Saturday, January 25, 2014

John Adams on Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"

Adams wrote about it in his autobiography, accessible here. [Hat tip to Eric Nelson's new paper.] As Adams noted:
 ... The Arguments in favour of Independence I liked very well: but one third of the Book was filled with Arguments from the old Testiment, to prove the Unlawfulness of Monarchy, and another Third, in planning a form of Government, for the seperate States in One Assembly, and for the United States, in a Congress. His Arguments from the old Testiment, were ridiculous, but whether they proceeded from honest Ignorance, and or foolish [Superstition] on one hand, or from willfull Sophistry and knavish Hypocricy on the other I know not.
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. ...

Eric Nelson: "Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776: A Contemporary Account of the Debate over Common Sense"

Check it out here. A taste:
Paine’s earliest critics agreed fully with these assessments. The author of an anonymous reply to Common Sense, published in Dublin in 1776, blisteringly described how Paine “ransack[s] the holy scriptures, for texts against kingly government, and with a faculty of perverting sacred truths to the worst of purposes, peculiar to gentlemen of his disposition, quotes the example of the Jews.”3 This critic revealingly chose a line of Shakespeare for his pamphlet’s epigraph: “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”4 A second early antagonist, writing under the pseudonym “Rationalis,” likewise assailed Paine’s “scripture quotations, which he has so carefully garbled to answer his purpose,” while a third charged that Paine had “pervert[ed] the Scripture” in claiming that “monarchy . . . (meaning,probably, the institution of Monarchy,) ‘is ranked in Scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them.’”5

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ben Franklin: Heretics are Honest & Virtuous (and therefore saved)

Ben Franklin's exact religious creed is difficult to put your finger on. After a short flirtation with strict deism while younger, he apparently abandoned it for something else. I see what he converted to as the "hybrid religion" of the key Founders, somewhere in between strict deism and orthodox Christianity (whatever you want to term it, theistic rationalism, Christian-Deism, small u unitarianism, etc.).

From Franklin's writings, we do know a few certain things about his creed. He was a theist, that is he believed in an active personal, as opposed to a cold and distant God. After a long debate in this comment thread, I am convinced that Franklin rejected the orthodox Protestant doctrine of sola fide (or that men are justified through "faith alone").

Yet, Franklin was also skeptical that men could save themselves through their good works alone. His letter to George Whitefield demonstrates he didn't think HE HIMSELF could do it. Though, he may have remained open to the notion that some could.

That said, Franklin's writings demonstrate he thought good works and virtue central to the salvation scheme. Good works were a necessary component for salvation, but also, in the end, insufficient to merit eternal bliss. Some Supreme Act of Providential Benevolence would come in and save the day for most, if not all folks.

If Franklin believed in Christ's Atonement, it was in this (unorthodox) sense. It was more than just choosing between a "Universal" versus a "Limited" Atonement. But rather a Universal Atonement that borders on, if not results in the eventual salvation of all men's souls.

I see it as a "plus factor" Atonement. That benevolent, divine push that expedited salvation for all good men. Good men, because of their virtue, and regardless of their exact faith, were first in line for Heaven. If there is a scholarly term for this atonement theory, I'm not aware of it.

Belief in Jesus was important for salvation not because men had to put their faith in Jesus' finished work on the cross, but rather because Jesus perfected morality. If morality was central to salvation as Franklin believed, and if Jesus was the perfect moral teacher, then it stands to reason that Jesus' followers, whether Trinitarian, Arian, Socinian or a believer in some other Jesus centered system, would be closer to the front of the salvation line, IF THEY SINCERELY FOLLOWED HIS MORAL TEACHINGS.

As it were, I don't think Franklin had too much concern for the souls of the Arian Richard Price and the Socinian Joseph Priestley. As he noted to B. Vaughan, Oct. 24, 1788:
Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction; for I think all the heretics I lave known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not, like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however, mistake me. It is not to my good friend's heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, 'tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic. I am ever, my dear friend, yours sincerely, B. Franklin.
Drs. Priestley and Price were honest, virtuous men and that's what mattered most, in the grand scheme of things.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ben Franklin on Protestant Purgatory and Hopeful Christian-Universalism

He believed in both. This was Franklin's correspondence with Mrs. Partridge on Ben Kent. All three of them, apparently, believed in Purgatory. We see how the Protestant Purgatory in which they believed, accordingly, fits with Protestant Christian-Universalism:

All souls will eventually get into Heaven; some just take longer to get there in the "cosmic, settling of accounts" sense. The bad, definitely have to spend some time in purgatory to work off (or something?; purging, like a sick patient who has to suffer before she feels better?) bad karma, or in Judeo-Christian parlance, "sin." I'm not exactly sure what it means when Franklin below speaks of souls not going right to Heaven, but rather, "some place where souls are prepared for those regions."

