MARTHA SEZ: ‘He cut up his Bible, removing references to miracles’
Thanksgiving, our American feast day and the gateway to the so-called Holiday Season so central to our capitalist economy, is here. I love our national feast day for its decadent pleasures of socializing and gourmandizing.
Unfortunately, Thanksgiving is often accompanied by dreary sermonizing and false glorification of our American founding fathers, who were, despite their great accomplishments, very human.
The freaking forefathers, in fact, were revolutionaries to a man and, to varying degrees, Deists, radicals, slaveholders and generally very entitled individuals. A clear-eyed look at our history is what made the Broadway show “Hamilton: An American Musical” a stupendous success.
The first Thanksgiving was a three-day harvest celebration held between September and November in the Plymouth Colony in 1621.
On Oct. 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation designating Thursday, Nov. 26, as a national day of thanks. While local Thanksgiving harvest celebrations had been held over the years, Washington was the first to make the holiday a national event. He declared Nov. 26 a day of thanks to the Almighty for protecting Americans and helping them to achieve independence from the English and to establish a constitutional government.
Although Washington invoked the Almighty in his public and political speaking, and did accompany his devout wife to church services, he was not an active member of any particular church and was not known for religious zeal. His contemporaries complained that he did not take communion and that he stood in church while his wife Martha knelt. He was remarkably tolerant of the religious views and practices of others and, with the other founding fathers, fought for religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Nowhere in the Constitution is God, Jesus Christ or Christianity mentioned. After the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Alexander Hamilton was asked why.
“We forgot,” Hamilton said.
Thomas Jefferson, the composer of the Declaration of Independence, like Washington, was more concerned with protecting religious freedom than imposing his religious views.
In fact, in addition to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also compiled his own Bible, a heavily edited version of the original. He cut up his Bible, removing references to miracles and anything else he considered, in his words, contrary to reason. Although he was brought up Christian, his beliefs adhered more to Deism, a philosophical belief system popular in the 18th century, especially among the educated classes. Deists did not accept supernatural beliefs, and did not join religious sects.
“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” Jefferson once said.
In 1823, Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding …”
John Adams, founding father and first vice-president, wrote, in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Adams complained of the “rise of sects and schisms, heresies and bigotries, which have abounded in the Christian world.” In a letter to his wife, Adams wrote of a Catholic service he had attended, “The poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood …”
Thomas Paine referred to the Bible as the “pretended word of God.” In his book, “The Age of Reason,” he wrote, “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God.”
Benjamin Franklin also held Deist beliefs and did not embrace Christianity as commonly practiced, but he held a dim view of human morality. He therefore believed, in his own words, that “religion was quite useful, especially for other people.”
Founding fathers and fierce political opponents Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr nursed such an abiding hatred for each other that they resolved on settling matters with a duel. Dueling was illegal in the colonies, but Hamilton and Burr traveled to New Jersey, where the practice was treated more leniently, to resolve their differences. Hamilton fired into the air, and Burr shot him dead.
Happy Thanksgiving, and have a good week.
(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the News for more than 20 years.)