Friday, May 18, 2007

James Madison Still Wasn't Christian

Reader James J. Goswick doesn't agree with my contention that Madison wasn't Christian, but a theistic rationalist. He writes:

Now for the truth. The blogger will never find a quote by Madison denying the trinity or Christianity. That Madison later changed his views and believed in not supporting Christianity is irrelevant to Madison’s faith. Hi faith never changed, only his application of it towards govt.

“[A]lways keep the Ministry obliquely in View whatever your profession be. This will lead you to cultivate an acquaintance occasionally with the most sublime of all Sciences and will qualify you for a change of public character if you should hereafter desire it. I have sometimes thought there could not be a stronger testimony in favor of Religion or against temporal Enjoyments even the most rational and manly than for men who occupy the most honorable and gainful departments and are rising in reputation and wealth, publicly to declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent Advocates in the cause of Christ, and I wish you may give in your Evidence in this way.”–

James Madison, in a letter Sept. 25, 1773 to William Bradford, reprinted in The Papers of James Madison, eds. William T. Hutchinson and William M.E. Rachal (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), vol. 1, p. 96.

A number of things. First, this is the only reference you'll see Madison using the word "Christ," and he wasn't even stating that he believed, rather that he supported someone else's religious fervor. Sorry, but if one is a Trinitarian and Christ central to one's life, such utter lack of mentioning of His name raises suspicions.

James H. Hutson, one of the most notable anti-secularist scholars, answers almost all of Mr. Goswick's objections in this classic paper here. Madison, for a brief period of time around when his letter to Bradford was written, may have briefly flirted with Christian orthodoxy. However, such was short lived. Hutson writes:

Educated by Presbyterian clergymen, Madison, as a student at Princeton (1769-1772), seems to have developed a "transient inclination" to enter the ministry. In a 1773 letter to a college friend he made the zealous proposal that the rising stars of his generation renounce their secular prospects and "publicly . . . declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ." Two months later Madison renounced his spiritual prospects and began the study of law. The next year he entered the political arena, serving as a member of the Orange County Committee of Safety. Public service seems to have crowded out of his consciousness the previous imprints of faith. For the rest of his life there is no mention in his writings of Jesus Christ nor of any of the issues that might concern a practicing Christian. Late in retirement there are a few enigmatic references to religion, but nothing else. With Madison, unlike Jefferson or any of the other principal founding fathers with the possible exception of Washington, one peers into a void when trying to discern evidence of personal religious belief.

Mr. Goswick also objects by pointing out part of Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance implies the Christian religion true over others. Indeed, John Noonan, a Catholic intellectual and jurist bases his case for Madison's Christianity on this. Hutson writes Noonan

insist[ed] that Madison was "a pious Christian," a "true follower" of Jesus and that he was guided by a "faith . . . palpably alive, a faith stupendous in modern eyes, a faith that God in us speaks to us." He spoke, Noonan concluded, "as a believer in Christianity's special light," as one who "looks to the evangelization of the world."

The relevant part of the Memorial and Remonstrance is as follows:

12. Because the policy of the Bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind. Compare the number of those who have as yet received it with the number still remaining under the dominion of false Religions; and how small is the former! Does the policy of the Bill tend to lessen the disproportion? No; it at once discourages those who are strangers to the light of revelation from coming into the Region of it; and countenances by example the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might convey it to them. Instead of Levelling as far as possible, every obstacle to the victorious progress of Truth, the Bill with an ignoble and unchristian timidity would circumscribe it with a wall of defence against the encroachments of error.

Though, as Hutson notes, this document was "written to appeal to evangelical forces during a petition campaign in 1785" to support his notion of separation of church and state (or "no-cognizance" -- some scholars, notably Philip Hamburger, think them two different concepts; I don't). Madison argued that a true Christian would reject any kind of government support for Christianity. And indeed, in that document, he rails against Christian establishments and, in particular, remonstrates against Patrick Henry's bill which would have provided aid to Christian religions on a non-discriminatory basis (but the bill specified aid go to Christian religions only).

Hutson also notes

a statement in 1833 in which the aged ex-president lauded Christianity as the "best & purest religion." This last assertion, however, sounds very much like the deistical maxim, frequently indulged by Jefferson, that the "pure" religion of Jesus had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul and the early church fathers.

I have also noted that use of comparative terms like "better" or "best" to describe Christianity is not orthodox. Christianity is not "better" than other religions, according to such thought. Christianity is true; other religions are false. The following is evidence that Madison did not believe non-Christian religions are false, that his statements in the Remonstrance, rather, spoke to persons who believed such and tried to convince them that the no-cognizance/no aid standard is consistent with their orthodox views. When addressing the Native Americans, like Washington, Jefferson (and probably Adams, though I haven't found his quotations yet), Madison referred to God as "The Great Spirit" exactly as the Indians did. I blogged about that here. The following is from his To My Red Children, August 1812. I have emphasized his use of the term "The Great Spirit":

“I have a further advice of my Red children. You see how the country of the eighteen fires is filled with people. They increase like the corn they put into the ground. They all have good houses to shelter them from all weathers, good clothes suitable to all seasons; and as for food, of all sorts, you see they have enough and to spare. No man, woman, or child, of the eighteen fires, ever perished of hunger. Compare all this with the condition of the Red people. They are scattered here and there in handfulls. Their lodges are cold, leak, and smoky. They have hard fare, and often not enough of it.