But he clearly believed in such a place. To see his entire words in context, it's from his letter to "Mrs. Partridge. On the Death of Ben Kent.—Orthodoxy. (extract.) Philadelphia, Nov. 25, 1788."
"You tell me our poor friend Ben Kent is gone, I hope to the regions of the blessed; or at least to some place where souls are prepared for those regions! I found my hope on this, that though not so orthodox as you and I, he was an honest man, and had his virtues. If he had any hypocrisy, it was of that inverted kind, with which a man is not so bad as he seems to be. And with regard to future bliss, I cannot help imagining that multitudes of the zealously orthodox of different sects, who at the last day may flock together, in hopes of seeing each other damned, will be disappointed, and obliged to rest content with their own salvation. Yours, &c. B. Franklin."
Apparently being "honest" and "virtuous" counts for hope of salvation, according to Franklin.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lawler: "Edmund Burke and Leo Strauss"

By Peter Lawler here. A taste:
... Burke is an evilthinker because he teaches that constitutions are grown, not made; because he lacks the conviction of the superiority of the philosophic life that should order the hierarchy of ends in the best regime; because he has an indefinite but real understanding of the flourishing of individuality that makes him fatally modern (or Lockean/Humean); because he seems to rank imagination and sentiment higher than reason in understanding beauty and such; and because he facilitated the eradication of natural right by history or historicism. 
But, practically speaking, Burke was always right–about America, Ireland, India, and the French Revolution etc. ...

Sandefur: "Conservatives Adopt Progressive Priorities"

From Timothy Sandefur here. A taste:
Probably the most influential conservative critic of judicial activism was Robert Bork, who explicitly denounced the Declaration and wholeheartedly embraced the Progressive critique of the judiciary in The Tempting of America. The Constitution’s “Madisonian system,” he claimed, provides that “in wide areas of life majorities are entitled to rule, if they wish, simply because they are majorities.” This was, of course, the exact reverse of Madison’s actual beliefs; Madison held that nobody is ever “entitled” to rule—and certainly not on account merely of them being majorities. Instead, rulers are authorized to rule, and only within the preexisting rights of individuals. 
But while Bork claimed to recognize that courts have a duty to protect the individual against the majority, he provided no recipe for doing so, and he believed individual liberties should be strictly limited to those specified in the Bill of Rights. True, the Ninth Amendment declares that this is the wrong way to read the Constitution: it says that the fact that some rights are specified must not be interpreted to deny the existence or importance of other rights. But Bork tried to dodge the import of the Ninth Amendment by claiming, falsely, that there is “almost no history that would indicate what the ninth amendment was intended to accomplish,” and even likening that Amendment to an “inkblot.” Actually, Madison, Hamilton, and others wrote at length about what that Amendment meant, making clear that it was intended to ensure that nobody would think the Bill of Rights specifies all the rights that people possess. 
Bork’s rejection of the idea that rights precede the state and limit its powers is rooted in moral agnosticism. “There is no principled way to decide that one man’s gratifications are more deserving of respect than another’s or that one form of gratification is more worthy of another,” he writes.
There is no way of deciding these matters other than by reference to some system of moral or ethical values that has no objective or intrinsic validity of its own and about which men can and do differ…. The issue of the community’s moral and ethical values, the issue of the degree of pain an activity causes, are matters concluded by the passage and enforcement of the laws in question. The judiciary has no role to play other than that of applying the statutes in a fair and impartial manner.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sandefur: "The Liberty Constitution, Or, What About Slavery?"

Check it out here. A taste:
Chief among the anti-slavery constitutionalists was one of my great heroes, John Quincy Adams. In a series of pamphlets and speeches written during his post-presidency Congressional service, Adams argued that the Constitution must be interpreted in light of the Declaration of Independence. Drawing on the writings of his father’s generation, he argued that it was the Declaration that created the American union and defined the terms of its legitimacy; the Constitution implemented its principles. Not only did sovereignty reside in the nation as a whole (rendering secession unconstitutional, of course), but that sovereignty was limited by the natural rights of man. The problems with the Articles of Confederation, he wrote,
arose out of a departure from the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and the substitution of state sovereignty instead of the constituent sovereignty of the people, as the foundation of the Revolution and of the Union. The war from the beginning had been, and yet was, a revolutionary popular war. The colonial governments never had possessed or pretended to claim sovereign power. Many of them had not even yet constituted themselves as independent States. The Declaration of Independence proclaims the natural rights of man, and the constituent power of the people to be the only sources of legitimate government. State sovereignty is a mere argument of power, without regard to right—a mere reproduction of the omnipotence of the British parliament in another form, and therefore not only inconsistent with, but directly in opposition to, the principles of the Declaration of independence.

