Hamilton: An American Prodigal

Bethlehem College & Seminary | Minneapolis

In July of 1741, a 37-year-old Jonathan Edwards grabbed a sermon already preached in Northampton and took it on the road to Enfield. There it was “attended with remarkable Impressions on many of the Hearers.”1 Edwards spoke of sinners in the hands of an angry God and grace to those in Christ in a message that would come to represent the First Great Awakening. “What are we,” Edwards asked, “that we should think to stand before him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down?”

Thirty years later, the spirit of Edwards was alive and well — yet in a most unlikely place and through a most unlikely pen. In August of 1772, a hurricane, described as “one of the most dreadful . . . that memory or any records whatever can trace,”2 swept through the Caribbean island of St. Croix. The fury came at dusk and “raged very violently till ten o’clock.” Then followed the eye, “a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour.” Finally came four more hours of “redoubled fury . . . till near three o’clock in the morning.”

A few days later, after hearing a Sunday sermon, “a Youth of [the] Island,”3 seventeen years old, composed a letter to his derelict father, who was living on another island. The youth wrote, “It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. . . . In a word, misery, in all its most hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country.” But this rare teen, in Edwards-like fashion, saw more than natural causation: “That which, in a calm unruffled temper, we call a natural cause, seemed then like the correction of the Deity.”4

Reforming Influences

It was no accident that this youth, named Alexander Hamilton, would take up such a perspective on the hurricane. Earlier that year, a Princeton graduate and pastor named Hugh Knox (1733–1790) had arrived on the island, discovered the precocious orphan, and begun to serve as a spiritual father to him.

In the 1750s, Knox had been student and good friend of Aaron Burr Sr. (1716–1757), founder and second president of the college in Princeton, New Jersey. Burr had married Esther Edwards, Jonathan’s third child (of eleven), and Burr himself greatly admired Edwards. Knox admired Burr. Now the young Hamilton sat at the feet of Knox, on September 6, 1772, as he preached on the hurricane. Later that day, the young Hamilton, imbibing the Calvinist theology, sat to compose the now-famous letter to his father.

Hamilton’s Christian interests cooled as they were eclipsed by political ambition and zeal for his work.

Doubtless, the first time Hamilton would have heard the name “Aaron Burr” was from Knox, speaking about the father, rather than his son. Burr Sr. died in 1757, just a year after the birth of his son. (Edwards then became the third president at Princeton and would have raised his grandson, Aaron Jr., had Edwards not died of a botched smallpox inoculation in 1758.)

In the fall of 1772, Knox was so impressed with Hamilton’s hurricane letter that he steered it to the local paper (published October 3, 1772), and it became the occasion for raising funds to send this gifted “Youth of this Island” to the mainland, in hopes he would study, as Knox had, at the college in Princeton.

‘Adore Thy God’

What did the seventeen-year-old Hamilton write? The hurricane had thundered, he claimed, “Despise thyself and adore thy God.” Yet Hamilton, in his Christian faith, found refuge:

See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God. . . . What have I to dread? My staff can never be broken — in Omnipotence I trusted. . . . He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage — even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed — and his perfections have I adored. He will snatch me from ruin. He will exalt me to the fellowship of Angels and Seraphs, and to the fullness of never ending joys.

The young Hamilton then exhorts his readers, “Oh vain mortal! Check thy ill timed joy,” and he ends with this plea: “Oh Lord help. Jesus be merciful!”5

That same year, Hamilton wrote a Christian hymn, one that his future wife, Eliza, would come to prize and cling to during the half-century she outlived him. In the hymn, Hamilton confessed,

O Lamb of God! thrice gracious Lord
Now, now I feel how true thy word.6

Yet this early Hamilton is not the one we typically remember today, nor the one celebrated in the award-winning musical (which Lin-Manuel Miranda spent seven years writing, from 2008 until its debut on Broadway in 2015).

