Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Meeting Notes: January 18, 2012

"Religion and the Founding Fathers," John Fea

President Welsch reported that we have sixty-five dues paying members. Mark Groth and Charlotte Forrester are collecting dues for the new year. They are $15 per year. Bill said that he would like to see folks attend two or three meetings as a guest but then hopefully join our group at that point. He said you can pay cash tonight or bring a check or cash to our next meeting. Please don’t send your dues to Jerry Rudd at present.

He mentioned "Patriots of the American Revolution" magazine. For new subscriptions, if you subscribe through the club we make a little money in return.

Bill said that the board decided that we want to do something for preservation in some way.  Tonight’s book raffle proceeds will go into the preservation fund. He also elicited suggestions on how we should use preservation fund money. Great Bridge is a possible idea.

Other ideas and suggestions for the club are encouraged. Please get in touch with any member of the board.

John Millar gave an interesting historical report of when he and his wife decided to get the fifer license plates and then he brought a painting he had acquired and discussed the unique history of it.

Bill Welsch announced that Bruce Venter is conducting a Revolutionary War weekend conference on March 23 – 25, 2012 and encouraged folks to sign up for this.

Tonight’s presentation was by John Fea who is the head of the history department at Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania near Mechanicsburg. John does daily blogs on religion on the internet. This was one of our largest attended meetings.

John’s presentation was on his recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky 2011.

I think that we can all agree that this was a historical introduction to this topic and that we should all read the book and draw our own conclusions. 

Fea reported that Witherspoon was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.

He said that politically neither the left nor the right has a true understanding of the founding fathers and that both sides cherry pick the facts to fit their own agendas.

The book is a historical introduction and the founding is greatly used in politicized ways.  It has three parts.
1.       The idea that America is a Christian nation.
2.      The role of religion in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Articles of Confederation.
3.      A look at some of the founders and he concentrates on Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams and then goes on to discuss evangelical founders.

John’s presentation tonight focused on item 3.

John indicated that his book has received attack and praise from folks of every conceivable viewpoint. He said audiences would often come to his presentations with their minds already made up. John said the topic is much more complex than the nailing down of a definitive answer.

He said he tried to distinguish between the founders personal beliefs and their religious attitudes as perceived by the public.

What did the founders believe about the role of religion in society? We are hard pressed to find a unity among them. Ethan Allen was the only person he labeled clearly as a Deist. The founders were varied in their beliefs. He labeled Franklin and Jefferson as skeptics. Jefferson did not believe in the trinity and rejected many Christian concepts.

Benjamin Franklin donated money to every religious group in Philadelphia. When asked about his standing Franklin indicated that God will punish us and that His providence is absolutely essential. When questioned further, being of old age, Franklin said that he would soon know.

Sam Adams indicated that God allows us to drink and brew beer.

George Washington. John said he still can’t figure him out. He was a statesman, politician and a great military man. He rarely attended communion. He only mentioned Christ once and this was in talking with the native Americans. Martha was very devout and George would attend church with her. Nellie Custis would often take George home before the communion was offered. Still he was a very active vestryman but he rarely spoke about his religious beliefs.

One concept that held the founders together was that of Providence. This was a concept of a god who could intervene at times in human affairs  You could believe in Providence without necessarily being a Christian. John called this a middle belief.

He went on to define Deist. This was an 18th century concept that there was a God who created the world and then stepped away not intervening in human affairs. He said that we have to be very careful in calling any founding father a Deist.

At one point in the continental convention Ben Franklin called that we should pray. He was concerned about the whole process falling apart. There is 19th century historical text that Hamilton said we must reject Franklin’s stand here. Fea said this text was not true.

So John Fea that Franklin could certainly not be considered a Deist in the purest sense. George Washington made reference to Providence 277 times. All of the founders upheld a deep belief in religious freedom any way you saw fit as long as you were obeying the law.

Twelve of the thirteen states had strict requirements as to who could vote and run for office. An idea here in Virginia was to replace the Anglican church with complete religious freedom.  Patrick Henry thought that government should support a religion through taxation.

John Fea admitted the that the whole subject is full of irony after irony. 

All the founding fathers thought and embraced republicanism (small r).  Virtue was a political term meaning to sacrifice one’s own self interest. Religion was important to the establishment of a good society and essential for making us a good republic.

The Q and A session was extremely lively. John is currently working on a book about Presbyterianism in the American Revolution. On his last visit to us he spoke about his book
The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. When I searched for this exact title I came upon John’s blog which is quite interesting.

John Fea has the ability to make us think. We bought his book and plan to read it and know that many in attendance also purchased his book. I apologize for anything I misinterpreted in this summary.

Brent Morgan

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