Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A family of six
March 16, 2002 10:20 AM   Subscribe

A family of six was found dead in a case of murder-suicide, authorities in Oregon said Friday. Bryant, the father, became estranged from several branches of his family, including his parents, three brothers and a sister. The other family members were Jehovah's Witnesses and the split appeared to involve differences over religious beliefs. In other news, An angry, mysterious preacher told Andrea Yates that she was evil, that her children were damned, and that only death could save her. Mr. Yates testified that the preacher had taught him and his wife that children are lost forever to God, and therefore damned to eternal hellfire, if they are not "saved" by the time they are 13 or 14. Are we regressing to the religions produced nightmares of the Middle Ages?
posted by semmi (49 comments total)

 
Regressing to it? We've never left it. We've just gotten more efficient at mass murder and better able to tell each other about it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:30 AM on March 16, 2002


Michael Peter Woroniecki is well known around these parts. he hailed from grand rapids. um. well, actually - i don't know if he was born here or what, but he did spend several years wandering around town with this big ass wooden cross shouting at passersby and getting arrested frequently. once at a ted nugent concert years ago he raised a lot of ruckus outside the venue and was arrested yet again. the grand rapids press quoted the nuge saying something to the effect of Woroniecki being living proof that drugs are bad for you.
posted by quonsar at 10:39 AM on March 16, 2002


I have definitely noticed a growth in the numbers of religious fruitcakes over the past several years.
posted by tcobretti at 10:45 AM on March 16, 2002


Mr. Woroniecki told the Press that he could not have influenced Ms. Yates to drown her children.
"As bold as I may seem, I'm just like any other guy. Just because I make a choice to yell Jesus and preach to people and tell them they're going to hell if they don't repent, that means I don't count?"


What the hell does that mean? Is that an admission of guilt or what? What a tool.

Are we regressing to the religions produced nightmares of the Middle Ages?

Was this question really necessary? I think boldfaceing it makes it even more of a troll. It was worded in a totally general and incendiary way.
posted by insomnyuk at 11:00 AM on March 16, 2002


One is supposed to answer this question, based on two incidents in places far removed from each other both physically and culturally (not *that* far removed as far as the global picture goes, but in a national context, yes)? Sorry, can't do it.
posted by raysmj at 11:01 AM on March 16, 2002


It's hard to say if it's the numbers of religious fundamentalists or just their coverage in the media that is on the rise. One would think that after the terrorist attack people would have little patience with fundamentalism, instead many seem more accepting than ever of the homegrown varieties. It is especially irritating how many fundamentalists justify themselves with an appeal to the beliefs of the founders of the country, when in fact most of the founding fathers were Deists whose beliefs bore little resemblance to that of these people.
posted by homunculus at 11:12 AM on March 16, 2002


In other news, An angry, mysterious preacher told Andrea Yates that she was evil, that her children were damned, and that only death could save her. Mr. Yates testified that the preacher had taught him and his wife that children are lost forever to God, and therefore damned to eternal hellfire, if they are not "saved" by the time they are 13 or 14.

Excuse me while I ruffle through my KJV here...

*ruffle, ruffle*

I'm sure the preacher in question quoted chapter and verse here, but I can't for the life of me figure out what it could have been. And I certainly can't think of any analogous position in mainstream Protestant theology. The conversion experience is certainly important to evangelicals, but it's not like they think there's a sell-by date attached to it.

(In other words: no, this tells us absolutely nothing about modern religious impulses, except that the Yateses were hanging out with a non-representative Christian.)
posted by thomas j wise at 11:14 AM on March 16, 2002


insomnyuk calls it. Please -- read up on the history of cults sometime. If there's regressing gong on, it's certainly not a majority, mainstream event. Isolated things like this have been happening all my life, and I'm sure they'll continue to do so.
posted by dhartung at 11:32 AM on March 16, 2002


It is especially irritating how many fundamentalists justify themselves with an appeal to the beliefs of the founders of the country, when in fact most of the founding fathers were Deists whose beliefs bore little resemblance to that of these people.

I'm sorry, but that's just wrong. Based on the signed statements of faith commonly required for church membership, it is estimated that 28 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were Episcopalians, 8 were Presbyterians, 7 were Congregationalists, 2 were Lutherans, 2 Dutch Reformed, 2 Methodist, 2 Roman Catholic, and 3 were deist. One religious preference (James McClung) is unknown to historians.

[from your link]
Many of the leaders of the French and American revolutions followed this belief system, including John Quincy Adams, Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison Thomas Paine, and George Washington. Deists played a major role in creating the principle of separation of church and state, and the religious freedom clauses of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.

Okay, that's just flat misleading. The first sentence is made true only by the inclusion of the French, who counted many deists among their leaders. In America, by contrast, it is my understanding that most of the founding fathers were some flavor of Christian. The fact that some of the most prominent founding fathers were deists does not mean that deists were the majority.

Incidentally, I strongly question Washington's supposed deism. Washington is commonly presumed to be a deist simply because he was notoriously silent on specific matters of faith. But what little evidence we have of Washington’s beliefs prior to the start of the revolutionary war indicate a belief in Christianity, there is no evidence of a later conversion to deism. Rather than converting to deism, I think that it's possible that Washington - being a highly-respected military leader and an icon of the revolution - was afraid of creating internal religious strife and/or wielding undue influence over the consciences of his men.

Furthermore, if Washington was a deist, then he must have been uncharacteristically willing to sacrifice his honor in order to conceal a secret deism: in 1765 Washington signed a statement of faith swearing to his acceptance of the doctrine of the Church of England. A deist could not, in good conscience, sign such a statement.
posted by gd779 at 12:29 PM on March 16, 2002


I'm sorry, but that's just wrong.

I stand corrected, I shouldn't have said "most" and oversimplified the matter as I did. I thought there was a higher proportion of deists than that. I would like to know your source for those numbers so I can do more research on the subject.

What I should have said regarding resemblances of past and present religious beliefs is that, in my understanding, all the founding fathers took the seperation of church and state and the importance of secular government very seriously regardless of which church they belonged to, whereas the religious right today seems to be intent on eroding that seperation as a matter of faith. I made it sound like that position was particular to deism, which it was not.
posted by homunculus at 1:01 PM on March 16, 2002


I would like to know your source for those numbers so I can do more research on the subject.

Sure. The church membership figures come from Dr. M.E. Bradford of the University of Dallas. Specifically:

M. E. Bradford, A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution (Marlborough, N.H.: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1982), pp. iv-v.

all the founding fathers took the seperation of church and state and the importance of secular government very seriously regardless of which church they belonged to, whereas the religious right today seems to be intent on eroding that seperation as a matter of faith.

That's kind of correct. The "wall of seperation" rhetoric - which, as I'm sure you know, came not from the Constitution but rather from one of Jefferson's private letters - tends to cloud this issue substantially. Basically, (and I'm taking a controversial position here, but I think the controversy is based more on partisan desires than on historical doubt) the founding fathers intended the 1st ammendment to protect religion from government. They did not, necessarily, intend a "secular" government in the sense of keeping religion out of government. After all, examples of "non-secular" government acts abound: the congressional chaplains created by the very first congress, the national day of prayer declared by President Washington, etc.

Since the "wall" rhetoric came from Jefferson, I think that it's interesting to note his position on the matter:

In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occassion to prescribe the religious exercise suited to them, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.

-- Jefferson, Second Inaugural Address

This indicates to me that Jefferson understood the "wall" to exempt the church from the jurisdiction of the federal government, because under the social compact the federal government had never been delegated any such authority. It did not mean the states and the churches could not interact with one another. It is interesting that Jefferson opposed nationally-sponsored days of prayer as President, but supported state-sponsored days of prayer as governor of Virginia.

Incidentially, after rereading my last post I apoligize if it was in any way abrasive. It wasn't intended that way.
posted by gd779 at 1:35 PM on March 16, 2002


Thanks for all the information.

Incidentially, after rereading my last post I apoligize if it was in any way abrasive.

Not at all, but thanks for the concern. If that's as roughed up as I ever get on metafilter I'll be lucky indeed!
posted by homunculus at 1:51 PM on March 16, 2002


gd779: How about an relatively objective source, rather than a book published by the Plymouth Rock Foundation, which would seem to have a great deal invested in debunking the deists notion. It's a "Christian Reconstructionist" advocacy group.
posted by raysmj at 2:00 PM on March 16, 2002


How about an relatively objective source, rather than a book published by the Plymouth Rock Foundation...

Oh, come on. Church membership isn't a matter of opinion or speculation; it's public record. These are objectively verifiable facts. They're not fabricated.

I have on hand several additional sources that give the same statistics. But a quick glance through them revealed that they ALL cite Dr. Bradford as the original source.

Try running this search on google: "founding fathers" "constitutional convention" "church membership". I scrutinized the first 30 results, and about half were off-topic (dealing with church membership in America generally, rather than the ff's specifically). The other half ALL cited Dr. Bradford.

I'm afraid that the closest I can come at the moment to independent confirmation is this statement, attributed to Perry Miller of Harvard University (an atheist, incidentally):

Actually, European deism was an exotic plant in America, which never struck roots in the soil. ‘Rationalism’ was never so widespread as liberal historians, or those fascinated by Jefferson, have imagined. The basic fact is that the Revolution had been preached to the masses as a religious revival, and had the astounding fortune to succeed.

