Sunday, July 09, 2006

George Washington...still wasn't a Christian:

I just finished watching another one of D. James Kennedy's absolutely laughable specials on George Washington's supposed Christian faith. Kennedy recycles the same sermon every year, but adds little changes each time. It's really a shame that someone who is a "Christian" minister, supposedly committed to the Truth, spreads so many tall tales. But alas, since Parson Mason Weems, there seems to be a long tradition of Christian ministers making things up about George Washington. And Kennedy best represents the "Weems" tradition, presently.

I certainly am not going to answer all of the tall tales now, just a few.

First, regarding Washington's character, Kennedy invokes the ultimate strawman by taking the George Washington (Barry Bostwick/Jaclyn Smith) miniseries as an example of the historical academy's "revisionism" because they portrayed Washington as having an affair. As if Gordon Wood were the executive producer! I don't think anyone takes this movie as a serious work of history. And as long as directors like Oliver Stone are well regarded in Hollywood, I doubt the (left-leaning) historical academy will ever take Hollywood seriously.

So let's instead turn to what a real historian, one who hardly could be accused of being a PC revisionist, has to say about Washington's character. Forrest McDonald in Novus Ordo Seclorum writes:

It is obvious why Washington was trusted, however; the more elusive question is how a man could become so utterly trustworthy. Admittedly, he was far from being an ordinary man, but he was a long way from being a saint. As a soldier he had been capable of blundering, rashness, and poor judgment. He was addicted to gambling, apparently indulged in a good dealing of wenching, was avid in the pursuit of wealth, and was a "most horrid swearer and blasphemer." He was vain, pompous, pretentious, and hot-tempered in the extreme; and though he was normally a perfect gentleman in his public behavior, he could be a perfect alley cat in his private behavior. Even in public his conduct was not always free of blemish. During the war he had been willing to hang an innocent British prisoner, Capt. Charles Asgill, in retaliation against the unauthorized behavior of some hooligan New York Loyalists; and Washington was not sufficiently magnanimous to grant the request of the unfortunate Maj. John Andre to be shot as a soldier rather than to be hanged as a spy. And yet a whole nation could entrust him with its liberty and, indeed, its fate, in revolutionary circumstances which almost invariably breed Caesars and Cromwells, and could know that it was safe to do so.

pp. 192-3.

Now, of course, there is another side. On balance, Washington was a man of great virtue. But let's not turn the man into a saint.

A few other things. I have neither the time nor the interest in refuting everything Kennedy said, but the following three examples, which Kennedy relies on as "key" pieces of evidence to prove Washington's Christianity, illustrate what could be done with practically every line of Kennedy's sermon. First, Washington supposedly prayed for two hours a day, while kneeling and reading his Bible. This automatically should raise a red flag because it was well known that Washington didn't kneel when praying. I tracked down the source for this.

"It seems proper to subjoin to this letter what was told to me by Mr. Robert Lewis, at Fredericksburg, in the year 1827. Being a nephew of Washington, and his private secretary during the first part of his presidency, Mr. Lewis lived with him on terms of intimacy, and has the best opportunity for observing his private devotions in his library both morning and evening; that on those occasions he had seen him in a kneeling posture with a Bible open before him, and that he believed such to have been his daily practice."(7)

However, as the linked Bessel article notes:

Unfortunately, this comment is hearsay. There is no evidence given in that or other books to support it, such as any letter from Washington's nephew who was being quoted, and it therefore is probably another example of someone fashioning a story about Washington to support what some people wished to believe.

Kennedy also invokes the Quaker/Valley Forge/Prayer tall tale invented out of whole cloth by Parson Weems. From the Bessel article:

Weems wrote a story that supposedly took place at Valley Forge, when a Quaker named Potts was walking through the woods near Washington's headquarters and, as he told his wife, he saw "the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees in prayer!" Potts told her that this proved that Washington was a man of God and that God would therefore save America.(9)

"The Potts story has been the most cherished of all the anecdotes about Washington at prayer, though, interestingly, it was never alluded to by Quaker writers on Washington, no even by those of a 'Free Quaker' of nonpacifist persuasion. It has been repeated with countless variations since Weems first put it forward; scores of witnesses attesting to the event (many years later) have been dug up by champions of the story; and many details have been added by later writes to Weems's original account....

"The Valley Forge story is, of course, utterly without foundation in fact. There was indeed a Quaker farmer named Isaac Potts who came into possession of a house in Valley Forge toward the end of the Revolutionary War; but he was nowhere near Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 when Washington was supposed to have been praying in the snow. Nevertheless, Washington's 'Gethsemene,' as the Valley Forge episode has been called, was eventually fixed in bronze on the Sub-Treasury Building in New York City and Potts's house itself was made into a shrine...

