In 1822, Thomas Jefferson was enjoying a quiet retirement at his beloved Monticello. His family troubles gave him sleepless nights but he found solace in his correspondence and, as always, in his books. The former president’s mind turned over Virginia’s politics, the state of the young American republic, and his plans for the new University of Virginia. Jefferson also experienced something of a religious awakening and became a convinced Unitarian in his last years.

Ever introspective, Jefferson thought at length about religion, especially the relative compatibility of various religious groups with what he firmly hoped would remain a liberal society. He never seemed to like historic Christianity, which he believed had been perverted at the end of the third century by Athanasius’ articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Jefferson preferred “Primitive” Christianity, in which Jesus was not God, there was no Trinity, and the church did not exercise any civil or social power. One Christian group in the United States appeared to him especially committed to each of those hated dogmas: Calvinists.

Jefferson and his relationship to Calvinism seem worth revisiting in light of the ongoing conversation regarding Christianity and the civil order among conservative Christian intellectuals. Recently on Twitter Sohrab Ahmari, a former Neo-Conservative journalist who recently converted to Roman Catholicism, tweeted that Mark David Hall’s new book, Did America Have a Christian Founding? represented a half-hearted attempt to maintain Christian politics in the United States, which he termed, “burning incense to the Founders.” Ahmari was responding to a quote from a Hillsdale PhD student, Tom Tacoma, in Tacoma’s review of Hall’s book. Tacoma said that Hall dispelled “many contemporary myths concerning religion and the founding. Let us finally be done with false claims that the founders were deists, or that they were hostile to religion and wanted to exclude it from public life.”

Tacoma is mostly correct. Hall does an admirable job of dispelling the contrived notion that the American Revolution was a sort of largely deistic enterprise. But is the reconciliation of Jefferson’s Declaration and what Straussians identify as the “Founding” all there is to the story?

Increasingly there is a cartoonish rendering of Protestant political thought that associates Protestantism with a liberal historical trajectory, and Roman Catholicism—or at least “liturgy”—with conservatism. The truth is far more complicated. In the Early Republic, Calvinism, not Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism, appeared to Jefferson to be the religious persuasion most at odds with liberalism.[1]

Since his election in 1800, Jefferson believed that Calvinists represented a return to European conservatism. The prospect of Calvinists—Congregationalists in New England, Presbyterians in the Middle Atlantic and South, and a smattering of evangelical Anglicans—exercising civil, political, or social influence in federal politics horrified the Deistic Virginian. His later embrace of Unitarianism in fact allowed him to continue his loathing of historic Christian teaching like the Trinity that he found so essential to Calvinism. Both Deists and Unitarians found the divinity of Christ and associated doctrines–the Virgin birth and the Incarnation–revolting. Jefferson’s fear of the Calvinists was not without reason.

The orthodox scions of New England Puritanism, far from being individualists or liberals, remained traditional conservatives into the nineteenth century. Timothy Dwight IV, son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards, president of Yale College, and a staunchly conservative Calvinist, saw Jefferson’s election as the advent of French revolutionary Jacobinism in the North American republic. “The great object of Jacobinism,” he warned after Jefferson defeated John Adams, “both in its political and moral revolution, is to destroy every trace of civilization in the world, and to force mankind back into a savage state.”

Dwight bewailed the advent of Jeffersonian politics and opined that the United States had “now reached the consummation of democratic blessedness. We have a country governed by blockheads and knaves.” He despaired that “the ties of marriage with all its felicities” had been “severed and destroyed” by the coming Republican order. “Our wives and daughters are thrown into the stews; our children are cast into the world from the breast and forgotten.” The very structure of the family seemed under attack. “Filial piety is extinguished, and our surnames, the only mark of distinction among families, are abolished. Can the imagination paint anything more dreadful on this side of hell?”[2]

Jefferson scoffed at Calvinist intransigence. He hated Calvin for many reasons, but he held an especially impassioned loathing for the French Reformer’s throaty trinitarianism and the doctrine of election. Calvin, in Jefferson’s reading of history, represented the clearest intellectual successor to the medieval Christian order he despised. He compared what he called the “simple” doctrines of Jesus—his phrase for Unitarianism—with “the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.” Jefferson objected to the mysticism and anti-rationalism of Calvinism. He believed that Calvin was an enemy to reason.

Jefferson despised the Calvinist obsession with the incomprehensible nature of the divine. He called Athanasius and Calvin “impious dogmatists” and “false shepherds.” Athanasius’ and Calvin’s “blasphemies” drove “thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him.”

If the doctrines of Jesus had been preached “always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.” Jefferson rejoiced “that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving.” That genuine doctrine was Unitarianism, and Jefferson trusted

“that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian. But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama; that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren. Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor.”

Calvinism, Jefferson feared, heralded the reclamation of the medieval imagination that he believed benighted the world for one thousand years.[3]

Jefferson need not have worried about Virginia. The changes made to the Westminster Confession in 1789 took the last serious teeth out of Calvinist political theology, and most serious Protestants in the Commonwealth saw disestablishment as prudential, if not good. New Englanders and the occasional Carolinian remained more circumspect.