If anybody else can confirm or deny these numbers, please let me know.
posted by gd779 at 4:04 PM on March 16, 2002


insomnyuk, "Was this question really necessary? I think boldfaceing it makes it even more of a troll. It was worded in a totally general and incendiary way."

If I didn't think it was necessary, I wouldn't have asked the question. Ditto for boldfacing it. What is incendiary are the atrocities commited with religious justifications, not my wording. If you want to self-express, go to it, but don't tell me what and how I should post.
posted by semmi at 4:15 PM on March 16, 2002


Oh, come on. Church membership isn't a matter of opinion or speculation; it's public record. These are objectively verifiable facts. They're not fabricated.

Well, freakin' find it for me, rather than go to a hardcore fundamentalist source, OK? Why were you asking me or telling me how to search? You found a "Christian Reconstructionist" press book, which I probably can't find except through Amazon, as your only source. There should absolutely have been more. But finding that's not my job here. It's your post, your job.

Finally, once you do get the info, tell me what the heck it means anyway, and how many of the founders were actual leadership positions at the Constitutional Convention. How many were freemasons? Lawyers?
posted by raysmj at 5:26 PM on March 16, 2002


Semmi: Are we regressing to the religions (sic) produced nightmares of the Middle Ages?

Let's review. First of all, who do you mean by we? Americans? Westerners? Now, after we stumble past the spelling error, lets get to the next part, nightmares of the Middle Ages. Obviously, you are referring to the Catholic Church and the institutional wrongs such as the Inquisition, which were perpetuated by a marriage of Church and State. In the cases you cite, the horrors committed are by a few individuals, incited by cult leaders. There is a huge difference between a few token fanatics and an institutional form of violent religious intolerance.

Whether intended or not, your question is a total lead-in for mindless religion bashing posts (a favorite metafilter past-time). It's what I call an ill-defined, open ended question designed to cause trouble ('free expression' as you so kindly euphemize).
posted by insomnyuk at 6:03 PM on March 16, 2002


Well, freakin' find it for me

I have a table that lists each founding father and their church affiliation. That should make verification a snap; if you would like that, I can email it to you.

Other than that, I'm not your research assistant. Do your own work.

My point (and, wow, are ever focusing on the inconsequential details here) was that all of the materials in my personal library (as well as every easily available web source) pointed to two or three common sources... each of which, as it turns out, cited Dr. Bradford as their source. Now, given the fact that these are historical facts subject to (presumably) easy fact-checking, that lends some credibility to Dr. Bradford's statistics.

You found a "Christian Reconstructionist" press book, which I probably can't find except through Amazon, as your only source.

Umm... no. I found a multitude of books from various publishers, all of whom happened to cite Dr. Bradford of the University of Dallas for what is appearantly his original research.

Finally, once you do get the info, tell me what the heck it means anyway, and how many of the founders were actual leadership positions at the Constitutional Convention. How many were freemasons? Lawyers?

Huh? What? I actually have the information on freemasonary, and possibly some statistics on the legal education of our ff's, if I would look it up... but why?

In short then, I could probably find the information for you... but I spend enough time researching in the library as it is. I'm not defending my doctoral dissertation here, and I DO have a life outside MetaFilter. Believe me or not, I really don't care. Sheesh.
posted by gd779 at 6:13 PM on March 16, 2002


Also: What insomnyuk said.
posted by gd779 at 6:14 PM on March 16, 2002


Oh. It occurs to me that part of raysmj's discomfort may be the result of me not fully stating my assumptions.

In revolutionary America, you couldn't get church membership simply by sitting in the back pew for a while and then calling yourself a member. "Church membership" was conferred only by signing a sworn statement of faith that laid out the specifics articles of belief that the church you were joining adhered to. So it's not like we're guestimating church membership here; becomming a church member was a formal process for which detailed paper records were kept. Presumably, then, in most cases we can still go and look at the original paper with the ff's signature.
posted by gd779 at 6:26 PM on March 16, 2002


After doing some quick checking, there seems to be some reason to doubt the accuracy of my last post. I still think that it is correct, but take it with a grain of salt for now. (And if anybody knows otherwise, please correct me).

Sorry about the multitude of posts.
posted by gd779 at 6:37 PM on March 16, 2002


gdd79: If you're not prepared to answer questions, after posting in such a "you're all wrong" fashion, then don't post, OK? And I need a personal assistant? Maybe so, since all the sites you led me to on Goggle are true believer sites and individuals parroting Bradford.

