WAS JEFFERSON A UNITARIAN? And Other Questions Concerning the Influence of an Emergent Unitarianism on the Founding of the American Republic

WAS JEFFERSON A UNITARIAN? And Other Questions Concerning the Influence of an Emergent Unitarianism on the Founding of the American Republic November 17, 2013

And Other Questions Concerning the Influence of an Emergent Unitarianism on the Founding of the American Republic

James Ishmael Ford

17 November 2013

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence

As to the question whether Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian, the short answer is yes. A slightly longer answer is yes and no. His theology was a mix of deism and Unitarianism and he declared in a letter written late in life that if there were a Unitarian church in Virginia, he would be a member. And that late in life is important. The word itself, “Unitarian” only shifted from being an epithet thrown at religious liberals mostly in New England to being accepted and embraced as our name with William Ellery Channing’s renowned Baltimore Sermon, also called On Unitarian Christianity, preached in 1819, some forty-three years after the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Something I will return to in a moment.

The religious sentiments that would be called Unitarianism were in full sway by the time of the revolution. They featured a profoundly this worldly orientation, emphasizing human relationships and were deeply concerned with maximizing individual liberty. I think it fair to say there was a slightly more conservative form and a more radical form of this liberal or rational religious impulse. Unitarianism was the more conservative while deism was the more radical. The differences turned mostly on the question of how much God had intervened in history after the creation. The Unitarians said not a lot, the deists said not at all.

Both the whole range of religious liberals, deist and Unitarian found profound moral guidance in the life and words of Jesus, but, also, were rooted in an examination of the Greek philosophers all against the backdrop of the Enlightenment. Again, drawing on William Ellery Channing, who eloquently articulated all of this, that concern was in his felicitous term, salvation by character.

Now, its not really possible to say exactly how many of the Founders of the republic were Unitarian or Deist, because this spiritual perspective cut across denomination. But, I want to spend the balance of this reflection on a particular moment in history where two unambiguously Unitarians as well as a mostly deist set the whole course of what would become the American republic. Oh, and with a couple of words about a woman whose influence on one of those men cannot be ignored in this reflection.

In August in 2001, Jan, auntie, and I had been in New England exactly a year, and we were taking advantage of the season and my not having to prepare or preach a sermon to explore our new home a little. This time we drove around the south shore. I recall when we stumbled upon a Catholic monastery named for Glastonbury, with all its English associations including Joseph of Arimathea’s English visit looking to make a killing in the tin trade, as we all know, well, if we’re of English descent with the young Jesus in tow. And, of course, later, as everyone Englishish knows, Glastonbury was the site of Avalon in most of the romances of King Arthur. Loved it.

We saw, actually for the second time, Old Ship in Hingham, the last surviving Puritan Meeting House, and the oldest church in continuous use in North America. I just love gawking at Unitarian Universalist churches. So, on our way back from the day, as we were passing through Quincy I saw an old stone pile of a church with a little rainbow on its signboard, and the name United First Parish Church together with the words Unitarian Universalist. Even though it was getting a bit late in the day, Jan said sure we can stop and walk around.

As it turned out the doors to the church were open and we walked into the sanctuary, with its lovely dome. What can I say? I loved the lotus motif running around the edge of the ceiling. Then an elderly man walked up and informed us we were too late for the last walk through the crypt. We explained we were Unitarian Universalists recently moved into the area and weren’t really sure what he meant by touring the crypt. That’s when we learned that John Adams and John Quincy Adams, as well as their wives Abigail and Louisa were buried in the basement of the church.

At this point I shamelessly noted I was actually the new parish minister serving in Newton. He sighed and said, I can walk you through if you’re okay with just a quick look. We agreed and followed him down the fairly steep stairs. I worried a little about auntie who had recently started using a cane. And then there we were, in a small room with a low ceiling and set within four good-sized rectangular stone tombs each rising about four feet above the ground. I recall how the air was a little musty. On two of the tombs there were American flags on one a large wreath while the other three were adorned with smaller wreaths.

Our guide explained a couple of weeks before it was John Quincy Adam’s birthday and the tradition is the sitting president sends a wreath to his predecessors on their birthdays. He added that the wreaths would be disposed of soon and with that reached over to the large wreath on John Quincy’s tomb and pulled out two carnations. He presented one to auntie and the other to Jan. We were quite moved by the whole experience.

Truthfully I can’t think of, in particular, John and Abigail Adams without thinking of the Declaration of Independence. Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church quotes G. K. Chesterton saying how “’America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed’ one set forth ‘with theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.’” The greatest irony here, I think, is that the actual theological underpinnings of that document, comes from the beginning of an anti-creedal religious tradition, American Unitarianism. And the same sentiments driving the Declaration will continue to inform other significant documents from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to Dr Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech. But, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

The committee assigned to write the Declaration of Independence consisted of Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. As a founding father Sherman would later be credited with the idea of a bicameral legislative body for our country while Livingston suffered the indignity of being recalled to New York and was prevented from actually signing the final Declaration. But, the real author of the Declaration was Thomas Jefferson, who shared the draft only with Adams and Franklin. And, I suggest, strongly it is the religious sentiments of these three men that in fact lies at the heart of our American nation.

Benjamin Franklin, appropriately described once as America’s only president to never have served as president, was the elder statesman of the Continental Congress; he was seventy when the document was signed. Franklin cheerfully supported religions in general, owning pews in all the major churches in his hometown. He was a believer in hard work and doing good and being seen working hard and doing good. Today most objective observers categorize him broadly as a deist.

John Adams considered himself “a church going animal,” and interested himself in matters of religion. But in fact within the family the theologian was Abigail. It could be said he left his home for the revolution a Congregationalist of a liberal inclination and returned to find himself, thanks to his wife, a Unitarian.

Abigail Smith was deeply interested in and involved in matters of religion, pretty much from birth. Her father, William, was a Congregational minister and a leader in the church’s emergent liberal wing. Like his close friend and associate the Reverend Ebenezer Gay of Old Ship in Hingham, William embraced the same Arminianism that the proto-Unitarians including the founders of this congregation here in Providence held, rejecting predestination, original sin, and seriously questioning the divinity of Jesus, while instead preaching the importance of human reason and the ethical life informed by our profound sense of connection as a human family.

By the time Abigail and John were married in 1764, she was pretty much a full-blown Unitarian. And by the end of her life, like with her husband and Thomas Jefferson, she fully embraced the once despised name. And so we can say at the writing of the Declaration John Adams was fully marinated within Unitarian sensibilities.

Of course, Franklin and Adams offered editorial assistance. The principal author of the document was Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had been raised an Anglican and retained a pew at his local Episcopal church to the end of his life. He, however, rarely attended services at that church. And his writings revealed his spiritual life had journeyed far from the wisdom of Canterbury. Both of the sometimes allies, sometimes enemies and by the end of their lives deepest friends, Adams and Jefferson wrote of their scorn for all things neoPlatonic, for every sort of priest craft, and, instead their admiration for applying reason to all things, including religion, and that religious sentiments were meant to be applied in this life as ethical principles.

Jefferson’s famous cut and paste New Testament excised all references to miracles or claims to Jesus’ divinity, which he considered an affront to reason and the real world he sought to live within. His little gospel, what we call the Jefferson Bible was a quintessential example of the rational current in religion. Personally I think his theology a blending of deism and Unitarianism, or, if we were to have that spectrum, while he declared himself Unitarian he was probably a bit further to the left than the majority who owned the name.

Of course Jefferson can’t be mentioned today without acknowledging his part in the establishment of slavery in the new republic, brought into harsh light by his personal use and abuse of slaves including most notably Sally Hemings. Absolutely necessary to note, along with John Kennedy’s line at that dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners where he opined, “I think this the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Both observations need to be held together.

Each of these men brought baggage as well as insight and we live with the consequences of that complexity of the human spirit. But, what is most important for us here is to see how several issues that were in fact spiritual, in fact theological, shaping the formation of American Unitarianism were at the very same time flowing into that seminal document for our republic, the Declaration of Independence.

And so here we are today, the heirs of all that has happened, good and ill.

Truthfully, we’re pretty good at owning the ill. And I think that is an important ingredient on the path of wisdom. But, it is equally important to own the good. So, we’re invited to see how liberal religion, rational religion can change our individual lives, open our hearts to larger perspectives, and heal many old wounds. But, also, from the beginning of the dream for this republic, the best, the highest ideals at the cornerstone of our nation, are in fact the same that live within our hearts, as the people who gather together within this Meeting House, and among our sister Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country.

Something to think about.

Worth considering.


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