fbpx

Founding Deists and Other Unicorns

We need to know what the word plethora means before we can say we have a plethora of piñatas. So, too, we cannot consider whether or not America had a Christian founding without having an idea of what the phrase Christian founding actually means. At the start of Did America Have a Christian Founding?, Mark David Hall rightly analyzes the question his book asks. What determines whether or not America had a Christian founding? Hall considers a variety of options. Did the members of the founding generation identify themselves as Christians? Almost everyone did, with the exception of about two thousand Jews. But that doesn’t tell us much. People can be bad believers, or they can be good Christians self-consciously founding a secular regime. Sincerity of belief can be difficult to judge. Appealing to people’s practices only gives us a partial view. And there’s a theological issue, too. At what point does a historical figure become a non-Christian due to his privately held unorthodox beliefs, even if he publicly identifies himself as a Christian?

Hall sidesteps these thorny questions about people—though he has shown an ability to tackle them well elsewhere—to focus on the ideas themselves. Were the founders influenced by Christian ideas? That’s the question Hall wants to pursue. And his answer is yes:

Book after book has been written about whether the founders were most influenced by Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and so on. I contend that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the founding generation.

Moreover, Hall holds that “to the extent to which America’s founders utilized these thinkers, they borrowed ideas or arguments that were compatible with orthodox Christianity, and, in fact, were often developed before the Enlightenment by indisputably Christian thinkers.”

The temptation in a book like this one is to make exciting claims to gain an audience, while playing fast and loose with history, or to do such minute technical work that even specialists have to drink coffee to press on. Hall’s sense of balance between these two extremes is perfect.

Bibles, Bibles Everywhere

No one should argue about whether or not the Constitution contains the word God (it doesn’t) or whether it assumes certain religious practices (it does). However, we can and should debate the source of the Constitution’s ideas.

The Enlightenment is, of course, a heavyweight contender for the title of Most Influential to the Constitution. Matthew Stewart, for example, claims that Benedict de Spinoza was the architect of the political philosophy that flowered in the United States, and that John Locke was the acceptable face of the movement. Hall calls such an adventure in revisionist history “pure fantasy.”

Few scholars claim Spinoza for the American founding. Many more claim Locke, and so, Hall turns his attention to him. In a sentence, the reports of Locke’s influence have been greatly exaggerated. Donald S. Lutz’s survey of 15,000 works from 1760 to 1805 says only 2.9% of citations reference Locke, in contrast to 34% of all citations referencing the Bible. (And Hall notes that, if anything, “Lutz undercounts references to the Bible because he excludes from his sample political sermons that do not contain references to secular authors. If he had included these sermons, references to the Bible would have absolutely dwarfed any other grouping of texts.”) This difference in frequency should not surprise us: Locke’s Second Treatise was first published in the United States in 1773 and was only republished in 1937—hardly what one would expect for the seminal political work by a leading figure of the British Enlightenment who was supposed to have substantial influence on the American founding. “If Locke’s works were late to arrive on America’s shores,” Hall writes, “the Bible was virtually omnipresent from the first days of the Puritan settlement.”

Let’s consider one concrete case in order to illustrate Hall’s method. In 1784, Patrick Henry proposed a bill to tax individuals for the support of their local churches. James Madison wrote his celebrated Memorial in the summer of 1785 in the hopes of preventing the bill’s passage that autumn. On a standard telling of the American story, an Enlightenment Madison saved the country from religious fanatics. Is that, in fact, what happened?

Not at all. Hall notes that “an earlier evangelical petition” received far more signatures, by a margin of 4,899 to 1,552 (out of 10,929 Virginians who signed any petition on the matter). That petition said Henry’s bill was “contrary to the spirit of the Gospel” and that the church was not helped “when Constantine first established Christianity by human laws.” Lest we think Madison’s Memorial spawned the other petitions, including this evangelical one, Hall notes that the evangelical petition was written at least seventh months before Madison wrote his Memorial. Furthermore, Madison’s Memorial itself includes “a number of overtly religious arguments,” suggesting a broader purview than the unaccompanied Enlightenment. And let’s be clear: almost half the Virginians who signed a petition signed the evangelical one, thereby endorsing its Christian appeals for religious freedom. The Memorial by itself, based on its share of signatories, could not have carried the day. The evangelical petition, all by itself, could have.

Why? Concerns for religious liberty did not commence in the 1780s. William Penn, writing in 1675, said “force makes hypocrites, ’tis persuasion only that makes converts.” Though Quakers could not testify in criminal trials in England until 1828, Quakers could do so in Rhode Island as early as 1647, due to an enacted law that allowed them to offer “solemn profession or testimony” instead of an oath. To be clear, Spinoza and Locke were teenagers in 1647; though undeniably precocious, they were hardly the inspiration for Rhode Island’s religious accommodation.

In addition to concrete cases, Hall considers the question of broad support for Christianity itself. That makes sense. After all, a basket of disparate ideas does not a Christian founding make. So Hall considers the founders’ self-conscious support of religion. Following James Hutson, he delivers a founders’ syllogism. Here are the premises: republican government requires a moral citizenry; morality needs religion. The conclusion is thus that republican government requires religion. And Hall goes further. “When America’s founders spoke about ‘religion,’” he writes, “virtually all of them—even those most influenced by the Enlightenment—meant Christianity.” He quotes Chief Justice John Marshall to great effect: “Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity.”

Not everyone believed the syllogism, of course. But few championing a godless founding would find them all comfortable bedfellows. “For instance, in one remarkable case, slavery led John Rutledge of South Carolina to reject the almost universal consensus that religion and morality should inform public policy.” And, besides, most founders did endorse the syllogism: “Examples of founders insisting that religion is necessary for morality, and that both religion and morality are necessary for republican government, could be multiplied almost indefinitely.”

Eight Men Do Not a Founding Make

Hall identifies eight great founders regularly claimed for deism: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Allen, and Paine. Hall gives us plenty of reasons to question the alleged deism of most of these men. But he observes, quite persuasively, that even if these founders were all deists, they still had to persuade (from a secular point of view) the vast unenlightened hordes clinging to God and their guns. Eight men—even eight great and influential men—still represent a minuscule segment of the national population.

More importantly, these eight represent only a tiny sample of the people we call founders. Hall works through the founders by denominational affiliation, noting that “there is little reason to doubt, and much evidence to indicate” their orthodoxy. From Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon, on the Reformed side, to John Jay and Patrick Henry on the Anglican side (just to name a few), Hall offers a laundry list of Christian founders.

By contrast, in the founding period, only Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine offered defenses of deism. Hall argues persuasively that Allen’s Reason: The Only Oracle of Man exercised little influence (selling less than 200 copies) and that Paine’s Age of Reason received almost universal scorn. Hall offers a veritable who’s who of founders that criticized Paine’s book, and he finds Paine’s death suggestive of the kind of reception Americans gave his ideas: “When he passed away in 1809,” Hall writes, “he had to be buried on a farm because even the tolerant Quakers refused to let him be interred in a church cemetery; only six mourners came to his funeral.”

