A Critical Response to On Our Founding Fathers 2

Robert Nordlander

Part II

In Part II of Bernard Katz's "Was Ours to be a Christian Nation?" one can find very little to criticize as a great part of the colonial period of American history was dominated by a dogmatic form of Protestantism. Of course, the virulence of this dogmatic control over the minds of our colonial ancestors varied from one part of the colonies to another as did the degree of state control over the religious conscious of the individual. What was deplorable about the Katz effort was his neglect of those forces in colonial society itself that were pushing towards secularization, e.g., no mention was made of Roger Williams and his fight for a government that would leave the religious conscience of the individual alone. It was amusing to note that Benjamin Franklin appeared to be called upon by Katz in order to prove his questionable thesis that the Founding Fathers wanted this country to be a Christian nation when Franklin himself was a principal force in the struggle on the part of enlightened minds to end the suffocating influence that theology had on the mind of colonial humanity. If anyone typified secularism, Benjamin Franklin would have been that person.

Let's take a look at what the Baptist preacher cited above had to say on the subject of religious liberty as given in his The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience:

"It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of His Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences be granted to all men...God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state...An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious, denies the priniples of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh."

Again affirming that the conscience of the individual was sacred and inviolable in religious matters, Williams responded to the charge that he favored allowing the individual to behave licentiously without any social restraints whatsoever in an epistle with the title: "To the Town of Providence."

It hath fallen out sometimes that both papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked on one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges — that none of the papists, protestants, Jews or Turks, be forced to come to ship's prayers or worship, not compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship's course, yea, and also command that justice, peace and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and the passengers.

What could more eloquently capture the essence of the kind of secular government that was established by our Founding Fathers well over a century after Rogers Williams made a plea for a government that would be neutral in matters of religion. Of course, Williams hoped that the people would exercise their liberty of conscience and become the kind of civilized Christian that he was, i.e., a Baptist. But regardless of the religious or anti-religious preferences of the people, government, in the view of Roger Williams, was to be absolutely uninvolved in religious matters, government was to be secular.

That Bernard Katz should have chosen to ignore such a significant personality as Roger Williams in his discussion of the colonial mind was a sin of omission that cannot be forgiven.

In his review of colonial institutions of higher learning, Katz noted that they were primarily preachers' colleges founded by Christians with the exception of the University of Pennsylvania. It is unfortunate that Katz did not choose to discuss that exception for had he done so, he would have been obliged to discuss an institution that ultimately proved to be a model of secular learning for other institutions yet to be born. Originally known as the College of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania served to foster secular learning in the sciences and other useful subjects as opposed to the kind of academic endeavors necessary to produce theological drones. The driving force behind the establishment of the College of Philadelphia was none other than Benjamin Franklin.

The significance of the creation of the College of Philadelphia along with a brief description of its curriculum can be found in The Rise of American Civilization by Charles A. and Mary R. Beard. We have first a description of the curriculum.

"So firmly fixed was the grip of tradition upon learning that Franklin, with all his twisting and turning, could not work a complete revolution in the course of study planned for the College of Philadelphia. In the interest of peace and endowment, a compromise was made. Latin, Greek and the scholastic subjects of the age, were provided for boys who wished to prepare for law, medicine, or divinity. Unto these things were added, for the benefit of those intending to follow other paths, such practical studies as mathematics, surveying, navigation, and accounting; scientific branches — mechanics, physics, chemistry, agriculture, and natural history; instruction in history, civics, ethics, government, trade, commerce, and international law; and finally, for the worldly wise and curious, training in modern languages." (Volume I, pp. 172-173).

The significance of all this is discussed in the following terms by the Beards:

"Such was the plan worked out by Franklin in cooperation with the first provost, William Smith, for the college launched in 1755. To suggest that it anticipated the most enlightened program evolved by the liberal university of the late nineteenth century is to speak with caution; in fact, it stands out like a beacon light in the long history of human intelligence. Nor is it without significance that the first liberal institution of higher learning in the western world appeared on the frontier of civilization — in colonial America where an energetic people were wrestling with the realities of an abundant nature and the problems of self-government. Though a Scotch clergyman gave academic form to the course of instruction at Philadelphia, the spirit and concept came from Benjamin Franklin, a self-educated, provincial workman whose mind had never been conquered by the scholastics." (p.173, my emphasis).

Undoubtedly, the Newtonian revolution in science played a role in creating the kind of intellectual atmosphere in which the College of Philadelphia was possible if not inevitable. Unfortunately, Katz was so intent on showing us how Newtonian science was used by some people to buttress Christian theology, he failed to appreciate that it also served to knock the underpinnings out from under orthodox Christianity by giving us a universe presided over by a deity who made the rules and who does not deign to break them for anyone. The miracle-mongering demonic deity of the Bible was retired to the oblivion where he belongs. Newtonian science gave birth to Deism in England and America while it undoubtedly inspired the Atheism of many of the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, viz., Diderot, d'Holbach et al. Unfortunately, Katz gave us a ne-sided view of the impact of Newtonian science on the colonial intellect. We were not given "the rest of the story."

While the American colonial mind in the eighteenth century may have believed that "the most elevated system of morals the world has ever known" was produced by Jesus Christ, a sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, it was not the incarnation of "God" in the person known as Jesus of Nazareth that produced this phenomenon. This latter belief was being abandoned by the American intelligentsia of the eighteenth century. Bernard Katz gives us the impression that Newtonian science had little or no effect on this belief whatsoever. Perhaps it might be helpful to view Thomas Jefferson's admiration for Jesus in this light and then to take a look at his objections to the theological nonsense that has surrounded the name of Jesus. We find Jefferson's admiration for Jesus espressed in a letter to W. Short dated October 31, 1819.

"But the greatest of all reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his own from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man."

In a footnote appended to this letter, Jefferson identified that to which he referred to as rubbish thus:

"The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc."

It should be obvious that Jefferson kicked the god of Calvin into the garbage can of history and opted for the god suggested by Newtonian science, a god that Newton himself perhaps was not aware. Jefferson even had the audacity to write his own Bible using selected passages from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which emphasized the humanity of Jesus and not using anything from the Gospels that suggested miracle-mongering or divinity. This is the little-known Jefferson Bible.

Although Jefferson admired the character of Jesus, as he defined him, he did not hesitate to express his disagreement with Jesus whenever it appeared to him there was a need to do so. In a letter to W. Short, written in 1820, Jefferson put it this way:

"It is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it."

Turning to Benjamin Franklin, as perhaps the most representative American intellect of the eighteenth century, let us take a look at his religious beliefs as expressed in a letter to Ezra Stiles dated March 9, 1790. First we have his opinion on the question of a god.

"You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But I cannot take your curiosity amiss, and shall endeavor in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universie. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever Sect I meet with them."

Now we come to Franklin's thoughts about Jesus.

"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire. I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some Doubts as to his Divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence, as probably it has, of making his Doctrines respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive, that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Unbelievers in his Government of the World with any peculiar marks of displeasure."

Franklin's Deism is certainly well-stated in the first passage quoted from his letter to Stiles while his tolerance, common sense and Yankee pragmatism come through loud and clear in the second passage quoted. There is no union of Newtonian science and Calvinism here. Franklin's god is not offended by the fact that there are people who do not believe in his existence. There is no room for the Christian god in the mind of Franklin, particularly the Christian god as defined by John Calvin.

While Bernard Katz's essay on the colonial mind did give us some relevant history to chew on, e.g., the religious history that led up to the development of the colonial mind and his discussion of the history of science that flowed from the Renaissance, it failed to really buttress his thesis that the Founding Fathers of this country wanted their creation to be a Christian nation.