[This was originally written in 2008.]
Richard Price, a British Unitarian Whig, profoundly influenced the American Founding. He was like an Arian version of his friend the Socinian Joseph Priestley. Price’s religious views were probably one small step closer to traditional Christianity than were Priestley’s. However, Price rejected enough of traditional Christianity (notably the Trinity) to make his views quite controversial for the late 18th Century.
Price, like Priestley, corresponded with and was highly respected by many American Founders. Relatedly, over the years I have described a dynamic folks sympathetic to a “Christian America” reading of history skeptically receive: In the late 18th Century virtually all of the established churches adhered to orthodox Trinitarian creeds; yet, many of America’s Founders privately disbelieved in the creeds to which their churches held. This made them closeted or semi-closeted unitarian heretics. This was without question the case with J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. And most likely with Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Hamilton, Marshall and many others.
So how was it that these notable Founders came to reject their churches’ official orthodox doctrines? They were influenced by heretical unitarian theologians, many of whom were ministers of Christian Churches, and whose ideas powerfully influenced the late 18th century Whig-republican zeitgeist. Richard Price and Joseph Priestley were the two most notable British Whig unitarian theologians who were contemporaries of America’s Founders. On the American side, Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy are notable examples. And from the early “Whig” era in Britain, John Locke, Samuel Clarke, and Isaac Newton were at least purportedly closeted unitarian heretic theologians. Given the latter three faced potential execution (like Michael Servetus) for “coming out” they left fewer “smoking guns” to prove their unitarianism (and it was officially a crime to publicly deny the Trinity in Great Britain until 1813). But unitarians from the mid 18th century onward claimed Clarke, Locke, and Newton, and for good reason.
America’s Founders viewed these figures — Locke, Newton, Clarke, Priestley, Price, Mayhew, Chauncy (and others) — as philosophical giants. And as such, we should understand how, modeling them, so many Founding Fathers came to believe in the unitarian heresies, contrary to the teachings of their churches to which they officially or nominally belonged. These figures were like Abbie Hoffmans of their day — quite popular in elite circles, less so among the masses. Figures like Mayhew and Chauncy who were more popular among the masses tended not to openly preach about their unitarianism, but didn’t lie to their congregants either; they threaded the needle by simply not discussing the Trinity and related doctrines in their sermons. And this was exactly John Locke’s strategy. But, rumors (which turned out to be true) abounded.
To illustrate this dynamic, a parishioner once said to a notable Founding era secret unitarian minister: “Dr. Barnard, I never heard you preach a sermon upon the Trinity.” And he replied: “And you never will.”
Yet, the orthodox who retained much social, institutional, and at the state level legal power viewed unitarianism as a soul damning heresy at best, downright infidelity at worst! Hence, the need to tread carefully when positing unitarian doctrines. Hence some founders like Washington, Madison and Hamilton carefully guarding their religious secrets and leaving little evidence of their religious specifics during an era when public figures were expected to pay homage to Trinitarianism.
Price and Priestley are notable in that they were among the first theological unitarians to come out of the closet publicly and preach the unitarian heresies — Arianism in Price’s case, Socinianism in Priestley’s. And they were highly respected by America’s Founders for it.
Priestley served as a spiritual mentor to Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin. And his son recounted that that “his lectures were attended by very crowded audiences, including most of the members of the Congress of the United States at that time assembled at Philadelphia, and of the executive offices of the government of the United States.”
– Joseph Priestley, Jr., A Continuation of the Memoirs of Dr. Joseph Priestley (Written by his Son Joseph Priestley), in John T. Boyer, ed., The Memoirs of Joseph Priestley, at 144 (Washington, D.C.: Barcroft Press, 1964).
Richard Price maintained friendly correspondence and personal interaction with Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Rush and others. Carl B. Cone in an article entitled “Richard Price and the Constitution of the United States” published in The American Historical Review, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Jul., 1948), pp. 726-747, documents Price’s profound influence on the American Founding. In particular, pages 732 and 733 chart the Founding Fathers who subscribed to Price’s publication entitled “Sermons on the Christian doctrine as received by the different denominations of Christians.” Among that list are eleven delegates to the Constitutional Convention including Franklin, Hamilton and Washington. Washington, who had nothing but praise for Price’s work, ordered 4 copies! Now, this is not to say that every subscriber held to Price’s Arian religious views. Rather, simply to show how profoundly influential his heterodox religious views were in elite Founding era circles.
Washington, Hamilton and Franklin, for instance, likely possessed religious views far more heterodox, less traditionally Christian, than Price’s Arianism. Washington, for instance, far less often than Price appealed to the Bible as authority (Washington actually was never recorded so doing, though he like everyone else during that era, including Paine, made biblical allusions) and hardly ever discussed Jesus by name or person. Washington’s 1783 Circular to the States, not written in his hand (and one of only two times Washington was officially recorded referring to Jesus by name or person), refers to “the Divine Author of our blessed Religion,” a reference to Jesus Christ that is consistent with both Trinitarianism and Price’s militant Arianism that saw Jesus as a Divine but created and subordinate being. (It may well be consistent with Socinianism that saw Jesus as 100% human, not divine at all, but on a divine mission.)
Indeed Price, the fervent Arian he was, unequivocally supported the sentiments of Washington’s 1783 Circular, writing he was “animated more than he can well express by General Washington’s excellent circular letter to the united states.”
Part II will examine Rev. Price’s “Sermons on the Christian doctrine as received by the different denominations of Christians” that Washington was so interested in that he received four copies.