Blog Theme: Getting History Right – Interview with Michael Coulter

Fact checking David Barton was not my first history rodeo. With the help of then Grove City College history professor J.D. Wyneken, I fact checked anti-gay crusader Scott Lively’s book The Pink Swastika in June of 2009. Lively made an outrageous case that Hitler’s Nazi project was animated by homosexuals and that the Holocaust was carried out by gay thugs. His opposition to gay rights, he preached, was to keep gays from doing the same things to other nations.

I learned a lot by deeply researching Lively’s claims. I saw how primary sources could be used selectively to distort a narrative and how speculation could be mixed with fact to create a plausible sounding but false picture. This awareness came in handy when, in 2011, I started to look into Barton’s claims about the American founding.

When David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies was pulled from publication, he solicited moral support from Scott Lively in a Wallbuilders Live broadcast. Lively’s message essentially was: I know how you feel, he did the same thing to me.

It seems right that I fact checked both Lively and Barton. Lively had gone to Uganda with his historical fiction to agitate the Uganda Parliament into crafting law which made homosexuality a capital offense. An interpretation of the Bible was used as a justification. A religious view was used as a basis for civil law. On that issue, one church teaching was about to become the state policy.

Confronted with the reality that evangelical Christians were behind the bill in Uganda, I searched for the influences on them. There were many and we will hear from Jeff Sharlet next week who will help us remember the influence of the Fellowship Foundation. Extending beyond the Fellowship was the notion that civil policy should reflect Christianity because that is the proper basis for law in a Christian nation. Ugandan legislators saw themselves as lawmakers in a Christian nation.

But who in the U.S. was behind the idea that church and state is not separate? All roads led me back to David Barton.  At that point, I started to check out the fact claims that Barton said led him to question church-state separation. The rest, as they say, is history.

Part of that history involved writing the book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Check Claim about Our Third President My co-author on that project is Michael Coulter. Michael is a professor of political science and humanities at Grove City College and a good friend. As we discuss in the interview below, I requested a pre-publication copy of The Jefferson Lies in February 2012. Somewhere in our McDonalds discussions, I asked Michael to join me as co-author and we had the ebook ready to go by May 1. A paperback followed in July and by August, The Jefferson Lies had been pulled from publication by Thomas Nelson.

In this interview, we discuss more about Getting Jefferson Right, but also get into why people would rather believe fiction over truth, the requirement of honesty from scholars, and how Christian nationalism influences attitudes towards political matters today. I hope you profit from it.

Celebrate Juneteenth 2020

This is a reprint of a post I began in 2018 with an amendment or two.

Happy day to celebrate the end of slavery in the U.S.  Juneteenth is a holiday in 47 states.

Here is a tweet from Jamar Tisby which makes a case for Juneteenth as a national holiday. Whether Juneteenth should be the day or another day should be designated, there should be such a holiday to commemorate the end of slavery.

Photo: Public domain: Source: The Portal to Texas History Austin History Center, Austin Public Library. Date: June 19, 1900. Author: Mrs. Charles Stephenson

2020

 

I’ll Be Home for Easter

Literally, I will be home for Easter. My wife and I will be watching our church service on the television in our living room. I’ll miss seeing my brothers and sisters at church, but Easter will happen and God will be fine with it.

Some Christian pastors are not happy about this, and some Christians are stirring up a ruckus. For example, the president of the Claremont (CA) Institute, Ryan Williams, appears to be calling for civil disobedience.

I don’t understand the problem. I am naturally a skeptic and don’t like being ordered around, but I really like breathing. Taking rational precautions to avoid COVID-19 just seems smart. I can tell the difference between an arbitrary usurpation of my natural rights and a situational one in a crisis.

The Common Good 1918 Style

In 1918, the people of Claremont, CA apparently didn’t mind putting the common good ahead of their rights. With just a little bit of searching, I found this clipping from the October 26 edition of the Pomona Bulletin Sun.

During the Spanish Flu pandemic, churches all over the U.S. closed. There were some clergy who complained but here is a truth: closing churches didn’t lead to a loss of religious rights. It was temporary and a benefit to all citizens. Christianity survived; some might say it thrived.

