Saturday, June 24, 2006

Bird Wilson on our Founding Fathers:

Who was Bird Wilson? Born in 1777, he was a leading Episcopalian minister of the post-Founding era and was in fact, the son of Founder James Wilson. Shortly after George Washington's death, there was an attempt to deify the Father of our country (and the other Founding Fathers), by turning him into an orthodox Christian.

Parson Mason Locke Weems led the way in arguing that George Washington was a devout believer. But the problem, though, was that Weems notoriously made things up out of whole cloth (like, "I can't tell I lie, I cut down that Cherry Tree.")

And those who knew better, like Bird Wilson, immediately starting contesting what they saw as historical revisionism. While he wasn't one of Washington's ministers, he knew Washington's ministers personally. In fact, one of those men, Bishop White had been Washington's pastor and was also Bird Wilson's godfather and ordained Wilson as an Episcopalian minister. Wilson in turn wrote White's biography.

Also, keep in mind, as James Wilson's son, Bird Wilson knew Washington and the other Founders personally (he grew up with them).

In October 1831, Wilson devoted an entire sermon on the general matter of our Founders' religious beliefs, specifically George Washington's. Wilson noted "among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism."

He went on to say "the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in Christianity_" (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added). [Note: Though Till acts as if he is quoting Rev. Wilson directly, it seems he is quoting John E. Remsburg paraphrasing Wilson's sermon. See the primary source, Remsburg's book.]

[The closest Wilson comes to making a mistake is with John Q. Adams, who was born and raised a Unitarian like his father, but sometime during college converted to a more of a Trinitarian Calvinistic form of Christianity. Yet, JQ Adams throughout the rest of his life seemed to vacillate between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism, and I'm pretty sure died a Unitarian.]

Wilson further said in that sermon, "Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian."

Indeed, those who claim that everyone knew Washington was a Christian until the revisionists came along are themselves revisionists. From the beginning, the exact nature of Washington's personal beliefs engendered disputes.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, it's inaccurate to assert that the Founders were "Christians," altho many of the signatories to this document and that were.

But it might be fair to say they were products of Judeo-Christian culture, and the Enlightenment that had not yet exiled God. (In fact Hume and Rousseau ended the Enlightenment.)

But more helpful is not to examine the truth claims of Christianity, but the salutary effect of religion on a republic that defends individual freedom and thereby depends on self-governance.

"The name of american, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes...

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."----Geo. Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

(And yes, Jon, I'm from Levittown. Egan.)

Jonathan Rowe said...

There's no question the Founders thought religion (as long as it was the right kind; that is religion compatible with liberalism) was good for society for utilitarian reasons.

A split did exist though between those (Washington, Adams, et al.) that thought it was then good for government to involve itself with religion -- promote it, aid it, etc. And those (Jefferson, Madison, et al.) who thought such government "cognizance" of religion was dangerous. It's certainly dangerous for religion to become dependent upon government aid, which often comes with strings attached.

Another interesting theory, not explored nearly enough, is that the Jefferson, Madison crowd also believed government aid or various other "connections" between Church & State were wrong because they violated an equality/neutrality/non-discrimination standard. I think this is important because so called "privileges or immunities" is actually the proper channel for incorporation. And these, by in large, refer to individual rights. The notion of "Separation of Church and State" like Separation of Powers, is certainly a real constitutional principle. But it doesn't "incorporate" so neatly as an individual right. Although equality/neutrality/non-discrimination certainly does incorporate nicely.

Anonymous said...

I'm a historian currently working on church-state relations in the early republic who stumbled across this blog. The sermon you attribute to Bird Wilson, an Episcopalian, was actually delivered by James Renwick Willson, a Reformed Presbyterian or Covenanter and no relation to the Founding Father James Wilson. I've seen this error in books by a number of authors and have been trying to trace it back to its origins; I've traced it as far back as Paul Boller's book on Washington's religion, but the source he cites is not at my university's library. Willson's sermon was still largely accurate, but it lacks the authority of being by James Wilson's son.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Are you sure about this? If you are, it's a pretty serious charge and this matter should be straightened out. Boller -- as far as I know -- is still alive. And so is David Holmes. I strongly suggest contacting them. You may also want to contact Farell Till.

John E. Remsburg [ 1848 - 1919 ] wrote about Bird Wilson's sermon in question.

Bird Wilson was the biographer of Bishop White and did say and write things about Washington's lack of belief consistent with that sermon.

Remsburd mentions the sermon as the primary source which you are looking for:

"Dr. Wilson's sermon was published in the Albany Daily Advertiser in 1831."

Or was Bishop White's biographer the wrong "Wilson"?

Michael.Gabriel said...

Hey, your primary source is a biased one. I was wondering if you could supply a link to Wilson's actual sermon. I agree that it would be erroneous to call America a Christian nation, but I'd like some credible resources if you could supply them.


Jonathan Rowe said...


Read Mr. Kabala's comment very carefully. We have corrected an error that most historians list in the primary sources. It was not Bird Wilson but James Renwick Willson and you may read his sermon here.