Allan Bloom wrote:
More serious for us are the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality. Many believed that we had not thought through these cherished ideals. Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire property. Should shrewdness at acquisition be better rewarded than moral goodness? Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals?
As interesting and important as Allan Bloom and the other Straussians are, they do tend to have their blinders. They write like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau -- their shared ground, and their disagreements -- are the only important philosophers who impacted modern liberal democracy. But there were others.
So when Bloom asks -- "Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire private property?" -- he was referring to the Lockean-Madisonian "liberal" vision that prevailed during the American founding. And Bloom ascribes the sentiment -- "Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals?" -- to Rousseau who indeed adhered to such a critique of Locke's notion of property.
But Rousseau was not the first. In fact, this dialog had been taking place prior to Rousseau where various notable European "civic republicans" (many of them British) made the case for economic leveling often using biblical arguments.
Eric Nelson wrote an entire book about those "civic republicans" and their Hebraic arguments. Of the many things of interest that Nelson notes is that James Harrington -- one of the key Hebraic republican figures -- made not only biblical arguments but also more secular Platonic ones. It could be that the later more philosophical type figures ran with the secular arguments, not the biblical ones.
As Nelson ended the relevant chapter in his book on page 87:
But for most, the Biblical warrant for agrarian laws disappeared from view, leaving only the Platonizing edifice Harrington had built on top of it. Redistribution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would find a home in republican political theory, not because it had been authorized by the divine landlord of the earth, but because it was thought to secure the rule of a naturally superior elite. For contemporary republicans, this must seem a deeply unsettling provenance.
Thursday, October 7, 2021
Rousseau and the Hebrew Republic
This passage from Gregg Frazer's thesis made an impression on me when I first read it. He discusses some of the sermons from America's founding era that argued on behalf of the patriots' cause. These particular sermons preached the Bible taught "republicanism." (When "republicanism" arguably is entirely a creation of ancient Greco-Romanism.)
The sermons seem to depict God's role as something similar to Rousseau's legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon's sermon] "for their happiness" rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignty determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau's legislator).This was on page 393-94 of his thesis and then was adapted in his fine book and featured on pages 100-01. The conclusion that Dr. Frazer draws is that this notion that the Hebrew's had a "republic" is a more modern Enlightenment notion than a traditionally orthodox biblical understanding. Certainly, attaching Rousseau's name in a comparison illustrates this point.
Though Samuel Langdon, whose sermon was entitled "The Republic of The Israelites An Example To The American States," and was an American minister during the Founding era, actually drew from a prior European tradition. One you can read about in Eric Nelson's also fine book on the matter.
What does this have to do with Rousseau? Arguably something meaningful. The Hebraic republicans about whom Nelson writes -- beginning with Petrus Cunaeus and also finding expression in figures America's founders more explicitly cited like James Harrington -- argued that the Hebrew Republic had an agrarian law that limited wealth and demanded redistribution.
Whether the early exponents of the "Hebrew Republic" were traditional Christians or more philosophically minded thinkers using Christian theology as a fig leaf is debatable; but they ended up influencing later figures who tend to be understood as more modern philosophical types. Including Montesquieu, Rousseau and Thomas Paine.
As Dr. Nelson writes on page 86 of his aforementioned book:
It is a measure of Harrington’s remarkable influence that, from 1660 onwards, agrarian laws would remain permanently at the center of republican political thought. Writers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, and from Jefferson to Tocqueville, would regard it as axiomatic that republics ought to legislate limits on private ownership in order to realize a particular vision of civic life. Before Cunaeus and Harrington, European political theory had been dominated by the unequal contest between two views of property: one which saw the protection of private property as the central obligation of the state, and another which saw the abolition of private property as the ultimate salvation of mankind. Cunaeus’s innocuous semantic move in 1617 had opened up a “third way”—one which remains central to modern political thought and practice.
I can't do justice to Nelson's entire book here. He mentions that Harrington put forth both a biblical and a more secular Platonic justification for Agrarian limits on wealth and consequent redistribution. It could be that the later more secular thinkers who argued for economic leveling picked up the more Platonic and left behind the biblical.
But even someone like Thomas Paine, who by the way, I think is more clearly in the "agrarian-redistribution" camp than Jefferson, would use these biblical arguments and was clearly influenced by them.
I could be wrong about Jefferson; if I understand Madison's Federalists 10 correctly, it rejects this "republican agrarian" vision of property in favor of something more "liberal" (for the era). Jefferson may very well have signed onto Madison's vision here. (But how to properly understand Federalist 10 will be a topic for another post.)
But I hope I demonstrated in this post how someone like Rousseau didn't just invent his egalitarian speak for the modern era. The conversation had been taking place for some time. And the thinkers who preceded Rousseau attempted to make serious biblical, "republican" arguments for the economic leveling by ascribing to the Hebraic republic an agrarian law.
(Personally, I don't find the argument convincing; I don't think the Ancient Israelites had either a "republic" or that the "Jubilee" constituted an "agrarian law" that should be models for later subsequent republics. But that's neither here nor there.)
Thursday, September 2, 2021
Did Ben Franklin Believe in ... "Purgatory"?
