Monday, February 27, 2012

Preaching Virtue and Happiness in Virginia (1776)

The Anglican church (or the Church of England) was the official church of the colony of Virginia.  In colonial Virginia, during what has been called “The Great Awakening” – a period of increased religious fervor during the 18th century that was as a precursor to the American Revolution, Anglican priests taught that virtue led to happiness.  In their own preaching, the Anglican ministers in Virginia often relied upon the sermons of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. John Tillotson (1630-1694). The Archbishop of Canterbury was the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, and Tillotson served in this capacity from 1691-1694.  His Works were read and used not only by ministers, but were read by many parishioners.  According to one historian, Tillotsons Works were "among [Virginian's] favorite books." (Thomas Jefferson owned a copy in his personal library). Among other religious themes, Tillotson asserted that human happiness was only to be found in the pursuit of moral virtue, and he taught that, “Virtue and Goodness are so essential to happiness that where these are not, there is no capacity of it.”

Interestingly enough, the law in Virginia at the time was such that you must attend church at least once a month or be subject to a fine, so the church pews were usually full.  Thus, whether from duty or devotion Anglican Virginians, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, would have heard these types of sermons when they attended church. For example, Charles Clay, the Anglican minister in Thomas Jefferson’s parish, who presided over Jefferson’s mother’s funeral in 1776, was a follower of Tillotson.  Clay taught his congregations to “Give …all diligence to grow in grace & increase in Virtue… [which brings] true Happiness.” (Virginia-born Clay was a parish priest in St. Anne’s Church, Albemarle County, from 1769 to 1785). 

Of course while Washington and Jefferson didn’t attend church every Sunday, they were exposed to these teachings.  From their study of history, and British political philosophers such as Sidney, as well as the reformation and the enlightenment, is it any wonder then that Washington and Jefferson embraced these same principles and reflected them in their beliefs and writings? 

George Washington wrote, "[T]here is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists . . . an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness." (First Inaugural Speech (1789).  And in his Farewell Address he stated, "Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity [happiness] of a nation with its virtue?"

Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend, “The order of nature [is] that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue.” (Letter to M. Correa de Serra, 1814).  In another letter (almost quoting Tillotson), Jefferson stated that: “Without virtue, happiness cannot be.” (Letter to Amos J. Cook, 1816). And, on another occasion he wrote, “Happiness is the aim of life.  Virtue is the foundation of happiness.” (Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819).  

With this in mind, Jefferson (who was a moralist at heart) might have penned this most famous line of the Declaration of Independence to read, "We hold these truths to be self‑evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Virtue."
Primary references from: Jacob Blosser, “Pursuing Happiness in Colonial Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 118, No. 3 (2010) pp. 214, 229, p. 243 n. 24).

Also see: "Thomas Jefferson and the Pursuit of Virtue."

and "Thomas Jefferson: Moralist" by Mark Andrew Holochak (McFarlanad & Co., 2017)

No comments: