Reason and Religion during the Revolutionary Period: Robert Morris' Views on Omnipotence and the Afterlife

By Junkkarinen, Marko | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Reason and Religion during the Revolutionary Period: Robert Morris' Views on Omnipotence and the Afterlife


Junkkarinen, Marko, Anglican and Episcopal History


Reason and Religion During the Revolutionary Period: Robert Morris' Views on Omnipotence and the Afterlife

Robert Morris (1734-1806) was an Englishman from Liverpool who became an influential American statesman and one of the richest merchants in North America. His actions in the political and economic spheres are fairly well studied, but his personal life, including his attitudes towards religion and the afterlife, has not aroused as much interest among scholars of American history. This essay is trying to shed light on the religious views of the Founding Era statesmen by closely scrutinizing Robert Morris as a case study. One of the most prominent of American religious historian, Sydney E. Ahlstrom in his classic synthesis of American religious history, highlighted the complex nature of American religious life. Ahlstrom's work emphasized the centrality of religion in understanding American history. Despite of its massive size, however, his book does not discuss religious views of the Founding Fathers in the context of emerging ideas of the Enlightenment in America. From Ahlstrom's point of view "only an extensive essay could clarify the religious differences of the major Founding Fathers." My thesis would like to be a part of that huge essay Ahlstrom figuratively refers.1

The role of religion is a complex and fragmented theme in eighteenth-century America.2 It is difficult to overestimate the force and effect of religious groups and their beliefs in the development of American society. They have influenced the nature of government, laws, values, and the daily lives of individuals from the times of the first setders to the present day.3 In addition to participating in Christian theology, theological interest had different social tasks, for example, keeping up community cohesion. Many of the early American statesmen shared a view that religion upheld stability in society. Social happiness and a stable society were deeply intertwined in religion and its power.4 According to Richard Vetterli and Gary Bryner "the Founders" were usually deeply religious men, even though some scholars claim that often the views they expressed were just rhetorical, without any deeper meaning or personal conviction.5 This essay will argue that the ideas and actions of American statesmen were not exclusively governed by religion but, on the other hand, that it is impossible to ignore its impact. The purpose of this thesis is to try to answer the question of whether the notable Philadelphian, Robert Morris, was exclusively governed by religion and what kind of role religion played in his life and political ideology.

Even though there is little evidence in Morris' own writings to indicate his religious beliefs, it is certain that he was an Anglican, a denom- ination he had been born into. Allusions to God or the supernatural are very fragmentary. Conscious reflection of his denominational or theological stance is non-existent, which was not uncommon among early American political elites.6 To achieve political unity, it was better to avoid possible clashes concerning religious views.

In the context of eighteenth century America, religious affiliation was one of the most important qualifications for both political leadership and a career as a merchant. It is clear that Robert Morris could not have had such a noteworthy mercantile position in the Philadelphian merchant house House of Willing at the age of thirteen if there was any uncertainty about his abilities and his religious denomination. His extraordinary maturity had its origins in the independence that he developed at a very early age; he had little parental counseling throughout much of his early life, and he was practically raised by the business community around him.7 Being a merchant meant (in most cases) holding a moderate attitude towards different sects because of the profession. Every inhabitant in the American colonies was a potential customer, so being polite and tolerant was advantageous for business. …

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