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Political Déjà Vu

While researching some theological topics, I ran across something that created a very strong sense of déjà vu in my mind. I was perusing a book on the life of Samuel Miller (1769–1850), who was the second professor appointed at the theological seminary in Princeton (later Princeton Theological Seminary). Miller was an old-school presbyterian in every sense of the word. He preceded Charles Hodge, a much more well-known professor at Princeton. I've read a number of Miller's works and even assign his little book on creeds and confessions in one of my theology classes.

While thumbing through the book, I noticed Thomas Jefferson's name and stopped to see what Miller had to say about this president. This is when I experienced serious déjà vu. What Miller describes sounds so much like a lot of the heated political rhetoric going on in the United States (and elsewhere) today. In one of his personal letters, Miller describes the way in which he believes political candidates are using Christianity as a means to accomplish their political goals:

“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 consent 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.” (Samuel Miller – Letter to Rev. Mr. Gemmil, Dec. 7, 1800).

In a letter written in 1830, Miller expresses his regrets about supporting Thomas Jefferson many years earlier.

“There was a time, (from the year 1800, to 1809, or 1810,) when I was a warm partisan in favor of Mr. Jefferson's politics 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” (Samuel Miller – Letter June 1830).

In what I found to be his most interesting comments, Miller expresses regret at having become a vocal partisan when emotions were running so high because he believes it hindered his ability to minister the Gospel to those on the opposite side of the political divide.

“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” (Life of Samuel Miller, pp. 132–33).

I find Miller's comments fascinating because Christians in the United States today find themselves in a similar situation in which the political divide is very heated. We think our era is unique. But there really is nothing new under the sun. Those who have read American history already know that almost every election campaign for over two hundred years has been intense. But not all of these histories provide any insight into how Christians dealt with the issues. Miller's letters give us some insight into how one Presbyterian minister alive when this nation was still young thought about the heated politics of his day.

Whatever you may think of Miller's conclusions (and his opinion of Jefferson's character), his words ought to encourage us to remember to be very, very careful in the way we deal with these earthly issues. Whatever we do, we cannot and dare not compromise the priority of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Portrait of Samuel Miller by John Neagle (public domain)


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