Wednesday, June 29, 2016

American Creation Helps Keep Scholars and Others Honest on America's Founders' Religion

Long story short. Back in February an historian from Biola named Susan Lim wrote a more or less fair and good article on the topic for "Christianity Today." Like David McCullough, she left out John Adams' unitarianism from the story, giving the impression he was a "Puritan." A PhD named Matthew Hunter caught this and contacted her. And he cited both me and co-blogger Tom Van Dyke (you can read Dr. Hunter's post to find out which America Creation posts he cited). John Fea tells us about it.

I think David McCullough is a fine scholar. Perhaps he wrote on Adams with a disinterest in the finer theological details of things and expected his popular audience to share that disinterest. The readers of "Christianity Today" and scholars at Biola aren't, I don't think, supposed to share such disinterest. Dr. Lim followed the same path that the pious pastor named Joel Mark I discussed the issue with years earlier in that linked to AC post did: Read David McCullough's account of John Adams and assume he was a pious Christian of the Puritan persuasion.

(As for the title to Dr. Lim's article, she noted this about Alexander Hamilton's faith: "Like most faith journeys, Hamilton’s ebbed and flowed between skepticism and belief." She could have elaborated further that while he rose to fame and did his "work" founding the nation he wasn't an orthodox Christian, but that "other" in between category. He didn't convert until after his political life came crashing down and his son died.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A note to our readers: Never Mind—The Constitution is Obsolete

What a relief!  As it turns out, this has all been a gigantic waste of time.  As celebrity intellectual and federal judge Richard Posner writes at the leftist website Slate:

And on another note about academia and practical law, I see absolutely no value to a judge of spending decades, years, months, weeks, day, hours, minutes, or seconds studying the Constitution, the history of its enactment, its amendments, and its implementation (across the centuries—well, just a little more than two centuries, and of course less for many of the amendments). Eighteenth-century guys, however smart, could not foresee the culture, technology, etc., of the 21st century. Which means that the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the post–Civil War amendments (including the 14th), do not speak to today. David Strauss is right: The Supreme Court treats the Constitution like it is authorizing the court to create a common law of constitutional law, based on current concerns, not what those 18th-century guys were worrying about.
In short, let's not let the dead bury the living.

About time the Left were honest with us about what they really think.  Screw the Constitution and the horses it rode in on.  Let the good times roll!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Popes & Persecutors of Rome, England, Holland or Geneva

The charge I make against William Livingston -- that he was a member of the Presbyterian Club, but disagreed with its doctrines -- is one I need to further explore. I spent a few hours tracking down the quote I put in the title.

It occurred in his "A Vindication of the Moravians, against the Aspersions of their Enemies,” The Independent Reflector, January 4, 1753.

He refers to "Popes" and "Persecutors" as being from "Rome, England, Holland or Geneva." The first two refer to Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. The latter two refer certainly to Calvinistic Presbyterians and perhaps (Dutch) Arminians.

Livingston was already at this time -- when he defended "primitive Christianity" against "orthodoxy" -- formally/nominally affiliated with the Presbyterians. He joked about this when he wrote his satirical attack on the Anglicans' 39 Articles of faith and prefaced it with the aside:
It is well known that some have represented me as an Atheist, others as a Deist, and a third sort as a Presbyterian. My creed will show that none have exactly hit it. For all which reasons, I shall cheerfully lay before you the articles of my faith. * * *
Livingston's "articles" were written around the same time as his defense of the Morvaians, 1753.

I don't see any evidence he changed his position over time. I have shown Livingston continued to dislike the Athanasian Creed until the end of his life. I have also shown that in 1778, while Governor of New Jersey, Livingston is describing himself as "more than half a Quaker" while decrying Protestant Popery that persecutes.

I briefly encountered some sources, while researching this post, that spoke of a Presbyterian-Quaker "meeting of the minds" theology that occurred during this time. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that one. But then again, the Presbyterians gave birth to both the Socinian Joseph Priestley and the Calvinist turned Arminian turned Universalist Benjamin Rush.

William Livingston Hated Creeds & St. Athanasius' as of 1787

Doctrinaire Calvinists, as good "reformed Protestants" adhere to, among others, the Athanasian Creed. William Livingston, one of America's Founders, was born in 1723. I have written much about William Livingston's "primitive Christianity" that included, among other things, his personal rejection of official Presbyterian doctrine, even though ironically, Livingston was a member of the Presbyterian Club.

So a blogger takes issue my understanding here and here. He argues Livingston a genuine orthodox Calvinist Presbyterian and notes 1. My understanding of Livingston's religion comes from his writings in the Daily Reflector written when Livingston was 27; 2. that "Livingston never rejected the [A]thanasian [C]reed"; and 3. that if Livingston "was [A]rminian, it's a bigger scam than what [M]adoff did."

Well, Livingston rejected the Athanasian Creed in in November 1787  at age 64 (or almost) roughly three yeas before his death, just like he did when he was in his 20s. That Livingston rejected the Calvinism of the Presbyterian Church with which he was affiliated doesn't necessarily make him an "Arminian." The distinction between the two could be a false dichotomy if presented in an either/or sense.

But if Livingston being affiliated with a church, even in a mighty leadership position, in whose official doctrines he didn't believe makes him a "Madoff," that's not my judgment to make. I will just note the record shows he did indeed reject the official doctrines of said Presbyterian Church.

Primitive Christianity, Reformation, Restoration, Scripture & Canon

Wow, lots of words there.

As it relates to the American Founding, I've noted the Quakers, Christian-Deists & Unitarians, and perhaps some of the orthodox Christians had an affinity for "Primitive Christianity." What it means is that Christianity before it was corrupted by the clerical class. The Roman Catholic Church were the biggest villains. But Anglicans, Calvinists and others -- especially if they were "fundamentalist" on their churches' doctrines and creeds -- were suspect.

All sincere believers wish to "get it right." And they all agreed it was "right" when Jesus existed and instructed His followers. So to the extent that others have it wrong, everyone wants to "restore" the original teachings and practices of Jesus to correct other people's errors (or at least not be personally subject to them).

To the extent that things went wrong, it came shortly thereafter.

My research shows however, that those who endorsed "Primitive Christianity" thought that by the time the Council of Nicea occurred (325 AD) the Church was already "corrupted." Martin Luther wouldn't be a good "primitive Christian." He thought that the early church during this period was doing the right thing in "filling out" the faith with doctrine. Ditto with Calvin.

They were "reformers" who wished to "reform" the "catholic" (universal) church into something layered with sophisticated doctrine, just correct Rome's errors. 

Interestingly, "the Bible" as a canon was not fully settled until around the late 4th Century. Believers always had books of scripture they thought inspired. But the Early Church Fathers dickered on the exact details. And even when they "settled" it by writing the Vulgate, disputes continued and continue to this day regarding which exact books belong. (The Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Bibles all contain different numbers of books.)

So to a primitive Christian, what we think of as "The Bible" would have been compiled by a corrupted church. We should thus see how this could inspire the Christian-Deists and Unitarians to continue to "edit" the canon, with Thomas Jefferson as the most notorious example.

But because primitive Christians took their faith seriously, there would still be certain essentials of the faith that were non-negotiable. They wouldn't include orthodox Trinitarian doctrine or belief in the divine inspiration of every word "the Bible" (whichever canon one adheres to).

This is essentially (if I understand him right) what John Locke taught in "The Reasonableness of Christianity."

Finally, those anathematized by the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds have incentive to look before to a golden era of "primitive Christianity" in order to justify their beliefs. This would include not just Christian-Deists and Unitarians, but also today's Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. And the Quakers who don't believe in creeds.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Hillsdale College Online Courses: "Was America Founded a “Christian” Nation?"

Check it out here. A taste:

John J. Miller:

Now, this is the most popular subject for debate on the discussion board. Let me boil it down to a simple question. Is America a Christian nation?

Mark Kalthoff:         

Well, that's a hot question. ...

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Interview with Sam Haselby

Sam Haselby, historian and author of the book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, gave an interview with 
A taste:
"I have argued that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were visionary secularists and that they launched what was a historic, if ultimately faltering, and kind of feeble secularization project. That is true. Other notable Americans of the revolutionary era were acutely Protestant. Patrick Henry and John Jay, for example. They were deeply religious and wanted the US to be so too. So was Timothy Dwight. So were many, many others of the revolutionary generation. Most people probably wanted the US to be a devout country. But there was no agreement on what that meant. The range of positions was broad, very broad.
It is crucial however to understand that 'Christian nation' has always been a term of bigotry and exclusion. First, when Americans of the 18th and 19th century used the term they were saying Catholics were not Christians. Then--as now--most Christians in the world were Catholic. It makes no sense to call a country hostile to most of the world’s Christians a 'Christian nation.'”
You can read the rest of his interview here:

William Livingston, The Moravians, Primitive Christianity

In my last post I noted the Moravians might be like the Quakers in their belief in simplistic primitive Christianity. I crossed out that parenthetical clause because after researching them further, I'm not so sure. I don't know enough about them yet to make that assessment.

