Madison Letter to Beasley Regarding Proofs of God, November 20, 1825

Madison Letter to Beasley Regarding Proofs of God, November 20, 1825

Here, Madison was asked to comment on a work entitled “The Proofs of the Being & Attributes of God.” In his comments, he mentions the writings of Dr. Samuel Clarke, which Madison studied at Princeton University nearly 50 years before. Although Madison approved of Beasley’s work, in that “arguments which enforce [a belief in God] cannot be drawn from too many sources,” he indicated that due to its abstract ideas, it probably would not be as universally followed as the writings of Dr. Clarke, which are easier to comprehend. Of significance in this letter is Madison’s acknowledgment of the finiteness of the human mind and its inability to comprehend the infinite nature and power of God. Thus, Dr. Clarke’s work, which describes God as a self-existing cause of the universe and all things therein, is more amenable to the finite mind than Beasley’s work, which begins with the self-existence of the universe, and excludes all attributes of infinite power, wisdom and goodness, such as are attributed to God. This letter is significant, then, because it displays the great depth of understanding and philosophical reasoning with which Madison approached matters of religion.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

TO FREDERICK BEASLEY

Montpellier, Nov. 20, 1825

I have duly recd the copy of your little tract on the proofs of the Being & Attributes of God. To do full justice to it, would require not only a more critical attention than I have been able to bestow on it, but a resort to the celebrated work of Dr. Clarke, which I read fifty years ago only, and to that of Dr. Waterland also which I never read.

The reasoning that could satisfy such a mind as that of Clarke, ought certainly not to be slighted in the discussion. And the belief in a God All Powerful wise & good, is so essential to the moral order of the World & to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters & capacities to be impressed with it.

But whatever effect may be produced on some minds by the more abstract train of ideas which you so strongly support, it will probably always be found that the course of reasoning from the effect to the cause, “from Nature to Nature’s God,” Will be the more universal & more persuasive application.

The finiteness of the human understanding betrays itself on all subjects, but more especially when it contemplates such as involve infinity. What may safely be said seems to be, that the infinity of time & space forces itself on our conception, a limitation of either being inconceivable; that the mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect, which augments, instead of avoiding the difficulty; and that it finds more facility in assenting to the self-existence of an invisible cause possessing infinite power, wisdom & goodness, than to the self-existence of the universe, visibly destitute of those attributes, and which may be the effect of them. In this comparative facility of conception & belief, all philosophical Reasoning on the subject must perhaps terminate. But that I may not get farther beyond my depth, and without the resources which bear you up in fathoming efforts, I hasten to thank you for the favour which has made me your debtor, and to assure you of my esteem & my respectful regards.

Letter from James Madison to Frederick Beasley (Nov. 20, 1825), in 9 The Papers of James Madison, 1819-1836, at 229 (Gaillard Hunt ed., 1910).