Sunday, June 29, 2008

Land of Confusion: The Delusions and Realities of New World Colonization

Once upon a time, in a land far away, lived a brave and wise man named Christopher Columbus. Columbus lived in a world of ignorant fools, who refused to believe that the earth was round. One day, Columbus convinced the King and Queen of Spain to give him some boats, so that he could prove his theory was right. Columbus then sailed on the ocean blue, in the year 1492. He arrived in a New World, populated with dark-skinned savages, whom he educated and converted to the true gospel of Christ. Soon, scores of people flocked to the new world, bringing the imbecile Negroes of Africa with them. Years later, a group of brave Christians known as the Puritans set out upon the Mayflower, in hopes of creating a better world. When they arrived in Massachusetts, these pilgrims became best friends with their savage Indian neighbors, who were more than happy to have them there. Together, the Puritans and Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving, by eating turkey, singing songs, and praying to God. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Any person with even an elementary understanding of history is more than capable of seeing through the sarcasm of this fairytale. To suggest that such a story provides a just and accurate account would invoke laughter and scorn from most. Despite this knowledge, there are still many who have succumbed to a fairytale of their own. They maintain that the New World was a land of freedom, opportunity, and wealth for European immigrants, who were blessed by the watchful hand of Providence. While their assertion is partially true, its bias is obvious. Such a perspective fails to recognize what the New World meant to the thousands of Africans, who instead of freedom, found themselves in chains in the New World. It also negates the opinions of millions of Natives, who had called this “New World” home for centuries. Such a simple perspective also denies us the opportunity of understanding the numerous nations, cultures, religions, social classes and motivations of Europe, which all contributed to American colonization. In essence, the colonization of America was not a simple affair, but a complex series of events that changed the world forever.

For years, the history of American colonization has been wrapped up in a counterfeit blanket of ignorance. This blanket has provided a warped sense of warmth and comfort, which has given many a blissful but misled understanding of the past. Though the established myths of popular culture provide an uplifting account of American colonization, they neglect essential truths that help piece the puzzle together. For example, to suggest that American colonization was a loving endeavor, brought to pass by God himself, is hard to prove conclusively when we take into account the actual motivations for colonization. From the English perspective, the elder Richard Hakluyt made it clear that the main motivations for colonization were, "To trafficke" and "To conquer." Not exactly a well-balanced Christian agenda.

Despite the primary agenda of securing worldly wealth, there is no doubt that the establishment of Christianity was a strong motivation for American colonization. From the very beginning, many explorers were driven by religious convictions, which propelled them into the unknown. Alan Taylor, an early colonial historian and author of the book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, claims that Columbus desired to convert those he encountered to Christianity and, "to recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem. Such a victory would then invite Christ’s return to earth" (33). The Franciscan Friars of Spain were also motivated to migrate to America, in an effort to convert the Pueblo Indians. Upon their arrival, the Friars committed themselves to eradicating old Indian traditions. They raided homes, confiscated ceremonial emblems, destroyed idols, and defiled native gods (Taylor, 89). The Friars also sought to undermine the family traditions of the Pueblo Indians, by indoctrinating their youth, restricting their sexual activities, and emasculating the men (Taylor, 92-93). A strange agenda for a group of self-proclaimed pious Christians.

With the expansion of the Spanish into the New World, the Protestant nation of England felt additional pressure to secure their own colonies and preach their own brand of religion to the "savages" of America. To allow the Catholics of Spain total access to the New World was fundamentally unacceptable. As historian Karen Kupperman points out in her book, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony:

We should not underestimate the emotional force of this confrontation between Christians, which has been compared to the Cold War of the twentieth century. Each side believed the other was absolved by its religion of all normal moral and ethical behavior in dealing with the enemy, and capable of the most heinous plots”
To the English, there was nothing worse than confronting the possibility of a New World ruled under the banner of the Pope.

While there is no doubt that religion played a vital role in American colonization, it was not the exclusive motivation for settlement in the New World. The drive to establish trade with the Indians, and to conquer new lands, was just as significant as the drive to spread Christianity. Contrary to popular opinion, European colonization was not an explosive and daring operation. Instead of seeking to further humanity’s knowledge of the unknown world, many explorers hoped to find lands and cultures that could be exploited for profit. As Alan Taylor states, "the adventurers did not pursue exploration for pure love of geographic knowledge…They proceeded incrementally…seeking the sources of known commodities" (American Colonies, 29). Instead of being a benevolent voyage to chart the unknown, most European exploration was empowered to exploit opportunity for immediate profits.

The conquest of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortes is a prime example of these profit-hungry intentions, which many explorers exhibited. Like many other conquistadores, Cortes came from the Spanish gentry. To turn a profit, men like Cortes depended on their ability to plunder, conquer, and enforce their will on others. Alan Taylor sums up the life of a conquistador perfectly when he writes, “Greed was the prerequisite for pursuing the hard life of a conquistador” (American Colonies, 58). Upon discovering the riches of the Aztecs, Cortes held to the Spanish law of conquest, which demanded that all Indians were required to submit to Spanish rule, or receive the punishments of a “just war.” By gaining the allegiance of neighboring tribes, who detested the Aztecs, Cotes was able to conquer a literal treasure of wealth for himself and his nation.

The conquests of the Spanish in the New World provided an incredible amount of wealth for the homeland. Between 1500 and 1650, Spanish settlers shipped home 181 tons of gold, and 16,000 tons of silver (American Colonies, 63). With such a bountiful supply of riches, the Spanish government moved to monopolize on the market. They made it illegal for all foreigners to trade directly with the colonies, which forced them do deal directly with Spain. Such a policy protected Spain from losing this very lucrative market.

Spain was not the only European nation to seek economic gain in the New World. England quickly caught the fever of colonization, believing that the New World was an undiscovered Utopia, overflowing with untapped potential. In their planning, Europeans perceived the New World to be a bountiful paradise, which “bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor” (Karen Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 17). This Eden-like New World must have appealed to the hopes and imaginations of many English, especially considering all the poverty, disease and warfare that had plagued Europe over the past two centuries. There is little doubt that such hopes and dreams grew into unrealistic fantasies for many who longed for a better world. Speaking from his perspective, nevertheless lacking a full understanding of global weather patterns, the elder Richard Hakluyt made the following assumption of what settlers could expect in the new world:

"This land that we purpose to direct our course to, lying in part in the 40 degree of latitude, being in like heat as Lisbone in Portugall doth, and in the more Southerly part as the most Southerly coast of Spaine doth, may by our diligence yeeld unto us besides Wines and Oiles and Sugars, Orenges, Limons, Figs, Resings, Almonds, Rice…"
Returning from his recent explorations to the New World, Sir Richard Grenville stated that “we have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven” (Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 34-35). With such a Utopia awaiting them, Englishmen began gathering and making preparations for a journey that they believed would ultimately make England even mightier than it already was. All of these men, “had an image of England’s future greatness and the exhilarating feeling that they were the people who would make it come true” (Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 30). From the English perspective, there was a clear expectation of a bountiful, fertile, and relatively easy to maintain oasis that awaited them, and that England would become even greater because of it.

Needless to say, these religious and economic motivations for the colonization of the "New World" primarily resulted in utter failure. Converting the "savages" proved to be more difficult than previously thought, since, contrary to European beliefs, the Native Americans cared very little for Christian theology. On the economic front, colonization proved even more difficult. Instead of discovering and settling in a Garden of Eden-like frontier, European settlers were met with Indian attack, harsh weather, terrible crop yields, and disease. For the English, their first experiment at Roanoke met with complete failure, as was almost the case with Jamestown. Even Plymouth suffered terrible losses and afflictions.
What is interesting about these preconceived European beliefs as to what awaited them across the Atlantic is their complete faith and surety that God would grant them a safe and uneventful trek into an unknown land. Upon their arrival, these same Europeans quickly came to the realization that their faith was not only lacking, but their arrogant presumption that God would grant them immediate success was unlikely to happen. This tug-o-war between the religious presumptions of the Europeans and the reality they experienced helps to explain why the early years of American settlement were a violent, hostile, intolerant and unpredictable environment.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Myths of History

Jon Rowe, a fellow blogger over at American Creation, posted this video in response to an ongoing debate we are having. Though the video is a little bizarre, it does shed light on an important issue. The ongoing battle between true history and popular culture can often cause many Americans to succumb to a number of half-truths and myths regarding our nation's founding. After all, the founding fathers have become virtual demigods that it is almost impossible to shake the myth away from the truth. Weather these myths take the form of Washington chopping down a cherry tree or Jefferson standing as a stalwart supporter of Christianity, the fact is that these myths pollute our TRUE heritage, which, in my opinion, does not need the help of Christian Nationalists in order to appear grand. The truth is always better than fiction, especially when it comes to our nation's founding. If we continue to categorize our founders as legendary demigods we will never be able to appreciate their true greatness. After all, people are never impressed when demigods accomplish greatness. It is expected. But when normal human beings with with flaws, vices and blemishes accomplish something great, humanity rejoices. Such is the case of our founders. These were imperfect men and women that accomplished greatness. So instead of accepting the legends, fables and myths of popular culture, let us strive to learn the TRUE history of our nation's founding, even if it doesn't sound as nice as the popular culture/myth version.

Now that I have finished my rant, enjoy the video:

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

American Founding, by Focus on the Family

Taking a vacation to the snow-capped Rocky Mountains of Colorado is an appealing attraction for thousands of Americans every year. As most can imagine, Colorado is consistently in the top five states for tourism every year, thanks to its impressive displays of nature.

Having lived most of my life in Colorado -- and while currently residing in Colorado Springs -- I have had the privilege of exploring what this region of the country has to offer. When most people think about Colorado Springs, usually the first images that pop into their mind are those of Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, Cave of the Winds, the U.S. Olympic Training Center the United States Air Force Academy, and of course...FOCUS ON THE FAMILY.

As most of you are aware, Focus on the Family is a powerful Evangelical organization that is dedicated to furthering their interpretation of Christian and family values. In addition, Focus on the Family has been deeply involved in the political and historical arenas by focusing on a conservative agenda of Christian ideology. As a result, Focus on the Family has become a powerful voice in the shaping of political and American historical thought for many of its followers.

With that said, I thought some of you might enjoy a brief "virtual tour" of the Focus of the Family Welcome Center, where they provide a brief preview of their take on early American history and the role of religion in shaping that history. First off, I must apologize for the mediocre quality of the video that I took during my visit. My camera is not the best and unfortunately the batteries don't last long. With this in mind, I give you The history of America's founding, by Focus on the Family:

The advertisement for "The Truth Project," which includes Focus on the Family's take on the religious origins -- specifically Christian origins -- of America's founding


The "Drive Thru History America: Foundations of Character" Campaign


Next to the advertisement for "The Truth Project" there is a display for the National Day of Prayer, which they also specify with a national day of thanksgiving to God for the religious faithfulness of the founding fathers


And now, as promised, the video:


Here are some additional pictures:

The entrance to Focus on the Family


The Administration building


The Welcome Center


Entrance to the Welcome Center


The Library


The current "Book of the Month"


Art of the Revolution


Political Stuff




**FYI, I have intentionally withheld my personal opinions of this video and of Focus on the Family in general, so that you could make your own opinions without any influence on my part. Though I do not personally agree with a lot of what Focus on the Family stands for, particularly their take on early American history, I do want to emphasize that my visit to their Welcome Center was very enjoyable. I was impressed by their friendliness and assistance. Their facilities are extraordinary to say the least.**

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Religious Paradox of George Washington

Of all of the founding fathers, there is perhaps no individual that has caused more debate, argument or curiosity than George Washington. As the general of the Continental Army and the first man to head the executive branch of the American republic, Washington has become a larger-than-life figure in the pantheon of national heroes. Or as Washington biographer, Joseph Ellis put it, Washington is “the palpable reality that clothed the revolutionary rhapsodies in flesh and blood, America’s one and only indispensable character…the American Zeus, Moses and Cincinnatus all rolled into one” (Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, 121). As the “Father of our nation,” Washington’s legacy has grown to Herculean proportions. As a result, the task of sifting through the myth, legend and folklore that regularly surrounds Washington has proven to be a daunting task for every generation of historians.

There is no better example of this historical quandary, which surrounds virtually every aspect of Washington’s life, than that of his religious beliefs. For nearly two centuries, Americans have fought over Washington’s personal theological philosophy in an effort to “claim” him as their own. Whether in the form of a politician, historian, minister, etc., the religious beliefs of George Washington have been subjected to the fires of partisan debate and spiritual deliberation.

There are a number of reasons that Washington stands out from his fellow founders. First of all is the simple fact that most of the other mainstream founders -- Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, etc. -- are relatively easy to understand in terms of their religious beliefs. Washington, however, is a different story. As a man who “developed the most notorious model of self-control in all of American history,” Washington has been dubbed “the original marble man” for his desire for personal privacy and mystery (Joseph Ellis, His Excellency, 37). Even Washington’s favorite guide, Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, a book he recited throughout his life, contain insights into Washington’s reclusive nature:


35th Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.

73d Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.

