Friday, December 4, 2015

Thomas Jefferson's Thanksgiving

The post this week is by guest contributor W. R. Miller.


             In recent years a new Thanksgiving tradition has developed:  people complaining about  it.  Critics allege that our third president, Thomas Jefferson, regarded Thanksgiving as “The most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard.”  As of this writing, a Google search yields 581 results of this statement, coupled with “Jefferson” and “Thanksgiving.”
            Did Jefferson really say those words?  What documentation is cited by the skeptics?
            Virtually, none.
            Thanks to the digital revolution, a comprehensive repository of published materials from the eighteenth and nineteenth century is available online.  Newsbank offers America’s Historical Newspapers, America’s Historical Imprints.  Gale provides Eighteenth Century Collections Online, The Making of the Modern World, Sabin Americana, Nineteen Century Collections Online, and Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers.  Digitized newspapers are also available through ProQuest and Access Newspaper Archive.  Do these sources document the quote?  No.  Neither is there any citation at Thomas Jefferson’s libraries at Monticello.
            Why do critics not cite the source of their claim?  Perhaps because the quote is bogus.
            J. P. Holding pursued the matter online and could find no usage of the quote earlier than 2006—nearly two centuries after Jefferson’s death.
            Why would Jefferson disparage Thanksgiving?  The concept was commonplace in early American history as documented in the Thanksgiving Proclamations stored here.
            It may shock critics to learn that when Jefferson was governor of Virginia, he issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, on November 11, 1779:
            Here it is:
WHEREAS the Honourable the General Congress, impressed with a grateful sense of the goodness of Almighty God, in blessing the greater part of this extensive continent with plentiful harvests, crowning our arms with repeated successes, conducting us hitherto safely through the perils with which we have been encompassed and manifesting in multiplied instances his divine care of these infant states, hath thought proper by their act of the 20th day of October last, to recommend to the several states that Thursday the 9th of December next be appointed a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer, which act is in these words, to wit.
"Whereas it becomes us humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God, with gratitude and praise, for the wonders which his goodness has wrought in conducting our forefathers to this western world; for his protection to them and to their posterity, amidst difficulties and dangers; for raising us their children from deep distress, to be numbered among the nations of the earth; and for arming the hands of just and mighty Princes in our deliverance; and especially for that he hath been pleased to grant us the enjoyment of health and so to order the revolving seasons, that the earth hath produced her increase in abundance, blessing the labours of the husbandman, and spreading plenty through the land; that he hath prospered our arms and those of our ally, been a shield to our troops in the hour of danger, pointed their swords to victory, and led them in triumph over the bulwarks of the foe; that he hath gone with those who went out into the wilderness against the savage tribes; that he hath stayed the hand of the spoiler, and turned back his meditated destruction; that he hath prospered our commerce, and given success to those who sought the enemy on the face of the deep; and above all, that he hath diffused the glorious light of the gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory. Therefore,
Resolved, that it be recommended to the several states to appoint THURSDAY the 9th of December next, to be a day of publick and solemn THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, for his mercies, and of PRAYER, for the continuance of his favour and protection to these United States; to beseech him that he would be graciously pleased to influence our publick Councils, and bless them with wisdom from on high, with unanimity, firmness and success; that he would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; that he would grant to his church, the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all Ministers of the gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth; that he would smile upon the labours of his people, and cause the earth to bring forth her fruits in abundance, that we may with gratitude and gladness enjoy them; that he would take into his holy protection, our illustrious ally, give him victory over his enemies, and render him finally great, as the father of his people, and the protector of the rights of mankind; that he would graciously be pleased to turn the hearts of our enemies, and to dispence the blessings of peace to contending nations.
That he would in mercy look down upon us, pardon all our sins, and receive us into his favour; and finally, that he would establish the independance of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue, and support and protect them in the enjoyment of peace, liberty and safety."
I do therefore by authority from the General Assembly issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing Thursday the 9th day of December next, a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God, earnestly recommending to all the good people of this commonwealth, to set apart the said day for those purposes, and to the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, edify them with their discourses, and generally to perform the sacred duties of their function, proper for the occasion. Given under my hand and the seal of the commonwealth, at Williamsburg, this 11th day of November, in the year of our Lord, 1779, and in the fourth of the commonwealth.
            Thanksgiving was observed sporadically in the early 19th century on the federal level while being observed regularly on a state level.
            In Volume Three of his diary, President Rutherford B. Hayes pointed out, "I have the Thanksgiving Proclamations of twenty-seven States--all recognizing religion, nearly all the religion of the Bible, and several the Divinity of Christ. More are coming, doubtless. Our Legislature for many years has passed a joint resolution annually authorizing a thanksgiving and frequently in terms which recognized the religion of the Bible. The last Legislature omitted to do so by a mere accident this year, but in [the] Sixty-fifth volume Ohio Laws, page 306, passed one last year. If you wish to borrow my bundle of Thanksgiving Proclamations I will send them to you. All state institutions have religious exercises, some of them chaplains paid under state laws. The meetings of the two houses of the General Assembly are always opened with prayer in accordance, sometimes, with resolutions (passed unanimously usually), and sometimes by common consent. The inaugurations of governors are prefaced by religious exercises."  From the Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, p. 72. 
            President Chester Arthur stated in hisThanksgiving Proclamation,  “It has long been the pious custom of our people, with the closing of the year, to look back upon the blessings brought to them in the changing course of the seasons and to return solemn thanks to the all-giving source from whom they flow.”
            To honor God is the least we can do for all He has done for us, for America.  Jefferson understood that—as have American statesmen throughout history.
            Why let critics rob us of this privilege?
*  *  *
            J. P. Holding exposes more bogus quotes at TektonTV.  Click here for more.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Slavery and Secularism

I take a generally negative view of newspaper opinion pieces. My complaint holds for almost any popular publication, but a 700-word op-ed provides just enough space to make an argument and a convenient excuse to ignore serious criticisms of your viewpoint. To the informed reader, this just annoying, an unfortunate side effect of how we consume news in the modern world. But the larger problem lies in the fact that most readers probably aren't in a position to analyze the claims being put forward.

That leads us to a piece by Hector Avalos published in the Ames Tribune last week [November 2011], exonerating secularism of its crimes and heaping all kinds of scorn on religious belief for the violence it has caused, and with very shoddy evidence.

Citing the Civil War, World Wars I and II as examples, a reader wrote to the editor arguing that "secular ideologies have caused more harm to humanity than religious ideologies." And Avalos, the skeptic and defender of truth that he is, couldn't let that stand.

There's an argument to be made that the letter writer was being a little overzealous in his accusations against secularism for the harm it's done, but Avalos didn't go that route. He decided to return the favor and ignore inconvenient facts in order to keep his disdain for religion intact.

"The American Civil War was fought, in part, on the basis of biblical interpretation about slavery." Perhaps. But there's more to the story. The arguments fished out of the Bible to justify slavery were gross misinterpretations of the text; they were concocted because the southern states needed to vindicate slavery, not because the practice is sanctioned anywhere in the Bible. It's long been pointed out by Christian apologists that slavery as it was practiced during the Civil War is not the same as that mentioned in the Old Testament. The latter could more accurately be called indentured servitude, which was voluntary.

Furthermore, there were Christian abolitionists writing during and after the Civil War who attacked the supposedly biblical basis for slavery. It's difficult to argue that the Bible condones slavery when some of its most vociferous critics were believers. How curious that Avalos left this out his article.

"In the case of World War II, José M. Sanchez, a Catholic historian, tells us that regardless of Pope Pius XII’s alleged complicity in the Nazi holocaust: 'There is little question that the Holocaust had its origin in the centuries-long hostility felt by Christians against Jews' (“Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy,” The Catholic University of America Press, 2002, p. 70)."

If you pick up any scholarly history of Nazi Germany, it will be immediately obvious how foolish an argument this is. The truth is that as a matter of policy, the Nazis hated Christianity. They saw religion as an obstacle to overcome, because religion requires its adherents to dedicate themselves to something greater than a government. And that's trouble if you're a totalitarian regime.

