Some Warm Theological Debates

“Every man knows that he understands religion and politics, though he never learned them; but many people are conscious they do not understand many other sciences, from having never learned them.” 

Jonathan Swift, paraphrased in the Letter of the Earl of Chesterfield to his Son (March 25, 1751)

“Carefully avoid an argumentative and disputative turn, which too many people have, and some even value themselves upon . . . and when you find  your antagonist beginning to grow warm, put an end to the dispute by some genteel badinage.” 

Letter of the Earl of Chesterfield to his Son (Nov. 5, 1765)

Theological and political debates at the Orthosphere are only sometimes argumentative, disputative and warm.  The prevailing tranquility in these parts is partly owing to our civility, partly owing to our personal modesty, and partly owing to our prudent use of cooling doses of “genteel badinage.”   This tranquility is creditable because, as Swift somewhere said, every man is jealous of his own religious and political opinions.  A man who is grateful to be corrected on a practical point in natural science will, as it were, fight like a tiger to defend his religious and political cubs.

Here are a couple of instructive examples from my neighborhood in Texas, a century and more ago.  The first appeared in the Navasota Examiner, April 18, 1895, and relates a theological debate that grew overly warm at a church in Iola, twenty miles east of here.  The incendiary question was whether grace must be evidenced by works or may be fully present in an unreformed sinner.

“News reached here of a killing at a negro church in Iola precinct in the north end of this county.  The preacher, whose name is not given, delivered a sermon in which he said ‘the negroes must quit their lying and stealing and try to act like white folks.’  After the sermon was over one of the church members said: ‘That is no sermon; negroes won’t stop lying and stealing, till there is no negroes.’  In the trouble which followed one negro was shot twice, one shot entering his mouth and the second scattering his brains over the crowd of churchgoers.  Up to the time of the shooting the men had been good friends.  It is not known whether any arrests have been made.”*

The second instructive example comes from Lyons, which is twenty miles west of here and was at one time home to God’s Church of the Ark of Safety.  The story may in fact relate an episode in the early history of that unfortunate church. The theological debate began on Sunday, July 8, 1894, and was renewed the following day.  The theological questions over which the parties grew warm was, firstly, what the correct method of Christian baptism might be, and, secondly, the deference and respect due to a man of God.  Here is how the story was first told in the Brenham Daily Banner:

“For several days a negro preacher, Sandy Lyons . . . has been at Lyons holding a series of meetings.  Sunday evening he baptized his converts and had something to say about the Methodists, to one of the Methodist sisters, who told him to shut up.  In reply he made an ugly reply to her from the pulpit, so the men took it up and it looked like war Sunday night, when sticks, knives and pistols were shown.”**

You may be wondering, but I believe it was a coincidence that the preacher and the town shared the same name.  A subsequent article reveals the “ugly reply” with which Rev. Lyons answered the objections of the outspoken Methodist sister.

“The particulars of the above case were: as the preacher was immersing a candidate some anti-Baptist women made remarks against his mode of baptism, when he said: ‘Hush up; you haven’t as much sense as a rabbit.’”***

Rev. Lyons may have been alluding to Leviticus 11:6, in which the rabbit is said to be unclean “because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof,” but he was more probably rebuking the anti-Baptist woman in what the Galveston Daily News called “the latest modern style.”  Likening a dimwit to a rabbit was indeed a popular simile at the turn of the nineteenth century.  This quote from that article in the News throws additional light on the controversy.

“Yesterday Rev. Sandy Lyons was baptizing some parties at a tank [i.e. a stock pond].  His discourse was doctrinal.  He was interrupted several times by a woman in the congregation, whom he proceeded to excoriate in the latest modern style.  This gave great offense to the woman’s friends.  This morning Verge Jones, the husband of the woman, Jim Scott, Paul Taylor, and Doc Harris went for the purpose of interviewing Rev. Lyons.  They met him and told him they would like to talk to him. He advised them to stop and talk at a distance.  They continued to advance. Lyons drew a pistol and fired four shots, one of which took effect in Paul Taylor’s leg, another struck the horse Taylor was riding.  Here the interview ended.”†

The disinterested citizens of Burleson County wisely declined to take sides in what I am no doubt alone in remembering as the Great Religious War of Lyons, Texas.  When Rev. Lyons was brought to trial for shooting Paul Taylor and his horse, the jury was hung and the man of God was not.  When the obstreperous Methodist women, one Mrs. Ann Jones, was brought to trial for disorderly conduct, she was acquitted on what appear to have been First Amendment grounds.††.  The good people of Burleson County were of the opinion that Americans have a Constitutional right to heckle at baptisms, as well as to liken each other’s theological opinions to those of rabbits.