This article from 2014 by John Fea (note I am quoted here) features one of the more interesting quotations from Ben Franklin, who was neither an orthodox Trinitarian Christian or a strict deist, but something in between.
You tell me our poor friend Ben Kent is gone, I hope to the regions of the blessed; or at least to some place where souls are prepared for those regions! I found my hope on this, that though not so orthodox as you and I, he was an honest man, and had his virtues. If he had any hypocrisy, it was of that inverted kind, with which a man is not so bad as he seems to be. And with regard to future bliss, I cannot help imagining that multitudes of the zealously orthodox of different sects, who at the last day may flock together, in hopes of seeing each other damned, will be disappointed, and obliged to rest content with their own salvation. Yours, &c. B. Franklin.
Wednesday, August 25, 2021
FH Buckley: The Patriot King's American Friends
This was from the Winter 2016 edition of National Affairs by F.H. Buckley. It's on Bolingbroke's influence on the American founding. A taste:
While they abhorred the corruption of British politics, the framers turned to British writers, notably Bolingbroke, for diatribes on just how vicious such corruption could be. Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), was virtually the prime minister for a time, and his skill in state affairs was celebrated by his friend Jonathan Swift. Bolingbroke was a Tory and a sometime-friend of the Stuart Old Pretender. Some in late-18th-century British politics thought history had passed him by — or at least wished it would. "Who now reads Bolingbroke," Edmund Burke asked. "Who ever read him through?" But then Burke was a Whig who took his political principles from the Revolutionary Settlement of 1689, and a romantic Christian, while Bolingbroke was a deist from the arid Augustan age.For the founders, however, Bolingbroke's jeremiads were essential reading. Adams, Madison, and Jefferson, among others, were all serious students of his works. For them, Bolingbroke was first and foremost an enemy of political corruption and an advocate for republican virtue. But if the Americans thought that British corruption might justify the creation of a republic, Bolingbroke had something else in mind. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Monday, August 23, 2021
Jefferson, Priestley, and Bolingbroke
Thomas Jefferson, after around 1800 was under the influence of the unitarian Joseph Priestley. And Priestley did, if I understand him right, think "the plenary inspiration of the Bible" was a "corruption of Christianity." (Meaning he didn't think the Bible was inerrant.)
Monday, July 19, 2021
George Washington to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792
Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society.
Wednesday, July 14, 2021
James Burgh's Quaternity
Over a decade ago I found a passage written by James Burgh (in "Crito") wherein he gives an account of his Arianism. Burgh was an English Whig writer who influenced America's founders. Among other things, he arguably served as the intellectual intermediary between Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson regarding the term "separation of church and state." Jefferson got it from Burgh; Burgh got it from Williams.
... The papists have thought proper to put the Virgin Mary into the Tr---ty, and call her the complement, or completing of it. That is, the F----r, the S-n, the H--y Gh--t, and the Virgin Mary, the undivided mystical four, or three, which is the same (for in a mystery, three is the same as four, and four the same as one; finite the same as infinite; human the same as divine) the mystical four, I say, are the tr---ty, or rather quaternity, that is, four different beings, some infinite, some finite, some mortal, some immortal, are only three beings, and these three-four beings, are the One, indivisible, simple, unoriginated Spirit, the first cause and fountain of being.No Protestant holds the Virgin Mary, who has these many ages been dead and rotten, to be any part of the immortal God. This is out of the question. But I would imagine, that to a person who denies the Athanasian doctrine, it should not appear a whit more absurd to put the Virgin Mary into the Tr---ty, or Godhead, than any other being whatever. All beings are equally different from and inferior to the Supreme; the S-n as much as the virgin; the virgin as much as a worm. ...
The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage.-- John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812.
Tuesday, July 13, 2021
Fea: "Jack Hibbs dabbles in American history and it is a disaster. We need another Dudley Rutherford moment!"
From Professor John Fea. It's about celebrity pastor Jack Hibbs "dabbling" in American history. Check it out here. A taste:
13:11 to 13:26: Hibbs suggests three things about George Washington. First, Hibbs says that the First Great Awakening influenced George Washington’s religious life. Hibbs should actually tell his congregation that Washington’s theological beliefs, if he had any such beliefs beyond his vague references to “Providence,” would disqualify him for the Calvary Chapel-Chino Hills elder board. There is no evidence that the Great Awakening influenced Washington in any way. Second, Hibbs said that when Washington attended church he listened to abolitionist sermons. Not really. Anglican ministers in Virginia did not preach abolitionist sermons. Third, Hibbs says, abolitionist preachers somehow convinced Washington to free his slaves. Wrong again. More on this below.13:26 to 13:57: Based on this inaccurate view of Washington’s religious faith and how he supposedly applied it to the problem of slavery, Hibbs says that Washington did not free his slaves during his lifetime because he wanted to protect them. If he freed them, Hibbs says, they would have faced ‘certain death” by a slaveowner on a neighboring plantation. (Apparently this other slaveowner was not attending the same “abolitionist Anglican” congregation as the Washington family.) Hibbs also assumes (wrongly) that things got a lot safer for freed slaves after Washington died. In other words, Hibbs is claiming that Washington wanted to protect his slaves from certain death while he was alive, but after he died he didn’t care anymore. This is a mess. 13:57 to 14:32: Hibbs is on a roll. The more passionate he gets, the more he plays fast and lose with American history. ...
Sunday, July 4, 2021
Happy Independence Day
Friday, June 18, 2021
What Oath (if any) did Jacob Henry take in 1809?
Check out this new article by Seth Tillman entitled, "What Oath (if any) did Jacob Henry take in 1809?: The Problem of Conceptual Confusion between State Religious Tests and Religious Test Oaths."
This is from the abstract:
The story of Jacob Henry is one which has been told and retold. It has been long celebrated, as a triumph of light over darkness, and of the progress of then-emerging American religious tolerance over older traditions of parochialism and intolerance. Our story starts with Article 32 of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution. That provision imposed a religious test:That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.Article 32’s religious test extended to four categories of persons. It extended to atheists—those “who . . . deny the being of God.” It extended to non-Protestants—those “who . . . deny . . . the truth of the Protestant religion.” It extended to non-Christians—those “who . . . deny . . . the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments.” Lastly, it extended to an amorphous category of persons—those “who . . . hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State.” A person falling into any of these four categories was not “capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.” The meaning and scope of Article 32’s language has been a matter of continuing debate.In 1809, Jacob Henry was elected to a second, consecutive annual term in the House of Commons, ie, North Carolina’s lower legislative house, as one of two members for Carteret County. According to the standard narrative, Henry was Jewish. Legislative elections were held during August 1809. The returning officers reported those persons who had been duly elected, that is, the members-elect. On November 20, 1809, the House of Commons convened in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the members-elect qualified by taking their oaths. On December 5, 1809, Hugh C. Mills, one of two members for Rockingham County, put forward a motion to declare Henry’s seat vacant based (at least in part) on Article 32 of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution. The next day, on December 6, 1809, Henry gave an impassioned speech in his own defense before the full House. Many ascribe the authorship of Henry’s speech, in whole or in part, to Judge Taylor, a Republican. Henry’s speech made no express reference to his being Jewish, and his speech did not use the words “Jewish,” “Judaism,” or “Jews.” Afterwards, Mills attempted to introduce evidence to support his allegations. But his efforts to do so were immediately thwarted by William Gaston, the single member for the town of New Bern.Gaston argued that introducing evidence was premature at this stage. In other words, Gaston argued that Mills’s charges were insufficient as a matter of law, and so the introduction of evidence was not necessary. Gaston further argued that if the House determined that an investigation of the facts were necessary, then proceedings should be directed to a select committee or the committee of the whole. Additionally, Gaston made the argument that Article 32 reached only “offices,” not members of the legislature—and so it had no application to Jacob Henry. Gaston’s lengthy speech was followed by extensive debate among more than a few members of the Commons. Subsequently, the matter was redirected to the House’s Committee of the Whole, which heard testimony from witnesses. The committee recommended that the House reject the motion, and the House voted in favor of the committee’s recommendation. Henry kept his seat. Some reports indicate that the Commons voted unanimously to reject Mills’s motion.The Jacob Henry literature has been primarily concerned with two questions. First, why did the members of the North Carolina House of Commons on December 6, 1809 vote against Mills’s motion to vacate Henry’s seat? That is, what motivated the members—in the sense of politics, partisanship, and personalities—to vote as they did? Likewise, what constitutional or other legal or policy rationales (if any) did the members put forward to explain their votes? A surprising number of very different views have been put forward. Second, what did Henry’s victory against purported religious intolerance mean to his contemporaries and later generations?This Article addresses a different set of (albeit related) questions. The focus of this Article is not on what happened on December 5 and 6, 1809 and why the members of the North Carolina House of Commons voted as they did. Instead, the focus of this Article is on what happened on November 20, 1809—in other words, what legislative oath (if any) did Jacob Henry actually take? Second, how have later historians and legal commentators described and distorted our understanding of the events of November 20, 1809? And, third, why did the December 6, 1809 debate on the motion veer so far from any substantial discussion of the actual underlying events of November 20, 1809? Admittedly, this third question cannot be answered with clarity.
Saturday, June 5, 2021
Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance
This isn't entirely related to the American Founding and religion; though readers will relate to the language and terminology used here. From the article:
Mustafa Akyol, in his excellent new book Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance (St. Martin’s Press, 2021), speaks into this context. Having the privilege of meeting Akyol two years ago at a lecture he gave here in New England, I immediately felt a kinship with him by way of his work toward greater integration of faith and reason among Muslims, paralleling my own among Christians. We also connected over our mutual desire for better Muslim-Christian relations. In his newest book, Akyol states his intention to work toward an Islamic enlightenment that draws on Muslim tradition rather than Western values. For instance, while the initial centuries of Islam were intellectually diverse and vibrant, this was eventually replaced with a focus on jurisprudence or a legal culture, on dos and don’ts. (p. 12) Meanwhile, theistic rationalism, seeking harmony between faith and reason was surpassed by fideism, where faith does not need rational justification. (p. 25) Akyol summarizes, “The puzzle is this: When God tells us to ‘do this,’ or ‘don’t do this,’ does He educate us about objective values in the world that we could also understand on our own? Or, does He merely give us bare commandments whose very value comes from nothing but God’s own authority?” (p. 30) While the Mutazilites took the view that faith was largely compatible with free will and believed all humans have a natural ethical compass, the Asharites argued in favor of a more pre-deterministic view of the world, with which they eventually won the debate. Akyol offers helpful suggestions for Muslims to recover the integrated view of faith and reason.
