During my academic career, I have made students on both sides of the Atlantic miserable by insisting that (1) they never rely on unverified web references, and (2) they never copy a reference from an author without going to the cited source to make sure that the reference is accurate. This of course slows down the writing of research papers and debate preparation, but it is the only way to prevent the creation of “bibliographical ghosts”: references to non-existent material or citations that actually lead nowhere.
Here is an example encountered serendipitously—and one that will warm the cockles of the heart of every conservative reader.
Go to the Wikipedia article on Chief Justice John Marshall (accessed 16 April 2012). There you will read: “Marshall himself was not religious and never joined a church; he did not believe Jesus was a divine being.” The footnote (66) given as the authority for this assertion is “Smith, John Marshall, pp. 36, 406.” This refers to Jean Edward Smith’s acclaimed biography, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (Henry Holt, 1996, 1998).
Smith is professor of political science at the University of Toronto. The book was listed as a New York Times Notable Book of 1996 and, typical of euphoric reviews, Gordon S. Wood wrote in the New Republic: “We are in Smith’s debt for a richer, more accurate and more balanced view of Marshall and his achievements than we have ever had before….The best single-volume biography of the Chief Justice that we have.”
“More accurate and more balanced”? We go to page 406 and find the Wikipedia claim stated—but with no documentation. The claim also appears on page 36, in the following terms: Marshall was “unable to believe in the divinity of Christ.” The authority for this assertion is given in a footnote as “Dillon, 3 John Marshall: Life, Character, Judicial Services 14-17.” That three-volume collection of tributes to Marshall (Chicago, Callaghan, 1903) was edited by the distinguished jurist John F. Dillon and prepared as a centenary tribute to Marshall, who had been appointed chief justice by John Adams in 1801. Now go to Vol. 3, pp. 14-17: you will find not a single word corroborating the claim that Marshall denied the deity of Christ, much less any comment about his religious views.
But perhaps the page reference is just a typographical error? So we consult the detailed subject index at the end of the work (covering all three volumes) and what do we find? No reference anywhere in Dillon’s work to such a view as held by Marshall. To the contrary, the following references are typical of those pertaining to Marshall’s religious position:
“Chief Justice Marshall was a steadfast believer in the truth of Christianity as revealed in the Bible. He was brought up in the Episcopal Church; and Bishop Meade, who knew him well, tells us that he was a constant and reverent worshipper in that church” (Justice Horace Gray, Volume 1, p. 88).
“He [Marshall] was a sincere Christian and believed in and obeyed the commands of the Bible” (E. Baldwin, Vol. 1, p. 330).
“Would you not call a man religious who said the Lord’s Prayer every day? And the prayer he learned at his mother’s knee went down with him to the grave. He was a constant and liberal contributor to the support of the Episcopal Church. He never doubted the fact of the Christian revelation, but he was not convinced of the fact of the divinity of Christ till late in life. Then, after refusing privately to commune, he expressed a desire to do so publicly, and was ready and willing to do so when opportunity should be had. The circumstances of his death only forbade it…. He was never professedly Unitarian, and he had no place in his heart for either an ancient or a modern agnosticism” (William Pinkney Whyte, Vol. 2, pp. 2-3).
Marshall “was a Christian, believed in the gospel, and practiced its tenets” (Horace Binney, Vol. 3, p. 325).
To be sure, the above statements appear in eulogies and may not be regarded as primary sources (though Marshall’s daughter is the source of the account of his late coming to faith in Christ’s deity and consequent desire to commune). But suppose we hear from the Chief Justice himself?
The following appears in Marshall’s letter of 9 May 1833 to the Revd Jasper Adams:
“No person, I believe, questions the importance of religion to the happiness of man even during his existence in this world. The American population is entirely Christian; and with us Christianity and religion are identical. It would be strange indeed if, with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it and exhibit relations with it” (12 The Papers of John Marshall, ed. Charles Hobson [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006], 278).
To add insult to injury, Smith adds the following gratuitous comment to his entirely unfounded assertion as to Marshall’s disbelief in Christ’s deity: “If Marshall needed reinforcement for that skepticism, it may have come from Pope. The Essay on Man is a ringing endorsement of the deist views of the Age of Reason, and although Pope was Catholic, his emphasis on man as a rational being inevitably diminished the role of Christianity” (Smith, p. 36).
But Marshall was no Unitarian-Deist, unlike Jefferson and Tom Paine. Smith here simply blows his cover in suggesting that rationality and Christianity are somehow incompatible. Years ago, when I was librarian of the Swift Library of Divinity and Philosophy at the University of Chicago, I compared the Swift book collection with that of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The former had practically no conservative theological publications; the latter had both liberal and conservative materials. I wrote this up in an article that caused quite a ruckus: “Bibliographical Bigotry” (reprinted in my book, Suicide of Christian Theology). My conclusion was that liberals are often the illiberal ones. The lesson drawn from Smith’s treatment of Marshall may suggest that they are often also very poor scholars—in spite of the accolades they receive in the press. And, sadly, those who do not check their references end up disseminating historical falsehoods in the guise of scholarship.
 It is worth noting that this passage does not justify the notion that “America is a Christian nation” in the constitutional sense; no mention of the gospel or of Jesus Christ appear in the founding documents of the nation (see Montgomery, The Shaping of America, passim). But Marshall’s statement is a reasonably accurate empirical description of the faith of most Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries.
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This first issue of Vol. 11 of the Global Journal features a most important article by our frequent contributor Dr Donald T. Williams: “Lacking, Ludicrous, or Logical? The Validity of Lewis’s ‘Trilemma'”: a defense of C. S. Lewis’s argument that since Jesus was neither lunatic nor liar, his claim to be Lord God Incarnate needs to be accepted as factually true. Pastor Jim A. Stewart contributes a related article: a trenchant critique of Hume’s classic argument against the miraculous. Finally, Michael Parsons of Paternoster Press and Spurgeon’s College, London, offers “Luther’s Insights into Grief: His Pastoral Letters”–a clear testimony to the deep spirituality of Protestantism’s founder and a solid help to Christians today suffering the pangs of grief and loss.
— John Warwick Montgomery