88th Be not tedious in Discourse, make not many Digressigns, nor repeat often the Same manner of Discourse.
It therefore comes as no surprise that a man of such seclusion would prove very difficult to pinpoint on the religious spectrum.

In addition to Washington’s desire to cultivate privacy, the following factors have also made it very difficult to ascertain with any level of certainty Washington’s religious beliefs:
1.) As the most celebrated founding father, Washington has become a “holy grail” of sorts for both Christian enthusiasts and secular devotees. In essence, Washington is the Tiger Woods of founding fathers.
2.) The sheer lack of “smoking gun” evidence to support Washington’s Christian orthodoxy or devotion to deism makes any clear-cut classification of Washington into either camps look factually foolish.
3.) Current trends in American pop-culture seem to distort the historical record regarding Washington’s religious beliefs.

As a result, Washington's religious views have become an enigma or paradox of sorts for historians and theologians alike.

To pinpoint Washington on the religious spectrum, we must first eliminate deism as having any serious influence on Washington. To be considered a true deist, one must reject the belief that a supreme being intervenes in the affairs of men. Simply put, Washington does not meet this definition. In a number of his letters, Washington regularly pointed to the hand of providence as being regularly involved in the affairs of men. In a letter to Governor Trumball, Washington writes:

"Allow me to return you my sincere thanks for the kind wishes and favorable Sentiments express'd in yours of the 13th Instant. As the Cause of our common Country, calls us both to an active and dangerous Duty, I trust that Divine Providence, which wisely orders the Affairs of Men, will enable us to discharge it with Fidelity and Success" [my emphasis].
In his General Orders to the Continental Army, Washington insisted that "Next to the favour of divine providence, nothing is more essentially necessary to give this Army the victory over all its enemies, than Exactness of discipline" [my emphasis]. Other examples of Washington giving praise to providence can be found here and here.

With deism being eliminated as a possible definition for Washington's faith, we are left to ascertain to what level Washington embraced Christianity. To do this, it is important that we first define what orthodox Christianity would look like in Washington’s world. Having been born into the Anglican faith, Washington -- like every other Anglican of the 18th century -- was expected to adhere to certain creeds, which demonstrated his piety and devotion to God. Of course we cannot simply assume that Washington was a devout Anglican simply from his membership in that church because, after all, baptism was performed at infancy. This means that to resolve the "Paradox" of Washington's faith we must look at what he chose to do as an adult.

The Communion Debate
One of the first points that people look at to prove Washington's piety or the lack thereof is the practice of communion. The 39 Articles of faith of the Church of England are a perfect illustration of some of the basic beliefs that a devout Anglican was expected to embrace. When it comes to the practice of communion, the articles state the following:


Article XXV: Of the Sacraments
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same have they a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

Article XXVIII: Of the Lord's Supper
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

Article XXIX: Of the Wicked which do not eat the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord's Supper
The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

Article XXX: Of both kinds
The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people; for both the parts of the Lord's Sacrament, by Christ's ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.

Or as John 6:53 states:

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.

From the very doctrine of the Anglican Church, it is clear that communion was a divinely-sanctioned practice that was required of the orthodox believer.

Now, as most enthusiasts of early American religion know, Washington's participation in communion has been a hotly debated issue. Those who argue in defense of Washington's Christian orthodoxy will regularly dismiss this issue by claiming that an individual does not need to take the Lord's Supper to be a Christian. While this may be true, let us keep in mind that AS AN ANGLICAN, Washington had been raised to revere communion as a holy institution that was required of the devout believer. In other words, to be considered ORTHODOX in belief, an individuals participation in the Lord's Supper is a good barometer.

Unfortunately for historians, there are no surviving documents from Washington to help shed light on this issue. However, there are a number of documents from Washington's contemporaries, which prove very helpful in this debate. For example, Dr. James Abercrombie, who was the assistant rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia, stated the following in regards to Washington's participation in communion:

[O]n Sacrament Sundays, Gen'l Washington, immediately after the Desk and Pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation, always leaving Mrs. Washington with the communicants, she invariably being one, I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to sate the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President, and, as such, he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a Senator of the U. S., he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who, in the course of conversation at the table, said, that on the preceding Sunday, he had received a very just reproof from the public, for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candour; that he had never considered the influence of his example; that he would never again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never become a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he afterwards never came on the morning of Sacrament Sundays, tho', at other times, constant attending in the morning...

...That Washington was a professing Christian is evident from his regular attendance in our church; but, Sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace
[my emphasis].
In another account, Bishop William White states:

In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say, that General Washington never received communion, in the churches of which I am a parochial minister.
From the noted evidence, Washington's participation in the Lord's Supper, an ordinance of great importance to the Anglican Church, is highly in doubt.

In defense of Washington, there are those who point out that Dr. James Abercrombie and Bishop William White were ardent loyalists during the American Revolution, and could have distorted the facts surrounding Washington's faith. In addition, some also suggest the possibility that Washington refused communion because of the political leanings of these ministers, or possibly because he did not feel worthy. As 1 Corinthians 11:29 states:

For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.
In the end, the communion issue is a difficult one to pinpoint with any degree of certainty. Though the accounts of Washington's avoidance to take communion are quite strong, we will never be able to ascertain Washington's state of mind regarding this ordinance. Perhaps he avoided communion because he thought of it as a silly practice, or perhaps he felt personally unworthy to partake of Christ's flesh and blood. Whatever the reason, the fact that Washington purposely avoided communion is a significant component in determining his faith.

Washington and Prayer
Another issue that regularly comes up when discussing the faith of George Washington is prayer. Virtually every American has seen the infamous painting of the General on his knees in the snow of Valley Forge, humbly beseeching the God of heaven for his protection and blessings. As I have argued in a former post, the Prayer at Valley Forge is almost certainly as mythical a story as that of the Cherry Tree or the Silver Dollar. What is not disputed, however, is the fact that Washington was very much a man of devout prayer. In his 1200 page biography of Washington, author Peter Lillback provides a large collection of what he calls Washington's "written prayers." This collection in and of itself serves to prove the fact that Washington prayed on a regular basis. As a result, those who dispute Washington's devotion to prayer find their argument on very shaky ground. On the other hand, these "written prayers" still raise serious doubts about Washington being an orthodox believer. For example, here are the actual phrases that Washington used in his "written prayers" to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Salvation" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

With such a large assortment of phrases, I find it amazing that Lillback does not provide a single example of where Washington prayed to Jesus specifically or directly.

