Historic Traditional Christianity and Dueling
I mentioned this topic in my last post where I discussed Alexander Hamilton’s death. As most readers know, I endorse the scholarly consensus holding that though Hamilton always seemed to have believed in God, he wasn’t an orthodox Christian (what some folks define as a “real Christian”) until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel.
Before that he was, pick your term: 1. a nominal Christian; 2. a “Christian-Deist”; 3. a “theistic rationalist.”
Some challenge this scholarly consensus. I remember one fairly articulate, learned blogger who did, criticizing me in particular; but he seems to have exited the blogsphere years ago.
When so challenged, of course, we must return to the primary sources and carefully read them. Indeed, perhaps so closely that we memorize them. When looking for “details” we may sometimes focus on one or more (often what we are looking for) and ignore others. We should not ignore the points the other side makes, but do our best to answer them.
However, interestingly, sometimes relevant points exist right there on the page that neither side addresses and thus get lost.
In 2010, at First Things Joe Carter linked to a post of mine on Hamilton’s death, where that above mentioned blogger critical of me showed up in the comments section and challenged my (after more reputable scholars’) analysis.
That means we must read the original writings of Bishop Benjamin Moore [Episcopalian] and Pastor J.M. Mason [Presbyterian], the two ministers from whom Hamilton sought communion when near death after being shot.
Rev. Moore hesitated to give Hamilton the communion. He did not deny it, he hesitated; according to his own letter, he wanted to give the dying man time to reflect, so that he did not take the Lord’s Supper in haste.
Okay. Hamilton was dying, immediately within if not days, hours (for all they knew). And Bishop Moore did indeed say he wanted “to avoid every appearance of precipitancy in performing one of the most solemn offices of our religion….” I had to look precipitancy up in the dictionary. It means “undue hastiness or suddenness.” Moore then said “I did not then comply with his desire.”
So yes, this was an initial denial. The blogger could term it a “hesitation” only because Moore ended up relenting and giving Hamilton communion.
The blogger also said something about Moore “want[ing] to give the dying man time to reflect….” That’s where we ignored the part about how dueling violates Christianity. So Moore said to Hamilton:
I [Moore] observed to him [Hamilton], that he must be very sensible of the delicate and trying situation in which I was then placed: that however desirous I might be to afford consolation to a fellow mortal in distress; still, it was my duty, as a minister of the Gospel, to hold up the law of God as paramount to all other law: and that, therefore, under the influence of such sentiments, I must unequivocally condemn which had brought him to his present unhappy condition. He acknowledged the propriety of these sentiments, and declared that he viewed the late transaction with sorrow and contrition. I then asked him, “Should it please God to restore you to health, sir, will you never be again engaged in a similar transaction? And will you employ all your influence in society to discountenance this barbarous custom?” His answer was “That, sir, is my deliberate intention.”
Moore ended his address with:
Let those who are disposed to justify the practice of dueling, be induced, by this simple narrative, to view with abhorrence that custom which has occasioned an irreparable loss to a worthy and most afflicted family; which has deprived his friends of a beloved companion, his profession of one of its brightest ornaments, and his country of a great statesmen an a real patriot.
Let’s then turn to Pastor J.M. Mason. The blogger who criticized me, again, wrote:
Rev. Mason (who, with his father, had been close friends with Hamilton since Hamilton’s youth) was not allowed to administer the communion to his friend because the church forbid him, under any circumstances, to administer it privately.
Yes it’s true that the Presbyterians like the Episcopalians had strict rules relating to the administering of communion with which Hamilton apparently was unaware and that lead to Hamilton’s clumsy Christian death. But there’s more to the story.
The blogger also has Mason’s account of Hamilton’s death archived at his site. In addition to letting Hamilton know that church rules forbade him to administer communion privately, Hamilton’s sinful conduct of dueling was discussed:
This last passage introduced the affair of the duel, on which I reminded the General, that he was not to be instructed as to its moral aspect, that the precious blood of Christ was as effectual and as necessary to wash away the transgression which had involved him in suffering, as any other transgression; and that he must there, and there alone, seek peace for his conscience, and a hope that should “not make him ashamed.” He assented, with strong emotions, to these representations, and declared his abhorrence of the whole transaction. “It was always,” added he, “against my principles. I used every expedient to avoid the interview; but I have found, for some time past, that my life must be exposed to that man. I went to the field determined not to take his life.” He repeated his disavowal of all intention to hurt Mr. Burr; the anguish of his mind in recollecting what had passed; and his humble hope of forgiveness from his God.
Being about to part with him, I told him, “I had one request to make.” He asked “what it was!” I answered “that whatever might be the issue of his affliction, he would give his testimony against the practice of dueling.” “I will,” said he. “I have done it. If that,” Evidently anticipating the event, “if that be the issue, you will find it in writing. If it please God that I recover, I shall do it in a manner which will effectually put me out of its reach in the future.”
The Christian Observer in 1805 gave a review of Mason’s Oration on the Death of Hamilton. The review not only slams Hamilton’s UNCHRISTIAN conduct of dueling, but also slams Moore for not being critical enough of Hamilton’s unChristian conduct that led to his death.
The C.O. piece also examines Hamilton’s Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr and from their perspective demolished it. Hamilton’s account was (my words, paraphrasing) I went to the duel to protect my honor, but would not shoot at Burr. So Burr took advantage of the situation and killed him. But the Christian Observer didn’t buy Hamilton’s self serving explanation.
It is regard to reputation then which induces him to violate the strongest obligations of religion and morality. It is true that this regard to reputation is clothed in the honourable guise of an ability to be in future useful. But are we to do evil, or to yield to a prejudice which we know to be both absurd and sinful, that we may have the power of doing good afterwards!
The C.O. then declares such a notion the doctrine of “expediency” and slams it. They continue:
A real Christian, who judges only by the plain rules of scripture, would have felt little difficulty in the case which so much perplexed General Hamilton. He would have decided at once that the practice of dueling is sinful; and therefore, whatever the consequences might be, he would not sanction it. If, by following this course, his character should suffer ever so greatly in the estimate of the world, still he must obey God rather than man, and abide by the consequences with the fortitude of a martyr. …
Very interesting. Obey God not man. Acts 5:29. I’m used to dealing with that chapter and verse when “man” is earthy government that a believer ought disobey. Here “man” is simply popular opinion represented in notions of “earthly honor.” And the “consequences” the believer is to deal “with the fortitude of a martyr” is not a governmental punishment which for the martyr was often death, but rather an injury to “honor.”
But to tie this back to the context of Hamilton’s twice being denied communion only to have one of the ministers (the Episcopalian Bishop Moore) relent and serve Hamilton communion, the elephant in the room was the inconsistency between the practice of Hamilton’s dueling and the practice of Christianity.
I stand by my assertion that Hamilton was a newbie orthodox Christian at death. However, the issue for the ministers was that given he engaged in this unChristian practice of dueling, they doubted he was a “real Christian” deserving of communion.