William Penn founded the Quakers and other tall tales from David Barton

As the Gipper used to say, “there you go again…”

David Barton spoke at Liberty University on September 9 and said that William Penn founded the Quakers, the early Unitarians were an evangelical denomination and Thomas Jefferson signed presidential documents “In the Year of Our Lord Christ.” That was just for starters.

At about two minutes into his speech (click the link and look for Barton on Sept. 9; you can also hear it at iTunes here), Barton said

We have the same thing when you look at Quakers. You see Quakers were founded by William Penn in Pennsylvania. I’ll lay you odds there’s no chance that William Penn would be a Quaker today, even in the denomination he founded, he would not be a part of. We look at it the way it is today and say it must have been the way they were back then.

And the example of that is what happens when you look at Universalist Unitarians; certainly not a denomination that conforms to biblical truth in any way but as it turns out, we have a number of Founding Fathers  who were Unitarians. So we say, oh wait, there’s no way the Founding Fathers could have been Christians; they were Unitarians. Well, unless you know what a Unitarian was in 1784 and what happened to Unitarians in 1819 and 1838 and unless you recognize they used to be a very evangelical Christian denomination, we look at what they are today and say the Founding Fathers were Unitarians, and say, there’s no way they were Christians. That’s modernism; that’s not accurate; that’s not true.

First of all, George Fox founded the Quakers and Penn later joined the movement. Penn was born in 1644 and Fox founded the Religious Society of Friends around 1647. Penn founded Pennsylvania but not the Quakers. Given the teachings of the Quakers, I suspect Penn might indeed be a Quaker today.

I wrote about the Unitarians in a post about John Adams and the Trinity. According the Unitarian historian Holley Ulbrichs, author of The Fellowship Movement, and member of the Universalist Unitarian church, Unitarians never believed in the Trinity and thus could not be considered evangelical. Ulbrichs told me in an email:

In 1819 William Ellery Channing preached a famous sermon in Baltimore at the ordination of Rev. Jared Sparks. The title of his sermon was “Unitarian Christianity.”  That brought to a head an ongoing battle between the religious liberals and the religious conservatives in the Congregational Church, of which John Adams was a member, but on the liberal side.  The American Unitarian Conference, later Association, came into being in 1825, a year before his death (and Thomas Jefferson’s), but both of them were very sympathetic to the anti-Trinitarian views that were at the heart of the controversy.

Unitarians were never okay with the trinity. Hence the name. Most of them like Jesus, but as a prophet, a role model, a nonviolent revolutionary. Not God.

Congregationalists were traditional in their beliefs but the Unitarians split from them. Adams and Jefferson were members of other denominations but it is clear from their correspondence that they favored the Anti-Trinitarian view.

Then finally for this post, Barton again asserts that Thomas Jefferson signed presidential documents – “In the Year of Our Lord Christ” during his speech to the Liberty students. He showed on the overhead a small portion of a document which is apparently referred to on his website as “his presidential act of October 18, 1804.”

It is unfortunate that Barton does not show the entire document so we can see what kind of “presidential act” it was. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the words “In the year of our Lord Christ” are pre-printed on the page and not in Jefferson’s handwriting.

Barton has a similar document dated 1807 on his website. As I noted in this post, the words “In the year of our Lord Christ” were required by treaty with Holland and pre-printed on a form which was used for sea letters (a kind of passport allowing safe passage) and not written by Jefferson. I can’t find any other reference to Jefferson actually signing documents in this manner. Please see this post for an extensive refutation of the claim about the 1807 document.

This is just within the first 5 minutes.


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  • Bernie

    Oh Lordy! I hate to think what else he contrived whilst speaking from ‘his’ pulpit.

    Thanks for the info Warren. I may, if time permits this weekend, put it, to rather some good use.

  • Lynn David

    Well, Liberty University lists his talk as a sermon. So you that straight-away tells a person that Barton is will not necessarily deal with factual truths.

  • Patrocles

    That’s more a battle about words and their meanings. We know that Barton sees Mormons as Christians. He seems to see everyone as a Christian who has a particular devotion for the gospel and Jesus as unique phenomena – which would include Penn, the Unitarians of 1800, Adams and Jefferson – but not most contemporary “universalist” Quakers and Unitarians. (Adams,in fact, had some inclinations to universalism, but didn’t subscribe to it.)

    As for “evangelical”, the word simply referred to the gospel; and in that way it was, of course, used by the founders of the “evangelical” movement. Afterwards it has often been confined to the adherents of the evangelical movement, That would exclude most persons of the 18th century, but would include e.g. nearly the half of the Quakers after 1830. The meaning of “evangelical” changed once more when the remainders of the Great Revival melted with the remainders of orthodox Calvinism (Princeton theology) after 1900 and “evangelicals” got to be seen as fiercely dogmatic (which wasn’t the case in the 19th century). In any way, Barton is completely free to use the word in a broader sense.

    Barton seems (unconsciously?) to strive for a new (or lost) concept: the concept of a unity of all people who are devoted to the gospel and Jesus as unique phenomena, confronted against the people who don’t. So he inevitably stumbles over the traditional words which are inept to this unwonted concept. (And yes, maybe his “new unity” is only built as a base for his political aims -but none the less, it’s an interesting idea.)

  • A couple of years ago, I read a letter to the editor in a local paper from a retired lawyer who wrote that the separation of church and state was “a myth.” This is wrong. The myth is Jesus Christ. At the time, I thought the guy was an isolated idiot. Then I heard about Barton and the rest of the “Christian founding fathers” bunch and realized that the real myth is that Adams, Jefferson, et al. were Christians. My education informed me that many of the founders were Christian, but just as many were Deists at most, and some, including Jefferson, denounced organized Christianity in no uncertain terms. He held a proto-Nietzschean view toward it. (Nietzsche said that Christianity was the worst catastrophy to befall the human race.)

    But most early American critics of Christianity merely mistrusted the clerics pushing it. They had in mind, and fresher in memory than we do, the pogroms against Jews and Muslims during the Crusades, the extirpation of the Cathari and Bogomils in Gnostic southern France, the torture and burning of “witches” (read crones peddling abortifacients), and countless other costly errors of judgment amounting to a willed ignorance of what the religion’s prophet preached.

    This Barton guy is a piece of work. He regularly pops up on Fox News. He cannot be as ignorant as he comes off. I think he is an unregistered lobbyist. He tries to come of as scholarly and uses what are called “presentist” arguments that amount to nothing so much as extrapolating backward some two centuries to put into early Americans’ mouths words or sentiments having no semblance to what actually was said or written. Barton knows that generations of Americans younger than my own have been dumbed down by an educational system that is burdened with unfunded mandates and legislative bodies that favor vouchers and private schools only the well-off can afford.

    At most, some of those listening to Barton on Fox do a Google on the topic — say, “Jefferson religion,” and come up with some semblance of veracity, but, sadly, many Americans are couch potatoes who absorb an inordinate amount of their views on issues from the passive medium of TV. It almost goes without saying that Americans read only infrequently and confine that practice to cell phone statements and the 9th grade-level press, from local papers to People. Some might even ask, “Jefferson who?” And since they’ve watched more televangelism than History Channel, one finds it necessary to explain “Deism” as a belief in a creator who, once finished with his creation, disappeared.

    The Bartons of this world are no less dangerous for all that. Goebbels said that if a lie is repeated often enough the people will believe it true. Big Brother governments rewrite history to suit their ideology. The ideology of Barton is evangelical theocracy. This is inimical to American democracy. I hope some writer comes up with a devastating biography of this dunce.

  • The idea that Unitarians (of the Founding era) can’t be Christians is not modernism; it’s orthodoxy.

    Founding era Unitarianism (I term it “unitarianism” and leave the “u” uncapitalized because the unitarianism of the Founding era — mid to late 18th Century — usually wasn’t an official denomination, but a theology) defined itself by disbelieving in the Trinity. They identified and understood themselves to be “Christians.” It was the orthodox of that era and of today who claim, no, you must believe in the Trinity to be a “mere Christian” (as CS Lewis would term it).

    I think the kernel of Truth in Barton’s claim might be the unitarians of the Founding era weren’t quite like today’s UUs. They were quite theistic, devout and very often biblical.

    In this sense, they may be more like today’s Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Non-Trinitarians, but nonetheless very devout and theistic. Though the Founding era unitarians were also very rationalistic, “enlightened” and “liberal” for their day.

    Though I am starting to see some consistency in Barton’s understanding of Christian minimums. If non-Trinitarians like Mormons can qualify as “Christians,” so too can many if not most of the Founding era unitarian Christians.

  • Jon Rowe wrote:

    Though I am starting to see some consistency in Barton’s understanding of Christian minimums. If non-Trinitarians like Mormons can qualify as “Christians,” so too can many if not most of the Founding era unitarian Christians.

    Jon – I was thinking something similar as well. He does a similar thing with Beck that he does with Adams and sometimes Jefferson. I suppose I should add Washington in there too. Barton hears a Founder say Christian and that means evangelical to him. He hears Beck invoke Jesus (the Mormon Jesus was a spirit child of the Heavenly Father and Mother and thus a brother to all of us) and he hears the Jesus of evangelical creed.