Along with the actual wordage of Washington's prayers, a number of historians and skeptics point to the fact that Washington did not kneel in prayer. As Bishop White stated:

The father of our country, whenever in this city, as well as during the Revolutionary Was as during his presidency, attended divine service in Christ Church of this city...His behavior was always serious and attentive; but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to truth to declare, that I never saw him in the said attitude.
While this may seem like a mundane issue -- and I would agree with such an assessment -- a number of historians use this point to illustrate Washington's distrust of pious religion. Though this may be the case, I believe that the larger issue, the fact that Washington DID pray, is of far greater importance.

As was the case with his participation in communion, Washington's prayers are, at best, very contradictory evidence. The fact that he prayed should be obvious to anyone. However, to whom he was praying to is in question. Though he was not known to have knelt in prayer, Washington was, in the end, a devout man of prayer.

To be (a Christian) or not to be (a Christian). That is the question.

As noted above, any argument of Washington being a deist is historically inaccurate and, quite frankly, silly. On the other side of the coin, to what degree Washington accepted and embraced the Christian faith -- and more specifically his Anglican faith -- is difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty. For example, Dr. James Abercrombie publicly questions Washington's Christianity when he writes:

I do not believe that any degree of recollection would bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation; further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance on Christian worship, in connection with the natural reserve of his character.
On the other hand, Washington's adopted daughter, Nelly Custis, had this to say regarding Washington's faith:

I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men." He communed with his God in secret.
Again, this religious paradox of George Washington makes it almost impossible to say conclusively what Washington's feelings towards Christianity actually were.

To add another level of complexity to this argument, Christian apologists, who argue for Washington's orthodoxy, regularly site his letter to the Delaware Indian chiefs in May of 1779. In the letter, Washington states that these Indian Tribes, would "do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ." In contrast, those who favor the secularism of Washington counter with his 1796 letter to a group of Indian tribes, in which he invokes the "Great Spirit" of the Indian people. Yet again, an obvious contradiction prevents us from conclusively pinpointing Washington's view on Christianity.

One last thing to consider is the impact of unitarianism -- small u as Jon Rowe points out -- on the religion of our founding generation. Instead of making that argument here, I will simply refer you to an earlier posting that I did on this specific issue. You can find it by clicking here.

In conclusion, thought the religious paradox of George Washington prevents us from determining his exact beliefs, we are still able to make a few general conclusions:

1.) Washington was not a deist.
2.) It is virtually impossible to classify Washington as a Christian in the orthodox sense. The evidence available suggests otherwise. His lack of participation in communion, coupled with the absence of Christian supplication in prayer, creates more than a reasonable doubt on this matter.
3.) Washington was a man of prayer.
4.) At the very least, Washington maintained a deep appreciation and allegiance to Christianity. This is evidenced by his regular attendance and his devotion to Christian principles.
5.) Maybe most importantly, Washington's religion is the quintessential enigma of early American religious history.

So how should we classify Washington? Perhaps it would be smart, based on the body of evidence, to not classify him at all. However, in my opinion, I see Washington as a Christian-leaning Unitarian.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

America's Jubilee and the Market Revolution

President John Quincy Adams, the Republic’s 6th executive chief, awoke around 7:00a.m. to a rainy, but sunny day in the nation’s capital. The thermometer read 78 degrees, and the clouds looked as though they would soon disappear. Today was going to be a beautiful day. After a brief breakfast, the President met with his cabinet in the Executive Mansion and then made his way via the Presidential carriage to the capital building. A large procession, complete with military escort, trumpeters, cavalry, and a military band accompanied the President. An energized crowd gathered to watch the spectacle, eager to commence the day’s festivities. After all, today was no ordinary day. Today was America’s Jubilee: July 4, 1826!

"America's Jubilee" was arguably the most festive July 4th our country has ever celebrated. Parades, festivals, dances, etc. were held all throughout the infant nation in celebration of America's 50th birthday. Even the legendary Marquis de Lafayette was welcomed from France with the highest of pomp and circumstance. A countless number of songs and poems were written to commemorate this landmark day. Here is one of my favorites that I found on an old broadside. The poem was written by a woman from Philadelphia named K.A. Ware:

The deeds of our heroes, their courage sublime,
Have long been the pride, and the theme of our story
And their triumphs shall mark the divisions of time,
And be hallow’d as the Epochs of National glory!
On this festival Day,
Our glad homage we’ll pay
To the God of the Pilgrims! who lighted their way,
And ne’er shall his flame on our altars decline,
Till earth shall to chaos her empire resign!
(From America's Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides)
One of the most interesting aspects of "America's Jubilee -- as evidenced by the poem above -- is the powerful sense that America's prosperity was directly attributed to divinity. As we all know, by the early part of the 19th century, America's religious landscape had undergone a renovation of monumental proportions. The emergence of a second Great Awakening, combined with the groundbreaking impact of the Market Revolution, caused Americans to drastically change their perception of providence and its role in American history.

The Market Revolution's impact on religion not only redefined social norms, but also forced Americans to accept a profit-driven culture as being divinely sanctioned. The communal subsistence culture, which had tied family members and neighbors together in a tight web of economic and social interdependence, was now being replaced by the profit-driven mentality of the Market Revolution. By "establishing capitalist hegemony over economy, politics and culture," the Market Revolution introduced American society to the tempting world of profit-seeking and worldly wealth (Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution, 5). Thus, Americans sought a religious "sanction" of sorts to guide and justify their capitalist intentions.

By the time of "America's Jubilee," the entire nation was literally being swept by a wildfire of capitalist and religious fervor. The quintessential example of this enthusiasm can be seen in early 19th century western New York, an area that evangelist preacher, Charles Finney, dubbed "The Burned-over District." Joseph Smith, a resident of western New York and eventual founder of the Mormon faith, best described the atmosphere of the enthusiastic region when he wrote the following:

There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country, indeed the whole district of the Country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people…Priest contended against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions. (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 269-270.)
Not only had a wave of enthusiastic religion swept across the New York landscape -- as it had most of the country -- but the Market Revolution's influence had taken as strong of a hold in these same regions. The completion of the Erie Canal, for example, catapulted New York to the avant-garde of capitalist economics.

Naturally, this conflict between the forces of capitalism and the forces of religion caused an intense revolution in the social and cultural norms of American society. A countless number of impoverished citizens sought the solace of traditional communal religion and neighborhood subsistence. As a result, hundreds of communal religious sects were created to meet the needs of the people. Religious enthusiasts like Ann Lee, who became the founder of the Shaker movement, inspired her followers to embrace a communal lifestyle of celibacy and nonresistance, claiming that she had received a divine manifestation of Christ’s impending return. Jemima Wilkinson, who founded the Community of the Publick Universal Friend, also claimed divine revelation, and insisted that Christ had chosen her as his personal messenger, sent to prepare the world for millennial glory. Like Ann Lee, Wilkinson also established a communal order of celibacy and economic equality. The New Israelites, led by a man named Winchell and Oliver Cowdery, also preached divine revelation that pointed to an impending millennial apocalypse. And perhaps the most effective of these religious communities, the Mormons, traveled to the most distant regions on the American continent to establish what they called "Zion."

