American History According to WorldNutDaily
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Apr 14, 2008 at 12:42:08 AM EST
I wasn't going to write anything this weekend. It's been an extra crazy week in fighting the religious right, and I was going to take a day or two off. But then my friend Ed Brayton had to go and email me about the latest twisting of history on WorldNutDaily -- an article titled Misusing 'separation of church and state' by Christian nationalist history revisionist William Federer. This article contained a quote I'd never seen before, so, of course, I couldn't resist investigating it.
Most of Federer's assertions in this article about Thomas Jefferson are the standard Christian nationalist fare that I've addressed in previous posts here.

There's the lie about Jefferson granting land for religious purposes:

"The federal government was not limited, though, from spreading religion in Western territories, as April 26, 1802, Jefferson extended a 1787 act of Congress where lands were designated:

'For the sole use of Christian Indians and the Moravian Brethren missionaries for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity.'"

For the debunking of this one, see my book chapter, "Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen?," which I posted in its entirety while writing about H. Res. 888. Part one is in this post, and part two in this post.

There's the one about Jefferson's treaty with Kaskaskia Indians, which I addressed in my book review of Stephen Mansfield's Ten Tortured Words.

There's the one about Jefferson, who described Calvin's religion as "demonism," starting a "Calvanistical" church -- in a courthouse -- and, of course, one of many spins on Jefferson's life-long religious beliefs. In this article, Jefferson was an Anglican until he went to France, where, apparently, the infidels turned him into a "Deist-Christian," although later in life he was a "liberal Anglican" -- whatever that is.

Had this usual stuff been all that Federer wrote about, I would have ignored his article and taken my day off. But, there was one item that I'd never seen before -- a rare occurrence given the number of Christian nationalist history books and articles that I've had the "pleasure" to read over the years. My curiosity got the better of me, and I had to find out where his "new" quote came from.

According to Federer:

"Dolly [sic] Madison, wife of James Madison, reported that in 1774 Jefferson dined with Baptist Pastor Andrew Tribble at Monticello, where Jefferson commented that Baptist church government 'was the only form of pure democracy that exists in the world. ... It would be the best plan of government for the American colonies.'"

I'm not quite sure what Federer's point was in using this story. His somewhat disjointed article seems to be an effort to explain how the dissenting churches in Virginia led Jefferson to his "wall of separation" metaphor, while at the same time painting Jefferson as a Christian, with a few claims of Jefferson promoting religion as president thrown in for good measure. But, whatever Federer's point, his version of this story is a bit mixed up.

The story was first published less than two weeks after Jefferson's death, in the July 14, 1826 issue of a Boston newspaper, the Christian Watchman, with the title "Anecdote of Mr. Jefferson."

The article began:

"MR. EDITOR, -- The following circumstances, which occurred in the State of Virginia, relative to Mr. JEFFERSON, were detailed to me by Elder ANDREW TRIBBLE, about six years ago, who since died when ninety-two or three years old. The facts may interest some of your readers --

"ANDREW TRIBBLE was the Pastor of a small Baptist Church, which held its monthly meetings at a short distance from Mr. JEFFERSON'S house, eight or ten years before the American Revolution. Mr. JEFFERSON attended the meetings of the church for several months in succession, and after one of them, asked Elder TRIBBLE to go home and dine with him, with which he complied.

"Mr. TRIBBLE asked Mr. JEFFERSON how he was pleased with their Church Government? Mr. JEFFERSON replied, that it had struck him with great force, and had interested him much; that he considered it the only form of pure democracy that then existed in the world, and had concluded that it would be the best plan of Government for the American Colonies. This was several years before the declaration of American Independence. To what extent this practical exhibition of Religious Liberty and Equality operated on Mr. JEFFERSON'S mind, in forming his views and principles of religious and civil freedom, which were afterwards so ably exhibited, I will not say."(1)

So, right off the bat, Federer has the date wrong. If this conversation did take place, it was not in 1774. The original story says it occurred eight or ten years before the American Revolution. Dolley Madison doesn't get connected to this story until 1855, which I'll get to in a minute.

After appearing in the Christian Watchman in 1826, the story, which most sources attribute to Dr. James Fishback of Kentucky, was repeated in too many books to count, particularly from the 1840s through the 1860s. In most cases, the story was just repeated verbatim from the original article. In the early "Christian nationalist" books, however, such as B.F. Morris's 1864 Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, attempts were made to use this alleged conversation as proof that our republican form of government came from the churches.

Morris places the anecdote not in a section of his book on Jefferson, Virginia, or the Baptists, but, remarkably, in a section titled "The Congregational Churches of New England." That's right, the Congregationalist Church, a church that persecuted the Baptists and opposed pretty much everything that Jefferson admired about them -- especially their principles of religious liberty and church/state separation.

Morris begins by describing the New England Congregationalist church:


"This form of church-government is democratic. It was of Puritan birth, and, like the faith of the Puritans, it came fresh and vigorous from the word of God. It is the embodiment and practice of the American doctrine of popular sovereignty, applied to church-government, as it is to all the civil affairs of the nation. Each Church is an independent Christian democracy, where all the members have a right to a voice in the government of the Church, and whose decisions are subject to no reversal by any other ecclesiastical tribunal. The Bible is regarded as the text-book in theology and politics, in Church and State, as it is in its form of church-government; and, holding the Bible as the standard of form as well as of faith, the Puritans and their descendants constituted their ecclesiastic form after the pattern set them in the Bible."(2)

A paragraph later, he works in the story about Jefferson and the Baptists, who had a "congregational" form of government -- a term meaning nothing more than that each individual church was independently run, but used by Morris to imply some great similarity between the Baptists and the New England Congregationalists, two churches that couldn't have been more different..

"The Congregational form of church-government suggested to the philosophic mind of Mr. Jefferson our present republican form of government. Near his residence, in Virginia, several years previous to the Revolution, there existed a Baptist church on a congregational basis of government, whose monthly meetings Jefferson often attended. Being asked how he was pleased with their church-government, he replied that it struck him with great force, and interested him very much; that he considered it the only form of pure democracy that then existed in the world, and had concluded that it would be the best plan of government for the American colonies.

"If Jefferson confessed himself indebted to the business meetings of a church in his neighborhood, substantially Congregational in government, for his best ideas of a democracy, much more were John Adams and his New England compatriots beholden to their ecclesiastical surroundings for the republican tendencies of their politics."(3)

As of 1771, Andrew Tribble was a preacher at a Baptist church in Louisa County, Virginia. He didn't become the pastor of the church in Jefferson's Albemarle County until 1777, but several histories of the Baptists in Virginia report that he did preach there for an unspecified number of years before this, so he could have been there eight or ten years before the American Revolution, as the original story says. It is also likely that Jefferson did attend the church's business meetings and have a conversation like the one described. This is where Dolley Madison comes into the story.

Obviously, Dolley Madison, who didn't even meet James Madison until the 1790s, couldn't possibly have been a witness to a conversation that Thomas Jefferson had in the 1760s. In fact, if this conversation took place eight or ten years before the Revolutionary War, as the original story says, she hadn't even been born yet. Madison himself would still have been a teenager. Dolley Madison did, however, have many later conversations with Jefferson about the struggle for religious liberty in Virginia. It was based on these later conversations that she was able to vouch for the fact that Jefferson did have the kind of conversations described in the Christian Watchman article when she was interviewed decades later by Thomas F. Curtis for his 1855 book, Progress of Baptist principles in the Last Hundred Years.

I don't have Curtis's book, but the relevant part of it is quoted and described as follows in Thomas Armitage's 1887 book, A History of the Baptists: Traced by Their Vital Principles and Practices.

"In another chapter it will be needful to treat of the Virginia Baptists, touching their active participation in the Revolutionary War, together with their prominence in settling the State policy of the Old Dominion, and the character of the Constitution of the, United States. This chapter, therefore, must close with a reference to their alleged molding power upon THOMAS JEFFERSON, in his political career, as one of the founders of our government. Many historical writers have told us that he was in the habit of attending the business and other meetings of a Baptist Church near his residence; that he closely scrutinized its internal democratic policy and its democratic relations to its sister Churches; that he borrowed his conceptions of a free government, State and Federal, from the simplicity of Baptist Church independency and fraternity; and that, frequently, in conversation with his friends, ministers and neighbors, he confessed his indebtedness to their radical principles for his fixed convictions on the true methods of civil and religious liberty. If this popular tradition were entirely unsupported by contemporary testimony, his earnest and public co-operation with the Baptists in Virginia politics, and the close identity between our form of government, which he did so much to frame, and that of the Baptist Churches, must ever contribute to keep it alive; the strength of the coincidence being sufficient in itself to create such a tradition even if it did not already exist. Curtis says:

"'There was a small Baptist Church which held its monthly meetings for business at a short distance from Mr. Jefferson's house, eight or ten years before the American Revolution. Mr. Jefferson attended these meetings for several months in succession. The pastor on one occasion asked him how he was pleased with their Church government. Mr. Jefferson replied, that it struck him with great force and had interested him much, that he considered it the only form of true democracy then existing in the world, and had concluded that it would be the best plan of government for the American colonies. This was several years before the Declaration of Independence.'

"This author also says that he had this statement at second-hand only, from Mrs. Madison, wife of the fourth President of the United States, who herself had freely conversed with Jefferson on the subject, and that her remembrance of these conversations was 'distinct,' he 'always declaring that it was a Baptist Church from which these views were gathered.' Madison and Jefferson stood side by side with the Baptists in their contest for a free government, and they served together in the Committee of Seventeen [the Committee on Religion appointed in 1776] in the Assembly of Virginia, when it [the Bill Exempting Dissenters from Contributing to the Established Church] was secured in 1777. 'After desperate contests in that Committee almost daily, from the 11th of October to the 5th of December,' the measure was carried; but Jefferson says of his struggle, in his autobiography, that it was 'the severest in which he was ever engaged.' No person then living had better opportunities for knowing the facts on this matter than had Mrs. Madison."(4)

Now, for something sort of irrelevant, but just too funny not to include in this post. At the end of most articles on WorldNutDaily, they try to sell you something that's in some way related to the article. The "Related Special Offer" at the end of Federer's article is described as a "classic 19th century biography of Thomas Jefferson." This book, available from the WorldNutDaily store, is a reprint of the 1898 edition of John T. Morse's biography of Thomas Jefferson. Must be one of those early "Christian nationalist" books, right? Wrong! It's a book that completely contradicts what the revisionists claim about Jefferson's religious beliefs! It's a book in which the author writes: "admirers of Jefferson, who themselves believe in the divinity of Christ, will probably refuse to accept this view, though they find themselves without sufficient evidence conclusively to confute it." Someone at WorldNutDaily really seems to have f*cked up here!

Here are a few choice excerpts from John T. Morse's Thomas Jefferson.

"Jefferson's religious views have given no small trouble to his biographers, who have been at much pains to make him out a sound Christian in the teeth of many charges of free-thinking. There is little evidence to show what his belief was at this period of his life. Certainly he did not flout or openly reject Christianity; not improbably he had a liberal tolerance for its tenets rather than any profound faith in them. On August 10, 1787, in a letter of advice to his young ward, Peter Carr, he dwelt upon religion at much length, telling Carr to examine the question independently. He added instructions so colorless that they resemble the charge of a carefully impartial judge to a jury. But in this especial matter labored impartiality usually signifies a negative prejudice. At least Jefferson showed that he did not regard Christianity as so established a truth that it was to be asserted dogmatically, and though he so cautiously seeks to conceal his own bias, yet one instinctively feels that this letter was not written by a believer."(5)

"His faith in the laxest form of democracy, scarcely removed from anarchy, stood to him in the place of a religion; he preached it with a fervor, intensity, and constancy worthy of Mahomet or Wesley."(6)

"Jefferson's religious opinions, both during his lifetime and since his death, have given rise to much controversy. His opponents constantly charged him with infidelity, his friends as vigorously denied the charge. The discussion annoyed and irritated him; but he would not put an end to it by making any statement concerning his belief. It was his private affair, he said with some temper, and he would not aid in establishing an inquisition of conscience. His grandson says that even his own family knew no more than the rest of the world concerning his religious opinions. One cannot but think that, had he been a firm believer in Christianity, he would, probably not have regarded such reticence as justifiable, but would have felt it his duty to give to the faith the weight of his influence, which he well knew to be considerable. Nearly all the evidence which has been collected falls into the same scale, going to show that he was not a Christian in any strict sense of that word. It is true that the phrase bears widely different meanings to different persons; but probably the most liberal admissible interpretations would hardly make it apply to Jefferson. Mr. Randall says that he was a Christian, but founds the statement on evidence which goes to show only that Jefferson believed in a God or Supreme Being who concerned himself about the affairs of men. Of course this is by no means proof, perhaps not properly even evidence, of a belief in Christ. He went to church with tolerable regularity; he spoke with the utmost reverence of Christ as a moral teacher; but he carefully refrained from speaking of him as anything else than a human teacher. In the most interesting letter which he ever wrote on the subject he says : 'I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.' He compares Christ with Socrates and Epictetus, and says that when he died at about thirty-three years of age, his reason had 'not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole; and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us, mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.' This hardly describes the Christian notion of God's revelation. After such language it was not worth while to add the saving clause, that 'the question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, ... is foreign to the present view.' To my mind it is very clear that Jefferson never believed that Christ was other than a human moralist, having no peculiar inspiration or divine connection, and differing from other moralists only as Shakespeare differs from other dramatists, namely, as greatly their superior in ability and fitness for his function. But those admirers of Jefferson, who themselves believe in the divinity of Christ, will probably refuse to accept this view, though they find themselves without sufficient evidence conclusively to confute it."(7)

1. "Anecdote of Mr. Jefferson," Christian Watchman (Boston, MA), July 14, 1826.
2. B.F. Morris, Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1864), 421-422.
3. ibid., 422.
4. Thomas Armitage, D.D., LL.D., A History of the Baptists: Traced by Their Vital Principles and Practices, (New York: Bryan, Taylor, & Co., 1887), 733-734.
5. John T. Morse, Jr., Thomas Jefferson, (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 40.
6. ibid., 101.
7. ibid., 302-304.

There is some irony in Christian apologists like Federer finding a connection between Jefferson, Baptists, and ideas of perfect democracy. Most hardcore Christian nationalists like Gary DeMar and David Barton (see Myth of Separation) show nothing but contempt for the idea of "democracy," viewing the proper form of government to be an aristocratic type of republic.

by JSanford on Mon Apr 14, 2008 at 11:03:23 AM EST

Let's say the Baptists did contribute to Jefferson's views on government. So what? Does that mean we should therefore have a Christian theocracy? By that reasoning, what we should really have is a pantheocracy since the ancient Greeks with their many Gods influenced Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers the most. Besides, it was the 18th-century Baptists that were one of the leading voices for separation of church and state. So I say we should honor their contribution to our democracy by preserving their wish to keep religion and government separate.

by Dave on Mon Apr 14, 2008 at 06:16:56 PM EST

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