I do know that William Livingston, who loved the Quakers, also defended the Moravians. The Moravians were viewed as "heretics." Livingston was an anti-heresy hunter.

That was the point of "primitive Christianity." As George Washington once put it, "[I]n religion my tenets are few and simple."

It was this doctrinal indifference that permitted religious pluralism to flourish in the American Founding. That's the thesis to  Chris Beneke's "Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism."

Beneke argues that Livingston's proposed Christianity was "devoid of theological content." To Livingston "Christ was the promised Messiah" whose moral instruction ought to be followed. But the contents of that instruction could be "contained in a sheet of paper."

This was "primitive Christianity."

Monday, June 13, 2016

Calvinistic Baptists During the American Founding Period & Other Stuff

I saw Thomas Kidd post this on social media wherein he noted "A 1794 survey estimated that 956 out of 1032 Baptist churches in America were Calvinist."

This supports Dr. Gregg Frazer's thesis insofar as it relates to Baptists as a "Christian" sect. Frazer took some heat at American Creation for suggesting that Baptists were tied to orthodox creeds. His thesis is, if we don't remember, that late 18th Century American "Christianity" defines as a lowest common denominator among the major sects drawn from the orthodox Trinitarian creeds to which they adhered.

If I have a book in me, it would be a more modest thesis. It wouldn't necessarily be that the prevailing political theology of the American Founding was Christian-Deism/theistic rationalism, unitarianism or what have you. But rather, when the decentralized nature of Protestantism met the individualistic spirit of the age of Enlightenment a type of theology emerged that eschewed creeds and confessions of the major churches in favor of doctrinal freethinking.

The ironic part is that many of the leading thinkers remained somewhat formally and nominally affiliated with those churches that had those creeds and confessions.  That is these figures didn't start their own new churches or join the Quakers. (Perhaps they would have if the Quakers weren't so committed to pacifism?)

Yes the Quakers. To the extent that any of the pre-Enlightenment Protestant sects typified this approach it would be the Quakers (and lesser groups like the Moravians). But the notable Founding Fathers -- not just the "key Founders," but also Benjamin Rush, John Dickinson, and William Livingston -- weren't members of the Quaker club. Though Dickinson comes close.

The term "primitive Christianity" figures here. It means "Christianity" before it was "corrupted." It's tempting for some orthodox Protestants to try to park the blame entirely on Roman Catholicism for this sentiment. (As in, "this just means Roman Catholicism.") But rather those who promoted "primitive Christianity" would seek to credit or blame (however you look at it) Roman Catholicism with the Nicene Creed and all subsequent creeds and indeed perhaps with orthodox doctrines like the Trinity itself.

This poses a problem for orthodox Protestants. Most reformed and evangelicals of the late 18th Century and of today believe in those creeds and arguably the small c "catholic" church. So primitive Christianity is both anti-Catholic and anti-catholic.

Many of the American Founders both key and non-key were Anglicans.  And that church had a movement -- latitudinarianism -- which downplayed official doctrines and creeds. But it also meant the Founders would be, as noted above, either members of or affiliated with a church that teaches political-theological doctrines they dissented from. Sometimes overtly. Sometimes secretly.

An Anglican-Whig is arguably an oxymoron as a term, as Toryism was official Anglican political theology. But they not only existed, but comprised a movement -- both in England and later in America -- that helped found America.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Junto: "How Do We Find Religion in the American Revolution?"

Check it out here. A taste:
On May 17, 1773, an advertisement appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette for a new book by English dissenting minister Micaiah Towgood (misidentified in the advertisement as Michael Twogood). The ad is interesting because it is one of only 67 items in that come up in a search of Readex’s American Historical Newspapers database for the period between 1764 and 1789 containing a particular trifecta of terms: “Jesus Christ,” “liberty”, and (to get both religion and cognates like religious and religiously) “religio*”.
Here are a few other searches for comparison, all for the period between 1764 and 1789.

