Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Changing Religiosity of the Founders

At NRO, John Derbyshire posted that he was wary of attempts to overly-Christianize the Founders (as part of his general antipathy towards anyone who attempts to recruit dead guys and the opinions they held to any given cause) . He also asked Richard Brookhiser for his opinion, which Brookhiser has now offered:
Geez, I left the the room early on Friday and all hell broke loose.

1. George Washington—He mentioned Providence all the time, in public and in private. His Providence is no absentee watchmaker, but an active, superintending force. See the famous graf on religion and morality in the Farewell Address. No clergy at his death bed. More precise theological opinions shrouded in deep reticence.

2. Benjamin Franklin—Friend of George Whitefield, impressed with his preaching, but not converted. See his letter, a few months before his death, to Ezra Stiles, in which he says Jesus was the greatest moral teacher; whether or not he was the Son of God, Franklin is not sure, and won't bother to think about, since he expects to find out very soon. Anxious to be on good terms with all the churches in Philadelphia.

3. John Adams—Unitarian, tinged with philosophical skepticism in his old age. But one of his reasons for disdaining the French Revolution was his conviction that a nation of "atheists" could not pull it off.

4. James Madison—Had a nervous breakdown at Princeton, possibly related to loss of faith (his father was a bishop). I would be interested to hear from a Madisonian—is Alvin Felzenberg reading this?

5. Alexander Hamilton—pious in youth. See the Hurricane Letter, published age 15 in the local (Virgin Islands) newspaper. He got very caught up in his exciting life; then with the death in a duel of his eldest son Philip, age 19, he becomes devout once more. On his deathbed, after his duel, he seeks communion from the Episcopal Bishop of New York. It is refused, until he makes a clear condemnation of dueling, and expresses his forgiveness of Col. Burr.

6. Thomas Jefferson—unchurched Deist, much private scoffing at his clerical enemies. As a young man, he copies out Bolingrbroke's opinion that the morality of the Greeks was superior to that of Jesus. As President, is convinced that Jesus was superior to the Greeks. Jesus' reax not known, presuambly forgiving.
But why stop with these six? Samuel Adams? Patrick Henry? (In the last election of Henry's life, a Baptist preacher, trying to bring him down a peg, cried out, "Mr. Henry is not a God." Henry: "No, no indeed my friend. I am a poor worm of the dust, as fleeting and insubstantial as the shadow of the cloud that passes over yonder field and is seen no more." Not bad, for off the cuff.) Thomas Paine, of course, became an infamous mocker of the Bible. Yet his great Revolutionary polemics quote it.

I have followed religion through a number of lives now, and a greater number of biographies, and I can testify that posthumous kidnapping is performed as much by atheizing academics as by holy rollers.
Indeed, like everyone else, the Founders religious beliefs did not exist in a vacuum. They waxed and waned and changed as they grew older and real-life events affected their outlook on life. Sheesh, and to think they were so human?


Loren Heal said...

It's funny that we want our heroes other historical figures to be cardboard cutouts, rather than people. We ourselves change and evolve with education, life experience, and age; howso not men of the past?

Marc said...

Couldn't agree with you more. That's why we always have to be careful when we quote this or that Founder or other historical figure to support a contemporary political point. They might have changed their mind!