Some might protest, “But Easter?” Well, Easter is an important day in Christianity to be sure. But Christians aren’t supposed to worry about how we keep “holy days.” The book of Colossians tells us, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (2:16).

In my tradition, I get no more grace or credit for going to church on Easter than any other day. The first Easter the grave was empty. This year our church will be pretty empty too. But that’s okay. If He is taking attendance, God can keep track of where we all are.

On the Constitutional question, legal scholar Jonathan Turley opined today that the state has the right to halt church gatherings temporarily. I agree that the state has a compelling interest in stopping the spread of the virus and has not singled out religion or any particular church. The edicts are temporary, impose no permanent harm on churches, and do not prevent other means of worship (e.g., online). Although untested, I agree with Turley that the courts would likely uphold the orders to close.

But I really cringe to hear about churches taking things to that extreme. Christians are not of this world, but we are in it. And if we are going to do any good in it, we shouldn’t put our desire to meet for a church service over the good of our neighbors.

Addendum:

The technology of 1918 was the local newspaper and pastors used the papers to communicate with their congregations. The Pomona Bulletin Sun (11/3/1918) gave local pastors space to give greetings to their flock at home.

I appreciate this winsome word from Methodist preacher Walter Buckner:

 

On R.R. Reno’s Faulty History

In a widely criticized essay on current state imposed social distancing, First Things editor R.R. Reno said the following about social reaction to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic:

More than one hundred years ago, Americans were struck by a terrible flu pandemic that affected the entire world. Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends.

After insisting that Americans of 1918 understood methods of quarantine, Reno suggests they just didn’t care.

Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.

Although surely some churches worshiped, some games were played and some gatherings were held, these paragraphs and the contrast between now and then is grossly inaccurate. It is so irresponsibly misleading that Reno and First Things should retract the piece or at the least issue a public correction.

The Spanish Flu Pandemic

The Spanish Flu pandemic claimed 50+million lives world-wide in 1918. It was highly contagious and was particularly hard on young people. It is well documented that Philadelphia was particularly hard hit because city leaders did not quarantine their citizens whereas other towns around the country (e.g., St; Louis, Columbus) did so and experienced a much lower death rate.

However, is Reno correct that outside of those famous cases, life went on as normal? Did citizens bow their heads “before the storm of disease?” The definitive book on the pandemic is John Barry’s The Great Influenza, but it is relatively easy to find evidence that Reno is wrong on all counts. Below is some of that evidence.

Worship

Today some churches are meeting. Would Reno say that we are bowing our heads against the storm of disease? Obviously not, his problem is that are cancellations at all.

In 1918, church services were canceled in cities large and small due to the virus. For instance, Evanston, IL closed just about everything in October, 1918 in response to a growing number of flu cases.

Little Urich, MO closed everything including churches during the second wave of the epidemic.

In Columbus, OH, a minister’s council advised churches to close in response to the orders from the State Board of Health.

On Oct. 11, 1918, the State Board of Health ordered all theaters, schools and churches closed and banned public funerals.

The Columbus Citizen reported that “Columbus Ministerial Council has requested of all churches that they close doors and not debate whether or not the order applies.”

From Nashville, to Dallas, to Worcester churches closed even though some pastors didn’t like it.

Football

Reno is also wrong about football. There was no professional football league yet. In fact, one can make a case that the flu pandemic delayed the development of a professional league until 1920. There was interest in forming a league and people played professionally, but games were postponed due to the flu. For instance, this article in the October 15, 1918 edition of the Akron Evening Times shows that pro football had to be put aside for awhile.

High school and college football also suffered due to bans on crowds and playing in games. Far fewer college games were played (704 in 1917 v. 394 in 1918) on account of WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic). While it is true that the season was not completely canceled, it is not true that the people of the time plugged on as if death and illness was inevitable. A sports columnist from the Baltimore Sun lamented the impact of the flu on the gridiron.

High school games were also canceled due to the quarantine as in Wichita, KS.