Religio*, liberty, “Jesus Christ” – 67
“Jesus Christ” – 414
Jesus Christ – 997
Religio*, liberty – 8,209
Religio* – 28,362
Liberty – 71,881

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Fun with the Founders

For those who prefer their revolutionary icons served with a saucy side of sarcasm, Peter Bagge's Founding Fathers Funnies.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Benjamin Rush Delivers a Discourse "On Oaths"

In an essay, “An Enquiry into the Consistency of Oaths with Reason and Christianity,” Jan. 20 1789, Benjamin Rush  delivered a discourse “On Oaths.” He concludes his discourse with these two paragraphs:
 If oaths [as already explained] are contrary to reason, and have a pernicious influence upon morals and the order of society; and above all, if they are contrary to the precepts and spirit of the gospel; it becomes legislators and ministers of the gospel to consider how far they are responsible for all the falsehood, profane swearing and perjury that exist in society. It is in the power of legislators to abolish oaths, by expunging them from our laws; and it is in the power of ministers of the gospel, by their influence and example, to render truth so simple and obligatory, that human governments shall be ashamed to ask any other mode of declaring it, from Christians, than by a bare affirmation.
 The friends of virtue and freedom have beheld, with great pleasure, a new constitution established in the United States, whose objects are peace, union and justice. It will be in the power of the first congress that shall act under this constitution, to set the world an example of enlightened policy, by framing laws that shall command obedience without the absurd and improper obligation of oaths. By this means they will add the restoration and establishment of TRUTH, to the great and valuable objects of the constitution that have been mentioned.
 The full text can be seen here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Benjamin Rush on Creeds

I have a modest claim about the political theology of the American Founding that relates to ecumenicism and anti-creedalism. Some of the very influential Founders who might not neatly fit into the "theistic rationalist"/"Christian-Deist or Unitarian" mode fit here.

Again I recommend James H. Hutson's "The Founders on Religion, A Book of Quotations" as a good place to start. It alphabetizes the subjects. "Creeds" and "Ecumenicism" are good places to read. The various notable churches of the day (except for the Quakers) were attached to orthodox creeds and confessions.

There are some Bible believing evangelicals who belong to churches with orthodox creeds, but will say something like "I believe in the Trinity (and everything else my church teaches in their creeds) because the Bible teaches such." I think most orthodox Christians who believe in everything in their canon of Scripture don't see any contradiction between Scripture and creeds, but rather some kind of complementary support.

But the sentiment I observe is different. It's a sentiment that makes the believer want to confirm his religious conscience by examining scripture and using his reason and experience combined with a willingness to disregard the content of creeds and confessions of the church to which he belonged. And also a willingness to disregard traditionally held orthodox doctrines.

It was this method that produced Thomas Jefferson's and John Adams' unitarian heterodoxy. But others like Benjamin Rush, William Livingston, John Dickinson, and even John Jay (and arguably countless others) operated according to this method but ended up in different places. John Jay probably ended up closest to "orthodox Christianity" out of that list. But he still gave Council of Nicea short shift.

So for Benjamin Rush, this method didn't lead to as it did for Jefferson, J. Adams, and (probably) Franklin rejection of the Trinity (one could argue Franklin claimed to be agnostic on the doctrine; but I read the record as him throwing his lot in with the unitarians), but rather affirmation of the Trinity combined with rejection of eternal damnation, believing all would eventually be saved with the unsaved experiencing a long period of temporary punishment.

When one does a search for "Benjamin Rush" and "religion" the denominational affiliation that comes up is Presbyterian. At one time in his life, Rush admits to holding such Calvinistic convictions, but then notes he ditched it for Arminianism and then theological universalism. His logic was if Jesus died for all then all would eventually be saved. And he claimed the Bible supported his conclusion.

But this is what Rush had to say on creeds:
I have often lamented the Squeamishness of my [. . .] mind upon the subject of religious Creeds and modes of worship—But accustomed to think for myself in my profession, and encouraged to believe that my opinions and modes of practice are just, from the Success which has attended them even in the hands of their enemies, I have ventured to transfer the same Spirit of inquiry to Religion in which, if I have no followers, in my opinions (for I hold most of them secretly) I enjoy the Satisfaction of living in peace with my own Conscience, and what will surprise you not a little—in peace with all denominations of Christians, for while I refuse to be the slave of any Sect, I am the friend of them all. In a future letter I may perhaps give you my Creed. It differs materially from Dr Brown’s as expressed in his Religio medici. It is a compound of the orthodoxy & heterodoxy of most of our christian Churches.
 -- To John Adams, April 5, 1808.