America's Jubilee should thus be seen as a marker of sorts, in which enthusiastic religion and capitalism combined to literally revolutionize the social landscape of America. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was never one for religious rhetoric, seemed to be caught up in the spirit of "America's Jubilee." In one of his last letters to John Adams, Jefferson seems to support the notion that America's destiny was sanctioned by the heavens. In almost prophetic form, Jefferson wrote:

"We shall have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not bigotry. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders and hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings." (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 1, 1816).

Though traditional in his views on religion, Jefferson himself acknowledges a destiny for the future of America, which he sees as surpassing the greatness of Europe -- impressive for a man who had preached of the superiority of France nearly all his life.

In the end, "America's Jubilee" was not only a celebration of the nation's 50 birthday, but was also an unconscious recognition of the future greatness of American society. By adapting religious ideology to fit the sweeping changes of the Market Revolution, 19th century Americans were able to effectively develop a providential destiny for their nation, which eventually transformed the religious landscape of the entire county.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Relic of the Revolution

A bit of history was rediscovered this past week as divers who were exploring Lake Ontario stumbled upon a priceless piece of the past. A 22-gun British warship that sank during the American Revolution -- in 1780 to be exact -- was found resting at the bottom of this Great Lake, where it has been residing for the past 228 years.

The ship is in remarkably good condition, according to the divers, archaeologists and historians involved in the discovery. Not only is the 80-foot ship entirely intact, but its main mast and some of the original rigging still remain. Ironically enough, this British vessel of War, which was named the HMS Ontario, met its final demise in the very lake that shares its name.

In an article from the Associated Press, Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville -- the two men who discovered the Ontario -- stated that this boat has been considered as a "holy Grail" of sorts by shipwreck and treasure enthusiasts. In addition, the article went on to state the following information regarding this historic find:

"To have a Revolutionary War vessel that's practically intact is unbelievable. It's an archaeological miracle," said Canadian author Arthur Britton Smith, who chronicled the history of the HMS Ontario in a 1997 book, "The Legend of the Lake."

The finders of the wreck said they regard it as a war grave and have no plans to raise it or remove any of its artifacts. They said the ship is still considered the property of the British Admiralty.

Although the vessel sits in an area where the water is up to 500 feet deep and cannot be reached by anyone but the most experienced divers, Kennard and Scoville declined to give its exact location, saying only that it was found off the southern shore.

The sloop was discovered resting partially on its side, with two masts extending more than 70 feet above the lake bottom.

"Usually when ships go down in big storms, they get beat up quite a bit. They don't sink nice and square. This went down in a huge storm, and it still managed to stay intact," Scoville said. "There are even two windows that aren't broken. Just going down, the pressure difference, can break the windows. It's a beautiful ship."

Smith, who was shown underwater video of the find, said: "If it wasn't for the zebra mussels, she looks like she only sunk last week."

Monday, June 16, 2008

David Barton is at it again

Since we have been on a recent video kick, I figured that I would try to get in on the action. In the video that I have posted below, David Barton discusses why our founders were strict Christians and why American historians -- who by the way have MUCH more training in this field than Barton -- are destroying our "godly heritage."

Right from the start, Barton argues that those who seek to eradicate religion from our heritage have essentially hijacked American history. Barton points to the Mayflower Compact, which he argues is proof that the Pilgrims desired to "propagate the Christian religion in the New World." Obviously Barton has little to no historical knowledge of what the Pilgrims -- a more correct title being Separatists -- actually desired. After all, these Separatists actually wanted to ensure that their religious communities were kept pure from heathen influences, thus the spreading of the gospel to the "savages" of America was never as big of a goal as people like Barton might think. In addition, the Mayflower Compact was NOT created to instigate the "propagation of Christianity" as Barton argues, but was created to ensure that the settlers would be free from contractual servitude. Since the Mayflower was landed in Plymouth and not Virginia -- its original destination -- those on board felt that a contractual agreement needed to be created. It was essentially a social contract that was drawn up by the colonists for survival's sake.

Following his comments on the Mayflower Compact, Barton proceeds to point out that even our national holidays, specifically Christmas, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, serve as evidence to support America's godly heritage. While he is right to point out that Washington and Adams called for national days of thanksgiving, he forgets to mention that Jefferson unequivocally refused to do the same during his presidency. As far as Christmas is concerned, Barton is again showing his terrible lack of historical literacy. If he understood early American history at all, he would have known that Christmas was not a major holiday. In fact, early Puritan communities forbade the celebration of Christmas, since there was no reference to it in the Bible. After the establishment of the American republic, Christmas remained nothing more than a mere side note. In fact, the celebration of Christmas as we know it today has its origins in 19th century America, NOT with our founders (for more on the celebration of Christmas in colonial America click here).

As far as Barton's references to Gouverneur Morris, I think Jon's posting on Morris' character is the bests source to refute Barton's assertions.

I also found it interesting when Barton stated that American universities are teaching that our founders are nothing more than "agnostics and atheists" and that "not one believed in God." While I cannot speak to the curriculums of every University in America, I am still inclined to disagree with these claims. Having attended three different college institutions -- not to mention a number of additional lectures at other colleges and Universities -- I have NEVER heard this claim being made by a single professor of history. Again, I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that a legitimate professor of early American would make such a silly assertion as Barton suggests.

Barton also mentions that the founders would be appalled that we today are arguing over whether or not "In God we Trust" should be included on our money. Again, Barton's historical ignorance is shining through like a bright star on a clear night. Obviously Barton does not realize that "In God We Trust" was not conceived by our founders, but was first inspired during the Civil War (click here for more info on this topic). In fact, the only motto that our founders embraced was "e pluribus unum," which means "From many, one." A far cry from what Barton suggests.

"Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 27 had seminary degrees." This ridiculous statement by Barton YET AGAIN illustrates his lack of accurate historical knowledge. Chris Rodda, an avid Barton-debunker, effectively points out the errors in Barton's argument when she writes the following:

The use of the word "seminary" in this statement can have no other purpose than to take advantage of the fact that almost nobody today would associate the word seminary with anything other than a theological seminary, and would assume from this synonym for college that almost half the signers studied for the ministry. While it is true that all of the colleges attended by the signers of the Declaration had been founded by religious denominations, none of them were strictly theological colleges when the signers attended them. They all had schools of law and/or other sciences. Few adults, let alone children hearing the word seminary in their Bible literacy class, will realize that this word can mean any kind of school...