Monday, May 31, 2021
Tench Coxe on Article VI, Clause 3 of the US Constitution
No religious test is ever to be required of any officer or servant of the United States. The people may employ any wise or good citizen in the execution of the various duties of the government. In Italy, Spain, and Portugal, no protestant can hold a public trust. In England every Presbyterian, and other person not of their established church, is incapable of holding an office. No such impious deprivation of the rights of men can take place under the new foederal constitution. The convention has the honour of proposing the first public act, by which any nation has ever divested itself of a power, every exercise of which is a trespass on the Majesty of Heaven.
No qualification in monied or landed property is required by the proposed plan; nor does it admit any preference from the preposterous distinctions of birth and rank. The office of the President, a Senator, and a Representative, and every other place of power or profit, are therefore open to the whole body of the people. Any wise, informed and upright man, be his property what it may, can exercise the trusts and powers of the state, provided he possesses the moral, religious and political virtues which are necessary to secure the confidence of his fellow citizens.
Sunday, April 11, 2021
States of Nature and the American Founding
And indeed, while there are plenty of contentious assertions, arguments and analyses in Hamburger's article, it also serves as a valuable resource of primary sources. One of the things I find fascinating about the "state of nature"/social contract and rights teachings is that the pulpit -- "election sermons" -- was a chief vector for transmitting these teachings.
It's ironic because the "state of nature"/social contract and rights is not a traditional biblical or Christian concept. But the patriotic preachers embraced it.
As Hamburger notes on page 12/917 of his article:
Election sermons contained a wealth of rather conventional political theory. One Connecticut minister began an election sermon on divine government by explaining that civil government had been "so often, and so well treated of upon such Occasions as this; that it is needless to add any thing ...on this Subject." From another point of view, the polemical Dean of Gloucester worried about the influence of American ministers and complained of "their preferring and inculcating principles of Mr. Lock instead of the Gospel, relative to the original titles of civil governors."
Before I get deeper in Hamburger's research let me note a few things his article doesn't. First the concept of "the state of nature"/social contract and rights ties together three big philosophers of "modernity": Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. America followed Locke, not the other two.
However, the three philosophers are connected by a shared common philosophical ground (what Leo Strauss termed the "low but solid ground" of modernity). For our purpose, Hobbes initiated the concept, however even he wasn't the first to do so. Rather, we can trace it back to William of Ockham.
(One critique of that "common ground" -- and this includes Ockham who predated the other three -- is the concept of the "state of nature" seems philosophically nominalist; but that's a discussion for another day.)
But again, America followed Locke's understanding of the concept. On pages 12-13/918-19, Hamburger summarizes America's understanding of Locke's teachings:
... On the assumption that the state of nature was a condition in which all humans were equally free from subjugation to one another-in which individuals had no common superior, Americans understood natural liberty to be the freedom of individuals in the state of nature. That is, they understood natural liberty to be the freedom an individual could enjoy as a human in the absence of government. A natural right was simply a portion of this undifferentiated natural liberty. Accordingly, Americans often broadly categorized natural rights as consisting of life, liberty and property, or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Americans could, however, be more specific. They repeatedly said that the free exercise of religion or freedom of conscience was a natural right. They also talked of the freedom of speech and press as a natural right. ...
See also JOHN LOCKE, TWO TREATISES OF GOVERNMENT 322 (Peter Laslett ed., 2d ed. 1967) (bk. UI, ch. VI, § 54) as cited in Hamburger's article on pages 13/918.
The bottom line is that a government was formed via social contract where because of "inconveniences" in the "state of nature," society banded together.
What I find of interest in Hamburger's article is that it shows where Americans disagreed on exactly how to apply Locke's concept. I find it of interest, and perhaps this relates to why Americans disagreed here, because I don't fully yet understand it: American Lockeans disagreed on what portion of natural liberty, if any, was surrendered when individuals came out of the state of nature and formed a social contract?
As Prof. Hamburger writes on pages 41-42/946-47 of his article:
... Jefferson similarly denied the commonplace that individuals in the state of nature sacrificed some of their natural liberty to government to preserve the rest: "No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another .... When the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions; and the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right." Letter from Thomas Jefferson to F.W. Gilmer (June 7, 1816), 11 THE WORKS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, at 534 (Paul L. Ford ed., 1888) ....The truism that men sacrificed some of their liberty to government rested upon the assumption, frequently made explicit, that the liberty given up was the physical freedom or power to do as one pleased without subjugation to others. [Nathaniel] Chipman and Jefferson, however, incongruously discussed the formation of government in terms of the other, less expansive type of natural freedom-the noninjurious or moral liberty defined by natural law. Having done this, they had no difficulty denying that any natural right was sacrificed. They thereby attempted to confute a traditional maxim of political theory by misstating one of its well-known presuppositions. Of course, it was Jefferson who took this refutation and gave it an unusually dramatic and extreme formulation.
