Albert Pike

One of the dangers of historical research—especially biographical research—is the unexpected house guest, not seated at the dinner table or sleeping in a bed, but constantly present in one’s mind. I would hate to spend a year or more writing a detailed biography of one person; I know that, long before the research and writing and editing was completed, I would know that person better than I know myself. This fall, I agreed to do a lecture series of eight weeks—eight forty-five-minute talks, covering eight people who have contributed to the history of Arkansas. I chose some people about whom I have written before, figuring it would be easy to restate what I have already learned. I also included on the list a few people I have not studied before, just because I thought it would be interesting to learn more about them. By far the most interesting subject I have covered—and the most vivid and persistent guest—has been a man named Albert Pike.

Albert Pike was born in Massachusetts December 29, 1809. From his youth, he was a genius. He had an unusually high aptitude for languages, including ancient languages and Indian languages. He also had the ability to gather information quickly, retain it accurately, and interpret it thoroughly, combining resources from assorted sources to build greater knowledge. Early in his teen years, he borrowed a thirteen-volume history from one of his older cousins. When he returned the books a few days later, the cousin suggested they had been too challenging for Albert. No, he said, he had read all thirteen and understood them thoroughly. He invited the cousin to quiz him on the content of the books, and he passed the examination easily.

When he was sixteen years old, Albert Pike applied to study at Harvard University. He had no trouble passing the entrance exam, but he could not afford the first year’s tuition. Undaunted, Albert took a job teaching school and applied his spare time to studying the subjects covered in the freshman and sophomore years at Harvard. Returning a year later, having saved his money to cover junior year tuition, Albert easily passed through the tests for Harvard’s first two years; only then was he informed that he must still pay tuition for those two years to receive credit for the courses and move into his junior year. Furious and feeling cheated, Albert Pike left the Harvard campus. His feelings were understandably mixed when he was offered an honorary Master’s degree from Harvard some thirty years later.

With two friends, Pike left Massachusetts to explore the United States. They traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. Arriving in Tennessee, Pike found nothing to capture his attention, so he and his friends proceeded west to Saint Louis. One turned back, but the other friend stuck with Pike as they joined a party heading into Texas. They went prospecting for gold and silver around Santa Fe and Taos with little success. The other friend returned east, but Pike and his new companions continued exploring, meeting scattered settlers, various Indian tribes, and all kinds of bad weather. Finally tiring of the Old West, Pike headed east, aiming for New Orleans. Taking a wrong turn, he found himself at Fort Smith in Arkansas Territory. Penniless, he took a job teaching school, gathering twenty students in a tiny one-room schoolhouse. Also becoming acquainted with some of the politicians of the territory, Pike saved his money until he could move to the new capitol city called Little Rock. There he became involved in politics, first as a journalist for the local Whig newspaper, and then as an attorney. He studied to pass the bar but was granted his license to practice with little objection. “At least practicing law you won’t kill anyone,” the examiner quipped.

Pike got married and built a grand house in Little Rock, one that is still standing today. He profited from his law practice and built an enormous personal library. When war broke out with Mexico, Pike became an officer leading Arkansas troops into battle. Later, when he spoke disparagingly of a fellow officer from Arkansas, the two arranged a duel. Standing on a sand bar west of Fort Smith in Indian Territory (because dueling was illegal in the state of Arkansas), the men exchanged shots, but no one was injured. A Cherokee observer sneeringly commented that he could have hit a squirrel at a much greater distance with the pistols held by the duelists. But Pike and his opponent declared that honor had been satisfied and celebrated together with a grand dinner to which they invited all their friends.

Albert Pike was a large man, six-foot-two-inches tall, 275 pounds in prime health (expanding to 300 pounds in his later years, before disease robbed him of his weight). He loomed large in the social life of Little Rock as well. In 1850 he was invited to join the Masonic Lodge. He moved rapidly through the degrees of membership, becoming a Lodge leader; he then spent much of the rest of his life rewriting the Scottish Rite of Masonic membership and researching other aspects of Masonic belief and practices.