In reality, the churches in Germany offered some of the first resistance after the Nazis took control of the country. Historian Joachim Fest reports in his book Plotting Hitler's Death that the Nazis openly attacked the churches too soon, and left the churches a degree of freedom after realizing that they wouldn't roll over. As Fest explains, "...the churches provided a forum in which individuals could distance themselves from the regime" and the resistance was so intense that "...Hitler decided to postpone a showdown until after the war." (p 32)

But if Avalos is correct, I'd love to know why the Nazis persecuted Christians so heavily, attempting to nationalize the Protestant church and make its doctrines more congenial with Nazism. As historian Richard J Evans reports in The Third Reich in Power, "Hitler seems to have had the ambition of converting [the church] into a new kind of national church, purveying the new racial and nationalist doctrines of the regime..." (p 223)

The result of this effort was a split in the Protestant church; The German Christians fell in line behind the Nazis and the Confessing Church held out its resistance, though in the face of much persecution. Evans says that their pastors were banned from preaching and denied  their salaries; Protestant publishing houses were seized, theology students were forced to join Nazi organizations, and by 1937, 700 pastors were imprisoned, some eventually murdered. (p 230)

My point, as with slavery, is not that Christians were perfectly innocent in all these affairs, but that the history is far more complex. It simply is not acceptable to lay Nazism at the feet of Christianity the way Avalos suggests we should.

"Similarly, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan at the time of World War II, was seen as a god. The surrender of Japan came when president Harry S. Truman, a Baptist Christian, targeted and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Apparently you can fault religion for the atomic bomb with anecdotes about two individuals. "The emperor was seen as a god! All religious people believe in god! See, World War II was religion's fault!" Be serious. The point about Truman is even more ridiculous. Avalos is taking a few facts in isolation, stripped of any historical context, and stringing them together to make his argument. To say that Truman's religious beliefs were the primary factor in the decision to drop the bomb on Japan is a crude oversimplification of a very complicated historical question.

But if you want to see just how vapid this argument is, try blaming the secular dictators of the last century on atheism, then watch its apologists, people like Avalos, begin rapidly backpedaling. Lenin's crimes (and those of his successors) were only political in nature, Richard Dawkins claimed in 2012, not an expression of his explicit atheism—though Lenin himself seemed to disagree. "Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses," he  wrote in 1905, about a decade before the Soviet Union began executing Russian Orthodox priests by the hundreds, and ultimately many millions of dissidents. The double standard is clear. Religious leaders commit violence because of their beliefs; secular dictators slaughter innocent people independent of their atheism.

"The main ethical criticism of religious wars is that they always trade real human lives for resources or entities (e.g., paradise, “holy land,” God’s will) that can never be verified to exist. On the other hand, secular wars, even if not always justified, often are fought over scarcities and threats (e.g., oil, water, a physical personal attack) that can at least be verified to exist."

A miserable ending to a miserable screed. What are often labeled religious conflicts actually fit comfortably into what Avalos calls "secular wars." It's true that enemies in a war are often divided along religious lines, but, as Dinesh D' Souza points out in What's So Great About Christianity?, equally important is what they're fighting over - usually, land, self-government, oil, or something else very non-religious, a point backed up by serious scholarship should you doubt D'Souza's reliability.

Unsurprisingly, then, Avalos' argument is painfully unconvincing. A little common sense and a brief survey of the relevant research are all we need to defuse this popular but ultimately unconvincing counter-apologetic.
-- Will Lawson

Friday, September 18, 2015

The KJV Only Atheist

Atheists typically don't know a lot about Christianity. This is true of prominent critics like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, as well as the run-of-the-mill atheists you may stumble across on YouTube. Indeed, much of the apologetics material available today exists simply to correct skeptics who have a poor understanding of Christian history and theology, because their arguments often crumble as soon as you inject some good scholarship into the debate.

One of the best ways to expose their ignorance is to tell the skeptics that they share a lot common ground with fundamentalist Christians on a variety of important issues. This approach highlights the fatal flaw in their argument by comparing them to the people they most detest. It's terribly effective.

Having recently reread James White's The King James Only Controversy, I think there's another, often overlooked, way to expose the fundamentalist tendencies of the skeptical crowd: compare them to the King James onlyists. Though their motivations are very different, both groups foolishly believe that some kind of conspiracy produced the Bible as we have it today, and they often make the same arguments in support of this thesis.

If you're unfamiliar with the King James only advocates, they believe, as their name suggests, that the only trustworthy English translation of the Bible is the King James version. Modern translations like the NIV or NASB are "corrupt" and were produced to intentionally distort the text.

Anybody with a cursory understanding of the textual history of the Bible knows that that's not correct, but atheist are liable to say something remarkably similar. Richard Carrier, for example, argues in The Christian Delusion that many verses that made it into our Bibles "were snuck in later by dishonest Christians," a point JP Holding called him out on during a debate a few years ago.

