“Don’t know much about history" – The Pennsylvania House

Andrew L. Seidel

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is overly fond of wasting time and money on resolutions that deliberately exclude and offend all non-Christians.  

In the past 18 months, they declared a Year of the Bible, for which FFRF sued them (and the Judge gave them a hammering with his pen).  In response to FFRF lawsuits against two schools with Ten Commandments monuments, they proposed a shameful bill to outlaw the use of pseudonyms to protect children and families from retribution in litigation challenging religious symbols on public property.  And last month they tried to starve their constituents with a fasting resolution.

This month they’ve proposed House Resolution 306 to declare an “American Religious History Week.”

This latest resolution is ignorance incarnate.  The good news is that the resolution is stuck in the Education Committee, so it may die a well-deserved death.  It’s time the Pennsylvania House met FFRF’s Education committee.  Thanks to your support, dear member (and if you’re not a member it’s time to join!), we can teach these unenlightened legislators a thing or two.  

If you were to read HR 306, which I do not recommend for those valuing truth or sanity, you will see that it begins with 17 “Whereas” provisions in an attempt to invent a secular purpose.  I won’t go through them all — it is mind-numbing enough to read legislation, let alone ignorant legislation.  It is sufficient to highlight a few of the more egregious examples.  

The second Whereas is non-binding Supreme Court language from an 1892 opinion about the Alien Contract Labor Law. The idea that we are “a religious people ... From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation” is offensive, exclusionary, and absurd.  I am not a religious person.  At least 1.5 million Pennsylvanians are not religious.  One-in-three Americans under the age of 30 are not religious and more than 60 million Americans of all ages are not religious.  So no, there is no “single voice making this affirmation.”  Claiming otherwise is simply Christian arrogance.   

This antiquated opinion is often trotted out to support the myth that our secular nation was based on Judeo-Christian principles. I give a talk on the this very topic and it is simply not true.

The third Whereas declares that the “first act of America’s first Congress in 1774 was to ask a minister to open with prayer” and a bible reading.  “America’s first Congress in 1774” is a poor, indistinct moniker. We had not declared our independence and were still subject to the British crown in 1774.  That assembly spent a good deal of time discussing reconciliation with Britain; not independence.  The battles at Lexington and Concord were six months away.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a seminal event in American history, but to call this “America’s” first congress is somewhat misleading.  We must use the proper label: the First Continental Congress.  

Nomenclature aside, according to transcripts, the first act of the First Continental Congress was to elect a President.  Next, they chose a Secretary.  The third order of business? Each of the 12 (Georgia did not attend) colonial delegations had to prove the authority granted to them by their fellow colonists.  Their fourth act confirmed these “deputies.”  That all happened on Monday, September 5, 1774 and then they adjourned.  No prayer.   Journal of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, pages 13-28.  

The next day they began “draw[ing] up rules of conduct to be observed in debating and determining the questions.”  Drafting those rules took all day.  The very last order of business on the second of two jam-packed days was a vote on opening the next day’s meeting with a prayer. John Jay, the first U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, and John Rutledge, the second U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, opposed the vote because “we were so divided in religious sentiments…”  John Adams, Sept. 16, 1774 letter to Abigail Adams. 

Finally, three days into the First Continental Congress, 15 years before our country invented the separation of state and church, the Reverend Duche said some opening prayers.  True to the flexibility of religious thinking and principles, the Rev. Duche later abandoned his fellow colonials in their fight for independence and defected to the British.  He was convicted of treason against and decamped to the warm bosom of his King.  Not one of the brighter stars in our founding history.  And, as near as I can tell from the documents provided by the Library of Congress, the First Continental Congress didn’t bother to repeat its prayers.  Unlike some Pennsylvania legislators, it had better things to do.  

Whereas the Fifth, claims that  “Congress pursued a plan to print a Bible.” Chris Rodda, over at MRFF, has debunked this claim several times.  Congress never printed a bible.  Congress never planned to print a bible.  During the Revolutionary War, a printer, Robert Aitken, asked that the Continental Congress commission him to print a bible. The Continental Congress declined, but agreed to “recommend [his] edition” of the bible in part because it was “an instance of the progress of arts in this country.” They simply allowed Aitken to print their recommendation.  Gaillard Hunt, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 23, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914), 574.

The recommendation came during the Revolutionary War as the British navy enforced an embargo on the colonies.  Encouraging local printing was important.  Aitken used the congressional recommendation to hawk his bibles, but by his own account, they sold so poorly that he lost over £3,000 on the endeavor.  Aitken asked the Continental Congress to reimburse him or buy the unsold bibles.  They refused. Robert Aitken to George Washington, June 9, 1790, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4, General Correspondence.    Aitken believed his bibles didn’t sell because the embargo was lifted about a year after the Continental Congress made its recommendation.  But perhaps they didn’t sell because Americans had no desire to buy the not-so-good book.   After all, According to constitutional scholar Leo Pfeffer, “in 1790 not more than one out of eight Americans and possibly as few as one out of twenty-five belonged to any church…”  Leo Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom, 166, Beacon Press (1967).

