Gouverneur Morris, Theistic Rationalist

[This was was originally from 2008.]

That’s the title to a paper Dr. Gregg Frazer recently gave at the APSA 2008 Annual Meeting, Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Massachusetts. Luckily the entire paper is available online. At 30 pages, that’s quite a bit about both Gouverneur Morris and theistic rationalism. Some highlights.

On Morris’ importance as Founding Father:

Morris spoke more often than anyone at the Constitutional Convention and was an influential member of the critically important Committee of Style. In fact, Morris wrote the Preamble to the Constitution,…

On theistic rationalism:

Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism – with rationalism as the decisive factor whenever conflict arose between the elements. Theistic rationalists believed that these three elements would generally be in accord and lead to the same end, but that reason was determinative on those relatively rare occasions in which there was disagreement. Rationalism as used here is the philosophical view that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge. Educated in Enlightenment thought, theistic rationalists were at root rationalists, but their loosely Christian upbringing combined with reason to convince them that a creator God would not abandon his creation. Consequently, they rejected the absentee god of deism and embraced a theist God of, to a significant extent, their own construction. Hence the term theistic rationalism.

An emphasis on reason had long been accepted in the Christian community, but in Christian thought, reason was a supplement to revelation, which was supreme. Theistic rationalism turned this on its head and made revelation a supplement to reason. In fact, for theistic rationalists, reason determined what should be accepted as revelation from God. Unlike deists, theistic rationalists accepted the notion of revelation from God; unlike Christians, they felt free to pick apart the Bible and to consider only the parts which they determined to be rational to be legitimate divine revelation. They similarly felt free to define God according to the dictates of their own reason and to reject Christian doctrines which did not seem to them to be rational.

The God of the theistic rationalists was a unitary, personal God whose controlling attribute was benevolence. Theistic rationalists believed that God was present and active in the world and in the lives of men. Consequently, they believed in the efficacy of prayer – that someone was listening and might intervene on their behalf. Theistic rationalism was not a devotional or inward-looking belief system; it was centered on public morality. God was served by living and promoting a good, moral life. The primary value of religion was the promotion of morality, and the morality generated by religion was indispensable to a free society. Since all of the religions with which they were familiar promoted morality, they held that virtually all religions were more or less equally valid and led to the same God who is called by many names. Theistic rationalists generally disdained doctrines or dogmas. They found them to be divisive, speculative, and ultimately unimportant since many roads lead to God.

This next passage is important because it clears up a source of confusion that has led to the inapt categorization of many theistic rationalists (like George Washington) as “Christians.” Because the theistic rationalists thought Jesus a great moral teacher, they tended to be “pro-Christianity” without actually being Christians. Christianity was just great, as were most other world religions. The non-sequitur would be to conclude that the pro-Christian quotations of the theistic rationalists mean they themselves were Christians. As the paper notes:

In addition, deism was in many ways as much a critique of Christianity as a religion of its own. Deist thought rejected virtually every tenet and fundamental of Christianity and deists were generally critical of Christianity’s central figure: Jesus. In short, deists wanted nothing to do with Christianity or its Christ. While theistic rationalists shared some ideas with deists, they had a much greater regard for Christianity and for Jesus than did most deists.

On Morris’ theistic rationalism, particularly his belief in an active God:

In my research, I encountered more than 40 references by Morris to God’s activity in the world, the nation, and the lives of individuals. Although he thought the decrees of Heaven and the ways of Providence “inscrutable by man,” Morris was confident that the “Almighty will work out his wise ends by the means of human folly.” In fact, Morris maintained: “I know that in the order of his providence, the wisest ends frequently result from the most foolish measures. It is our duty to submit ourselves to his high dispensations.” Furthermore: “In the great course of events, which divine Providence may have marked out, human wisdom can do but little.” On the large scale, Morris’s God actively ruled over this world and the universe: “My trust is not in a President, Senate, and House of Representatives, but in Him who governs empires, the world, the universe.” He concluded that “when you take occasion to pity the infirmity of human nature … you assail the wisdom of Providence in his moral government of the world.” He urged a correspondent: “Be persuaded, that, in spite of our feeble efforts and empty vows, events in this world, and in the thousands of worlds, which roll through the regions of space, will pursue the course marked out by Omnipotence. Every inferior intelligence, the greatest as well as the least, is but an instrument in his hand.”

On the God-words of Morris the theistic rationalist:

Because theistic rationalism was a sort of mean between deism and Christianity, Morris shared some beliefs with deism, as well. Like the deists, Morris “detested Calvinism.” Like the deists, Morris and other theistic rationalists used generic “God-words” rather than specifically Christian terms for God and studiously avoided references to “Jesus” or to “Jesus Christ.” As can be seen in the quotations above, Morris’s favorite terms for God were “Providence” and “the Almighty.” Most of the other “God-words” that Morris employed emphasize the deist triad of divine attributes: wisdom, goodness, and power. His third favorite term for God was “the Omnipotent” or “Omnipotence,” which, like Almighty, focuses on power. Morris regularly emphasized God’s wisdom, as well, including a reference to God as “the Fountain of supreme wisdom.” He also used a number of terms to emphasize God’s goodness. He called God “the great Parent,” “indulgent father,” “Comforter,” “the Giver of all good,” and “Creator” and spoke of “the kindness of that Being” and of His “paternal love.”

On why Morris probably wasn’t a “Christian”:

Turning to Morris’s relationship to Christianity, we know that Morris belonged to an Episcopalian church and that he attended it regularly when in New York. Beyond what may have been essentially club membership, however, there is little evidence connecting him to belief in Christianity. Of the ten fundamental doctrines of Christianity listed above, Morris only identified clearly with one of them: belief in a present, active Creator God; which is the least definitive of the doctrines. Speaking of Christianity, Thomas Jefferson testified: “I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.” It is instructive to note that, at least in his writings, Morris never claimed to be a Christian and never put forward Christianity as a superior belief system – or even Protestant Christianity as a better religion than the Catholicism that he detested.

And finally, probably the most interesting part of the piece, Morris “immoral” conduct. He was certainly the kinkiest Founding Father:

There is another factor separating Morris from Christianity, or at least highly inconsistent with Christian faith – Morris’s immoral conduct. As to reputation, when he was nominated to be minister to France, Roger Sherman said of Morris that “with regard to moral character I consider him an irreligious and profane man.” James Monroe said: “Upon the grounds of character he was twice refused as a member of the Treasury Board.” Though he publicly defended his appointment of Morris, George Washington wrote to Morris about his “imprudence of conversation and conduct” and asked him to display “more caution and prudence” and “more circumspection.” A few years later, Monroe referred to Morris as “a man without morality.” Of course, this could have simply been a matter of political partisanship or personality conflict, but, in Morris’s case, the reputation was well-earned. Morris once threatened to kill a man if he spoke disrespectfully of him, and he frequently got “very drunk” while in France. His most conspicuous moral problems concerned women, however.

Morris had numerous illicit affairs with married and unmarried women and, by his own admission, was constantly trying to initate new ones. One of his earliest dalliances may have cost him one of his legs. One account of the loss of the leg, which is reported as fact by most biographers, is that it happened as a result of a cart accident. There is a good chance that this was merely a cover story, however. There is reason to believe that Morris lost his leg jumping from a window to escape a jealous husband. John Jay joked about it in a letter of consolation to Morris and Lord Palmerston testified that Morris told him the whole story at breakfast a decade later. There is also circumstantial evidence surrounding the woman involved which lends credence. Morris denied the story in a letter to Jay, but not very convincingly. If true, the unfortunate event did not dissuade Morris from similar activity in the future. In fact, he used the curiosity afforded by his one-legged status to attract and seduce other women.

Morris’s diary entries during his time in France are filled with sexual escapades. He had an ongoing affair with Madame de Flahaut for more than three years. She and Morris were eventually so “wanton and flagrant” that they engaged in intercourse “in the passage … at the harpsichord … downstairs … the doors are all open,” and in a coach with the coachman staring straight ahead. They became so shameless that they engaged in intercourse inside a convent and even tried to conceive a child while she denied her husband conjugal rights. Morris’s diary contains at least eighteen references to their sexual liaisons, but Morris claimed that they had made love “several hundred” times. In addition to Madame de Flahaut, Morris reported having affairs with Madame Simon, an unnamed “damsel,” Madame de Lita, Madame de Crayen, Miss Matthiesen and her “young sister,” Miss Gehrt, and Mrs. Perez Morton. According to the diary entries, he tried to seduce – or thought of doing so – Madame de Flahaut’s niece, Lady Webster, the “daughter of a Frenchman,” Madame Foucault, the daughter of his landlord, Madame de Nadaillac, Madame de Fontana, and even Dolley Madison! Everyone except Jesus sins, but the extent, duration, and brazenness of Morris’s immoral conduct must call into serious question the idea that he was a Christian. Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruit.

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26 Responses to Gouverneur Morris, Theistic Rationalist

  1. “And finally, probably the most interesting part of the piece, Morris “immoral” conduct”

    Frazer just cannot keep his religous beliefs out of his academic theories. This is absurd to include this. What does it have to do with his ten points and thesis? It shows his true colors. Which is fine he is what he is but he cannot say that his religous views do not cloud his historical analysis.

    Not to say that any of this has on thing to do with any link to his political theology.

  2. OFT says:

    You would be better served if you looked to someone else. How does Frazer get around this quote?

    “Those who slaughtered their prince and made havoc of each other; those who endeavored to dethrone the King of Heaven and establish the worship of human reason, who placed, as representative on the altar which piety had dedicated to the holy virgin, and fell down and paid to her their adoration, were, at length, compelled to see and to feel, and, in agony, to own that there is a God. I cannot proceed. My heart sickens at the recollection of those horrors which desolated France.” [bold face mine]

    -An oration, delivered on Wednesday, June 29, 1814, at the request of a number of citizens of New-York : in celebration of the recent deliverance of Europe from the yoke of military despotism.