Pike said that slavery was terrible, an enormous injustice; then he also said that trapping workers into factory labor at substandard wages was equally evil. He owned four slaves himself, and he supported the right of southern states to continue to practice slavery. He warned readers in the northern states that freeing the southern slaves would not be a favor unless they were also granted educations and means to make a living; otherwise, their lives would remain miserable. When secession occurred, Pike reluctantly took his position with the Confederate government. Made a brigadier general, he was sent into Indian Territory to negotiate with the tribal groups living there—ideally, to raise troops to help the Confederacy; and, at the very least, to guarantee the neutrality of tribes that would not actively support the Confederacy. Many tribal leaders were open to service to the Confederacy under Pike’s leadership. He brought some of them as soldiers to fight at Pea Ridge in Arkansas. Communication between Pike and the other generals was minimal, Confederate forces came out losers in the fight, and false rumors were spread that Pike’s Indian troops had acted like savages, scalping Union soldiers and forsaking military discipline on the battlefield.

Pike resigned his commission and disappeared into a cabin in rural Arkansas. There he continued work on his Masonic studies. When the war ended, he faced enemies from both sides and even retreated briefly into Canada. He eventually received a pardon from President Andrew Jackson, although his life savings were consumed by legal fees and he barely managed to recover his Little Rock house (which had been used as headquarters by Union General Frederick Steele from 1863 to 1865). Pike’s wife returned to the house and spent her last years there, while Pike lived in Washington DC, lodging with the Masonic leadership there and using their library for his work. After the death of his wife, the house was used for several years as a girls’ college, then was bought by a businessman, John G. Fletcher, who would be elected mayor of Little Rock. Mayor Fletcher’s son, John Gould Fletcher, grew up in that mansion; he became a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and author. The mayor’s daughter married a lawyer, David Terry, who became owner of the mansion when his wife’s parents died; he was elected to represent Arkansas in the United States House of Representatives.

Many of Albert Pike’s writings were published, and some are still in print. Others remain within the Masonic libraries in Washington DC and in Little Rock. Fantastic stories have been built around Pike, often from modern conspiracy theorists. Allegedly, Pike wrote a letter in 1871 in which he predicted three World Wars—the first fought between Britain and Germany, which would lead to a Communist government in Russia; the second, also fought in Europe, which would bring about a Jewish homeland; and a third, to be fought by Muslims against Christians and Jews, finally bringing about a discrediting of all three religions and a one-world government. I have read quotes from this alleged letter, which some say was on exhibit in a London museum until 1977. The museum now claims no knowledge of the letter and says that, if it ever existed, they never had it. Moreover, the quotes I have read are far different from the writings of Albert Pike that I have studied this year, both in style and in content.

Other researchers accuse Albert Pike of being a Satan worshiper. In my mind’s ear, I can hear a hearty belly-laugh from Pike over this misunderstanding. A Hebrew word meaning “light-bearer” was translated into Latin as “Lucifer.” Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel address human kings (of Babylon and Tyre, respectively) with that title, and both addresses have been seen by Christians as references to the devil. I agree with that interpretation. The two prophets describe one who was blessed by the Lord with glory and honor, but who became proud and rebelled against the Lord, thereby earning God’s rejection and punishment. Because of these two prophecies, many Christians consider Lucifer to be a name of the devil, along with Satan and other titles. But the word was frequently used to describe the planet Venus, especially as it appears in the morning sky. Venus reflects the light of the sun and can be seen as a sign that sunrise is not far away. The label is assigned to the devilish kings by Isaiah and Ezekiel, but the same title also belongs to Jesus, the Son of God, who is called the bright morning star in Revelation 22:16. When Pike wrote glowingly (pun intended) of Lucifer, he was referring to the Christ-like image of the morning star, not of the devil.

Anyhow, I spent several days with Albert Pike living in my head—for all practical purposes, living in my house as well. My talk on Pike was given last Thursday. I hope that soon he will go away… and I hope that my next subject, Sam Walton, will not become such a persistent guest. J.

Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part three–the last seventy years.

The aftermath of the Second World War found the United States in a new position in the world. Unquestionably, the nation was a superpower, no longer able to isolate itself from events happening on other continents. A second superpower, the Soviet Union, presented a different perspective on world politics and economics. The United States and its allies preferred democracy and capitalism; the Soviet Union and its allies held to totalitarianism and socialism, with the illusionary promise of communism down the road. Following a post-war recession, the economy of the United States flourished. New technology provided faster travel, faster communication, more information, more comforts and more luxuries, and new opportunities to explore the universe. New theories about education were tried in the schools. The ancient ideas of Socrates and Confucius—that people are good at heart and need merely to be taught how things work in the world—were applied to children in the classroom. By the end of the 1960s, authority was being widely questioned, countercultures were forming, and many Americans were eager for change.

Conspiracy theories also grew more common, and the Civil Rights movement was not immune to these theories. Some Americans—including J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI—saw the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement as elements of a Communist anti-American conspiracy. Conversely, I’ve met people who consider the Civil Rights movement as part of a white conspiracy to destroy black communities just as they were beginning to achieve some measure of success after decades of struggle and growth.

The goals of the Civil Rights movement were and are appropriate: to provide equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of culture or ethnic origin or of other inherent differences between individuals. The slave trade created inequity in the United States, and laws passed during the century after the end of slavery perpetuated that inequity. Confiscating and redistributing wealth was never going to make people equal; offering equal opportunity through education, assistance to the poor, and laws against discrimination were always the better path. Quotas in school enrollment and in hiring practices were controversial but were in some cases helpful to reduce cultural inequity. Desegregating schools to the point that students were bused from their homes and neighborhoods to distant school buildings was more controversial and less effective. Wealthier white families invested in private schools or moved to the suburbs. Many government programs instituted to combat poverty had negative effects—pulling apart families by granting more help to single mothers than to married parents, promoting students to higher grades while ignoring their failures to learn material usually required for promotion, and allowing some individuals and families to become dependent upon government funding rather than earned income. Some people took advantage of the system and its negative effects, while many others succeeded in spite of the system and its negative effects. Rhetoric of racism and deliberate discrimination was made socially unacceptable, and positive role models for blacks and other minorities were promoted in athletics, entertainment, and other fields.

Many activities of the Civil Rights movement were appropriate and beneficial: peaceful marches and protests, public speeches, sit-ins, and participation in political life all changed American society for the better. At times, though, the Civil Rights movement was used as an excuse for violence and destruction. From race riots in Birmingham, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, violent behavior has marred calls for justice and equality. The victims of that violence were often black business owners succeeding within the framework of capitalism rather than white capitalists deliberately continuing an unfair system. Indeed, at times it appeared that demonstrators were more interested in destroying the success of their fellow minority members than they were in building strong communities for themselves and for future generations in American cities.

It is not surprising that citizens protesting racial inequity and injustice would favor a new economic system to replace capitalism in the United States. But capitalism was never the cause of inequity and injustice. Socialism cannot keep its promises of better lives for all people or for most people. Socialism, as much as capitalism, would put power in the hands of decision-makers who might be honest and fair or who might be dishonest, prejudiced, and inclined to discriminate against minorities. Replacing capitalist investors with government bureaucrats cannot end injustice. Allowing the government to control prices, salaries, and decisions about production cannot make life fair for all people. Socialism consumes wealth, but capitalism creates wealth. Instead of redistributing wealth, socialism would distribute poverty; capitalism, on the other hand, offers a greater likelihood of increasing wealth for all citizens.

