Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Question of Natural Religion and Syncretism Part I

The idea of syncretism is often derided as some fuzzy New Age concept that blurs the lines between and among authentic religions. Hence those syncretic systems are inauthentic. When I first began my meticulous study of the political theology of the American Founding and there encountered its driving creed ("Christian-Deism," "unitarianism," "theistic rationalism," pick your favorite term) which itself is a hybrid among Protestant Christianity, Deism, and natural religion, one observation coming from the orthodox perspective was that such a creed is too syncretic to be considered authentic Christianity.

So, for instance, America's key Founders, following natural religion, held all religious men of all of the worlds' religions worshipped the same God, wherein they argue over the details. Indeed, the knowledge that such a God exists without any external written revelation is available to all men through the use of reason and the senses.

As it were, it's not just Jews, Christians and Muslims who worship this same One True God, but so too do unconverted Native Americans (they call Him "The Great Spirit") and Hindus (as the Founders would say "Hindoos"), just about everyone.

Over the years, I have presented these findings to folks who read it with a very skeptical eye. They don't like how America's "Christian" and "Judeo-Christian" contributions have been, as they see it, sandblasted from the public square. So they seek to reauthenticate for traditional Christianity what is presented as a novel creation of the Enlightenment period.

So I have been told the idea of natural religion, (again, the notion that all men, through the use of reason alone can know God exists and thus worship the same God while differing over the details) has been and is believed in by bona fide historic orthodox Christians. And though they don't all believe it, such is something consistent with the traditional practice of the faith.

America's Founders certainly had an ecumenical impulse that the natural law-natural religion satisfied. On the other hand, there is and always has been an anti-ecumenical impulse. The idea that we've got the details all right and you've got it all wrong. Hence your god is/gods are false. America's Founders, for the most part, rejected such.

(The concept of puritanism or separating and purifying the true practice of the faith from the false represents such anti-ecumenism. And this doesn't always produce bad results. Roger Williams' good results on religious liberty were significantly driven by such.)

Even for Young Earth Creationist believing fundamentalists, natural religion might provide some kind of rational explanation, given their premises: If God created Adam and Eve and all humanity is so derived, and given most history, especially from very early on, is transmitted orally, it makes sense that those who best kept the faith would have the clearest details of what's true, but that everyone still has some key details right, even if distorted, because we all come from the same place.

If all world religions worship the same God, then how do we deal with the issue of polytheism v. monotheism? First, it's not clear that "the monotheistic religions" are as monotheistic as they present themselves. Just as it's not clear that the polytheistic religions are as polytheistic as they have been purported to be.

The Bible doesn't simply speak of the One God in the heavenly realm and the many of humanity. Rather, from the beginning it seems there exists a divine heavenly family. Mormons, for instance, have been characterized as polytheistic. To which they accurately reply no, they are henotheistic. Indeed, it's debatable whether the Bible teaches monotheism or henotheism.

Small o orthodox Christianity teaches the existence of One God who exists in Three Eternally Distinct Persons. This gets them a charge of polytheism from, among others, Muslims.

It's the idea of the More Than One deriving, in some mysterious way, from The One. Again, it's not some fuzzy New Age concept, but an issue that has long perplexed metaphysicians and philosophers.

So Hinduism has countless gods (perhaps the most) in its pantheon. But Hinduism can and certain forms do argue the religion is actually monotheistic in that all of the different gods are manifestations of the One True God. Hindus also have a Trinity that parallels the Christian One: It's Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Now, someone committed to an anti-ecumenical understanding of orthodox Christianity, might argue such Trinity has nothing to do with the Christian Trinity.

But that's not what John Adams thought. As he wrote to Thomas Jefferson, December 25, 1813:
Where is to be found theology more orthodox, or philosophy more profound, than in the introduction to the Shasta? "God is one, creator of all, universal sphere, without beginning, without end. God governs all the creation by a general providence, resulting from his eternal designs. Search not the essence and the nature of the Eternal, who is one; your research will be vain and presumptuous. It is enough, that, day by day and night by night, you adore his power, his wisdom, and his goodness, in his works. The Eternal willed, in the fulness of time, to communicate of his essence and of his splendor, to beings capable of perceiving it. They as yet existed not. The Eternal willed, and they were. He created Birma, Vitsnow, and Sib." These doctrines, sublime, if ever there were any sublime, Pythagoras learned in India, and taught them to Zaleucus and his other disciples.
Now, the militant unitarian John Adams devoutly believed in the One True God of the Universe. But he bitterly rejected the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  The overall context of his letter was to both 1. endorse the natural religion notion that all of the world religions worship the same God, even as they differ over the details, and 2. articulate the genealogy of the Christian Trinity which he rejected as false. Enlightenment rationalists who rejected the Trinity tended to blame Plato for the "fabrication" of the doctrine. But Adams in this letter traces it to Pythagoras.

Adams believed both the Hindu and the Christian understandings of the Trinity have the same origin. This too could be understood as a function of natural religion, that all world religions in their essence teach more or less the same thing, ascertainable by reason. But that using their reason, dicker on the exact details.

Indeed, the orthodox Christian American Founder Elias Boudinot recognized the similarity between the Christian and Hindu doctrines of the Trinity and likewise attempted to trace the genealogy of the doctrine. But unlike Adams, Boudinot accepted the Trinity as part of Christian doctrine. So, as it were, the Hindus must have got it from the Hebrews. As per the natural religion explanation, all world religions believe in the same essential truth, discernible from reason and the senses, even if the different groups distort details.

But still, what J. Adams and E. Boudinot would both agree with is that orthodox Christianity and Hinduism share the notion that from the One True God manifests Three. The Hindu notion is that there is One that splits into Three (and then perhaps more). The orthodox Christian notion is that from One, in some mysterious way, Three Exist.

Throckmorton: "No, David Barton, I Did Not Recruit Jay Richards"

Check it out here. A taste:
In fact, Richards wrote to Michael Coulter and me on May 14, 2012 via the Getting Jefferson Right Facebook page. He thanked us for the book and offered to contact Christian journalists on our behalf. Then, on May 23, Richards wrote to say that he had spoken to two of Barton’s supporters about the historical problems in Barton’s book (see below for the identity of one of them which was revealed by Barton). The next day, Richards alerted me that he had been “commissioned” (it was unclear who did the commissioning, but it wasn’t me) to find six Christian historians to read Barton’s book, our book, and Barton’s DVD lecture America’s Godly Heritage. Richards then approached six scholars who then agreed to provide feedback. Richards did not tell me the identity of the scholars and I still don’t know all of them. The number providing some level of feedback eventually grew to ten.

According to Richards, Barton was also going to be informed that this process was happening.

Barton’s attempt to make me the one pulling all the strings is false and I think he knows it. I say this because on his Wallbuilders’ website, he tells the story differently. About one of the scholars recruited by Richards — The Masters’ College history professor Gregg Frazer — Barton says (see footnote 2):


Fea: "To Be Faithful to Jesus or Secular Paganism?"

From John Fea here. A taste:
In case you have not heard, "secular pagans" are rewriting American history and having "difficulty embracing the facts of history."

I am apparently one of these secular pagans.

In the latest example of the Christian Right's failure to fully grasp the complexity of the American founding, David Lane of the American Renewal Project has chosen to criticize me at the website of the Christian magazine Charisma.  

I have written about Lane before.  I am quoted in a recent Reuters piece about Lane and his attempt to get evangelical ministers to run for political office.  I also wrote a blog post in the wake of that article.  Yet Lane does not want to address those articles.  Instead, he has chosen to focus on a recent interview I did with National Public Radio that appeared over Thanksgiving weekend.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Tillman: "Miscellaneous Americana for the New Year"

Check this post out from Seth Barrett Tillman here. I find I can always learn something new from reading every new post I see from Professor Tillman. A taste:
It is all too easy to speak of the American colonies as settled by Englishmen. But not all who came to the New World, of those who owed allegiance to the Crown, came from England. Some were Manx. A few came from the Channel Islands, where the Queen is still styled Duke (not Duchess) of Normandy! A good many were Welsh, Scottish, and Irish, particularly from Ulster. It is even more difficult to remember that settlers from these different places brought with them different parliamentary and legal traditions, and also different usage in regard to spoken and written English. See, e.g., Nora Rotter Tillman; Seth Barrett Tillman, A Fragment on Shall and May, 50 American Journal of Legal History 453 (2010); see also, e.g., James E. Pfander & Daniel D. Birk, Article III and the Scottish Enlightenment, 124 Harvard Law Review 1613 (2011) [].

