As I try to get a clearer understanding of how Founding era Americans viewed the French Revolution, I've come across a rich source of "Christian" literature arguing on behalf of the French Revolution's principles. As I understand the history -- the French were quite popular in Founding era America; they were instrumental to securing American victory over the British, and American consensus initially strongly supported the French Revolution and thought (or perhaps hoped) it would be an extension of the American Revolution. As things started to go wrong, more Americans began to jump ship. And the end of Washington's Presidency coincided with the emergence of political parties (the Federalists v. the Democratic-Republicans) and the increasing awareness that the situation in France was getting worse. Support for the French Revolution became divided along party lines, with the Federalists becoming increasingly anti-French Revolution and sympathizing with the British and the Republicans maintaining support for the French.
Along the way, some orthodox Federalist Clergy labeled Jefferson an "infidel." They did so for a variety of reasons, in part for his excessive sympathy for the French, but also for things he wrote in "Notes on the State of Virginia." But, the Republicans had their clergy and theologians as well, many of whom defended Jefferson and the French Revolution on explicitly "Christian" grounds. Or, at least they presented their defense of such under the auspices of "Christianity." But what presented itself as "Christianity" was Enlightenment dogma mixed in with biblical language. I recently wrote about one of these figures -- Bishop James Madison. But there are more, one of whom I detail below and others in subsequent posts.
Note these defenders of Jefferson and the French Revolution were not Thomas Paine style deists. Though some of these enlightened clergymen may have appreciated the likes of Paine, Voltaire and Rousseau (to an extent) it was not open infidels rejecting the "Christian" label who had respectable platforms for reaching the public (the works of the hard infidels were widely read in certain circles, but also viewed as subversive; you can imagine them being mailed in brown paper envelopes). Rather, it was clergy and theologians teaching such things as the perfectibility of man was a "Christian principle." A recurring theme is that the French Revolution would triumphantly usher in a millennial republic of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." This should illustrate a danger for orthodox Christians who wish to read in "republicanism" to the biblical record that clearly *isn't there.*
Philip Hamburger writes about this dynamic in Chapter 6 of "Separation of Church and State," entitled Keeping Religion Out of Politics and Making Politics Religious. And the Liberty Fund reproduces many of these sermons edited by Ellis Sandoz.
First let us learn about the Tunis Wortman, a theologian. Sandoz notes:
Wortman’s background and activities before the 1790s are unknown. He appears first as a New York City lawyer and man of the Enlightenment, a French-style partisan of liberty, and an apostle of the millennial republic. He viewed the French Revolution as the continuation of the American Revolution and as the European phase of history’s progress toward universal peace.
This is from Wortman's, 1800 A SOLEMN ADDRESS TO CHRISTIANS AND PATRIOTS:
TO MY READERS
In the ensuing observations, I shall consider your duties as christians and as patriots. I shall make it my task to establish the following propositions.
1st. That it is your duty, as christians, to maintain the purity and independence of the church, to keep religion separate from politics, to prevent an union between the church and the state, and to preserve your clergy from temptation, corruption and reproach.
2d. That as christians and patriots, it is equally your duty to defend the liberty and constitution of your country.
3d. Although I am a sincere and decided opponent of infidelity, yet as it respects a president of the United States, an enmity to the constitution is the most dangerous evil; inasmuch as christianity is secure by the force of its own evidence, and coming from God, cannot be destroyed by human power; but, on the contrary, the constitution, is vulnerable to the attacks of an ambitious and unprincipled executive.
4th. That Mr. Jefferson is in reality a republican, sincerely attached to the constitution of his country, amiable and irreproachable in his conduct as a man, and that we have every reason to believe him, in sincerity, a christian.
5th. That the charge of deism, contained in such pamphlet, is false, scandalous and malicious—that there is not a single passage in the Notes on Virginia, or any of Mr. Jefferson’s writings, repugnant to christianity; but on the contrary, in every respect, favourable to it—and further, that there is every reason to believe the story of Mazzei a base and ridiculous falsehood.
Interestingly, Wortman defended Jefferson and called for separation of Church & State while attacking the harder "infidels."
If you are real christians, anxious for the honor and purity and interest of the christian church, you will feel a steady determination, to preserve it free from corruption. Unless you maintain the pure and primitive spirit of christianity, and prevent the cunning and intrigue of statesmen from mingling with its institutions; you will become exposed to a renewal of the same dreadful and enormous scenes which have not only disgraced the annals of the church, but destroyed the peace, and sacrificed the lives of millions. It is by such scenes and by such dreadful crimes, that christianity has suffered; by such fatal and destructive enormities which, since the days of Constantine, have been perpetrated without intermission, that the church has become debased and polluted; in language similar to that of Joshua, we have reason to exclaim there is an accursed thing within the tabernacle. The blood of many an innocent Abel has stained the ephod, the vestments and the altar. Religion has suffered more from the restless ambition and impiety of the church of Rome, than from all the writings of a Voltaire, a Tindal, a Volney, or even the wretched blasphemies of Paine.*
Experience suggests a more satisfactory but a more fatal reason; the crimes and abuses which have been committed in its name, cruelty and persecution, and intolerance have raised up an host of enemies, and accounts for the zeal, the bitterness and the vehemence of their opposition. It is the departure from the original purity of the system; the alliance with courts; the impurities and prophanity of spurious, amphibious, hermorphredite priests, the innumerable atrocities and persecutions, which have been perpetrated in the name of the most high, that has produced or encouraged the school of infidelity, and occasioned many an honest mind to believe that the establishment of christianity, is incompatible with civil freedom. Let me conjure you, then, to purify the altar, to keep things sacred from intermingling with things prophane, to maintain religion separate and apart from the powers of this world; and then, to use an expression similar to that of the infidel Rousseau, you will hasten the æra when all mankind shall bow at the feet of Jesus.
But what kind of "Christian" was Wortman? Four years earlier in 1796 in an "Oration on the Influence of Social Institutions," he noted that the spirit of the age (enlightenment) had "exalted the human character to a state of splendid greatness and perfectibility that no former age has ever yet realised or experienced." He cited Godwin for the proposition of the mind's "plastic nature" and railed against the "monkish and dishonorable doctrine which teaches the original depravity of mankind," which Wortman termed a "false and pernicious libel upon our species." Eventually human progress would perfect mankind. As Wortman wrote, mankind would "continue to make accelerated advances in wisdom and in virtue until he hath rendered himself the vanquisher of misery and vice, and until 'Mind hath become omnipotent over matter.'" (For more see the above link to Hamburger's "Separation of Church & State.")
In subsequent posts I'll detail more enlightened "Christians" who sympathized with Jefferson & the French Revolution. I don't think their views represented "mainstream" thought for the Founding era, but they were "the base" of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans who represented half of America towards the end of the "Founding Era" (the 1790s).