Deists in Disguise

One more for now from Rev. Samuel Miller.

In this interdisciplinary field of history/politics/theology the biggest challenge I’ve faced as someone thinking about trying to “cross over” more into “real” publishing is novelty. Finding and doing things that haven’t been done by someone before.

I’ve concluded that the “key Founders” — the FFs on American currency — if pushed would have considered themselves “Christians” not “Deists.” Though they may have endorsed an understanding of Deism that didn’t view itself as incompatible with “Christianity.” Yet many in the academy endorse the line “the FFs were Deists not Christians.”

I think this much is understood by a number of notable scholars. But not enough.

HOW did this come to be? The real story is less well understood.

The standard line from “Christian America” is the FFs were virtually all “Christians” and the bad, secularist revisionists “stole” that heritage, knowingly and duplicitously.

That narrative, of course, is as phony as “the Founders were all Deists” narrative.

I have found that the self understood “rational Christianity” of Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, and perhaps Madison, Washington, G. Morris and others was considered “not Christian” and, in principle, no better than “Deism” by prominent Founding and post-Founding era conservative clergy. The D. James Kennedy’s of the day, many of whom occupied prominent places in the academy back then. And they, accordingly, deserve a large portion of the responsibility for the idea that secular scholars later ran with: The Founders were “Deists.”

That kind of irony, I dig.

The figures in question include Timothy Dwight, Jedidiah Morse, Bishops Samuel Seabury and William White and Rev. Samuel Miller. James Renwick Willson was even less respectable than the figures thus named. But he deserves particular notable mention for his sermon on the American Presidency that most scholars misidentify as Bird Wilson’s.

With that, here Rev. Samuel Miller illustrates this mindset in his letter where he argues that Unitarians, though they call themselves “Christians” are really “Deists in disguise.”

[Paragraph breaks added for clarity.]

You are now, I trust, prepared, without hesitation, to answer the questions which were asked toward the close of the first Letter;—viz— What estimate you ought to form of the opinions of Unitarians? How you ought to treat their persons? How to consider their preaching? How to act with respect to their publications? Whether you ought to regard them as Christians at all? Whether their congregations ought to be called churches of Christ? And whether the ordinances which they administer ought to be sustained as valid?

You are prepared, I hope, to decide, promptly and without wavering, that they are By No Means To Be Considered As Christians, in any scriptural sense of the word; that their preaching is to be avoided as blasphemy; their publications to be abhorred as pestiferous; their ordinances to be held unworthy of regard as christian institutions; and their persons to be in all respects treated as Decent And Sober Deists In Disguise.

Such is the estimate which I feel constrained to form for myself; and, of course, that which I wish to impress upon your minds. And, if I do not deceive myself, you have seen enough to preclude all doubt as to its justice. If they reject every fundamental doctrine of the religion of Christ, they, of course, reject Christianity; if they reject christianity, they, surely, are not christians; if they are not christians, their congregations, evidently, ought not to be called churches, nor their ordinances considered as valid: and, these things being so, you ought to regard a proposition to go and hear them preach, or to read their publications, as you would a proposition to hear a preacher of open infidelity, or to read an artful publication of a follower of Herbert or of Hume.

I have said, that Unitarians ought to be considered and treated as Deists In Disguise. I beg that this language may not be misconstrued. It is by no means my intention to intimate, for I do not believe, that Unitarians are, as a sect, a set of hypocrites; that they profess one thing, and really believe another. I have no reason to doubt that they are as sincere in their profession of belief, that is, that they as really believe what they profess to believe, as any of us all. But my meaning is, that, while they assume, and insist on retaining the christian name, their creed really does not differ much, in substance, from that of serious Deists.

Now, if this be the case, and if the fact that they are substantially Deists, be, in effect, concealed from popular view by the name which they bear, what is this but being Deists under the christian name, in other words, Deists in disguise? I certainly take no pleasure in using offensive language. On the contrary, I can truly say, that every thing of this kind which I have employed in these Letters has been extorted from me by a painful sense of duty; but my obligation to state that which I deem both true, and highly important to the best interests of mankind, is paramount to all considerations of delicacy or ceremony.

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