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Unitarian Christmas

It's a tradition of mine to wish you such. For someone else making the same point, see here.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D.: "Did Jefferson Believe in the Afterlife?"

Check it out here. His conclusion:
At day’s end, it is likely that Jefferson, given his purchase of materialism, never really took seriously belief in an afterlife—at least, not late in life.
Here is the issue. Jefferson, following Locke (and I think Priestley) was a materialist who didn't believe in the existence of an "immaterial soul." If a soul/afterlife exists, it somehow has to be connected to matter. Like, for instance, a resurrected body. The author notes that most historians hold Jefferson believed in a warm personal afterlife. Putting it all together, we'd have to say Jefferson believed in something like the resurrection of the body. Even today Mormons (who lifted a lot of these ideas from America's Founders) and freethinking, brilliant but orthodox Anglican NT Wright believe in a similar kind of materialism. Here is a smoking gun proof quote to William Canby, September 18, 1813:
I believe, with the Quaker preacher, that he who steadily observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven, as to the dogmas in which they all differ. That on entering there, all these are left behind us, and the Aristides and Catos, the Penns and Tillotsons, Presbyterians and Baptists, will find themselves united in all principles which are in concert with the reason of the supreme mind. Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus. ...
In short all good people, even if they aren't Christians like Aristides and Cato get into Heaven. And orthodoxy doesn't matter. Even if you are orthodox (Presbyterians and Baptists) you can get into Heaven in spite of your orthodoxy, which Jefferson rails against later on in this letter. But I'm sure Dr. Holowchak would write this off as persiflage.

Texas Gov. Gets History Wrong in Opposing a Monument

You can check out the display in the Patheos article. I don't find it offensive at all. But then again, I like satire, parody, iconoclasm, South Park among other things.

But the Governor claims "it promotes ignorance and falsehood" to suggest G. Washington, B. Franklin, and T. Jefferson "would worship" the Bill of Rights over "Jesus." I don't suggest that these men worshipped the Bill of the Rights. But they worshipped God, not Jesus. Jefferson was a militant unitarian in his rejection of Jesus' divinity. Franklin was gentler in the way he dealt with the Trinity. But he is on record supporting the unitarian project and claiming to "have doubts" as to Jesus' divinity (though Franklin never doubted Providence). And George Washington also gives no evidence of being a Jesus worshipper as opposed to a Providence worshipper.

We could say, well the Governor goofed with one word. He should have just said "God" and not "Jesus."

But because of the lack of real evidence for George Washington being a Jesus worshipper, the Governor cited a long passage from the Daily Sacrifice (which uses orthodox Trinitarian language), a spurious document.

This is a real example on how Christian Nationalist revisionist history harms.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Do they worship the same God with an as it pertains to America's Founding Political Theology?

Let us begin by quoting the militant unitarian John Adams, 2nd President of the United States and one of America's key Founders:
"It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world."

-- John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.
Check out John Fea's post on the controversy. Bottom line, Wheaton, an evangelical Christian college, is formally disciplining a professor for suggesting they do. Check out Francis Beckwith's outstanding post which Fea links to. And also the Washington Post article by Miroslav Volf.

My beef with Wheaton isn't the notion that Christians and Muslims worship different gods; I think evangelicals or other kinds of Christians are entitled in good faith to hold that position. But as Volf, Beckwith and others demonstrate, one could also be a devout orthodox Christian and believe they do worship the same God, the God of Abraham.

Wheaton should respect that intellectual diversity. That's my issue with them. The "key Founders" like John Adams were on the side of believing Jews, Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. Hence the above quotation by John Adams.

There is one issue I have with some of the orthodox Christians who believe Christians and Muslims worship different gods that gets discussed in the linked articles. I don't like specially plead hypocritical arguments and assertions and this is one of them: That Jews and Christians worship the same God, Muslims a different one.

Almost all of the arguments that can be made on behalf of the case that Christians and Muslims worship different gods can also be used to prove Christians and Jews worship different gods.

For instance, orthodox Christians worship a Triune God, Muslims a unitary One. Jews worship a unitary God as well. The Muslim's God doesn't have an only begotten Son (Jesus). Well Jews reject Jesus as God's only begotten Son and that He is Messiah.

They either all worship the same God or different gods. You can't have it both ways. Dr. Gregg Frazer, by the way is consistent here. He not only believes they all worship different gods, but that "Christians" who reject the Trinity worship a different God as well.

Likewise one of the articles intimates, wrongly in my opinion, that orthodox Christians don't dare suggest that Jews and Christians worship different gods. I think plenty still do. And in the past, when Antisemitism was more acceptable, I'm sure many notable theologians endorsed the notion that since rejecting Jesus as Messiah, Jews no longer worship the same God Christians do. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Understanding New England via Sermons

I recently finished reading Harry Stout's book,  The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England.  Stout, who is a professor of American Religious History at Yale and the author of numerous books on early American religion, focuses on the unique character and evolution of the New England sermon, and how it served as the dominant means by which information was transmitted to the general populace.  Stout argues that no other medium was anywhere as effective in shaping New England thought: "The New England sermon, whose topical range and social influence were so powerful in shaping cultural values, meanings and sense of corporate purpose that even the television pales in comparison."

Stout presents the sermon experience from the perspective of five generations of Puritan believers, beginning with the "Church Fathers" (original settlers) and concluding with the generation of the American Revolution.  Stout argues that each generation maintained a consistent loyalty to the basic tenants of Puritan Christianity, but that subtle changes between generations allowed for a more democratic interpretation of the Congregationalist message.  He writes:
The founders invented a meaning for New England and the children maintained and built upon it.  Third-generation ministers, living in a tolerant "Anglicanized" age, promulgated the same doctrines as their predecessors but adorned them with a "polite" style that registered the influence of English manners and the "New Learning."  Forth-generation ministers, spanning the years of religious "awakening" and war with France, learned anew the importance of delivery both in theory and fact.  Finally, fifth-generation ministers, living through Independence, built their case for resistance and revolution on the memory of the founders and New England's inherited covenant mission.
In short, what Stout argues is that there was far more cohesiveness on the part of Puritan preachers of successive generations that there was division.  The natural evolution of Puritan theology was more a symptom of inevitable change and development than proof of spiritual decline.  Again from Stout:
If there was a "decline" and resultant "secularization" of Puritanism, it was not evident in the regular life of the churches.  The majority of inhabitants continued to go to church, and their ministers persisted in the same subject matter of their sermons.  No shift from piety to moralism was evident.  Indeed, it appears that models of secularization stem from historians' failure to appreciate the functional distinctions made by colonial ministers...The more one reads these sermons the more one finds unsatisfactory the suggestion that ideas of secular "republicanism," "civil millennialism, or class conscience "popular ideology" were the primary ideological triggers of radical resistance and violence in Revolution [my emphasis].
This is, in my opinion, the most compelling argument Stout makes. It is easy for even a successful historian to get lost in the fog of emerging Enlightenment doctrine that helps to make this era of history so appealing.  We naturally want to gravitate to the "new" ideas of Isaac Newton, Locke, etc.  Stout, however, would advise caution.  While Enlightenment ideas were no doubt prevalent and growing, the Puritan message was not going out of style.  As Stout himself aptly puts it, "Anglicanization, in short, gilded the face of New England society, but did not transform its soul."

None of this suggests that the Puritan message remained completely untarnished or free from change.  The rise of new scientific sensibilities, the debates over natural religion, and other emerging counterarguments left their mark on the New England countryside.  But these new ideas were not seen as fatal blows to the Puritan mindset.  Most Puritan ministers were effective in their ability to reconcile divine revelation (as any Congregationalist community saw it) with the "new science" of their day.  So long as this new thinking did not upset the world of Reformed Christianity or minimized the importance of Sola Scriptura, these challenges were not as scary as they may first appear. 