Proponents of King James Onlyism are fond of alleging that such dishonesty was rampant among the scribes who copied manuscripts that belong to the Alexandrian text-type, because they weren't utilized by the King James Translators. But as even Bart Ehrman points out in Misquoting Jesus, most of the changes that were introduced into the text were unintentional--misspellings, slips of the pen etc. And when the scribes did make intentional changes to the texts they were copying, it was because they thought they were correcting the mistakes of previous scribes.

The similarities go deeper, however. Both atheists and KJV onlyists will note discrepancies between different manuscripts, often citing the same passages, to support their corruption charges. The only difference is that the latter mindlessly defend the Textus Receptus. But in either case, we can rely on New Testament scholar Dan Wallace for an answer: the original readings of the text are preserved in the extant manuscripts. Moreover, the textual variants both groups cite are usually insignificant, not affecting any serious Christian doctrine. There's no reason to believe that no reliable translation of the Bible exists today, or that the KJV is the superior translation.

In a roundabout way, White discusses this similarity in his book, explaining that KJV onlyism makes the practice of apologetics harder by attacking some of our oldest and best New Testament witnesses. "In other words, King James Onlyism cripples its adherents apologetically in a day when such can have devastating results." (p 88)

So be sure to tell your skeptical friends, their understanding of textual criticism is identical to that of the crankiest, most irrational, tradition-driven Christians who have ever lived. Hopefully that will give them pause before attacking the textual reliability of the New Testament again.
- Will Lawson

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Lutzer Letter, Part 2

Not long ago in this space I posted an open letter to Erwin Lutzer regarding his errors in Hitler’s Cross. A week after I posted that, I decided it was time to send it directly to one of Lutzer’s outlets for his own attention. So I went to the comments area at Moody Media, and sent them the text of the posting.

The response wasn’t really surprising. No admission of error. No intention to correct the errors. And of course, Lutzer himself didn’t answer. However, the answer did end up being far more lame than I had hoped. Here it is in full, save the ritual greetings and closing:

We always appreciate hearing from our readers, even when substantial disagreement exists. From the length of your letter, we recognize the time and effort that you marshaled in order to respond to Hitler's Cross. Our hope is that even in the midst of your objections that you found the book edifying in its call for Christian perseverance in the face current trends among the American church.

You hope so, huh. Well, no, I didn’t find it edifying at all, not in that sense or in any sense. Gross misinformation is seldom edifying even in the service of some supposedly higher mission. (I don’t think Lutzer has even a remote grip on “trends” in the church either. But that’s another issue.)

But let’s think about that answer for a moment, and what it says to us.

First, it diminishes and trivializes the problem of blatant error by calling it “disagreement” – as though Lutzer and I were merely having a chat about which brand of tea we each prefer, as opposed to matters of definitive historical record in a book being read and trusted by millions.

Second, the rendering of the matter as one of “disagreement” shows a blatant disrespect for the the scholarship of credentialed historians I referred to in the initial post, in essence assuming that they are no better reckoned as a source for truth than conspiracy theorists and amateurs like Ravenscroft and Sklar.

Third, the closing portion as much as says the following: It doesn’t matter whether we got the facts right; the message is more important. In this I am reminded of an incident I was part of some time ago in which I caught a certain celebrity political source using a false quote of one of America’s Founders. When I noted that the quotation was false, I was admonished by one of the followers of this source for “missing the point.”

We are in a dangerous situation, epistemologically, when we sacrifice truth and accuracy for the sake of some sort of “point” we are trying to make. Fundamentally, we open the door to those who argue, for example, that the Gospels or Paul didn’t have to be reporting history; they were just trying to “make a point.” I’m sure Lutzer’s servant was not thinking far enough to realize this, or that he was thereby undermining the grounds for his own faith by being so trivializing. But it is for this very reason that it is essential that Lutzer and other popular pastors like him not be given some sort of free pass to foul up history in the service of pastoral teaching.

I’ll continue to find ways to bring this matter attention, and make myself a thorn in Lutzer’s side. I’ve been advised by a veteran apologist that Lutzer is not likely to correct or admit his mistakes. That’s probably true. But if he does not so here, it won’t be for lack of effort on my part.