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.
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).