When dissent did arise over matters of theology in New England it was usually to do with issues that had little to do with new Enlightenment principles.  The "Great Awakening" is a perfect example.  With the rise of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield came a new emphasis on the individual conviction of salvation by Christ as opposed to the traditional Congregationalist conversion experience that relied more on hierarchy and ceremony.  But this change (which would give birth to the Old Light v. New Light battle) had more to do with the FRUITS of conversion than it did with any actual challenge to church authority. 

And though I found Stout's book to be both informative and compelling, there are a few areas of concern.  First, it would be easy for the casual reader to assume that the Puritan message was the dominant message of Colonial America.  New England, rightfully so, received a tremendous amount of credit for being the soil in which revolution was allowed to germinate.  With that being said, it is important that we keep in mind the many other factors that led not only to revolution but allowed each colony to develop on its own.  Puritanism, though a powerful force, was not the only big kid on the school yard. 

In addition, I would have enjoyed hearing Stout's take on the emergence of preachers like Jonathan Mayhew and how his brand of preaching proved challenging to traditional Puritan Christianity.  With that being said, I was overall pleased with the book.  It's worth the time. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Luther was no fundie

In the comments section Tom Van Dyke points to Martin Luther's position on the Book of Revelation. At least it was a position he held at one point in his life while he was pondering which books of the canon were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Luther wrote:
Preface to the Revelation of St. John (1522) 7

About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.

First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions. Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images. For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; 8 I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.

Moreover he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly — indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important — and threatens that if anyone takes away anything from it, God will take away from him, etc. Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep.

Many of the fathers also rejected this book a long time ago; 9 although St. Jerome, to be sure, refers to it in exalted terms and says that it is above all praise and that there are as many mysteries in it as words. Still, Jerome cannot prove this at all, and his praise at numerous places is too generous.

Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1, “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.
The bold face is mine.  

A few thoughts. First, this sounds Quakerish to me. Luther is the founder of Protestantism and Quakerism is a form of Protestantism. Quakerism is I would describe Spirit trumps Letter (and there's textual support in the canon for that). You could say Spirit trumps written Revelation. But that would be not precise enough.

Perhaps Spirit trumps the written word.

Or rather the Spirit speaking to the individual, Priest that she is, in good conscience determines which books are inspired and how to understand them. As opposed to some external collective authority determining the matter.

In common discourse we hear the term "the Bible" bandied about. And that's fine. I don't mean to deconstruct the notion of  a canon of books that contains, for those who so believe, revelation in a God speaking to man sense.

However, once one studies the history of the canon -- and I admit there are those who know more about it than I do; I haven't yet read but am familiar with the cliff notes argument of Jaroslav Pelikan's "Whose Bible Is It?: A Short History of the Scriptures" -- it's hard to take seriously the notion of "the Bible" as "a book" in which you simply look something up. Rather it's a collection of books -- a canon -- whose contents are disputed; in particular which books belong are disputed.  (To say nothing of the interpretation thereof.)

Reformed Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all have different exact books. And there are two incompatible quick narratives I have heard from the Protestants v. Roman Catholics.

On the one hand Position 1 of evangelical or fundamentalist oriented Protestants seems to argue that the Bible is 66 books and only 66 books, and always has been. Roman Catholics added additional books to the canon in Trent.

On the other Position 2 of the Roman Catholics is that the Bible actually contains and always has since the early Church guided by the Spirit selected them, 73 books until Luther removed seven of them. (And he would have removed more, like the Book of Revelation, until his friends stop him. That part doesn't seem to be part of the "quick narrative," but is an interesting nuance that isn't too well known.)

Then we got the King James Bible, with its bowdlerized 66.  And Trent was needed to formalize the Roman Catholic position against Luther's/the Protestants' novel act.

The truth is probably somewhere in between the positions, but I have concluded closer to position 2. In fact, from the very start when the early Church began to compile a "canon" of books, the exact contents -- which books belonged -- were disputed and different regions had different exact books.

Belief in the divine inspiration of the deuterocanonicals was hardly novel to Trent. Early Church Fathers (who among themselves differed on which exact books they believed were inspired) believed in them. And the Eastern Orthodox believe in those books and add a few others that Roman Catholics don't consider part of their canon. And the different capital O Orthodox Churches themselves differ on the exact books depending on region.

The Eastern Orthodox split with Rome in 1054 way before Trent.

I'm not interested in the various reasons Protestants have for the King James Bibles that the canon is these 66 and no others. Rather I'm looking for evidence that their position is not novel to the reformation.

Some evangelical-fundamentalist types take it as a matter of faith that once the last book of the 66 was written, "true Christians" always just knew it was these 66 and no more, no less. I haven't been able to find any historical evidence to support such position.

On a personal note, I don't deride the Book of Revelation like Jefferson does; my position is probably closer to Luther's. I see the book as interesting poetry; but if someone tries to proof text it at me as containing divinely inspired doctrine, I would simply write it off.

(My exact religious views are complicated. I'm open to certain religious truths, but not others. And my religious views can change from day to day. Ultimately, I try to operate "in good conscience.") 

Clearly I'm no fundie. But then again, neither was Luther.

Notable Debate on Substantive Due Process

Over a decade ago, I became involved as one of the more minor players in the blogsphere in a debate over unenumerated rights. The biggest player was of course Randy Barnett. And my blogfather Timothy Sandefur was involved in the debate then. Over the course of the decade, Sandefur has become more of a heavy hitter in the discourse.

A timely similar debate has arisen over the the doctrine of "substantive due process," something part of the unenumerated rights discourse. Constitutional issues that deal with the "rights of man" are like a game of whack a mole. If you don't find them under the privileges or immunities clause, they will pop up out of the due process clause and elsewhere. Arguably, they spring out of the Declaration of Independence.

When I noted above that Sandefur is more of a "heavy hitter" it's because of things like the (to my mind) pleasantly surprising drift of the venerable George Will towards libertarianism and Sandefur's influence on Will in this regard. Check out Will's column here.

So here is Timothy Sandefur v. Matthew Franck. Here is a piece by attacking Franck's position. Below I excerpt from Franck's piece because, discussing Will's article, it contains links to a debate he had with Hadley Arkes on the Declaration of Independence and its justiciability under America's system of constitutional law.

A taste:
... Transforming due process into an all-purpose clause for overturning laws that fail to live up to the moral vision of judges was the work of Dred Scott, and continued in Lochner v. New York, Roe v. Wade, and—most recently—Obergefell v. Hodges. Conservatives and constitutional originalists should have no truck with this ahistorical, anti-textual jurisprudence, which may occasionally achieve desirable results for political justice but will always traduce the proper limits of judicial power. (Interested readers can follow a recent exchange I had with Professor Hadley Arkes, who expatiates on Will’s view more thoroughly, through several installments: Arkes1, Franck1, Arkes2, Franck2, Arkes3, Franck3.)

Invoking the Declaration of Independence does not help to make the case for judicial adventurism in this field. ...

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Throckmorton v. Barton, the current round, and some of my thoughts

Unfortunately for them, WorldNetDaily is publishing the newest edition to David Barton's much criticized "The Jefferson Lies." Warren Throckmorton updates us here. A taste:
The recycled spin continues on the WND book description. The original promotional material referred to Barton’s critics as “ a few dedicated liberal individuals and academics.” Now the WND book description calls usbloggers and a handful of non-historian academics.”

This effort to obscure the response of historians, Christian and otherwise, to Barton’s work is a farce. The Jefferson Lies was voted “least credible history book in print’ by readers of the History News Network. Dozens of Christian historians wrote both Family Research Council and Focus on the Family in 2013 urging them to remove Barton’s work from their web pages. If WND editors cared about accuracy, they could just read their own website. In the article WND published yesterday, there is a reference by Barton to his Christian historian critics.
My own personal observation is the biggest bone of contention in Barton's book is that Jefferson was some kind of traditional or orthodox Christian before 1813. There is no evidence for this. There is evidence that Jefferson was much chattier about his heterodoxy from 1813 onwards.