Sheesh, in any case I've read before that most of the founders, like the gentry of the day, were Episcopalian. This is far from a schocker. Jefferson, not a signer but surely a founding father, was Episcoplian and a deist. Also, I found a more doubting article regarding the founders' supposed religiosity in the more mainstream, but still conserative Christian History (a Christianity Today publication) online at the EBSCOhost database. According to author Edwin Gaustad of UC-Riverside, Adams was a Congregationalist by birth, but turned toward Unitarianism later. Also, Madison was Presbyterian, but in 1825 said he hadn't pondered religious maters in 50 years (in other words, also long before he'd written any of the Federalist Papers). How many other stories like this exist, but are not talked about by Bradford? How many are at least more complicated than a membership listing shows? Probably a good many.
posted by raysmj at 8:05 PM on March 16, 2002


Or gd779, rather. No disrespect intended.
posted by raysmj at 8:06 PM on March 16, 2002


Oh, and the late ME Bradford, from what I've found by looking online, was a English professor at Univ. of Dallas, not a history prof. He was also one of the orginal, and still highly esteemed, Nashville Agrarians. In his later years, though, he served as a campaign advisor to Pat Buchanan, and before that was George Wallace's campaign director in Texas. He was banned from the National Review for attacks on Lincoln. Finally, he wrote a paper denying that slavery was morally wrong. He was very much identified with the early years of the neo-Confederate movement.
posted by raysmj at 8:29 PM on March 16, 2002


First of all, I apoligize if my posts have had a tone of "you're all wrong". That was not my intent. And I think you misunderstood part of my last post: I wasn't saying that I wouldn't answer your questions about freemasonry, I just wondered why you wanted to know.

the late ME Bradford, from what I've found by looking online, was a English professor at Univ. of Dallas, not a history prof.

He was both a Professor of American Studies and a Professor of English at the University of Dallas. It appears that he was also the author of the ONLY compilation of biographical sketches that included all 55 delagates to the constitutional convention, which might explain why neither of us have been able to find anyone writing on this subject who doesn't cite him. His work in this area was appearantly original.

I've read before that most of the founders, like the gentry of the day, were Episcopalian. This is far from a schocker.

Okay, so the baseline assumption - given the sworn statement of faith required for church membership and the emphasis on both honor and personal honesty of the time - we assume that most of the delagates were Christian. Now let's see what you can do to know down that presumption.

Jefferson, not a signer but surely a founding father, was Episcoplian and a deist... Adams... Madison...How many other stories like this exist, but are not talked about by Bradford? How many are at least more complicated than a membership listing shows? Probably a good many.

[first, a sidenote: Madison was an Episcopalian, not a Presbytarian. Gaustad is incorrect on this.].

Now here's the fundamental problem with your argument. Every time someone talks about the supposed deism of the founding fathers - every single time! - they run off the same list of names, often in the same order: Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams, Paine and Ethan Allen. Nobody else ever seems to get mentioned.

That's because, of course, there were 55 delagates to the constitutional convention (though a few other leaders might qualify for ff status), and for every name you see on the above list I can list at least six names back at you. John Jay, John Witherspoon, Gouverneur Morris, etc. The more fundamental problem is that most Americans (and I admit to a certain amount of this) wouldn't recognize the names of most our founding fathers if they saw them. We've focused on a few undeniably influential leaders, and that's probably good, but the cost is a distorted picture of reality as a whole. Yet from reading the pro-deist arguments, you would think that only six men were responable for the revolution.

There is absolutely no basis for your last sentance. There is also no basis for the conclusion that many (or even the majority of) cases of church membership were really hidden cases of deism. Religion is a personal matter, certainly, and there are no easily definable lines in this area. But to make the claim that most of the ff's were "deist" seems to me to be clearly against the weight of the evidence.

One more thing. I found the correct citation for the earlier "exotic plant" quotation from Harvard historian Perry Miller:

(Perry Miller, Nature's Nation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard-
Belknap, 1967), p. 110.
posted by gd779 at 7:31 AM on March 17, 2002


There is absolutely no basis for your last sentance.

That's much too strong. I take it back. Please just ignore it and move on to my real point, which is in the next sentance.

MetaFilter really should have a "preview" button, you know?
posted by gd779 at 7:35 AM on March 17, 2002


Madison was an Episcopalian, not a Presbytarian. Gaustad is incorrect on this

Where'd you get that information? Bradford? Madison was, as in had been, Presbyterian. He grew up Presbyterian. If he became an Episcopalian later, it was probably just to be a member of the establishment, as it were. Which it was then, and really isn't anymore. (There are now more Muslims and Buddhists in America respectively than Episcopalians.) I brought up the Freemasons and lawyers because it shows where the founders were coming from more than their religious background ever did, or ever will. That part's not iffy. The Englightenment influence is not iffy. The religious part is extremely iffy. And, y'know, the men you all just listed as being deists are known as the most important founders. Oh, and American Studies still isn't history. It's an offshoot of sociology.