Ultimately, however, all forms of western Christianity struggled to define their relationship to liberalism. There were and are Calvinist conservatives and Calvinist liberals, Anglican conservatives and Anglican liberals, as well as Roman Catholic conservatives and Roman Catholic liberals.

But in a time such as our own when Protestantism is seen as being inherently liberal and Catholicism as the only refuge for Christians who see catastrophic problems with the classical liberal order, it is worth remembering this history. History is far more complicated than we realize, and we might avoid contrived and ultimately ahistorical insinuations about other faith traditions by taking the time to read them in charity and sobriety.

Footnotes

  1. Jefferson, of course, was hardly the only Enlightenment philosopher to feel this way: Recall that Rousseau, tired of the conservative Calvinistic Geneva traveled to progressive Paris to interact with enlightenment luminaries, which in the 1770s consisted mostly of heterodox or apostate Roman Catholics.
  2. Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson Vol. 1, 225
  3. Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Waterhouse, 19 July 1822 in Paul Leicester Ford Ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson Vol. 10., 221

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

Posted by Miles Smith

Dr. Miles Smith IV is a historian of the American South and native Carolinian. Follow him on Twitter @ivmiles.

  • hoosier_bob

    I think it’s hard to suggest that there was anything resembling a consistent theme that religion played in the American colonies from the late 1760s to the 1810s. It’s clear that deism played little role in the Constitutional government that formed in 1787. It’s probably more accurate to say that the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment shaped the young Republic. Even so, because such ideas tend to draw from ethical realism (as opposed to ethical idealism), they are not altogether unfriendly to the secular thought of utilitarianism and pragmatism that have come to dominate how elites think.

    I’d suggest that three of the four folk ways set forth in Albion’s Seed still govern many of the tensions that play out in the US. Today’s progressives are ethical idealists of a more collectivist bent, not unlike the Puritans. Today’s elites (technocrats) tend to be ethical realists of a pragmatic bent, not unlike the Princetonian way that prevailed in the middle colonies. Today’s conservatives tend to operate by a kind of clan loyalty indicative of the backcountry settlers. Jefferson’s ethical idealist individualism barely exists any longer.

    In that sense, our country has evolved along the lines of three different embodiments of Calvinism. Jefferson’s ethically idealist individualism was largely quashed by the industrial revolution.

    That said, those who make much of the role of religion in the early Republic often do so in a way that overplays the role of evangelical Protestantism. Evangelicalism is largely a product of the backcountry folk Christianity. The Calvinism of the Puritans and Princetonians has largely evolved into secular embodiments. For example, an agnostic like George Will is a better reflection of Madisonian Presbyterianism than Ben Sasse.

    In my view, the cultural tensions we currently face come down to the question of what role clan loyalty should play in our civic order. That, after all, is the big take home from Philip Rieff’s work. That goes a long way in explaining why white evangelicals have a hard time objecting to Trump. Trump may be a charlatan, but he’s their charlatan. I often read Dreher’s blog. I’m unconvinced that Dreher’s true objections are religious in nature, or that they have anything to do with the “sexual revolution.” Dreher’s true objection is the fact that a globalizing world is forcing the Princetonian calculus on places that, until the late 20th century, were still governed by some form of clan-based ethics. The emergence of mass media, easy travel, and large-scale non-white immigration have done what the Constitution and a Civil War could not do. I grew up in a part of Indiana that is effectively part of the Upland South. When I was growing up there, it was very clear that clan loyalty was the principal ethic on the ground. If you wanted to get things done, you had to work through a kind of feudal culture whose rules were only transparent to those who’d grown up in that place. But, as is the case in many developing countries, the displacement of clan-based ethics didn’t usher in a glorious era shaped by the “rule of law.” No. Social chaos ensued instead. My once-fine hometown is a blighted wasteland marked by widespread unemployment and opioid abuse.

    I no longer identify as an evangelical, although I do identify as a Calvinist (in the old Princetonian sense, at least). In fact, I no longer see evangelicalism principally as a religious movement. At its root, it’s a social protest movement against the post-1960s disappearance of clan-based ethics from communities whose historic identity owes more to the Appalachian backcountry than to anything Puritan or Princetonian.

