Articles by

Jordan W.

Mormonism’s Possible Political Theologies: Reading the Constitution through a Lens of Continuing Revelation, Part II

By August 30, 2013

In a previous post, I briefly explored the thought of Transcendentalist and abolitionist Theodore Parker to outline the relationship between antebellum biblical and constitutional hermeneutics. His biblical criticism bolstered his belief in the progress of religion and in the presence of an innate religious sense, which allowed him to dismiss as antiquated scriptural passages supporting slavery.[1] He used a similar approach to reject proslavery constitutional clauses as outdated. In contrast to some abolitionists, however, Parker maintained that those texts contained permanent truths that could be separated from transient teachings. Others went further in depicting the Constitution as a moldable and amenable text, including the dissenters in Dred Scott (1857)–Benjamin R. Curtis and John McLean–who followed some of the framers in suggesting that the Constitution had been crafted with the expectation that it would adapt to new contingencies, including the spread of egalitarian sentiment.[2] The realization of historical change and, in turn, historical distance, allowed some antislavery proponents to accept the presence of proslavery passages in the Bible and the Constitution without discarding those documents altogether. Positing their inherent malleability fueled the expectation of formal amendments, in the case of the Constitution, but also demanded informal reinterpretation. And, at least in Parker’s case, these approaches to the Constitution and the Bible overlapped.

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Mormonism’s Possible Political Theologies: Reading the Constitution through a Lens of Continuing Revelation, Part I

By July 30, 2013

Though one can trace a correspondence between Mormon scriptural and legal hermeneutics back to Joseph Smith, that indirect correlation has evolved in relation to ecclesiastical schisms and shifts and broader social and political developments. Despite recent criticisms, the equation between Mormonism and constitutional conservatism that developed in the wake of the Cold War era and that found embodiment in the person of Ezra Taft Benson remains a truism for some Latter-day Saints, many of whom embrace a scriptural literalism. A number of Saints uphold the Constitution as “A Heavenly Banner,” to be placed alongside the LDS canon. Indeed, mistrust of executive, legislative, and judicial interpreters leads some to insist on originalist interpretations (which, of course, are still interpretations) of the Constitution, while evidencing an openness to non-originalist interpretations of scripture, or at least to the readings of their leaders, which might be understood as literal.[1] While one can formulate defensible arguments that scriptural literalism and conservative constitutionalism are fruits of Mormonism, I want to suggest that the seeds of quite different approaches to sacred scriptural and legal texts can be found in the rich soil of early Mormon thought. Within the Mormon framework, accepting a text as sacred does not necessarily demand strict or literalist readings and may even call for alternative approaches. Before tracing out these potentialities in a subsequent post, here I aim to suggest that they may relate to broader intellectual trends and developments in antebellum biblical and constitutional interpretation.[2]

Though not the only force directing constitutional thought in the antebellum period, the South’s peculiar institution uniquely forced many Americans to reconsider the Constitution’s place in the present. Since the 1830s, a number of radical abolitionists concluded that the nation’s preeminent legal document had worn out its welcome and joined William Lloyd Garrison in dismissing it as a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.”[3] Such figures accepted the proslavery interpretation of their opponents as historically accurate and then condemned the Constitution as an outdated and immoral creed. They proved willing to throw out the Bible as well.[4] Other abolitionists, including Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass, advanced antislavery readings of the Constitution. Like Garrison, they appealed to the Declaration of Independence, but they read Madison’s text in light of Jefferson’s.[5] Static proslavery and antislavery readings dominated antebellum constitutional interpretation, leading to pro- and anti-constitutional readings, but some interpreters began to propose readings that valued the Constitution as an adaptable document “suited to time,” a kind of “raft, which should bend and yield, take the very shape of the waves, let the water in and out freely through its seams and junctures, and by its loose couplings and elastic movement divide and dissipate the force of any sudden shock.”[6]

The emerging view of the Constitution as malleable corresponded to a view of the Bible as a moldable book, a discussion that arose in relation to historical examinations of the biblical text. This relationship can be seen in Unitarian-turned-Transcendentalist Theodore Parker’s writings. His deep engagement with biblical criticism led him to distinguish between transient and permanent biblical truths and nourished his belief in divine communication.[7] Parker believed in the Bible’s usefulness as the historical expression of true religion, but the truth he privileged most rested in a Christ that aimed to foster future Christs. Indeed, Parker echoed Emerson in suggesting that by making Christ “the Son of God in a peculiar and exclusive sense–much of the significance of his character is gone.”[8] His religion was not restricted to a place, a past, a book, or a man, but “the inward Christ, which alone abideth forever, has much to say which the Bible never told,” or, as he added in a later edition, “much which the historical Jesus never knew.”[9] Parker’s abstract and minimalist beliefs freed him from allegiance to literalist and static meanings and allowed him to posit the Bible’s malleability. When biblical scholars used historical reasoning to interpret Paul’s decision to send a slave back to his owner and to then assert a clear correspondence between that decision and the Fugitive Slave Act, it was Parker’s engagement with biblical criticism and his deep-seated belief in an innate religious guide and the progress of religion that led him to accept that interpretation as historically accurate and to then dismiss it as historically dated. In the early 1840s, he lamented that “men justify slavery out of the New Testament, because Paul had not his eye open to the evil, but sent back a fugitive. It is dangerous,” he warned, “to rely on a troubled fountain for the water of life.”[10]

Parker’s approach to the Bible informed his interpretation of the Constitution. In response to Moses Stuart’s proslavery Conscience and the Constitution (1850), he suggested that “there is a “short and easy method” with Professor Stuart, and all other men who defend slavery out of the Bible. If the Bible defends slavery, it is not so much better for slavery, but so much the worse for the Bible.”[11] Parker was no respecter of founding documents. He asserted that “if the Constitution of the United States will not allow [the nation to end slavery], there is another Constitution that will.”[12] In referencing a higher law, Parker made it clear that he preferred “conscience to cotton,” the Bible, and the Constitution.[13] In his view, historical research evidenced that these texts contained outdated moral and legal teachings, but rather than joining Garrison in jettisoning them, he ultimately maintained that these founding texts also conveyed transcendent religious and legal truths. While dismissing strict literalist readings, Parker claimed the spirit of these sacred religious and legal texts, which allowed him posit their inherent capacity to adapt to historical change and modern circumstances.

Much separates Theodore Parker’s hermeneutics from Joseph Smith’s, and the relationship between scriptural and constitutional exegesis is much clearer in the Transcendentalist’s thought than in the Mormon Prophet’s. While holding in mind important distinctions and differences between early Mormon thought and broader developments in biblical and constitutional interpretation, we might consider whether Smith’s unique critique of the Bible and his emphatic assertion of new revelation might allow for and even demand a reading of sacred texts, both religious and legal, in light of historical change and development. In other words, does early Mormon thought call for a reading of the Constitution through the lens of continuing revelation? And, if so, what does that look like? I leave you to consider these questions, and hope to address them in part, at least, in a subsequent post.


[1] As Stanley Fish explains, the gesture to “disavow interpretation in favor of simply presenting the text” is actually a gesture in which one set of interpretive principles is replaced by another that happens to claim for itself the virtue of not being an interpretation at all.” In this article, Fish famously concluded that “interpretation is the only game in town.” Stanley Fish, “What Makes Interpretation Acceptable,” in Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 353, 355.

[2] On the relationship between biblical and constitutional hermeneutics, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[3] William Lloyd Garrison to Rev. Samuel J. May, July 17, 1845, in Walter M. Merrill, ed. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973): 3:303.

[4] See, for example, William E. Cain, ed., William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight against Slavery: Selections from the Liberator (Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 29-36.

[5] For an outline of these positions and a discussion of Douglass’s slow and studied adoption of Smith’s position, see David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 26-35.

[6] “A Chapter on Slavery,” The North American Review 92 (April 1861): 492-93, quotes on 493.

[7] See Parker, “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in The Critical and Miscellaneous Writings of Theodore Parker, Minister of the Second Church in Roxbury (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1843). On Parker’s prolonged engagement with biblical criticism, including the writings of figures such as De Wette and Strauss, see Dean Grodzins, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[8] Parker, “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” 158.

[9] Parker, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion, 376. See Parker, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion, 4th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856), 354.

[10]  Parker, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown 1842), 375. Others, including William Ellery Channing, contended that Paul, in fact, advanced antislavery sentiment, but slavery “had so penetrated society” in New Testament times that Paul “satisfied himself with spreading principles which, however slowly, could not but work its destruction.” Channing, Slavery (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1835), 111. On the New Testament debate over slavery, see Albert J. Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 10, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 149-186. Channing’s interpretation was a kind of originalist argument based on the New Testament authors’ original expectations of change. A similar kind of argument emerged in relation to the Constitution. This originalist expectation of change found expression, for example, in the dissenting opinions of the Dred Scott decision (1857). John McLean wrote that “our independence was a great epoch in the history of freedom, and while I admit the Government was not made especially for the colored race, yet many of them were citizens of the New England States, and exercised, the rights of suffrage when the Constitution was adopted, and it was not doubted by any intelligent person that its tendencies would greatly ameliorate their condition.” Similarly, in reference to the founders, Benjamin Robbins Curtis contended that “that a calm comparison of these assertions of universal abstract truths and of their own individual opinions and acts would not leave these men under any reproach of inconsistency; that the great truths they asserted on that solemn occasion, they were ready and anxious to make effectual, wherever a necessary regard to circumstances, which no statesman can disregard without producing more evil than good, would allow; and that it would not be just to them nor true in itself to allege that they intended to say that the Creator of all men had endowed the white race, exclusively, with the great natural rights which the Declaration of Independence asserts.” Dred Scott v. John F A. Sandford, 60 US (19 Howard) 393, 537, 574-75 (1857).

[11] Parker, “The Slave Power,” in The Works of Theodore Parker, Centennial Edition, 15 vols. (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1907-1913), 11:272.

[12] Parker, “The Slave Power,” 11:285.

[13] Parker, “The Slave Power,” 286.

Book Review: Mason, Patrick Q. The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

By November 30, 2011

In The Mormon Menace, Patrick Mason adeptly traces the contours of anti-Mormonism in the late nineteenth-century South and explains how proselytizing, polygamy, and extra-legal violence shaped the South’s response to Mormonism. Mason attends to the ways in which southern honor, defined by a communal estimation of the individual and often deployed to protect or avenge the virtuous female, provided justification for illicit actions against Mormon missionaries. While granting that anti-Mormon violence paled in comparison to racial and political attacks against African Americans, Mason contends that “Mormonism was unique in the way it inspired southerners to set aside general norms of civility and religious tolerance” (13).

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Mormonism?s Varying Influences on Orson Pratt?s Thought

By June 9, 2009

Biographer Breck England argued that Orson Pratt?s interpretation of Joseph Smith?s revelations and teachings largely shaped Pratt?s thought.[1] In his introduction, England noted that Pratt ?made a lifelong effort to construct a rational theology on the revelatory foundation laid by Joseph Smith.?[2]

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Pratt’s Doctrine of Equality Revisisted

By June 1, 2009

Yes, I’m “revisiting” the subject of a less than 24-hour-old post! In some ways I restate what Ben said, and the issues I deal with are discussed in both Ben’s post and the following comments, but I also ask some different, though similar, questions.

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Conference on Mormonism in the Public Mind, April 2-3, 2009, UVU Library

By March 29, 2009

Below is the program for what promises to be an exciting conference on public perceptions of Mormonism.

The UVU Religious Studies Program presents the
Eighth Annual Mormon Studies Conference

Mormonism in the
Public Mind
Perceptions of an Emerging World Faith

April 2 – 3, 2009
Lakeview Room, UVU Library (Thursday)
Ragan Theater, UVU Student Center (Friday)

Conference Description

The past few years have seen an unprecedented public discussion of Mormonism. From the 2007 PBS documentary “The Mormons” to Mitt Romney’s run for the White House, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other Mormon groups have been the subject of nearly unceasing scrutiny. 2008 was a year in which we witnessed the raid of an FLDS compound in Eldorado, Texas and the tumultuous debate over Proposition 8 in California.

Throughout their history, Latter-day Saints have struggled with the public image of their faith. This challenge has persisted from early confrontations in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and territorial Utah to the ongoing attempt to gain acceptance within the broader streams of American culture. Media attention on
the peculiarities of Mormonism has shown that, as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emerges as a world faith, the challenges of understanding and respectability are far from over.

This conference will address the place of Mormonism in public discourse and examine the strategies involved in the Latter-day Saint response to skepticism and prejudice. Pertinent questions include: What are the current perceptions of Mormonism? What is the extent of misinformation? Have the attempts by Latter-day Saints to shape their image been successful? To what extent is media coverage accurate and fair? How has the Internet impacted public discussion of Mormonism?

Mormonism in the Public Mind
Perceptions of an Emerging World Faith

Schedule of Events
all sessions are free and open to the public (seating is limited)

Thursday, April 2
Lakeview Room
UVU Library (4th Floor)

8:30 – 9:45 a.m.
Brian D. Birch
Director of Religious Studies, UVU
Daniel Stout, University of Nevada Las Vegas
Dan Wotherspoon, Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy

10:00 – 11:15 a.m.
Keynote Address
Michael Paulson
Religion Reporter, The Boston Globe

11:30 – 12:45 p.m.
Brownbag Lunch Panel
“The Mormon Beat”
Michael Paulson, Boston Globe
Lynn Arave, The Deseret News
Peggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune
Jennifer Dobner, Associated Press

1:00 – 2:15 p.m.
“New Media and Pop Culture”
Jana Riess, Westminster John Knox Press
Stephen Carter, Sunstone Magazine
Kristine Haglund, Dialogue

2:30 – 3:45
“Symbols and Boundary Maintenance”
Joel Campbell, The Mormon Times
Charles Randall Paul, Foundation for Interreligious
David Scott, Utah Valley University

7:00 p.m.
Eighth Annual Eugene England Lecture
Lakeview Room
“The Prehistory of the Soul”
Terryl L. Givens
Bostwick Professor of English, University of Richmond

Friday, April 3
Ragan Theater
UVU Student Center

8:30 – 9:45 a.m.
Boyd J. Petersen
Program Coordinator for Mormon Studies, UVU
“Political Discourse and the Latter-day Saints”
Boyd Petersen, Utah Valley University
Kirk Jowers, Hinckley Institute of Politics
Morris Thurston, Joseph Smith Papers Project

10:00 – 10:50 a.m.
“Public Relations for the Twenty-First Century”
Val Edwards, LDS Public Affairs Department
Richard Bushman, Claremont Graduate University

11:00 – 11:50 p.m.
“LDS Public Relations: Strategies and Applications”
Gary Lawrence, Lawrence Research
Claudia Bushman, Claremont Graduate University

12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
Brownbag Lunch Panel
Val Edwards, Claudia Bushman,
Gary Lawrence, Richard Bushman

1:00 – 2:00 p.m.
“The Mormons in American Religious Thought”
Grant Underwood, Brigham Young University
Terryl Givens, University of Richmond
Brian Birch, Utah Valley University

2:00 – 3:00
Panel Discussion
Grant Underwood, Terryl Givens, Brian Birch

Book Review: Liberty to the Downtrodden

By March 3, 2009

Grow, Matthew H. “Liberty to the Downtrodden”: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Matt Grow’s impressive new biography, “Liberty to the Downtrodden”: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer, captures the life of a little-known nineteenth-century reformer and, in the process, illuminates understudied and misunderstood aspects of nineteenth-century America. Grow organized his work, now the definitive text on Kane, both chronologically and thematically, emphasizing Kane’s reform efforts while providing enough information about less relevant aspects to offer a complete narrative.  Kane’s reform activities, from pursuing women’s rights to defending polygamous Mormons, reveal the antebellum anti-evangelical reform culture which developed within the Democratic Party.  Grow, following Kane himself, placed Kane within the categories of romantic hero and gentleman of honor.  Ultimately, Grow’s study depicts Kane as both a type and an original in nineteenth-century American reform.

Raised in an upper-class and influential Philadelphia family, Kane benefited from his upbringing as evidenced in his trips to Europe during the early 1840s for health reasons.  Europe sparked Kane’s interest in reform.  In France, August Comte and positivism “fueled both [Kane’s] humanitarian drive and his religious unorthodoxy” (p. 22).   Upon returning to America Kane launched into educational reform, battling the anti-Catholic reform attempts of the evangelicals.  Soon, as Grow noted, “Kane’s own religious unorthodoxy and antipathy toward evangelicalism allowed him to find value in Mormon religion” (p. 68).

In 1846 Kane met the Mormons who became the featured group of Kane’s reform activities during the remainder of his life.  Kane, who eventually joined efforts with his wife Elizabeth, actively engaged in multitudinous reform movements, including peace reform, antislavery, temperance, women’s rights, and marriage reform, among others.  Yet, Kane’s extended efforts in behalf of the Mormons, and in particular his labors from 1846 through 1858, reveal his place in nineteenth-century anti-evangelical reform and reflect his roles as romantic hero and gentleman of honor.  Though Kane engaged in other activities during this period, he frequently served as the Latter-day Saints greatest non-Mormon ally.  Kane used his family’s powerful standing to encourage the federal government’s support of their move west.  After meeting with President Polk and visiting Mormon camps Kane knew the opportunity to mediate between the Federal Government and the belittled Latter-day Saints offered him a unique chance to battle evangelical reformers.

During the period between 1846 and 1852, when the LDS Church officially announced its practice of polygamy, Kane successfully reshaped the Mormon image.  Through important media organs, including Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and the publication of his pamphlet, The Truth of the Mormons, Kane weaved a narrative which emphasized the Latter-day Saints’ suffering and drew national sympathy.  As Grow explained, this represented the only period from the 1850s to the 1890s “when the Mormons prevailed in the halls of Congress and in the press” (p. 91).   This, as Grow noted, complicates the traditional historical account of unhindered anti-Mormonism during the last half of the nineteenth-century.  Yet, Kane’s narrative strengthened Mormonism’s separatist tendencies, encouraging further separation from the American mainstream.

After the Mormons surprised Kane with the truth about polygamy, Kane encouraged a public announcement and continued to defend the Latter-day Saints.  Yet, the admission reversed the Mormon’s public image and the consequent increase in national antipathy toward Mormonism paved the way for the Utah War.  Grow shrewdly noted that Mormonism provided a cause that temporarily united a dividing nation.  As Grow highlighted, the resulting Utah War evidenced the limits of American tolerance and religious liberty.  Fighting this intolerance, Kane again constructed a powerful narrative, which described Brigham Young as the leader of a peace party in opposition to a Mormon war party, and consequently, Kane argued, a peaceful resolution necessarily involved the Mormon leader’s help.  Kane’s manipulation of events and mediating efforts “proved crucial in avoiding a military clash between the Mormons and the federal army and in keeping the peace in the succeeding years” (p. 174).

Grow’s work, much more than this review suggests, engages Kane in the context of nineteenth-century reform, and beyond his advocacy of the Mormons, Kane’s reform activities shed light on nineteenth-century America.  Although Kane found his way from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, with various stops in between, his antebellum reform efforts illuminate the anti-evangelical reform movement aligned with the Democratic Party.  As Grow noted, Kane’s antislavery activities reveal Democrats in the center of the movement to restrict and end slavery, which historians have largely ignored.  Kane eventually joined the Free Soil Party, and during the Civil War period transferred political loyalties from the antislavery Democrats to an abolitionist Republicans. Serving as an officer in the Civil War, Kane, as Grow explained, “examined the war through the lens of honor and chivalry, but he initially tried to avoid war altogether” (p. 211).  Following the War, Kane’s activities in charities, educational reform, and communitarian building reveal the post-War shift from gentlemen reformers to governmental reform during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.  His final efforts with Elizabeth in behalf of the Mormons and against anti-polygamy legislation further reveal Kane’s role as romantic reformer and heroic gentlemen battling in behalf of the downtrodden against evangelical reform.  Grow correctly noted that Kane’s life “makes him an ideal window onto this culture of reformers” (p. xvi).   This brief analysis incapably suggests the capability of Grow’s achievement.  Liberty to the Downtrodden successfully provides an interesting, illuminating, and comprehensive study of Thomas Kane, romantic reformer and gentleman of honor.

Uno Mas….MMM

By March 1, 2009

For those of you out there who just can’t get enough, and I know there are a lot of you…

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Conference on Mormon Thought and Engineering

By February 8, 2009

Although this is noted at, Dr. Bushman asked that I use the JI to advertise this interesting conference on Mormon thought and engineering to be held in March at Claremont Graduate University.  So, here’s the info…

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Franklin and Emerson’s use of Religious Rhetoric

By July 22, 2008

America has often been described as a Christian nation, and whatever currency the title holds presently, it was certainly applicable during the first century and a half of the nation’s life. This is not to say that it was not a Christian nation before 1776 or 1789, as it indeed was, nor does this imply that the Founding Fathers held orthodox Christian beliefs, as many of them did not, but it does suggest that the United States was born and nurtured in a thoroughly Christian religious environment. It was a religiously unique nation Tocqueville found in the early nineteenth century: “America is still the country in the world where the Christian religion has retained the greatest real power over people’s souls?”[1] Although, at least for Perry Miller, Tocqueville’s writings on religion in Democracy in America were “probably the least perceptive [writings] he ever wrote,” Tocqueville’s misunderstanding of the complexity of America’s religious environment do not undercut his commentary on the nation as a whole.[2] Tocqueville’s observation leads one to ask, how much power, if any, did the Christian religion hold over exceptional individuals such as Benjamin Franklin or Ralph Waldo Emerson? Their differences represent the complex nature of succeeding in America, but can we extract important connections through examining religion’s role, or its lack thereof, in their lives and legacies?

It is possible to overstate religion’s impact on these Americans, but Christianity, broadly speaking, provides a meaningful framework through which we can examine certain aspects of their successes. At times religion may have informed the way they lived their lives, or perhaps more often, the way they lived their lives informed their views of religion. They all came in contact with Calvinist doctrine, including original sin, human depravity, and the problem of evil, and they responded variously to these beliefs and the questions they raised. There is no doubt Calvinist doctrine was, with seasons of revival, declining in its power over American Christians throughout the nineteenth century. In some cases, as with early nineteenth-century Christian Restorationist movements, groups were indeed reacting against the Calvinist beliefs their Puritan ancestors left them. In different ways, Franklin and Emerson responded negatively to the idea that humans were naturally evil, or that evil, whatever it was, necessarily and independently had any deep hold on humankind. Similarly, and perhaps more to the point, they strayed from the mainstream American views about God. Thus, the following analysis attempts to discern the characteristics, virtues, and perceived religious beliefs which influenced or were shaped by their decisions and lifestyle.

Who’s God and Whose God: Benjamin Franklin on Particular Providence
Benjamin Franklin’s status as a successful American is undoubted, but to what can we attribute his success, and does religion fit into the conclusion? There are both similarities and differences in how he won while living, and how he has continued to win in American minds for nearly two centuries. Franklin’s ability to understand people and their desires seems key to his mortal success. Perhaps equally important was his capacity to speak for people, whether they were Pennsylvanians or Americans. In some cases this may have meant sacrificing what Franklin really wanted, or what he really believed, but as he stated he was a reasonable person and consequently, maybe it was not much of a sacrifice. With regard to religion, and belief in God specifically, Franklin did indeed withhold some of his thoughts, partly because he thought the public would find them uninteresting. In some of Franklin’s metaphysical writings, he critiqued both deistic and orthodox Christian explanations of God, but to some extent tempered his promotion of his ideas.

Franklin’s spiritual journey is marked by change, and for all his comical commentary, he was serious about religion in some sense. As Jerry Weinberger noted, “Franklin moved from agnostic and almost atheistic immorality to pragmatic morality and pragmatic religion.”[3] Weinberger stated that Franklin’s metaphysical writings both argued for and against a “particular providence”–the notion that God intervenes in human affairs. In 1725 Franklin published his most famous metaphysical piece, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, “a radical Deist treatise” that mocks even the Deist belief that all human experience (including what we normally call evil) is just and good because an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God is perfectly just. In summarizing this work, Weinberger suggested that for Franklin, “There will be no persuasive defense of God’s wisdom, goodness, and power without an equally persuasive account of particular providence,”[4] i.e., “if God must be just, then he cannot be all-powerful.”[5] As noted in his autobiography, Franklin felt the publication of this work was an error, and he claimed to have burned copies of it.[6] It is unsure why he did so, but it seems obvious that he was worried about public reception and comprehension, although whether he was worried they would or would not understand, or both, is hard to say.

Another metaphysical work, the Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion (cir. 1728)–Franklin’s purported personal code of worship—“presumes a just but less-than-all-powerful God.”[7] This piece, like the Dissertation, is comic in its mockery of the conclusion that because the Supreme Being is beyond the need of worship, and man naturally must worship an unseen power, the Supreme Being created a good and powerful God to worship. In Franklin’s argument for particular providence he uses the primary rationalist argument against particular providence. Perhaps it was this sort of discussion which, as noted in his autobiography, had led others to call him an infidel and an atheist.[8] Consequently, it is not surprising he composed Articles of Belief for personal use. Franklin reaffirmed his “radical” beliefs in an address, “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World” (1732). Again, Franklin critiques Christians and also Deists who “want God to be infinitely good and thus necessarily just–they want God’s power to be bound by the demands of justice.”[9] Thus, from 1725 to 1732 the young Franklin was interested in critiquing a society that believed in a perfectly just God despite the abundance of pain. Franklin believed original sin was a horrible fraud, but he did find evil in the world, and thought Christianity’s all-powerful God to be an undeserving object of worship.[10] Franklin proceeded to give up metaphysical speculations as he became “disgusted by the great uncertainty of metaphysical reasoning.”[11] Perhaps an increasingly diplomatic and political Franklin also found his metaphysical attempts inconvenient, especially as he became a spokesman for a people who’s religious sentiments were often based in the omnipotent God he critiqued. Thus, prudence was central to Franklin’s success in dealing with theology.

Franklin’s success is found, at least to some extent, in his conscious cosmopolitan universality. Franklin was both a nationalist, and an internationalist. His fame among European nations increased Americans’ interests in claiming him as one of their own. In a similar way, because Franklin filled so many roles, such as printer, public servant, politician, diplomat, and scientist, among others, many different groups have found Franklin accessible, and consequently have utilized his words. For example, in the film A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation, the climatic scene shows a venerable Benjamin Franklin address the constitutional convention:

I’ve lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth– That God governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that except the Lord build the House they labor in vain who build it. I firmly believe this–and I also believe that without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and Bye word down to future Ages.

While his earlier writings suggest that Franklin did believe that a “God governs in the Affairs of Men,” it is almost certain that his god was not the same god of the people for which he spoke, then and now. A More Perfect Union, produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), evidences the ways in which Franklin has been and is used. For Mormons, Franklin’s words give weight to their belief that America is a “promised land” and that the Constitution is a sacred document. Franklin wins, in part, because he continues to help other people, with different interests, win. In other words, many people continue to use Franklin as a spokesman for their cherished ideas or beliefs.

Is the Problem of Evil a Problem? Ralph Waldo Emerson on Evil and Sin
At the start of the recently LDS-produced film, Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, the narrator quotes relevant lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address:

Men have come to speak of the revelation as long ago given and done, as if God were dead. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake..The need was never greater of new revelation than now.[12]

This carefully redacted quote, or set of quotes, employs the words of a universally respected American (Emerson), to set the stage of the Mormon restoration story, and the revelation of God through Joseph Smith. Emerson, like Franklin, is quoted and cited by myriad organizations, religious and otherwise, seemingly in all and through all, a “transparent eyeball.” [13] Yet, Emerson’s usefulness today does not always directly correspond with his successful life. Mormonism, which grew and gained form in Emerson’s America, was not the new revelation Emerson spoke of, and the God Emerson revealed was not the anthropomorphic being Joseph Smith described. Thus, Emerson’s transcendent presence in Americans minds is in some ways very different from his mortal success.

Emerson’s religious views, specifically those that address human capability, provide interesting insights into his achievements in a progression-based early nineteenth-century context. Emerson believed that the various self-identified Christians failed to grasp true Christianity in their emphasis on the depravity of humankind and redemption through a perfected Christ and an inerrant Bible.[14] Emerson found salvation not in biblical texts or historic figures, but rather in the human soul.[15] As biographer Robert D. Richardson, Jr. noted, Emerson held “a belief not so much in pantheism as hypertheism, a declaration of the divinity of the human.”[16] Some have argued that early Christian heretics Arius and Pelagius, who deemphasized Christ’s oneness with God and focused on the human capability to choose good independently, were predecessors to Emerson.[17] Richardson described Emerson as an “Erasmian-Arminian,” further emphasizing Emerson’s focus on tolerance, belief in free will, reform, and love of learning.[18] Emerson’s emphasis on human possibility correlates to his denouncement of human depravity and corresponding Calvinist doctrines.

Emerson was never aligned with Calvinism and for him evil was swallowed up in possibility.[19] In F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance he addressed Emerson and evil.[20] In his summary of Emerson’s philosophy, Matthiessen presented Emerson’s seemingly innocent stance in the words of Henry James, Sr. who found Emerson “unconscious of evil.” This did not mean Emerson was apathetic, quite the opposite, but as a transcendentalist he could not find corruption in man. Matthiessen placed Emerson’s optimism in mankind and disenchantment with evil within the context of Jacksonian America. He believed there was too much evidence in Emerson’s writings to adopt the view that he was unconscious of evil, but his “prevailing tone” emphasized man’s grandeur, and played down sin’s terror. In analyzing Emerson’s polemic against tragedy in literature, Matthiessen wrote that “[Emerson] knew that tragedy consists in division, and he was always striving for reconciliation.”[21]

Emerson spoke of sin and evil, and at times, perhaps unwittingly, he and American Christians used the terms in similar ways. Yet, when he specifically addressed Calvinist conceptions of evil in his essay on “Spiritual Laws,” he clearly denounced evil as an independent force: “Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination, and the like. These never presented a practical difficulty to any man, “never darkened across any man’s road, who did not go out of his way to seek them.”[22] Thus, for Emerson, human depravity and sin seem to be fables, for “The only sin,” as he wrote in “Circles,” “is [self-]limitation.”[23] While Emerson frequently mentioned the existence of good and evil, of opposites, his view was not Manichaeistic–good and evil exist independently–but evil may exist in human actions, though individuals are not inherently sinful. In his “Divinity School Address,” Emerson placed virtue, a “rapid intrinsic energy,” at the heart of human action, good or evil: “By it [inner virtue], a man is made the Providence to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. Character is always known,” and “Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.”[24] So, while Emerson believed in types of evil, sin, heaven, hell, and Providence, his definitions and understandings of such were far different from the explanations of contemporary Christian theology. Consequently, a nation bent on progress found Emerson’s ideas on human capacity attractive and liberating, while Christian abolitionists readily accepted his denunciations of slavery as evil.

Whatever Christianity’s role in (positively or negatively) shaping the life philosophies of Franklin and Emerson, it is certainly relevant to the language they employed to promulgate their views, as well as their reception among both contemporary and descendant Americans. Franklin explored particular providence in his early comic writings, but due to metaphysical uncertainties he discarded the topic, and yet at the Constitutional Convention he firmly argued for particular providence with a keen awareness of his audience and those for whom he spoke. Emerson frequently used religious language, but he redefined key terms Christianity laid claim to, and utilized them to emphasize human capacity and divinity in an age that emphasized individual progress. When Christianity influenced their ideas and ideals, especially and perhaps only with regards their religious thought, it seems they were responding to, or reacting against, specific Calvinist doctrines.

Franklin and Emerson either grew up in religious households which emphasized God’s omnipotence and human depravity, usually tied to original sin. Consequently, it is no surprise that they reacted against or responded to these fundamental Calvinist doctrines. Franklin struggled with the notion that God was omnipotent and omnibenevolent when the world he supposedly created is full of pain. Franklin believed original sin was a fraud, while Emerson called it a disease. For Emerson, the source of human weakness is not in depravity, but in the erroneous belief that we cannot live as Christ did; the human is divine. Their views and reactions highlight the persistent role of Calvinist doctrine in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but they also illuminate Franklin and Emerson’s capacity, and even virtue, to relate with and to the American public, then and now.

These responses do not completely illuminate the legacies of these Americans, nor does this analysis fully explain their successes, but American Christianity provides a framework through which we can measure their mortal fame and staying power in American memory. It is quite probable that America is a less orthodox Christian country than in the days of Franklin and Emerson, and their continued success suggests that perhaps this religious framework is less revealing than other frameworks. Yet, as is evidenced with the LDS use of Franklin and Emerson, continued success is not always directly linked to mortal appeal, as their words are immortalized in ways they never meant. Thus, while these figures continue to prove important as American figures, religion also continues to utilize these individuals, and so a religious discussion remains relevant.


[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London, England: Penguin Books, 2003), 340.

[2] Perry Miller, “From the Covenant to the Revival,” in The Shaping of American Religion, edited by James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 365.

[3] Jerry Weinberger, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), xii.

[4] Weinberger, 156.

[5] Weinberger, 162.

[6] Weinberger discusses the possible reasons for Franklin’s feeling that he should not have published this work. Weinberger, 6, 21-22, 138, 157-159.

[7] Weinberger, 162.

[8] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York, Simon & Shuster: 2004), 16.

[9] Weinberger, 172.

[10] For Franklin’s views on original sin see Weinberger, 280-281.

[11] Weinberger, 139.

[12] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson: Essays and Lectures, edited by Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 83, 88.

[13] Emerson, 10.

[14] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 125; Irene S.M. Makarushka, Religious Imagination and Language in Emerson and Nietzsche (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 16-17; Richard A. Grusin, Transcendentalist Hermeneutics: Institutional Authority and the Higher Criticism of the Bible (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 74-78.

[15] Richardson, 291-292.

[16] Richardson, 288.

[17] Makarushka, 21.

[18] Richardson, 291. Richardson contrasted the Erasmian-Arminian strain with the Augustinian strain and its emphasis on confession and guilt. These ideas stem further back than Calvinist doctrine, but Calvinist doctrine intimately related to Augustinian thought.

[19] Richardson, 197.

[20] F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 4.

[21] Ibid, 183-184.

[22] Emerson, 305. Similarly, in his “Lecture on the Times,” Emerson stated, “Our forefather walked in the world and went to their graves, tormented with the fear of Sin, and the terror of the Day of Judgment” (165).

[23] Emerson, 406.

[24] Emerson, 77.


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