    “In fact, for theistic rationalists, reason determined what should be accepted as revelation from God.”

    Morris wrote exalting reason was dethroning the King of Heaven.

    “Like the deists, Morris and other theistic rationalists used generic “God-words” rather than specifically Christian terms for God”

    “Holy Virgin” is not a generic word. Does Morris not affirm piety?

    “The destruction of religion has loosened the bonds of duty, and those of allegiance must ever be weak when there is a defect both of piety and morality.”

    -The diary and letters of Gouverneur Morris, Minister of the United States to France … etc. / v.2, p. 463.

  3. I was reading Tierney today and a problem that seems to come up a lot in this historical discussions is words that mean different things in different contexts. There is no doubt that Locke believed in intuitiave and discursive reason. One being from God allows us to see things as self evident. The other regular human reasoning. I think it is the latter he is talking about when he talks of the blank slate. I think it is the latter the Luther calls the devils whore. I think it is the latter that Morris is talking about in the quote above.

    The same thing happen in regards to the Latin word for natural rights which could have 200 or so combinations based on the combinations of all the different meanings of those two words.

    I know for a fact that Bible translation is tough for the same reason. One word and mean 20 different things in Hebrew and when put into phrases the combinations could be infinite. That is why I do not get dogmatic about interpretations and seeming contradictions.

    Luther seems to contradict himself numerous times in regards to reason. It is a word usage issue I guarantee.

  4. OFT says:

    If my intuition says Moses did not depart the Red Sea, it’s exalting reason over the supernatural.

    It call comes down to “Reason is King.” From the above quote, Morris rejected Reason is king, as well as Locke. This is why I don’t buy Frazer’s term. Franklin is the only guy who cherry picked miracles; not a solid foundation to base a term on.

  5. nadezhda says:

    I think KoI has the better of this discussion. OFT’s quote could have been from someone in the early English deist tradition (part of what is sometimes (mis)named the Conservative Enlightenment) who saw what happened when French revolutionary deists (part of what is sometimes named the Radical Enlightenment) tried to put their ideas into practice.

    I’ll spell that out a bit further. An English deist in the Lockean empiricist tradition would disagree with the Christian orthodox claim that biblical revelation was a reliable form of knowledge (even though Locke himself thought revelation was a source of “truth”). These deists believed that we are left with nothing but our (god-given) human faculties to obtain knowledge. But empiricists are also deeply aware of the limits of man’s faculties and human reason. As empiricists, early English deists would be appalled by the French enthroning Reason as a deity — they’d see it as pure blasphemy.

    They also weren’t anti-religious and wanted to improve religion, not destroy it. (Recall that Toland’s first book was Christianity not Mysterious!). Many deists could respect the piety of a deeply-held belief in the holiness of the Virgin Mary though they didn’t accept the Christology that went along with that concept. Just as they might have believed, in political terms, that the Louis Capet was a terrible king and France shouldn’t have such kings but still look upon his execution as “slaughter”. So I don’t find anything in the quote OFT points to that would be astonishing coming from an early English deist.

    I wrote an extensive comment responding to the Frazer paper which WordPress appears to have eaten. So I’ll just say that I have three main quibbles with Frazer. First, he ignores the overlap between Christian and Greco/Roman ethical vocabulary when he tries to show where Morris adopts a traditional Christian, rather than deist, view toward religion. And he fails to develop a couple of asides that Morris may have been influenced by Greco/Roman ideas (e.g. Stoicism re Providence/fate). I think the paper Jon Rowe posted recently by Mark Noll shows how and why, when evaluating texts dealing with issues like ethics or metaphysics, we need to be sensitive to the way both traditions worked together for Americans during the late colonial and early republican periods.

    Noll does an excellent job of showing how vocabulary and concepts from two traditionally antagonistic traditions (Puritan and civic humanism) contributed to a shared political culture (which Noll calls Christian Republicanism) that used common vocabulary. But at the same time, each person used that vocabulary in slightly different ways or with different meanings. A Calvinist minister’s political critique calling for virtue and decrying corruption would bring different connotations to the table than a libertine free-thinking diplomat making the exact same critique and using identical vocabulary. They could communicate with each other using a common idiom, and they could use that shared idiom to agree on action to be taken and achieve emotional solidarity and political agreement, but they wouldn’t be saying the exact same thing in terms of meaning.

    Frazer makes a perfunctory acknowledgement of that fact, but doesn’t make it do any work for him. So it’s more like a weak anticipatory defense against objections that could be raised to his analysis — “Well I said Morris might be using a personal rather than Christian morality.”