Jefferson after 1800 was influenced by Joseph Priestley's Socinian Unitarian Christianity.  But there's not a shred of evidence that Priestley took Jefferson away from orthodox or traditional Christianity. Rather, it's just as likely Priestley took Jefferson away from a less traditional Deism and made him feel more comfortable with a Christian identity.

I'll offer a bit in support of the speculation. Jefferson was influenced by Bolingbroke before Priestley. Even Bolingbroke might not have been quite as "strictly deistic" as one might think. But he was arguably more heterodox than Priestley.

For instance, even though Joseph Priestley believed that original sin, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and plenary inspiration of scripture were "corruptions of Christianity," he believed in the divine inspiration of the Book of Revelation. Jefferson, on the other hand, in 1825 said of the Book:
[I]t is between 50. and 60. years since I read it, & I then considered it as merely the ravings of a Maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.
Bolingbroke had very similar views on the Book of Revelation. Plus 50 years before 1825 is 1775. He's admitting in this letter he was heterodox enough to consider one of the books of the canon the ravings of a maniac.

Juan Cole: "Trump vs. the Founding Fathers on Muslims Coming to US"

Check it out here. A taste:
Ben Franklin, the founding father of many important institutions in Philadelphia, a key diplomat and a framer of the US Constitution, wrote in his Autobiography concerning a non-denominational place of public preaching he helped found “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” ...
Hat tip: John Fea.

Monday, December 14, 2015

George Washington, America's Greatest Leader, Dies 216 Years Ago Today

Two hundred sixteen years ago today (December 14), George Washington breathed his last breaths and slipped into eternity. The death of George Washington marked the passing of America's greatest leader - then and since. To be sure, our nation has been blessed with wonderful leaders, including several of Washington's contemporaries (the men we know as "the Founding Fathers") and many of our Presidents, military leaders, civil rights activists, and religious figures throughout history. But Washington tops them all given the sheer breadth of his experience (political, business, and military) as well as the indispensable nature of his contributions. Without Washington, there would almost certainly be no United States of America today.
While an imperfect man (Washington, after all, was a slave owner - though a progressive one whose conscience led him eventually to manumission), George Washington embodied the highest ideals of character and service. Faced with the temptation of becoming dictator (or perhaps king) after the American Revolution, Washington instead chose retirement. Then the nation's leaders begged him out of retirement to supervise the Constitutional Convention and to accept the presidency under the new Constitution. Washington faithfully served two terms and, once again, turned over the reins of power and headed home to Mount Vernon. 
In this time of political and social division, those of us who love America can only hope that the vast majority of Americans will agree that whatever greatness our nation has achieved in its short history is due in no small measure to the foundation laid by the men and women of the founding generation. And, when one looks at the founding, the figure of George Washington looms the largest. 
In the end, Abraham Lincoln summed up Washington's legacy the best: "To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked, deathless splendor, leave it shining on."

Saturday, December 12, 2015

George H. Smith: "John Locke: In Search of the Radical Locke"

Check it out here. A taste:
[B]ut for now I wish to discuss the theory, accepted by virtually every modern Lockean scholar, that most of the Second Treatise was written years before the Glorious Revolution.

Early commentators, misled by Locke’s preface, assumed that Locke wrote the Second Treatise after William’s successful invasion of England. In 1960, Peter Laslett published his definitive edition of the Two Treatises, and his lengthy, detailed Introduction to the text changed the course of Lockean scholarship.

Laslett, after a meticulous examination of both textual and external evidence, concluded that most of the Two Treatises was written between 1679 and 1681 (around 18 years before the Glorious Revolution) during a political struggle known as the Exclusion Crisis. This was an unsuccessful parliamentary effort by Whigs, led by Lord Shaftesbury (Locke’s patron and, in some respects, his mentor) to prevent the Catholic Duke of York (brother of Charles II and later James II) and other Catholics from succeeding to the throne of England. (It should be understood that Catholicism in Locke’s day was commonly associated with the absolutist policies of Louis XIV.) As originally written, according to Laslett, the “Two Treatises in fact turns out to be a demand for a revolution to be brought about, not a rationalization of a revolution in need of defense.” Similarly, Maurice Cranston, in John Locke: A Biography (1957), drawing upon Laslett’s research before publication, concluded: “The Two Treatises of Government was not something written after the event to “justify” a revolution, but something written before the event to promote a revolution.”

Fea: "Have You Heard About the American Renewal Project?"

Check it out here. A taste:
I recently talked to Reuters journalist Michelle Conlin about David Lane and the American Renewal Project.  You can read her finished piece here.

The American Renewal Project is a network of 100,000 ministers and pastors (as far as I can tell they are mostly white, conservative evangelical, middle-aged men) who are trying to get 1000 pastors to run for office in 2016.

One look at the American Renewal Project website reveals that this is yet another wing of the Christian nationalist movement.  There are stories about revolutionary-era clergy who supported the American Revolution,  defenses of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and discussions of pastors running for political office to "save the soul" of America.  Lane is a Christian Right activist who believes that we need to "wage war to restore a Christian America."  His use of history comes straight out of the David Barton playbook.  In fact, Barton is a supporter of this movement.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Washington Post: "The fascinating history of how Jefferson and other Founding Fathers defended Muslim rights"

Check it out here. A taste:
Indeed, it wasn't just Jefferson and Madison who were discussing the bounds of religious freedom in the crucial Virginia debate, said historian John Ragosta, author of numerous books on Jefferson and religious freedom.

"Baptists and Presbyterians were really demanding religious freedom in the 18th century because they were dissenters from the established church," Ragosta said. "And they were talking about Muslims and ‘infidels’ and Jews."

Evangelicals had been subjected to religious persecution not long before. Prior to the American Revolution, more than half of Virginia's Baptist ministers were jailed for preaching, Ragosta said. "These people knew what they were talking about."

Opponents of Jefferson's proposal wrote letters to the Virginia Gazette, arguing that it would allow atheists, Muslims and Jews to hold office — to which evangelicals responded, “that’s right,” Ragosta said.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Child Prophet: The Curious Case of John Willard Young, a Mormon Apostle

Personal Note:
It has been quite some time since my last contribution here at American Creation.  For many reasons, I took a long break from blogging about early American religion.  One of the chief reasons for my absence was due to what I would call a crisis of faith.  The past few years my Mormonism has undergone a bit of a metamorphosis.  Though I am still a Mormon, I would not call myself orthodox.
I share this because the past two years have seen me deeply embedded in Mormon studies.  I simply could not get enough.  But now I have emerged, a different Mormon but still appreciative of the faith.  I'm also ready to dive back into the study of early American religion in general.  I have missed this blog.  I miss the debate.  I miss the history.  But I'm back and I hope 2016 will see much more of me here.
To break the ice, I present to you a piece I did not too long ago that became somewhat of a "hit" in Mormon Internet circles.  I hope you will enjoy. 



At first glance, John Willard Young must have seemed like an obvious candidate for inclusion into the Mormon halls of power.  As the favored son of “the Lion of the Lord,” John Willard possessed many of the same qualities that made his famous father, Brigham, a legend.  John Willard was charismatic, charming, intelligent, witty and cultured.  Unlike his father, however, John Willard was also lazy, entitled, dependent, impulsive and careless.  How the favored child of the most powerful figure in Utah Mormonism (and one of the most powerful men in the history of Western expansion) could go from being an ordained apostle and heir apparent to his father, to dying broke, friendless and hopeless in an obscure New York apartment is a tale that few Mormons today know (but should). 

John Willard Young’s life isn’t just an illustration of a “what could have been” tragedy.  To borrow for the poetry of Sir Walter Scott, John Willard’s life was that of:

The wretch, concentrated all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.[1]

And while you are unlikely to find much about the man by searching or any other church website, John Willard’s life is deserving of our time and attention.  Though muddled in the complexity of his father’s unbridled zeal, the naiveté of his privileged upbringing and the instability that resulted from his own poor decisions, John Willard Young’s life was not without genuine contribution, both intended and accidental.  His contributions to the world of business and government, particularly as they related to railroad expansion and petitioning for Utah statehood, are most assuredly underappreciated, even if his labors employed less-than-ethical actions.   And perhaps most noteworthy of all, John Willard Young’s life helped to (inadvertently) establish the practice of apostolic succession that we see in Mormonism today.
Because We All Love a Juicy Crime Story

It was a particularly cold morning when the sun rose over the booming metropolis that was Jersey City on September 19, 1902.  As a thriving dock and manufacturing hub, Jersey City was a desirable first stop for many newly arrived immigrants to the United States.  Work was oftentimes difficult to find in most Atlantic coastal towns, which made the flourishing community of Jersey City all the more desirable.