David Barton points out that of the fifty-six men, definitely twenty-four, possibly twenty-seven, had seminary degrees.

All this means, of course, is that twenty-seven of the signers of the Declaration went to college -- twenty at a total of five different American colleges, and seven in Europe. Twenty-four definitely received degrees; three don't appear to have graduated. Almost all of the twenty-seven studied either law or business, and one studied medicine.
One thing that Barton does very well is to illustrate that the overwhelming majority of the founders were NOT Deists. On this claim I am in complete agreement with Barton. However, Barton simply assumes that since the founders were not deists, they must therefore be orthodox in their Christian views. This claim is not only ridiculous but is utterly false based on the evidence that Barton himself presents. Though Barton effectively points to a very small number of orthodox Christians -- Sam Adams, John Jay and Charles Carroll for example -- this does not prove the orthodoxy of the rest.

Another ridiculous point that Barton attempts to make is when he points to Franklin's admonition that Congress pray before beginning the business of the day. While he is right in citing Franklin's petition for prayer, Barton forgets to mention the fact that the other founders present at this particular meeting rejected Franklin's suggestion. Again, this is another example of Barton's propensity to only promote half-truths.

Another example of Barton's half-truths is when he suggests that the founders never advocated a separation of church and state. He supports this argument simply by stating that the church/state phrase is not present in the Constitution itself. However, Barton obviously forgets the fact that Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, Jefferson's Notes on Virginia, and George Mason's Declaration of Rights all petition for a separation of church and state

In the end, David Barton is a very effective public speaker and preacher of religion, but he is a lousy historian. His distortions of historical fact are staggering to say the least. What is even scarier than Barton's obvious falsehoods is the fact that a large number of people believe him and take his work to be absolute doctrine, and at the same time are willing to disregard the legitimate scholarly work of the overwhelming majority of historians across this nation. Who exactly is the hypocrite?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Steven Waldman on Founding Faith

Author Steven Waldman of Beliefnet.com discusses his newest book, Founding Faith. Though the video is a little long it is definitely worth watching. Waldman's work has helped to shed light on not only the church/state argument, but on the individual religious beliefs of our key founders. Though there are a number of good books on the topic, Waldman's book is an excellent introductory read on this topic. Here is the video:

Friday, June 13, 2008

George Washington's Inauguration

As fellow blogger Ray Soller (of American Creation) has noted, there is a great deal of skepticism over whether or not George Washington uttered the phrase, "So help me God" at the conclusion of his oath of office. To be honest, this is an issue that I have never before considered. Like most people, I probably just assumed that the historical record accurately accounted for the authenticity of this event. However, as Mr. Soller has pointed out in his excellent article (Freeman's Oath - reference), there is strong reason to not only question but to doubt the legitimacy of the "So help me God" claim.

Like most history nerds, I was a devout follower of HBO's hit miniseries, John Adams. One of the most powerful scenes of the entire series is the inauguration of George Washington as the republic's first president. Not only does the scene attempt to recreate the oath of office -- including Washington uttering "So help me God," -- but the whole clip effectively arouses a sense of Christian patriotism, which I am sure was extremely effective in invoking a "spiritual" response from the average viewer.

To be perfectly honest, I have absolutly no idea if Washington did or did not conclude his oath of office with, "So help me God." I do believe, however, that Mr. Soller has shed light on some very important evidence that should be considered in detail. Hopefully we can continue this discussion, including the views of those who support the "So help me God" claim.

Here is the Washington Inauguration according to HBO's John Adams:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

George Mason and the Declaration of Rights

On this day in 1776, the Virginia Assembly unanimously adopted George Mason's Declaration of Rights, which guaranteed, among other things, the equal right to "life, liberty and property" (though it did little for the slaves that these same men kept in bondage). Mason's Declaration of Rights has long been hailed as the the front runner to the Bill or Rights, which was later amended to the federal constitution.

Mason's main source of inspiration came from the English Bill of Rights (1689), which guaranteed certain rights -- the right to petition, bear arms, protection from cruel and unusual punishment being among them -- to the English citizenry. This Bill of Rights, which essentially served as a social contract of sorts between the English people and William of Orange and Mary prior to their ascension to the English throne, was hailed as one of the greatest manifestations of individual liberty in the western world. Obviously British citizens living in the American colonies would have found the document to be of tremendous value, especially once the fires of revolution were ignited.

One of the most interesting parts of the Declaration of Rights -- which is actually at the very end of the document -- is Section 16, which states:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

Mason repeated these same sentiments in his private correspondence when he wrote:

That as Religion, or the Duty which we owe to our divine and omnipotent Creator, and the Manner of discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Force or Violence; and therefore that all Men shou'd enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate, unless, under Colour of Religion, any Man disturb the Peace, the Happiness, or Safety of Society, or of Individuals. And that it is the mutual Duty of all, to practice Christian forbearance, Love and Charity towards Each other (The Papers of George Mason, ed. Robert Rutland, Vol. 1, 278).

Whenever we hear the never ending church/state arguments, I am amazed at the fact that very few people recognize the profound impact of Mason's declarations. Mason not only drives the message home for those who would argue against a church/state separation, but he virtually leaves no room for argument. If Mason's work left any impact on the drafting of the Bill of Rights -- and they most certainly did -- then why are some people continuing to argue this point?

Alexander Hamilton's House

Alexander Hamilton is moving. Or better put, his home is moving. After roughly 200 years of residing in downtown New York city, Hamilton's beloved home -- known as the Grange -- will be relocated a block away in St. Nicholas Park. The home will also be receiving a much needed renovation -- $8.4 million dollars worth to be exact -- that should ensure the home's survival for decades to come.

David Dunlap of the The New York Times has written an excellent article regarding the home's history over the past 200 years. As the article states:

Now, in the house he left behind, Hamilton is again coming to life. To their joy, National Park Service officials have discovered that the front stairway, though much modified over time, is essentially the one built for Hamilton, complete with original risers, treads, balusters, ornamental scrollwork and support structure. It will be rebuilt in its original form.

Alexander Hamilton ran up those very treads!” said Steve Laise, chief of cultural resources of Manhattan sites for the National Park Service, which owns and runs the Grange. “It just puts you in such close proximity with the past. For those of us who really wish we were living back then anyway, it’s probably more of a stimulus to our imagination than we really ought to have.”

“Lovely exterior details are also evident for the first time in more than a century, including a triple-hung sash window. Smaller windows on either side have an alternating star-and-circle tracery. “That kind of pattern is well rooted in 18th-century Anglo-American design practice,” said Seth Joseph Weine, a fellow of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America.