And then on page 53/958 Prof. Hamburger writes:
Most dramatically, the account of natural liberty presented here can help us understand what might otherwise appear to be contradictions or paradoxes in constitutional law. For example, Jefferson said both that natural rights were sacrificed to civil society and that no natural rights were sacrificed to civil society.135 Theophilus Parsons similarly seemed to contradict himself. ...
Insofar as I understand his argument, Hamburger argues that the consensus of Americans believed, coming out of the state of nature where they possessed natural liberty, they surrendered their natural rights for civil rights, as per the "social contract." This is also what East Coast Straussians like Walter Berns (cited elsewhere in Hamburger's article) have argued. Others like Thomas Jefferson and some other less "key" (well known) Founders (like Chipman and Parsons) believed people surrendered none of their natural rights when forming civil society.
But they were the outliers. (By the way, I'm not convinced Hamburger's analysis is correct, here.)
Saturday, March 20, 2021
Hebrew Republic and Distributivism
The other day on my social media, a traditional orthodox Christian friend, sympathetic towards laissez faire economic policy questioned whether there was in fact a "biblical" case for "redistributionist" oriented economic policy. I think in short there is "biblical case" for all sorts of things under sun, but what I responded with below relates to the same history that interests this blog. My comment:
Well, a nuanced argument [that the Bible, properly interpreted teaches economic redistribution] does exist; though admittedly as a libertarian, I don't find it convincing. And I question whether it's good theology.
But people who think that collectivist thought jumped right from Plato to Rousseau to Marx are ignorant of the biblical sources and arguments for redistribution. I don't think this argument prevailed in America (Madison's vision that rejected the argument did).
But it was noteworthy and could be "cherry picked" if one wanted a biblical and originalist case for it. It's one of the narratives of Eric Nelson's book [The Hebrew Republic]. The "republicans" v. the "liberals." Madison's vision was "liberal." The "republican" position was that of biblical redistributionism. It's the same folks who argued the Ancient Israelites had a "republic" also imputed the concept of "Agrarian laws" to the OT Jubilee and argued it was applicable to the then era (17th century onwards).
Sunday, March 7, 2021
American Pulpits: The Battleground of the American Revolution
These historical attractions serve as much more than mere summer vacation destinations or 6th grade Social Studies research topics. They are, in fact, reminders of the toil, strife and loss that was required before the United States could claim its sovereignty. And while these battlefields give us a palpable link to our nation’s founding, another battlefield, intangible and underappreciated, stands with equal importance to Bunker Hill or Yorktown.
American Christian pulpits, though not the site of artillery or musket fire, operated as some of the most critical combat zones on which frontline battles of the Revolution waged. Ministers of various churches acted like spiritual generals, shaping the opinions of their respective congregations by offering the necessary justification or opposition for the impending conflict with Britain. Accordingly, the sermons given by America’s plethora of Christian ministers proved every bit as influential and important as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or the Boston Tea Party. The American Revolution was not only a war of bullets and power, but a battle waged from the pulpits across the many colonies, each passionately supporting or opposing the Revolution by appealing to the same scriptures and Christian teachings, with Patriots taking a more nuanced view of scripture, and Loyalists adopting an extremely literalist, all-or-nothing understanding of Bible teachings.
Christianity, The Bible, and Early American Society
To understand how Christianity and Bible teachings were weaponized by both Patriot and Loyalist-sympathizing ministers, one must first comprehend the tremendous importance religion had on early American society. Simply put, religion was not just a mere sideshow venue of the American Revolution but instead was a premiere stage on which the drama unfolded. This comes as little surprise to those well versed in the history of Colonial America, which was a world defined on Christian beliefs and teachings. But it is not enough to simply say that Christianity and the Bible were significant for their spiritual value alone. The reality of Colonial American society was that Christianity and the Bible permeated every nook and cranny of daily life, including and perhaps especially political matters. As one prominent historian has noted, “For all of the early English settlers, whether they were settled in the North or the South, the Bible was the central text of religious and political discourse.” Acclaimed American Historian Mark Noll supports this position when he writes, “The Bible sanctified all manner of public speech…Once the Bible had achieved a place of honored distinction for selves and society, it became a lens through which believers perceived the external significance of temporal events, but also a torch that shone its illuminating rays on those events.” In short, the Bible, its teachings, and Christianity became the foundational measuring stick by which all matters of life were assessed.
For a population that had placed almost all their stock upon the altar of Christianity and the Bible, it comes as no surprise to discover that the preaching and sermons of ministers was esteemed as almost canonical. No other medium in early American society was able to influence or inform the community more than the sermon. As Historian Harry Stout has pointed out, the average church attendee, “listened to something like seven thousand sermons in a lifetime…For all intents and purposes, the sermon was the only regular voice of authority.”
It is for these reasons that ministers of various Christian denominations were the first to start digging the trenches of war into which both Loyalist and Patriot camps sought refuge. And since the settlers of all the American colonies depended so greatly upon their ministers for guidance and clarity, it is reasonable, if not obvious, to assume that their preaching determined the political persuasions of a large majority of said colonists. As early American Historian James Byrd aptly summarized, “It was the clergy who made the Revolution meaningful to most common people” because “there were dozens of ordinary people who read the Bible and looked to their ministers for an interpretation of what the Revolution meant.”