Wait! But there's Alexander Hamilton. Does anyone think of Hamilton as a great spiritual person? I mainly think about him in association with economic stabilization of the early U.S., the Treasury Dept., etc. In other words, public finance, which isn't really mentioned in the Bible except for incidental mentions of taxes and tax collectors. He did, though, mention at the Constitutional Convention that no prayer was needed because no foreign aid was needed. This was an early example of an American acting snarky, as we like to say now. Who'd made the suggestion to pray? Franklin, a deist.
posted by raysmj at 9:54 AM on March 17, 2002


The University of Dallas, for the record, has no American Studies department and, I'd wager, has never had one. It does, however, have an interdisciplinary American Studies program (whose content is not at all standard in this field).
posted by raysmj at 10:12 AM on March 17, 2002


James Madison was Episcopalian, not Presbyatrian.

Madison was born on March 16, 1751, the first of ten children of James and Eleanor Madison, Sr. Twenty-one days later he was baptized in the Episcopal Church. His father was a church vestry-man and a lay delegate to the Episcopal Convention of 1776. His mother was a pious communicant in the church...

Starting about the age of 12, Madison went to school for several years under the tutelage of a Scotsman named Donald Robertson, and then under the rev. Thomas Martin, an Episcopal minister who lived in the Madison home.


(Eidsmoe, John. Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of our Founding Fathers. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1987.)
posted by gd779 at 10:14 AM on March 17, 2002


Madison's family was nominally Anglican, but sent him to a boarding school run by Presbyterian ministers Donald Robertson and John Witherspoon. He wasn't sent to the Anglican-leaning William and Mary, but to the College of New Jersey, to study again under Witherspoon. The Gaustad article is here.
posted by raysmj at 10:27 AM on March 17, 2002


First off, it's instructive to note that, after demanding that I back up my points with multiple academic sources, you are unable to find a single source that would contradict my numbers on church memberships.

The Englightenment influence is not iffy. The religious part is extremely iffy.

I've written extensively about the relationship between religion and the political thought in early america here.

As for freemasonry, that has been the subject of much discussion and concern. It is true that some of the ff's were freemasons. Franklin, for example. Washington as well, though he wrote to a friend in 1797 that he had not attended lodge meetings more than once or twice in the preceeding 30 years. There is even some evidence that the Rev. John Witherspoon, the orthodox Presbyterian minister who signed the Declaration of Independence and ran the College of New Jersy (later Princeton) may have been a mason.

[Incidentially, I suppose it's possible that this is where Gaustad got his misconception that Madison was Presbyterian. Madison, like a great many of the ff's, studied under Witherspoon during College.]

Masonry in no way implies that those ff's were not Christians. Part of the confusion over this issue comes from the fact that in some parts of the world, France in particular, the lodge was a hotbed of radical thinking. This does not appear to have been true of America. "Freemasonry in America had been social and local, with little influence in politics. In France, it was freethinking and opposed to absolutism." (Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin. New York: Viking Press, 1938, p. 656.)

And, y'know, the men you all just listed as being deists are known as the most important founders.

I think that statement reveals everything that we need to know about the depth of your desire to understand history.

On preview now...

Madison's family was nominally Anglican

I suppose that's possible, but do you have anything to back that up?

...sent him to a boarding school run by Presbyterian ministers Donald Robertson and John Witherspoon. He wasn't sent to the Anglican-leaning William and Mary, but to the College of New Jersey, to study again under Witherspoon.

Madison is hardly unique in this. The Rev. Witherspoon taught many of the leaders of the revolution. James Madison, Aaron Burr, 77 members of Congress, and 3 Supreme Court justices matriculated at Princeton during his tenure there. Not everyone who studied under Witherspoon was Presbyterian. The good Reverand also influenced many revlutionary leaders through his sermons, which I believe were widely read and respected. In his book, Explaining America: The Federalist, Gary Wills calls Witherspoon "probably the most influential teacher in the history of American education". (Wills, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.: 1981.)
posted by gd779 at 10:36 AM on March 17, 2002


I love that Christianity today article! It's like being prophetic. Franklin, Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson. They bumped Washington up (probably because he's famous) and Jefferson down (probably because he was the least "Christian" and, hey, this is Christianity Today doing the writing) but aside from that even my order was correct! They left of Allen and Paine, but I suppose they had a word limit. Hehe.
posted by gd779 at 10:47 AM on March 17, 2002


Madison was, as in had been, Presbyterian. He grew up Presbyterian. If he became an Episcopalian later, it was probably just to be a member of the establishment, as it were.