Tillman on the Errors in The Federalist Papers

Check out this essay by Seth Barrett Tillman here. Hat tip Timothy Sandefur and Will Baude.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

To Democratically Repeal Natural Right?

The question Orin Kerr asked and Timothy Sandefur answered. I like Mr. Sandefur's answer. But he could have quoted the end of Thomas Jefferson's Statute on Religious Freedom. You see this was no "ordinary" statute:
III. And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Timothy Sandefur Blogging At Volokh

On the notion of the Declaration of Independence and constitutional interpretation. Check it out here. Here is his book published by Cato.

A taste from his first Volokh post:
The American founders held that people are inherently free—that is, no person has a basic entitlement to dictate how other people may lead their lives. Although today it’s common for intellectuals to dismiss the notion of natural rights as mysticism or emotionalism, it is actually a sound philosophical position. People are “created equal” in the sense that they possess their own selves (and can’t give them up; hence “inalienability”). Given that initial position of individual freedom, there must be some good reason for limiting freedom.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Rev. James Foster

In his "A Defense of Mr. Hemphill’s Observations," Ben Franklin noted:
But they ask, What are the Benefits and Advantages of the christian Revelation, if the Heathen World living up to the Light of Nature and Reason may be sav’d? For Answer to this, I refer them to that excellent Defence of Christianity by Mr. Foster, Chap. 1. ...
The context here is that Hemphill argued and Franklin agreed "that Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature." To which the orthodox argued, if Heathens living up to Nature and Reason can be saved (because this -- to be a good moral person -- is what it really means to be a "Christian") even though they have not accepted or ever heard of Christ, then what use is the Gospel?

The orthodox, in this sense, echo the view of the "Christian-Deist" Matthew Tindal who argued what is valuable, useful and true in "Christianity" are only those parts that are IDENTICAL to the law of nature as discovered by reason alone. The parts not identical (i.e., much of orthodox Christian dogma) were the result of superstitious error (what Joseph Priestley would later term "corruption").

Hence, since we can discover what is valuable and true about Christianity through reason unaided by special revelation, the latter is useless and arguably harmful because of the superstitious errors intermixed in the Bible and authoritative ecclesiastical teachings. In other words, even though special revelation contains truth, it's unnecessary and superfluous when reason can figure those things out without it and doesn't have to waste its time sorting through doctrinal errors of religious superstitions based there upon.

The orthodox (of the Catholic, Anglican or Protestant bent), simply disagree with the Tindal's premise of what constitutes religious truth and error. Much of the authoritative church teachings based on special revelation that Tindal tries to sweep away with his "reason" are, to them, non-negotiable doctrines central to their faith. That's why they might be extremely suspicious of anyone who hints at "real Christianity" as largely a "republication" of the law of nature.

 Hopefully this sheds contextual light on the title of Tindal's most notable Book of Deism: "Christianity As Old As the Creation: Or the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature" as well as the suspicion the Presbyterians had against Hemphill and Franklin who agreed that the essential parts of Christianity are largely republications of the law of nature, God's first revelation to man.

As it were, Franklin and Hemphill, in their defense relied on Rev.James Foster's book "The Usefulness, Truth, and Excellency of the Christian Revelation Defended" to authoritatively defend special revelation. Note, though, Foster shared the premise that Christianity is largely a republication of the law of nature and that heathens following nature and reason can be saved even if they never consciously accepted Christ.

Their point was, even given it true that Christianity essentially republishes the law of nature as discovered by reason, special revelation is nonetheless useful and true. And, interestingly, because Tindal and Foster shared the given premise (but disagreed on special revelation), their debate was quite friendly, such that Tindal gave his props to Foster's book that challenges his.

Arguably Foster was, like Tindal a "Christian-Deist" and this was a debate between Christian-Deists. Or perhaps this was a debate between "Christian-Deist" Tindal and "Christian-Unitarian" Foster. In any event Foster's book is a liberal unitarian defense of special revelation.

I can't do justice to everything Foster's book says, but I understand the bottom line of its defense of Christianity as follows: Yes, Christianity essentially republishes the law of nature as discovered by reason, but the New Testament does this almost perfectly so. So much so that it operates as a "shortcut" for most ordinary men who don't possess the philosophical acumen of the wisest of philosophers who can figure these things out without the need for special revelation.