And the Great Eight did not impose the Constitution. States ratified it. Lest one object that the rubes of state governments can be ignored from constitutional analysis, Hall notes that “most of America’s more cosmopolitan founders also served in state governments, and many less famous but still influential founders did as well.”

Well, what were these states up to in the late 18th century? Let’s consider one representative from the New England, mid-Atlantic, and southern colonies. First, New England: By 1784 Connecticut’s revised statues promoted Christianity explicitly. Church attendance was mandatory; Sabbath breakers were punished. Each family had to possess a Bible; each office holder had to taken an oath with God as a witness; and each family that adopted “an Indian Child” had to instruct the child in “the principles of the Christian Religion.” If making you teach your adopted kid Christianity doesn’t count as state support of religion, what does?

What about Pennsylvania? Its 1776 state constitution promoted religious liberty but also had the following religious test for office: “I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.” Leaders of a synagogue petitioned for a revision to this test to include Jews; the issue was tabled, but they succeeded in a less restrictive religious test when the state rewrote its constitution. (Hall notes that the North Carolina state constitution still does not permit atheists to hold public office, though the provision has been unenforceable since 1961.)

Finally, consider Georgia. Abraham Baldwin played a role in the relationship between church and state in Georgia and also in the drafting of the First Amendment. The University of Georgia—founded in 1785—was the first state-funded university in the nation, and Baldwin became its first president. The statue required that professors and administrators had to be “of the Christian religion,” but students should not be excluded because of “speculative sentiments in religion, or being of a different religious profession.” Many Christian colleges and universities retain the same policy today.

The Halls of Monticello

Hall does not cherry-pick the founding, finding juicy little tidbits of Christianity here and there while ignoring the Enlightenment bark. On the contrary, he considers interesting counterexamples to his overall thesis, and Did America Have a Christian Founding? is a better book as a result. I’ll consider two possible counterexamples to Hall’s thesis that America had a Christian founding.

First, if America had a Christian founding, then why did undeniably important founder Thomas Jefferson articulate and defend a “wall of separation” between church and state?

Hall’s answer: Jefferson’s “wall of separation” is a phrase from an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. The phrase itself did not originate with Jefferson, and he used it only once. “Even more remarkably,” Hall writes, “two days after he penned it, Jefferson attended church services in the US Capitol, where he heard John Leland, the great Baptist minister and an opponent of established churches, preach.” So Jefferson’s understanding of the wall of separation included a sitting president attending a church service in the US Capitol.

Hall makes a convincing case that we should see this attendance as a genuine reflection of how Jefferson understood the relationship between church and state. Years earlier, in 1776, Jefferson proposed a national seal with an image of the Hebrews safely crossing the Red Sea under God’s protection—signified by a pillar of fire—and a depiction of Pharaoh embracing destruction as the waters turned back upon him. Jefferson’s proposed motto for the new nation was not “We are all Lockeans now” but “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Hall notes that “Franklin’s proposal was virtually identical to Jefferson’s.” Both Jefferson and Franklin would have given us a national seal that invoked the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Finally, in 1803—the year after the Danbury letter—Jefferson sent a treaty for the Kaskaskia Indians to the Senate stipulating, in Hall’s words, “federal funds to support a Catholic priest and to build a church.” So Jefferson and his wall of separation seem to be more comfortable with the use of federal funds for religious purposes than many Christian conservatives today—a surprising result.

The Shores of Tripoli

Let’s consider one more proposed counterexample. If America had a Christian founding, then why does the eleventh article of the nation’s 1797 treaty with Tripoli says that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” so that “no pretext, arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries”?

Isn’t this a smoking gun? Hall says America had a Christian founding, but an early American treaty explicitly denies such a claim! In response, Hall appeals to context: After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the British navy understandably stopped protecting American merchant ships, so North African pirates captured American ships and enslaved American citizens or held them hostage. Hall proposes that Americans viewed the language of the treaty as a practical maneuver rather than an actual assessment, in order to undercut the claim that the pirates could justify their activities on religious grounds. After all, no public protests erupted in opposition to this article, which is what one would expect from some quarters if people took it seriously (or even read it).

In an endnote that should have been in the body text, Hall adds, “Four years after the treaty was ratified, Secretary of War James McHenry wrote to the secretary of the treasury that he was outraged by Article 11. Perhaps this is one reason it was excised from future versions of the treaty.” That’s an important point: McHenry was a founder. He signed the US Constitution and served as the nation’s secretary of war under the first two presidents. Unlike the vast majority of Americans, he would have read a treaty dealing with piracy; after all, he was secretary of war. He protested the eleventh article, and it was removed. True, at least one person wanted to claim that America was not founded on the Christian religion, but that claim was not allowed to stand. The clause was removed.

A Lingering Question

Why does this matter? It’s important to get the history right, of course, but Hall’s concern is more than historical. In today’s fights over religious establishment, liberty, and accommodation, our assumption that America did not have a Christian founding leads us to embrace the wrong conclusions—or perhaps just assumptions—about what the founders would have wanted religion in our public life to look like. When we consider state aid to religious schools, Hall wants us to think about the founding of the University of Georgia; when we discuss the permissibility of the phrase under God in the pledge, we should remember that atheists at the time of the founding could not hold public office; and when we contemplate whether or not bakers and florists should get religious accommodations, we should think about the pacifist Quakers being exempted from military service even as a fledgling nation fought for its existence. Hall’s point is not to force the University of Georgia to hire only Christian professors or to re-institute laws against breaking the Sabbath. But he does want us to practice more balance than we do have when we consider these contested issues. Opponents of prayer in school, for example, may think they are defending the American constitutional order against religious zealots who want to reject the founding principles of the nation. Hall has shown, quite decisively I think, that they are simply mistaken.

I would like to close by offering a serious question: Has Hall demonstrated that America had a Christian founding, or has he shown only that Christianity should be included as one of the many intellectual streams coming together in the American experiment?

He has unquestionably shown that Christianity contributes to the founding as one among many, perhaps even the first among equals. But I think he wants to make a stronger claim for Christianity than that, however. Consider the following thought experiment: Imagine an uninhabited area of land next to the United States but neither part of that nation nor any other. An investigative team is sent, and here’s what they learn: Church attendance in this newfound land is absolutely mandatory; Sabbath breaking is punished; office holders must affirm the divine inspiration of the Scriptures; professors at the one publicly funded university must be Christians. Upon learning this news, most Americans would think we had discovered not only a Christian nation but a Christian nation of the most extreme type. Well, if we could travel back in time, Hall perhaps would tell us, that’s precisely what we would find at the time of the American founding. Notice here, though, that we are talking about Christian practice and not about Christian ideas (though we don’t have to separate them, of course).