But a bountiful job market and economy was hardly the only flourishing enterprise in Jersey City.  Prostitution, drug trafficking and other unsavory institutions had become a staple commodity, willing and able to accommodate the needs (and wallets) of all newcomers to the Land of the Free.  So when Jersey City Police responded to the news of a dead prostitute found half submerged in the Morris Canal it wasn’t terribly shocking news…

…at least at first. 

When the body of Anna Pulitzer, a well known prostitute with an impressive arrest record, was removed from the water, police discovered her abdomen had been hacked to pieces and her head nearly decapitated.  Further investigation led detectives to an apartment where several empty beer bottles were discovered, along with bottles containing powerful sedatives, including chloroform and chloral hydrate.  In the bedroom police found sheets, towels and clothing soaked in blood.  The words “Blood Atonement” had been scribbled several times in a notebook found on the floor. 

Police eventually determined that the apartment belonged to John Willard Young, a local businessman and failed entrepreneur.  Young, who had been out of the country for several weeks, immediately returned to the United States upon hearing the news of the deceased woman, who police determined had died of a drug overdose.  By the time he returned to the States, officials had already arrested the man they deemed responsible for the grizzly and bloody scene in John Willard Young’s apartment.  Hooper Young, a well known morphine and gambling addict, had confessed to using drugs with Anna Pulitzer.  After her death, Hooper Young admitted to authorities that he tried cutting up her body in order to dispose of it, but the sight of so much blood caused him to flee in terror.  The news fell hard on John Willard Young.  Not only had a prostitute been butchered post-mortem in his own apartment, but the guilty party responsible was none other than his own son, Hooper Young. 

News of the crime traveled fast, even making its way west into the Salt Lake Tribune.  And though the Tribune, which had recently been purchased by U.S. Senator Thomas Kearns, was determined to rid itself of what they called “anti-Mormon filth,” this particular story could not be ignored.  After all, Hooper Young was not just the son of John Willard Young: failed businessman, but he was also the son of John Willard Young: Mormon Apostle and Prophet, who at one time was the chosen heir to succeed his own father as the supreme religious figure in the Utah Territory, his father being none other than the Mighty Brigham Young. [2]  

The Golden Child

To understand the story of John Willard Young and the role he played in Mormon history we must journey back to the years of his youth.  Born October 1, 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois to Brigham Young and Mary Ann Angell, John Willard grew up as a child of the Mormon pioneer era.  He traveled across the American frontier, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley where his famous father hoped to establish the Mormon Zion in the Rocky Mountains. 

Though the third son born to Brigham Young, John Willard was apparently his father’s favorite.  As such, John Willard grew up in a world of plenty.  His prophet father ensured that John Willard received a formal education and was afforded with multiple opportunities to travel and experience life outside of the Utah Zion.  As a result, John Willard grew up with a keen understanding of American politics, business and other important issues of his day.  John Willard was also lauded as being the most charismatic and articulate of Brigham’s children. [3]

But it wasn’t just a lavish upbringing and good schooling that Brigham Young hoped to bestow upon his son.  On November 22, 1855, at the tender age of eleven, John Willard Young received his Endowment and was ordained an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ by the hand of his prophet father.  The ordination, which was kept secret from the other members of the church’s First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was eventually announced for the first time to church leaders in February of 1864, roughly eight years after John Willard’s original ordination.  On that occasion, President Brigham Young ordained John Willard’s two older brothers, Joseph Angell and Brigham Jr., to be apostles as well, and set all three of his sons apart to be “Assistant Counselors to the President.” [4]

The ordination of Brigham Young’s children to the Holy Apostleship was met with surprise and timid acceptance.  Apostle Wilford Woordruff recorded the occasion with the following in his diary:

President Young said I am going to tell you something that I have never before mentioned to any other person.  I have ordained my sons Joseph A., Brigham & John W. Apostles and my Counselors.  Have you any objections?  J. Taylor & G.A. Smith said they had not, that it was his own affair & they considered it under his own direction.[5]

And though some church leaders were aware of the ordination of Brigham Young’s children as apostles, the church in general was kept in the dark.  President Young had instructed members of the Quorum of the Twelve to “make a record of it, but…not tell anyone not present about the event.”[6]   It wasn’t until April of 1873, nearly eighteen years after being ordained by his father, that John Willard, along with his brothers, were publicly sustained as “Prophets, Seers and Revelators” and as Assistant Counselors in General Conference (Brigham, Jr. had been sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve in the October General Conference of 1868).[7]

It naturally seems odd to modern members of the church when they discover Brigham Young’s enigmatic actions in ordaining his own children (in the case of John Willard at the tender age of eleven) to be apostles.  After all, the calling of apostle has been held in the highest regard by Mormons of all generations.  What does it say of such a calling if an eleven-year-old child can assume such a mantle merely because of his family ties?

The answer is actually simpler that we might think.  For Brigham Young, the calling to the apostleship (not to mention church participation in general) was very much a family affair.  For example, Joseph Smith had issued a number of prestigious callings to members of his own family.  Joseph’s brother, Hyrum, was called to be “Assistant President of the Church,” a position he held until his death.  Joseph Smith, Sr., father to both Hyrum and Joseph, was given the position of Presiding Patriarch, which he also held until his death.  And in a hotly debated (even to this day) act, Joseph Smith ordained his own son, Joseph III, to become his eventual successor.[8]

In addition, other church leaders who followed in Brigham Young’s shoes saw no issue with calling family members to various positions of importance.  John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith all went on to call respective kin to become apostles once they became president of the church.[9] 

When writing on the matter of familial favoritism as it relates to apostolic nomination, renowned Mormon Historian D. Michael Quinn stated the following:

Smith announced revelations that some men had a right to preside in the church by virtue of lineage (D&C 26:21, 36:8, 107:39-52, 113:8).  As implied by some revelatory statements, the right extended beyond lineal office of Presiding Patriarch…Several revelations indicated that the sons and other descendants of current leaders would have significant roles in the church.  These statements gave authority for the appointment of relatives to the hierarchy.[10]

In short, Brigham Young’s ordination of John Willard (along with his two older brothers) may seem odd by 21st century Mormon standards, but it was hardly strange to Mormons living in the 19th century. 

Blissful Indifference

This doesn’t mean that the ordination of John Willard Young was without criticism.  With that being said, the criticism came not as the result of the calling itself, but rather due to John Willard’s apparent ineptitude and indifference to Mormon teachings and practices.  Those who questioned President Brigham Young’s actions in this regard were not protesting a familial bias on the part of the prophet, but rather his evident disregard for John Willard’s obvious incompetence.  It was one thing for Mormons to accept the prophet’s son as potential heir to the hierarchy, but it was quite another for them to discard blatant hypocrisy.

Though he had been ordained an apostle for nearly a decade (from 1855 to 1864) and set apart as an Assistant Counselor in the First Presidency, John Willard Young seemed to live a life that was utterly unimpressed with and totally disinterested in his unique (and for a believer, divinely inspired) calling.  From 1864 on, John Willard spent most of his time living the high life in New York City, where his lavish tastes earned him (and cost him) a great deal.  John Willard’s wild business ventures, combined with his grandiose personality, wit and charm, yielded terrific financial success from time to time.  His expensive tastes, luxurious lifestyle and unbridled avarice, however, produced even more debt.  When his business ventures eventually failed, John Willard found himself immersed in so much debt that his only recourse was to turn to his powerful father for aid. 

