Thursday, July 13, 2006

George Washington, Infidel:

I've decided to try Youtube as a platform for my webcasts (hey, it's free!). Check out my ten minute lecture on George Washington's religious beliefs.

This was just me improvising from the top of my head. I make a lot of assertions, and I'm going to briefly source some of them.

First, I assert that many of the Founding era elite-educated Virginia Anglicans/Episcopalians were, like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, not orthodox Christians but rather personally adhered to Deist-Unitarian or "Infidel" principles. Here is the testimony of an Episcopalian mister who knew James Madison personally, on the fact that many of the elites "Whigs" in Virginia were "Infidels." Meade is speaking about how although Madison may have had a brief flirtation with orthodox Christianity early in life, the creed of his elite Whiggery was decidedly not orthodox Christianity. Meade stated about Madison:

His religious feeling, however, seems to have been short-lived. His political associations were those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet subjected him to a general suspicion of it.

I also note how Patrick Henry, likewise, was a Virginia Whig/Episcopalian and automatically this raised a red flag in the minds of some folks that he was a Deist or a Unitarian, not an orthodox Christian. But Henry indeed was an orthodox Christian. And when confronted he explicitly noted that he wasn't a Deist but rather an orthodox Christian.

Amongst other strange things said of me, I hear it is said by the deists that I am one of the number; and, indeed, that some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of Tory; because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics; and I find much cause to reproach myself that I have lived so long, and have given no decided and public proofs of my being a Christian. But, indeed, my dear child, this is a character which I prize far above all this world has, or can boast.

Jefferson's letters clearly show that he rejected the tenets of orthodox Christianity. He was branded an "infidel" for some of the tamer things he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia; but his private letters clearly show that Jefferson rejected (sometimes savaged) the orthodox Christian creeds.

So what about Washington? Mum was the word on his religious creed. Washington was more than just "reticent" to talk about his private faith; he absolutely held his cards to himself. What he really thought, specifically, about orthodox Christianity was for him to know and you to guess.

The context of the time was that people generally and public figures particularly were expected to affirm or otherwise pay homage to orthodox Christianity. And such a system back then had far greater social and legal entrenchments. Some pious folks tried to corner Washington into admitting whether he really believed in orthodox Christianity, and Washington basically dodged the question. Later Jefferson commenting on how how Washington avoided answering the question called him a "cunning old Fox." Here is Jefferson's testimony:

Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they thot they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.

And here is Jefferson noting what Gouverneur Morris's take on all this:

I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.

If Washington did believe in the tenets of orthodox Christianity, why didn't he just say so, like Patrick Henry?

Finally, I noted how Washington's systematic refusal to take communion evidences that he wasn't an orthodox Christian but rather points in the direction of belief in the same unorthodox system of Enlightenment rationalism as Jefferson, Madison, and many other of the elite Virginia Whig-Episcopalians. Michael and Jana Novak, in their book on Washington, note that many Virginia Episcopalians likewise didn't take communion. Yes, but there were many Deists and Unitarians among the Virginia Episcopalians. And they were the ones who didn't take communion! At least, that's the impression I get from the testimony of Washington's own minister, Dr. Abercrombie. Here he is on all of those elite Whig-Episcopalians, most notably Washington, who ducked communion:

With respect to the inquiry you make I can only state the following facts; that, as pastor of the Episcopal church, observing that, on sacramental Sundays, Gen. Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation -- always leaving Mrs. Washington with the other communicants -- she invariably being one -- I considered it my duty in a sermon on Public Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations who uniformly turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President; and as such he received it.

Washington never attended that Church on communion Sundays again. But more to the point, here is Dr. Abercrombie being very direct on the matter: "Sir, Washington was a Deist."

In a letter, dated November 29, 1831, Abercrombie explains why he thought Washington a Deist:

"That Washington was a professing Christian, is evident from his regular attendance in our church; but, Sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace."

Now, clearly Washington believed in a warm-intervening Providence and wasn't a "Deist" in that strict sense. But the notion that Washington was a Deist is an invention of modern revisionists historians is utter balderdash. Modern historians may be wrong in believing Washington's God was a cold-distant watchmaker, but these scholars assert Washington was a "Deist" because his own ministers said so.


David Swindle said...

Jonathan, your youtube video was really cool. You should do more of them.

Jonathan said...


I plan to.

Karen McL said...

Ah...clever Jon and the Free-webcasts!

Kool! That should work well as an alternate venue for these *talks*.

Good job on your ongoing Founder's Theology (or lack there-of) Reports.

Karen McL said...

Oh...and I've been *behind* in my blog reading owing to this "high Maintenance girlfriend" (Puppie Poe) - which reminds me say you ought to do a Friday Puppy-Blogging yourself sometime soon.

{Unless I missed it already! *wink*}

Jonathan said...


I haven't yet done a puppy post. But will do one soon.

Brian Tubbs said...

Not all of Washington's ministers asserted he was a Deist.

Also, refusal to take Communion does not automatically indicate a lack of belief in Christianity. To argue that way, as many do, reflects total ignorance on what the Bible says about Communion and on the differences that many denominations have concerning Communion. There are a number of possible reasons why Washington declined Communion - a lack of personal faith in Jesus Christ is probably the LEAST likely of them.

-Brian Tubbs

Jonathan said...


Dr. Abercrombie apparently thought different:

"but, Sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace."

In David Holmes's book, he notes deists (or unitarian rationalists)wouldn't want to take Communion because what it represents, like the Trinity, is not consistent with Reason. Holmes writes: "That earthly bread and wine could in some way become the body and blood of Christ vexed founders such as Jefferson and Adams." Holmes also notes that even if the church didn't believe in Christ's real bodily presence in communion, such a practice was still connected to the doctrine of atonement, in which deists and unitarians didn't believe. So I think that lack of personal faith in Jesus Christ IS a likely reason.

The best I've seen the other side argue is that Washington didn't want to take communion during the Revolution b/c the Anglican Church was "The Church of England" after all, and England was against whom we were rebelling.

But Washington didn't take communion after the Revolution was over either, after the Anglican Church became the Episcopal Church.

Although, I will defer to Richard Brookhiser who, when I asked him why, replied: "No one really knows."