Social Distancing

I hope it is apparent that the people of 1918 are a lot like the people of 202o. Some now don’t see the need to socially distance and some then didn’t either. However, that doesn’t mean the people of 1918 didn’t do so. Just a few more examples should demonstrate how Reno’s history is so far off.

All over the nation, social gatherings, churches, sporting events, etc. were canceled. Health officials took their responsibilities seriously and issued warnings and orders, just like now, and hoped their fellow citizens would have the good sense to do what was right. Just like now.

Reno and First Things have abused their platform in a very significant way. Of course, Reno is entitled to his view of life and death. However, using faulty history is beneath First Things and it should be corrected.

Additional information:

Many other cities closed schools, churches, and various social gatherings during the pandemic. For reference, I am going to list links to additional resources describing contradictions to Reno’s claims.

Minneapolis-St. Paul closed schools, churches, and businesses off and on throughout the pandemic.

Also in MN, Bemidji’s mayor ordered all public gatherings, including churches, to close during October of 1918.

Los Angeles shut down schools, churches, and other public gatherings for seven weeks.

Winston-Salem, NC shut down schools, churches, and theaters in October, 1918.

Tacoma and Pullyup, WA closed public gatherings from early October through November.

Nebraska’s state government ordered the closure of “schools, churches, places of entertainment, and public gatherings” in early October.

Other cities that closed down various public meetings spaces include: Houston, Chicago, Aspen COBaltimore.

The House and Senate closed their public galleries during October 1918.

 

 

 

 

Is There a Pro-Life Call to Death?

My title question is odd. I know it. However, it occurred to me as I considered two offerings from ostensibly pro-life sources. One is an interview with Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick; the other a truly stunning article in First Things by editor R.R. Reno.

Let me start with Reno’s ode to death. Reno quarrels with N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo for his zeal to — of all things — save a life. Reno complains:

At the press conference on Friday announcing the New York shutdown, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “I want to be able to say to the people of New York—I did everything we could do. And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”

This statement reflects a disastrous sentimentalism. Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents. Clergy won’t visit the sick or console those who mourn. The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of “saving lives.”

“The false god of ‘saving lives”? Where am I? I thought I was reading First Things.

As it turns out, I was reading First Things which then turned into Worst Things. Reno follows up with gems like:

There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.

In our simple-minded picture of things, we imagine a powerful fear of death arises because of the brutal deeds of cruel dictators and bloodthirsty executioners. But in truth, Satan prefers sentimental humanists.

Just so, the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere.

Reno is not happy that the Governor is taking extreme measures to limit the spread of the virus. Apparently, saving lives at the cost of temporary restrictions on social gatherings and corporate worship is too high a price for Reno. In Reno’s view, putting others ahead of self is no longer noble altruism but rather demonic sentimentality.

There is a lot wrong with this article, including some faulty history. In it, Reno says Americans during the Spanish Flu epidemic took no social distancing measures as we are doing now.

Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends.

To the contrary, it is well documented that the leaders in St. Louis shut down schools, theaters, and other establishments to keep the flu from spreading. Leaders in other cities, such as Philadelphia, did not, and the population of that city suffered more deaths and disease as a result. People lived in St. Louis because of those decisions. We should learn from their experience.

Reno ends with his version of “Don’t Fear the Reaper:”

Fear of death and causing death is pervasive—stoked by a materialistic view of survival at any price and unchecked by Christian leaders who in all likelihood secretly accept the materialist assumptions of our age.

While I understand that we are not to fear death, I am stunned that Reno says the fear of “causing death” is “stoked” by materialism. I absolutely should avoid causing the death of another. If I should not fear causing another’s death, then there is no basis for a pro-life movement at all. I can’t believe Reno actually thought this through.

On this very point, now consider the Lt. Gov. of Texas Dan Patrick

It sure seems like he’s saying that granny and granddad are expendable if the economy would be better off by putting their lives at risk. The tweet below says it well.

If demonic materialism is making an appearance in 2020, it is in the suggestion that the old and physically vulnerable are expendable. If the economy suffers too much, the weak have to die. According to Reno, we can’t worry about “causing death;” in fact, it is demonic to worry about it.