What about Christian ideas? When I say that something is a Christian book, for example, I probably mean there’s something in the book that is exclusively Christian—that is, there is at least one idea that comes from Christianity and cannot come from anywhere else. Now the book doesn’t have to be a commentary on the Bible or a collection of sermons to count as a Christian book, but surely referencing the Bible or biblical ideas doesn’t by itself make a book Christian. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan does not, in my mind, count as a Christian book. But Edwin Curley’s Hackett edition of Hobbes’s work has an index of biblical citations, and the Cambridge edition by Richard Tuck includes an index of proper names—from Aaron to Zimri.

But perhaps the requirement that a founding is Christian only if it has ideas that are uniquely Christian is too rigorous. After all, as Hall smartly notes, the Lord’s Prayer is Christian—Jesus gave it to his disciples—but the text of the prayer does not reference the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, or the Bible—or even Jesus himself.

Indeed, Christianity may be seen as less influential now because Christian ideas were so wildly popular then, with the result that we find Christian ideas everywhere without recognizing their provenance. If so, then we are like the Europeans, and not the Americans, described by Benjamin Franklin in his 1781 letter to Samuel Cooper:

It was not necessary in New England, where everybody reads the Bible, and is acquainted with Scripture phrases, that you should note the texts from which you took them; but I have observed in England as well as in France, that verses and expressions taken from the sacred writings, and not known to be such, appear very strange and awkward to some readers; and I shall therefore in my edition take the liberty of marking the quoted texts in the margin.

Hall does Franklin’s work for the present day, making notes in the margins of history so we can understand the significance of what our founders wrote.

And this book is not just for Americans cheering the idea of a Christian founding. It can be put to good use by those disturbed by some trends in Christian America. Indeed, if the idea of a religious founding makes your secular self break out in hives, you should buy Hall’s book, memorize it, and give your copy to a friend. As Hall shows, the best way to persuade Christian people to believe in the ideals of the American founding is to make a Christian case for them.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on October 30, 2019 at 09:08:45 am

[…] shows that the assumption that America did not have a Christian founding leads us into deep errors. Founding Deists and Other Unicorns syndicated from […]

read full comment
Image of Founding Deists and Other Unicorns | Best Legal Services
Founding Deists and Other Unicorns | Best Legal Services
on October 30, 2019 at 11:47:25 am

“...the best way to persuade Christian people to believe in the ideals of the American founding is to make a Christian case for them.”

True, but we can know through both our Christian Faith and reason, a Christian Nation that denies The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and thus the fact that “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, will eventually, no longer be a Christian Nation, having answered the question, “Who do you say that I Am”, with a plethora of answers, even though we can know through both our Christian Faith and reason, that there is only One Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Take Away The Sins Of The World, Our Only Savior, Jesus, The Christ, Thus There Can Only Be, One Spirit Of Perfect Love Between The Father And The Son, Who Must Proceed From Both The Father And The Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

“Caritas In Veritate”; Veritas In Caritate”, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Amen

You can only have a Great Apostasy from Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church.

The Good News Is, Perfect Love, which is always rightly ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love can “Make All Things New Again”.

If it were true that it was Loving and Merciful that we remain in our Sins, we would not need Our Savior, Jesus The Christ.

read full comment
Image of Nancy D.
Nancy D.
on October 30, 2019 at 12:24:49 pm

I think Mark's research is great, but I think he would agree that (?) if confessional Trinitarianism is a non-negotiable tenet of "Christianity" it's difficult to argue with a straight face that America was founded as a "Christian Nation" in this sense. Not only does America's Declaration of Independence NOT say this, but a majority of the five authors of the DOI demonstrably didn't believe this. And in fact, Jefferson and J. Adams bitterly ridiculed it.

read full comment
Image of Jonathan Rowe
Jonathan Rowe
on October 30, 2019 at 13:50:09 pm

And yet, no one can deny that this Nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and that every time we denied our Founding Judeo-Christian principles, we have suffered greatly individually and as a Nation.
No doubt, our Salvational History has revealed that when we hold fast to our Founding Judeo-Christian principles, we are ascending towards securing and protecting our inherent unalienable Rights Endowed to us from God, and when we deny our Founding Judeo -Christian principles, we are descending from securing and protecting our Inherent unalienable Rights, Endowed to us from God.

This does not change the fact that our founders recognized that “God Is Love”, even if they failed to understand the entire essence of Perfect Life- Affirming and Life-Sustaining Salvational Love.

“God Is Love.” Love exists in Relationship. Love is Trinitarian, The Lover, The Beloved, And The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love Between The Lover And Beloved.

“It Is Love That Gives Us Life.”

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy
on October 30, 2019 at 14:40:46 pm

[…] To continue reading, click here. […]

read full comment
Image of Did America Have a Christian Founding? New Book Tackles the Revisionists
Did America Have a Christian Founding? New Book Tackles the Revisionists
on October 30, 2019 at 15:17:02 pm

Jon, I argue that America had a Christian founding, not that it was founded as a Christian nation. I hope you will read the book and let me know what you think!

read full comment
Image of Mark David Hall
Mark David Hall
on October 30, 2019 at 19:49:55 pm

I thought the distinction you make in this reply was pretty obvious - and I agree.

Here is a thought stream from your example of the fictional country adjacent to the US.

What if it did exist. would we be justified in asserting that it was a country with an "establishment" of religion or that it was a "Christian" nation.

Superficially, one could make such an assertion.
BUT...

We must also recognize that IF that fictional nation also had a First Amendment, we should, or ought to, reconsider such a conclusion.

I think that too many commentators misperceived / misunderstand the First Amendment to be simply a guarantee of either religious freedom or of freedom of speech, or both.

Yet, I believe it to something even more fundamental, and not inconsistent with the thinking of the Founders - Freedom of INQUIRY. The right and ability to question received wisdom / doctrine and not just in matters of theology / politics, etc; but rather as a reflection of a more modern epistemology that was open to and recptive of conclusions that contradicted / modified or amended the "propositional" knowledge (i.e., received wisdom / doctrine) of the Age. This was just as true for science, medicine AND commerce as it was for religion. The Founders, while primarily religious men of their time were certainly cognizant of the new approaches to knowledge (science, etc) that had swept through the Western world for the past 150 years. Coupled with a revulsion for the Religious Wars of the 17th century and the consequent skepticism arising from those conflicts, it ought not to surprise any interested observer that these men sought to minimize the sectarian conflicts which may naturally arise from a regime based upon certain "propositional" knowledge, i.e., certain religious dogma, overarching world encompassing explanatory schema / truth propositions under which, and by which the world must be subsumed and understood.
Contrast "propositional" knowledge with *prescriptive* knowledge - that which is based upon observation and reason (but not necessarily Pure Reason, large caps) and is capable of refutation. simultaneously, this aspect of prescriptive reason is what leads to innovation (again, in all spheres of human endeavor).

No, this fictional nation, should it also offer a First Amendment would not be an "established" nation in the religious sense. It would / could be said to be based on certain religious principles / sensibilities but it would not be a nation with an established religion (i.e., in this case a Christian nation).

So much of the very structure (and form) of the new American regime was designed to encourage open / free inquiry in matters both mundane and divine - from religion to science to commerce.
Heck, an argument may be made that at root the now perverse Commerce Clause is a reflection of a similar epistemology - let open inquiry, innovation and competition flourish.
It strikes me that the Founders created a regime where both prescriptive and propositional knowledge could coexist and that all forms of knowledge would be open to free inquiry.

Anyway, nice essay / review. It is, to my mind, impossible to dismiss or diminish the role that Christian sensibilities, precepts, and Yes, even doctrine contributed to the Founding. I see neither "establishment" ( so misunderstood and feared by the Left of today) nor a "traditional" Christian nation in the Founding.
Perhaps, we may call it a "sectarian" rationalism - if that makes any sense.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 30, 2019 at 20:51:06 pm

Thank God, we have here a well-written and well-argued review of Hall's very timely book. As a scholar of 18th Century American philosophy who is not guided by academia but by my own interest in the historical record, I can say the reviewers' assertions as mentioned here mirror my own conclusions.

I especially like his comments on the ridiculous limiting America's founders to eight men who have each been accused of Deism. My own investigation turned up some very surprising and sometimes overlooked facts about these men. I think the reason many people are confused on the subject is that they do not understand that the ideas that inspired the American Revolution came from the intertwined sources of the 18th Century American mind.

These are explored in Jeffry Morrison's "John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic".

Another overlooked source of American political philosophy is the Protestant Reformation and Resistance Movement. Beveridge's translation of John Calvin's 1558 edition of his magnum opus, "Institutes of the Christian Religion" are essential to the intensely political discussion of the role of civil government and church government in society, as well as the role of the citizen, and the role of Christians. The duty of the Magistrate and the Duty of the Church are especially informative. Read the whole book. It contains stuff that isn't in the earlier edition.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on October 30, 2019 at 21:48:01 pm

Designed for and created by Christian men and a largely Christian people. Correspondingly(and naturally) they obviously had a largely Christian political influence...with a secular gov't insurance policy.

read full comment
Image of anony
anony
on October 31, 2019 at 01:02:02 am

[…] Korea Could Be The Spark That Sets The World On Fire – Kyle Mizokami at National Interest Founding Deists & Other Unicorns – James Bruce at Law & Liberty Oct 30 What Did Western Civilization Ever Do for Us? A […]

read full comment
Image of Prime Time Politics & Culture: Thursday Edition – Big Pulpit
Prime Time Politics & Culture: Thursday Edition – Big Pulpit
on October 31, 2019 at 12:50:48 pm

anony:

I thought I was moderately successful in my attempt at concision of a rather involved topic.
However, you, sir, clearly outdid me:

"...a secular insurance policy." Quite apt!

I luv it!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 31, 2019 at 17:27:04 pm

Historically, the term "Christian" has more than one meaning.

First:
It can refer to the exclusive set of people whom God has called and only He knows who they are. These include Old and New Testament faithful, as well as certain others who are not people of The Book. An unknown number of 18th Century Americans belonged to this set, trusting Christ for their salvation and doing their best to obey the Commandments of God. The number of faithful may be unusually high because there were several major religious revivals, starting with the First Great Awakening, that brought many people from each of the Thirteen Colonies (later States) to the fold. This definition of Christianity is what is called by some denominations as "The Invisible Church". or the "True Church". Some denominations do not recognize the existence of an invisible church.

Second:
It can refer to people who have confessed at least one of the four historical 4th & 5th Century ecumenical Christian Creeds--Apostle's. Nicene, Chalcedonian and Athanasian. These confessions also form the basis of the Christian faith as we know it, although theology and doctrine of the various branches and denominations of the Church vary in detail. They are usually made at the time a professing Christian joins a particular church organization. These church organizations vary in size and membership, some are part of a large organization as with the Roman Catholic Church, some are part of a smaller organization as with the French Catholic Church which is independent of Rome or Presbyterian Church which has many members and church units around the world, and some are entirely independent as with a local chapel. This is also what some denominations call "The Church", and others call "The Visible Church".

Third:
It can refer to people who may or may not believe themselves to be Christians and attend a particular church organization but have not joined or confessed one of the Creeds. Those who believe themselves to be Christians may belong to the First set, and some people consider them to be members of the Second set.

Fourth:
It can refer to people whose gentle demeanor and kindness toward others is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ (including the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule, Sermon on the Mount), regardless whether they confess Christ or never set foot in a church in their life. This definition is usually written with a lowercase "c". They are not considered members of the Visible Church, but those who accept the existence of an Inivisible Church may consider them to be members, or potential members.

Fifth:
It can refer to people and places in the world where the moral, legal and cultural traditions of Christianity (sanctity of life, equal accountability to God, equality of rights and Justice, property, economic liberty, the Rule of Law, etc.), which have their origins in Mosaic Law and Greco-Roman Law--which is why I like to call it the Judeo-Christian Natural Law Tradition--form the basis of society. This is commonly referred to as "Christendom", which is a more correct term than "Christianity" since they are identified by customs other than the Christian Confessions, theology, doctrine, forms of worship, and religious practice.

Because of these different meanings, it is impossible to know what someone else is saying unless they give us the definition of Christian they are using. To do this intelligently, we must at least be familiar with the Confessions and basic history of the Christian Church. May professing Christians are unfamiliar with all this, so I recommend you refer to the following:

1) Walton's "Charts of Church History" (Zondervan)
2) Murray's "Revival and Revivalism" (Banner of Truth)
3) Hudson's "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic" (Library of Congress)
4) Schaff & Schaff's "Creeds of Christianity" (Baker)
5) Wright's "Resurrection of the Son of God" (Fortress Press)
6) Cochrane's "Christianity and Classical Culture" (Liberty Fund)
7) Fischer's "Albion's Seed" (Oxford University Press)

It always helps to know what you are talking about.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on October 31, 2019 at 18:11:07 pm

Oh, I forgot to mention that America's Founding Generation can be considered Christian in the following ways:

The First Set:
An unknown number, maybe as many as half the population. These would be self-confessed, including many great leaders of the American Revolution. Often this shows up in their Wills and letters. The record shows that John Witherspoon, John Jay, Patrick Henry, John Quincy Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John & Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, John Hancock, Mercy Otis Warren, and many others, gave evidence of true faith. George Washington is harder to know as he was very private about his beliefs--for one thing, America was full of religious dissent and he wanted to avoid causing offense. Many historians assume that because he never joined the Church or England or its successor in America, the Episcopalian Church, he was not a believer. However, the history of Christianity is full of believers who did not become members of a church because of Conscience, mostly having to do with doctrine and practice. I believe Washington belonged to this group of believers, and because others believed him to be a Christian due to his great wisdom and virtue and piety it is hard to say categorically that he wasn't a believer. I put him in the First Set because he didn't join a church, just served as a deacon in his local parish.