“Why this mighty difference? The reason, my Red children, is plain. The white people breed cattle and sheep. They spin and weave. Their heads and their hands make all the elements and productions of nature useful to them.

“It is in your power to be like them. The ground that feeds one lodge by hunting, would feed a great band by the plough & the hoe. The Great Spirit has given you, like your white brethren, good heads to contrive, and strong arms, and active bodies. Use them like your white brethren of the eighteen fires, and like them, your little sparks will grow into great fires. You will be well fed, dwell in good houses, and enjoy the happiness for which you, like them, were created. These are the words of your father to his red children. The Great Spirit who is the father of us all, approves them. Let them pass through the ear in to the heart. Carry them home to your people; and as long as you remember this visit to your father of the eighteen fires, remember these are his last and best words to you!”

If Madison were an orthodox Christian concerned with the souls of Native Americans he would not have used this language but admonished them to come to Christ. Instead, he told them their pagan God they worshipped was "the father of us all," the same God he worshipped. This unmistakably affirms my contention that the Founders believed

all religions about which they were aware were valid ways to God and that included not just Christianity, but Judaism, Deism, Unitarianism, Islam, Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, and Pagan Greco-Romanism. God is Jehovah to the Jews, Allah to the Muslims, the Great Spirit to the Native Americans. And these are different names for the same generic “Providence” they worshipped. Though, as theological unitarians, they didn’t believe that Jesus was God, rather that he was a great moral teacher who may have been a man (Socinian) or some kind of divine being created by and subordinate to God (Arian).

On denying the Trinity, it's tough to find quotations from Madison doing so because back then such could ruin one's public reputation (until recently before the founding, it could get you killed by the "Christian Commonwealths"). Neither did Madison ever publicly affirm the doctrine, and he invariably used generic, philosophical titles for God (like "Nature's God"). Two strong pieces of evidence show that Madison was a theological unitarian. First, there is eyewitness accounts of Madison professing such. As Hutson reported, Madison biographer, Irving Brant quoted "a Bostonian's account of an 1815 dinner table conversation with Madison:

He talked of religious sects and parties and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines."

And this is entirely confirmed by Madison's letter to Frederick Beasley where for authority on God's attributes he appeals to a notorious theological unitarian and religious rationalist -- Samuel Clarke -- who was nearly defrocked from his position as an Anglican minister for peddling such heresy within the Church.

Also note that Madison did not turn to John Witherspoon, as some mistakenly believe was his spiritual mentor. No evidence exists that Witherspoon led Madison to Christ other than the fact that Madison may have briefly flirted with orthodox Christianity in his college days. But if he were Christian then, as Bishop Meade, a notable Episcopalian of the post-founding era, noted:

His religious feeling, however, seems to have been short-lived. His political associations with those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet subjected him to the general suspicion of it....

Many of those elite Virginia Anglican Whigs secretly held to "infidel principles." Indeed, after graduation, Madison's mentor was Jefferson, who may well have brought Madison to unitarian infidelity. As James Renwick Willson, a minister who preached against the Constitution for its godlessness and lack of covenant with God, noted in 1832:

Mr. Jefferson’s successor, Mr. Madison, was educated by godly parents, with a view to the Ministry of reconciliation. He commenced the study of Theology, under the care of Dr. Witherspoon, President of Princeton College, where he attended a prayer meeting of the pious youth of that Seminary, who were preparing for the Holy Ministry.

When he returned from Princeton to his fathers house in Virginia, Mr. Jefferson was a young village lawyer, who had attracted the notice of the neighborhood, by his regular business habits, in collecting debts, drawing indentures, &c.

Madison, to the grief of his parents, abandoned the study of Theology, and entered the office of the infidel and libertine Jefferson, as a student of law. Though Mr. Madison has pledged himself neither in public nor private, to the belief of Christianity, yet he is not known to have employed his influence, like Jefferson, in attempts to abolish the Christian Faith. The value of a religious education is strikingly illustrated the private character of James Madison. Jefferson probably made him a deist, and yet his moral deportment, as it regards the second table of the law, has been respectable. All the influence of the infidel creed, and the profligacy of morals about court, have not been of sufficient force to demolish utterly the fabric of a religious education. For the honor of the country, we may hope that he will not contrive to die on the 4th of July.