Madison's family was nominally Anglican

Just to keep you honest (and in the hopes that you'll do the same for me), I'd like to point out that these two statements are contradictory (and probably BOTH incorrect, but I could be wrong on that). Not that I blame you: I've often found in myself that the desire to win an argument can temporarily overcome my normally strong desire to see history as it really was, unclouded by any particular agenda.
posted by gd779 at 11:04 AM on March 17, 2002


Because all those founders were the most important. Anyway, more on Madison's background and spiritual life or lack thereof here. He was *that close* to becoming a minister after Princeton, but opted for law instead. He later tried to disestablish the Anglican church in Virginia. He attended D.C.'s First Presbyterian Church (now on the site of the Raybur Office Building) as a member of Congress, and contributed to its building fund. But he was something of cipher in the spirituality department. He concealed his views.

Anyway, you've again just listed the most important founding fathers, the men most educated Americans are talking about when they say the term "founding fathers." Hee-hee to you too.

Re: Masonry and charges of being non-Christians. I didn't say anything remotely like that, which only proves to me that you have an agenda, which you're being extremely defensive about.
posted by raysmj at 11:10 AM on March 17, 2002


And why are you so upset about the use of the word "nominally." You're a denominational partisan, maybe? I didn't say they weren't Christian. Wow.
posted by raysmj at 11:17 AM on March 17, 2002


Re: Masonry and charges of being non-Christians. I didn't say anything remotely like that, which only proves to me that you have an agenda, which you're being extremely defensive about.

I try my level best to keep my politics seperate from my history. I believe that history should NEVER be subject to our political prejudices. But I'm not perfect, and perhaps this was a case of me seeing attacks where there was none. It's possible, but I don't think so, given the original topic here (the presumed deism of the ff's). Besides, I have this (unjustified?) image of masonry being secret, mystical, and vehemently anti-christian. And anyway, in political discussions I have never bothered to argue over Madison's religion; so there's no political turf for me to win here.

So, let's summarize what we've both agreed upon: most of the founding fathers were professed Episcopalian, by far most were professed Christians. Only a handful were professed deists. A few of the "big names" were professed deists, and a disproportionate amount of the "big names" were either professed deists or are presumed deists by virtue of their silence on religious matters.

(Personally, though, I think that anybody who would leave John Jay off of the list of "the most important founding fathers" is nuts.)

raysmj assumes, without evidence, that a great many more founding fathers (by which I now mean delagates to the constitutional convention) were "secret" deists who misrepresented their political beliefs when joining a church, perhaps for social reasons. This allows him to block the conservative appeal to tradition. I presume, also with no evidence but subject to revision if necessary, that most ff's were honestly Christian. This allows me to assert America's traditionally Christian influence. Others may judge the truth of this matter for themselves.
posted by gd779 at 11:52 AM on March 17, 2002


You're a denominational partisan, maybe?

I may have missed the thrust of that question. In case you were asking, I'm neither Episcopalian nor Presbytarian in my personal beliefs. So I have no particular religious axe to grind on this.
posted by gd779 at 12:03 PM on March 17, 2002


raysmj assumes, without evidence, that a great many more founding fathers (by which I now mean delagates to the constitutional convention) were "secret" deists who misrepresented their political beliefs when joining a church, perhaps for social reasons.

I never once said that. Do not stick words into my mouth, or posts, as it were. I don't know the answer here, and neither do you. You absolutely do not know exactly what they felt from a membership listing, neither does Bradford, and his "research" is highly questionable regardless, since individual accounts can be debunked through a little research (Madison - what exactly was he? He gave to a building fund of a Presbyterian church in DC, but is called Episcopalian with some certainty, even if he showed no small hostility to an established Anglican church in Virginia? Why is Adams not acknowledged as a Unitarian or one who leaned that way and attended a Unitarian church? Because there's no official membership record, what? What about Washington's hardly ever taking communion, and maybe never? How do you account for that?) and he was coming from an extremely ideological and outright reactionary place. Bradford wasn't even a trained historian in the first place, or one who dedicated an entire adult life to historical research of either the academic or popular sort. The best of either would doubt what sort of meaning membership lists really contained, in and of themselves.

In any case, we do know something about the spiritual life of the major founders, who led much more public lives than the majority of signers of either the Declaration or the Constitution. But even the major founders' stories can get throny. You can't imagine, then, that the other, mostly obscure signers' stories can get similarly complicated? In any case, religion was not of overriding importance to all the signers of the Constitution in developing the document, and it would be outrageously silly to argue otherwise.
posted by raysmj at 12:38 PM on March 17, 2002


I never once said that.

Sorry, if I misunderstood you. I took the statement quoted below to indicate that you questioned the convictions of the ff's regardless of their official church memberships. If you don't question that, then - since they swore to their Christianity before joining their respective churches, and left behind tremendous written evidence of their Christianity - you must accept that they were, in fact, Christian. I can live with that.

How many other stories like this exist, but are not talked about by Bradford? How many are at least more complicated than a membership listing shows? Probably a good many.