Second Set:
These would include about ten percent of the Americans who actually joined a church. Many historians say this is evidence that they were not a Christian society. However, back in the 18th Century anyone who did not live in a city or sizable town might have no church to go to, or if they did it did not suit them. Those on the frontier, and even many in cities and towns held services in their own Livingroom on Sunday. They might take turns with their neighbors, thus providing much-appreciated socializing. For a look at the prevalence and diversity of Christian denominations and other religions as our nation developed, see Gaustad's "New Atlas of Religion in America" (Eerdmans).

Third Set:
Because of the lack of churches on the frontier many believing Americans would have fallen into this category and could not be counted. But, Benjamin Franklin noted that the First Great Awakening and the revivals that followed touched perhaps half the total population--this would have included many slaves despite laws against bringing the Gospel to them.

Fourth Set:
Not all members of the previous sets could qualify for membership in this set. But, George Washington does. He had a terrible temper but so rarely lost it that the time he did were historic. Others who were not Christians also did, but I do not know who they might have been.

Fifth Set:
Because most Americans came from the Protestant Christian tradition, and English Common Law legal tradition, and countries where the Judeo-Christian Natural Law Tradition was strong, and America then was perhaps the one place in the world where these traditions were strongest of all, the entire population in 1775 (about 3 to 3.5 million people) would qualify for membership in this set--including Jewish congregations. This is the set Benjamin Franklin belonged to, and though he was not Christian in the religious sense, his religious beliefs were compatible with a rudimentary form of Judaism. He was very kindly disposed to Christianity and contributed financially to Christian causes.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on October 31, 2019 at 20:09:36 pm

I see there is one more point that needs addressing. That is Jefferson's "Separation of Church and State". This is one of errors that persists in spite of the fact it can be corrected very easily.

First of all, separation of church & state is a principle that goes back to ancient times although people didn't talk about it that way. Pagan societies with multiple gods and goddesses, like ancient Sumer and the Persian Empire, generally developed a list of socially acceptable god-cults (ones that didn't disturb the peace or institutions of society). Old Testament Jews sometimes governed themselves in which case they allowed only one religion--their own.

But, if the people did not follow God's commandments, their society suffered accordingly because immorality is a serious form of irresponsibility that weakens a society. So, they would end up being governed by foreign or domestic tyrants. Sometimes they would be taken into captivity to serve a tyrant in his own country. Sometimes their religion was also illegal, but other times they were allowed to worship God according to their conscience. Sometimes the foreign ruler, though a tyrant from the Jewish point of view, was a good king who let his subjects worship their own gods as they pleased, in which case we would say they enjoyed religious diversity and freedom.

Ancient Rome allowed some level of freedom of conscience, which is why Judaism was sometimes legal and sometimes not. Early Christianity was considered a form of Judaism until Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans for causing so much trouble. Christians distanced themselves from Judaism to save themselves. At first, they, too were considered an outlaw religion. Then, they were declared a legal religion. Eventually, and Emperor came along who declared all other religions to be illegal and established it as the State Church.

This had two immediate results: the Church grew rapidly and the religion suffered because the Emperor was now appointing bishops. Many of these bishops were not acquainted with Christianity, could not read, and were also corrupt. The church suffered accordingly. After Rome fell, the Christian Church was the only stable institution of society and the people turned to its bishops and priests for things like recording of births, marriages, deaths, wills, etc. The church grew even more, and so did the damage done to the teaching of the Law and the Gospel to the people. A thousand years later Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in the parish where he served the Church. His goal was to raise questions about church practices that had nothing to do with biblical teachings.

Out of this came the Protestant Reformation and its attendant Resistance Movement. Protestants were all over the map regarding religious freedom, but there were those who believed the people should be able to read the Holy Bible in their own tongue. Many were martyred for this cause. In England, Protestants were marked for persecution which lead to the emigration of exiles to the New World. Among them was Roger Williams, an Anglican priest turned Protestant, Puritan, and finally Separatist. He went to New England after the Mayflower to serve as minister to the church in Plymouth but had a disagreement about theology before he gave his first sermon, so they kicked him out. But he was popular with a lot of people and gave guest sermons around, where he preached an unorthodox version of the Protestant Reformed message (he did not believe in infant Baptism, among other things). Among his unorthodox views was his belief in the sanctity of Conscience.

He believed the first Table of the Law protected one's right to worship God according to their own conscience, and that it was not the business of government to involve themselves in religious institutions or punish anyone for failing to observe its rules. As long as the citizen did not cause harm to others (breaking any of the commandments from the Second Table of the Law) or disturb the peace, they should be left alone. It was the business of civil government to punish those who violated the second table, as those are about our relations to others.

He called this "Separation of Church and State", and he was a great influence on John Locke, William Penn and later Trenchard and Gordon. He brought this principle to America where he influenced a great many18th century dissenting Protestant preachers in America who were unhappy with the meddlesome ways of the British government, the Anglican church, and the State churches in each colony. Roger Williams was so unorthodox (in ways our generation would not be able to see) that he was run out of Massachusetts, out of Connecticut, out of even the colony of Rhode Island that he founded as the first place where Liberty of Conscience was established.

His purpose, of course, was not to keep religion out of the public square, but to protect it from persecution from civil government. Likewise, church government was not to have the power of life and death over its members. Churches could ex-communicate members who did not follow their rules, but that was all. He described it as a principle for protecting the Garden of the Church from the Wilderness of the World. Separation of Church & State is the other side of the coin of Liberty of Conscience.

Read all about it in "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul" by John Barry (Penguin), which I wish Liberty Fund would republish, as it is out of print and no copies are left.

Exactly where Jefferson first heard about this principle is not known, but whoever he got it from, it originated from the Protestant Reformation in Europe, was more fully developed by Williams, and came to America where it took root and became the first principle of our First Amendment. It is one of the "original principles" we are advised to refer to, often, by the Founders.

To use Separation of Church & State

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on November 01, 2019 at 07:46:02 am

"Many historians assume that because he never joined the Church or England or its successor in America, the Episcopalian Church, he was not a believer. However, the history of Christianity is full of believers who did not become members of a church because of Conscience, mostly having to do with doctrine and practice. "

FTR, GW was formally a member of the Anglican/Episcopal church. Rather, he systematically avoided communion in said church and did some other things that suggest he didn't really believe in the doctrines that they preached. There were a lot of believers who belonged to their church in a social sense, without necessarily buying into everything they preached.