Patriot and Loyalist Preaching: A Juxtaposition
Even though religion and Bible teachings took the premiere role in shaping the minds and hearts of early American society, it would be a mistake to assume that every church, minister and congregation felt the same way about what was being preached. Different interpretations and perspectives on the American Revolution naturally led to different interpretation and perspectives on the Bible, the Christian message and its significance in sanctioning or opposing a separation with Great Britain. By and large, Patriot and Loyalist ministers relied heavily on many of the same Bible passages but offered vastly different interpretations. Historian Gregg Frazer summarizes the differences by arguing that Loyalists appealed primarily to history, law and Biblical literalism, while Patriot preaching tended towards Bible theory, Enlightenment reason and fear tactics. And while Frazer’s analysis is appropriate in the abstract, it fails to account for the many specific anomalies which were of tremendous importance in the shaping of public sentiment in specific colonies. For example, at least 1/3 of all Anglican ministers in the colonies turned out to be Loyalist sympathizers, yet nearly half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (none were Anglican clergy) were members of the Anglican faith. In addition, Pennsylvania Quakers, known for their stance of neutrality, earned from themselves enemies on both sides, yet appealed to their Christian faith as a means of justifying support for the Revolution in ways other than fighting.
What these anomalies show is that support and opposition for the American Revolution often boiled down to the message sponsored by specific ministers, in specific churches, shared with specific congregations. It is a historical misnomer that all members of particular denominations, colonies, or ethnic groups favored the Loyalist or Patriot persuasion. In reality the matter was far more nuanced. As Frazer again notes, “Though religious affiliation clearly played a role it was not the decisive factor for many.” What mattered most was the actual preaching of the minister that most influenced a particular community.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, it was rare to find a church or a minister who had not pontificated on the reasons why colonists should or should not remain loyal to Great Britain. For Loyalist ministers, the goal was clear: let the Bible speak for itself by appealing exclusively to a literalist interpretation of scripture that allowed for zero wiggle room on the issue of allegiance to the King of England. Oftentimes this allegiance was compared to a parent/child relationship, with the colonists acting the part of a wayward youth. An analysis of popular Loyalist sermons reveals this goal as plainly as possible. Again, Gregg Frazer lends his support for this understanding of Loyalist sermons when he states, “In their sermons, as a general rule, the Loyalist preachers appealed more to the Bible and held to a more literal and contextual interpretation of the relevant texts of scripture than did the Patriot preachers.” A leading example of this very practice can be found in the sermons of Anglican Preacher Jonathan Boucher. For Boucher, and his fellow Loyalists, the Bible in its simplest form could not be refuted. In one of his sermons, Boucher offers his literalist interpretation of 2 Peter and employs the parent/child comparison with the following commentary:
No sooner were the children weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breast, than their parents began to teach them knowledge, to enable them to understand doctrine…And on this point the law was not vague and uncertain. The text is clear and strong, and particular even to minuteness: parents were to teach their children, whilst they sat in the house, or walked by the way; when they lay down, and when they sat up…On the authority of the text and some other similar passages, we are led to infer, that parental instruction was not in general communicated so much my lectures or lessons but by conversation, with the child giving heed to the parent.
Boucher’s appeal to Biblical literalism was supported by his peer, Bishop Charles Inglis, the first Anglican Bishop ordained in the colonies, who echoed Boucher’s assertions with the following:
When a Man becomes a Soldier, he ceases not to be a Christian, or a Member of Society. The Duties, the Principles of the Christian and Citizen, he should therefore keep in View, and never lose Sight of them. These should regulate his Conduct, whilst vindicating his own civil and religious Rights, and those of his Fellow Citizens…And trust me, that this will be so far from damping his Ardour, or depressing his Courage, that it will animate both -- it will add Fortitude to his Breast—Strength and Vigour to his descending Arm.
In contrast, ministers in favor of the American Revolution tended to favor a more broadminded interpretation of the Bible, particularly focused on passages dealing with liberty or the suppression of liberty, particularly as they related to the Jewish nation of old. The Reverend Isaac Backus’ now infamous sermon on religious liberty portrays such a message:
And as the Jews were ordered not to set up any rulers over them who were not their brethren; so this colony resolved to have no rulers nor voters for rulers, but brethren in their churches…We view it to be our incumbent duty, to render unto Caesar the things that are his, but that it is of as much importance not to render unto him any thing that belongs only to God, who is to be obeyed rather than man. And as it is evident to us, that God always claimed it as his sole prerogative to determine by his own laws, what his worship shall be, who shall minister in it, and how they shall be supported.
The idea of Old Testament Jews, with liberties and freedoms oppressed, found no greater manifestation than the Exodus story. As Historian James Byrd point out, “If the Moses and the Exodus have remained prominent in America, the American Revolution is a major reason why. By making the Exodus story their own, especially by associating it so strongly with the republican ideals of liberty and the republican institutions of the new nation, the patriots set the parameters for later Americans.” This message of oppression and suppression of liberty was the single greatest factor that gave Patriot ministers the advantage over their Loyalist counterparts. The message resonated better with a public that was ripe for change. Gregg Frazer reinforces this perspective with the following:
The [Patriots] clearly won the rhetorical and propaganda battle. They won in large part because they shut down and literally destroyed [Loyalist] avenues of communication. But they also won because they had talented propagandists such as Samuel Adams, because they had agents such as the Sons of Liberty keeping the passions of the people inflamed. And because they had a more inspiring and exciting message. The [Loyalist] message was the obligation to obey the law and the rather humiliating idea of subordination…The [Patriots] message of independence was dynamic and flattering to the people.