    There is no single Calvinism. It’s taken on a number of different embodiments In different places and times. I suspect that Jefferson was primarily railing against the Puritan and Princetonian varieties that would eventually come to destroy his agrarian vision for America. I’m not sure what Jefferson would think of the social populist variants of Calvinism that have come to shape post-WWII evangelicalism. And this is where Hall’s thesis falls off the tracks. Modern evangelical Calvinism, of the Gospel Coalition variety, has barely any historic continuity to Puritanism or Princetonianism. Efforts to tie it to the Reformation are hagiographic, at best, and dishonest, at worst. At its core, it’s the folk religion of the Appalachian backcountry. It borrows from elements of historic Christianity, but in a somewhat syncretistic and selective way. One need look no further than the notions of “biblical manhood” that represent the central core of its sociological identity. Is it a mere accident that such notions mirror those of the clan culture of the Ulster Plantation, and which were later popularized in entertainment? Was St. Paul really channeling John Wayne when he penned his epistles? Of course not. Thus, Hall’s thesis fails because it reflects a kind of false dichotomy. Yes, the secularist narrative that paints the Founders as deists is inaccurate. But that hardly means that the Founders were forerunners of post-WWII evangelical Christianity. They are, in fact, forerunners of modern-day secularism, but not in the way modern secularists explicitly acknowledge. Whether they admit it or not, progressives and pragmatists stand in a long line of Calvinists. They preach a Calvinist gospel scoured of language that would identify its Calvinist origins. By contrast, evangelicals, in the main, preach a backcountry folk religion scoured of the language that would identify its pre-Christian pagan origins. There is a middle space where these themes cross paths (e.g., Tim Keller’s project). So, they’re not entirely distinct. But that slight blurring hardly validates Hall’s thesis.

    • acblogger7

      And what’s your take on the coming (bordering on present) age of neo-paganism?

      • hoosier_bob

        I don’t have a take on that question. I haven’t spent much time thinking about it.

  • hoosier_bob

    To sum up what I wrote in a longer comment…

    I find myself agreeing with Ahmari criticism here. Hall’s premise is correct. Most of the Founders indeed possessed a reasonably cogent sense of Christian conviction. Even so, Hall errs in concluding that modern-day conservative Protestants are the heirs of that heritage. But that simply doesn’t follow with the socio-cultural genealogy. The dominant religious view that shaped the Founding is a brand of Presbyterianism that was influenced by Scottish common-sense realism whose modern-day analogue is the technocratic pragmatism embraced by elites. After all, Scottish common-sense realism laid much of the groundwork for utilitarianism, consequentialism, and pragmatism. By contrast, evangelicalism emerged out of fundamentalism, which arose as a rejection of the epistemic and ethical realism that underwrote the Scottish Enlightenment, utilitarianism, consequentialism, and pragmatism.

    So, yes, the Founders were mostly Christian, but their Christianity is probably more like that of Marilynne Robinson than that of Al Mohler.

  • acblogger7

    Very good food for thought. I knew that Jefferson was no fan of Calvin. The potential repercussions for American then and now are especially noteworthy.

    • acblogger7

      I’m not saying America had to follow some Puritan code. But Jefferson’s brand of Unitarian belief is coming to full fruition. When accommodation trumps a universal standard of morality & moral absolutes, don’t be surprised when deep state luciferians take over. There are ultimately only 2 ways this can go. Middle grounds can only be sustained for so long , eventually the whole thing goes south.

  • acblogger7

    As a Calvinist these observations are both sobering and fascinating all at once. How do Calvinists/Presbyterian & Reformed Christians cope with an American system of free thought based in Jeffersonian progressivism with (il)logical conclusions that have led us where we find ourselves today? How do we maintain the American values we hold dear when they’ve ultimately turned on us? This is the fatal outcome of a type of freedom facilitated by men ’living’ in spiritual bondage.

    • hoosier_bob

      The meaning of “Jeffersonian progressivism” is unclear to me. Jefferson favored a kind of agrarian individualism. By “Calvinism” I take Jefferson to be referring to the centralizing anti-agrarian policies promoted by both the Puritan Calvinists in New England and the Princetonian Calvinists in the middle colonies (and, in Virginia, to a lesser extent). Those forms of Calvinism, though prevalent in the decades following the founding, morphed into a kind of Calvinist polity that has dropped the sectarian language of Calvinism in favor of a pluralist order. The dominant form of Calvinism that we see today is more akin to the religious impulses of backcountry settlers. Patrick Henry was the only Founder who possessed such religious impulses, and he was marginalized after he opposed the ratification of the Constitution. But this backcountry Calvinism was typically anti-federalist, and would seem to share Jefferson’s critique of the Puritans and Princetonians.

      • acblogger7

        “ His later embrace of Unitarianism in fact allowed him to continue his loathing of historic Christian teaching like the Trinity that he found so essential to Calvinism. Both Deists and Unitarians found the divinity of Christ and associated doctrines–the Virgin birth and the Incarnation–revolting. Jefferson’s fear of the Calvinists was not without reason.” Sounds pretty radically ‘progressive’ to me.

        • hoosier_bob

          What? Progressive is a term that refers to a particular type of political order, namely, one that has strong central authority. I don’t see what denial of the Trinity or the Virgin Birth has to do with that. By your criterion, every atheist is necessarily a progressive.

          The closest modern counterpart to Jefferson is probably Wendell Berry. For all intents and purposes, the Jeffersonian vision of America had died by the 1870s.

  • acblogger7

    I love the language of the Original, why must we capitulate to and accommodate unbelief? or a neutral view? The skeptic and the public official may be better off if our expectations remain Godly. Too much capitulation to Godlessness and unnatural order is a drain on Christian virtue outside the Church which ultimately finds it way in, and is at least as problematic as an unholy alliance between church and state. Both are equally detrimental and both have ushered in our current church/state.

    Original

    III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

    Amended

    iii. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.