Remember when conservatives falsely claimed that Obama wanted to kill grandma via death panels? There were no death panels in the Affordable Care Act, but conservatives used the threat of the government deciding to ration care to the young and away from grandparents to bash ACA. Now, conservative are embracing the idea.

These assertions are moments of clarity and require us to reassert the fundamental dignity of all people, even those who are old, weak, and without stock portfolio.

After I wrote this, I came across this tweet from the indefatigable Hunter Crowder.

Perhaps, my readers can help him. I have been around these parts awhile and I can’t think of any articles like that.

Gary Scott Smith on America as a Blessed But Not Chosen Nation – Thanksgiving 2019

Today is the last in the series of articles by historians posted during Thanksgiving week. I deeply appreciated the contributions of my distinguished friends and colleagues John WilseyJared BurkholderBarry HankinsAndrew MitchellFred Beuttler, and today Gary Scott Smith.
Happy Thanksgiving!
…………………………….
Dr. Gary Scott Smith formerly chaired the history department at Grove City College and is now professor emeritus there. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011) and “Suffer the Children” (Wipf and Stock, 2017) about worldwide poverty.
Thanksgiving Revisited: A Blessed But Not a Chosen Nation
In November 1620, 102 English Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod after an arduous 66-day voyage across the Atlantic. The first winter, half of their company died. Nevertheless, after the residents of Plymouth gathered their first harvest the next November, Governor William Bradford invited Chief Massasoit and other Wampanoag Indians to join them for a feast that lasted three days. Describing the first Thanksgiving in “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” in 1621, Edward Winslow thanked the “goodness of God” for the venison, wild fowl, and other food they enjoyed.
In 1777, during another trying time in American history, the Continental Congress issued the first official Thanksgiving Proclamation. Twelve years later George Washington proclaimed a national Thanksgiving to give gratitude to God for the newly ratified Constitution. The first president urged Americans to render unto “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” “our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country … for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence,” evident in the nation’s “tranquility, union, and plenty.”
This belief that God has specially blessed America has been widespread in our history. Many Americans have insisted that this country has a unique calling from God. This theme is evident in the nation’s sacred ceremonies, quasi-sacred scriptures, and presidents’ inaugural addresses. Strongly identifying with ancient Israel, many Americans have concluded that God chose us to play a principal role in bringing his kingdom on earth.
The Puritans contended that they had a “divinely appointed errand in the wilderness.” John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose residents came ten years after the Pilgrims, declared in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.” Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, expected a “great work of God” to soon begin in America. His grandson Timothy Dwight, an early president of Yale, claimed that the new nation was “by Heaven designed, the example bright to renovate mankind.”
Numerous presidents have argued that God selected the United States to perform a special mission: to spread democracy, liberty, and biblical morality to the world. They asserted that its seemingly miraculous birth; rapid spread across the continent; remarkable increase in population, industry, affluence, and might; successful assimilation of millions of people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds; modeling of republican government; and pivotal role in deciding the outcome of international wars all testified to God’s choice, use, and blessing of America.
Washington announced in his first inaugural address that “the destiny of the republican model of government” depended on America’s success. Thomas Jefferson labeled the American experiment “the last best hope of mankind,” and Abraham Lincoln called the Union “the last best hope of earth.” “Upon the success of our experiment,” alleged Theodore Roosevelt, “much depends … as regards the welfare of mankind.” “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history,” declared George W. Bush, “to be a model to the world of justice.”
The United States’ success and support has encouraged people in countries around the globe to throw off the shackles of despotism and embrace democracy. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, “The American experiment has, for generations, fired the passion and the courage of millions elsewhere seeking freedom, equality, [and] opportunity.”
Although the conviction that God has selected the United States for a special mission in the world has contributed to some good results, it is biblically suspect. The Bible provides no basis for believing that any nation enjoys a unique relationship with God, as Israel did in Old Testament times. This Thanksgiving (and continuously) we should thank God for the many blessings our nation has enjoyed. Our geographical location, rich resources, fertile soil, unique blend of peoples, numerous liberties, and outstanding leaders have indeed been great blessings.
At the same time, we must reject the idea that we are God’s chosen people, a conviction that has helped motivate and vindicate America’s actions at home and abroad. Belief that God has assigned the United States a mission has helped inspire Americans to engage in countless acts of self-sacrifice, generosity, and charity. However, it has also contributed to imperialism, concepts of racial superiority, cultural insensitivity, and unwarranted interference in the affairs of other nations. It has stimulated Americans to fight injustice at home and abroad, but it has also contributed to simplistic moralizing, overlooking of our national flaws, ignoring moral complexities, and a hatred abroad of American hubris.
Therefore, while we celebrate Thanksgiving and give gratitude to God for his bounty, let’s remember Christ’s statement, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Hopefully this will motivate us to reach out in compassion to the needy throughout our world
For more from this Thanksgiving in history series, please click the links below:

John Wilsey on the Past as a Foreign Country

Jared Burkholder on Politics And The First Thanksgiving

Barry Hankins on Thanksgiving as the Perfect Civil Religion Holiday

Andrew Mitchell: Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving

Fred Beuttler on the First Federal Thanksgiving

Barry Hankins on America’s Perfect Civil Religion Holiday – Thanksgiving 2019

The third post today is a brief note from Barry Hankins. Hankins is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of History and Resident Scholar, Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

Christians can celebrate Thanksgiving by infusing it with all kinds of religious and national significance.  But, people of other faiths and of no faith at all can celebrate the holiday equally.  Christians have no corner on being thankful.  Moreover, Thanksgiving has an advantage in this respect over Christmas and Easter.  Although those holidays, especially Christmas, are commercialized and secularized to a large extent, they are still specifically Christian.  In fact, they are the two central events of the Christian liturgical calendar, which means that to celebrate them commercially non-Christians have to ignore their potent religious meaning.  Not so for Thanksgiving, which commemorates a national event, not a religious event.  So, Thanksgiving is what I call “America’s perfect civil religion holiday.”

To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019. Tomorrow I have a post from retired Grove City College history professor and first professor emeritus from the school, Gary Scott Smith on America as a blessed but not chosen nation.

Andrew Mitchell: Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving – Thanksgiving 2019

Today’s second guest post is from friend and Grove City College colleague Andrew Mitchell who is an associate professor of history at the college. 

Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is one of only two holidays Americans celebrate that consciously looks back to a colonial past.  It also happens to be the only national holiday that is relatively free of political implications, at least on first glance.  That is quite remarkable, since Americans are, and have been, a diverse group of people—of different ethnicities and faiths—who have agreed to unite over a number of political principles.  It has been our commitment to those principles, rather than to specifically religious or economic ones, that has helped the nation endure for close to 250 years.  Recently, historians, following the general trend of academia, have directed their research at exploring American diversity, and holiday celebrations have not escaped scrutiny. By stripping away the legends associated with “Pilgrim Fathers,” a fascinating story emerges.

It is quite evident now that the first “American” Thanksgiving celebration did not take place in 1623 at Plymouth, nor in 1619 at Berkley Hundred, nor in 1610 at Jamestown, but rather on 8 September 1565, in present-day St. Augustine, Florida.  On that day a group of Spanish-speaking Catholics gave thanks to God for their safe travel across the ocean and afterwards held a modest feast, inviting the local tribe of Timucuan Indians to join them.  In fact, regardless of whether the Plymouth Separatists were giving thanks to God or to Massasoit and the Wampanoags, it is clear that the Puritans of New England and their descendants ignored them entirely.  The word “Pilgrim” to describe the Plymouth colonists only shows up in 1799; the record of their 1623 celebration first published in 1841, during a time when New Englanders and Southerners were ransacking historical sources, engaged in a fierce fight to prove that their traditions (and theirs alone) were authentically “American.”  In light of this, Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 proclaiming a “day of thanksgiving” on the last Thursday in November appears more controversial—an affirmation right before his reelection that the Northern (New England-influenced) side had won.  Indeed, despite subsequent presidents continuing Lincoln’s tradition, most Southern states did not acknowledge the day, or develop any rituals around it, until the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Sadly, the history of Thanksgiving is not devoid of political wrangling and gamesmanship.  Franklin Roosevelt—in this as in other elements of his presidency—deviated from the traditions established by his predecessors, by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier in 1939.  Roosevelt was acting on the recommendation of his Secretary of Commerce who was concerned that the lateness of Thanksgiving (30 November) would compromise Christmas-season retail sales.  The president’s decision created a significant uproar across the country.  In a response that demonstrated how politicized America had become, nearly one-half of the states ignored the presidential declaration and celebrated a “Republican Thanksgiving,” instead of “Franksgiving.”  The following year, 16 states kept to the traditional date.  In 1941, after conclusive evidence that retail sales had not significantly improved, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the fourth Thursday in November as “Thanksgiving Day.”  Nevertheless, the reality of rationing during the Second World War meant that most Americans did not come to share in Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of until 1945.