One of the most unique examples of how Patriot and Loyalist ministers differed in their interpretation of scripture, along with the message they delivered to their congregants, is that of Jacob Duché. Originally a devout Patriot, Duché was one of the most vocal opponents of Great Britain. Duché was even selected to offer the opening prayers at the First Continental Congress where he asked for God’s blessings and protection from the “rod of the oppressor” and asked for heaven’s “nurturing care” to “defeat the malicious designs of our creel adversaries.”  In a sermon given just a few months later, Duché invoked the standard narrative of Patriot preachers, calling upon his parishioners to remember the bondage of the Jewish people and reminding them of their responsibility to safeguard the liberties God had granted them. To everyone’s surprise and dismay, Duché did not remain a Patriot. After being arrested by the British in 1777, Duché had a rapid and dramatic change of heart, changing his persuasion on the war and becoming a full Loyalist. In his letter to General George Washington, Duché demonstrates the profound change of heard he had experienced when he wrote, “My sermon speaks for itself & utterly disclaims the idea of idependency…How sadly have you been abused by a faction void of truth & void of tenderness to you & your country!” Duché continues his insulting rant directed at Washington by insisting that the Patriot ideas of liberty are misguided and reconciliation with King George was the hope of heaven.
Apart from his rapid and dramatic change of persuasion, what is noteworthy about Duché’s change of heart is his accompanying change of rhetoric. Duché went from being the voice of opposition to the evil oppression of Britain upon American liberties to then advocating for reconciliation with King George and insisting that America’s understanding of liberty and independence was misguided. This not only reveals the power of persuasion but how both Loyalist and Patriot ministers held tightly to a very particular narrative, particularly as it related to the concept of liberty.
Romans 13: The Great Battlefield
The Patriots ability to control the narrative from the pulpit gave them a tremendous advantage in terms of their ability to win over converts for the cause of revolution, but it did not guarantee them a spiritual victory. The one area in which Loyalists appeared to maintain the moral high ground was on the issue of loyalty owed to the king, and the apparent Biblical sanction such allegiance seemed to require. The Apostle Paul, admonition, found in the 13th chapter of Romans, clearly stated that submission to one’s authority was required of God, which presented a hurdle for Patriot ministers who sought Biblical endorsement for the cause of revolution. The warning of Romans 13 to “be subject unto the higher powers,” along with the reminder that “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation,” proved to be a formidable obstacle for ministers who hoped to find a path for America’s independence.
The dilemma for Patriot ministers was obvious: how do you justify opposition to a sovereign leader when the Bible seems to oppose such action? This was not a mere sideshow question for the Revolution’s participants. As Historian Daniel Dreisbach has pointed out, “Bible texts weighed heavy on the American mind during the conflict with Great Britain…Romans 13 was the single most cited…and on their face, these texts made little allowance for resistance to civic rulers.”The minister who led the charge against the standard interpretation of Romans 13, which had
long been the trump card from Loyalist ministers, was Boston Congregational Minister Jonathan Mayhew. Mayhew, who had undergone a change in his own personal religious persuasions, was well known for his blunt preaching style that was often divisive in nature. Mayhew’s influence was so profound that John Adams went so far as to call him one of the most influential figures of the Revolution, whose sermon he had “engraved on my memory.”
The year 1750 marked the debut of Jonathan Mayhew’s landmark sermon. As opposed to so many of his predecessors, Mayhew did not look to twist words of scripture or to double down on their absolute significance. Instead, Mayhew let prudence dictate the interpretation of scripture. Appealing to other Bible examples in which an absolutist tone is rarely if ever assumed, Mayhew wrote:
But who supposes that the apostle ever intended to teach, that children, servants and wives, should, in all cases whatever, obey their parents, masters and husbands respectively, never making any opposition to their will, even although they should require them to break the commandments of God, or should causelessly make an attempt upon their lives? No one puts such a sense upon these expressions, however absolute and unlimited. Why then should it be supposed, that the apostle designed to teach universal obedience, whether active or passive, to the higher powers, merely because his precepts are delivered in absolute and unlimited terms?
Instead of taking scripture at face value, as the Loyalist ministers had been doing since the beginning of the conflict, Mayhew made an appeal to reason. As Jonathan Mayhew Biographer J. Patrick Mullins reminds us, Mayhew “reconciled the natural right of resistance with the Christian duty of obedience in light of scripture, history and real Whig political philosophy.” In other words, Mayhew’s hermeneutics adopted many of the same beliefs as many figures of the Enlightenment who had preceded him. For Patriot ministers and supporters this essentially meant they believed they could have their cake and eat it too.
Mayhew went even further with his condemnation of evil leaders, stating that Paul’s message rebuked those who “use all their power to hurt and injure the public,” adding that “such as are not God’s ministers, but Satan’s.” In so doing, Mayhew had successfully shifted the burden of Romans 13 to God’s chosen leaders and away from the masses. In Mayhew’s mind, it was not the American colonists who needed to worry about God’s wrath but rather the King of England, who was “acting in an illegal and oppressive manner.”