What Hamilton is perhaps most famous for is the circumstances of his death, in a so-called “affair of honor.” In the summer of 1804, Hamilton took a duel with Edwards’s grandson, Aaron Burr Jr., who was the sitting vice president of the United States. Strangely enough, citing Christian conviction, Hamilton “threw away his shot” by not firing at his opponent. Burr, however, took aim and struck his rival. Hamilton died 31 hours later on July 12, 1804.

Hamilton’s Four Stages

Remarkably, in 2004, Ron Chernow’s eight-hundred-page biography began the work of doing justice to Hamilton’s memory in the twenty-first century. More than a decade later, Miranda’s musical, inspired by the biography and with Chernow as historical consultant, sent Hamilton skyrocketing back into broader American awareness — and just in time to save his face on the ten-dollar bill.

Of our interest, Hamilton seems to have experienced a Christian conversion, under Reformed (and Edwardsean) teaching, when the Great Awakening came to the West Indies in the early 1770s. Yet from a Christian perspective, Hamilton’s story is complicated, to say the least.

In his late teens, he professed faith, wrote hymns and commentaries on the Bible, and daily knelt to pray. But in his youthful zeal to rise above his station and in his ascent to political prominence, he became a prodigal. None rose so fast and then fell so far as Hamilton. But when he was finally humbled, neither Chernow nor Miranda could ignore his “late-flowering religious interests.”7

In this complex life of Hamilton, Douglass Adair and Marvin Harvey, writing in 1955, identified “four distinct stages” in his spiritual development:

  1. his early piety, from 1772–1777
  2. a “fifteen-year period of complete religious indifference,” from 1777–1792
  3. his “opportunistic religiosity,” from 1792 to 1800
  4. his final season, from 1800 until his death in 1804, when he “began sincerely seeking God in this time of failure and suffering”8

Jesus told a parable in Luke 15 of a youth who left home for a far country, squandered his life in reckless living, and eventually realized the world could not satisfy. In time, the young man “came to himself” and returned home to his father (Luke 15:17).

Whether there was a celebration in heaven on July 12, 1804, for the final homecoming of Alexander Hamilton, I cannot tell you with certainty. But I want you to hear the rest of the story, so far as we can tell, as we weave together both Jesus’s parable of the prodigal with these four distinct stages in Hamilton’s spiritual development.

A challenge here is that Hamilton’s life will look very different to a political scientist and a Christian pastor. I’m a pastor. Without doing injustice to his life as a statesman, I want to draw out, with special emphasis, the often-muted story of Hamilton’s prodigal journey and late-flowering faith.9

1. His Early Piety (1772–1777)

The younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country. (Luke 15:13)

Hamilton was born in 1755 on the island of Nevis. Due to his mother’s previous marriage and alleged infidelity, his parents were not legally married. He had an older brother, and his father abandoned them when he was ten. Two years later, his mother died of yellow fever. Orphaned, Alexander and his brother went to live with a cousin, who soon thereafter committed suicide. At age fourteen, he went to work as a clerk for an importer-exporter on the island of St. Croix and excelled. In 1772, Knox arrived on St. Croix and took an interest in him.

After the publication of the hurricane letter, Hamilton came to New Jersey, hoping to enroll in Princeton. He proposed an abbreviated course of study to president John Witherspoon, who denied his request. (Recently a student named James Madison had completed a two-year fast-track at Princeton and worked himself into a nervous breakdown. Perhaps Witherspoon had Madison in mind when he declined Hamilton’s request.)

Undeterred, Hamilton took his proposal to King’s College in New York, where it was approved, and he began classes in the fall of 1773. As early as that summer, he made his first public speech in favor of the revolutionary cause. His college roommate, Robert Troup, remembered Hamilton’s “habit of praying upon his knees both night and morning” and that “he was a zealous believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.”10

However, Hamilton’s physical and social journey into the far country soon led to a spiritual pilgrimage — or better, to spiritual lethargy and distraction, as the revolutionary spirit was fomenting in New York and began to draw forcefully on his energies. However devout he may have been at arrival, his unusually able brain and pen were soon captured by the feverish energy of the day. Rather than to Christian jeremiads and hymns, his attention turned to the revolution.

Ashbel Green (1762–1848), who would later serve as the eighth president of Princeton, reflected on those prewar days in the British colonies: “The military spirit that pervaded the whole land was exceedingly unfriendly to vital piety, among all descriptions of the citizens.” And this was especially so at the colleges:

Military enthusiasm had seized the minds of the students, to such a degree that they could think of little else than warlike operations. By the time the cloud of war had passed over, the colleges were more enamored of Deism and the French Revolution’s Cult of the Supreme Being than of orthodox piety.11

Hamilton too, alongside his fellow collegiates, was swept up into what was trending, into the talk of the cultural moment. And he had manifest abilities — skilled with words, brave enough for battle, and a natural leader. His revolutionary success quickly pulled him into the heart of American cause and its politics from 1775 to 1800, perhaps surpassed only by George Washington in that quarter century.

His Christian interests, however, cooled as they were eclipsed by political ambition and zeal for his work as Washington’s aide-de-camp, then in establishing a law practice in New York, and climactically as the nation’s first secretary of the treasury from 1789 to 1795. Alongside Madison, this young Hamilton would prove to be one of the great intellects of the founding generation. And while being every bit Madison’s match in political thought (if not exceeding him), he far surpassed Madison, and the other leading founders, in economics.

2. Fifteen Years of Indifference (1777–1792)

There [in the far country] he squandered his property in reckless living. (Luke 15:13)

Adair and Harvey call this the “fifteen-year period of complete religious indifference,” when politically he “shot up like a skyrocket.”12 Hamilton’s wordsmithing and courage had propelled him to revolutionary leadership. In 1777, he was promoted to Washington’s side.

Now 22 years old, he would be Washington’s right-hand man during the revolution and, later, under the new constitution, the first secretary of the treasury from 1789 until 1795. Then he would essentially function as the prime minister and occupy the most powerful seat in the first executive administration. Hamilton’s long-standing relationship with Washington proved to be a stabilizing force, at least in public life. In hindsight, his most productive (and least self-destructive) work came when he was most proximate to Washington.

But it was not only Washington (whose guidance was political) who influenced him, but also Eliza, whose sway was gently but relentlessly spiritual. He married her in 1780. She was, even then, what we would call an “evangelical Christian” today, and she became only more so as she aged.

“As a woman of deep spirituality, Eliza believed firmly in [Christian] instruction for her [eight] children,”13 and it would prove to have effects on her husband as they raised them together, and particularly as his great humblings came later. She endured his wandering and, in the end, may have won him with her life and conduct (1 Peter 3:1).

Hamilton was there at the battle of Yorktown in 1781, leading a battalion and with distinction. After the war, his ascending career seemed nonstop. In 1782, he was appointed to Congress from New York, under the Articles of Confederation. Here he would see firsthand how weak and inadequate they were for a league of thirteen states.

In 1783, he resigned from Congress to establish a law practice in New York. In 1786, he wrote the letter calling delegates to a convention in Philadelphia for the summer of 1787. He attended this Constitutional Convention, and the following year he organized and edited The Federalist Papers, partnering with Madison and John Jay to persuade New Yorkers to ratify the new Constitution.

Under Hamilton’s lead in 1789–1795, the Treasury Department drove the executive branch and new government. He grew the department to more than five hundred employees, while the War Department had a dozen employees, and Jefferson’s State Department only six.

And yet it was in this rapid rise, in his shooting up like a rocket, that cracks began to show — in particular, in 1791, in the adultery that Chernow calls “one of history’s most mystifying cases of bad judgment.”14 It would be whispered in private rooms until 1797 and then proclaimed from rooftops. We’ll come back to this in the next section.15

3. His ‘Opportunistic Religiosity’ (1792–1800)

When he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. (Luke 15:14–16)

Washington began his second term in 1793. In January, France’s Louis XVI was executed. By June, the Committee of Public Safety came to power in Paris with its Reign of Terror. France became the unceasing controversy of Washington’s second term, driving party divisions deeper between Hamilton and Jefferson, who soon resigned.

With the furor over the French Revolution came fresh atheistic fears among many faithful Christians. Hamilton saw the pro-French Jeffersonians exposed and “attempted to enlist God in the Federalist party to buttress that party’s temporal power,” write Adair and Harvey.16

Unfortunately Hamilton’s blasphemous attempts to use God for his all-too-human ends were extremely successful with large numbers of the clergy. . . . Actually it is during these years when religious slogans were so often on his lips that Hamilton seems farther from God and from any understanding of his Son, Jesus Christ, than at any time in his whole career.17

Like Jefferson, Hamilton was eventually worn down by political libel and public slander. In debt, with a growing family at home, he decided to return to New York in 1795. In this season, his early forties, he would experience the beginning of his many humblings.

The Adams administration, beginning in 1797, would bring mounting frustrations — both for him and him for Adams. He began to make several terrible judgment calls. In October of 1799, Adams broke with his cabinet (and Hamilton) to send an envoy to France, and in the wake of that came what Chernow calls “a total loss of perspective by Hamilton, the nadir of his judgment.”18

The dominoes began to fall, and Hamilton with them. In December of 1799, Washington died, his surrogate father. By February 1800, it became clear that the Federalist party was turning from Hamilton to Adams. Then, by the end of April, Aaron Burr and his opposing coalition won control of New York. In a matter of months, Hamilton’s political power and influence crumbled.

To top it all off, in the election of 1800, his old cabinet rival Jefferson won the presidency — and with Burr as vice president. As Adair and Harvey write, “Perhaps never in all American political history has there been a fall from power so rapid, so complete, so final as Hamilton’s in the period from October 1799 to November 1800.”19

And all this just eighteen months after the papers got ahold of his six-year secret, the adultery of 1791. Hamilton, hoping to protect his financial reputation, published a painfully long and detailed pamphlet confessing to his marital infidelity. He plainly did not know when to stop. His finances may have been in order. His soul was not.

Back to the Squalor

From a Christian perspective, Hamilton’s adultery appears as his most glaring flaw, even more obviously and unqualifiedly than the duel. His adultery showed how far his heart had wandered — and reminds us of the delusion of power and success. We can indeed be most vulnerable when we feel strongest.

There once was a great king in Israel who, as a prelude to infidelity, remained in the city when others went to war (2 Samuel 11:1). So too Hamilton, at the height of his power in 1791 — and with so much work to do — stayed in Philadelphia while his family summered upstate.

That summer, a 23-year-old woman approached him, telling of an abusive husband and asking for help. Later, in the notorious Reynolds Pamphlet, his extended public confession in 1797, he would write that he came to her door with monetary assistance. “Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”20 This is the first of several 1790s instances about which Chernow, even as the cool-headed biographer (and measured admirer), appears stunned by Hamilton’s folly:

Such stellar success might have bred an intoxicating sense of invincibility. But his vigorous reign had also made him the enfant terrible of the early republic, and a substantial minority of the country was mobilized against him. This should have made him especially watchful of his reputation. Instead, in one of history’s most mystifying cases of bad judgment, he entered into a sordid affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds that, if it did not blacken his name forever, certainly sullied it. From the lofty heights of statesmanship, Hamilton fell back into something reminiscent of the squalid world of his West Indian boyhood.21

Yet even with the Reynolds affair made public, devastating as it was, it was still another eighteen months before Hamilton began to utterly crumble.

4. His Final Season of Suffering and Seeking (1800–1804)

When he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father. (Luke 15:17–20)

One great irony of Hamilton’s story, and caution for us today, is that when he was at his best politically, he was at his worst in relation to Christ. And yet as he was humbled, turning again to Jesus, he could have been at his worst politically.

More terrible judgments followed the Reynolds Pamphlet.22 Even as late as the spring of 1802, he wrote a letter to fellow Federalist James Bayard proposing what he called a “Christian Constitutional Society.” I suspect this to be a genuine, though terribly naive, expression of his renewed Christian faith. It may also be one last gasp of his 1790s opportunism.

When Hamilton was at his best politically, he was at his worst in relation to Christ.

To counter Jefferson’s French-friendly Democratic Societies, Hamilton proposed a new society that would exist to promote (1) the Christian religion and (2) the Constitution of the United States. He saw both under Jeffersonian threat, but his Federalist interests were clearly political, or at least politically expedient.

“By signing up God against Thomas Jefferson,” says Chernow, “Hamilton hoped to make a more potent political appeal. . . . Hamilton was not honoring religion but exploiting it for political ends.” However misguided the effort, Chernow can’t help but recognize, “It is striking how religion preoccupied Hamilton during his final years.”23

Quiet Uptown

In November of 1801, the most devastating domino fell: his eldest child, Philip, age nineteen, died in a duel, defending his father’s honor. Learning of the duel, Hamilton had advised his son to take the righteous course and throw away his shot, that is, shoot into the air. But his son’s opponent did not. This would prove to be Alexander’s greatest devastation. Soon he would write to a friend that Philip’s death was “beyond comparison the most afflicting of my life.”24

Yet by late 1801, Hamilton was plainly taking deep solace in Christianity and Philip’s profession of faith: “It was the will of heaven and [Philip] is now out of the reach of the seductions and calamities of a world full of folly, full of vice, full of danger, of least value in proportion as it is best known. I firmly trust also that he has safely reached the haven of eternal repose and felicity.”25

“While the sufferings and frustrations resulting from political failure started Hamilton’s religious conversion,” claim Adair and Harvey, it was this “terrible personal tragedy [that] crystalized the change.”26 “This plenitude of sorrow . . . accounts for a totally new note — the first echo in all his writings of ‘Thy will be done’ — that now appears in certain Hamilton letters. . . . The old Hamilton arrogance had disappeared.”27

Hamilton’s spiritual renewal in this last season is too pronounced to ignore, whether in a first-rate biography or on Broadway. His reawakening appears to have just preceded (and prepared him for) Philip’s death. Miranda partially captures it in the aftermath of his loss, in the culminating song “Quiet Uptown,” where Hamilton sings,

I take the children to church on Sunday,
A sign of the cross at the door,
And I pray.
That never used to happen before.

What may be a “grace too powerful to name” on Broadway is precisely the name we in the church know as powerful. And we name the name: Jesus.

In July of 1804, on the night before his own deadly duel, he would write,

This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality. . . . The consolations of [Christianity], my beloved, can alone support you and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu best of wives and best of women.28

And so we ask, Why the duel with Burr? Just three years prior, he had lost his firstborn to a duel. On multiple occasions, he publicly had expressed his own disavowal of dueling. How could he agree to this, and especially now as a professing Christian?

Instead of engaging in speculation, I’ll let Oliver Wolcott Jr., Hamilton’s successor as secretary of the treasury, express his sense of its senselessness. On the day of the duel, Wolcott wrote to his wife that

Gen’l Hamilton . . . reasoned himself into a belief, that though the custom [of dueling] was in the highest degree criminal, yet there were peculiar reasons which rendered it proper for him, to expose himself to Col. Burr in particular. This instance of the derangement of intellect of a great mind, on a single point, has often been noticed as one of the most common yet unaccountable frailties of human nature.29

This was, thought Wolcott, “the derangement of intellect of a great mind, on a single point.” Wolcott added at the end his letter, “Gen’l Hamilton has of late years expressed his conviction of the truths of the Christian Religion.”

However tragic and ill-conceived his decision to row across the river to the dueling grounds in New Jersey, that would be not the place of his death. Hamilton threw away his shot while Burr’s bullet struck him in the liver and lodged in his spine. Hamilton seemed dead onsite but revived on the open water while being rowed back to New York. He lived another 31 hours, until 2:00pm the following day.

Mercy Through the Redeemer

Hamilton’s professions of faith on his deathbed are by no means his only indications of Christian faith, but they are his clearest and most documented.

First, he called for Benjamin Moore, episcopal bishop of New York and president of Columbia (formerly King’s) College. He asked to receive the Lord’s Supper. Hamilton was not a church member, so Moore hesitated to administer the sacrament (he would return later and administer it). Moore asked him, “Do you sincerely repent of your sins past? 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?”30

According to Moore, Hamilton “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 happened.’” Moore says that he “had no reason to doubt [Hamilton’s] sincerity.”31

Rich Grace, Only Refuge

A second minister also visited Hamilton on his deathbed — his old friend Rev. John M. Mason, pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church.32 Mason told Hamilton that he

had nothing to address him in his affliction, but that same gospel of the grace of God, which it is my office to preach to the most obscure and illiterate: that in the sight of God all men are on a level, as all men have sinned and come short of his glory [Romans 3:23]; and that they must apply to him for pardon and life, as sinners, whose only refuge is in his grace by righteousness through our Lord Jesus Christ [Romans 5:21].

Hamilton responded, “I perceive it to be so. I am a sinner: I look to his mercy.” Mason then turned his attention to

the infinite merit of the Redeemer, as the propitiation for sin, the sole ground of our acceptance with God; the sole channel of his favor to us; and cited the following passages of Scripture: There is no name given under heaven among men, whereby we must be saved, but the name of Jesus [Acts 4:12]. He is able to save them to the uttermost who come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them [Hebrews 7:25]. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin [1 John 1:7].

Mason reminded him that “the precious blood of Christ was as effectual and as necessary to wash away the transgression which had involved him in suffering, as any other transgression; and that he must there, and there alone, seek peace for his conscience. . . . He assented, with strong emotions, to these representations, and declared his abhorrence of the whole transaction.”33 Mason then

recurred to the topic of the divine compassions; the freedom of pardon in the Redeemer Jesus to perishing sinners. “That grace, my dear General, which brings salvation is rich, rich.”

“Yes,” interrupted [Hamilton], “it is rich grace.”

“And on that grace,” continued [Mason], “a sinner has the highest encouragement to repose his confidence, because it is tendered to him upon the surest foundation; the scripture testifying that ‘we have redemption through the blood of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace’ [Ephesians 1:7].”

At this point, Hamilton looked upward and said with emphasis, “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Mason’s narrative continues with more Scripture and further affirmations from Hamilton.

Finally, writes Mason,

As I was retiring, [Hamilton] lifted up his hands in the attitude of prayer, and said feebly, “God be merciful to — ” His voice sunk, so that I heard not the rest distinctly, but understood him to quote the words of the publican in the Gospel, and to end with “me a sinner.”34

Puritan Roots and Prayers

Clearly Hamilton’s late-life return to his early faith and his deathbed confessions raise questions. As Christians, many of us may feel both relief and some uneasiness at the whole scene. That Hamilton never joined a church is troubling. Not many thieves on the cross have God as their Father but not the church as their mother. That is sobering.35 Perhaps he was an exception.

And those of us who grieve his long, tragic journey into the far country of political success and pride want to redouble our resolve to live now for what matters eternally and to welcome God’s humbling hand if we realize ourselves to have strayed.

Lest Hamilton’s late-life Christian faith contribute to a distorted impression of the nation’s founding, we’re wise to concede that this, meager as it is, may be one of the clearer affirmations of evangelical faith among the inner circle of the founders. You will not find such in Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, or Madison. (One exception is John Jay.) This is not to make much of Hamilton’s reticent and late-flowering faith but to own how unevangelical was the nation’s founding.

Hamilton’s political career is a warning to those today who pine to be in the room “where it happens.” Hamilton was there. It did not satisfy. For him, it led to the eroding and near ruin of what mattered most. His life is a cautionary tale.

Hamilton’s succession of humblings and his late-flowering Christian faith show us a man who rose to the top and was not satisfied with what this world alone has on offer. Military achievement and fame, political influence and position, success as a lawyer, an adoring wife, and eight children — his heart remained restless until, through much of his own sin and folly, he fell headlong.

But in his great humblings, he did seem to “come to himself” and find rest in the Savior in whom he first professed faith in his youth. For years, his life looked to Christian eyes like the third soil, “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). But perhaps, as Hamilton wrote in his hurricane letter, his Lord did “snatch me from ruin.” In his final season, and particularly in his clear final confessions, he professed “tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

May we too not only depart, but live now with such a reliance — and observing Hamilton’s follies, be spared some of our own.

  1. So reads part of the subtitle to the 1741 printing of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” See The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 22, Sermons and Discourses, 1739–1742, ed. Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 403. 

  2. Alexander Hamilton, “Account of a Hurricane, to The Royal Danish American Gazette, September 6, 1772,” in Alexander Hamilton: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 6. Hugh Knox, in his sermon preached on September 6, 1772, called it “the most dreadful known among these Islands, since their first settlement.” See the title page to Knox’s Discourse Delivered on the 6th of September, 1772, in the Dutch Church of St. Croix (St. Croix: Daniel Thibou, 1772). 

  3. Alexander Hamilton, A Few of Hamilton’s Letters, ed. Gertrude Atherton (New York: Macmillan Co., 1903), 261. 

  4. Hamilton, “Account of a Hurricane,” 6, 8. 

  5. Hamilton, “Account of a Hurricane,” 7–8. 

  6. Alexander Hamilton, “The Soul Ascending into Bliss” (October 17, 1772), Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0043. Stanzas 2–4 read as follows: 

    Hark! hark! a voice from yonder sky,
    Methinks I hear my Saviour cry,
    Come gentle spirit come away,
    Come to thy Lord without delay;
    For thee the gates of bliss unbar’d
    Thy constant virtue to reward

    I come oh Lord! I mount, I fly,
    On rapid wings I cleave the sky;
    Stretch out thine arm and aid my flight;
    For oh! I long to gain that height,
    Where all celestial beings sing
    Eternal praises to their King.

    O Lamb of God! thrice gracious Lord
    Now, now I feel how true thy word;
    Translated to this happy place,
    This blessed vision of thy face;
    My soul shall all thy steps attend
    In songs of triumph without end.

  7. Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 706. 

  8. Douglass Adair and Marvin Harvey, “Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian Statesman?” The William and Mary Qaurterly 12, no. 2 (April 1955): 317. 

  9. Michael Federici, at the end of his treatment of Hamilton’s faith, finds it “difficult to imagine that the display of spiritual strength Hamilton exhibited on his deathbed was as a consequence of a relatively brief invigoration of religious piety, as if he were some kind of prodigal son.” See The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 49. I take this as an instance of Hamilton’s life looking different to a political scientist than to a Christian pastor. 

  10. Adair and Harvey, “Christian Statesman,” 313. 

  11. Quoted by Allen Guelzo in “Timothy Dwight’s Religion,” lecture 30 in America’s Founding Fathers (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2017), online video course, https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/americas-founding-fathers. 

  12. Adair and Harvey, “Christian Statesman,” 314. 

  13. Chernow, Hamilton, 205. 

  14. Chernow, Hamilton, 362. 

  15. A lesson to draw from this season: ambition to make one’s way in the world can cool the fires of young faith. In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells about seed sown among thorns: “They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:18–19).

    Admirably, Hamilton was not undone, like Judas, by the deceitfulness of riches. Hamilton’s financial integrity was sterling — but “the cares of the world” and “desires for other things” haunted his extended season of spiritual reticence, beginning in 1777. Fatherless since age ten, Hamilton was bent on proving himself in his new country. The flame and striking warmth of his teenage faith cooled as “the cares of this world” began to energize him.

    His early adult years, as he was now in a new country, amidst “the military spirit that pervaded the whole land [and was] exceedingly unfriendly to vital piety,” proved spiritually disastrous, however much he appeared successful in the world’s eyes. And such a story is not his alone — in his day or now. Countless Christian youths, flames burning bright, have found themselves crashing on the hard rocks, and hard knocks, of adult life. We do well, for our own spiritual health, to ask and learn how might it have been different. 

  16. Adair and Harvey, “Christian Statesman,” 316. 

  17. Adair and Harvey, “Christian Statesman,” 316. 

  18. Chernow, Hamilton, 599. Chernow points to a “dark, vengeful letter from the setbacks in Hamilton’s recent political life” sent to Senator Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey. “His vision now appeared to be so steeped in gloom that one wonders how much depression warped his judgment in later years” (600). 

  19. Adair and Harvey, “Christian Statesman,” 322. 

  20. Quoted in Chernow, Hamilton, 364. 

  21. Chernow, Hamilton, 362. 

  22. In early 1798, serving as general of the army, he had a “woefully misguided dream of liberating European colonies in North and South America,” says Chernow (566). “Like the Reynolds pamphlet, these clandestine messages signal a further deterioration in Hamilton’s judgment once he no longer worked under Washington’s wise auspices and was left purely to his own devices. . . . The episode went down as one of the most flagrant instances of poor judgment in Hamilton’s career” (567–68). 

  23. Chernow, Hamilton, 659. 

  24. Quoted in Chernow, Hamilton, 655. 

  25. Quoted in Chernow, Hamilton, 655. 

  26. Adair and Harvey, “Christian Statesman,” 324. 

  27. Adair and Harvey, “Christian Statesman,” 325. In fact, Adair and Harvey think, surprisingly, that Hamilton’s “last tragic act in his life . . . shows most conclusively [his] sincere and strenuous efforts to act in accordance with the precepts of Christ. . . . His fatal meeting with Burr was not an act of pride, but . . . an act of resignation. In one sense Hamilton died in 1804 because of his strong new religious faith” (327). 

  28. Quoted in Chernow, Hamilton, 709. 

  29. See footnote 4 in “Benjamin Moore to William Coleman, July 12, 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0268. 

  30. See “Benjamin Moore to William Coleman.” The following day, the day of Hamilton’s death, Moore wrote up his account, which was published on July 13. 

  31. Moore visited again on the following day: “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.” Moore concludes his narrative with an exhortation: “Let the humble believer be encouraged ever to hold fast that precious faith which is the only source of true consolation in the last extremity of nature. Let the Infidel be persuaded to abandon his opposition to that gospel which the strong, inquisitive, and comprehensive mind of a Hamilton embraced, in his last moments, as the truth from heaven.” 

  32. Having read in the papers an “imperfect account of my conversation with General Hamilton,” Mason provided his narrative on July 18. When Hamilton asked for the Supper, Mason replied that his hands were tied: “It is a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s supper privately to any person under any circumstances.” But he clarified, “The holy communion is an exhibition and pledge of the mercies which the Son of God has purchased; that the absence of the sign does not exclude from the mercies signified; which were accessible to him by faith in their gracious Author.” Hamilton replied, “I am aware of that. It is only as a sign that I wanted it.” See Memoirs of John M. Mason, ed. Jacob Van Vechten (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1856), 183. 

  33. Regarding the duel, Hamilton said, “It was always against my principles. I used every expedient to avoid the interview; but I have found, for some time past, that my life must be exposed to that man. I went to the field determined not to take his life.” See Memoirs of John M. Mason, 183–84. 

  34. For the whole account, see Memoirs of John M. Mason, 182–85. John Jay, Hamilton’s longtime friend, said in the grief that followed, “That he died a Christian, is an important as well as a consoling circumstance” (188). 

  35. Chernow notes that “Hamilton had been devout when younger, but he seemed more skeptical about organized religion during the Revolution” (132). Perhaps circumstances from his childhood, and particularly his mother’s death, “help to explain a mystifying ambivalence that Hamilton always felt about regular church attendance, despite a pronounced religious bent” (25). Hamilton’s longstanding relationship (or lack of one) with the local church is what gives me greatest pause about his late-life renewal. Recently, Illinois pastor Obbie Tyler Todd has written that Hamilton, from his arrival in America, was a man torn between two denominations (Presbyterian and Episcopal) “while finding no real home in the communion of believers.” In Hamilton’s case, the ominous absence of the church may be the clearest warning sign we can point to. At seventeen, Hamilton seemed to thrive under Knox’s pastoral influence. But without the strengthening and constraining influence of a local church, a faithful evangelical wife was not enough to keep him from wandering, even if she would be vital to his late-life renewal.