Thursday, June 02, 2005

George Washington and John Adams, nominal Christians, deistic-unitarians:

On this thread in Southern Appeal, I've been debating contributor Joel Leggett on the religious beliefs of Washington and Adams.

He wrote in response to me:

Mr. Rowe,

I am afraid that you are very much mistaken about the faith of George Washington. Prior to reading your post I had never heard that Washington had a habit of walking out of communion. However, it is a historical fact that Washington served as a vestryman at Truro Parish, a position of great influence in the church. He was also a member of Pohick Church were he was named warden in 1763.

Your assertion that Washington did not say much about his faith or religion is disastrously wrong. In fact, an entire chapter of the “Maxims of George Washington” collected by John Frederick Schroeder for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ association is dedicated to his statements about his faith. It should be noted that Washington established the first national day of thanksgiving on October 3, 1789. The aforementioned facts are more than enough to establish that George Washington was anything but a nominal church attender.

As far as John Adams is concerned I defer to David McCullough’s biography. He points out that John Adams was a man of profound and deep religious beliefs. If your point about John Adams being a man of reason is meant to imply that he could not also hold strong Christian beliefs you are sadly mistaken.


To which I responded:

Joel,

I have actually taken the time -- for a few years now -- to track down the primary sources and confirm my assertions and I assure you that you are the one who is mistaken.

Our disagreement may be semantical -- I don't deny that all of the Founders I mentioned [Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin] strongly believed in *some* kind of God, and that most of them were members of Christian Churches [all but Franklin].

But there is no credible evidence that one of them was an orthodox Christian.

In my John Adams post I raised an issue -- still relevant in a sociological sense -- about what it means to be a "Christian."

That term generally has two different meanings (with a big gray area in between) relevant to this controversy.

It can be read in a very broad sense -- anyone having *some* sort of a connection to Christianity, or a Christian Church. And in that sense the overwhelming majority of our Founders were Christians as are 80% of Americans today (perhaps even me, a Catholic who never went beyond baptism). Liberals like Phil Donahue, Howard Dean, all of the Kennedys are "Christians" in this sense.

Or a very narrow, doctrinaire or "orthodox" sense, like the quote [that I earlier cited] from Paul F. Boller: "... [I]f to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense."

[George Washington & Religion, Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, p. 90.]

None of the Founders I mentioned qualify as orthodox Christians in this sense.

"However, it is a historical fact that Washington served as a vestryman at Truro Parish, a position of great influence in the church."

So what? - As I understand Jefferson was a vestryman in the Anglican Church as well. And we know that Jefferson savaged the tenets of orthodox Christianity.

"In fact, an entire chapter of the 'Maxims of George Washington' collected by John Frederick Schroeder for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ association is dedicated to his statements about his faith."

I briefly googled this and was led to the writings of a 13-year-old George Washington. You need to be far more specific in proving Washington's discussion of his faith. The adult Washington left plenty of quotes referring to a Supreme Being and Divine Providence (and he even left a few letters referring to God as the "Supreme Architech" to his fellow Free Masons, with whom Washington was intimately involved) -- if that is what is meant by "speaking about his faith," I don't disagree -- but Washington systematically avoided mentioning the name "Jesus Christ" or any of the tenets of orthodox Christianity. The above assertion by historian Paul Boller stands unrefuted.

Regarding John Adams, again, if being a "man of profound and deep religious beliefs" refers to his devout deistic-Unitarianism, then I can't argue with that.

"If your point about John Adams being a man of reason is meant to imply that he could not also hold strong Christian beliefs you are sadly mistaken."

I've actually linked to a letter that Adams wrote to Jefferson discussing religion, why don't you read it.

Again, the conclusion entirely depends on what the term "Christian" means.

John Adams:

1) Didn't believe in the Trinity;
2) Didn't accept Jesus as his personal savior;
3) Didn't believe in the Doctrine of Eternal Damnation;
4) Didn't believe in the Miracles of the Bible; AND
5) Doubted the innerancy of Revelation and held Reason to be the ultmiate arbiter of Truth.

If that qualifes as holding "strong Christian beliefs" then I have no problem categorizing Adams as a Christian. Neither did Adams. At the end of his letter to Jefferson, he wrote,

"The Calvinist, the Athanasian divines ... will say I am no Christian. I say they are no Christians, and there the account is balanced."

3 comments:

Michael Foster said...

I will have to research this more but I have suspected this of many of the founding father. No doubt they were great men but where they stood as far as orthodoxy goes had been pretty vague to me. I'm curious what is the point to this post? Is it just to set the record straight? And/or Do have a bigger point you are working towards?

Thanks, MSF

Jonathan said...

It's to set the record straight, mainly.

And I suppose there are a few larger points.

I'm interested in the political theory of our Founding -- the ideals, the compromises -- and specifically how it dealt with religion.

I've encountered one group of thinkers -- not taken very seriously in the academy, but still believed by millions -- that almost all of our founders were inspired orthodox Christians who Founded America (in 1776 & 1787) to be a "Christian Nation" in a public, governmental sense.

That belief is as wrong as the belief that our Founders were a bunch of Michael Newdows who would take "under God" off our currency or out of the pledge.

The Truth lies somewhere in between.

John said...

It seems to me that if our Fathers had wanted to create a Christian nation they would simply have said so in our founding document.