Mark David Hall on Religious Minorities in the U.S. Founding
Date: June 29th, 2014

Most people have heard about the role that Congregationalists, Anglicans, and so-called Deists have played in the founding of the United States, but what about Jews, Quakers, and other religious minorities.  Prof. Mark David Hall, the Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University, returns for his fourth episode to document the important influence exercised by individuals affiliated with lesser-known denominations.  This discussion is informed by the scholarship of various authors in a volume Mark co-edited with Daniel Dreisbach entitled Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (see below for link). For those not familiar with Prof. Hall’s work, we start off the interview with a quick summary of his interest in religion during the Founding Era and what importance that may have for our contemporary society.

The first religious minority we focus on are Jews.  With only about 2,000 Jews present during the time of the Revolutionary War, one might not think this group would have much influence.  Based upon the writings of Prof. David Dalin, Mark notes that Jews were tolerated fairly well throughout colonial history and that George Washington had a very favorable relations with Jews, including Haym Solomon who helped for fund the Continental Army.  Mark cites from Washington’s letter to a Newport synagogue to show how Washington’s view on religious freedom reflected more than mere tolerance.  He also covers Jewish influence on Alexander Hamilton (educated by Sephardic Jews) and John Adams (a Christian supporter of Zionism), as well as the direct action of Jonas Phillips to help end religious tests in America.

We next talk about the role of Islam, with Mark summarizing the chapter in his volume written by Tommy Kidd.  The influence of Islam on the American Founding and subsequent development of the republic was very indirect.  First, it was noted that many of the slaves who were exported to the Americas came from Islamic regions of Africa thus there were most likely some Muslim slaves, though the numbers are not certain.  Islam was also used in revolutionary era rhetoric to set up the trope of despotism, sometimes used by the Anti-Federalists in their arguments pertaining to the constitutional structure of the new republic.  The other important realm in which Islam comes to play in the formation of America’s identity is through the contact with Barbary pirates, one of the first major foreign policy conflicts that had to be managed by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Mark also addresses the controversial interpretation surrounding the Treaty of Tripoli, which is often as evidence that the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation.

We then move to the topic of Deism, not necessarily a denomination, but nonetheless a real belief system that was floating around in late 18th century America.  Most folks are probably more familiar with Deism given that it is often associated with major historical figures of the time such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  Mark defines what Deism is, a “squishy definition” at best.  He then discusses whether any of these folks fell solidly within the Deist camp using the notion of an “interventionist God” as a baseline.  Mark notes that several of the Founders most people associate with Deism — such as Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington — did make reference to an deity who does intervene in human history, most notably George Washington who wrote quite a bit about the role of Providence.  When it comes down to it, Mark says that maybe only one or two of the major historical Founders — Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine — would qualify as strictly Deist in their philosophy.  Our conversation on Deism tends to focus on the writings of Paine with Mark pointing out that even despite Paine’s Deist bent, he cites Scripture quite liberally in writings such as Common Sense knowing that the American public was more in tune with an orthodox view of Christianity as compared to a more Enlightenment philosophical posture.  Mark also uses the general repudiation of Paine’s “Age of Reason” by many of the intellectual leaders of the U.S. at the time to illustrate that Deism may not have been as deeply woven into American elite culture as is now commonly assumed.  (It is also at this point in the interview where Mark compliments Tony’s social scientific acumen.  Just sayin’.)

We then finish up talking about the use of The Bible in the writings of American Founders, making reference to the scholarship of Daniel Dreisbach, and a handful of other Christian denominations including the Quakers (the denominational affiliation of George Fox University) and the Baptists (the affiliation of Baylor).  We spend some time on the thought and influence of John Dickinson and John Hancock, a flamboyant albeit philanthropic Calvinist.  Mark also gives us a sneak preview of his current research, something that will probably be heard next year during the Fourth of July!  Recorded: June 5, 2014.

RELATED LINKS

Mark David Hall’s bio at George Fox University.

Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, edited by Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall.

Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic, by Mark David Hall.

America’s Forgotten Founders, edited by Gary Gregg and Mark David Hall.

RELATED PODCASTS

Mark David Hall on Roger Sherman, Puritan Patriot.

Mark David Hall on Religion and the Founding Fathers.

Should Christians Have Fought in the U.S. War of Independence?

Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era.

John Fea on Religion and the American Founding.

Evan Haefeli on the Dutch Origins of Religious Tolerance.

Jonathan Den Hartog on the Spiritual and Political Life of John Jay.

Gary Scott Smith on Presidential Faith.

Thomas Kidd on the Great Awakening.

 

 

 


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