*) That issue of the Navasota Examiner has not survived, but the story was reprinted in the Brenham Daily Banner (April 24, 1895), p. 2.
** Brenham Daily Banner (July 11, 1894), p. 3.
***) This account was first printed in the Caldwell News-Chronicle, but is here extracted from the Brenham Daily Banner, August 12, 1894, p. 3
†) Galveston Daily News (July 10, 1894), p. 5
††) Galveston Daily News (Aug. 15, 1894), p. 2

33 thoughts on “Some Warm Theological Debates

  1. Hi, JMSmith:

    That seems a remarkably tame rejoinder to what must have been a most irritating heckler. I was expecting worse. e.g., “you feckless moron.”

    Wouldn’t the right to heckle baptisms be covered by the First Amendment rather than the Second? The right not to be killed by husbands defending offended wives, using a gun if necessary, seems to fall under the purview of the Second.

    • Your probably right about the Constitutional question. I was thinking that Ann Jones heckling might have been free exercise of her religion. Given the reaction of Verge Jones, I wonder if Rev. Lyons called Ann Jones something worse than a rabbit. Or it might be that “rabbit” was a bigger insult than I realize. “Bunny” has of course been used to suggest a female nymphomaniac.

  2. I sometimes wonder how an encounter of mine fifteen years ago or so would have been covered by the local rag, had a reporter gotten wind of it. I was told to “get off my porch!” by a (white) neighbor at the end of a political argument we had been having. I instantly complied with his command, given that it was *his* porch on *his* property I was standing on during the heated exchange.

    Unfortunately, my compliance with his order and deference to his authority over that spot of ground did not serve to soothe his taste for insult; he called me everything you can think of “except a white boy” as I casually made my way off his porch, out his gate, and across the road running by his property. But then he “stepped over the line” and began to insult my wife and children. At which point I turned and said to him, “bring that mouth and that karate sh*t out here; I’m fixing to teach you a lesson!”

    Here he came, at a dead run! If I’d had a gun on me, I might have shot him on the spot. I didn’t (have a gun on me, thankfully!), but I gave him what is likely the worst Okie sh*t kicking he’s ever received during his miserable life; a sh*t-kicking he would forever re-mem-ber! Right in the middle of the road aforementioned.

    On hearing the commotion from a neighbor’s house my wife and I had previously been visiting, my wonderful wife came running to the scene, frantic about the situation, and especially about the condition of my opponent and what had caused his … catatonic incapacity. That he’d been rendered “catatonic” did not prevent my “finishing the job,” by the way. I learned the lesson the hard way when I was a youngster to “do it right if you don’t want to have to fight them again, later down the road.”

    It was only about five years ago that I finally “came clean” with my wife, and explained to her why I’d gotten so angry and violent in that moment, which she had never quite understood since it was very out-of-character for me.

    I’m not sure I trust the newspaper reports of the incident in your O.P. Had my interlocutor said to me of my wife that she was “no better than a rabbit,” I probably would have reacted differently; that he said of her that she was a “slut” and a “whore” was all it took to bring the worst out in me. He had that beating coming, and I don’t think he will ever forget it so long as he lives.

    • As I said in answer to Richard Cocks, Rev. Lyon’s “rabbit” remark may have carried a suggestion of nymphomania. Hugh Hefner didn’t call them Playboy “Bunnies” for nothing.

      • That’s very interesting about Hugh Hefner’s choice of descriptives for his “Playboy Playmates,” and its connection back to the ‘senselessness of rabbits’ thing. Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. One recalls Jenny Geddes, the Edinburgh herb-seller, who threw a stool at the Dean of St Giles for wearing a surplice and reading King Charles’s and Archbishop Laud’s Prayer-Book

    This little episode led to the Covenant, the Bishops’ War and, finally, the War of the Three Kingdoms (which the English call “The English Civil War”) and King Charles and Archbishop Laud both losing their heads.

      • Perhaps, the more apt comparison is with a spark in a powder magazine, or the action of an Alpine hare which, given the terrain, by disturbing a few pebbles precipitates an avalanche.

  4. “…an argumentative and disputative turn, which too many people have, and some even value themselves upon…”
    Guilty, your Honour. It is an area in which my self-control is sadly lacking.

  5. This is why free-thinking folk and timocratic folk should really avoid one another . . . and perhaps why most Jews who live in American metropolitan areas want to restrict gun rights.

