A week ago I wrote about Mitt Romney’s attempt to invoke the First Continental Congress in his speech on religion in politics. Now it’s Mike Huckabee’s turn—which makes sense, since Huckabee’s growing poll numbers prompted Romney to speak on a topic he’d tried to avoid.
At a Republican presidential debate in October, Huckabee said:
When our founding fathers put their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, those 56 brave people, most of whom, by the way, were clergymen, they said that we have certain inalienable rights given to us by our creator, and among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, life being one of them.On C.N.N. yesterday, Huckabee’s campaign manager Ed Rollins answered a question about the propriety of religion in politics by starting out:
You go back to the signing of the constitution I think 26 of the people that signed it were ministers.Huckabee and Rollins appear to have been pulling their numbers and facts out of the air. (Thanks to Talking Points Memo for the tip.)
There were indeed fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, but only one, John Witherspoon of New Jersey (pictured above, courtesy of Adherents.com), was a minister. He was the president of Princeton College at a time when all college presidents were ministers.
Two or three other Congress delegates had once preached, according to different sources. It was common for a young man with a college degree and no clear career plan to try either teaching or preaching to see how he enjoyed that work. Often the experience was enough to galvanize him into putting all his energy into law or medicine or business. In any event, three or four men out of fifty-six is far less than “most.”
As for the U.S. Constitution, thirty-six men signed that document out of fifty-five who attended the Constitutional Convention. Only two ever had professional affiliations with a church:
- Abraham Baldwin of Georgia was a Continental Army chaplain. After the war, he declined the position of Professor of Divinity at Yale and instead went into the law. He was “a fervent missionary of public education,” according to a U.S. Army website. Curiously, it’s unclear to Adherents.com what Baldwin’s religious affiliation was; different sources say different things.
- Hugh Williamson of North Carolina taught college Latin for three years, studied theology for two and “was licensed to preach the Gospel” by the Presbyterian church in Philadelphia. Instead, he became a mathematics professor for two years, then studied medicine for eight years and also went into the mercantile business.
After this became a scandal, he denied that he had actually done anything of the sort, saying that he’d told a false story to unnerve an opposing consultant. The same attitude toward honesty seems to be at play in Rollins’s remark about twenty-six signers of the Constitution being ministers.
To my knowledge, no U.S. President was ever a religious minister. Either Huckabee, ordained in the Southern Baptist church, or Romney, who has served as bishop and stake president in the Latter-Day Saints church, would therefore be the first.