    My second quibble is bigger, and goes to the remarks I made above about the differences between early English deists and later Continental “radical” deists. Though Frazer raises the point that the deists themselves weren’t doctrinal, and were defined more by the things in Christianity they were against than a positive theology, he still treats them as a far too homogenous group. There’s not much in what Frazer cites from Morris that would be surprising in the mouth of an early English deist. It wouldn’t be how a deist would frame the topic if he were writing controversialist literature and trying to define and advocate for his beliefs vis a vis various Christian traditions. But it wouldn’t actively contradict his core beliefs. The early deists were often great fighters in the scriptural exegesis battles. They could use scriptural language with the best of them, and many held that the Bible, especially the gospels, was full of valuable moral wisdom. So they weren’t shy about using common scriptural idiom in everyday speech or writing — it just held somewhat different meaning for them personally than for an orthodox Christian theologian. And btw, it’s also why some believed they could with a clear conscience attend services of the Church of England — they disagreed with a lot of the theology, they thought much of the ritual was fol-de-rol, but they shared with the C of E a belief in a god that should be worshipped and many of the moral lessons of orthodox Christianity.

    So Morris (to the extent he had imbibed “deist” thought) may be more accurately found to be an heir of the early English deist tradition, with a bit of Unitarianism tossed in. That would make him somewhat sympathetic to the anti-priestcraft of the French revolutionary deists, but antagonistic to much of the rest of their thought and actions.

    In some ways my biggest quibble is with the term Frazer has chosen to describe Morris and his heterodox founding colleagues — “theistic rationalists”. I’d reverse the words and call them and other Anglo-American deistic and anti-Trinitarian heterodox streams “rational theism”. Some of them rejected revelation as a source of knowledge. Others accepted revelation as evidence of possible truth claims that should be tested by reason for both authenticity and interpretation against what was acceptable to the faculty of reason.

    But they all start with a sincere belief in and gratitude towards an incomprehensible deity who had created a universe of multiple worlds and placed man among other creatures on this particular planet and gifted him with reason. And they shared the belief that though Christianity was a source of moral wisdom, orthodox Christian churches were in error (especially the Calvinists!), with both theological and practical implications.

    Beyond their theism, however, they are an extremely heterogenous group who differ wildly on what constitutes rationalism. One of the key philosophical differences during the 18thC is between Lockean empiricism and Cartesian rationalism. So I find it misleading to label as “rationalists” Americans who were likely to have been influenced more by English empiricism than French rationalism. This is a bit more than picking nits. If we’re trying to understand their religious sensibilities and beliefs, they’re theists who believe in the use of god-given reason, not rationalists who happen to think there’s a god.

  6. But nonetheless historically Christian by any sense of the term other to the most extreme arguments against it. A Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist would unequivocally call them Christian.

    I do like your point that the Theism mattered more than the rationalism.


    Agreed about the Moses thing.

  7. nadezhda says:

    But nonetheless historically Christian by any sense of the term other to the most extreme arguments against it. A Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist would unequivocally call them Christian.

    Culturally Christian, absolutely yes. The Christian tradition was part of their cultural and intellectual DNA, even when they were reacting against it. Religiously Christian… um, perhaps Christian-extralite (very, very, very lite when you remove the “good news” of salvation). I don’t find it extreme at all to claim that their religion wasn’t Christianity, since aside from soteriology which they rejected, they didn’t share Christian epistemology, ecclesiology, cosmology….

    But when dividing up the world among a handful of major historical religious traditions, would we put them in the Christian category? I would. Did they have much more in common with Christianity than Hinduism? Sure.

    And for that matter, they had much more in common with Greco-Roman philosophy than Hinduism. Can’t leave out the ancients, who influenced them via the Church Fathers, medieval schoolmen, Renaissance humanism, and directly.

    I do like your point that the Theism mattered more than the rationalism. Thanks! I think it’s important. Although to be clear, it’s not so much that Theism mattered more to what they believed. Their notion of God was intertwined with and depended on their notion of reason, and vice versa — can’t have one without the other.

    But from the standpoint of religious sensibility, they worshiped an omnipotent Creator who had gifted mankind with reason, they didn’t worship Reason. (Or at least the deists in the English empirical tradition thought reason is a pretty feeble tool but the best we have, hence it would be blasphemy to treat Reason as something to be exalted: treating Man as a God, in effect.) Therefore, from a religious standpoint, they are Theists, and “rationalist” is a modifier. It tells us the type of Theism.

  8. I am not exactly who we are talking about but I am not so sure they through out the gospel. They may have rejected the Evangelical version but even Locke believed that man was in need of a savior.

    Please visit http://www.americancreation.blogspot.com where we discuss this all the time.

  9. OFT says:

    nadezhda says: …OFT’s quote could have been from someone in the early English deist tradition..An English deist in the Lockean empiricist tradition would disagree with the Christian orthodox claim that biblical revelation was a reliable form of knowledge..But empiricists are also deeply aware of the limits of man’s faculties and human reason. As empiricists, early English deists would be appalled by the French enthroning Reason as a deity — they’d see it as pure blasphemy.”