Historically, socialism has been tested and has failed. Over the years, people have fled socialist countries in search of freedom and opportunity. For the United States, winner of the Cold War, to strive thirty years later to adopt the failed policies of its defeated opponents would be laughable were the risks of such a change not so profound. For this reason, informed citizens need to continue defending and explaining capitalism, doing our best to keep what is working in America while continuing to improve whatever faults and mistakes we perceive in America. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #1: Did Jesus exist in history?

When we speak or write about Jesus, Christians frequently are confronted by statements intended to disprove Christianity. Often these statements come from sincere unbelievers, although sometimes they are deliberate distortions of the truth. While we are unlikely to convert anyone to Christianity by reason alone—faith is a gift of God that dwells in the heart, not a set of propositions that dwell in the head—it is helpful to have an answer to those who question what we believe. It is particularly helpful for believers to be assured that many of the challenges to our faith come from misunderstandings and distortions. Therefore, this week I plan to address seven objections to Christianity that could be described as conspiracy theories about the Church and its teachings.

Today’s conspiracy theory is the challenge that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—that he is an invention of the Church. Few people actually believe that Jesus never existed, and almost none of the people who make that claim are professional historians. But rather than argue from the basis of majority opinion, it helps to have additional proof of the historical existence of Jesus.

The few who say that Jesus never existed support their belief by saying that there is no written account of Jesus from the first century other than those written by Christians. The idea that the written accounts of Christians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about Jesus is unsound—it would be as if citizens of the United States were disqualified to write biographies of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The collection of writings by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude is in fact very strong evidence of the existence of the man they describe, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call the Christ.

A Jewish historian who lived and wrote in the first century knew about Christians and was not a Christian. Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus in his history of Judaism. Some people believe that the surviving copies of Josephus’ work were edited by Christians to include favorable mention of Jesus. Such forgery cannot be disproved, but the demonstration becomes a circular argument: there are no nonChristian references to Jesus from the first century; Josephus wrote in the first century and mentioned Jesus; therefore Josephus’ book must have been altered by Christians. Roman historian Tacitus also makes a passing reference to the Christ worshiped by Christians, and the Mishnah—part of the Jewish Talmud, definitely not a Christian writing—also speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, one it seeks to undermine rather than support, but one that certainly is considered to have existed. Pliny, another Roman historian of the early second century, briefly describes Christians and Christ in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, asking what he should do about them. Trajan’s response was essentially, “Don’t ask; don’t tell”—in other words, don’t go looking for Christians, but if they make their presence known they must be punished for denying the other gods.

The strongest evidence of the existence of Jesus is not written evidence per se but is instead the very existence of the Church. True, the Romans were fascinated by exotic religions, and Christ could be compared to the Persian god Mithra or the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris in being adopted by the Romans. But there are important differences. First, Christianity emerged out of Judaism, a religion most Romans ignored or mocked because of its firm monotheism. Second, Romans added Mithra and the others to the pantheon of gods without denying any of the other gods, something Christians refused to do. Third, Christ Jesus is firmly tied to historical figures such as Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, and the high priest Caiaphas, rather than being pictured as part of the distant and shadowy past. Fourth, the details of what happened to Jesus should have been highly embarrassing to Christians—that he was rejected by the religious leaders of his own people and was crucified by the Roman authorities. Likewise, his first followers are far from heroic, as in the legends of most religions. Peter, Paul, and the others are fallible humans who often fall short and are not to be imitated as paragons of virtue.

The willingness of the first generation of Christians to face martyrdom for their teachings is unthinkable if Jesus never existed. The willingness of thousands of people to join his movement in such a short time could have been countered if the authorities were able to demonstrate that no Jesus of Nazareth was ever sentenced to be crucified in Jerusalem. The dramatic change that the teachings about Christ produced in first century people from Spain to India strongly supports a historic Jesus rather than a legend. And the fact that hundreds of millions of people still know him today, while unconvincing to a skeptic, must surely reassure believers that the Jesus they know must be the historic Jesus of Nazareth. J.