Rather than being disconcerted by revisionist demonstrations that popular conceptions about our national celebration is little more than a peculiar New England tradition writ large and embellished, traditionalists should see in them a chance to celebrate.  Despite the diversity of language and creed, all European colonists to the Americas acknowledged their need for giving thanks, and demonstrated their joy through unusual periods of festivity, whether the religious ceremony was accompanied by culinary indulgence or not.  Furthermore, all of these thanksgiving celebrations, from Florida to Virginia to Massachusetts, included guests: strangers who were made welcome and encouraged to share in the community’s bounty, and for a few moments, perhaps, united in fellowship.  For these people, most of our ancestors, thanksgiving was not a single day made special through capitalization, but one of life’s essential rituals, too important to practice only once every 365 days, and too special to keep to one’s own.

With increasing evidence from the realm of psychology that giving thanks is good for the mind as well as the body, perhaps this provides Americans today with something solid to grasp.  In a society whose members are increasingly concerned about diversity and yet increasingly isolated from one another, whose daily call to self-indulgence tends to dull our physical and spiritual palates, perhaps we need to focus on the thankful theme that has united us in the past.  By scaling back our own daily consumption (starting, perhaps with the last Friday in November), by beginning to reach out in loving hospitality to the strangers in our midst, we might be able reclaim some of that attractive spirit—and lifestyle—of giving thanks that all our ancestors (and their guests) shared.

For further reading, Dr. Mitchell recommends:

Diana Appelbaum, Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History.
Kathleen Curtain, Sandra Oliver, and Plimouth Plantation, Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie.
Robert Emmons, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019.

John Wilsey on Thanksgiving and the Past as a Foreign Country – Thanksgiving 2019

Today’s first guest post is from John D. Wilsey. Wilsey is Associate Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America and American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

One of the fascinating things about the Thanksgiving celebration is its endurance in the national memory. From the “first Thanksgiving” in the autumn of 1621 to our own day, Thanksgiving as a civil religious high and holy day offers us a cultural and religious artifact in considering the process of change that occurs in a national community. Just think of Thanksgiving in terms of three benchmarks in history—1621, 1863, and the present day.
Here’s a little perspective: when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, he was more distant in time from the 1621 celebration than we are in 2014 to Lincoln. How much had changed in North America from the first Thanksgiving to the Civil War? And how much has changed from the Civil War to the present? As many historians like to point out, the past is a foreign country—but perhaps it is more accurate to say that the past is made up of many foreign countries.

It is good to remember that our present day context is different than that of the past. As a Christian, I remember that many things in the human experience do not change, namely, human nature itself. But I also remember that trying to draw a straight line from the Pilgrims to the present in an effort to make some point about “restoring America” can be dangerous, and in some ways, contrary to my own Christian tradition. That does not mean that we ignore the past. We can glean wisdom from the past without using it to advance an agenda. Considering Thanksgiving as a cultural and religious artifact helps us to do just that, while we celebrate and enjoy it in our own homes on November 27.

For all articles in this series, please click Thanksgiving 2019.

On July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Died – Happy Independence Day 2019!

