Friday, September 30, 2016

John Adams Rejects the Concept of the Hebrew Republic

One of the challenges in trying to articulate what "the Founders" believed is that they often differed. In fact, as I've often noted, there were different strains of thought that made up a "synthesis." And those strains were in tensions with one another. Whig thought though presented the synthesis as a unified whole. As in "all American Whigs thought alike, etc."

One sentiment which united the Whigs was "republicanism" was the best if not only viable form of government. Certainly it was preferable to monarchy.  The notion of republicanism traces to Western Civilization's Greco-Roman heritage. And the Founders who wrote the Federalist Papers, adopting the surname Publius, imagined themselves as revived Roman republicans. Noble pagans, if you will.

There was another stream of thought which argued that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." Eric Nelson's magnificent work traces the intellectual lineage of such sentiment. We see this sentiment represented in sermons such as Rev. Samuel Langdon's The Republic of The Israelites An Example To The American States, (June 5, 1788) and even in Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

I remember reading John Adams' rejection of Paine's argument that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." American Creation commenter Lex Lata reminded me. As Adams wrote in his autobiography:
"I told him further, that his Reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere. At this he laughed, and said he had taken his Ideas in that part from Milton: and then expressed a Contempt of the Old Testament and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprized me."
Yes, as Eric Nelson discovered, John Milton was one of those figures who posited the concept of a Hebraic republic. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

An Observation on Bill Federer's Recent Article

So I linked to Ed Brayton's criticisms of Bill Federer's recent Christian nationalist article. I read Federer's article. This part struck me:
After being president of Harvard, Samuel Langdon was a delegate to New Hampshire’s ratifying convention in 1788. The Portsmouth Daily Evening Times, Jan. 1, 1891, accredited to Samuel Langdon: “by his voice and example he contributed more perhaps, than any other man to the favorable action of that body” which resulted in New Hampshire becoming the 9th State to ratify the U.S. Constitution, thus putting it into effect. There Rev. Samuel Langdon gave a speech titled ‘The Republic of the Israelites An Example to the American States, June 5, 1788, which was instrumental in convincing delegates to ratify the U.S. Constitution:
Instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen states of the American union, and see this application plainly offering itself, viz. – That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent Constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured … and you are impowered to make righteous laws for promoting public order and good morals; and as he has moreover given you by his Son Jesus Christ…a complete revelation of his will … it will be your wisdom … to … adhere faithfully to the doctrines and commands of the gospel, and practice every public and private virtue.”
I understand why a Mormon would believe in the theology of Langdon's address, precisely because of when and where Mormonism was founded. Mormonism incorporates various eccentric late 18th Century Americanist historical dynamics into its theology. For instance, they believe as a matter of doctrine that America’s Constitution was a divinely inspired document.

Because orthodox Christianity was founded one thousand and some hundred odd years before America and thus teaches nothing special about America as a particular country, serious scholars of political theology, many of whom devoutly believe in orthodox Christianity and try to get the faith right, understand these sermons and their premises differently.

I’m thinking of among others Drs. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, Robert Kraynak, Gregg Frazer and John Fea.

The notion that Ancient Israel had a “republic” that could serve as an example to the newly established “United States” is as much a creation of Whig and Enlightenment thought as it is “biblical.” And since the concept of a “republic” actually derives from the Ancient Greco-Roman tradition (for whom America’s Founders had an affinity) arguably that ideological strand gets dragged in too here.

As Dr. Frazer observes on the content of this and related sermons:
[They] seem to depict God’s role as something similar to Rousseau’s legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon’s sermon] “for their happiness” rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignly determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau’s legislator).
— Frazer, PhD thesis, pp. 393-94.
If I remember correctly, Dr. Frazer claims Samuel Langdon was a "theistic rationalist" not a "Christian." This may not be correct insofar as the "theistic rationalists" were not orthodox on matters like Trinity and other traditional doctrines of the faith. Langdon may well have been an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

One thing Dr. Frazer claims about the "theistic rationalists" is that their God (unlike the "Christian" God) was man made; the key Founders and those who influenced them remade God in their image. So Rev. Langdon may have been an orthodox Christian. But it seems he's still revising the biblical record.

