Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember the complicated “Founding Father” and man of faith: Patrick Henry.

It is the 6th of June 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Ooh boy, we have a goocher today on the show. This weekend I watched the recently released “Shiny Happy People,” the 4 part series on Amazon Prime on the Duggar Family and Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles…. I have thoughts- but not for this show… however, in one episode, a Christian college is on prominent display- Patrick Henry College in Virginia. Henry was a complicated character made even hazier due to the vagaries of time (and his own character, so far as we know it). But his faith does stand out in a time of deists- and part of his legacy, though complicated, is his devotion to the church.

And, it just so happens he died on this, the 6th of June in 1799, in his native Virginia. His family moved to Virginia from Scotland where both his father, John, and uncle (and namesake, Patrick) studied at the University of Aberdeen. Uncle Patrick would be an ordained Anglican minister in Virginia and would help homeschool the boy up through the age of 10. While his father was an Anglican and young Patrick would remain faithful to the established Anglican Church, his mother would take him to hear revivalist preachers- after all, Henry would grow upright in the middle of that first Great Awakening in America. Patrick was, as best we know, roused by the oratory skills of the likes of George Whitefield and saw their popular appeal. He was also keen on religious toleration- at least amongst Protestants. He saw how Pennsylvania was doing better by accepting most foreigners who, in turn, brought new skills, artisans, and laborers. He noted that this would also free the colony from relying on slave labor- a practice he wrote about as incompatible with liberty and the Scriptures. Yet, in an oft-seen practice, he kept his own slaves- perhaps out of economic necessity.

As a prototypical colonial, Henry was enamored also by the great orators of the ancient republics of Greece and Rome- especially as they had been handed down to his generation in popular works. The Bible and the Classics would seemingly be his foundations. But here’s the problem: Henry didn’t keep an extensive library like others. This wasn’t uncommon- book lending was a form of social capital, and by borrowing and lending books, you could form important relationships. So just because books don’t show up in a library doesn’t mean they weren’t consulted. Library inventory can be a sketchy way to establish someone's own thoughts (how many books are in your library that you have never read, browsed, or wouldn’t represent your own views?).

The second problem is that he didn’t write much. Unlike Franklin or Jefferson, who wrote extensively on themselves, or Washington, who had contemporaries write about him, Henry’s primary sources are scant. And later on in life- Jefferson, who didn’t care for H, wrote scathingly about him being something of a backwoods hick.

There were two big differences between Jefferson and Henry. First, Henry was opposed to the deism of characters like Jefferson- Henry called it “another name for vice and depravity.” Henry would promote early apologetic works for the defense of the Bible against the likes of Jefferson and Paine.

Secondly, Henry was one of the foremost opponents of the Constitution. While the addition of the Bill of Rights eased some of his concerns, he wanted the colonies to form something more akin to the Swiss Confederation than the “United States”.

Henry’s piety seems legitimate and sincere- most of his later commentators seem to agree. What they can’t agree on is what is said of his oratory- especially the well-known “give me liberty or give me death” speech. That is likely a pious fiction- echoing the play “Cato” and Shakespeare. William Wirt, his first biographer and writing soon after Henry’s death but in the time of his contemporaries and took interviews, wrote that “I despair of my subject, (reports) were various and contradictory as… to confound rather than inform me”. 

And this is perhaps how we best hold Henry. An Anglican but a supporter of some religious toleration. An Anglican but influenced by the popular rhetoric of the Great Awakening. A “Founding Father” but as an Anglican, and a seemingly devout one, unlike the majority of these Enlightenment men who espoused a kind of Deism. A proponent of the Colonies' rights but opposed to the Constitution and a proponent of freedom but also a slaveholder. It’s almost like history is filled with real humans, contradictory and sometimes embellished, of good intention but lacking some moral will. Such was Patrick Henry, who was born in 1736 and died on this, the 6th of June in 1799 at the age of 63.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary and the book of 1st Corinthians.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work…

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 6th of June 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who has read every book in his library twice and all in the original languages- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man for whom Shiny Happy People is the worst track on the otherwise great Out of Time by R.E.M. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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