    I appreciate the comments on my post, however, the claim that Morris was a Deist, or inclined to be Deist tradition doesn’t reflect Morris’ life. Morris was raised a mild Calvinist by Huguenot parents; distinct from guilt-laden Puritanism, and went to a Calvinist college; King’s College, where he didn’t learn the empircism of John Locke, rather, he learned the 39 Calvinist articles of the Anglican Church.

    King’s College President Cooper did not include the philosophy of John Locke. We can’t equate Morris with Locke, since King’s College didn’t teach Locke.

    On the contrary, deists rejected all supernatural elements of Christianity. “For Deists God was a benevolent, if distant, creator whose revelation was nature and human reason.”

    “The origins of English deism lay in the first half of the 17th century. Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, a prominent English statesman and thinker, laid out the basic deist creed in a series of works beginning with De Veritate (On Truth, as it is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False) in 1624.”

    The fact is, Reason was King to the Deists. Locke’s close friend Anthony Collins believed any doctrine should be judged by reason.

    “Christianity as Old as the Creation: Or, The Gospel, a Republication of the
    Religion of Nature, by Matthew Tindal Most English deists downplayed the tensions between their rational theology and that of traditional Christianity. Anthony Collins clamed that “freethinking” in religion was not only a natural right but also a biblically enjoined duty. Matthew Tindal, the author of Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730)—the “Bible of Deism”—argued that the religion of nature was recapitulated in Christianity, and the purpose of the Christian revelation was to free men from superstition. Tindal insisted that he was a Christian deist, as did Thomas Chubb who revered Christ as a divine moral teacher but held that reason, not faith, was the final arbiter of religious belief.”

    “The flame that Paine sparked was fanned by his good friend Elihu Palmer. A former Baptist minister, Palmer traveled along the Atlantic seaboard lecturing audiences large and small about the truths of natural religion as well as the absurdities of revealed Christianity and the clerical priestcraft that supported them. A skilled biblical casuist, Palmer exposed the irrationality of Christianity and its debased moral principles in Principles of Nature (1801)…Palmer spread the word in two deist newspapers he edited, The Temple of Reason (1800–1801) and The Prospect (1803–1805). By the time he died in 1806, Palmer had founded deist societies in several cities including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.”

    As to the Founding Fathers, we must not make the error of judging someone based on works, as Frazer appears to do. Yes, works are an indicator of faith, however, faith is what God looks at, and that can only be taken from their words. If works were the basis of our position, no one would get into heaven.

    Yes, Morris’ actions were not Christian, but no one can judge him, because no one knows the heart. Morris claimed to be a Christian, and slayed Reason, thus, it is possible Morris took communion.

  10. Heidegger says:

    Case closed, Founders were passionate Christians. And Unitarianism meant something entirely different back in the 1700s-1800. Below, are denunciations of Paine’s, The Age of Reason. There is not a single word, sentence, paragraph that could conclusively prove that a single Founding Father was an atheist. Samuel Adams arguing before the Supreme Court the Vidal vs. Girard regarding proposals to build an atheistic school in Philadelphia:
    “Both in the Old and New Testaments its importance [viz., the religious instruction of youth] is recognized. In the Old it is said, “Thou shalt diligently teach them to thy children,” and in the New, “Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not . . . .” No fault can be found with Girard for wishing a marble college to bear his name for ever, but it is not valuable unless it has a fragrance of Christianity about it.”
    John Adams was firmly against the Bible being removed from schools:
    ” Religion and virtue are the only foundations . . . of republicanism and of all free governments.”

    Unitarianism as defined in 1825 in the Theological Dictionary and Channing:
    “Religion and virtue are the only foundations . . . of republicanism and of all free governments.”

    And the Unitarians in their own words from a pamphlet, “Why Do You Attend a Unitarian Church”
    “Because the Unitarians reject all human creeds and articles of faith, and strictly adhere to the great Protestant principle, “the Bible — the Bible only;” admitting no standard of Christian truth, nor any rule of Christian practice, but the words of the Lord Jesus and his Apostles. . . .
    Because at the Unitarian Church I hear Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, preached as the Christ, the son of the living God. . . .
    Because Unitarians teach the doctrine of “the true grace of God.” — His unmerited, unpurchased favor to mankind, — that salvation and eternal life are his free gifts through Jesus Christ; which is clearly the doctrine of Scripture . . . .
    Because there the crucified Jesus is exalted, as having attained his high dignity and glory, and His appointment to be the Saviour and Judge of the world. . . .
    Because there the necessity.”

    Thomas Jefferson:
    The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man:
    1. That there is one only God, and He all perfect.
    2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
    3. That to love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.…

    Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.

    John Adams: “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue equity and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel, rogue] Paine say what he will.”

    “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God…. What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be.”

    Ben Franklin:
    “I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that . . . the consequence of printing this piece will be a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits into the wind, spits in his own face. But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? . . . [T]hink how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue . . . . I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person . . . . If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it? I intend this letter itself as proof of my friendship”

    In a letter to Jefferson:
    “The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite….And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: . . . Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.”

    Done. Finished. Case closed. Founders were decidedly, indisputably, Christian.

