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Samuel Miller & Thomas Jefferson

In Samuel Miller on 24/04/2013 at 10:36

Samuel Miller’s Assessment of Thomas Jefferson

Dr. Samuel MillerI found this interesting. In 1808, Dr. Samuel Miller wrote to President Thomas Jefferson, suggesting that the President declare a day of fasting and prayer. This would have been at a point in time when Miller was a pastor in New York City, and prior to his 1813 appointment to serve as a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary. President Jefferson replied to Miller in a somewhat lengthy letter, declining the suggestion and stating his principles for doing so. While Jefferson’s reasoning is interesting in itself, particularly in contrast with the conduct of contemporary politics, Miller’s later (1833) assessment of Jefferson is also worthy of reflection. We might also examine whether, or how, Miller’s conclusion that “It was wrong for a minister of the gospel to seek any intercourse with such a man,” reflects on current discussions about the doctrine of the spirituality of the Church.
[The short version of this matter is posted here first. For those that want to read deeper, there was a fuller discussion of the subject earlier in Miller’s biography, reproduced below.]

Excerpted from The Life of Samuel Miller, vol. 1, pp. 235ff. (available online, here.):—


Mr. Jefferson was approaching the commencement of his last year in the Presidency, when Dr. Miller wrote to him a letter, and received a reply, in regard to which, after the lapse of twenty-five years, the latter made the following memorandum:–

“I can never read this letter [Mr. Jefferson’s] but with regret and shame. At the time in which it was written, I was a warm and zealous partizan in favor of Mr. Jefferson’s administration.. I substantially agreed with him in political principles, without being aware of the rottenness of his moral and religious opinions. I had written to him, urging him to recommend to the nation a day of religious observance, on account of the peculiarly solemn and interesting circumstances, in which we were placed as a people. I informed him that a number of serious persons, (clergymen and others,) of different denominations, had thoughts of formally addressing him on the subject, and, as a body, requesting him to appoint a day of special prayer. I stated that I was very desirous of his appointing such a day, and had thought of uniting in the effort to secure a joint address; but that, before doing so, I wished to know, whether it would be disagreeable to him to receive such an application; assuring him that neither I nor my associates in this plan, had any wish to embarrass him; and that, if it would give him pain to be thus addressed, I would endeavor to prevent the adoption of the proposed measure. To this communication his letter was an answer.

‘ I now (1833) feel, that I was utterly wrong in thus writing; and, if I had known the real character of the man, I should never have done it. It was wrong for a minister of the gospel to seek any intercourse with such a man. It was wrong so far to consult his feelings, as to oppose a formal and joint address, that he might be spared the pain of refusing.’

jefferson_thomas Washington, Jan. 23, ’08.

‘ Sir,

‘I have duly received your favor of the 18th, and am thankful to you for having written it; because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the U.S. as indicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results, not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the States the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must, then, rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe, a day of fasting and prayer: that is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too, that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not, indeed, of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription, perhaps, in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion, to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines: nor of the religious societies, that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine, for itself, the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.

‘ I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed, that the example of State executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination; which would have discovered, that what might be a right in a State government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason; and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S., and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

‘ I again express my satisfaction, that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter; in which I could give my reasons more in detail, than might have been done in a public answer. And I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem and respect.
‘Th. Jefferson.’

The fuller treatment of this same subject appears earlier in Dr. Miller’s biography:

The position which Mr. Miller occupied in New York gave him, at once, the freedom of that society to which he was naturally attracted by his cultivated literary and social tastes. His brother Edward, sharing these tastes, added many of his own professional friends to the number of their mutual associates; each brother, in fact, had the circle of his intercourse thus considerably enlarged. No doubt both, in this way, received a new impulse to their earnestness in general study, and to improvement as to various elegant accomplishments. But neither can it be doubted, that such society was not altogether favorable to a gospel minister’s spiritual advancement, to his growth in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, or to his highest usefulness in the Church. In later years Mr. Miller seemed to look back at his life in New York, as having been, in more than one respect, a life of sore temptation ; and no one can recur to its remaining records, imperfect as they are, without concluding that he could not have escaped entirely unharmed, from influences far too worldly, by which he w as surrounded. The choice of a history of New York as the first great task for his pen, though a task never completed; and his sub¬sequent actual preparation of two volumes of a general “Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century,” clearly prove, that he had not yet learned to give himself wholly and rigorously—an absolute condition of great spiritual success —to his bare gospel work. Oh, that ministers of the word were not so slow to learn the secrets of true eminence in winning souls! A curious illustration of the temptations to which he was exposed, and to which, doubtless, he too far yielded, is found in his joining, perhaps helping to organize, as we have seen, a literary club, which embraced some very doubtful characters, as the intimates of a clergyman.

But especially Mr. Miller erred, under the influence of his associations in New York, in becoming far too much of a party politician. This, in after years, he expressly declared ; nay, left it so carefully on record, in more than one form, as a warning to other ministers in like circumstances, that withholding any important illustration of the simple truth on this subject, would do serious injustice to his own matured convictions. The brothers had inherited from their father—perhaps both parents—a lively interest in political, as well as ecclesiastical, affairs. Edward was, evidently, a warm politician. A number of the clergy, too, around them, were not only still warmer in their partisanship, but even became electioneering pamphleteers. Mr. Miller’s near clerical associates, Dr. John M. Mason and Dr. William Linn, published, each, one “campaign” pamphlet, at least, against Mr. Jefferson. On the other hand, his venerable colleague, Dr. Rodgers, took no part in politics. With the whole body of the Presbyterian clergy, he had been, through the Revolution, a decided Whig; but, subsequently, he was not accustomed even to vote. In fact he was, pre-eminently, a man of peace, shunning not only political, but also religious controversy, both in and out of the pulpit.

During Washington’s administration, the two great political parties—Federalists and Republicans—had sprung up; and although, in 1797, Mr. Adams took the presidential chair, the severity of the struggle which resulted in his election by the Federalists, foreshadowed the speedy triumph of Republican democracy. This struggle gave only new vigor to the beaten party; their candidate, Mr. Jefferson, became, under the original provisions of the Constitution, Vice-president; and his adherents were gathering strength, constantly, for the next political contest. Mr. Miller espoused the cause, not alone of the Democracy, but of Mr. Jefferson, with earnest warmth. Though perfectly aware of that great statesman’s infidelity, he made, for a time, such a distinction between political and religious character, as to persuade himself, that the latter was, in matters of civil government, of comparatively little importance. The greatness of this mistake he, afterwards, sadly acknowledged. Indeed, it might be called a temporary hallucination rather than a mistake; for, in sermons previously published, he had said,

“The author is not one of those who imagine political liberty to consist in freedom from all restraint, even that of morality and law. lie, therefore, considers the man who opposes religion, and who fights against Christianity, ( the only genuine system of divine truth,) as an enemy to his country. He is persuaded that nothing has so great a tendency to promote and establish real liberty, as the practical influence of this system.

He never expects the happy arrival of the period of UNIVERSAL EMANCIPATION, until the triumph of evangelic truth shall become universal also,—How far, then, the floods of infidelity and vice, which are pouring in on every side, forbode well to the liberties and happiness of this country, he leaves to the consideration of his fellow-citizens.” [Sermon, (4th July, 1795,) 29, 30. Note.]
And again,

“ My brethren, consider then, the men who would rob you of this religion, as your enemies, and the enemies of all social happiness. Be assured, whatever may be their motives, and whether they realize it or not, they are madmen, scattering fire-brands, arrows and death. They may tell you, “that in casting off religion, you will only free yourself from chains which cramp your faculties and degrade your nature; that you will never rise to the true sublimity of the human character, till you throw from you the cumbrous load.” They may tell you this; and they may believe it all. But, 0 fellow mortals! examine well before you commit yourselves to their delusive guidance. Are you patriots? and will you embrace principles which tend to dissolve all the ties of social order? Are you fathers of families ? and will you adopt a system, which prostrates every law of domestic happiness ? Are you accountable beings ? and will you choose a road which conducts to the chambers of death f No, brethren. Whatever difficulty or trouble may arise, hold fast to the profession of your faith without wavering. For the name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous runneth into it and is safe.” [2. Fast Day Sermon, (1798,) 43. 44.]

The letter from which the following extract is taken was addressed to the Rev. Mr. Gemmil, of New Haven.

‘ New York, December 7, 1800.

‘ My dear Sir,

‘ Your kind letter by Mr. Broome came duly to hand. I will endeavor to answer it as explicitly as I can. Few things have given me greater mortification and shame, than the use which has been and continues to be made of religion, in the present electioneering struggle for President of the United States. That mere politicians, who despise religion, should thus convert it into an engine of party, is not strange ; but that men professing to love it, and especially its ministers, who ought to be its wise, prudent and wary defenders, should con¬sent to do the same, is to me strange.. If I do not totally mistake, they are acting a part, calculated to degrade religion, to bring its ministers into contempt, and to excite in the minds of thoughtful and observing men a suspicion that,  even in America, the idea of ecclesiastical encroachment and usurpation is not wholly destitute of foundation. I am mortified—I am humbled at the scenes which have passed and are passing before me.

‘ I profess to be a Christian. I wish all men were Christians. We should have more private, social and political happiness. But what then? Because Mr. Jefferson is suspected of Deism, are we to raise a hue and cry against him, as if he ought to be instantly deprived of his rights of citizenship ? If he be an infidel, I lament it for two reasons: from a concern for his own personal salvation, and that a religion, which is so much spoken against, does not receive his countenance and aid. But notwithstanding this, I think myself perfectly consistent in saying that I had much rather have Mr. Jefferson President of the United States, than an aristocratic Christian.

‘ But what are we to think of the consistency of the federal party? I hear men, whom I know to despise religion, bellowing against the republican candidate for his supposed want of it. And I hear on the other hand, Christian ministers inveighing against one for infidelity, and ready to embrace another, and straining every nerve to exalt him, when his religion is equally questionable; nay, making no objection to men openly and infamously immoral. Can charity itself believe that religion is the sole motive in this ease?’

In explanation of the last foregoing paragraph, and as some palliation, too, of Mr. Miller’s adherence to the cause of Jefferson, it may be added, that the candidate of the Federalists for the Vice-presidency—Charles Cotesworth Pinckney-—was currently charged by his opponents with infidelity and immorality.

Long afterwards Dr. Miller wrote,

‘ There was a time, (from the year 1800, to 1809, or 1810,) when I was a warm partisan in favor of Mr. Jefferson’s polities and administration as President. Before his death, I lost all confidence in him as a genuine patriot, or even as an honest man. And after the publication of his posthumous writings, in 1829, my respect for him was exchanged for contempt and abhorrence. I now believe Mr. Jefferson to have been one of the meanest and basest of men. His own writings evince a hypocrisy, a selfishness, an artful, intriguing, underhand spirit, a contemptible envy of better men than himself, a blasphemous impiety, and a moral profligacy, which no fair, honest mind, to say nothing of piety, can contemplate without abhorrence . *     *

‘ I am so far from having any grounds of personal animosity against Mr. Jefferson, that the contrary is the case. While I sided with him in politics, he was remarkably polite and attentive to me; wrote me a number of respectful letters; (one of which is published in his posthumous writings;1) and said and did many things adapted to conciliate my personal feelings. Nor did anything personal ever occur to change those feelings. *    *

‘ I renounce, and wish unsaid and unwritten, everything that I ever said or wrote in his favor.    ‘ Sam’l Miller.’

‘ Princeton, June, 1830/

Still later, Dr. Miller, as if very intent upon leaving his matured opinions upon this whole subject on record, wrote again,

‘ *   * I look back on that whole part of my early history with entire disapprobation and deep regret. On two points I totally disapprove my own conduct. In the first place, I was wrong in suffering myself to be so warmly and actively engaged in Politics as I was during that period. For though ministers have the rights and duties of citizens, and, probably, in most cases, ought to exercise the right of voting at elections; yet when party politics run high, and when their appearing at the polls cannot take place without exciting strong feelings on the part of many against them; and when their ministry among all such persons will be therefore much less likely to be useful, I cannot think that their giving their votes can have an importance equivalent to the injury it is likely to do. I think I was wrong in talking, and acting, and rendering myself so conspicuous as a politician, as I did. I fear I did an amount of injury to my ministry, which could by no means have been counterbalanced by my usefulness as a politician.

‘ But I was, if possible, still more wrong in pleading with so much zeal the cause of Mr. Jefferson. I thought, even then, that he was an infidel ; but I supposed that he was an honest, truly republican, patriotic infidel. But I now think that he was a selfish, insidious, and hollow-hearted infidel; that he had little judgment and no moral principle; that he was a hypocritical demagogue; and that his partisans rated his patriotism far higher than was just. I have long thought that his four volumes of posthumous works disclose a degree of meanness, malignity and hypocrisy, of which the friends of his memory have reason to be ashamed. The tradition is, that Mr. Jefferson himself, with minute care and absolute authority, selected all the parts of that publication, and left nothing to the discretion of his grandson, the editor. If it was so, his worst enemies could hardly have made a selection more un¬friendly to his memory.

‘ True, I am now, as I was then, a sincere and honest Republican. But I totally mistook the real character of the leader of the nominal Republicans, who triumphed in the country at that time. I was gulled by hollow, hypocritical pretences, and did all I could to honor and elevate men, whom I now believe to have been unworthy of public confidence. [1]

[1] This language in regard to Mr, Jefferson may, to some persons, seem, if not wholly unjust, at least too strong and objurgatory. It would not have been here inserted, however, without the deepest conviction, after careful examination, that every charge might be fully sustained. Mr. Jefferson had resided in Paris more than five years, the last four of them as our minister plenipotentiary; and returned to the United States in the Autumn of 1789, blindly enamored of Jacobinism, his head full of the worst French revolutionary ideas. (1.) He was not only an infidel, but a bitter, blaspheming infidel. (2.) He was a gross flatterer of the people—an unscrupulous demagogue past redemption. (3.) he was an apologist for insurrection and rebellion, and not in their more dignified form of secession, but in the vulgar shape of sedition and riot. (4.) As President, he was the originator of the incalculably mischievous doctrine, that, public offices are the rightful “spoils” of a victorious party; and (5.) of the “ policy” of vituperating a coordinate branch of the government, (the judiciary in this ease,) which was not subservient to his will. (6.) He was father of the doctrine of the repudiation of public debts. (7.) He was an insidious enemy and accuser of General Washington, at the very time when professing for him the sincerest regard. (8.) He was a high priest of that political creed, which justifies the means by the end, counting truth as secondary to the safe and plausible disparagement of personal and party opponents. (9.) In fine, his undoubted talents and acquirements only aggravated the littleness, meanness, insincerity, dishonesty, and malignity, which ought to consign his memory to everlasting shame and contempt. The evidence of all this is found, chiefly, in his own memoirs, letters, and memoranda, carefully preserved by himself, and published posthumously, but doubtless by his direction. He had fallen to that pitch of moral depravation, in which men lose their delicate sense of the difference between right and wrong; boast of their obliquities as praiseworthy; of their low cunning, as deserving the repute of sagacity and statesmanship; and treasure up against themselves, as honorable distinctions, the clear proofs of their debasement.
(1.) See Jefferson’a Correspondence, Vol. i. p. 327. ii. 174. ill. 461. 463. 468. 469. 478. iv. 138. 194. 205. 206. 300. 301. 321. 322. 325. 326. 327. 349. 353. 358. 360. 564. 365.
(2.) iii. 317. 348. Et passim. Comp. iii. 315. 402.
(3.) ii. 87. 267. 268. 276. iii. 307. 308. 328.
(4.) iii. 456. 464. 467. 471. 475. 476. 477. 483. 484.
(5.) iii. 458. 478. 487. iv. 71. 72, 73. 74. 90. 91. 101. 102. 103. 337. 345. 352.
(6.) iii. 27-32. iv. 196-198. 291. 396. 397.
(7.) iii. 202. 307. 319. 320. 324. 325. 327. 328. iv. 452. 453. 485. (10 Sparks’s Writings of Washington, 522. 523.) 467. 468. 478. 491. 512. ii. 439, 463. 464. iii. 46. iv. 185. 235-237. 406. 419. 420. 453.
(8.) iii. 461. iv. 503. 505. 508. (10 Writings of Washington, 159.) 17. 18. 23

  1. Wow thank you for sharing this interesting historical treasure…I didn’t even think Samuel Miller would have ever interacted with Jefferson!

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