Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Richard Price

Richard Price, whom most folks have never of, profoundly influenced the American Founding. We blogged about him at American Creation here, here, here and here. His theology, along with Joseph Priestley’s, illustrates the kind of “Christianity” that disproportionately appealed to the Founding Fathers. I put Christianity in quotation marks because Price was a Unitarian of the Arian bent (Priestley was a Unitarian of the Socinian bent). And, as you will see when I quote him below, the “orthodox” of the Founding era did not consider that creed to be “real Christianity.”

Many things have changed since the founding era, but this is not one of them. The orthodox today [and that includes Protestant, Roman Catholic and capital O Orthodox] still don’t consider non-Trinitarianism to be “real Christianity.” How many times have we heard evangelicals claim Mormons are not “Christians” even though they call themselves “Christians”? A similar dynamic existed in the Founding era, but with theological unitarians like Locke, Newton, Milton, Clarke, Priestley, Price, J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and probably Washington, Madison and many others. I think the key Founding Fathers and the philosophers and theologians they followed probably thought of themselves as “Christians” more so than “Deists” in an identificatory sense. [Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, and Elihu Palmer were examples of "Deists" who rejected the "Christian" label.] However they either outright rejected, hedge on or ignored the orthodox Trinitarian doctrines which the “orthodox” saw as a non-negotiable part of “Christianity.”

In late 17th and early 18th Century America and England, theological unitarianism started to spread like wildfire in secret circles. It started to “come out” in the late 18th Century, when America was being founded. I think America’s FFs, disproportionately theological unitarians, fought so hard for “liberty of conscience” in part to make it safe for secret heretics like them to “come out” and preach their heresy without fear of legal or social penalty.

Richard Price was one of the first “out” unitarians. And though he was cautioned about being so “out” with his heresy in America, that didn’t stop many Founding Fathers from expressing interest in his work.

Carl B. Cone in an article entitled “Richard Price and the Constitution of the United States” published in The American Historical Review, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Jul., 1948), pp. 726-747, reproduces on pages 732 and 733 the Founding Fathers who subscribed to Price’s publication entitled “Sermons on the Christian doctrine as received by the different denominations of Christians.” Among that list are eleven delegates to the Constitutional Convention including Franklin, Hamilton and Washington. Washington, who had nothing but praise for Price’s work, ordered 4 copies!

Washington also spoke positively about one of Price’s addresses that slammed the Trinity. In a letter to BENJAMIN VAUGHAN, February 5, 1785, GW wrote:

Sir: I pray you to accept my acknowledgment of your polite letter of the 31st. of October, and thanks for the flattering expressions of it. These are also due in a very particular manner to Doctr. Price, for the honble mention he has made of the American General in his excellent observations on the importance of the American revolution addressed, “To the free and United States of America,” which I have seen and read with much pleasure.

Here are some of the contents of that address. Price attacks the “Athanasian creed” which is the quintessential statement of Trinitarianism:

Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.

The sermon further includes the following pro-unitarian, heterodox sentiments. In the context of arguing religious liberty and equality for all (not just “Christians”), Price asserts:

Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?

If you read his work carefully, you’ll see Price identifies as a “Christian,” insists that unitarians like himself are “Christians” and has much praise for the “Christian” religion. And the liberal that he was, Price believed in granting religious rights for all, not just “Christians.”

In men like Price (and Priestley!) you are likelier to find the theology of the key Founders, than in for instance, men like Paine. It was something that presented itself as “rational Christianity,” but that the orthodox of the Founding era and of today (i.e., the evangelicals who make up the “Christian Nation” crowd) don’t think of as “Christianity,” but a false heretical system. If Christian Nationalist evangelicals really understood the kind of “Christianity” that appealed to the key Founding Fathers, they would term it a “cult,” not Christian at all, as they do with Mormonism.