Though the project is expected to cost another couple of million dollars to complete -- worth every penny if you ask me -- Hamilton's home is expected to be completely restored to its original state. So the next time you are in New York, make sure to pay Mr. Hamilton a visit at his new abode in St. Nicholas Park!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"I Think, Therefore I Am...a Unitarian"

I have always been amazed at the propensity of many within American society to classify our founders as either strictly Deists or orthodox Christians. Whether in political circles, religious congregations or college classrooms, it seems as though this “custody battle” for the religious legacy of our founders will never be resolved. Christian Nationalists, who refuse to recognize even the possibility that America’s founders embraced a belief other than orthodox Christianity, have embarked on a crusade to “save” America’s “Christian” origins from the clutches of evil secularists. On the other side of the coin, radical secularists, clothed in the robe of scholarly arrogance and superiority, have countered their Christian foes by attempting to eradicate any and all traces of Christian sentiment in the legacy of our founders. Though I must admit my belief that both sides in this ridiculous argument are missing the mark, I am also compelled to recognize the fact that the Christian right is more at fault for its efforts to revise or “save” America’s founding legacy. While there are a number of secularist scholars who remain steadfast in their views, their numbers seem virtually insignificant when compared to the army of the Christian Nationalists.

This ongoing argument between Christian and Secularist is something I have written about many times in the past. Though I tend to be a centrist in my views, I believe that there is a sensible answer to this seemingly ageless debate. The answer does not rest on one’s ability to successfully debunk the Deist or Christian views, but instead centers on the true religion of America’s key founders: Unitarianism

The roots of Unitarian doctrine, though deeply entrenched in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, can be best explained by one of its earliest supporters. The Reverend Charles Chauncy of Boston became one of the earliest proponents of rationalism and intellectualism. These beliefs ended up putting him at odds with one of the heroes of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, who supported a passionate and emotional communion with Deity. In his pamphlet, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England, Chauncy lays out the case for intellectualism in religion. In response to the explosion of emotionalism brought on by the Great Awakening, Chauncy writes:

“Men may open to us the Temper of their Minds, in a Relation of their Experiences: But even here, we are liable to be deceived. They may be mistaken about their own State; and what is worse, may represent Things different from what they really are: so at the best we only judge in this case upon Supposition. And as there is so much Hypocrisy in the World, it would be but Prudence to hear Men’s Declarations, respecting themselves with a heedful caution. It may perhaps be a Truth here, as well as in other Cases, Actions speak louder than Words.”
In this declaration, Chauncy not only promotes the benefits of rational thought, but suggests that personal emotional communion with the divine should be taken with a grain of salt. In essence, Chauncy invokes the doctrine of Unitarianism.

For those who supported Chauncy’s assertions, along with other intellectual beliefs that were being tossed around, rational thought in a religious context became a strong belief, which liberated the mind from the tyranny of pious ministers. As John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers had argued, mankind was a free agent. Historian Sydney Ahlstrom points out in his book, A Religious History of the American People the following:

God’s grace and mercy were needed, to be sure; yet with regard to the nature of man and human ability, these liberal ministers showed perhaps a greater measure of confidence than any significant group of churchmen in Reformed tradition. And what buoyed their confidence above all was the exhilaration of national independence, the economic and social advances of the American people, and the great destiny (already manifest) of this New World democracy. The idea prevailed widely that “this new man, this American” was a new Adam, sinless, innocent – mankind’s great second chance. Nowhere was it given so well-rooted a Christian interpretation as among these New England liberals, whose ideas on man were far more determinative than the ideas about Godhead which later won them the name “Unitarian.”
Naturally, critics of this new “infidel” doctrine went on the attack, labeling early Unitarians as essentially closet atheists. After all, these “infidels” had publicly challenged the religious status quo of Christian orthodoxy. Even contemporary Christian Nationalists follow the same formula as earlier Christian zealots in their attacks on Unitarianism, which they see as nothing more than Deism in disguise. Unitarian doctrine, however, was not merely an infusion of Deist ideology, but was an incorporation of both Christian and Deist principles. As the Reverend William Ellery Channing stated:

Let us learn the distinction between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism. Many use these words without meaning, and are very zealous about sounds. Some suppose that Trinitarianism consists in believing in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But we all believe in these; we all believe that the Father sent the Son, and gives, to those that ask, the Holy Spirit. We are all Trinitarians, if this is the belief in Trinitarianism. But it is not. The Trinitarian believes that the one God is three distinct persons, called Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and he believes that each is the only true God, and yet that the three are only one God. This is Trinitarianism. The Unitarian believes that there is but one person possessing supreme Divinity, even the Father. This is the great distinction; let it be kept steadily in view…I am persuaded, that under these classes of high Unitarians many Christians ought to be ranked who call themselves orthodox and are Trinitarians (Reverend William Channing, 1798. Quoted in Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 395).
Reverend Channing further explains the rationale of Unitarian thought when he writes:

It seems to me of singular importance that Christianity should be recognized and presented in its true character…The low views of our religion, which have prevailed too long, should give place to this highest one. They suited perhaps darker ages. But they have done their work, and should pass away. Christianity should now be disencumbered and set free…It should come forth from the darkness and corruption of the past in its own celestial splendour, and in its divine simplicity. It should be comprehended as having but one purpose, the perfection of human nature, the elevation of men into nobler beings (Reverend William Channing, The Essence of the Cristian Religion, 1798. Quoted in Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 399).
While Reverend Channing was a more Christian-leaning Unitarian, his statements help to illustrate the fact that Unitarianism was an incorporation of both Deist and Christian philosophy. The fact that Channing openly questions Trinitarian doctrine is of note because it illustrates the fact that Unitarianism relied heavily on the rationalism of enlightened Deism. This explains why Unitarians such as James Madison were so vehemantly opposed to orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, but not opposed to the doctrines of Christ. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison openly attacks Christianity as it had been practiced, but also defends the “pure” religion of Christ:

experience witnesseth that eccelsiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?
This understanding of Unitarian doctrine also helps us to understand why George Washington refused to take Communion, but still regularly attended the Episcopal Church. As Sydney Ahlstrom states, “For the Unitarian…the Lord’s Supper was regarded more and more as neither a sacramental ‘means of grace’ nor a ‘converting ordinance,’ but as a simple memorial” (Religious History, 391). For the orthodox Christian, however, Communion still remained an extremely important ordinance and expression of public faith and piety. For Washington to omit such a practice from his personal religious practices is a perfect illustration of his Unitarian leanings.

