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Compulsion or Conviction? Analyzing Hamilton’s death bed communion

As Alexander Hamilton lay in his bed, dying, following the infamous duel against Aaron Burr, he was visited by Rev. Dr. Benjamin Moore, the Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York.

These are Dr. Moore’s recollection of events:

“I proceeded to converse with him (Alexander) on the subject of his receiving the communion, and told him, that with respect to the qualifications of those who wished to become partakers of that Holy Ordinance, inquiries could not be made in language more expressive than that which was used by our Church.

Do you sincerely repent of your past sins?

Have you a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of the death of Christ?

And are you disposed to live in love and charity with all men?”

He lifted up his hands and said “With the utmost sincerity of heart, I can answer those questions in the affirmative, I have no ill will against Col. Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm, I forgive all that has happened.”

“I then observed to him that the terrors of the divine law were to be announced to the obdurate and impenitent; but that the consolations of the Gospel were to be offered to the humble and contrite heart; that I had no reason to doubt his sincerity, and would proceed immediately to gratify his wishes. The communion was then administered, which he received with great devotion, and his heart afterwards appeared to be perfectly at rest. I saw him again this morning, when, with his last faltering words, he expressed a strong confidence in the mercy of God, through the intercession of the Redeemer. I remained with him until 2 o’clock this afternoon, when death closed the awful scene-he expired without a struggle, and almost without a groan.”

ABERCROMBIE, James. A Sermon, Occasioned by the Death of Major Gen. Alexander Hamilton, who was killed by Aaron Burr … in a duel, July 11, 1804, etc. United States: H. Maxwell, 1804.

Exploitative Timing and Inducing Confession to a “non-religious” Alexander

The religious views of Alexander are complex and contested. Some scholars describe him as non-religious, while others argue he engaged with religious ideas and deployed religious themes in his writings. However, these themes tended to be more philosophical than explicitly devotional.

Although religious institutions and ideas might have contributed to shaping his worldview, Alexander was not publicly pious or orthodox in the manner of some of his contemporaries. The exact nature of his personal religious beliefs remains ambiguous and open to debate.

So, in the context of his dying story, the actions of Bishop Moore can be viewed as potentially indicative of pastoral overstepping. Let us consider the following:

  1. Exploitative timing: As Alexander Hamilton lay dying after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr, Bishop Moore approached him to inquire about his readiness to receive communion. At such a vulnerable moment, Hamilton was in a compromised state, and the bishop’s timing could be seen as taking advantage of this vulnerability.
  2. Withholding sacraments: The passage indicates that Bishop Moore insisted on Hamilton affirmatively answering specific questions about his repentance and faith before providing him with communion. Threatening to withhold such a sacred sacrament unless Hamilton met the bishop’s requirements.
  3. Coercive questioning: The bishop’s questions, which closely align with the specific requirements of the church, may have been intended to extract particular answers from Hamilton, rather than genuinely engaging in a spiritual conversation.
  4. Lack of respect for autonomy: As a dying man, Hamilton’s autonomy and personal beliefs should have been respected, or explored, but the passage suggests that Bishop Moore may have pushed his own agenda rather than considering Hamilton’s individual perspective.

An objective analysis of Hamilton’s religious views paints the picture of a spiritual skeptic who valued reason over revelation. While possibly culturally Christian, he did not adhere to orthodox doctrines and often expressed doubts about biblical miracles, the divinity of Jesus, and concepts like divine providence. Hamilton showed little interest in church attendance or devotional practices. His personal letters reveal a profound appreciation for the moral teachings of Christianity mixed with uncertainty regarding the theological claims.

In this context, Hamilton’s deathbed acquiescence to Moore seems less like a genuine expression of Christian faith and more like a final act of respectful appeasement (mixed possibly with some hail-mary type last minute salvation security). Having built a career opposing dogmatism and clerical control, it is unlikely that Hamilton experienced a dramatic change of heart in his final moments. Though conceivably providing some comfort, Moore’s pushing for a particular confession appears misguided given Hamilton’s known theological views.

Approaching the dying with empathy, openness and patience is preferable to demanding specific professions of faith. Offering appreciation for their life’s impact and struggles affirms personal worth and dignity. Providing unconditional spiritual support in line with the person’s beliefs honors their journey. Hamilton’s complex relationship with religion merits reflective understanding, not categorical verdicts. His deathbed response should be considered in light of his lifelong convictions rather than presumed authentic.

Bishop Moore on the other hand, pushing for a particular deathbed confession from Alexander can be seen as Christian elitism and pastoral misconduct. He should be investigated, in the trial of history, for this approach – though preferably with an eye towards grace and an understanding perspective.