  11. Jon Rowe says:


    It all depends on what the term “Christian” means. That’s what’s “disputed.” Simply calling yourself one? Fine. Almost all, including Jefferson and J. Adams, were all Christians like Obama is a Christian because he calls himself one.

    The “rational Christianity” of Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, Washington, Madison rejected among other things, original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation and the infallibility of the Bible.

    To the “orthodox” back then and today, this isn’t “Christianity” but some “other” religion. Gregg Frazer has termed it “theistic rationalism.” But it seems some kind of theological unitarianism. I kind of like Christian-unitarian-universalism.

  12. Heidegger says:

    Hi Jon–so glad you replied–this is clearly your area of expertise (and music). I was always under the (mis?) understanding you were of the school that the majority of the Founders were borderline atheists, or Deists, at best. And how about the Unitarian’s pamphlet, “An answer to the question, “Why Do You Attend a Unitarian Church?” Found that very interesting and certainly much different than how
    Unitarianism is understood and practiced today. As always, I defer to your encyclopedic knowledge of this subject.
    Hey, almost went to your music school there in Boston. Auditioned, but decided to go to the NEC—was seriously bitten by the music bug in high school–the classical music bug so that’s the avenue I pursued. Berklee is certainly a great music school but my tastes were still stuck in the 16th-19th music styles–still are, but absolutely love jazz, good rock, ragtime (used to play ragtime in ice cream parlors in the Boston area–for survival!), some country, well, just about everything. I’ve always wondered, how to top rock bands play with such metronomic rhythmic precision? I mean, I’ve tested and tested them, and it’s almost always perfect. Amazing.

  13. Heidegger says:

    NEC as in New England Conservatory. Just blocks from Berklee.

  14. nadezhda says:

    @ OFT — To clarify. All I was saying was that your quote from Morris would have been perfectly comfortable in the mouth of an early 18thC English deist. But it also could have been said by an orthodox Christian. So it’s neither here nor there as “proof” that Morris was or was not deistic. Which is also the case with many of the “proofs” Frazer assembles.

    Happily, you’ve provided useful illustrations of precisely the distinction I was making about early English versus later radical deism. Your examples show that Morris could have imbibed lots of deistic and heterodox thought and not personally subscribed to the 39 Articles, but still, like many of the early deists, thought of himself as Christian and had no qualms about taking communion. So again, that he went to church on Sunday and took communion indicates that he was comfortable with Christianity culturally but tells us nothing about the content of his beliefs. And we can draw the same (lack of) conclusion about his familiarity with and use of scriptural references.

    Your quotes from Tindal et al. show how the early English deists differ from the sort of late 18thC deism of Paine and the Radical Enlightement. Although, btw, I think the author you quote treating Herbert of Cherbury as the source of The Deist “Creed” is misleading. As a quite heterogenous group, free-thinkers were far from creedal, and I don’t see all that many being inspired by H of C directly. There was a whole lot more going on as part of what Popkin calls the crise Pyrrhonique by the 1690s when the major hysterical clerical reaction to alleged Socinian-deistic-atheistic heresies explodes in print in England. The deists drew on lots of sources, and the Anglo-Dutch links over the course of the 2nd half of the 17thC are extremely important. In addition, the deist controversialists who published differed among themselves on many points. Some tried to articulate a new “system,” with noteworthy lack of success. Others rejected systematic theology and mostly wanted to prune away ancient errors, priestcraft, superstition and enthusiasm to get to what they believed were universal moral and religious principles endorsed by reason, the ancients and the gospels.

    Anyway, the simple point is that if Frazer is going to try to locate someone like Morris vis a vis “deism” and orthodox Christianity, I think he’s made an unfortunate methodological choice to lump together as “deism” (1) the native Anglo-American free-thinking tradition of the so-called Conservative Enlightenment (heavily empiricist) with which Anglo-American orthodox controversialists engaged, and (2) what emerges by the end of the 18thC, especially on the Continent, in the Radical Enlightenment (heavily rationalist). In other words, Paine and his friend Palmer as “deists” were more aberrations, or extremes, than prime examples in the Anglo-American free-thinking tradition. So comparing Morris to Paine doesn’t get us or Frazer very far in considering the modes of religiosity of the founding generation.

    Now for your other points. You keep reciting “reason was King” as if Morris’ abhorence of the French deifying Reason proves he wasn’t deistic. But that ignores the crucial difference between the empiricists and rationalists, which is a chasm that runs across 17thC-18thC philosophy (metaphysics, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, theology, etc.) It’s at the heart of the whole Newtonian-Cartesian battles.

