Jonathan den Hartog on the Spiritual & Political Life of John Jay
Date: June 30th, 2013

With Independence Day quickly approaching, we once again take a look at the role of religion in shaping America’s Founding.  Prof. Jonathan den Hartog, associate professor of history at Northwestern College (St. Paul, MN), surveys the life, times and influence of John Jay, one of the “forgotten Founding Fathers.”  A few folks will recognize John Jay as one of the three authors of The Federalist Papers and as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but not very many individuals can elaborate the extensive role that religion played in his life.

We start the interview off with a general overview of Jay’s public life, noting the significant roles he played during the Revolutionary Era, then during the process of establishing the governmental framework we have today, and finally to his final three decades as a champion of civil society.  Prof. den Hartog then takes us back more deeply into Jay’s history and points out two influential religious strands that are interwoven in his political thought and actions, namely his French Huguenot ancestry and his experience with orthodox Anglicanism.  We then break down Jay’s life into three phases: the republican era, the Federalist era, and his voluntarist period.

Jay’s “republican phase” marks the period leading up to the Revolutionary War and its immediate aftermath when the nation was tasked with the mission of crafting a government.  We learn that Jay had some mixed feelings about going to war with Britain, being a supporter of the Olive Branch Petition, but quickly came to support the war once it began in earnest.  Jonathan reveals how much of Jay’s theology motivated his political views, with particular attention to the role of Providence, as well as communal guilt, repentance, and blessing.  Jay’s concern over the poor treatment of the Indians reflects this religious stream of thought.  Jay played little direct role in the construction of the new national government, but his doubts regarding the weakness of the Articles of Confederation, and his view of Providence working in American history, push him to advocate for a more centralized federal government.

Upon ratification of the Constitution, we enter into Jay’s “federalist period,” wherein he plays an active role in shaping the various components of the nation’s new government, including as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, an important ambassadorial role, and then as governor of New York.  The radicalization of the French Revolution plays a significant role in shaping Jay’s thought during this period as he witnesses the “de-Christianization” efforts of the Jacobins.  We bring up a concern over the so-called “Bavarian Illuminati” as one of the early conspiracy theories that informs the thought of the age.  Both Jonathan and Tony note how the decade of the 1790s was a very turbulent period in American history and that many of the themes arising then have echoes throughout the next two centuries.  Due to Jay’s concern over this socio-political turbulence, he advocates as a governing figure for a stronger presence of religion in the public arena, including the call for a public day of thanksgiving.

John Jay’s “federalist era” comes to an end with his retirement from politics in 1801 and issues in the “volutarist period.”  Although he didn’t believe he would live much longer, in part brought about by the death of his wife shortly after his political retirement, he does live nearly three more decades.  It is during this time that he continues to advocate for the strong presence of religion in American culture via civil society.  In addition to a number of voluntary organizations that includes missionary groups and clergy training groups, he eventually comes to head the American Bible Society (ABS).  We learn what the ABS, an organization that still exists today, is all about.  Prof. den Hartog makes the case that this phase of Jay’s life is really a more private expression of his previous federalist period, once again emphasizing the role of God’s Providence on the imprint of human history and America’s role in that plan.

We finish with Jonathan’s thoughts on what John Jay would think about our political scene today as well as Jay’s last words — “The Lord is better than we deserve.”  Recorded: June 18, 2013.


Prof. Jonathan den Hartog’s biography at Northwestern College.

Historical Conversations, Jonathan den Hartog’s blog.

James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions (Princeton University).

The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, edited by Daniel Driesbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry Morrison (with chapter by Jonathan den Hartog).


Should Christians Have Fought in the US War of Independence?  (A debate with three responses.)

Mark David Hall on Roger Sherman, Puritan Patriot.

John Fea on Religion & the American Founding.

Mark David Hall on Religion & the Founding Fathers.

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

Tracy McKenzie on The First Thanksgiving.


5 Responses to “Jonathan den Hartog on the Spiritual & Political Life of John Jay”

  1. […] Jonathan den Hartog on the Spiritual and Political Life of John Jay. […]

  2. […] Jonathan den Hartog on the Spiritual & Political Life of John Jay. […]

  3. […] is the “Research on Religion” podcast. I had done interviews with Tony before on John Jay and Christians in the American Revolution. This time, we got to talk about Patriotism and Piety. I […]

  4. […] Jonathan den Hartog on the Spiritual and Political Life of John Jay. […]

  5. […] Jonathan den Hartog on the Spiritual and Political Life of John Jay. […]

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