In conclusion, it it important to note that each of our key founders -- Madison, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Monroe, Hamilton, Adams -- were profoundly impacted by Unitarian philosophy. This explains why these men were able to both embrace AND reject Christian doctrines. Unitarianism was the key religion of our mainstream founders, and it allowed them the flexibility to believe -- or disbelieve -- as much or as little of the Christian faith as they personally saw fit.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Roger Williams: Restorationist

Nearly every student of early American history has heard the tale of Roger Williams. His story is usually told from the perspective of his being a brave rogue of religious radicalism, who defied the Puritans of Massachusetts and established a community of religious toleration in Rhode Island. While this version of the Williams story is generally true, there is a deeper saga that is often omitted from the Williams chronicle.

As we all know, Williams was a deeply inquisitive man. His knack for questioning everything around him -- particularly in the religious arena -- caused Williams to constantly push the religious envelope. Though he originally embraced Puritan theology, Williams' concerns about an attachment to the Church of England -- which he saw as a continuation of Roman Catholic dominion as the Antichrist -- caused him to adopt a more Separatist perspective. Inspired by these anti-Church of England sentiments, Williams embraced the admonition of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:17 to, "come out from among them, and be ye separate."

Upon his arrival to the "New World," Williams took his religious views even further. Instead of following the traditional beliefs of the early Puritans in Massachusetts, Williams chose to criticize his new neighbors for what he saw as a lack of penance. While Massachusetts Puritans were happy to accept both the godly and ungodly in their worship services -- with an exception being made for the Lord's Supper -- Williams believed that those outside of God's grace should not be permitted to worship with God's elect. In other words, those who had not yet experienced God's saving grace could not even attend the same services as those that had received God's grace (See The Hireling Ministry None of Christs). In addition, Williams also believed that any person who had not repented for his/her former association with the Church of England was in danger of losing their salvation. As Williams stated:

"why although I confesse with joy the care of the New English Churches, that no person be received to Fellowship with them, in whom they cannot first discerne true Regeneration, and the life of Jesus: yet I said and still affirm, that godlie and regenerate persons are not fitted to constitute the true Christian Church, untill it hath pleased God to convince their soules of the evill of the falce Church, Ministry, Worship etc. And although I confesse that godly persons are not dead but living Trees, not dead, but living Stones, and need no new regeneration, yet need they a mighty worke of God's Spirit to humble and ashame them, and to cause them to loath themselves for their Abominations or stincks in Gods nostrils..." (The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 1, 350).
These religious views, which eventually landed Williams in trouble with the Puritans of Massachusetts, only tell part of the story. Williams' departure to Rhode Island actually caused him to further question his faith. Williams began to question the validity of his baptism and those of his followers, which eventually helped to spawn the Anabaptist movement. As Williams continued to ponder the Bible and its teachings, he eventually came to the shocking conclusion that no church had the authority to assemble in Christ's name. His reasoning was simple: The apostles commissioned by Christ had been his personal ministers on earth. Until Christ returned to the earth and renewed the apostleship, no person/persons had the right or authority to gather as a Christian Church. Williams makes this belief clear when he writes:

I desired to have been dilligent and Constant Observer, and have been my selfe many ways engaged in City, in Countrey, in Court, in Schools, in Universities, in Churches, in Old and New-England, and yet cannot in the holy presence of God bring in the Result of a satisfying discovery, that either the Begetting Ministry of the Apostles or Messengers to the Nations, or Feeding and Nourishing Ministry of Pastors and Teachers, according to the first Institution of the Lord Jesus, are yet restored and extant" (The Complete Writing of Roger Williams, vol. III, 160).
Williams further adds credence to his argument when he writes:

"If Christs Churches were utterly nullified, and quite destroyed by Antichrist, then I demande when they beganne againe and where? who beganne them? that we may knowe, by what right and power they did beginne them: for we have not heard of any new Jo: Baptist, nor of any other newe waye from heaven, by which they have begunne the Churches a newe" (John Winthrop Papers, vol. III, 11. Quoted in Roger Williams: The Church and the State, 52, by Edmund Morgan).
In much the same way that Thomas Jefferson believed that the original doctrine of Christ had been changed over time, Williams believed that the religion and authority of Christ was not on the earth, and would not return until Christ's Second Coming. In essence, Williams' religious beliefs should be classified as those of a Restorationist. In this sense, Williams can be compared with the Restorationist beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Smith, Jemima Wilkinson, etc.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Thou Shalt Not...Seedspill?"

Colonial law books governing the morality of sex are vast to say the least. Early Puritan leaders were instrumental in establishing a codified system of laws that governed sexual morality, and provided a guideline of what was considered "acceptable" and what was considered "immoral." Along with these laws were the specific punishments that accompanied a particular "immoral" act. For example, bestiality and homosexuality were punishable by death. In fact, the first recorded execution in Massachusetts is that of a young man that was charged with "carnal lust" with animals.

One of the interesting laws that governed sexual practice in colonial America was that of "seed spilling." In Massachusetts, the practice of masturbation was severely condemned by the clergy. The law was inspired by the Biblical precedent in Genesis 38:9, which states, "And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, least he should give seed to his brother." The subsequent verse then mentions god's wrath and how Onan lost his life for such a practice.

Citizens of the various colonies were encouraged to report the practice of "seed spilling" --which included a number of different sex acts but primarily dealt with masturbation -- wherever such cases were discovered. The initial punishment in Massachusetts for such a crime was death, following the Biblical precedent. The punishment was changed, however, in the latter parts of the 17th century to be "Four hours in the stocks."

The reason I bring up this law is because it illustrates an important aspect of American colonial society. Sexual deviance, though common in America throughout the colonial period, carried a strong religious condemnation that was very real for many people. Just look at the case of Joseph Moody. In the William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1, historian Brian Carroll discusses how religious beliefs regarding sex impacted colonial society. In Moody's diary are written the following entries:

Thurs. [July] 19 [1722 ]. This morning I got up pretty late. I defiled myself, though wide awake. Where will my unbridled lust lead me? I have promised myself now for a year and a half that I would seek after God, but now I am perhaps farther away from him than ever before.

Mon. [April] 13 [1724 ]. Pretty Cold; wind from N. W. to S. fine weather. . . . I dined with the doctor and schoolmaster Abbott. Then with the doctor I called on Captain and Ensign Allen. I stayed up with my love not without pleasure, but I indulged my desire too freely, and at night the semen flowed from me abundantly.

The overwhelming sense of guilt that plagued Moody's soul gives us valuable insight into the moral mindset of colonial America. Even if sexual promiscuity was a common occurrence (and it most certainly was in colonial America), there were others who felt deeply about god's moral judgments that awaited them in the life to come.