The latitudiniarian wing of the that church encompassed deistic and unitarian minded believers, like Jefferson too.

Most of the so called "deists" like Jefferson, J. Adams (and his wife), and Franklin probably understood themselves to be "Christians," and didn't self consciously reject that identity. But rather they rejected or otherwise didn't believe in "orthodox" doctrine and tended toward deistic or unitarian like beliefs. Without going too far like Thomas Paine et al. did.

read full comment
Image of Jonathan Rowe
Jonathan Rowe
on November 01, 2019 at 15:08:07 pm

Well, if you are familiar with the warring factions in the Protestant side of the Christian Church, you will know that there were, and still are, true-believing followers of the Reformed tradition who do not belong to a church congregation because of Conscience. Roger Williams, for one. I think Abraham Lincoln might have been another. I know I am so unhappy with church doctrine and practice it pains me to even attend a church.

George Washington's mother was a Presbyterian, quite Reformed, and she was a great influence on Washington's religious training. But, they lived in Virginia where the Anglican Church, later Episcopalian, was the church you had to belong to if you wanted to rise in society. Washington wanted to be a great statesman, so he chose to serve in the British Army which helped prepare him for his role as General of the Continental Army. He attended his parish Church, served as deacon but never joined.

That does not prove he was not a true-believing Christian. It proves that this church did not suit him in some important way. One of the possibilities is that he could not subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles. This confession is a monarchist creed, something Washington could not have abided as from a young age he thought he had no future in a society where colonists could not be elected to Parliament. The Episcopal Church was not monarchist, but there was still enough about it that would make a Presbyterian-trained Reformed believer uncomfortable.

By contrast, Jefferson, who was a lifelong member of the Anglican then Episcopalian churches, made his confession of the 39 Articles every year which allowed him to take communion. Nevertheless, he maintained his Deist views and actually edited the Gospels to suit his own views, and that is what he considered Christianity. His little bible is interesting as much for what he took out as it is for what he left in. It is hard for me to reconcile His bible and statements he made about Christianity with the 39 Articles, not sure how he did.

Having spent many years studying the history of Christianity and the Creeds of the Church, I can say that until historians begin examining these from the inside--that is, by learning what these churches teach from attending worship services and catechism classes--they cannot possibly grasp the load of highly-charged issues that believers have to wrestle with.

Roger Williams' experiences are an example of what I am talking about. That is why I recommend Barry's biography. For those who would like to know, my views on the Christian faith are almost identical to his. If he was alive today and preaching somewhere, that would be the church I'd join.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on November 01, 2019 at 18:25:56 pm

Most everyone in the late 1700's was religious. And I don't just mean in the Colonies. Around the globe, religious belief was dominant - Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc., etc., etc. The religion depended on where one lived and who had colonized the territory. So, it takes little imagination to say that the government of a given location was guided by the majority religion of the area. This is true of the Colonies as well. What separates the political origin of United States from the many other political systems of the time is the conscious effort to write a Constitution, the original governing document, in a uniqely "non-religious" way. In fact, written in a way which insures that religious affiliation is not the condition which defines one's relationship with the government. That's not to say that Christian principles did not help guide its creation. But, it was the founders understanding of republican principles gleaned for the writings and experiences of others which guided the drafting of the Constitution. I trust that no one posting here believes that the republican principles embodied in the Constitution came from the Bible. The favorite play of the era - Cato, a Tragedy. It was not just a play to the founders. The founders didn't need to wait for the publication of Locke in the Colonies in 1773 - most had libraries which inlcuded the basic political writings of the time - brought to them from Europe! Argue as you will about the religious beliefs of the founders. But, the proof is in the pudding - read the Constitution and decide for yourself what writings the founders found most helpful in drafting the document.

read full comment
Image of Bob
Bob
on November 02, 2019 at 07:42:32 am

Bob, are you suggesting that our Founding Fathers believed that Nature’s God, is John Locke, King John, or some person such as these? Are you suggesting that our Founders did not believe that God with the capital G, The Judeo-Christian God, Is The Author and The One Who Has Endowed us with our unalienable Rights, and that our unalienable Rights are thus alienable?

By George, that changes everything!

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy
on November 02, 2019 at 08:24:18 am

Yes Williams is an interesting example. His theology wasn't "liberal" but paradoxically it anticipated and coincided with the liberality of the later Enlightenment.

"served as deacon"

The technical term for Anglicans was "vestryman."

read full comment
Image of Jonathan Rowe
Jonathan Rowe
on November 02, 2019 at 08:45:59 am

The FFs believed in "Providence." I think you can make an ARGUMENT that the Providence OUGHT to be termed "Judeo-Christian," but you have to build your case as that's a loaded term.

Gregg Frazer has a similarly constructed term: "theistic rationalist."

read full comment
Image of Jonathan Rowe
Jonathan Rowe
on November 02, 2019 at 11:28:30 am

Nancy - No doubt the founders believed in God, although their understanding of that God varied. How many believed in Jesus and the miracles of the Gospels? You tell me. But that is not the point. The point is that the founding document of the United States is a politcal document which is based upon pricples of republicanism which are not found in the Bible. Those pricinples are found in many writings of the time and earlier times, as well as in the experiences of other nations (although not in the specific form the US adopted). Certainly many state and federal laws find a basis in "moral" prinicples which may have a basis in Christianity as well as other religions. I find it interesting that many Christians desire "originalist" jurists yet try to put a religious sheen on the Constitution which just isn't there. I would argue that many of the Founders had so little faith in the "common man's" ability to function in a free state that they felt that preaching about the fear of God and his judgements might be good way to keep some in line. That was clearly the thought of many in their writings. As is clear from many of the posts here, its hard to have a "Christian" nation with so many theories as to what it means to be a "Christian." The Founders clealy understood that difficulty. Love reading everyone's posts.

read full comment
Image of Bob
Bob
on November 02, 2019 at 11:32:26 am
Image of Bob
Bob
on November 03, 2019 at 09:31:15 am

The review and the comments on it, here, are outstanding. That's why I love this site!

A few meager points, if I may:

1) The distinction made above between one's consciously chosen, cherished, and defended beliefs and the ubiquitous spirit-of-the-age (zeitgeist) is important.  I contend that Europeans (and their American descendants) lived and breathed Christian principles in their ideas of human dignity, whether they were aware of it or not.  Thus, the Declaration could refer to God and a transcendent morality, but the Constitution did not, because it did not need to --it was irrelevant to the nuts and bolts of putting together a new government, and it was what everybody believed, anyway. I contend that the early Americans were thoroughly Christian, at least in the zeitgeist sense.

2) Similarly, paucity of evidence regarding founders' attendance at church cannot be taken as evidence of lack of religiosity.

3) Early Americans were adamant about keeping the "state" out of their "church", but were quite comfortable with using laws to express their religiously inspired morality. They would have looked at you with disbelief if you had made any of the modern, "freedom from religion" arguments so often heard today from the secular left. Besides blue laws they enshrined their Christian charity in law, as well. Additionally, there were many, many little communities named after Biblical places which operated as, frankly, Christian communes. In those communities, if you did not agree to live by Christian principles, as enshrined in the town by-laws (or just informally), you could find some other place to live. True, some of them ventured off into weird, appalling (communal wives), or horrifying (witch-hunting) behaviors, but these people were quite explicitly theocratic.

Cheers to all on this, the Lord's day (Sunday) in 2019 A.D. (Anno Domini, in the Year of Our Lord)

read full comment
Image of CHRIS LYNCH
CHRIS LYNCH
on November 03, 2019 at 19:36:21 pm

Bob, And yet, this was the first Republic that officially recognized the self-evident Truth, that Nature’s God, with the capital G, The Judeo-Christian God, Has Endowed us with our inherent unalienable Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness.

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy
on November 03, 2019 at 19:36:48 pm

And yet, this was the first Republic that officially recognized the self-evident Truth, that Nature’s God, with the capital G, The Judeo-Christian God, Has Endowed us with our inherent unalienable Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness.

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy
on November 04, 2019 at 08:01:33 am

Chris and Nancy:
Thanks for the comments. I'll close with a few comments about "Chrstianity" in the late 1700's. Yes, at the forming of the states and the United States, the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pusuit of happiness (at least for some) was a right thought to be derived from "Nature's God". I have never disputed that, nor is that the main issue raised in the book we are discussing. And, there is no doubt that the Chrisitian culture was the dominanat culture of the time. Certainly the vast majority of folks claimed to be Christian, and I would not doubt their assertions to that effect. Only God knows the heart of a man. Now, let's make clear who was actually given the full right to enjoy the benefits bestowed on "all men" by Nature's God. Of course, in most state's, it wasn't enough to be a follower of Christ - you had to a folower of the Christ set forth in a specific creed to fully partipate in government and society generally. If you were an Baptist, Papist (Roman Catholic), or a law-abiding Christ killer (a Jew), you were not permitted to fully participate in the government which would decide your fate. And, although Paul tells us:
"You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.…" . Gal. 3:26-28, that was not the case at the time.
If you were a female, a slave, a native American, and/or outside of the Congregationalist or Anglican (Presbyterian) churches (depending on where you lived), you were not a full citizen nor afforded the full right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (let alone the right to vote) in the full sense of what was intended. Yes, you could be "run out of town" if you didn't live by the Christian principles of that town. Certainly, many of the time lived by the Golden Rule (whether Chritian or not), and so the "running out of town" seldom occurred since there wasn't the population density of today. I understand that you may think that these were incorrect understandings of the scriptures. Perhaps, although I'm not sure that the teachings of Jesus were any different then than they are now. I'll just say that I am happy that we are closer to living the teaching that there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" when it comes to exercising the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nature's God may feel better about it as well.

read full comment
Image of Bob
Bob
on November 04, 2019 at 08:17:15 am

Sorry, meant to say "Congregationalist, Anglican, or Presbyterian".

read full comment
Image of Bob
Bob
on November 04, 2019 at 15:51:37 pm

"Laws Human must be made according to the general Laws of Nature,
and without any contradiction to any positive Law of Scripture,
otherwise they are ill made."
John Locke
Second Treatise on Government
1690

"The Decalogue, of the Ten Commandments, delivered by God Himself from Mt. Sinai with great Glory and astonishing Circumstances. was little else than the Laws of Nature reduced into Tables in words of God's own chusing."
John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon:
"The Independent Whig", 1719
("The English Libertarian Heritage" ed. by David Jacobson, Foreword by Jacob Hamowy, 1954.
Reprinted by Fox & Wilkes, 1994.
The book is out of print but you can find it online.

"The Laws of Nature are identical to the Laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth."
George Mason
Address to the General Court of the State of Virginia

"The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our King." [These are the three branches of government]
Isaiah 33:22

There is more, but I don't have time right now to enter them here.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on November 04, 2019 at 17:47:00 pm

"And yet, this was the first Republic that officially recognized the self-evident Truth, that Nature’s God, with the capital G, The Judeo-Christian God, Has Endowed us with our inherent unalienable Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness."

Before America, all of the Western "republics" and monarchies were officially connected with established churches. America was unique in not having that establishment at the national level, but instead invoking a more generic theism in the DOI.

What to call this theism is entirely debatable. "Judeo-Christian" is as much of a modern constructed term as Gregg Frazer's even more novel "theistic rationalism."

Their generic philosophical monotheism transcended Judaism and Christianity. If you want to see the quotes, I can reproduced them.

read full comment
Image of Jonathan Rowe
Jonathan Rowe
on November 04, 2019 at 18:10:17 pm

Locke's treatise is replete with Biblical references. Why?
https://www.amazon.com/dp/0521890578/?coliid=I33D1ZSRRC4OZ8&colid=3N2RH4SXNEZ08&psc=1&ref_=lv_ov_lig_dp_it

read full comment
Image of anony
anony
on November 05, 2019 at 08:29:49 am

What a can of worms that opens.

Locke may very well have been a "Christian" who believed the Bible was divine writ. But like many of the key American founders he so profoundly influenced he was hardly orthodox.

I don't think he was a secret atheist like many of the Straussians do. Though rather I think he was hiding some kind of secret unitarianism. The late Paul Sigmund of Princeton, a lot scholar who argues contra Strauss secret atheist Locke agreed with that assessment.

read full comment
Image of Jonathan Rowe
Jonathan Rowe
on November 05, 2019 at 08:38:52 am

It's funny you posted the link to Waldron's book. Over a decade ago I saw live the debate/discussion between Waldron and the Straussian Michael Zuckert, moderated by Paul Sigmund on Locke. I wonder if Princeton still has the video archived.

Later I went out for drinks with Sigmund and he told me he thought the Straussians were all wet. But it was more that they were looking for an atheist Locke that he had the problem with.

Even someone like Thomas Jefferson may well have believe PARTS of the Bible were divine writ (that's actually a big debate among those who have studied Jefferson's theology closely), while rejecting other parts. It's just he, J. Adams, Franklin and some others opted for a more liberal for the time re-understanding of the faith, which was theologically unitarian.

read full comment
Image of Jonathan Rowe
Jonathan Rowe
on November 05, 2019 at 12:39:52 pm

anony: You have to read Torah & the Prophets, Cicero (yes, I know he was a Roman but his ideas poured into this stream early on, Philo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Sir Edward Coke, the Westminster Confession & Thirty-Nine Articles, Roger Williams, William Penn and others. Locke was greatly influenced by Roger Williams who for many years as a young man took notes for Coke, the great English Common Law jurist. French and German enlightenment philosophers had nothing to do with the American Revolution.

