Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Unitarianism Over the Span of the American Founding

From 1750 to 1820 (ish). 

John Adams, in 1815, writes to an orthodox critic remarks that relate back to 1750.
I thank you for your favour of the 10th and the pamphlet enclosed, "American Unitarianism." I have turned over its leaves and have found nothing that was not familiarly known to me. 
In the preface Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New England. I can testify as a Witness to its old age. Sixty five years ago my own minister the Reverend Samuel Bryant, Dr. Johnathan Mayhew of the west Church in Boston, the Reverend Mr. Shute of Hingham, the Reverend John Brown of Cohasset & perhaps equal to all if not above all the Reverend Mr. Gay of Hingham were Unitarians. Among the Laity how many could I name, Lawyers, Physicians, Tradesman, farmers! 
-- John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, May 15, 1815. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress.
The reason why there was "confusion" as to how old unitarianism was relates to unitarianism being in the closet. It was not safe, in some cases not legal in say 1750, to publicly proclaim one's unitarianism.

But over time, it became safer. And I think that was probably part of the motivation behind the fervent push for liberty of conscience in some quarters (i.e., Adams' and Thomas Jefferson's, among others).

In the 1800s, Jefferson and Adams seemed downright gleeful that unitarianism was making progress. It was turning into Unitarianism, not just a theology (small u) but the official name of denominations (capital U).

As I've noted before the two options from the which to choose were Arianism and Socinianism with the former being more popular. Fast forward to 1821 and we see Jefferson in a letter to Timothy Pickering (United States Secretary of State under Presidents George Washington and John Adams) mention William Channing, Richard Price and Joseph Priestley:
I thank you for mr Channing’s discourse, which you have been so kind as to forward me. ... and read it with high satisfaction. no one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in it’s advances towards rational Christianity. when we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus, when, in short, we shall have unlearned every thing which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples: ...
So off the bat Jefferson tells Pickering he read William Channings' address on "rational Christianity" which is Arian, and gave it his approval. Pickering was a fellow unitarian. Perhaps Jefferson suspects Pickering was, like what Channing argued for, an Arian.

But Jefferson was not an Arian. I would argue he was some kind of modified Socinian. But let the man speak for himself:
in the present advance of truth, which we both approve, I do not know that you and I may think alike on all points. as the Creator has made no two faces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds. we well know that among Unitarians themselves there are strong shades of difference, as between Doctors Price and Priestley for example. so there may be peculiarities in your creed and in mine. they are honestly formed without doubt. I do not wish to trouble the world with mine, nor to be troubled for them. these accounts are to be settled only with him who made us; and to him we leave it, with charity for all others, of whom also he is the only rightful and competent judge. I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the Unity of the Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also.
Price was the notable influential British Arian and Priestley was his Socinian counterpart. Jefferson's comments above illustrate that the unitarianism of his time was highly individualistic. That is, it didn't exist like Trinitarianism did. Trinitarianism was institutionalized in churches with creeds; unitarianism was more of a theological philosophy that free thinking individuals attached to Trinitarian churches either flirted with or believe in.

Then it became a Church (Unitarianism with a capital U) starting at the end of the 18th Century, but more so in the 19th Century.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Why Socinianism Matters to the American Founding

Because it's part of unitarianism. And unitarianism matters. During America's founding era many claimed to be "unitarians" and there were two chief varieties. One, Arianism (which taught Jesus some kind of divine being, but created by and subordinate to the Father), the other, Socinianism (which taught Jesus 100% human in His nature, but on a divine mission). Arianism was the more popular of the two varieties.

John Locke is oft-referred to, for good reason, as "America's philosopher." On how governments ought to treat their citizens, including and especially on religious matters, Locke matters.

And we can almost be certain that Locke was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. So that means he must have been something else. But Locke had a problem with putting his explicit religious cards on the table: In Great Britain in Locke's time, it was illegal to publicly deny the Trinity. Yet many did doubt or deny the Trinity back then. They just tended to, for safety, do it in private.

So Locke writes the book called "The Reasonableness of Christianity" where he sets out his ideal understanding of the common faith. Locke proposes a formula for defining who gets to be a "real Christian" as we might put that term today. And it's this: Jesus is a unique Messiah.

That's pretty much it (yeah, we can get into some other details, like you have to repent).

This simple formula got Locke accused by an orthodox theologian of being a Socinian. Because it's true that Socinians could pass Locke's test. But I don't think Locke was a Socinian. Rather he probably was some kind of Arian (this is what Locke scholar the late Paul Sigmund of Princeton told me, citing other Locke scholar John Marshall of Johns Hopkins).

So as it turns out Locke's orthodox critic probably was right that Locke was a unitarian, but wrong on which kind.

Still, Trinitarians, Arians, Socinians, Modalists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Swedenborgians among others all believe Jesus Messiah and therefore get to be "Christians" according to Locke's formula.

Or as John Adams described the American landscape, that implemented Locke's ideas, some time later:
... There were among them, Roman Catholicks English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and “Protestans qui ne croyent rien.” Very few however of Several of these Species. Never the less all Educated in the general Principles of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.
"Socinians" actually made Adams' list twice. Most American Socinians probably wouldn't be imbibed in the "Racovian Confession," but rather influenced by Joseph Priestley's theology, which is a form of Socinianism. "Priestleyans" are Socinians.

I've heard people claim John Adams was an Arian, but I am not convinced. I know that Adams was a fervent unitarian, but of which kind I'm not sure Adams himself knew. He just "knew" the Trinity was false.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Smithsonian: "Why No One Can Agree on What George Washington Thought About the Relationship Between Church and State"

By a professor at Stanford. A taste:
Historians were not deaf to Washington’s religious references. While the clergy and the scientists saw them as evidence of Washington’s devotion, the historians stressed the president’s precision in crafting a vocabulary that would unite the dizzying array of Protestant denominations in post-revolutionary America without alienating the small but important groups of Catholics, Jews, and freethinkers dotting the American landscape. It was precisely because he understood that Americans did not believe the same thing that Washington was scrupulous in choosing words that would be acceptable to a wide spectrum of religious groups.

In his own time, Washington’s reluctance to show his doctrinal cards dismayed his Christian co-religionists. Members of the first Presbytery of the Eastward (comprised of Presbyterian churches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire) complained to the president that the Constitution failed to mention the cardinal tenets of Christian faith: “We should not have been alone in rejoicing to have seen some explicit acknowledgement of the only true God and Jesus Christ,” they wrote. Washington dodged the criticism by assuring the Presbyterians that the “path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.”  
Similarly, a week before his 1789 proclamation, Washington responded to a letter from Reverend Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College from 1774-1780. Langdon had implored Washington to “let all men know that you are not ashamed to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Once again, instead of affirming Christian tenets, Washington wrote back offering thanks to the generic “Author of the Universe.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Christianity & Religious Liberty

This new book Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God, looks to be a must read. I disagree with the subtitle of the American Conservative review article that doesn't credit "The Enlightenment." Yes, there were sources of religious liberty that preceded the Enlightenment. But it was during the Enlightenment when such became normative. A taste from the article:
This tension reached a climax during the Reformation and post-Reformation era. Wilken includes chapters on Lutheran Germany, Calvinist and Zwinglian Switzerland, and on Catholic-Protestant battles in France, the Netherlands, and England. Readers may be surprised to learn how often it was not just Protestants but also Catholics who turned to liberty in defense of their religious beliefs. Nuns in Germany, clergyman in Switzerland, Benedictine abbots in France, and papist lawyers in England all appealed to their consciences in the face of Protestant persecution. Indeed, while Reformation history is full of Catholic oppression of Protestants, it is equally full of Protestants oppressing, persecuting, and even forbidding Catholic worship. 
It is ultimately the Englishmen—Roger Williams, John Owen, William Penn, and John Locke—to whom America and the West are indebted for their conception of religious freedom. Williams argued that liberty of conscience applied to all men equally, including dissenting Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even the hated Catholics. He also “severed the link between the two tables of the law,” meaning that he rejected any role for the state in the affairs of the church and vice versa. Owen, in turn, interpreted Tertullian’s earlier cited argument to mean that “liberty of conscience is a natural right” rather than one created and protected by the state. Penn, meanwhile, argued that this liberty of conscience necessarily extended to public worship. Locke, finally, incorporated some of these elements, but went even further by arguing that religious communities are fundamentally voluntary societies composed of individuals possessing “free and spontaneous” rights.
For instance the Calvinist covenanters like Samuel Rutherford and John Knox who were "good" on resistance to tyrants in the face of Romans 13 were still defending Calvin having Servetus put to death for denying the Trinity. By the time of the American Founding, John Witherspoon and his Presbyterians had accepted liberty of conscience as an unalienable right.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Free Chapter on Gregg Frazer's First Book

Gregg Frazer's "thesis" on the political theology of the American founding, in my opinion, took the level of scholarly analysis to a "higher level." His book has its strengths and weaknesses. But it's certainly a must read for anyone who wants to seriously study the issue.

I just noticed that University of Kansas Press now features a free chapter of the book in PDF form. Check it out.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Law & Liberty Site: "John Locke and Political Hebraism"

By one DAVID CONWAY. Check it out here. A taste:
The Paradox of Locke’s Sources  
Of course, Hebrew Scripture forms but a part of Christian Scripture, so that Locke would not but have taken the Old Testament to be every bit as divinely revealed as the New Testament. However, it is still puzzling just why he should have drawn so much more heavily on Old Testament sources than he did on New Testament ones, especially in respect of illustrating quite universally applicable theses about the law of nature. ...
But there seems an answer to the puzzle:
At the time of the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in which James ll was deposed in favor of Mary, his Protestant daughter, and her Protestant Dutch husband William (who also happened to be the son of the deposed king’s deceased elder sister), the chief theoretical apostle of the divine right of kings had been the royalist Sir Robert Filmer (1588-1653). Filmer had defended the doctrine in his essay Patriarcha, which was published posthumously in 1679 at the time of the Exclusion Crisis, in which a vain parliamentary attempt was made to prevent James’s succeeding his elder brother, Charles. 
In 1688, Locke and his fellow Whigs who sought to sideline James, were particularly exercised to do so by the birth, earlier that year, of James’s son, which would have ensured a Catholic succession. Since Filmer had justified the doctrine of divine right by appealing to Old Testament stories about God’s granting Adam dominion over other creatures, Locke had no alternative but to take on Filmer at the hermeneutical task of Biblical exegesis. ...
Locke discussed the Old Testament so much by necessity to answer Filmer's claims which centered on the Old Testament. 

Andrew Seidel Publishes Book on "Christian Nation" Controversy

A hard hit from the secular left. Read about it here. A taste from an interview:
The second part of your book is "The United States versus the Bible." One chapter is titled "Biblical Obedience or American Freedom." Could you talk about this opposition in attitudes and philosophy?  
Sure. This also plays a lot into the Declaration of Independence itself, which was this document which was rebelling against this king, who was the defender of the faith. Even though the divine right of kings was gone by that time, he certainly believed himself to be instilled in that position by God.

The Bible demands obedience. The Bible is very, very clear on this point, many times over. The Judeo-Christian God demands obedience. And not just to himself, but also to the rulers that are on earth. Romans 13 is all about obedience to the earthly rulers. So here you have a country that was built on rebellion, versus a book that is all about obedience, and the two are in fundamental conflict. That's an important point that I try to make throughout the whole book. If you really pay attention to Judeo-Christian principles, and what those principles are — throughout the Bible, throughout the Ten Commandments — and look at the principles America holds dear and was founded on, the two are really diametrically opposed to each other. They’re in fundamental conflict. It does make it fair to say that these principles are un-American.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Tillman Cites Ezra Stiles on Deism

Over at The New Reform Club, Seth Barrett Tillman quotes from a decade or so old article where he scrutinized the claims of prominent law professor Geoff Stone. One thing that interests me about it is a quotation from Ezra Stiles, a notable "orthodox" Protestant figure from America's founding era, President of Yale, who took on the "deism" of his day.

Then, books on deism existed in the libraries of prominent colleges like Yale and Harvard. The ideas were spreading and the then "orthodox" leaders of those prominent educational institutions had to react to a such system that conflicted with "orthodoxy."

How did the "religiously correct" orthodox Protestants deal with the problem of their libraries having books on deism which influenced students in undesirable ways? That's the controversy. Below is what Stiles said:
It is true with this Liberty [of accepting deistical books into religiously-affiliated university libraries] Error may be introduced; but turn the Tables [and see that] the propagation of Truth may be extinguished [if you do otherwise]. Deism has got such Head in this Age of Licentious Liberty, that it would be in vain to try to stop it by hiding the Deistical Writings: and the only Way left to conquer & demolish it, is to come forth into the open Field & Dispute this matter on even Footing—the Evidences of Revelation in my opinion are nearly as demonstrative as Newton’s Principia, & these are the Weapons to be used . . . . Truth & this alone being our Aim in fact, open, frank & generous we shall avoid the very appearance of Evil.
Stiles was a good classically liberal Whig. He might have handled the circumstances with more liberality than say, Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale who succeeded Stiles. Stiles was, if I'm not mistaken, more sympathetic to Jefferson's and Madison's Democratic-Republican party than the Federalists. In fact, Stiles was a Francophile who supported some of the excesses of the French Revolutionaries.

Stiles was actually one of the "orthodox" figures that heterodox men like Ben Franklin felt somewhat comfortable sharing their religious heterodoxy with. The same can't be said of Timothy Dwight who was less liberal than Stiles.