06 November 2014

Cursed Be All Learning!

he underbrush has grown thickly about the internet since I’ve been down with the moving sickness, and frankly it’s beyond either my interest or abilities to hack it back. Luxuriant growths of strange fungi have emerged, and old thorny vines re-established themselves. (I see David Barton has a new version of his unconfirmed quotations page up, for example—and it is a rare growth indeed!) The gamergate creepers are everywhere, threatening to strangle the old growth columns, and the social injustice perennials are in full bloom.
While tramping through this tulgy undergrowth I came across this little toadstool of a website, attributed to a certain Pastor Stephen Andrew, entitled USA Christian Ministries, and containing a page of USA HistoryQuotes about God and the Bible, many of them fake. It’s apparently been there since at least 21 February 2012 (though not apparently in exactly the present form) and is a rich growth of frauds and forgeries. We find such familiar hoaxes as the Washington prayer book and the 1792 congressional proclamation approving the holy bible for use in schools. There are the rank misattributions, like the John Quincy Adams “cornerstone” quotation being attributed to his father, or the Reformed Dutch Synod’s “true religion” remark being assigned to George Washington. Not to mention the absurdity of attributing a comment by an anonymous 1956 writer to Patrick Henry. There are unsupported attributions, like Henry’s deathbed tribute to the Bible. There are incorrect citations, as when words from Noah Webster’s 1836 letter to David McClure are attributed to his preface to the 1828 dictionary. (I have read through the thousands of words in that preface, and fascinating reading it is, if you are interested in the correct pronunciation of the English language, or the derivation of its words, but he does not there discuss his views on the use of the Bible in education.)
There are the weird distortions, such as this version of Washington’s advice to the Delaware tribe:
You do well to wish to learn … above all the religion of Jesus Christ [in our schools].
You know, you don’t get to use ellipses and brackets to change the meaning of a quotation—that’s as much fraud as simply making words up and attributing them to somebody else. The same is true with his version of what he likes to call the “First Ammendment”:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion [Christian denomination], or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
And apparently, if this site is to be believed (and I see no reason why it should), both Noah and Daniel Webster said “Education is useless without the Bible”. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent trying to run that idiotic claim down. I can easily believe that either of them—or both—actually said that, especially in the context of the whole Girard’s college imbroglio. For those who don’t know the story, Stephen Girard, the wealthiest man in the United States of his time (he bailed out the government during the 1812 war), left his fortune to a variety of public works in his adopted country. One of these was a school for the education of orphans. His French relatives wanted the cash, and Daniel Webster was one of the lawyers who fought to help them in their attempt to rob orphans of an education. One of the provisions in Girard’s will was that no priest or minister should set foot on the grounds of his school, and the anti-college team twisted that into a claim that no religion would be taught at the school. Daniel Webster claimed that a charitable bequest that excluded Christianity was invalid under the law, because, it seems, there could be no charity outside of the Christian context, and the bequest should therefore be set aside in favor of Girard’s family members. Daniel Webster cited Noah Webster (among others) in support of his position. Ultimately the judge sidestepped the whole issue by pointing out that the exclusion of ministers did not prevent religious education by laymen, and that therefore that whole line of argument was irrelevant.
I could easily imagine either Webster claiming that “education is useless without the Bible” in this context, but I haven’t found it. And, for the record, Girard’s school for orphans was indeed founded, and is still in operation to this day, though his desire that all girls and black children be excluded from his bequest is no longer honored.
Moving on, I see that Pastor Andrew’s collection of James Madison quotations is absolutely perfect—there is nothing genuine in the entire lot. They are out-and-out fakes, all of them. Taking them in order they are:
We have staked the whole future of our new nation, not upon the power of government; far from it. We have staked the future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.
This is a well-known fake; Madison never wrote anything like it. Many of the words are Clarence Manion’s, taken from various forms of his 1950s lecture on “The Key to Peace”, and the entire thing may have been inspired by a few words of Madison’s in the Federalist Papers, but it doesn’t appear to be any older than about 1958. (Some writers claim a 1937 source, but the existence of that item is doubtful, to say the least.)
We then have
Religion [is] the basis and foundation of Government.
This one is particularly childish. What he actually wrote (in Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man) was:
… Because finally, “the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience” is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the “Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government,” it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.
Note that the word “religion” is part of a quotation and the words “the basis and foundation of government” are part of the title of a work he is referring to. The fraud could hardly be more transparent.
Finally we have
Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.
This is so obviously not Madison’s it is amazing that anybody could be taken in by it. As Jeffrey Shallit noted in a piece on this fake quotation (Yet Another Christian Fake Quote) Madison was more likely to say things like “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize, every expanded prospect” than “Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.” How did this bizarre attribution occur? A commenter on that site (me, actually, back when I still had access to my library) suggested “The Madison misattribution probably results … from human error (and failure to check sources). William J. Federer wrote in the Madison section of his America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations (p. 410):
Home-schooled as a child, Madison attended Princeton University under the direction of Reverend John Witherspoon, one of the nation's premier theologians and legal scholars. The University's first president, Jonathan Dickinson, had declared: “Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.”
Somebody seeing this sentence in quotation marks in a section devoted to Madison quotations could easily be excused for mistaking it for Madison's words.”
So it would seem to be a simple case of misattribution. It was Jonathan Dickinson, not James Madison, who said “Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.” But did he? For the sake of his posthumous reputation I would hope he didn’t—but hopes are not the same as evidence. I did look for it—but I couldn’t find it.
The oldest reference to the saying that Google Books turned up was from a sketch of a speech given by the Reverend S. S. Cox D.D. in October 1845 recorded in the Permanent Documents of the Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education at the West, Volume 1, p. 30. He attributed the following words to “a venerable man [by] the name of Witherspoon”:
Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ; cursed be all that learning that is not coincident with the cross of Christ; cursed be all that learning that is not subservient to the cross of Christ.
The “venerable man [by] the name of Witherspoon” was no doubt John Knox Witherspoon (1723-1794), signer of the Declaration and president of the College of New Jersey. William Federer mentioned him along with Dickinson in the bit quoted above. But could Witherspoon have actually said these bigoted anti-intellectual words?
Well, yes he could, kind of. Context matters here. The words appear in a sermon he published in 1768, one of a group “selected in order to form a little system of the truths of the gospel”. The sermon in question is number VIII, entitled “Glorying in the Cross” and taking for its text Paul’s letter to the Galatians chapter vi, verse 14, given there as “But God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the manner of sermons “Glorying in the Cross” meanders on for a bit, as Witherspoon tries to establish to his own satisfaction at least what exactly is meant by by its subject. “The word here translated glorying, signifies at the same time exulting, or rejoicing; and therefore to glory in the cross, is the same thing as to rejoice in the Saviour.” He moves on to ask “in what it was the apostle did not glory.” From elsewhere in Paul’s works (the latter portion of II Corinthians maybe?) Witherspoon concludes there were at least three things “he renounced as any subject of boasting. 1. His learning as a scholar; 2. His privileges as a Jew; 3. Even his zeal and activity as a minister of Christ.”
Are you still with me? Do you see where we’re going here? “The apostle Paul” he observes “had been brought up at the sect of Gamaliel, and seems to have been well accomplished in every branch of human science. Yet he speaks of it with great neglect, or rather with a noble disdain, when compared with the doctrine of the cross…” Witherspoon asks rhetorically “What is the meaning of this renunciation of human learning and wisdom? Is there any real opposition between learning and the cross? Would not the legitimate use of human wisdom lead us to embrace it?” For him this renunciation implies, first “An admiration of the divine glory in that which had not on it any of the marks of human wisdom…”, second “such a superlative admiration of this glorious and interesting object, that all the knowledge he possessed, and the honour he could otherwise acquire, seemed to him unworthy of regard…”, and third, “humility and self-denial, with the noble contempt of vain embellishments, which showed he was not building a monument to himself, but seeking the honour of his Saviour.”
And at this point he enters the caveat that is the source of this passage:
Mistake me not, my brethren: I am not speaking against learning in itself; it is a precious gift of God, and may be happily improved in the service of the gospel; but I will venture to say, in the spirit of the apostle Paul's writings in general, and of this passage in particular, Accursed be all that learning which sets itself in opposition to the cross of Christ! Accursed be all that learning which disguises or is ashamed of the cross of Christ! Accursed be all that learning which fills the room that is due to the cross of Christ! and once more, Accursed be all that learning which is not made subservient to the honour and glory of the cross of Christ!
As is my custom I have bolded the material that is reflected in the misquotation under consideration. (It will be noted that the first and third of Cox’s curses have Witherspoon’s first and fourth curses as their source; the second however is not parallel to either Witherspoon’s second or third. Go figure.) So, yeah, Witherspoon is indeed the source of the fake Madison quotation; the context mitigates the anti-intellectualism of it somewhat. But not much, no.
For my part, I am unenthusiastic about ideologies that would set limits on inquiry. I mean, I have nothing against the gospel per se; there are some nice things in it, considering that it was the product of a benighted and savage era. It is as straw compared to the work of Aristotle or Archimedes, and less useful than the advice of Sun Tzu, but it has its points. When used to impede the advance of knowledge, however, I will venture to say in no uncertain terms, Accursed be all that learning that limits itself to the cross of Christ! Accursed be all that learning that exists only to exalt the cross of Christ! Accursed be all that learning that erases knowledge for the cross of Christ! and once more, Accursed be all that learning that is made subservient to the honour and glory of the cross of Christ! Such “learning” is unworthy the efforts of the minds that wasted their abilities on it, loving the darkness rather than shining their lamps into the shadowed corners of the cosmos to see what really was there. It’s akin to those lawyers who would rob orphans of an education if that education didn’t include their particular unsubstantiated pet notions.
Still, at least the reverend John Witherspoon had a mind, and made what appears to be a sincere effort to come to grips with the meaning of his text. Today's Christ-mongers are too busy selling a product to worry about such niceties. Manufacturing appropriate quotations and rewriting constitutions to suit their theological fancies are more their speed. Research is hard. Why do it, if you can just make things up? Use your ellipses as scissors and your brackets as paste and you can make anybody say anything you like. It's not like people have access to repositories of documents they can visit, or even conjure up in their own homes if they have an internet connection. No, they'll believe whatever you tell them. And trusting pastors with websites can be counted upon to spread your message.
And so with that I bid a fond farewell to this fantastic fungal growth in a remote corner of the online woods. I would suggest that the good Pastor Andrew needs to weed his garden a bit. There are a lot of tares mixed in with his wheat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Good one. You should be teaching. The Pastor Andrews section is particularly astute. Good run-down. rfh

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