While known for his authoritarian persona and intimidating style of leadership, Brigham Young proved extremely docile in his relationship with John Willard.  Time and time again, the Mormon Prophet placated his troubled son’s woes by sending him copious amounts of money which John Willard used to keep fueling his extravagant lifestyle as opposed to paying off his debt.  Letters from his prophet father pleaded with John Willard to return to Utah and take up the cause of his church and apostolic calling. In one particular letter, Father Brigham begged son John Willard (whom he refers to as “Jonna”) to return home and take up the cause of Zion:

O Jonna I pray for you and yours continually.  If you nue [knew] how I want to see you, you would come.  My dear Jonna, I due [do] hope you will see as we see things.  I send your dear Br. Brigham & Br Stanes to prevail on you to come home and stay with us.  May God bless you my dear boy. [11]

Brigham Young’s dysfunctional relationship with John Willard was no mystery to church leaders.  Apostle George Q. Cannon expressed his concerns regarding the misappropriation of church funds, particularly as they related to John Willard’s regular monetary allowance that came straight out of tithing funds.  Apostle Joseph F. Smith was even more specific when he noted that John Willard’s “$16,000 per year from the tithing office for his support” was a blatant misuse of church funds.[12]    

And it wasn’t just church tithes and offerings from which John Willard was channeling money to support his flamboyant lifestyle.  Once ordained an apostle, John Willard regularly petitioned church membership for additional funds to “assist with construction of the railroad,” which he promised would eventually be of great benefit to the Saints in the west.  In fact, John Willard used the idea of constructing a railroad to the west as the primary justification for his lavish expenses and wanton disregard for financial prudence.[13]  To placate his father, John Willard would appeal to the supposed need for him to maintain a high standing in the eyes of those in power, so they would be more inclined to take him seriously.  On one occasion, John Willard wrote to Brigham Young, who was greatly troubled by his son’s expenditures, that staying in the best of hotels while traveling was justified because of his family ties: “As it was generally known that I was your son, I felt I could do no less than stop at the finest hotel.”[14]

Eventually John Willard’s financial woes became so overwhelming that a change of scenery became a necessity.  After again obtaining financial aid from his father that was sufficient to pacify his debtors, John Willard returned to Salt Lake City in March of 1876.  Brigham Young, who was more than delighted to welcome his son home, seized the moment by offering John Willard a position that would keep him in Utah for the foreseeable future.  Though John Willard had never exercised any actual church responsibility, nor shown any interest at all in church matters, the Prophet Brigham announced in the October, 1876 General Conference that his 32-year-old son was to be the new First Counselor of the First Presidency of the church.[15] 

Skepticism and criticism naturally surrounded news of John Willard’s rise to the position of First Mate of the LDS Church.  As his father’s right-hand man, John Willard was now in a position to make a substantial impact, which caused detractors no shortage of angst. Local newspapers, which had grown accustomed to commenting on the unsavory habits and lifestyles of Brigham’s children, were more than willing to lampoon “apostate Johnny” (John Willard) and “Fat Prince Briggy” (Brigham, Jr.) as the unworthy beneficiaries of nepotism.[16]   Joseph F. Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, expressed his concerns privately to President Brigham Young.  Smith believed John Willard’s lack of actual experience and poor life decisions could upset members who knew next to nothing about the man and his credentials.  In a fit of rage, President Young scolded Elder Smith for his remarks and then promptly sent him on a five-year mission to Europe.[17]

Fellow church leaders were far from the only critics of John Willard’s ascent to power.  Many outsiders, curious about their Mormon neighbors to the west, took note of the perceived hubris of “King Brigham” the Mormon prophet:

So completely has Brigham brought his people under this subjection, that it is of no consequence what he proposes to them—if they even hate the subject proposed, they will vote for it, if Brigham puts it before them, and, as seen by a telegram to the Chronicle, recently, the old man has at length defined is policy for the future of the Mormon Church, in selecting for his first counselor the youngest son of his first family, JOHN W. YOUNG. This now to be prominent young man is well known in this city, especially among capitalists. He has stopped at our hotels quite frequently within the last few years, and has been entertained in a princely style…The Prophet thought Johnny should see a little more of the world before proceeding further in that line, and he was consequently sent to England on a tour of pleasure in company with his brother "Briggy Junior." These two scions of Mormon royalty traveled all over Europe, spending lavishly the funds of the poor confiding Saints…[T]he youngest son of the Prophet drank deeply of the ways of the world, and was furiously captivated by its fashions. For several years he has lived so little in Utah—preferring San Francisco and New York to the City of Saints—that he has been regarded as an apostate from the faith, and thus, unexpectedly to everybody, he re-turned to Utah a week ago, and the Prophet, in utter disregard of the sentiments of the Mormon people, places him next to his throne, and makes him by that act the next Prophet of the Mormon Church.[18]

And from the Chicago Tribune:

He [John Willard] has never done much of anything for himself, his father has set him at this, then at that; now getting together and keeping a museum; now running a steamer, more ornamental than useful, on Salt Lake; now starting a street-railroad, finally, at building railroads that do not pay expenses. This last kind of enterprise having been run into the ground, Johnny, as everybody calls him, is to be put at his real profession, running the church…[John Willard] is the SIMPLE RESULT OF FAMILY PRIDE on the part of Brigham. He feels that his end is drawing near. [19]

For a man of Brigham Young’s stature, the choice to promote the untested, unproven and seemingly uninterested fruit of his loins over other men who were far more qualified reveals the very real intent of establishing a familial dynasty.  But as mentioned above, this was not without precedent nor entirely frowned upon.  The issue wasn’t that a child of the prophet was now following in his father’s footsteps, but rather that the child chosen was a charlatan with a track record of narcissistic greed that flew in the face of everything the faith hoped to represent. 

Apostolic Succession: A Very Brief History

For Mormons of the 21st century, the basic understanding of apostolic succession suggests that the process is carried out with seamless perfection by the very hand of God: the Lord calls his apostles, who gradually climb the latter of seniority within the Quorum of the Twelve, and, if it be God’s will, live to become the senior apostle, thereby becoming the de facto President of the Church.   

If only history were this simple!

In February of 1835, Joseph Smith claimed that the Lord had commissioned the Three Witnesses (Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris) to select the first members of the new Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Once the selections were completed, the newly appointed apostles had their seniority arranged according to their order of ordination as apostles.  In other words, the first apostle ordained as such became the most senior, while all other apostles followed in like manner based on order of ordination.  This system of ordination, however, changed dramatically in May of that same year when Joseph Smith instructed that the apostles were to arrange their seniority based on their age.[20] 

This system of seniority existed, more or less, for the next decade until Joseph Smith was killed at Carthage in 1844. The beginning of the Mormon Succession Crisis brought into focus many of the flaws that existed with the age-based apostolic seniority system.  Over time (1835-1844), numerous members of the Quorum of the Twelve had been replaced due to death, apostasy, etc.  Men called to fill these vacancies struggled to know their place in the quorum.  Did they hold more seniority if they were older but lacked the experience and tenure of already serving apostles?  For example, was Wilford Woordruff (age 32, ordained an apostle April, 1839) senior to John Taylor (age 30, ordained an apostle December, 1838)?  Technically, yes but practically, no.  The Mormon Succession Crisis, though not based entirely on apostolic seniority, was exacerbated by the obscurity of this question. 
It wasn’t until Brigham Young was able to emerge as leader of the majority going west that this question of apostolic seniority would be answered, and the answer given was far from concrete.  For all intents and purposes, Brigham Young’s understanding of apostolic seniority rested exclusively on date of ordination as an apostle, which is why John Taylor was eventually placed ahead of Wilford Woodruff in the line of succession. 

Heir Apparent

This is how the matter stood when Brigham Young took the eleven-year-old John Willard and ordained him an apostle.  The next most junior apostle in age to John Willard was Franklin D. Richards (age34).  As a result, John Willard was perfectly positioned to one day enjoy overwhelming seniority and lengthy tenure as church president.  Keeping these facts in mind, it is almost impossible to deny that Brigham Young was determined to establish his family line as a dynasty that would extend long into the future.  With now four of his sons ordained to the apostleship, Brigham was clearing stacking his own deck.  If the Smith family was to be revered as Mormonism’s founders, the Young family would be revered as its future.  

