A Son of The Enlightenment Age

On his deathbed Cornelius Harnett dictated the barely legible and controversial epitaph that appears above on his gravestone.

The epitaph is at the bottom of the headstone located on the grounds of  St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC.  The full headstone appears in the upper left of the above composite behind the foot stone.  To the upper right is an enlargement of the entire text on the stone.  It includes the controversial epitaph.  The text above the epitaph indicates that his date of death was April 20, 1781.  Cornelius Harnett died on April 28, 1781. 1

A further enlargement of the epitaph appears at the very bottom of the above composite. It appears in the past tense and reads as follows:

Slave to no sect, he took no private road —
But looked through nature up
to nature’s God.

It is a paraphrase of a couplet in a poem by Alexander Pope entitled “An Essay on Man.” The phrase as written by Pope was in the present tense:

Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks through Nature up to nature’s God 2

The epitaph has raised an issue of whether Harnett was an atheist or not.  Reading the short portion of the poem in context, it is difficult to understand how a person could come to that conclusion.  The context for the couplet is as follows:

See the sole bliss Heaven could on all bestow!
Which who but feels can taste, but thinks can know:
Yet poor with fortune, and with learning blind,
The bad must miss; the good, untaught, will find;
Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks through Nature up to Nature’s God;

Pursues that chain which links the immense design,
Joins heaven and earth, and mortal and divine;
Sees, that no being any bliss can know,
But touches some above, and some below;
Learns, from this union of the rising whole,
The first, last purpose of the human soul;
And knows, where faith, law, morals, all began,
All end, in love of God, and love of man.

This quote on the gravestone, taken in context, certainly indicates a belief in God.  It supports the view that he was acquainted with those who believed that a knowledge of God came through reason and not revelation.  More properly, this could raise an issue of whether Harnett was a Deist, a believer in God.

William Hooper, a lawyer and one of the three representatives from North Carolina who signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776, concluded that Harnett was an atheist from his actions during his final moments that included severe pain while dictating the above epitaph on his deathbed. Historian R. D. W. Connor quotes Hooper as having written the following when referring to Cornelius Harnett during his final moments:

The placidity of his temper never, however, deserted him long; and he enjoyed a serenity of mind to the last hour of his existence. Some of his friends endeavored to present to his mind the consolations of revealed religion and to enforce on it the necessity of repentance; but he had so entrenched himself in the positions of infidelity that their approaches were too easily resisted at that awful period. 3

Historian Connor does not accept Hooper’s statement. Connor writes:

Hooper’s statement, above quoted, classing Harnett as an atheist, should not be passed without comment. Hooper merely repeats a tradition that sprang up a few years after Harnett’s death and was accepted without question by historians until the recent publication of Harnett’s letters and papers. No one can read these documents and accept Hooper’s statement as a fact. It is true that Harnett lived in an age of speculation, — the age of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. 4

After stating the above, Connor added that Harnett held office under new Constitution and took an oath to support it, was a Mason who held office in that organization as “Deputy Grand Master of North America, which at that time and afterwards required a belief in God, and was a vestryman of St. James’ Parish, Wilmington” . . . and as such was probably a communicant.”

Harnett was believed by some to be a Deist. This is a more rational view.  In the quote above by Connor he mentioned that “. . . Harnett lived in the age of speculation — the age of Thomas Payne, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.”  This has also been referred to as the Age of Enlightenment.  In “Webanswers.com” the following question was posed: “Were any of the US founding fathers Deist?”  In an answer to the question, Harnett was included as a Founding Father who expressed Deist sentiments.

Many of the “Founding Fathers” of America were Deist. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin read widely the philosophers of the enlightenment and openly rejected many aspects of Christianity. Jefferson for example made his own Bible, cutting all the supernatural parts from it and he openly declared the book of Revelations to be ‘the ravings of a manic’ (the Jefferson Bible is located at the Smithsonian Museum). Benjamin Franklin spoke of converting his friends to Deism and described himself as a “thorough Deist.”

Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, and Hugh Williamson expressed many Deist sentiments in their speeches and James Madison who supported the separation between church and state said in a letter “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” Alexander Hamilton and Ethan Allen were also Deists. Thomas Paine was outspoken and wrote much about it. One such quote is “Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst. And his book The Age of Reason popularized Deism throughout Europe.” 5

Expressing Deist sentiments or rejecting the Christian view on repentance does not mean that Harnett was an atheist.  He certainly appeared to hold Deist views.  These were consistent with the views of other founding fathers of the United States.  Many of them acknowledged that they were Deists.  There is no known evidence that Harnett ever did. Hooper states that Harnett on his deathbed rejected the need to repent for his sins, thus rejecting a view held by many Christians.  This, together with the verse that he dictated as he was dying and that appears on his gravestone, does not mean, that he rejected a belief in God.  A belief in God is a view held by Christians, Jews, Moslems, Deists and many others.

End Notes

1. Connor, R. D. W. CORNELIUS HARNETT: AN ESSAY IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY; Raleigh, N. C., Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909. 1-209. p. 197.
2. Pope, Alexander: Essay on Man, a translation by Cassell & Company, London, Paris and Melbourne, 1891, transcribed from 1891 edition by Les Bowler; published on line without any restrictions at http://www.gutenberg.org/files 2428/2428-h/2428-h.htm%3E (accessed on March 9, 2013; but was being transferred and not available on November 21, 2013); except for 2 punctuation marks the identical quote appears at:  Pope, Alexander: Essay on Man and other Poems, Dover Edition, New York: 1994.  Locations 1-1880, eBook, available through Amazon; The poem “Essay on Man” appears at locations 803-1444; quote cited in the text is at location 1415-1421.
3.  Connor, supra, p 198
4.  Connor, supra, p. 199
5.   Deist: http://www.webanswers.com/social-sciences/spiritual-religious/were-any-of-the-us-founding-fathers-deist-2fc08e [Site accessed on April 27, 2013 and again on November 19, 2013; site not available on August 10, 2015]

  1. 1 []
  2. 2 []
  3. 3 []
  4. 4 []
  5. 5 []

Comments are closed.