I don't think there's any question that Elias Boudinat was an orthodox Christian.  But he did something very similar when he claimed that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel. And as with the notion that the Ancient Israelis had a "republic," this notion too was originally posited by European Rabbis.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Brayton on Federer's Recent Article on the Lutz Study

Check out Ed Brayton's piece here. A taste:
... The Lutz study, you may recall, looked at the relative influence of various Enlightenment philosophers on American politics before, during and after the founding (from 1760-1805). Lutz, a history professor at the University of Houston, and his co-author took a large number of samples of political writings from that period and counted up the number of references in those documents to people like John Locke, Montesquieu, Sidney and others.

There are two different versions of the lie about this study. Some claim that this study looked at documents from the founding generation, for instance. But Federer goes all the way and claims that the documents being studied were not just from the founding fathers, but specifically from the 55 men who signed the Constitution.

....

... This study started with 15,000 documents, then pared that down to about 2200, then finally to 916 documents that were actually included in the sample. The vast majority of them were not from any of the men who signed the Constitution, or anyone who is rightly considered a founding father at all. They were newspaper articles, pamphlets (which was the dominant means of communication in those days) and such. A full 10% of those pamphlets were actually reprinted sermons, which was very common then, and the overwhelming majority of the Biblical citations found in those documents came from those sermons.

But that’s just the start. The study also broke down those citations by specific time period, including 1787-1788, the two years when the Constitution was being written and ratified. During that time, there is not a single reference to the Bible from the Federalists, those who were advocating the passage of the Constitution. The only ones during that time period who referenced the Bible were the anti-Federalists, who used the Bible to argue against the passage of the Constitution.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Den Hartog on Noll (& More)

Here is a post from Jonathan Den Hartog on Mark Noll's analysis use of the Bible during during the revolutionary debates.
Noll's significant contribution is to be able to step back from all of the documentation of the Bible in Revolutionary debates--and it was massive--to be able to systematize the scholarship and make sense of the welter of biblical uses. Some uses are simply rhetorical flourishes, biblical language as artistic embroidery for a political point. On a much stronger level, many Revolutionaries drew parallels between the cause of the colonies and ancient Israel. Noll thus demonstrates how "Hebraic" political thought could make in-roads into a biblicist America. Still others made sustained arguments through biblical exposition for one side or another.

Noll demonstrates extremely wide-ranging knowledge of the sources from the Revolution, but he also offers incisive close readings of important sermons and Biblical exchanges. I especially appreciated Noll's attention to a sermon by David Griffith, a patriot Anglican in Virginia, a sermon which comes as close as possible to earning Noll's approval of its biblical usage. Noll is also extremely perceptive on the debate between Tom Paine in Common Sense and the biblical rejoinders offered by loyalists. By tracking their arguments minutely, Noll demonstrates multiple interpretive strategies that were being used in the colonies.
This reminds me of the exhaustive studies I've done on George Washington's faith, trying to make sense of what he believed. On the one hand, some scholars have said GW didn't reference the Bible. That's false.

I have found some evidence that GW believed objective truth can be found in both "reason" and "revelation." But how he put them together remains a bit of a mystery.

One thing GW never or almost never (I hesitate to write in absolute terms) did was proof text verses and chapters of scripture in an authoritative sense. Rather his uses were almost always "rhetorical flourishes, biblical language as artistic embroidery for a political" or some other kind of point.

This is something secular people do all the time. The Bible like Shakespeare greatly impacted the way we express ourselves. And this is applicable BOTH to the time of America's Founding AND in today's modern world.

Anyway here is an example from GW, taken from Mark D. writing at The New Reform Club. Addressing the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, GW said:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
The reference to the vine and fig tree is found a number of places in the Bible and was a phrase that GW often used.

And I write this post peacefully sitting in the comfort of my vine and fig tree.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Den Hartog is a Lucky Man

Jonathan Den Hartog, that is. He teaches a course entitled, "American Revolution and Early Republic Class." I'd love to teach a class like this. Except I'd like to do the entire "Founding" as opposed to just the "Revolution."

A taste:
We'll definitely be revisiting those great questions about Christianity's role in the Revolution. Here, though, it's important to me to demonstrate the religious debates of the period. Although there was a patriot religious argument, it wasn't the only one. There was a strong Loyalist one, as well. Further, the conflict looked very different to equally-evangelical believers on either side of the Atlantic. So, this story has to be a transatlantic story.

I look forward to seeing what students do with the primary sources we'll be reading. I wonder what they'll make of Edmund Burke's claim that American religion demonstrated "the dissidence of [religious] dissent," which suggested conciliatory measures. I'm looking forward to the day we simultaneously read John Witherspoon's "Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" and John Wesley's "Calm Address". These two voices by themselves mark contrasting evangelical opinion. I'm also confident Romans 13 will come up.

We'll also have a lot of secondary material to work through. One of my knowing students has already mentioned John Fea's arguments. Without a doubt, Mark Noll's scholarship--both older and more recent will make a strong appearance. We'll work through Thomas Kidd's claims about links between evangelical Protestants and the liberty desired by the revolutionaries. It will also be important to bring in Loyalist voices. I look forward to introducing Glenn Moots's take on covenantalism.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Founders and Ministers, Some Thoughts

John Fea has demonstrated that at the state level some ministers were banned from public office. At the federal level, I'm not aware of America's Founders adopting such a policy as it might (?) violate Article VI's "no religious test" clause.

Only one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, was an active minister. David Barton wrote an article where the best evidence he could muster was that a few others WERE ministers in the past, but not at the time the DOI was written.

Yet, I don't think America's Founders so much minded ministers being involved in public political life provided they were supporting the right political theology. Even the more heterodox founders offered qualified support to the work George Whitefield or even Jonathan Edwards did ministering to folks; though they disagreed with the theology, and wished such Protestantism to further reform to a creed more enlightened, liberal for the era.

But some ministers like the heterodox ones Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, orthodox ones like John Witherspoon, Ezra Stiles, or those in between like Bishop James Madison played key roles in expositing America's Founding political theology.

The politics were a synthesis: it was citing the Bible, with Lockeanism and Whig thought, and essences discovered in "nature," which is a tradition that Aquinas whom they never cited because they didn't cite Roman Catholics incorporated from Aristotle, whom they did cite. But "nature" also provided the grounds for Lockean teachings, which arguably broke from that earlier tradition. Or at least introduced new things into it.

This Whig political theology was extremely self serving in how it understood the faith. You had to have the "right" understanding of Romans 13. Which is such a text, properly understood, does not stand in the way of what America did when it revolted against Great Britain.

I don't get the sense that America's Founders minded the political involvement of these ministers because they taught what they wanted the public to hear.

Barton: "No Professor Fea, The Founders Did Not Want Ministers to Stay out of Politics"

From "Dr." David Barton here. As it begins:
Dr. John Fea is a professor of history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. He has been an outspoken critic of those who believe that America had a Christian founding or think ministers should be active in politics. 1 In addition to being an historian, he writes political columns praising those on the political left. For example, he called President Barack Obama “the most explicitly Christian president in American history,” and asserted that his “piety, use of the Bible, and references to Christian faith and theology put most other American presidents to shame.” 2 Given Professor Fea’s political disposition, it is perhaps not surprising that his blog posts and opinion pieces on political issues are regularly critical of religious conservatives.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Livingston Cribbed Trenchard & Gordon

The appendix to this collection of Livingston's writings aptly notes this. "Primitive Christianity" was a concept en vogue during the American Founding and in Great Britain among the dissenters who influenced America's Founding.

Primitive Christianity appeals to among others Quakers, Unitarians, Christian-Deists, and more. Like all of the variants of "Christianity," it sees itself as the one authentically representing the teachings of Jesus and his followers. However it believes that by the time the Nicene Creed was written the faith had already been corrupted. It blames the Nicene Creed on Roman Catholicism.

The Catholic Church of course, would gladly take credit for the Nicene Creed. But the vast majority of "orthodox" Protestantism believes in that creed, feels in communion with the church who wrote it, and no, does not believe Catholics should be credited for it.

Primitive Christianity is radically individualistic, anti-creedal, and anti-clerical. It's not necessarily theologically unitarian, but the method obviously lends support to such. Trenchard and Gordon define and defend the concept of Primitive Christianity in great length here. We see, among other things, the Roman Catholic Church is the chief villain. High Church Anglicanism isn't much better. And the entire clerical class of all Christian churches is tarred.

Here is a passage where they claim to be agnostic on the Trinity, and declare the question to be irrelevant to the expression of the faith:
Since ’tis agreed amongst all our present Sects of Christians, that the Saviour of the World is the Son of God, descended from Heaven to teach Virtue and Goodness to Men, and to die for our Redemption; how are we concerned in the Scholastic Notions of the Trinity? Will the Scripture be more regarded, or the Precepts of it be better observed, if the Three Persons are believed to be Three Divine distinct Spirits and Minds, who are so many real subsisting Persons? Whether the Son and Holy-Ghost are Omnipotent of themselves, or are subordinate, and dependent on the Father? Or, if they are independent, whether their Union consist in a mutual Consciousness of one another’s Thoughts and Designs, or in any thing else? Whether they are Three Attributes [96] of God, viz. Goodness, Wisdom and Power? Or Three internal Acts, viz. Creation, Redemption and Sanctification? Or Two internal Acts of the One subsisting Person of the Father; that is to say, the Father understanding and willing himself and his own Perfections? Or Three internal Relations, namely, the Divine Substance and Godhead confidered as Unbegotten, Begotten, and Proceeding? Or Three Names of God ascribed to him in Holy Scripture, as he is Father of all Things, as he did inhabit in an extraordinary Manner in the Man Jesus Christ, and as he effected every thing by his Spirit, or his Energy and Power? Or lastly, Whether the Three Persons are only Three Beings, but what sort of Beings we neither know, nor ought to pretend to know? which I take to be the Trinity of the Mob, as well as of some other wiser Heads.
And here they are on the Quakers and why their example demonstrates that Great Britain didn't need an established Church:
Now it seems to me, that the Toleration or Liberty of Conscience granted by Law in England, gives us an Opportunity of examining this Matter, beyond what can be done in Popish or other Countries, where no such Toleration is allowed. We have a numerous Sect, or People among us, distinguished by the Name of Quakers, who have no Spiritual Officers, with any Wages, Hire, or Salary, whose peculiar Business it is to Teach; but every Man among them does freely of himself, and gratis, communicate his Knowledge, both publicly and privately, according to his Ability, whenever he judges it proper so to do: And therefore we may easily make a Comparison in the Case, between the Wisdom and Virtue of the common People of the National Church, and the Wisdom and Virtue of the Quakers, (who have no Quality or Gentry among them; but consist of Tradesmen, Artificers, Farmers, Servants, and Labourers) and thereby make a [182] just Judgment, whether the Two Millions per Annum are well or ill bestowed.
They make an interesting argument which you can read for yourself: Because the Quakers all read the Bible for themselves as opposed to relying on the Priestcraft to read, interpret and spoon-feed it to them (and what they are getting spoon-fed distorts the Bible), the Quakers not only end up understanding the Bible better but have their literacy rates improved over that of the vast majority of ordinary folks sitting in the pews of the Church of England.