    Also, is it sacrilege to draw blood in a religious edifice used by a sect that rejects (the idea of) sacred space? It’s just a multipurpose hall with a table and a stage, right? If one robustly answers disrespect at Mickey Ds, why not Bethel Bible Church?

    “Here the interview ended.”

    Even today’s New York Post pales in comparison. We are not worthy of our ancestors.

    • I’m glad you caught that laconic line about the end of the interview. It’s good. I’m generally oppose ending debates with six-shooters but do not see why religious arguments should be more civil than any other arguments. The antinomian question is certainly more important than a pair of sneakers or a craps game.

      • do not see why religious arguments should be more civil than any other arguments.

        Because, except for the clergy, whose influence over their followers and hence their livelihood may suffer, no one’s interest is affected by them.

        Hume asks,
        <BlockquoteA man, who esteems the true right of government to lie in one man, or one family, cannot easily agree with his fellow-citizen, who thinks that another man or family is possessed of this right. Each naturally wishes that right may take place, according to his own notions of it. But where the difference of principle is attended with no contrariety of action, but every one may follow his own way, without interfering with his neighbour, as happens in all religious controversies; what madness, what fury can beget such unhappy and such fatal divisions?

        His proposed explanation?

        Two men travelling on the highway, the one east, the other west, can easily pass each other, if the way be broad enough: But two men, reasoning upon opposite principles of religion, cannot so easily pass, without shocking; though one should think, that the way were also, in that case, sufficiently broad, and that each might proceed, without interruption, in his own course. But such is the nature of the human mind, that it always lays hold on every mind that approaches it; and as it is wonderfully fortified by an unanimity of sentiments, so is it shocked and disturbed by any contrariety. Hence the eagerness, which most people discover in a dispute; and hence their impatience of opposition, even in the most speculative and indifferent opinions.

      • I think Hume’s explanation undermines his argument, since to be “shocked and disturbed by . . . contrariety” of thought may well be more painful than to be physically injured by “contrariety of action.” This of us who are contrary by nature may feel this less than many other people, but it most people are happiest when surrounded by like-minded people.

      • I take Hume’s position to be similar to Jefferson’s famous ‘It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’

        Hume goes on to say,

        This principle, however frivolous it may appear, seems to have been the origin of all religious wars and divisions. But as this principle is universal in human nature, its effects would not have been confined to one age, and to one sect of religion, did it not there concur with other more accidental causes, which raise it to such a height, as to produce the greatest misery and devastation.

        As to the effect of these “accidental causes,” he notes elsewhere

        we may observe that our ancestors, a few centuries ago, were sunk into the most abject superstition, last century they were inflamed with the most furious enthusiasm, and are now settled into the most cool indifference with regard to religious matters, that is to be found in any nation of the world.

      • Jefferson was wrong for the same reason Hume was wrong. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but it is words (and thoughts) that really hurt me. It is painful to be an object of contempt or pity. This is why men have (at least historically) preferred to risk life and limb over loss of honor. Profoundly religious men and women were objects of contempt or pity for Jefferson and Hume. I’m not sure either man would enjoy hearing the belly laughs that accompany reading their more affected nonsense now.

      • A remarkable instance of the spirit of that age can be found in a letter written by Bishop Hugh MacDonald, the Apostolic Visitor of the Highland District to his friend the philosopher (and staunch Presbyterian) Thomas Reid, shortly before his death in 1773.

        In 1756, Bishop Hugh had become the last man in Britain to be prosecuted simply for being a Catholic priest. His real crime, in the eyes of the English government, was that he had blessed Prince Charles’s standard, when he had raised it at the famous gathering at Glenfinnan on 19 August 1745. Sentenced “to be banished furth of the realm, with certification that if he ever returned, being still papist, he should be punished with death,” he ignored the sentence and carried on with his duties and the Scottish authorities winked at it.

        He writes, “The spirit of persecution and intolerance is happily now almost extinguished. It survives only in those illiberal minds, who join a morose and harsh disposition to a weak understanding. An acquaintance with the history of mankind will easily show that calamity, bloodshed, rebellion and depopulation have taken their rise from religious persecution, but no example ever occurred of a political evil which arose from toleration.”

        Hume, I believe, would have applauded.