With slight editing, this post is reprinted from prior posts on Independence Day. In 2015, it was the culmination of my Daily Jefferson series.

Happy Independence Day!

john adamsIn addition to being Independence Day, this is the day that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826.

On this day in 1826, former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were once fellow Patriots and then adversaries, die on the same day within five hours of each other.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were friends who together served on the committee that constructed the Declaration of Independence, but later became political rivals during the 1800 election. Jefferson felt Adams had made serious blunders during his term and Jefferson ran against Adams in a bitter campaign. As a consequence, the two patriots and former friends fell out of touch. Mutual friend and Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush hoped to bring the men back together. Rush was on good terms with both Adams and Jefferson and after the end of Jefferson’s second term, endeavored to help them bridge the distance. In his letter to Adams on October 17, 1809, Rush used the device of a dream to express his wish for Adams and Jefferson to resume communications. This letter is part of a remarkable sequence of letters which can be read here. In this portion, Rush suggests his “dream” of a Jefferson-Adams reunion to Adams.

“What book is that in your hands?” said I to my son Richard a few nights ago in a dream. “It is the history of the United States,” said he. “Shall I read a page of it to you?” “No, no,” said I. “I believe in the truth of no history but in that which is contained in the Old and New Testaments.” “But, sir,” said my son, “this page relates to your friend Mr. Adams.” “Let me see it then,” said I. I read it with great pleasure and herewith send you a copy of it.

“1809. Among the most extraordinary events of this year was the renewal of the friendship and intercourse between Mr. John Adams and Mr. Jefferson, the two ex-Presidents of the United States. They met for the first time in the Congress of 1775. Their principles of liberty, their ardent attachment to their country, and their views of the importance and probable issue of the struggle with Great Britain in which they were engaged being exactly the same, they were strongly attracted to each other and became personal as well as political friends.  They met in England during the war while each of them held commissions of honor and trust at two of the first courts of Europe, and spent many happy hours together in reviewing the difficulties and success of their respective negotiations.  A difference of opinion upon the objects and issue of the French Revolution separated them during the years in which that great event interested and divided the American people. The predominance of the party which favored the French cause threw Mr. Adams out of the Chair of the United States in the year 1800 and placed Mr. Jefferson there in his stead. The former retired with resignation and dignity to his seat at Quincy, where he spent the evening of his life in literary and philosophical pursuits, surrounded by an amiable family and a few old and affectionate friends. The latter resigned the Chair of the United States in the year 1808, sick of the cares and disgusted with the intrigues of public life, and retired to his seat at Monticello, in Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his days in the cultivation of a large farm agreeably to the new system of husbandry. In the month of November 1809, Mr. Adams addressed a short letter to his friend Mr. Jefferson in which he congratulated him upon his escape to the shades of retirement and domestic happiness, and concluded it with assurances of his regard and good wishes for his welfare. This letter did great honor to Mr. Adams. It discovered a magnanimity known only to great minds. Mr. Jefferson replied to this letter and reciprocated expressions of regard and esteem. These letters were followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually reviewed the scenes of business in which they had been engaged, and candidly acknowledged to each other all the errors of opinion and conduct into which they had fallen during the time they filled the same station in the service of their country. Many precious aphorisms, the result of observation, experience, and profound reflection, it is said, are contained in these letters. It is to be hoped the world will be favored with a sight of them. These gentlemen sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country (for they outlived the heterogeneous parties that were opposed to them), and to their numerous merits and honors posterity has added that they were rival friends.
With affectionate regard to your fireside, in which all my family join, I am, dear sir, your sincere old friend,
BENJN: RUSH

I don’t think Rush had an actual dream.* He may have used the dream narrative as a clever device to prod his friend into reconciliation with Jefferson. On more than one prior occasion, Rush communicated his views to Adams via writing about them as dreams. For instance,  Rush responded to a political question from Adams in a February 20, 1809 letter via a dream narrative.  Adams responded on March 4, 1809 (the same day Jefferson’s second term ended) praising Rush’s wit and asked for a dream about Jefferson:

Rush,—If I could dream as much wit as you, I think I should wish to go to sleep for the rest of my Life, retaining however one of Swifts Flappers to awake me once in 24 hours to dinner, for you know without a dinner one can neither dream nor sleep. Your Dreams descend from Jove, according to Homer.
Though I enjoy your sleeping wit and acknowledge your unequalled Ingenuity in your dreams, I can not agree to your Moral. I will not yet allow that the Cause of “Wisdom, Justice, order and stability in human Governments” is quite desperate. The old Maxim Nil desperandum de Republica is founded in eternal Truth and indispensable obligation.

