Obbie Tyler Todd

Edwards with a Southern Accent: How Northampton Made Waves in Dixie

ABSTRACT: The New England successors of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards were some of the first abolitionist voices in the United States. But the New England Theology did not stay in New England. Nor were Edwards’s ideas always deployed for the abolitionist cause. In the Southern Presbyterian and Southern Methodist churches, Edwards was not regarded highly among the most outspoken advocates of slavery. Southern Baptists, on the other hand, managed to reconcile the New England Theology with a strong commitment to slavery. These Edwardseans were neither New School nor Old School in the purest sense, quickly defending, but not always celebrating, the great Southern evil. While Edwards’s ideas were powerful enough to shape the South and indeed the nation, ideas themselves can be wielded in much different, and even dangerous, directions.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Obbie Tyler Todd (PhD, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), pastor of Third Baptist Church in Marion, Illinois, to trace the legacy of Jonathan Edwards’s theology in the antebellum South.

When Jonathan Edwards arrived in Princeton in 1758 to become president of the College of New Jersey, it was the farthest south he had ever lived. He died two months later. Indeed, for someone who has been dubbed “America’s theologian,” the fact that Edwards spent virtually his entire (and relatively short) life in New England is a testament to his influence and the power of his ideas.1 For over a century after his death, those ideas were collectively known as the “New England Theology,” becoming the dominant theological tradition in most orthodox churches and seminaries in the land of the Pilgrims.

As the first American-made school of Calvinism in the history of the United States, the New England Theology was as bold as it was innovative, and it produced some of the first abolitionist voices in the new republic. While Edwards himself had owned slaves and had denounced only the Atlantic slave trade, his ideas were developed further by his disciples in order to condemn the very institution he had not condemned. Among these ideas were the freedom of the will, natural and moral ability, disinterested benevolence, religious affections, and the moral government of God.

These so-called “New Divinity” men included black and white preachers alike. In 1776, Samuel Hopkins (1721–1803), one of Edwards’s two chief disciples, addressed his Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans to the Continental Congress.2 Also in 1776, Revolutionary War veteran and black Congregationalist pastor Lemuel Haynes (1753–1833) penned his essay “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slavekeeping.”3 In 1790, Edwards’s own son Jonathan Edwards Jr. helped organize the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and the Relief of Persons Unlawfully Holden in Bondage, a group that also included Edwards’s grandsons Timothy and Theodore Dwight. Planted in the soil of revivalism, the Edwardsean tradition bore the fruit of reform.

“Edwards’s ideas were developed further by his disciples in order to condemn the very institution he had not condemned.”

But the New England Theology did not stay in New England. And once it left the Puritan confines of Massachussetts and Connecticut, it evolved in a number of different ways. Just as Edwards’s ideas could be wielded to abolish slavery, they could also be weaponized to defend it. By the antebellum period, Jonathan Edwards had adopted a Southern accent among an unlikely people in an unexpected place. By examining how one school of theology could be applied to radically different moral ends, the reader can better understand the vast American legacy of Jonathan Edwards while also considering how theology itself has never united American Christians without the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). With the influence of Jonathan Edwards now growing in contemporary American evangelicalism, may his legacy in the antebellum South provide today’s church with a vivid example of the power of ideas to capture the human mind — and the power of sin to employ those ideas in different, and sometimes dangerous, directions.

Edwards Goes West

Just as Edwards’s ideas transcended race, they also crossed denominational lines and traversed geographical boundaries. The 1820s and 30s featured an explosion of Edwardsean thinking in the American West during the Second Great Awakening. For instance, much to the contempt of Edwards’s New England successors, the controversial revivalist Charles G. Finney claimed that Edwards was the true author of his “New Measures.” The so-called “burned-over district” in western New York, which catapulted Finney to national fame, was itself filled with transplanted New Englanders. In his lectures on revival at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he would eventually serve as president, Finney appealed to Edwards well over a dozen times, even likening himself to the Northampton theologian.4

A month after Lyman Beecher decided to leave New England to rescue the West from Catholicism and infidelity, he wrote to his son at Yale Divinity School and urged, “Next after the Bible, read and study Edwards.” The life and writings of Edwards, he insisted, “stand unrivaled.”5 Beecher eventually became the first president of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, introducing Edwards’s ideas in the classroom and across the entire Midwest. As his daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe recounted after the war, “Dr. Beecher and his sons, it was soon found could race and chase and ride like born Kentuckians, and that ‘free agency’ on horse-back, would go through mud and fire, and water, as gallantly as ever ‘natural inability’ could.”6 Under the Plan of Union (1801), which united Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches for the sake of western expansion and helped to proliferate Edwardsean ideas along the frontier, Beecher could jump from a Boston Congregationalist church to a Cincinnati Presbyterian church without leaving his New England Theology behind — much to the chagrin of local Old School Presbyterians, who would eventually put Beecher on trial for heresy.7

Both Presbyterians, Finney at Oberlin and Beecher at Lane, were influenced by the New Haven Theology, yet another species of the New England Theology originated by Nathaniel W. Taylor at Yale. Both also supported the anti-slavery cause, albeit in different degrees. In fact, when Beecher reflected on the Old School–New School schism of 1837 in the Presbyterian church, he saw two issues lying underneath: abolition and the New England Theology. “The South finally took the Old School side,” he said years later. “It was a cruel thing — it was a cursed thing, and ’twas slavery that did it.” Beecher then added,

And it was ideas that did it. It was ideas concerning God and man — ideas concerning the divine administration, the government of the universe, the origin of evil — that convulsed the Church and convulsed the nation; and why should they not? Theology and politics are next of kin.8

In short, the Presbyterian church had split over how to integrate modern ideas and moral reform into a confessional faith.9 Ideas like natural ability and human responsibility and moral influence inevitably became bound with the issue of slavery. Historian George Marsden has effectively demonstrated how “the roots of New School Presbyterianism” can be “traced back to none other than Jonathan Edwards.”10 Therefore, in 1837, Northern Presbyterians did not simply choose the side of freedom. In many ways, they also sided with the New England Theology.

Southern ‘Stonewalling’ of Edwards

But were there Edwardseans in Dixieland? Was the South impenetrable to the New England Theology? When Finney hailed “the great revival” in the winter of 1857–1858, which “prevailed throughout all the Northern states,” he bemoaned the fact that “slavery seemed to shut it out from the South.”11 Although his judgment was not entirely accurate, many Edwardseans in the North had long perceived the South as a place where their ideas were not welcomed.12 And for good reason. In the Southern Presbyterian church, among the most outspoken advocates of slavery, Edwards was not regarded highly. At South Carolina College, for example, James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862) defended the idea that Southern slaveholding was a “triumph of Christian benevolence,” even comparing a slaveowner and his slaves to a father and his children in The Rights and Duties of Masters (1850).13 However, Thornwell was not a defender of Jonathan Edwards. In fact, he believed that Edwards’s view of personal identity defied “the plainest intuitions of intelligence,” and he called Edwards’s belief in sin as the privation of good “a mere juggle with words.”14

Thornwell was not alone in his disdain for Edwards. As Sean Michael Lucas has shown, Virginian Presbyterian Robert Lewis Dabney was so hostile to Jonathan Edwards’s works that a fellow Southerner claimed that he “cuts up Edwardsism by the roots.” Dabney dismissed the “intricacy and impractical” theology of Religious Affections as “too anatomical.” Ultimately, what Dabney detested most about Edwards’s theology was that which so many New School Presbyterians appreciated: its attention to the heart. Instead, Dabney believed in order and tradition. Therefore, as one might expect, Dabney supported a rigid interpretation of the Westminster Confession and chattel slavery. In fact, Dabney served as chief of staff for Confederate general and fellow Presbyterian “Stonewall” Jackson.15 While certainly not all Presbyterians in the South resisted the New England Theology, Edwardseans like Hezekiah Balch, Isaac Anderson, and Gideon Blackburn ministered primarily in the Appalachian Mountains, where, interestingly, the plantation system was not as embedded as it was in the deeper South.16

Southern Methodists could sometimes be as scathing in their critiques of Edwards as the Presbyterians. In 1845, Kentuckian Albert Taylor Bledsoe (1809–1877), an Episcopal priest turned itinerant Methodist, published his blistering Examination of President Edwards’ Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will and argued that Edwards’s concept of freedom was not nearly free enough. “For Bledsoe,” says Michael O’Brien, “Edwards was muddled, tautological, and, while asserting freedom of the will, made it too dependent upon the authority of a ‘strongest motive’ to justify the assertion.”17 Not surprisingly, Bledsoe was a staunch supporter of slavery, serving in the Confederacy as chief of the War Bureau and as assistant Secretary of War. After the Civil War, Bledsoe was even a leading voice against Reconstruction. In antebellum America, while adherence to the New England Theology was by no means a sure sign of abolitionism, and although many New England Theologians were rather tepid abolitionists, vehement opposition to Edwards’s theology often overlapped with strong pro-slavery sentiment.18

“Vehement opposition to Edwards’s theology often overlapped with strong pro-slavery sentiment.”

Conversely, some Methodists who opposed slavery digested Edwards — but not completely. As part of his Christian Library, John Wesley edited five of Edwards’s works, but none were published in their entirety. In fact, Wesley’s version of Religious Affections was only a sixth of the original size! In his section “To the Reader,” Wesley called the famous work a “dangerous heap, wherein much wholesome food is mixt with much deadly poison.”19 The result was, in the words of historian Joseph A. Conforti, “an increasingly Methodized Edwards” during the Second Great Awakening.20 In the South, Edwards’s Calvinism did not settle well in the strict stomachs of Presbyterians, nor did it suit the Arminian diet of Methodists.

Dixie Divinity

However, there was one group in the antebellum South that managed to reconcile the New England Theology with a strong commitment to slavery. While these evangelicals inhabited a Southern landscape unfamiliar to the bustling cities of New England, they believed their similarities with Edwards far outweighed their differences. But they were not who many, including Edwards, would have expected to promote his ideas. They were Baptists. And they defended the name of Jonathan Edwards almost as vigorously as they defended the institution of slavery. On the eve of the Civil War, Georgia pastor Charles Dutton Mallary had both on his mind. In 1860, he boasted, “The world has seen the light and felt the power of but few men more remarkably than President Edwards. He was not less distinguished for piety than for gigantic intellect; and it was the meekness and gentleness of his piety that went far to make him, as a Christian, so prosperous and so great.”21 But Mallary was not as welcoming to New Englanders as he was to the New England Theology. During the Civil War, in the very last letter he ever penned, Mallary wrote, “If the Federals should get possession of my poor body, I shall tell them I am a rebel.”22 In one of the great ironies of American religious history, the theology of abolitionists was adopted by those who reviled abolitionists.

The New England Theology crossed the Mason-Dixon line along two primary routes: (1) Northerners who migrated to the South and (2) Southerners who read the works of Jonathan Edwards and his New England disciples. In these two ways, Edwards adopted a Southern accent, one might say. In truth, Northerners had been shaping Southern culture for over a century before the Civil War, bringing their ideas (and their books) with them. Oliver Hart, the chief architect of the first Baptist association in the South, was sent to Charleston by the Philadelphia Association. Having personally listened to George Whitefield during the Great Awakening as a young man, Hart admired Jonathan Edwards as a revivalist and relished A Faithful Narrative (1737), modeling his own ministry after Edwards’s. In February 1830, a set of books from Hart’s library was gifted to a young Baptist preacher named Basil Manly Sr. (1798–1868). One of the books was titled Edwards Against Chauncy.23

But Manly was absorbing more than books. Indeed, he had already been influenced by a New Englander as a student at South Carolina College: Jonathan Maxcy (1768–1820). The former President of Rhode Island College not only venerated Edwards but also adopted the teachings of the New Divinity school, who regarded Maxcy’s doctrine of atonement as one of the finest examples of their own.24 As a result, over the next few decades, Manly became an avid defender of both slavery and Edwards. Owning over forty slaves, Manly was a cofounder of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yet he also became intimately familiar with Edwards’s Freedom of the Will (1754) and even wrote to his son about his reading of The Nature of True Virtue (1765). Although in the wake of the Missouri Compromise (1820) Manly acknowledged that an “inconsistency between slavery and a perfect equality and freedom can never be removed so long as those terms embrace the same ideas they do at present,” he did not see an incompatibility between Edwards’s ideas and the enslavement of human beings.25 Neither, apparently, did his son. “When I contrast the feeling of my heart with the exercises of that blessed man of God, Jon. Edwards,” the younger Manly once recorded in his diary, “I am astonished at the coldness of my own heart.”26 Edwards helped to convict the Manlys of their sinfulness, but not of their slavery.

Through his writings, Jonathan Edwards seemed to convert, call, and commission young Baptists into the South. Where and when they encountered Edwards’s ideas, however, typically determined their eventual position on the so-called “negro question.” In 1816, Richard Furman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston, proposed the works of Edwards as tools for “the conversion of sinners.”27 Years later, Furman’s proposal became prophecy when Basil Manly Jr., who would draft the Abstract of Principles at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was converted as a freshman at the University of Alabama largely by reading Edwards’s Personal Narrative (1740).

Edwards could also exert his influence upon Baptists by calling them away from the South and away from college. When Richard Fuller matriculated at Harvard in 1820, he would be among only 9 percent of students in Cambridge from the South for the next forty years.28 Nevertheless, an illness prompted doctors to transport Fuller, to, of all places, Northampton, Massachusetts. The “impressions” made upon Fuller by Edwards’s life and legacy during his recovery were apparently so strong that he returned to Harvard and to South Carolina with a newfound call to ministry. Although Fuller did not become a Baptist until returning to the South, he confessed years later that it was in Northampton that his mind “awoke from its obvious sleep.”29

Eventually serving as the third president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Fuller also chaired the committee that authored the preamble of the Convention in 1845. In that same year, a series of letters between Fuller and Francis Wayland on the issue of slavery was published, establishing Fuller as one of the leading pro-slavery voices in America. However, according to Mark Noll, the exchange was “one of the United States’ last serious one-on-one debates where advocates for and against slavery engaged each other directly, with reasonable restraint, and with evident intent to hear out the opponent to the extent possible.”30 Like Manly Sr., Fuller conceded certain evils of slavery and was even accused by many Southerners of being “too moderate.”31 Still, Fuller, who once praised missionary David Brainerd for his zeal to save the lost, also contended for the right to enslave the lost.32

As demonstrated by Fuller at Harvard, Southerners who ventured to New England and encountered Edwards’s thought still returned as Southerners at heart. Likewise, when New Englanders traveled South to evangelize Southerners, they usually retained their anti-slavery views, and they were often sent out with Edwards’s ideas. John Mason Peck (1789–1858), the first home missionary of the Triennial Convention, who served in Missouri and Southern Illinois for over forty years, was a former Congregationalist from Litchfield County, Connecticut, the so-called “seedbed of the New Divinity movement.”33 While waiting for a decision by the Triennial Convention in 1815, Peck purchased a copy of The Life of David Brainerd. In his diary he wrote, “Oh, what would I not willingly do or suffer if I could live as devoted as this eminent servant of God! His singular piety and devotedness to the cause of Christ affected me so much that frequently I shut up the book and indulged myself in meditation and prayer.”34 Remarkably, the year after Peck headed southwest, inspired by the example of David Brainerd, a new Presbyterian mission was established in Southern Tennessee for the Cherokee: Brainerd Mission. The Edwardsean legacy of missions in the South was not relegated to Baptists.35

As a Whig who opposed pro-slavery Jacksonian politics, Peck represented many New Englanders who moved to the frontier. In St. Louis, for instance, Peck instituted a day school that taught slave children. Between 1818 and 1822, blacks and whites worshiped together under Peck’s pastoral care. Eventually, Peck’s colleague, freedman John Berry Meachum, assumed leadership of the congregation and helped establish the First African Baptist Church of St. Louis. Peck also supported anti-slavery groups like the Friends of Humanity.

Through his writings and his disciples and even his own stomping grounds, Jonathan Edwards had a profound effect upon Baptists in the antebellum South. (One Baptist was even nicknamed “the Jonathan Edwards of the South.”)36 However, much like the rest of the country, other social and political factors determined one’s exact position on the issue of slavery.

Defending Slavery with Abolitionist Ideas

If anti-Edwardseans were often characterized by a more vehement pro-slavery sentiment, and if New England Theologians like Peck, Finney, and Beecher brought their abolitionism with them to the West and South, were Southern Edwardseans more “moderate” in their defense of slavery? Did abolitionist instincts develop more strongly among Southerners who held to Jonathan Edwards’s ideas? The answer is a bit more complicated in the South than it appeared to be in the North. Although Manly Sr. and Fuller were, at times, more reasoned and restrained in their defenses of slavery, they were slaveowners nonetheless. Moderate Calvinism did not produce moderate slaveholding, if you will. Ultimately, by the 1830s, individual prejudices and regional contexts usually could not be overcome. On one hand, the New England Theology was powerful enough to transcend nearly every racial, economic, and cultural barrier that divided evangelicals in antebellum America. Within the South, for instance, Edwardsean Baptists like James Madison Pendleton and Thomas Meredith voiced their opposition or reluctance to slavery.37 But throughout the majority of the South, Edwards’s ideas were generally not powerful enough to turn evangelism into emancipation. Instead, the same ideas that propelled missions were often weaponized to support slavery.

Richard Furman was the inaugural president of the Triennial Convention,38 established in 1814. Like Adoniram Judson, the first American overseas missionary, and like Andrew Fuller, the founding secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society in England, Furman adhered to an Edwardsean brand of Calvinism that emphasized the freedom of the will, natural ability, and the responsibility of sinners to believe the gospel.39 More than any American Baptist of his generation, Furman was a catalyst for domestic and overseas missions. However, in 1823, when Furman addressed the governor on behalf of the newly formed South Carolina Baptist Convention in the wake of the foiled Denmark Vesey slave revolt, he made an unconventional argument on behalf of slavery. In his Exposition of the Views of the Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States (1823), Furman was forced to answer the question of how slaves arrived in America. He contended that “the Africans brought to America were, in general, slaves, by their own consent, before they came from their own country, or fell into the hands of white men.” He concluded, “Consequently, the man made a slave in this manner, might be said to be made so by his own consent, and by the indulgence of barbarous principles.” In other words, by their own free will, slaves chose to become slaves.

In Furman’s view, “the wisest and best policy” for nations is to “consider and acknowledge the government of the Deity, to feel their dependence on him and trust in him, to be thankful for his mercies, and to be humbled under his chastening rod; so, not only moral and religious duty, but also a regard to the best interests of the community appear to require of us.”40 Incredibly, Richard Furman argued that slaves wrenched from their homes in Africa had become slaves by their own free choice, and that South Carolina’s slave-ocracy was established by God for the good of all. The freedom of the will and the moral government of God, two ideas that had supported the abolitionist cause in the North, were employed in the service of slavery in the South. In a terrible contradiction, the very concepts that aided Southerners in converting Africans could also be used to enslave them. Although Furman contended for the theological education of slaves in the treatise, he too was a slaveholder.

In 1845, when Southern Baptists severed ties with the Triennial Convention for the rights of domestic missionaries to own slaves, the resulting denomination stood as a testament to just how inextricable slavery and missions had become in the Southern Baptist mind. The inaugural president of the Southern Baptist Convention, William B. Johnson, was a product of New England Theology. Taught by New Divinity man John Waldo in grade school and influenced by Jonathan Maxcy at South Carolina College, Johnson had once commended a fellow South Carolina Baptist for being “imbued with the Spirit of New England Theology.”41 Like John Mason Peck, Johnson held to the signature doctrine of the New England Theology: the moral governmental theory of atonement.42 Also like Peck, Johnson believed in evangelizing the lost for God’s glory and the good of the moral universe. And yet, just as Peck had wielded the New England Theology to advocate against slavery, Johnson used it to argue for slavery.

In Johnson’s Address, he declared that the aim of the Convention was “the glory of our God” and “the profit of these poor, perishing souls.”43 As the only American to ever preside over two Baptist missionary conventions (he also served as the fourth president of the Triennial Convention), Johnson did more than perhaps any Christian of his era to mobilize missions for the sake of the African people. Yet tragically, few Americans did more than Johnson to baptize the concept of slavery as an evangelistic good. Ultimately, the most enduring legacy of Jonathan Edwards in the South was not abolitionism, but pro-slavery missions, a paradox that appeared, oddly enough, in Edwards himself. On one hand, Edwards handed Southern Baptists the ideological tools to evangelize the lost with a robust doctrine of sovereign grace. On the other hand, the same ideas that were often weaponized to defend the institution of slavery in the South were never employed by Jonathan Edwards for that specific purpose. In some ways, in their zeal for revival and their inveterate belief in a hierarchical society based upon slavery, Southern Edwardseans resembled Edwards more than his own New England successors. In other ways, they bore little resemblance to the Northampton theologian.

Theological Crisis

As E. Brooks Holifield has noted, in the antebellum period, “Southern treatises bristled with allusions to Edwards.”44 In fact, the New England Theology and its conception of freedom had a direct impact upon the events leading to the Civil War. In 1790, an antislavery sermon by Jonathan Edwards Jr., titled “The Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade, and of Slavery,” made its way into the hands of one Owen Brown, who would thereafter become an ardent abolitionist.45 Brown made certain to pass on his militant views to his son John, who would eventually lead the infamous raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.46 By innovating further upon Jonathan Edwards’s ideas, the New England Theology shaped the South — and the course of American history.47

“Antebellum Christians could apply the same theological ideas about freedom to vastly different ends.”

But just as Americans divided over the nature of freedom, antebellum Christians could apply the same theological ideas about freedom to vastly different ends. The story of Jonathan Edwards’s abolitionist successors in New England and his slaveholding followers in the South is an important part of what Mark Noll has called the “theological crisis” of the Civil War era.48 In fact, from Southern Edwardseans to “Black Fundamentalists,” American history has been marked by different groups who held to similar doctrines and yet arrived at opposite moral conclusions on racial issues.49 In the antebellum South, Edwards’s ideas did not always find fertile soil in the Presbyterian or Methodist or other evangelical denominations.50 But among Southern Baptists, the New England Theology adopted a Southern accent, one that quickly defended, even if did not always celebrate, the institution of slavery.51 These Edwardseans were neither New School nor Old School in the purest sense. Instead, they often embodied both.52

However, Baptists could sometimes be more Old School than New School. Patrick Hues Mell, who would eventually become the longest tenured president of the Southern Baptist Convention (1863–1871, 1880–1887), was an Edwardsean who once referred his readers to Edwards’s “able treatise” on The End for Which God Created the World.53 Mell seemed to exhibit a higher degree of militancy on the issue of slavery than many of his Southern Edwardsean contemporaries. His pro-slavery work in 1844 was titled Slavery, A Treatise, Showing that Slavery is Neither a Political, Moral, Nor Social Evil. One cannot help but wonder whether Mell had a bit of Old School flavor that influenced his views, as his mother Cynthia was “brought up in the strictest mode of Congregationalism” and raised her son according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism. According to one Presbyterian minister, Mell was a “perfect reproduction of his mother.”54 In the antebellum South, perhaps the best theological indication of one’s degree of support for the institution of slavery was not his opinion of Jonathan Edwards, but rather what he thought of Edwards’s abolitionist disciples. Not surprisingly, Mell repudiated Samuel Hopkins, whom he did not consider “a Calvinist at all.”55 In the antebellum South, a higher Calvinism was often coupled with a higher view of slavery.

Although Jonathan Edwards’s Northern and Southern successors were not united on abolitionism, the nature of freedom, or the natural ability of slaves, most all of them acknowledged with Edwards that “the will always is as the great apparent good is.”56 And this is almost certainly how the very same ideas about God and man and salvation could produce such radically different moral outcomes. On the issue of emancipation, Edwardseans disagreed about what was right because they could not agree about what was best. The so-called “greatest apparent good” was not defined the same in the South as it was in the North. Therefore, groups with the same theological mind did not share the same will, so to speak.

Edwardsean ideas would last well beyond the Civil War in both the North and the South, in both black and white churches. Charles Octavius Boothe (1845–1924) pastored black congregations in Mississippi and Alabama in the postbellum years. In Plain Theology for Plain People, originally published in 1890, Boothe defined theology as “the knowledge of God and of the divine government,” noting “God’s control of men and demons in the interest of his moral government.”57 Indeed, Edwardsean ideas could be employed in a number of different contexts and churches in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even twentieth centuries. But as the Southern Edwardseans demonstrated in the antebellum period, and as Edwards himself had impressed upon his own generation, while ideas are powerful enough to change a nation, ideas themselves are not enough to change the minds and hearts of sinners.

The Sermon That Divided America

Fosdick, a Baptist who pastored the First Presbyterian Church of New York, was not the first person in the history of American evangelicalism to question the virgin birth, the inspiration of the Bible, the substitutionary atonement, or the second coming of Christ. But he was certainly one of the first to do so with the assurance that most evangelicals would soon agree with him. For fundamentalists, the most shocking aspect of Fosdick’s sermon was not simply the heresy, but the assumption that heresy (or the acceptance of heresy) was the new orthodoxy. 

To say that Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (1922) ignited the fundamentalist-modernist controversy requires a bit of qualification. In truth, the lines had been drawn for at least a decade.
Between 1910 and 1915, a series of 12 paperback volumes called The Fundamentals had defended everything from the virgin birth to the deity of Christ to the inspiration of Scripture against those who sought to undermine the supernatural character of the Christian faith. In 1920, the term “fundamentalist” was coined by Baptist editor Curtis Lee Laws at the first meeting of the General Conference on Fundamentals to describe someone who held to the historic doctrines of Christianity. By 1922, a “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism” had already emerged in America. According to Fosdick’s biographer, “The sermon was not a stone dropped into denominational waters that would otherwise have remained calm.” In some sense, Fosdick did not create the fundamentalist movement. He just gave it a push.
New Orthodoxy
Fosdick, a Baptist who pastored the First Presbyterian Church of New York, was not the first person in the history of American evangelicalism to question the virgin birth, the inspiration of the Bible, the substitutionary atonement, or the second coming of Christ. But he was certainly one of the first to do so with the assurance that most evangelicals would soon agree with him. 
For fundamentalists, the most shocking aspect of Fosdick’s sermon was not simply the heresy, but the assumption that heresy (or the acceptance of heresy) was the new orthodoxy. “I do not believe for one moment that the Fundamentalists are going to succeed,” Fosdick declared triumphantly. The fundamentalist defeat was inevitable. Preaching from Acts 5:34–39, Fosdick was as confident of modernist victory as the Pharisee Gamaliel had been of the work of God.
Fosdick’s inflammatory sermon soon unleashed a torrent of responses from fundamentalists, who now had an adversary bold enough to meet them out in the open. In his reply to Fosdick titled “Shall Unbelief Win?” (1922), Clarence Edwards Macartney was struck by the fact that, unlike modernists of the past, Fosdick “leaves no reader or hearer in the least doubt what he believes, or disbelieves, about the cardinal doctrines of the Christian religion.” One might say that Fosdick finally turned a conflict into a controversy.
United Against Liberalism
In some ways, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was a missile wrapped in a banner of peace. As a call for tolerance within the Presbyterian church, Fosdick’s sermon was also an offensive launched against those “illiberal and intolerant” Presbyterians who would expel him from their denomination for his beliefs (the heretical ones, not the Baptist ones). Consequently, the sermon helped conservatives to do what they’d been struggling to do on their own: unite. 
By 1922, for instance, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA), begun by William Bell Riley, “was already displaying signs of collapse.” Interdenominational cooperation didn’t come easy, and the name “fundamentalist” carried a stigma even inside the conservative ranks, particularly due to its association with “the premillennial reign of Christ.” But as America’s chief popularizer of modernism, Fosdick embodied for many fundamentalists the very worst of theological liberalism and evoked their collective disdain.
In Christianity and Liberalism (1923), published less than a year after the sermon, J. Gresham Machen argued that historic Christianity and modernism were not simply two shades of the same faith, but rather two completely different religions. Not surprisingly, he cited Fosdick’s sermon.
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Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian? The Troubled Faith of a Disgraced Founding Father

ABSTRACT: Due to his shameful death at the hands of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton is not typically remembered for his religion. But Hamilton appeared to exercise a genuine faith during his lifetime, including in the final hours following the duel. While a number of America’s founding fathers questioned or rejected the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, Hamilton, the grandson of a French Huguenot, remained within the bounds of historic Protestantism and was no stranger to the Bible or the church. Without these broad theological convictions, his immigration to America and his own political achievements likely would not have been possible. Despite his seemingly authentic faith, however, Hamilton was a man between two churches, shaped by both but finding fellowship in neither.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Obbie Tyler Todd (PhD, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), pastor of Third Baptist Church in Marion, Illinois, to explore the faith of Alexander Hamilton.

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton through the liver in Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton clung to life for another 31 hours after the duel. Although his illustrious career and ignominious death have not typically been remembered for their piety and devotion, Hamilton’s beliefs about God, Christ, sin, and salvation came to the fore in these last excruciating moments.

Hamilton was no stranger to the Bible or the church. As a child on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where he was born across the street from St. Paul’s Anglican Church, he attended a small Hebrew school and learned to recite the Decalogue in its original language. At Elizabethtown Academy in New Jersey, he wrote commentaries on the books of Genesis and Revelation. At King’s College in New York, he attended chapel and began “the habit of praying upon his knees both night and morning.”1 In fact, Hamilton owed his passage to America largely to the Presbyterian church through the patronage of Rev. Hugh Knox, who inspired the teenager to record his thoughts about God and who likely sponsored the subscription fund that sent him to America to be educated.

By the time Burr’s bullet settled in his vertebra and left him withering away in a second-floor Manhattan bedroom, however, Hamilton’s relationship to the church was much less promising. Alexander Hamilton, the West Indian immigrant who became the principal architect of the new American government, was still without a church home. As a result, coupled with the egregious circumstances of his death, he was twice denied communion in his final moments.

Deathbed Confessions

Shortly after crossing the Hudson River wounded and being transported to the home of his friend William Bayard, Hamilton called for Rev. Benjamin Moore, the rector of Trinity Church, the Episcopal bishop of New York, and the president of Columbia College. In 1788, the Hamiltons had their three eldest children baptized simultaneously at Trinity Church. Since 1790, when the church was rebuilt after the great fire of 1776, they had rented pew 92. Therefore, to ask Moore to perform last rites was not totally unexpected. On one hand, Hamilton appeared to ascribe some efficacy to the sacraments and wished to be buried at Trinity Church. On the other hand, Hamilton was only nominally Episcopalian.

“Hamilton’s beliefs about God, Christ, sin, and salvation came to the fore in these last excruciating moments.”

No amount of legal work he supplied for the church or religious fervor on the part of his wife, Eliza (who was unaware of the duel), could atone for the fact that Hamilton had never actually been baptized an Episcopalian. Hamilton had neither attended Trinity Church regularly nor had he taken communion. Therefore, despite a dying plea from one of the nation’s founding fathers, Hamilton was to Bishop Moore a lawless duelist without access to the Lord’s Table. Moore’s refusal to administer the Lord’s Supper to a non-Episcopalian would only foreshadow the high church theology of the next bishop of New York, John Henry Hobart, whose Apology for Apostolic Order and Its Advocates (1807) was aimed at the second clergyman who visited Hamilton that day: Rev. John Mitchell Mason.

Although Mason was less exclusivist than the Episcopalians, he likewise was bound by his own theological convictions in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. When Hamilton pleaded with his dear friend to administer communion to him, Mason replied that, even though it gave him “unutterable pain” to decline such a request, “it is a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s Supper privately to any person under any circumstances.” After Mason explained that the Supper was only a sign of the mercy of Christ that is “accessible to him by faith,” Hamilton responded softly, “I am aware of that. It was only as a sign that I wanted it.”

Alexander Hamilton held to a basic understanding of the gospel, to be sure. Nevertheless, in the face of Hamilton’s shameful and imminent demise, Mason proceeded to quote from a barrage of scriptural texts, including Romans 3:23, Acts 4:12, Hebrews 7:25, Ephesians 1:7, 1 Timothy 1:15, and Isaiah 43:25 and 1:18. When the preacher reminded him “that in the sight of God all men are on a level, as all have sinned, and come short of his glory,” and must take refuge in the righteousness of Christ, Hamilton answered, “I perceive it to be so. I am a sinner: I look to his mercy.” Upon Mason’s insistence that the grace of God was rich, Hamilton interrupted, “Yes, it is rich grace.” Indeed, few presentations of the gospel could have been clearer than the one delivered to Alexander Hamilton on his deathbed. Still, perhaps the most compelling testimony from Rev. Mason is his account of Hamilton’s reaction to Ephesians 1:7. After hearing of the “forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace,” Hamilton finally let go of Mason’s hand, clasped his own hands together, looked up to heaven, and cried, “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”2

Hamilton the Christian?

Were these the words of a true believer? At first glance, Hamilton’s confessions appear as if they were uttered in genuine faith. In his final hours, the Major General claimed that the promises of Scripture were his “support.” Years earlier, in a renowned legal case, Hamilton had referred to the Jews in the Old Testament as the “witnesses of [God’s] miracles” who were “charged with the spirit of prophecy.”3 Even though Hamilton was influenced by deism during his lifetime, he was never suspicious of biblical revelation to the degree of Franklin, Jefferson, or Madison.4 Hamilton once confessed that he could prove the truth of the Christian religion “as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.”5 His abolitionism and his capacity for lasting friendship set him apart from many of the other founders. His view of human nature, demonstrated best in the Federalist Papers, often bordered on the Puritanical.

However, like Washington (who actually joined the Episcopalian Church), Hamilton was reticent to discuss his Christian faith. Ironically, the man who, to rescue his financial integrity, printed an entire account of his own affair in the first major sex scandal in American history had seemingly less to say about his relationship with Jesus Christ. Episcopal Bishop William White refused to publicly drink a toast to Hamilton due to his indiscretions with Maria Reynolds, and evangelicals today have also been reluctant to honor an adulterer.6 Although he had once opposed dueling “on the principles of religion” and seemed not to intend to actually kill Burr, a duelist he was nonetheless.7

“Hamilton was a paradoxical figure whose sins were just as public as his successes.”

As many scholars have noted, Hamilton was a paradoxical figure whose sins were just as public as his successes. By examining the complexity of Hamilton’s faith, Christians today are confronted with the conflict that inevitably arises when the authority of the local church is subordinated to personal ambition and when the teenage fire of Christian zeal is slowly cooled by professional aspirations and the desires of the world. In such a relatively brief life, one encounters the danger of building earthly kingdoms without seeking first the kingdom of God, the grace and encouragement of a believing spouse, and the fleeting nature of even the most astonishing career. In order to better understand Hamilton’s theology, his aversion to church membership, and his own Christian practice, the best place to begin is on the small Caribbean island from which he came.

Grandson of a French Huguenot

As a boy, Alexander Hamilton was raised in a religious, albeit savage and precarious, world. His mother’s store in St. Croix was next to St. John’s Anglican Church on Company’s Lane. The Hebrew school in which he was instructed left him with a lifelong affection for the Jewish people. In fact, Protestantism was the very reason that Hamilton’s family had arrived in the West Indies. In a letter to William Jackson in 1800, in which he fumed over criticisms of his ignoble birth, Hamilton wrote, “My Grandfather by the mothers side of the name of Faucette was a French Huguenot who emigrated to the West Indies in consequence of the Edict of Nantz and settled in the Island of Nevis and there acquired a pretty fortune. I have been assured by persons who knew him that he was a man of letters and much of a gentleman.”8

Huguenots were Protestants in France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who held to the teachings of John Calvin, a French-born theologian in Geneva. While the Edict of Nantz in 1598 granted religious toleration to Protestants for the sake of civil unity, the French Reformed Church would endure severe persecution when the Edict was revoked in 1685 by Louis XIV.9 The result was a Huguenot diaspora throughout the western world, including the West Indies. John Faucette had arrived at the shores of Nevis as a French immigrant seeking religious freedom from the tyranny of the Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, his grandson would carry an aversion to popery all of his life.

Indeed, Hamilton may very well have thought of his grandfather when he denounced the Quebec Act of 1774, a measure that extended the border of Quebec to the Ohio River and guaranteed full religious liberty to French-Canadian Catholics. In A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, Hamilton opined, “The affair of Canada, if possible, is still worse. The English laws have been superseded by the French laws. The Romish faith is made the established religion of the land, and his Majesty is placed at the head of it. The free exercise of the protestant faith depends upon the pleasure of the Governor and Council.” He then asked, “Does not your blood run cold, to think an English parliament should pass an act for the establishment of arbitrary power and popery in such an extensive country?”10

Shown by his friendship with Marquis de Lafayette and his proficiency in the French language, Hamilton never lost touch with his French heritage. But an abiding hostility toward Catholicism and French “infidelity” always remained. In a letter to Edward Carrington in 1792, Hamilton warned that Thomas Jefferson had “drank deeply of the French philosophy, in Religion, in Science, in politics.”11 Although the rationality of deism appealed greatly to Hamilton, he never strayed from a Protestant outlook of world events. He was, after all, also the grandson of a Scottish laird on his father’s side.

Nevertheless, despite his rich family heritage, there was also a darker side to the religious world he inhabited. As the illegitimate son of a bankrupt merchant, Hamilton was likely barred from being instructed at an Anglican school.12 In addition to the many losses and rejections that he and his brother James suffered at a young age, this would certainly have influenced his religious consciousness. Alexander Hamilton was, in some sense, disinherited by his own family and by the church. As Ron Chernow observes, “As a divorced woman with two children conceived out of wedlock, Rachel was likely denied a burial at nearby St. John’s Anglican Church. This may help to explain a mystifying ambivalence that Hamilton always felt about regular church attendance, despite a pronounced religious bent.”13

Hamilton’s affiliation with the church thus became not unlike his own American citizenship, being at once insider and outsider. The hierarchical West Indian system that bred in him a hatred of slavery and an indomitable ambition may also have fostered a rather conflicted view of the church. Hamilton, the architect of the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s first banking system, was a believer in institutions. Yet as demonstrated in his last moments, he also had difficulty submitting himself to that very authority.

Under a Sovereign God

Hamilton’s life changed when he met Rev. Hugh Knox. Ordained by Princeton president Aaron Burr, the son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards and the father of the man who killed Hamilton, Knox believed that illegitimate children should be baptized. His combination of evangelical Calvinism and intellectualism attracted young Hamilton to the things of God. Soon after the Presbyterian minister arrived in St. Croix in 1771, Hamilton began regularly attending his revival services and reading from his extensive library (Knox graduated from Yale in 1751). According to one historian, “At seventeen Alexander Hamilton may have undergone a powerful religious conversion. At least that is the impression he gave that spring, as the Great Awakening swooped down on St. Croix.”14

Although Hamilton probably read sermons and devotional tracts from his mother’s book collection as a child, this was the first time he thought freely and deeply about the Bible, consuming bound sermons from his mentor’s library. Knox even inspired his young protégé to compose his own religious epistle! After a hurricane demolished St. Croix in 1772, Knox delivered a sermon to his congregation to lift their minds and hearts heavenward. Eventually published in a pamphlet, the sermon seemed to have a profound effect upon Hamilton, who wrote a graphic letter to his father describing the ferocity of the storm and drawing from Knox’s themes. After showing the letter to Knox, the minister persuaded him to publish it in the Royal Danish American Gazette. The letter illustrates that, even as a teenager, Hamilton believed in a Creator who intervened powerfully and personally in his creation. He wrote,

See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God. How sweet, how unutterably sweet were now, the voice of an approving conscience; Then couldst thou say, hence ye idle alarms, why do I shrink? What have I to fear? A pleasing calm suspense! A short repose from calamity to end in eternal bliss? Let the Earth rend. Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder. Yet what have I to dread? My staff can never be broken — in Omnipotence I trusted. . . . He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage — even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed — and his perfections have I adored.15

After recounting the horror of the hurricane to his father, Hamilton added, “But see, the Lord relents. He hears our prayer.” The themes of judgment, mercy, and human dependence in the letter reflected Hamilton’s belief in an all-controlling God who ordered the cosmos and who ultimately could be trusted in an unstable and cruel island world. Remarkably, Hamilton’s letter about God’s providence became his ticket to America when a number of benefactors read the piece and began a fund to send the young man north to be educated.

Before leaving, Hamilton almost certainly penned an unsigned hymn that his future wife, Eliza, would cherish for decades after his death as an example of his Christian piety. Published in the Gazette on October 17, 1772, as an imitation of Alexander Pope’s “The Dying Christian to His Soul,” it reads,

Hark! hark! a voice from yonder sky,Methinks I hear my Saviour cry,Come gentle spirit come away,Come to thy Lord without delay;For thee the gates of bliss unbar’dThy constant virtue to reward

I come oh Lord! I mount, I fly,On rapid wings I cleave the sky;Stretch out thine arm and aid my flight;For oh! I long to gain that height,Where all celestial beings singEternal praises to their King.

O Lamb of God! thrice gracious LordNow, now I feel how true thy word;Translated to this happy place,This blessed vision of thy face;My soul shall all thy steps attendIn songs of triumph without end.16

While Alexander Hamilton did not frequently express his thoughts about Jesus Christ, he was, at times during his youth, capable of eloquent meditations on the Son of God. After arriving in America, he continued his religious instruction and even developed spiritual disciplines. But the Revolution and his own personal ambition made it difficult for him to settle upon one denomination.

Between Two Churches

By the time Hamilton disembarked in Boston in 1772, the political frenzy in the colonies had already begun to erupt in the churches. At Elizabethtown Academy, Hamilton studied under Presbyterian teachers who would later serve under his command, including headmaster Francis Barber. Hamilton listened to three-hour sermons on Sundays next to men possessed by the spirit of liberty. As a training ground for Princeton (the College of New Jersey), Elizabethtown introduced Hamilton to Presbyterian orthodoxy and patriotism. In some ways, he was being catechized in the Westminster Confession and in republicanism. After all, Princeton’s president John Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence and the first clergyman at the Continental Congress.

On one hand, its combination of evangelical Calvinism and Whig principles made Princeton the logical choice for a college education. Hamilton was accepted at 18 years old after passing Witherspoon’s examination. On the other hand, Hamilton’s insatiable drive to achieve was greater than his desire to ground himself in the Presbyterian faith. As a result, when Witherspoon denied his bold request to complete his schooling in three years instead of four, Hamilton looked to New York — to the Church of England.

As he would later prove in his writings, Hamilton’s departure from Princeton was not a sign of any Tory sympathies (although he often feared the rising mob mentality in the colonies). However, upon his passing an examination into Princeton by one of the most anti-Episcopal figures in America, that Hamilton then chose to attend King’s College in New York City, a bastion of Anglicanism and loyalism in the colonies, is perhaps the clearest sign that Hamilton’s affiliation to the church was only as strong as his professional aspirations.

“Hamilton was a man between two churches.”

Still a teenager, Hamilton was no more loyal to the Church of England than the Church of England had been to his family as a child. The only difference was that Hamilton, the illegitimate son from Nevis, was now in seeming control of his political destiny and itching to receive his education from the fastest bidder. While this apparently did not hinder his personal Christian devotion, it certainly did not strengthen his ties to the local church. Indeed, Hamilton was a man between two churches. A Presbyterian from Princeton had helped thrust him to America, and yet another inadvertently forced him to Manhattan to study under Anglican Myles Cooper, one of the most outspoken loyalists in the colonies.

Nevertheless, Hamilton’s ecclesiastical turnabout did not hinder his efforts to develop his own spiritual disciplines. At King’s College, his roommate Robert Troup recalled,

Whilst at college, [he] was attentive to public worship and in the habit of praying upon his knees both night and morning. I have lived in the same room with him for sometime and I have often been powerfully affected by the fervor and eloquence of his prayers. [He] had [already] read most of the polemical writers on religious subjects and he was a zealous believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.17

Although Troup may have been guilty of a bit of hero worship, Hamilton did attend chapel services routinely and exhibited an interest in theological study. As to his reading of polemical works, these may have led Hamilton to lean in the direction of deism as the war began, as the Anglican church was defined by a vehement anti-Calvinism and extreme rationalism in the late colonial and early national periods.18 Although, for example, Hamilton mocked Anglican leaders like Samuel Seabury for their loyalty to Parliament, he did not repudiate Anglican theology to the same degree.

As the war progressed and nation-building ensued, due to his political genius and military skill, Hamilton’s writings naturally adopted a much more civil and diplomatic turn. Hamilton’s references to the divine became vaguer and less Christian. The language of a “divinely authoritative Religion,” “the will of heaven,” and “an over-ruling Providence” far outweighed any allusions to Scripture or any kind of theological discourse, indicating that Hamilton may have slowly traded the Christ-centered, born-again religion of his youth for the lawful, reasonable deism of the age (or something we might call Christian rationalism).19

Still, there is no evidence to support the idea that Hamilton rejected the deity of Christ or that he questioned God’s miraculous intervention in the world. To simply label Hamilton a “deist” or a “rationalist” does not adequately describe his own theology during this stage of his life. To begin, more so than Jefferson, Hamilton believed that the French Revolution was opposed to “friends of religion.”20 Like Washington, he believed that we “flatter ourselves that morality can be separated from religion.”21 In other words, natural law is grounded in the eternal, revealed law of God. In the early years of the republic, Hamilton proposed a “day of humiliation and prayer” for the nation.22 In his doctrine of divine providence, Hamilton still remained the same young man who had prayed for the hurricane to cease on the island of St. Croix. Faith was about more than knowledge or reason. As Secretary of the Treasury, he noted to George Washington “the conflict between Reason & Passion,” a tension that many of his deist or Unitarian colleagues might not have admitted so easily.23 Although the Federalist Papers never mention God explicitly, Hamilton sounded like a New Light evangelical in his opening essay: “In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”24 Political liberty and religious liberty were inseparable in Hamilton’s mind, and he affirmed a real boundary between orthodoxy and “heresies.”

As he slowly passed from the earth, Hamilton once again found himself between the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, begging each for the bread and the cup from the Lord’s Table. But Hamilton’s end was much like his life, confessing the faith once delivered to the saints while finding no real home in the communion of believers.

Eliza’s Influence

As scholars have noted, perhaps the most compelling evidence to the authenticity of Hamilton’s faith is his marriage to Eliza, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. An active member in the Dutch Reformed Church, Eliza worshiped her Lord and sought to obey his commands with such heartfelt sincerity that Washington’s staff was somewhat surprised when Hamilton chose to marry her.25 After all, Hamilton had written to a friend in 1779 about his ideal wife: “As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint.”26 In Eliza he found no moderate believer, and their wedding in 1780 was in traditional Dutch Reformed custom.

If Alexander Hamilton was an unbeliever, he was indeed “made holy because of his wife,” as her influence upon his soul became evident in his waning moments (1 Corinthians 7:14). Upon rushing into the second-floor room and discovering that her husband was dying (not suffering from “spasms,” as originally she had been told), the frantic Eliza was consoled not by Hamilton the soldier or Hamilton the founding father or Hamilton the financial genius, but by someone who appeared to know the weight of sin and the hope of Christ: “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian.”27

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