In addition, the New Testament contains some improvements made on the law of nature as discovered by reason that are uniquely found there and nowhere else.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Franklin on the Hemphill Controversy

In the comments section on this post at American Creation, I discussed Ben Franklin's defense of Rev. Samuel Hemphill.

I found, in Franklin's autobiography, his personal thoughts on the controversy.

Samuel Hemphill was the kind of preacher Franklin appreciated most. Rev. Hemphill already got in trouble with the orthodox folks in his community for his "heterodoxy" and Franklin defended his heretical theology against a theological lynching.

Bad as that was, Rev. Hemphill had another controversy with which to deal and against which Franklin also defended: He apparently plagiarized one Rev. James Foster, a fellow Arminian unitarian, universalist, heretic. Indeed, arguably Rev. Foster was the source of Hemphill's heterodoxy.

Here is Franklin on the matter:
About the year 1734, there arrived among us a young Presbyterian preacher, named Hemphill, who delivered with a good voice, and apparently extempore, most excellent discourses, which drew together considerable numbers of different persuasions, who joined in admiring them. Among the rest, I became one of his constant hearers, his sermons leasing me, as they had little of the dogmatical kind, but inculcated strong, the practice of virtue, or what, in the religious style, are called good works. 
Those, however, of our congregation, who considered themselves as orthodox Presbyterians, disapproved his doctrine, and were joined by most of the old ministers, who arraigned him of heterodoxy before the synod, in order to have him silenced. I became his zealous partisan, and contributed all I could to raise a party in his favor, and combated for him awhile with some hopes of success. There was much scribbling, pro and con, upon the occasion; and finding that, though an elegant preacher, he was but a poor writer, I wrote for him two or three pamphlets, and a piece in the Gazette, of April, 1735. Those pamphlets, as is generally the case with controversial writings, though early read at the time, were soon out of vogue, and question whether a single copy of them now exists.  
During the contest an unlucky occurrence hurt his cause exceedingly. One of our adversaries having heard him preach a sermon, that was much admired, thought he had somewhere read the sermon before, or at least a part of it. On searching, he found that part quoted at length, in one of the British Reviews, from a discourse of Dr. Foster’s. This detection gave many of our party disgust, who, accordingly, abandoned his cause, and occasioned our more speedy discomfiture in the synod. I stuck by him, however; I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture; though the latter was the practice of our common teachers. He afterwards acknowledged to me, that none of those he preached were his own; adding, that his memory was such as enabled him to retain and repeat any sermon after once reading only. On our defeat, he left us in search elsewhere of better fortune, and I quitted the congregation, never attending it after; though I continued many years my subscription for the support of its ministers.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Seth Barrett Tillman, Purim & My Bangladeshi Friend, Gadfly: Culture that Matters

Professor Tillman wrote to me:
I published this piece of fiction in 2013. It is 8 pages. This is a short story about self-discovery via contact with other cultures. It touches on a number of themes and areas of intellectual inquiry: criminal responsibility, how history transforms the meaning of events, and the loss of cultural memory and meaning. It is loosely tied to several intellectual themes which (at least, tangentially) relate to your blog and may interest your readers. ...
Check it out here.

More From John Adams on Jonathan Mayhew's Unitarianism

I've previously noted John Adams describing Jonathan Mayhew's unitarianism a number of times from a quotation in 1815.

I just came across a quotation from Adams' autobiography in 1756 where he seemingly notes Mayhew's direct influence on his own unitarianism:
17. Wednesday. A fine morning. Proceeded on my journey towards Braintree. Stopped to see Mr. Haven,1 of Dedham, who told me, very civilly, he supposed I took my faith on trust from Dr. Mayhew, and added, that he believed the doctrine of the satisfaction of Jesus Christ to be essential to Christianity, and that he would not believe this satisfaction unless he believed the Divinity of Christ. Mr. Balch was there too, and observed, that he would not be a Christian if he did not believe the mysteries of the gospel; that he could bear with an Arminian, but when, with Dr. Mayhew, they denied the Divinity and satisfaction of Jesus Christ, he had no more to do with them; that he knew not what to make of Dr. Mayhew’s two discourses upon the expected dissolution of all things. They gave him an idea of a cart whose wheels wanted greasing; it rumbled on in a hoarse, rough manner; there was a good deal of ingenious talk in them, but it was thrown together in a jumbled, confused order. He believed the Doctor wrote them in a great panic. He added further that Arminians, however stiffly they maintain their opinions in health, always, he takes notice, retract when they come to die, and choose to die Calvinists. Set out for Braintree, and arrived about sunset.