Hutson also notes that Madison's views evolved to reject Calvinism and embraced enlightenment rationality:

Two bits of evidence, heretofore overlooked, seem to corroborate the claims of those who assume that the mature Madison either lost interest in religion or migrated spiritually into one of the many mansions of deism. First, there is the curious episode of the publication in 1802 of the sermons of the Reverend John Witherspoon, Madison's mentor at Princeton and, subsequently, his friend and political comrade. As was customary in Madison's day, Witherspoon's writings were published by public subscription. The list of subscribers was so extensive that the promoters of the publication must have scoured the nation to obtain support. The subscribers were a veritable who's who of the nation's political elite; Jefferson, John Adams, John Jay, John Dickinson and many other luminaries. Also included were many of Madison's friends and classmates at Princeton. But Madison's own name was absent. Was the omission accidental? Or had Madison refused to sponsor a theological opus because of disenchantment with its orthodox pieties?

Perhaps a better clue to Madison's outlook is a letter to Jefferson, December 31, 1824, in which he complained about Presbyterian "Sectarian Seminaries," armed with charters of incorporation, disseminating obsolete religious doctrines, by which he clearly meant Calvinism.

Unassailable charters allowed a "creed however absurd or contrary to that of a more enlightened Age" to be perpetuated indefinitely. The Reformation itself, Madison continued, must be considered the "greatest of abuses," if legal impediments could prevent its doctrines from being brought up to date. The idea that Madison was espousing, that religious truth must evolve to incorporate the discoveries of science and other branches of modern learning, was far from the theological orthodoxy of most 19th century American churches. It can be inferred that his own religious views had evolved from the verities he had learned at Princeton, but how and in what direction neither this nor other writings disclose.

Finally, though Mr. Goswick objects to my assertion that John Witherspoon may not have even taught his students Calvinism, no evidence shows he so did; though Witherspoon did preach Calvinism from the pulpit. What most folks don't understand is that Witherspoon had a metaphorically schizophrenic or split personality when it came to his religious teachings on the one hand, and government teachings on the other. What Witherspoon taught his student at Princeton were his Lectures on Moral Philosophy. And in them, there is an utter lack of Calvinist teachings. As Dr. Gregg Frazer, in his dissertation, points out, "[i]t was not Witherspoon the Calvinist, but Witherspoon the rationalist and naturalist, who influenced a generation of American political leaders -- and Madison in particular." p. 278.

It is ironic that in Scotland, Witherspoon defended orthodoxy against the thought of Enlightenment rationalists Hume and Hutcheson. But when he prepared his Lectures, he turned to those very infidel sources for content! (Ibid). Indeed it was Witherspoon who first introduced Madison to Samuel Clarke -- that Arian heretic/philosophical rationalist. Like the Enlightenment rationalists, Witherspoon believed one can discover God's attributes from reason alone. In fact, he elevated reason to the same level as revelation. But ultimately, like Aquinas, he believed the two would always perfectly agree. Though, he grounded his political teachings in Locke's "state of nature" theory which is wholly alien to the Bible. Thus, when he taught government and moral philosophy to his students at Princeton, Witherspoon spoke as an Enlightenment rationalist, not a Calvinist.

The historical record thus fails to show that Madison was a Christian in the orthodox sense and strongly points in the direction of his theistic rationalism, what Hutson calls "one of the many mansions of deism," but is actually a version of theological unitarianism/universalism that posits an active personal god and elevates reason over revelation.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Wonderful stuff, Jon, and probative. Thank you.

I was never under the impression that James Madison might be recognizably Christian. Until now.


If, a putative Christian like myself may be permitted an attempt to understand Mr. Madison as he understood himself:

I see first of all an overarching humility that would shy away from anything resembling evangelism. Madison was unsure about and indeed dissatisfied with the prevailing doctrines. His chosen course was a quiet witness should anyone ask.

In fact, he was fairly repulsed by the doctrine-spouters, whom he saw (correctly in my view) as pushing the undecided away rather than toward the Faith. Let's plug Jerry Falwell in here, as an archetype and thought experiment. Altho I was an ally in the abstract, the times are countless that I wished he and Pat Robertson would shut the hell up.

Friggin' embarrassing. I gotta think Madison felt the same way.

First, do no harm.

Madison's cryptic musings seem to echo Roger Williams in great part---Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and refugee from the theocratic and dogmatically hair-slitting experiments of Massachussetts and Connecticut, might be the founder of American credal pluralism as well. (A healthy and visionary thing for folks who in dribs and drabs and Mayflowers fled religious persecution themselves.)

Not only would sectarian pluralism stop everybody from restarting the bloody crap that they just crossed a forbidding ocean to get away from, but Madison was in no way convinced that any of 'em had the pure and uncorrupted answer.

I'll stop here for now, but if I were Madison, I'd have done just about the same semi-esoteric thing. (And I hope I do.)

Jonathan said...

My pleasure.

Yes, even though Jefferson most notably "lifted" Williams' "Wall of Separation" line, Madison's sentiments seem even more influenced by Williams. Williams was obsessed with keeping Christianity pure from corrupt worldly influences. Madison far more than Jefferson justified separating church and state to best preserve the purity of both.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As lovers of Christianity, their first concern would be to safeguard it from its greatest threat, Christians.