And so it was that John Willard Young, a man with no experience and a track record of slothful irreverence for all things Mormon, took his place at the right-hand of his father.  As an ordained apostle and sustained “Prophet, Seer and Revelator,” John Willard was now rubbing shoulders with (and, in essence, presiding over) the very apostles who questioned and doubted his abilities and integrity.  For men like John Taylor, the presence of John Willard as First Counselor to his father was aggravating at best.  Taylor had recorded that John Willard’s body of work amounted to little more than “perusing secular enterprises” and he had done virtually nothing as a General Authority.[21]

In terms of his actual day-to-day performance as First Counselor in the First Presidency, John Willard seemed to share his father’s knack for micromanagement.  His letters to Saints throughout the Utah Territory carry very specific instructions for seemingly menial tasks, and demonstrate a complete lack of understanding the many particularities of life in the American WestIn one letter to the Saints of St. George, President John Willard Young stated the following:

Of late there has been less attention paid to the raising of sugar cane and the manufacture of molasses than formerly.  This should be remedied.  Those settlements suitable to the production of this crop should not only produce enough for their on consumption, but should make some to send to settlements less favored in point of climate.


Female labor should be classified giving sewing to those most skilled in this branch of industry…You are advised not to buy additional sewing machines on time from agents who travel through the country…In this connection it may be stated that in many of the settlements it will be found, under the provisions of the United Order, that there are more than enough sewing machines to do all the work required.[22] 

One can only imagine what these communities were thinking when they read President John Willard’s words of counsel.  Not only had sugar cane been a complete failure in the Utah Territory, but the extreme lack of sewing equipment had virtually stymied any chance of producing clothing on a large scale.  Simply put, John Willard’s life experience as a businessman in New York did not translate well to life in the Mormon colonies of the west.   

With his son John Willard now assuming the role of second in command, Brigham Young’s vision of establishing a family dynasty was becoming a reality.  Having three sons, two of which were the youngest of all the apostles (John Willard and Brigham Jr.), the Young name was perfectly positioned to remain in the halls of power for decades.  As grandiose as this goal was, however, it is only half of the story.  In addition to ordaining his sons as apostles, Brigham Young also made efforts to marginalize his fellow apostles in the Quorum of the Twelve.  Mormon Historian Todd Compton points to this virtual tug-o-war between President Young and the Quorum of the Twelve when he wrote the following:

Church government is not a simple monolithic structure in which all church leaders and organizations act alike; there is a system of checks and balances.  It is clear that Brigham Young minimized the Council of the Twelve at times, and they resented his use of autocratic power.[23]   

Brigham Young’s actions to minimize the Quorum of the Twelve’s influence while bolstering his own authority were met with mild but sincere resistance.  Though the other apostles in the Quorum of the Twelve disliked the actions of Young, they did little to oppose him.  In the 1851 General Conference, Young had himself and his two counselors sustained as “Prophets, Seers and Revelators,” but did not extend the same titles to the apostles in the Quorum of the Twelve.  Young furthered his consolidation of power by allowing only himself and members of his First Presidency to be sustained “Prophet, Seer and Revelator” in every General Conference from 1873 until his death in 1877.[24] 

By the 1870s, Brigham Young’s inner circle of trusted confidants did not include a single apostle from the Quorum of the Twelve.[25]  The death of Heber Kimball, Brigham’s greatest friend, forced him to seek others in whom he could trust.  This may help us to better understand why Brigham insisted on having his children, even if wayward, over fellow apostles.  Brigham Young had seen, first hand, the betrayals of other apostles when Joseph Smith was in charge of the church.  For a man who had spent a lifetime fighting the enemies of the faith (whether inside the church, outside the church, or simply in his own head), trust and loyalty were the supreme commodity.

A New Day

Perhaps due to his own superciliousness, Brigham Young never considered that his fellow apostles would one day seek to undo all he had set in motion for the benefit of his family line.  With the death of President Young in 1877, a new face rose to take control of the church.  John Taylor, who had experienced his own share of disagreements with both Brigham and John Willard, would eventually emerge as Mormonism’s 3rd church president, though not right away.  In yet another example of how different the church operated in the 19th century v. today, the Quorum of the Twelve essentially decided to govern the church as a quorum instead of nominating another president.[26]

This decision certainly seems strange by modern Mormon standards, but consider how those in that now distant time were perceiving events.  Brigham Young, who had dominated virtually all the affairs of the church and the Utah Territory with an iron fist, not to mention completely marginalized the authority and influence of the Quorum of the Twelve, had passed on.  The chance for a more democratic style of church government had now become a legitimate possibility.  As Apostle George Q. Cannon put it:

Some of the brethrem, as I have learned since the death of President Brigham Young, did not have feelings concerning his course.  They did not approve of it, and felt opposed, and yet they dare not exhibit their feelings to him, he ruled with so strong and so stiff a hand, and they felt that it would be of no use.  In a few words, the feeling seems to be that he transcended the bounds of the authority which he legitimately held.[27]    

For John Willard, the death of his father also meant the death of his position as First Counselor.  With the Quorum of the Twelve now governing as a group, their first order of business was to decide what to do with First Presidency Counselors John Willard Young and Daniel Wells.  Though vacancies existed in the Quorum of the Twelve, it was decided that John Willard would not be included, but rather be given the title of “Counselor to the Twelve.”[28]  As one might expect, John Willard elected to abandon his new calling entirely as he returned to his previous life in New York City.[29] 

It wasn’t until 1880 (three years after Brigham Young’s death) that John Taylor finally emerged as the church’s 3rd official church president.  In addition, three new apostles were called to the Quorum of the Twelve.  John Willard, however, continued to remain on the outside.  Though still technically considered a “Counselor to the Quorum of the Twelve,” John Willard’s name would go unrecognized at future church General Conference meetings.  He may have still been considered an apostle, but it was clear that the church wanted little to do with him, and by all appearances John Willard felt the same.

From 1880 to 1899, John Willard would continue to fall out of favor with the church.  On multiple occasions, church leaders met to consider removing John Willard completely as a General Authority and even debated excommunication.[30]  The problem was that John Willard, while clearly not living in harmony with church teachings, still had numerous connections to business and political leaders in the east.  His business with the railroad and his efforts to assist with Utah receiving Statehood were still of great importance to the church.  The problem, however, was the fact that John Willard continued to spend with reckless abandon and relied on unethical practices when it came to his business/political ties.  As John Willard stated in several letters to church leaders, “My conscience is clear in buying men to do good, but not to do wrong,” and “I think almost any judge or particularly obnoxious official can be removed if we go about it in the right way.”[31]    

And though his connections proved beneficial, John Willard Young’s conduct became too much for church leaders to stomach.  With a personal history replete with examples of wanton spending, unethical dealings and scandalous sexual promiscuity, the church eventually decided to take action.[32]  The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, in a meeting prior to the commencement of the October, 1891 General Conference, once again took up the question of what to do with the wayward John Willard Young.  Fortunately for church leaders, their repeated letters of reprimand became too great an annoyance for John Willard, who finally replied with an official letter of resignation from his position as a General Authority.[33]  John Willard continued to carry the title of an ordained apostle (there was little church leaders could do about that) but for now he was done as a General Authority.

Pride Goeth Before the Fall

The story of John Willard Young doesn’t end here.  Being removed as a General Authority did not therefore mean that John Willard no longer had standing within the church hierarchy.  Bearing in mind the precedent of apostolic succession implemented by Brigham Young (i.e. the date of ordination as an apostle being the determining factor in seniority), John Willard was still very much a concern for church leadership. 

The question of how to deal with this dilemma remained on the back burner until 1898.  By then, Presidents John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff had passed away, thereby making Lorenzo Snow the church’s 5th president.  The issue of what to do with John Willard took center stage in December of the following year when Apostle Franklin D. Richards, President of the Quorum of the Twelve, passed away.  John Willard Young, the unruly, indifferent and indulgent apostle since the age of eleven, was now the senior apostle behind President Snow.[34]       

For President Lorenzo Snow, now age 85 and in failing health, the prospect of John Willard becoming his successor was simply unacceptable, but since John Willard remained an ordained apostle having never been excommunicated, he still had the only legitimate case to be made as it pertained to apostolic seniority.  The obvious issue was John Willard was completely unliked and totally untrustworthy, which was more than enough justification for Lorenzo Snow to make what was arguably his greatest contribution as church president.  On April 5, 1900, in a private meeting with his counselors, Lorenzo Snow made a slight but dramatic change to the way apostolic succession would be determined (which continues to be the standard to this day).  Snow claimed that apostolic seniority was to be based exclusively on date of entrance into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and that date of apostolic ordination was no longer to be considered.[35]  As a result, John Willard Young went from being the most senior apostle to having no seniority at all. He may have served as a member of the First Presidency and as a “Counselor to the Twelve,” but John Willard was never officially a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Ironically this meant that Joseph F. Smith, John Willard’s nemesis who had been ordained an apostle by his father, Brigham, was now the heir apparent to the church presidency. 

News of the change fell heavy on John Willard, who not only had been making preparations for his triumphant return to Utah, but hoped that his new position would alleviate his financial situation.  Since returning to New York, John Willard’s personal finances had become a disaster.  No longer could he look to his rich father for aid, and the prospect of becoming church president was the only remaining card John Willard had to play.

The final years in the life of John Willard Young are anything but joyful.  Having squandered all of his money and burned all remaining bridges with church, business and political leaders, John Willard was left destitute.  He had ruined all relationships with his former wives (divorcing 4 of them and separating from 1).  All subsequent letters for aid to former colleagues in both New York and Utah went unanswered.[36]   As a result, John Willard Young spent his final years living in an obscure New York apartment and working as an elevator operator in an upscale hotel he once frequented.[37]  He was now estranged from all his former wives and children, friends and associates.  His favorite son, Hopper, was eventually sentenced to twenty years in Sing Sing Prison for his role in the death of Anna Pulitzer.  One of John Willard’s former wives wrote, “My children will never know in this life what the word father means.”[38]

John Willard Young died of cancer on February 24, 1924.  Though he regularly continued to attend his local branch, where he enjoyed flaunting his ordination as an apostle by the hand of his father, Brigham, church authorities in the area wrote that he “died without a friend in the world.”[39]  John Willard’s son, Hooper, finished his twenty-year prison sentence and returned to Utah, where he briefly met up with distant family members and tried to cash in on his family name.  He then promptly left Utah and was never heard from again. 

And thus ends the curious case of John Willard Young.

Concluding Comments 

The life of John Willard Young is undoubtedly seen in a different light depending on who is acting as audience.  For the skeptic, John Willard Young is the textbook case to prove that the position of apostle is nothing more than a mere title bestowed by human conceit.  For the believer, John Willard Young forces us to reconsider what truly qualifies a person to the status of “Prophet, Seer and Revelator.”  Clearly the prerequisites are much more than mere ordination, which is but a formality, akin to a political oath of office, and does not guarantee the blessings of heaven.        

And while his story may seem too offensive to merit greater attention, I believe it is vital that we avoid the desire to sweep the story of John Willard Young under the rug.  After all, pretending that his life never took place does nobody any good.  John Willard Young was not simply a “Faux pax Prophet” or mere blemish in an otherwise perfect church.  Instead, like it or not, John Willard Young is a litmus test for every leader, every saint, every sinner, every calling and every member.   One may possess impeccable charm, spectacular charisma, unlimited intellect, infinite wealth, or noble ancestral heritage but none of that supersedes the basic building blocks of human potential: unwavering integrity, humble virtue, thoughtful charity, and selfless character.

It is more than likely that John Willard Young’s story will remain on the fringe of the Mormon narrative and rightfully so.  The church, like any institution, has the right to put its best foot forward to the world.  But for those who choose to swim further out into the current, John Willard Young is a story that spawns deep struggle.  After all, his story exposes some of the less-than-pleasant attributes of his famous father, Brigham Young, who himself walked a thin line between totalitarian dictator and humble prophet.  John Willard’s story brings to light the struggle that exists in the halls of power of every institution, regardless of its mission, and the many mistakes that result from human frailty.  And finally, John Willard’s story reminds us that the chasm dividing success and failure is not as wide as we sometimes believe.  After all, John Willard Young was, for a time, literally a heartbeat away from becoming President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!  That he died friendless and penniless in a humble New York apartment is probably the outcome nobody expected, least of all his father.   Perhaps this is why his story matters so much. 


[1] Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. (New York: T.Y. Crowell & Co., 1884.  Originally printed in 1802).  Pp. 13.

[2] I relied heavily upon newspaper articles from the Wellsville Daily Reporter (Wellsville, New York) and the Salt Lake Tribune’s digital archive (Salt Lake City, Utah), from September 23, 1902 to September 30, 1902, in my recreation of the events leading up to the death of Anna Pulitzer and the subsequent arrest of William Hooper Young. 

[3] Charles W. Watson, John Willard Young and the 1887 Movement for Utah Statehood.  Ph.D. Dissertation, Brigham Young University, Dept. of History, 1984.  (WorldCat database, Denver Public Library).  Pp. 32-34.  A special thanks to the library staff of the Denver Public Library and the Pikes Peak Library for their help in obtaining Watson’s Ph.D. dissertation, which proved to be a fountain of valuable information.

[4]Ibid, Pp. 34.  

[5] The Journal of Wilford Woodruff (1858-78), as cited in Todd Compton’s John Willard Young, Brigham Young, and the Development of Presidential Succession in the LDS Church. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 35 (4) Pp. 111-134.

[6] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 120.

[7] Ibid, Pp.120-121.

[8] Roger Launius, Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).  Reference the first two chapters for more on the ordinations of various members of Joseph Smith’s family.  It is also noteworthy that both Hyrum and Joseph, Sr.’s callings carried with them the titles of “Prophet, Seer and Revelator” and both men were sustained as such. 

[9] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 133.

[10] D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997). Pp. 163-64.

[11] Brigham Young to John Willard Young, Oct. 26, 1874.  As cited in Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 121, footnote #27.

[12] Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, 2085.  If we consider the interest on this amount, John Willard Young was receiving approximately $100,000 a year by today’s standards, from church tithing funds. 

[13] Watson, John Willard Young, Pp. 218.

[14] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 132.

[15] Watson, John Willard Young, Pp. 135-36.

[16] John Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.  (Belknap Press, 2012), Pp. 384.  Amazon Kindle Edition. Turner mentions how the Salt Lake Tribune regularly ridiculed both Brigham, Jr. and John Willard for problems relating to the Word of Wisdom, marital strife, including John Willard’s multiple divorces and his endless reliance upon his father for monetary aid.

[17] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 123.

[18] The Mormons: Brigham Young’s Choice of Successor.  St. Louis Globe-democrat. Vol.2, no.154. December 8, 1876.

[19] The Chicago Daily Tribune, October 14, 1876, Pp. 9, column 7.

[20] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 114-121.  Compton provides excellent detail into many of the specific issues surrounding apostolic succession, both before and after the death of Joseph Smith.  For a more detailed account of these specific issues I refer you to his work. 

[21] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 124.  Reference footnote #40.

[22] Letter from John Willard Young to the Saints of the St. George Stake of Zion, April 11, 1874.  Original letter in the possession of the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library.  A special thanks to the staff of both the Harold B. Lee Library and the Pikes Peak Library for their assistance in helping me obtain a copy version of this letter via inter-library loan.

[23] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 131.

[24] Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, Pp. 40.

[25] Turner, Brigham Young, Pp. 382. 

[26] For a more apologetic look into the final years of Brigham Young’s presidency and many of the precedents he established, reference William G. Hartley, The Priesthood Reorganizastion of 1877: Brigham Young’s Last Achievement, Brigham Young University Studies (1991) Pp. 57-80.

[27] Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, Pp. 40-41.

[28] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp.124.

[29] Matthew J. Grow and Ronald W. Walker, The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).  Pp. 508-512.

[30] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 125.

[31] Reference Watson, John Willard Young, Pp. 77-80, and Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 125, footnote #43.

[32] For more on the sexual allegations against John Willard Young see Watson, John Willard Young, Pp. 9-16.  Also reference Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, Pp. 720. 

[33] Compton, John Willard Young, Pp. 125.

[34] Ibid, Pp. 126.

[35] Ibid, Pp. 127.

[36] Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, Pp. 720.

[37] Watson, John Willard Young, 267.

[38] Compton, John Willard Young, 126.

[39] Ibid, Pp. 130.