In any event, you are completely missing the issue. Bradford claims to do nothing but present an accurant account of church membership. This he has appearantly done.

This church membership count implies nothing about the particular religious beliefs of the founding fathers, other than that they were willing to swear to their acceptance of the essential tenets of their church. So half your arguments on this are spurious: Adams, for example, was not a delagate, and so is not on Bradford's list at all. Madison and Washington are properly listed as Episcopalian, as they officially joined the Episcopalian church. Those are undeniable facts, and the private convictions of Washington and Madison are not a rebuttal to Bradford's work. So your real argument is here:

The best of either would doubt what sort of meaning membership lists really contained, in and of themselves.

And that's a perfectly valid argument, though one you haven't really explictely mentioned until now. I think it's clear that church membership could serve as a rough indicator of religious belief among the founding fathers. It may not be perfect, but it can be presumed to be approximately correct. In order to refute that presumption, you'd have to establish some evidence of widespread deceit and/or personal apathy towards religion on the part of the founding fathers. That would be difficult to do.

On that point, however, there is some force to the notion that sociatal pressure could have forced many citizens to swear to beliefs they didn't hold. That's tenuous, though, given the social effects of the elightenment and the growing acceptance of deist churches and deism generally (as typified by Franklin). I think you'd be hard-pressed to make your case. Seven open deists (and only five or so really exist), no matter how commonly known their names known are today, do not establish a pattern of evidence sufficient to imply that the other 50 founding fathers were secret deists willing to swear falsely to get into a church.

And that ignores people like John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and the Rev. Witherspoon, who were clearly "major founders" or influential figures in the revolution. Let's not confuse "currently popular" with "contemporaneously important".

You can't imagine, then, that the other, mostly obscure signers' stories can get similarly complicated?

Of course they're complicated. Almost every personal religious belief is complicated or "non-standard" in some way. But there is a big difference between complicated and deist. The complications do nothing, it seems to me, to detract from the general flavor of Christianity that runs through the founding fathers as a group.

George Van Droph, one of the leading scholars of American history during the 1800's, called Calvin "The father of America". "He who would not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin", said Droph, "knows little of the origin of American liberty".

In any case, religion was not of overriding importance to all the signers of the Constitution in developing the document, and it would be outrageously silly to argue otherwise.

I do argue otherwise. I'd be happy to hear why you think that is silly.

Once again, I do apoligize for putting words in your mouth. I really thought I was on safe ground there.
posted by gd779 at 1:34 PM on March 17, 2002


religion was not of overriding importance to all the signers of the Constitution in developing the document

Oh. Nevermind. I do agree with that. The constitutional convention was clearly not a primarly religious act but a political one designed to remedy the flaws of the articles of confederation. I would say, though, that the constitution was founded upon ideas that had essentially religious foundations, that the signers - even some of the deists - explicitely tried to create the constitution in harmony with "God's natural law", and that the constitution was not popularly perceived to completely seperate church from state.

But then, given Washington's declaration of a national day of prayer and the creation of congressional chaplains, I think that last part is indisputable.
posted by gd779 at 1:43 PM on March 17, 2002


even some of the deists - explicitely tried to create the constitution in harmony with "God's natural law",

Do you even know what the word "deist" means, or what it meant in the days of the nation's founding? A person who believes in God, but not the Trinity. (There's also the definition that God created the world and then abandoned it, but that's still not athiesm.) Yikes.

John Jay was a minor figure compared to the ones usually mentioned, although still important. He's not "unpopular." (Compared to Hamilton and Madison, he hardly wrote any of the Federalist Papers. Maybe two or three? I don't remember here. He was the first Supreme Court chief justice, but quit pretty soon after taking office. And I have no idea what his story is regarding religion. I looked online, and found mostly fundamentalist sites quoting him and extolling his Christianity, but absolutely nothing else.)

Gouverneur Morris was not a Christian, according to dozens of Internet sites which quote this fact as coming from Thomas Jefferson's journal. I'm not sure of this "fact" either. But I don't imagine that his story was very straightforward.
posted by raysmj at 3:31 PM on March 17, 2002


Diesm is a little less complicated than that, raysmj. Unitarians believe in the Christian God but not the Trinity. Strict Deists simply believe in a Creator God who made the world, set it in motion under certain immutable laws, and then left it to it's own devices.

Jefferson and Franklin were the Founding's most prominent deists, for sure. George Washington, on the other hand, with his frequent invocations of the blessings of Providence, was probably not a deist, based on his speeches and letters. Deists do not believe in any sort of Providence.

And damn, this thread has turned into a kind of research paper duel or something.
posted by insomnyuk at 4:34 PM on March 17, 2002


Do you even know what the word "deist" means, or what it meant in the days of the nation's founding? There's also the definition that God created the world and then abandoned it, but that's still not athiesm.