    Though the English deists rejected revelation for its truth claims, as empiricists they were extremely modest about what truths reason could help us reach. Reason was not King for them. They worshiped an unknowable, omnipotent God. I repeat, to put Reason in place of the Creator as an object of worship, as Morris describes with horror the French had done, would be literally blasphemy for the early English deists. The deists would be the first to want to “slay” the false idol of exalted Reason. Indeed, part of their critique of complex theological thought, whether the Schoolmen or the Calvinists, was that it was an abuse of reason: a symptom of Man’s hubris, putting man-made chimerical inventions ahead of God. All of Morris’ negative reactions to the French — both the French worship of Reason and the attacks on traditional piety — are not only consistent with orthodox Christianity, they’re consistent with early English deism. So it proves nothing other than Morris wasn’t a radical deist, which is no great surprise.

    I want to clarify what I’m suggesting about the influence of Lockean empiricism on Anglo-American free-thought and heterodoxies. It doesn’t matter whether Morris was taught the Two Treatises or the Letter on Toleration or the Reasonableness of Christianity. Even if Morris wasn’t taught the Essay, which was the most widely read of Locke’s works for much of the century after his death, the epistemology of the Essay had a massive influence on everything written in England after it appeared in 1690. Everyone had to engage with Lockean principles, such as the lack of innate ideas, even when they weren’t addressing his writings directly. If students read about and responded to Newton or to reactions to Descartes, they were in effect studying Lockean empiricism. If they read any of the English and Scottish moral philosophers of the 18thC, they were in part studying Locke and the development of and reactions to his epistemology and psychology, even if Locke was never mentioned directly in the text. You couldn’t be part of the Anglo-American educated elite and escape the influence of Lockean empiricism.

    Finally, I agree with your point (which I take it KoI shares) that trying to define Morris’ religion by his “works” is unhelpful. Morris’ behavior does raise the obvious question of whether he drew on sources in addition to Christianity for his personal moral code, especially given how influential Greco-Roman philosophy was for gentlemen of his era. It’s an avenue of inquiry which I think Frazer ignores to the detriment of his analysis of what I think is an unfortunate term, “theistic rationalism”.

  15. Jon Rowe says:

    “you were of the school that the majority of the Founders were borderline atheists, or Deists, at best.”

    No that’s not me. I take the “balanced” approach. No doubt the Unitarian Churches of the early 19th Cen. and the “unitarian” preachers (who tended to preach in churches connected to orthodox creeds, while not believing in those creeds — how they threaded that needle is an interesting story in and of itself) of the mid-late 18th Cen. were more traditionally religious than today’s UUs are. They believed in a Providential God, that Jesus was Messiah and had their own unorthodox, “reasoned” interpretation of the Bible as God’s Word revealed to man. However to the “orthodox” that still wasn’t and isn’t good enough. To today’s orthodox, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t “Christians.” To the orthodox of the 18th & 19th Cen. the Unitarians’ “rational Christianity” was little better than Deism.

  16. Jon Rowe says:

    NEC is a great school. I haven’t been in Boston since I graduated in ’95, but I remember it like yesterday. We shared the Back Bay/Symphony Hall geographic region. What instrument do you play?

    Re rock musicians and time, it might be you are listening to recordings that were done with a click track or tinkered with in the studio.

    I don’t know. Maybe it’s because percussionists are used to following a conductor or doing so much pushing and pulling with the time as part of the “phrasing” of the piece. That’s actually a sophistication that is lost on most rock bands (and many jazz bands as well) because of the lack of a conductor. “Keeping time” is more important.

    My old guitar teacher was a classical and a jazz musician. Classical music almost ruined him for jazz for this exact reason. He hated all of the drummers he worked with because they tended to keep straight time but he wanted the drummer to “phrase” the piece like he felt it should play. Only when a jazz band has a conductor can that issue really be nipped in the bud.

  17. Heidegger says:

    Well Jon, so much for me settling once and for all, the “Christian” Founders true religion! You stated that the mid-18th-19th Cen. UUs believed Jesus was the Messiah but in the previous post, said Adams, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, rejected the incarnation. There seems to be a contradiction, but then again, maybe they weren’t committed Unitarians although I’m constantly reading they were–must be missing something crucial. Do you ever get the feeling, regarding this subject that if someone wants to find the Founders, Deists, Theists, Atheists, Unitarians, Rational Christians, Transcendentalists, you name it, they’ll find it—there are just enough vagaries and contradictions within their writings that they can be identified as being, theologically, a member of any number of Christian sects.

    Oh yes, Boston is a great town to study music–especially where our schools were located. Used to love to go to the Friday afternoon BSO concerts–rush seats would go for a $1—and Ozawa would frequently bring down the house, especially with Mahler. Piano was my instrument of study and obsession. When I was young kid, my older brother built a clavichord and a harpsichord–that was it, a keyboard addiction for life! Absolutely LOVE the classical guitar though–just picked up a recording of the Bach partitas and sonatas played on an 8-string guitar–guitarist by the name of Paul Galbraith–it’s just extraordinary–never heard them played more beautifully. He has some interesting ideas about Bach’s obsession with numbers, numerology, Christ’s passion, uh-oh, there we go again—would be happy to send you a copy if you’re interested. And, when in Boston, never missed a chance to see Julian Bream or John Williams (the guitarist not the “ET” guy)—sometimes they gave solo concerts and other times, played together–either way, always phenomenal, incredible playing.