      • No doubt Hume would have applauded, but the proposition is laughably false. It is based on the belief, also false, that humans are naturally inclined towards the truth, and that the following of what Jesus calls a “false prophet” will therefore naturally dwindle and disappear. Falsehoods can spread as well as truths. In fact, old proverbs say falsehoods have seven league boots and are halfway round the world before truth can put on its (no doubt one-league) boots. Persecution can amount to dousing a fire with gasoline but religious tolerance is akin to tolerance for weeds in one’s garden. An acquaintance with the history of Communism, say, shows that calamity, bloodshed, rebellion and depopulation quite often take their rise from toleration of pernicious doctrines.

      • The Romans understood the power of religion; “Separatim nemo habessit deos neve novos neve advenas nisi publice adscitos” – Let no one have gods by himself, neither new nor introduced, unless publicly acknowledged, says the Law of the XII Tables of 500 BC.

        However, virtually all beliefs were tolerated; as Gibbon says, “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”

        A notable exception was the Bacchanals.

        We have a bronze tablet containing the Sc de Bacchanalibus, of 186 BC, suppressing the Bacchanalian cult and it is very revealing.

        No one, either man or woman, is to be an officer (to manage the temporal affairs of the organization); nor is anyone of them to have charge of a common treasury; no one shall appoint either man or woman to be master or to act as master; they shall not form conspiracies among themselves… make mutual promises or agreements, or interchange pledges.

        Drunken orgies in honour of a foreign deity gave no cause for concern; belonging to an organization exercising authority over its members was to be “rem capvtalem faciendam censvere” – adjudged a capital offence.

        This fear only intensified under the Empire. After the great fire in Nicomedia, the Emperor Hadrian would not allow his friend Pliny to form a volunteer fire brigade; he feared it might become a political club.

        Christians were persecuted, not for their beliefs, but for their membership of a “collegium illicitum,” an illicit corporation, by authorities who condemned, as a state within the state, every inner group or community, class or corporation, exercising authority over its members.. “Non-denominational Christians,” had they existed (they didn’t), the Romans would have viewed with unconcern.

        The distinction strikes me as well-founded.

      • My understanding is that the Romans tolerated a sect on the condition that it was itself tolerant, most especially that it had no stiff prejudice against the official cult of emperor worship. Christians were not tolerant, so they were not tolerated. Jews were not tolerant, but they tolerated until they became intolerable. If Gibbon were right about the cause of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, then the Romans should have persecuted the Christians much harder. Gibbon wasn’t right about the cause of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, but he was right that opinions about the next world have consequences in this world–hence Jefferson and Hume were wrong.

      • The Romans would have agreed with the Declaration of the Rights of Man & the Citizen that “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, even his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.”

        Also, like the French, they would have viewed with intense suspicion any organised group, exercising control over its members. Anyone who knows France and the French press will know that there is great concern about communautarisme, by which they mean ethnic and religious solidarities and allegiances that threaten to override Republican unity. It is deeply rooted in French political culture, going back at least as far as Rousseau’s suspicion of particular interests that undermined the general will. I believe Roman law, embraced by the Code Napoléon, contributed.

        Hence the frequent reference in editorials and political speeches, to « La republique une et indivisible » – “the Republic, one and indivisible.” The indivisibility of the Republic precludes the recognition of collective rights for any particular group, as contrary to the principle of equality

        For the Romans, like the French, the only type of association that aroused no suspicion was the trading partnership or company. F W Maitland has noted the paradox that the French state, “saw no harm in the selfish people who wanted dividends, while it had an intense dread of the comparatively unselfish people who would combine with some religious, charitable, literary, scientific, or artistic purpose in view” and subjected them to a strict regime of licensing and surveillance, when it did not suppress them altogether.

        Not that long ago, it took a group of English expats about 3 months to obtain permission to form an amateur cricket club, with permits being required from the Prefecture, the Mayor’s office and the local police.

  6. I try to caution myself that beliefs and value systems are at least as much umbilical as rational, and there’s probably a lot of hereditary input. Unfortunate but true.

    • A man’s basic psychology is very largely umbilical, hence the adage “like father, like son.” Religiosity appears to be at least somewhat hereditary, but so does irreligion. So the umbilical qualifier applies equally. Don’t let anyone get away with the claim that your opinions are umbilical and theirs are rational.

      • For St John Henry Newman, differences in moral judgment arise from the strength or weakness of one’s moral sense: “There are those who can see and hear for all the common purposes of life, yet have no eye for colours or their shades, or no ear for music; moreover, there are degrees of sensibility to colours and to sounds, in the comparison of man with man, while some men are stone-blind or stone-deaf.” (Grammar of Assent)

      • He explains moral obtuseness and sensibility, but not the fact, nowadays so evident, that moral obtuseness and sensibility can be exhibited on so many vectors.

      • Newman, throughout his religious journey, from Evangelicalism, to Tractarianism, to Catholicism, was always a British Empiricist (something his Catholic co-religionists found disconcerting) and his moral theory does go some way to explain how “moral obtuseness and sensibility can be exhibited on so many vectors.”

        And so again, as regards the first principles expressed in such propositions as “There is a right and a wrong,” “a true and a false,””‘a just and an unjust,” “a beautiful and a deformed;” they are abstractions to which we give a notional assent in consequence of our particular experiences of qualities in the concrete, to which we give a real assent. As we form our notion of whiteness from the actual sight of snow, milk, a lily, or a cloud, so, after experiencing the sentiment of approbation which arises in us on the sight of certain acts one by one, we go on to assign to that sentiment a cause, and to those acts a quality, and we give to this notional cause or quality the name of virtue, which is an abstraction, not a thing… These so-called first principles, I say, are really conclusions or abstractions from particular experiences. (Grammar of Assent – Emphasis added)

    • “Beliefs and value systems,” no less than mathematics depend on certain “primitive notions” that defy definition and proof, because all definitions and proofs depend on them.

      In mathematics, Hilbert lists point, line, plane, congruence, betweeness, and incidence, whilst Peano adds segment, and motion.

      In ethics, Thomas Reid specifies the notion of duty

      With regard to the notion or conception of duty, I take it to be too simple to admit of a logical definition. We can define it only by synonymous words or phrases, or by its properties and necessary concomitants; as when we say that it is what we ought to do, what is fair and honest, what is approvable, what every man professes to be the rule of his conduct, what all men praise and what is in itself laudable, though no man should praise it. (Essay on the Powers of the Human Mind III 6)

      “Simple” is here used in its old sense of unanalysable, in contrast to “composite.”

      In the same vein, he contends

      It is a first principle in morals, that we ought not to do to another what we should think wrong to be done to us in like circumstances. If a man is not capable of perceiving this in his cool moments, when he reflects seriously, he is not a moral agent, nor is he capable of being convinced of it by reasoning. From what topic can you reason with such a man? You may possibly convince him by reasoning that it is his interest to observe this rule; but this is not to convince him that it is his duty. To reason about justice with a man who sees nothing to be just or unjust, or about benevolence with a man who sees nothing in benevolence preferable to malice, is like reasoning with a blind man about colour, or with a deaf man about sound…” (Essays on the Powers of the Human Mind III 6)

      For Reid, the moral sense is a form of non-inferential knowledge; just as we do not reason or infer or conclude that an object is red, but perceive it to be red, so we do not reason or infer or conclude that an action is unjust, we perceive it to be unjust.

      In this way, Reid was able to insist on the objectivity of the moral sense: we recognise justice, in the same way that we recognise Middle C. It is something real; we do not invent it.

  7. Theological and political debates at the Orthosphere are only sometimes argumentative

    I have contributed a lot to this over the years and I regret it.

  8. I learned this lesson from contemplating the t-shirt on the clerk at the thrift store. “Bad theology hurts people.” I realized it was true immediately, but often reflect on it years later.

    • It seems that, the badder a theology is, the more tenaciously and ferociously it is professed. The more untruthful a doctrine is, the more fanatical its advocates must be. Where evidence and reason are wanting, they make up the difference with anger and intensity.

      • The more untruthful a doctrine is, the more fanatical its advocates must be

        A very melancholy reflection

        [A]ll popular theology, especially the scholastic, has a kind of appetite for absurdity and contradiction. If that theology went not beyond reason and common sense, her doctrines would appear too easy and familiar. Amazement must of necessity be raised: Mystery affected: Darkness and obscurity sought after: And a foundation of merit afforded to the devout votaries, who desire an opportunity of subduing their rebellious reason, by the belief of the most unintelligible sophisms.” Natural History XI, David Hume

        Hence their inevitable resort to the argumentum ad hominem, so bitingly satirised by St John Henry Newman:

        Take my word for it, that this is the very truth of Christ; deny your own reason, for I know better than you, and it is as clear as day that some moral fault in you is the cause of your differing from me. It is pride, or vanity, or self-reliance, or fullness of bread. You require some medicine for your soul; you must fast; you must make a general confession; and look very sharp to yourself, for you are already next door to a rationalist or an infidel.

      • I find that most things are cheering on the surface and then melancholy upon reflection. This may be an argument against reflection. Unreflective people are generally cheerful, although often surprised and disappointed. Reflective people sooner or later adopt the tragic sense of life.


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