John Locke is not the original source for the "laws of nature and of nature's God". This idea is based on the thinking of Judaism and the Christian Church. Thomas Aquinas wrote about them, and he lived a long time before Locke. Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that, as Creator of the Universe, God is the Author of both the visible and invisible which are both governed by his laws. He is therefore the Author of Nature. Liberty is the blessing that comes from living in harmony with those laws.

Which means to me that in the metaphysical realm we follow the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule & Sermon on the Mount, and in the physical realm we do not pollute the earth with our activities. This does not mean using force or coercion to achieve restoration of the place we've wrecked and are wrecking, it means we must stop believing that the be all and end all of creation is to go faster.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on November 05, 2019 at 13:14:16 pm

Jonathan Rowe: In fact, the British Enlightenment, which included Americans until independence, was informed by thinkers from all sides of the religious and political spectrum. I think you may be right about Locke, I cannot see how an atheist could write what he did unless they were an unmitigated hypocrite.

Interestingly, because of the Reformation, "orthodoxy" is an ever-shifting term. Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox consider themselves, respectively, to be the only true church. each sees themselves as orthodox and the other as in error, along with everybody else who does not belong to their fold.

Lutherans think of themselves as orthodox and everyone else as in error. The Church of England thinks of itself as orthodox. Presbyterians and Congregationalists see everybody else as in error. Baptists see everyone else as in error. They all see Quakers, Unitarians, Deists and so forth as outside the pale--what was called "heterodox"by some and atheist by others. Those who did not earn the approval of the more traditional churches looked back at them as in error.

The Church of England made room for unorthodox folks who wanted to belong to the State Church to avoid difficulties by requiring members to confess the ThirtyNine Articles and take communion once a year. Jefferson redefined the Christian faith by editing a harmony of the Gospels to reflect what he believed is the true story of Jesus and his teachings. He told people he was a Deist and said he was a "true Christian". The orthodox churches considered him heterodox or atheist.

There are four basic creeds of Christianity--the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian, the Belgian Confession. These go back a very long way and are considered the test of true faith. But most denominations have their own confessions, articles of faith, or catechisms. They mostly agree with one another.

There were several kinds of Deism. European, which was the idea of the impersonal power who created the universe and then left it to its own devices. You do not pray to this power and there is no hope for a better life in the here or in the hereafter. American, which was much closer to Judaism, I think, than anything else. Freemasonry. And of course, all the individuals with their own ideas...

I think Locke is interesting reading, and recommend that if you want to study his works that you read what he read and study what he would have studied. Which includes the Holy Bible (context, lesson, message). Check out the Liberty Fund Books for primary sources & discussion of 17th Century English political philosophers.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on November 05, 2019 at 14:24:35 pm

Jonathan: America's founding generation was overwhelmingly Protestant Christian. Benjamin Franklin said about half the population was directly affected by the English Revivalist George Whitefield (Methodist-leaning Anglican) who inspired many of his listeners to seek salvation in Jesus Christ. And about 70-75% of the population "shared Radical Whig sympathies".

Eighteenth Century American Political Philosophy was Judeo-Christian because all the streams of thought that fed into the Declaration of Independence came down through the Jews and Greco-Roman political philosophers like Cicero to the Early Christian Church and then down through the Ancient Constitution to Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation & resistance movement, the Mayflower Compact, and the constitutions of the British Colonies in North America.

Few Americans were Deists, although many may have been intrigued by the path into physical sciences that it seemed to suggest. I have the impression that Americans were generally able to separate discussions on religion, religious principles, political principles, scientific principles, and legal principles with references to God in each of them. That is because they considered it a scientific fact that there exists the One True Living God of the Holy Bible.

I have yet to see scientific proof that there is no God. But, I have seen plenty of evidence to prove His existence. Thomas Aquinas proofs of God are based on simple logic. But his is not the only evidence.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on November 05, 2019 at 14:40:07 pm

Jonathan: Thanks! Also for the insight into the terms "deacon" and "vestryman"--was not aware of this. I am not familiar with Anglican church organization. Just their Christmas Day service, N.Y. Wright, the Thirtynine Articles and choirs.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast
on December 11, 2019 at 11:56:17 am

Founding Deists and Other Unicorns -
Amazing blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
I'm planning to start my own site soon but I'm a little lost on everything.
Would you recommend starting with a free platform like Wordpress or go for a paid option? There are so many
choices out there that I'm totally confused .. Any tips?
Thanks a lot!- calator.tel

read full comment
Image of Calator
Calator
on December 12, 2019 at 16:57:59 pm

To understand how advanced the Founders' thinking for their time and world, compare with past generations going back 10,000 years and all around the world.

To understand how their Christian beliefs figured into their politics, read what they wrote. Liberty Fund Books has a whole library of primary sources on what they read and wrote. Back in the 18th Century the Holy Bible was a child's first textbook and most children learned to read from it. Get yourself the bibles they read or were influenced by:

Jerome's Latin Vulgate A.D. 400
Wycliffe 1388
Luther 1534
The Great Bible 1537
Geneva 1560 & 1599
Douay-Rheims 1600
King James 1611
King James 1765 (Cambridge)

Some were able to read the original Hebrew and/or Greek.

After the Bible, these were the top ten best-sellers in 18th Century America:
Franklin's "The Way to Wealth" 1759
Paine's "Common Sense"1776
Trenchard & Gordon's "Independent Whig" and "Cato's Letters" essays, 1718-1723
Addison's "Cato: A Tragedy" 1713
Rollins' "Ancient History" 1730's
Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" 1563
Harris" "New England Primer" 1690
Adams' "Thoughts on Government" 1776
Smith's "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" 1776
Shakespeare's comedies, histories, tragedies, and sonnets 1500's.

Other popular writings were political sermons by America's clergy, and political essays & speeches by popular leaders before, during and after independence. Liberty Fund Books offers two excellent series:
"Political Sermons of the American Founding Era 1730 - 1805" Volumes 1 & 2
"American Political Thinking during the Founding Era 1760 - 1830" Volumes 1 & 2

You will also want to study the writings of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation and Resistance Movement. Principles of American Government came through this tradition, everything was tested for consistency with biblical principles. Anything that hints of Deism was accepted only if it agreed with the Bible in general and Protestantism in particular. You have to read the confessions and catechisms of the various denominations from before the Reformation until after the close of the American founding.

America was founded as a Christian society and its government was founded as a nation established on biblical principles, a nation fit for Christians to live in. Within several generations America had become a place where religious liberty was extended to non-believers.

read full comment
Image of Standing Fast
Standing Fast

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.