Heh. What insomnyuk said. My point, of course, was that even the most "non-christian" (if you want to use that term) ff's believed in natural law. So the commonly held conception that our ff's were rationalists who intended a purely secular state is cearly bogus, and always has been. In point of fact, I'm not aware of any founding father who wholly rejected natural law theory, but I put the "some" in there as a qualifier just in case I was wrong.

Switching topics...

19th century Federalist historian Richard Hildreth called John Jay "one of the three granite pillars of America's political greatness;" the three, which also included Washington and Hamilton, constituted "a trio not to be matched, in fact, not to be approached in our history, if, indeed, in any other." Jay was the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress, the drafter of the United States' address which asked Great Britain for redress of grievences, one of the three writers of the Federalist Papers, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and later Governor of New York. He negotiated Jay's Treaty of 1794 which averted war with England. Can you tell I like the guy?

On specific matters of religion, Gouverneur Morris was a lot like Washington. Though Morris appearantly held a very high view of the Bible and evidenced a strong faith in God, there is only one reference to Jesus in his writings. That one reference is positive, but his silence on other religious matters, like Washington's, is conspicuous. (I guess I just always liked him for his strong distrust of the French revolution.)

Even so, Morris cannot be called a deist. His writings make clear that he had a deep and abiding faith in a God who intervenes in world affairs. Speaking to the New York Assembly about relations with Britain, Morris declared "Providence has kindly interfered so far for our preservation." When Morris' sister's child passed away, he consoled his sister with faith in God: "His bounty is as unbounded as His power! Confiding in the one, be resigned to the other;... O God! thy will be done". There are many more such examples. Though he may or may not have been an orthodox Christian (again, given his church membership I tend towards 'may', but that is clearly debatable), Morris was clearly not a deist.
posted by gd779 at 4:56 PM on March 17, 2002


John Jay wrote five of the federalist papers. Hamilton wrote 56, and collaborated with Madison on three others. Remember, Hamilton was a zealous Calvinist who feared the atheism and lawlessness of the French and believed that Christianity provided a much-needed moral restraint on the people.

Interestingly, even Ben Franklin eventually agreed that Christianity provided necessarily morality. On page 111 of his autobiography, he says this:

My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but, each of them having afterwards wrong'd me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith's conduct towards me (who was another free-thinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho' it might be true, was not very useful.

In other words, Christianity provided incentives for men to live moral lives, with its promises of eternal rewards and punishments, and deism did not. Franklin preferred that men live by Christianity, even though he thought it objectively false, than by deism even though it be objectively true.
posted by gd779 at 5:13 PM on March 17, 2002


And damn, this thread has turned into a kind of research paper duel or something.

En garde! hehe. Actually, that's why I love a good historical argument. If I'm wrong, my opponent might show me. But whether I'm right or not, I learn simply from the work of forming my arguments.
posted by gd779 at 5:37 PM on March 17, 2002


Even so, Morris cannot be called a deist. His writings make clear that he had a deep and abiding faith in a God who intervenes in world affairs.

As noted, depends on the definition. Also, please, one quotation from Franklin does not persuade me. Jefferson also loved the words of Christ, and thought they provided a good basis for moral living. But he wasn't a Christian. Anyway, Franklin's autobiography also includes a section on the reasons a friend should marry an older woman, including, "Because they are ever so grateful." Also a bit about sex is just as good as with an younger woman, as long as you put a basket over the older woman's head, etc. People followed him around at all times during the Const. Convention to make sure he didn't get smackered and blab on what was going on. I don't know if I'd use him as the expert witness, as it were. (He paid heed to ethics, though, in business and political life.)

In any case, Franklin's autobio shows he rose through paying heed to the Protestant work ethic, which even by that time had become secularized. It fueled capitalism. But that doesn't make capitalism a Christian thing, any more than the Protestant church influence on federalism and Lockean social contract theory makes the Constitution a Christian document.
posted by raysmj at 5:42 PM on March 17, 2002


<mclaughlin voice>
The correct answer is: the Constitution was a political document with strong Christian roots. If resurrected, the founding fathers would not even recognize the first ammendment as currently interpreted by the courts. Now I'll give raysmj the last word. Bye-bye!
</mclaughlin voice>
posted by gd779 at 5:23 AM on March 18, 2002


gd779 - You realize McLaughlin was a Jesuit priest, right? Hardly a disinterested party in this matter.
posted by NortonDC at 6:25 AM on March 18, 2002


I thank [deity/non-deity of choice] that the constitution is infinitely smarter than the bible-beating slave owners who wrote it. :)
posted by owillis at 7:02 AM on March 18, 2002


« Older I knew amazon sold bollox,...  |  Speaking of religion causing n... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments