Barton Should Not Be Copied, Only Scorned

Barton Should Not Be Copied, Only Scorned August 5, 2012

Oi. Here’s another example of secularists behaving very much like the Christian Nation crowd, passing on fake and out of context quotes from the founding fathers to support our side rather than the other side. It should highlight the importance of never just blindly accepting quotes from the founders that seem to so perfectly support our cause; do some research first.

Unfortunately, once this was put on Facebook it spread like wildfire. So let’s look at those quotes one at a time. Did John Adams say that this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it? Yes, but if you read the context it is clear that he is actually saying the exact opposite. Here’s the full quote, which comes from a letter he wrote to Jefferson:

“Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.”

He clearly intended the exact opposite of what that out of context quote implies.

Now, to the second quote, from Jefferson. This is a bad paraphrase of something Jefferson wrote to his friend Joseph Priestley, the man who brought unitarianism to America. Here’s the full quote:

“Those who live by mystery and charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy — the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man — endeavored to crush your well-earnt and well-deserved fame.”

It was Priestley, among others, who convinced Jefferson that much of what appears in the gospels about Jesus was false, that his followers distorted his beliefs by putting false statements in his mouth after his death. This is why he referred to the four gospel writers as a “band of dupes and imposters” and called Paul the first great corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus. He believed Jesus’ ethical teachings to be, as he says above, “the most sublime and benevolent” ever taught, but that the gospel writers and Paul had corrupted those teachings by claiming that Jesus was divine (and had claimed to be, which Jefferson did not believe), that he’s been resurrected, born of a virgin, and so forth. So again, the context changes the meaning considerably.

The 3rd quote, from Ben Franklin, is highly suspect. I’ve searched in vain for a source for it and never found one. It appears on lots and lots of lists of quotations, but never with a citation to an actual letter or document written by Franklin. The closest I’ve seen was to a book written a few years ago by someone else, again without a source. This is exactly the sort of thing Barton is famous for doing.

The 4th quote is accurate, though slightly out of date. The treaty with Tripoli was negotiated under Washington but signed by Adams and ratified by the Senate after he took office. But that’s mere nitpicking. The other three are important. As I said, this is exactly the way David Barton does “history,” through isolated, out of context and often simply made up quotes. We should not be engaging in the same thing ourselves.

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