Jefferson expired and Madison came to Life, last night at twelve o’clock. Will you be so good as to take a Nap, and dream for my Instruction and edification a Character of Jefferson and his Administration?

More substantial evidence for questioning whether Rush reported an actual dream is the existence of a draft of this letter which demonstrates that Rush considered another literary device for his prophecy. A footnote in Lyman Butterfield’s  compilation of Rush’s letter explains:

In the passage that follows, BR [Benjamin Rush] made his principal plea to Adams to make an effort toward reconciliation with Jefferson. That pains were taken in composing the plea is shown by an autograph draft of the letter, dated 16 Oct. in Hist. Soc. Penna., Gratz Coll. In the draft BR originally wrote, and then crossed out, the following introduction to his dream history: “What would [you omitted] think of some future historian of the United States concluding one of his chapters with the following paragraph?” The greater verisimilitude of the revision adds much to the effectiveness of this remarkable letter. (Butterfield, L.H., The Letters of Benjamin Rush, Vol. II, 1793-1813, Princeton Univ. Press, 1951, p. 1023)

The evidence shows that Rush considered at least two options to get across his message of reconciliation: a dream or an appeal to a future history book. He first wrote about the history book, then he chose a more creative device, one which he had already used in letters to Adams and which Adams had actually requested in March of that year.

In any case, real dream or not, Adams liked the proposition and replied to Rush on October 25, 1809, about the “dream” saying,

A Dream again! I wish you would dream all day and all Night, for one of your Dreams puts me in spirits for a Month. I have no other objection to your Dream, but that it is not History. It may be Prophecy. There has never been the smallest Interruption of the Personal Friendship between me and Mr. Jefferson that I know of. You should remember that Jefferson was but a Boy to me. I was at least ten years older than him in age and more than twenty years older than him in Politicks. I am bold to say I was his Preceptor in Politicks and taught him every Thing that has been good and solid in his whole Political Conduct. I served with him on many Committees in Congress in which we established some of the most important Regulations of the Army &c, &c, &c

Jefferson and Franklin were united with me in a Commission to the King of France and fifteen other Commissions to treat with all the Powers of Europe and Africa. I resided with him in France above a year in 1784 and 1785 and met him every day at my House in Auteuil at Franklins House at Passy or at his House in Paris. In short we lived together in the most perfect Friendship and Harmony.

Although in a less poetic manner, Rush also wrote Jefferson to suggest a resumption of friendship with Adams. It took awhile (1812), but Adams and Jefferson did resume contact. As predicted by Rush, they carried on a vigorous correspondence until late in their lives regarding their personal and political views. Then 50 years after July 4, 1776, Jefferson and Adams “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country…”**

*Christian nationalists often point to this story as an illustration of a supernatural event. For instance, David Barton says that Rush had a dream which God brought to pass in a manner similar to those in the Bible. If Barton knows about Rush’s rough draft of this letter, he doesn’t disclose this information to his readers. He doesn’t also consider the fact that Rush often used the word dream to describe his thoughts about other issues.

Clearly, the accuracy of what Rush predicted is uncanny and from a reformed vantage point represents the working of providence. However, the processes seemed to be quite natural in that Rush thought a lot about his friends and worked behind the scenes to make the reunion happen. Given the early chemistry of Adams and Jefferson, their later relationship could reasonably be expected. The spooky part is their common day of death.

**Much of this post was adapted from a prior post on John Adams and the Holy Ghost letter and published on this blog May 31, 2011.  Read more about Jefferson in Getting Jefferson Right by Michael Coulter and me.

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