    Didn’t think of the recording studio playing such a role in getting the timing perfect–that must be the answer. Great description of conductors “pushing and pulling” with time–exactly what they do but never heard it expressed like that. Bravo!

  18. “They believed in a Providential God, that Jesus was Messiah and had their own unorthodox, “reasoned” interpretation of the Bible as God’s Word revealed to man”

    There we go Jon. Best statement you have made on that yet. They had their own interpretation. But lets remind ourselves that Unitarian belief(simialar to Arianism) was a prominent belief in history, Many people in history rejected original sin, and many believed in Universalism(Including Origen)

    It is not like these ideas came out of nowhere. It is a different approach to the Bible not throwing it out. Now Jefferson was a whole new thing in actually cutting parts out. He was well on his way to French land where they just burned it.

  19. OFT says:

    “@ OFT — To clarify. All I was saying was that your quote from Morris would have been perfectly comfortable in the mouth of an early 18thC English deist.”

    What you’re saying is connected directly to what Frazer is saying. Not that English Deists thought that Reason was a god, but they believed man’s reason was King. It ruled over the Bible. It is possible if Morris was a Deist, that he would have objected what the French did, however, more study needs to be done on exactly what kind of god the French worshipped.

    Are you claiming rationalists believed reason was a god? If this is the case, no Founding Father was a rationalist, because John Adams called Benjamin Franklin a rationalist.

    Though the English deists rejected revelation for its truth claims, as empiricists they were extremely modest about what truths reason could help us reach. Reason was not King for them.>

    I disagree. To Palmer, Paine, and TJ, reason was King. To them, there was no supernatural violations of the laws of nature. The Deists combined reason with Christianity, and took God out of the process; thus, the watchmaker god. This is why they could cherry pick what they liked about Christian morality, and use it in their creed.

    The university curricullum was clear, if they taught Locke, which King’s College did not, he was taught while not contradicting Orthodox Christianity. Even Harvard, which didn’t get rid of the Puritan David Tappan till 1803, taught Unitarianism from inerrancy.

  20. “The Deists combined reason with Christianity, and took God out of the process;”

    Why does applying reason take God out of it? Most of them believed in intuitive reason that was God given. What Aquinas called general revelation. This was not the same as discursive or intellectual reason that is apart from God. If we do not understand that they we can get confused what they are saying.

  21. OFT says:

    Deists believed in the clockmaker god, that winds up the clock and let’s it go without interfering. An impersonal god. That’s all I mean by leaving God out of it. Morris did not believe that. He believed in God’s personal involvement in man’s affairs, which would include miracles.

    I think reason is reason, that there is no difference. Man uses his reason to understand General Revelation (Creation) is from God, and reason in my mind what is prudent in certain situations is also from God. God made my mind and planted that discernment within me. I don’t see a difference.

  22. Locke thought that we had a blank slate at very least in regards to discursive reason. Some think that he thought we had a blank slate in regards to intuitive reason as well.

  23. OFT says:

    According to experts on Locke, he was heterodox in his views. He didn’t believe in Original Sin, and its imputation to mankind. That obviously skewed his mind as to the blank slate. He could be right, but I doubt it. The Gospel is clear, especially in Romans 2 and 3, that sin is imputed to us, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.

    I don’t think that imputation would leave our minds a blank slate. It could, but I don’t know.

    Back to Morris. If he believed in providence, he wasn’t a Deist, and he wasn’t a rationalist either, since he believed in the supernatural. What is the alternative?

  24. Locke no doubt discounted original sin. If Genesis is an allegory, and even Augustine was open to that, then that doctrine is on a slippery slope. Locke did believe in man as fallen but that he was only punished for his own sins. I think he thought that enough of the remnant of the image of God remained for man to progress if he used the right reason that was written on his heart at birth.

  25. “I don’t think that imputation would leave our minds a blank slate. It could, but I don’t know. ”

    You are talking about Christians infused with God’s spirit. Locke is talking about people from birth. My tenative take, until I read more, is that Locke believed in an intuitive reason that was written on man’s heart by God and that he was born with a blank slate are far as discursive reason. Sin messes up the link between the two. If that makes sense. Complicated stuff for sure.

  26. Levi Nicolls says:

    If you would look at this website, I do not think that you quote enough of Gouverneur’s actual work, His “immorality” is a complete lie, if as is obvious if you have actually read his work, how can he be disgusted at France’s immorality and depravity if according too you he does the same, your logic is incorrect, and your conclusion is more so, Morris was not a theist, a theist believes in God, but that he left and does not interfere with us anymore, but if i may quote from something
    In a letter to George Washington dated June 25, 1793; he expressed his hope that Washington would seek reelection.
    “It will be time enough for you to have a successor, when it shall please God to call you from this world’s theater.”

    A theist would not say something like that, a theist would say something more to the tune of providence or fate. but Not God.

    So, as i said in the beginning, if you would take a look at this website.

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