Using the quote in Whereas number Six to claim our country is religious borders on ridiculous.  The legislators seek refuge in a Ben Franklin quote but disregard the response of the other framers to that quote. Ben Franklin moved for a prayer when the Constitutional Convention, which ultimately crafted our godless Constitution, was bogged down.  The motion was so unimportant, so irrelevant, and so predictably fruitless that the Convention did not even vote on the issue.  The Framers rejected the prayer proposal.  That hardly indicates a “rich… religious history of our nation’s founding.”  Quite the opposite.

Whereas the Eighth, also known as Whereas of the Self-inflicted Wound or Whereas the Underminer, actually refutes the House’s already weak proposal.  “Beginning in 1904 and continuing for the next half-century, the Federal Government printed and distributed The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth for the use of Members of Congress…”  This book is more commonly known as the Jefferson Bible, but there is nothing religious about it.  Jefferson excised — I use the term literally, he employed a razor — anything supernatural, religious, or “contrary to reason” from the bible.  He likened the task to separating “diamonds from dunghills.” Letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814.  

He cut out the resurrection, the virgin birth, and the divinity of Jesus.  Jefferson called the gospel authors “ignorant and unlettered men” and labeled them a “band of dupes and imposters.”  Would that more politicians, particularly Pennsylvanian politicians, emulated Jefferson’s example; but think his example does not support their bill.  

On the 10th day of Whereas the House proclaimed to me,  “President Andrew Jackson declared that the Bible ‘is the rock upon which our Republic rests.’”  The House does not provide any source for this or any other quote.   I can find no primary source.  The earliest record I can locate is Frederic William Farrar’s History of Interpretation: eight lectures preached before the University of Oxford in the year MDCCCLXXXV on the foundation of the late Rev. John Bampton.  (page xxvii (MacMillian and Co., London, 1886)). The book was in written 1886, 40 years after Jackson’s 1845 death.  Farrar was 14 years old when Jackson died and not in attendance at the deathbed where the utterance was supposedly made.

Farrar is hardly an unbiased historian.  He was Archdeacon and Canon of Westminster, Chaplain in Ordinary to the Queen, and wrote religious books such as Life of Christ (1874), Life and Works of St. Paul (1879), and The Voice from Sinai (1892).  The quote Farrar attributes to Jackson is buried in a paragraph that begins, “My main wish has been to show the true basis whereon rests the sacredness of Holy Scripture… It is because there is no Book and no Literature which can for a moment supply the place of the Bible in the moral and spiritual education of mankind that I would do my utmost to save it from the injury of false theories and impossible interpretations.”  With such motives, everything that follows is seriously suspect.  Farrar continues “ ‘That book sir,’ said the American President, Andrew Jackson, pointing to the family Bible during his last illness, ‘is the rock on which our Republic rests.’ ” Although Farrar cites several sources for other quotes several pages earlier and two sentences later, he provides no source for Jackson’s deathbed quote. 

By the way, Jackson was a strict secularist.  When asked to proclaim a national day of prayer he replied, “I am constrained to decline the designation of any period or mode as proper for the public manifestation of this reliance. I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the constitution for the President, nor without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country, in its complete separation from the political concerns of the general government.” A Subaltern's Furlough : Descriptive of Scenes in Various Parts of the United States, Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia during the Summer and Autumn of 1832 (1833) by Edward Thomas Coke, Ch. 9, p.145.

The culmination of these Whereases is an astounding final resolution: “The House of Representatives reject, in the strongest possible terms, any effort to remove, obscure or purposely omit such history from our nation's public buildings and educational resources.”  For those who don’t understand theocratic Newspeak, let me translate: the House rejects the separation of state and church, particularly on public buildings and in our schools.  Keep “In God We Trust” on the Capitol and the Ten Commandments in front of our Pennsylvania schools (not for long).  

One is inclined to think that the House formed an Irony Committee to draft such absurd language.  With this language, the House is rejecting the very Constitution they promised to uphold upon entering office.  

Drafting legislation on misinformation generated by the legion of Christian hagiographers and propagandists is simply idiotic.  Pennsylvania House, you look foolish.  What’s worse, you’re wasting the time and money of your constituents.  They voted you in to office to work, not pass meaningless resolutions based on bad history.  So get back to work.  Class dismissed. 

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