Even though his sermon was delivered two decades before independence was even debated in Philadelphia, Mayhew’s perspective on Romans 13 reveals an important truth about how many Americans came to view the American Revolution. The American Revolution was not a coup d’etat. There was no removal of the King of England. Instead, the American Revolution was a separation due to the perceived wickedness and illegitimate reign of the King. King George III, along with Parliament, had forfeited their right to sovereignly reign over the colonies, pure and simple. This perspective, of a separation of Britain, can be traced, in large part, to Mayhew’s unique interpretation of Paul’s declaration in Romans 13, and this view was later canonized by Jefferson in the very words of the Declaration of Independence when he wrote, “"He [King George III] has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us" and, “For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies” and finally, “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.”
In terms of its influence, religion was not some mere sideshow of the American Revolution. If anything, religion was one of the most central components to the question of separation with Britain, so much so that ministers from every denomination, colony and persuasion felt impressed to weigh in on the matter. Patriot ministers tended to favor a more open-minded approach to Biblical interpretation and Christian teachings, relying heavily upon appeals to reason and liberty that had been advanced by Enlightenment thinkers. On the other hand, Loyalist ministers took a hardline stance with scriptural interpretation, insisting that little to no wiggle room could or should be tolerated. Much of this battle came down to the concept of liberty and resistance to authority, as defined in Romans 13. Ministers like Johnathan Mayhew effectively swayed public opinion to favor a more open approach to Paul’s admonition and by placing the blame for violating liberty squarely on the shoulders of the British king and Parliament.
The differences between Patriot and Loyalist ministers, though profound on specifics, were quite similar in terms of their understanding of Christian teachings. Both sides felt they were on the side of truth and endeavored to protect the Christian faith. As a result, one can easily see how both Patriot and Loyalist ministers felt deep and profound conviction that their Christian duty demanded they take a stand. The sermons delivered by both camps proved to be the most profound way in which the American citizenry was both informed and persuaded, making the wars of the pulpit one of the most critical battlegrounds of the American Revolution.
Daniel Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Pp. 24.
 Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016). Pp. 326.
 Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture on Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Pp. 3.
 James Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Pp. 2. Oxford Scholarship Online. oxford-universitypressscholarship- com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199843497.001.0001/acprof-9780199843497
 Gregg Frazer, God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution (University Press of Kansas, 2018). Pp. 2-3.
 James Bell, A War of Religion: Dissenters, Anglicans and the American Revolution (New York: Palgrave MaCMillan, 2008). Pp. 237.
 Jean Specht, “Being a Peaceable Man, I have Suffered Much Persecution”: The American Revolution and Its Effects on Quaker Religious Identity." Quaker History vol. 99, no. 2 (2010): 37- 48. doi:10.1353/qkh.2010.0004. Specht notes that Pennsylvania Quakers, though unwilling to fight in the Continental Army, were willing to help supply soldiers with food and other goods. In addition, many Quakers did advocate for Revolution and even fought, Nathaniel Greene being the chief example.
 Frazer, God Against the Revolution, 5.
 Ibid, 36.
 Jonathan Boucher, A View of the Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution: In Thirteen Discourses, Preached in North America Between the Years 1763 and 1775, with a Historical Preface (London: printed for G.G. & J. Robinson, 1797). Pp. 175-176. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CY0100135629/SABN?u=vic_liberty&sid=SABN&xid=08def3e0&pg=1.
 Charles Inglis, The Christian Soldier’s Duty Briefly Delineated: In A Sermon Preached at King’s Bridge before the American Corps Newly Raised for His Majesty’s Service (September 7, 1777). Evans Early American Imprint Collection. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N12180.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext
 Isaac Backus, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day (1773). Quoted in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730–1805: vol. 1 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012.Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/book/18247. Pp. 338-339.
 James Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Pp. 72.
 Gregg Frazer, God Against the Revolution, Pp. 18.
 Jacob Duché, First Prayer of the Continental Congress, 1774 (Philadelphia, September 7, 1774). Office of the Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives. https://chaplain.house.gov/archive/continental.html
 Jacob Duche, The Duty of Standing Fast in our Spiritual and Temporal Liberties, A Sermon Preached in Christ Church, July 7, 1775. Before the First Battalion of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia; and now Published at Their Request. Philadelphia: 1775. Evans Early American Imprint Collection. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11057.0001.001/1:4?rgn=div1;view=fulltext
 Jacob Duché to George Washington, October 8, 1777. National Archives, The Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0452
 Romans 13:1-2. The Holy Bible: The King James Version (WorldWide Bible Assoc.: 2019).
 Daniel Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, 110.
 J. Patrick Mullins, Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution (University of Kansas Press: 2017). Pp. 20.
 John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818. From Founders Online, National Archives website. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6854
 Jonathan Mayhew, A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers: With some Reflections on the Resistance made to King Charles I. And on the Anniversary of his Death: In which the Mysterious Doctrine of that Prince's Saintship and Martyrdom is Unriddled. 1750. Electronic Texts in American Studies. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/44
 J. Patrick Mullins, Father of Liberty, 52.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 34.