"In June, 1903, moreover, the cornerstone of the million-dollar Washington Memorial Chapel, commemorating the event, was laid at Valley Forge; in 1928 the United States government issued a batch of two-cent stamps showing Washington praying at Valley Force; and in 1955 a private chapel for the use of United States Congressmen was opened in the Capitol containing, as its chief feature, a stained-glass window above an oak altar depicting the kneeling figure of Washington at Valley Forge. Even Weems, one guesses, would have been somewhat thunderstruck by the solemn literalness with which many of his readers interpreted his exuberant narrative of The Life of George Washington; with Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen.(10)

9. George Washington and Religion [by Paul F. Boller, Jr., published by Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas, 1963], pages 8-9; and The Life of Washington, by M.L. Weems, 1857 edition, pages 198-199; and 1837 edition, pages 183-184; and 1814 edition, pages 183-184..

10. George Washington and Religion, pages 9-11.

Finally, Kennedy, to prove Washington prayed "Christian" prayers, continues to peddle Washington's debunked "prayer book," without which, Washington's public record of prayers includes making supplications to a generic deity only, absent explicitly Christian language. Ed Brayton got the goods on the prayer book from one of the nation's leading experts on Washington's writings. "That scholar is Frank Grizzard of the University Virginia, a senior associate editor of the George Washington Papers collection housed there. Here is his response:"

The so-called prayer journal is not in GW's writing, although I'm not sure it's actually a forgery. The manuscript dealer (Burk I think) who first sold it when it came to light in the 19th century printed a facsimile edition in which he admits that the Smithsonian rejected it as a non-GW document, but it did have Washington family provenance, so he said. Thus it apparently was a descendant's. Johnson's version is taken from Burk. The prayers are based on the English prayer book.

So there is no credible evidence that George Washington had a "Christian" prayer book.

Practically every point Kennedy makes to "prove" Washington's Christianity, can be answered in this way. The only valid point that the "Christian Nation" crowd has against the notion that Washington was a "Deist" is that Washington, contra the "Deists," invoked a warm-intervening Providence, not a cold-distant watchmaker. But so too did Jefferson and Franklin. There really is nothing in the historical record that demonstrates Washington believed any differently than Franklin and Jefferson on religious matters.


Jim Babka said...

Jon, I saw that special as well - just the end - where Kennedy said that Washington finished his life in prayer to God for his soul. Do you know anything about that story?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Washington died a Stoic death. His only words were "tis well." Kennedy got that part right; but then he made up some line out of whole cloth about Washington praying to "the father."

See this link from UVA about Washington's death.

Rachel said...

I've really found your blog fascinating in the areas that relate to America and the nature of her founding. While I whole-heartedly disagree with quite a few of your hypotheses, your blog still makes for good reading.

In regards to Washington:

I can't say that I always agree with a majority of what Dr. Kennedy may choose to say, however, on GW, I believe the historical evidence supports his position over yours. So far, while you've cited scholars, I haven't seen a shred of actual quotes from the people who lived and breathed in the time of Washington.

Suppose I were to say something about something that you said to me and a friend of yours was trying to decide whether or not your statement (as quoted by me) was accurate, who should your friend talk to? Me? Another member of the audience, perhaps? Or you?

In the same manner, it's more important to check the original sources rather than the commentators for the veracity and applicability of the actual situation.

Were I to pull all of the GW quotations and sources that indicate his piety and Christian faith, I know I would be here a good deal longer than I want to be. So, a summary quotation from his grand-daughter, might help us out. Jared Sparks, in his research on Washignton, dispatched a letter to Nelly Custis to ascertain the truth of Washinginton's Christianity.

This is a portion of the reply:
"I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. . . . . As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country."

[Washington, [Sparks] Writings, (1838), Vol. XII, pp. 406-407]

Jonathan Rowe said...


Thanks for checking in. Feel free to stay here as long as you want and continue this conversation.

And I encourage you to read some of my other posts where I do indeed offer many quotations of people who knew Washington personally, from Thomas Jefferson, to Bird Wilson (James's son), to, most importantly, Washington's own ministers, where they explicitly note that Washington was not a Christian in the orthodox sense, but rather either a Deist, a Unitarian, or otherwise having his creed strongly influenced by those heterodox belief systems.

The scholars who doubt George Washington's piety from Paul Boeller to David Holmes to Gordon Wood, based their case on primary sources, Washington's own words, and the words of others from the Founding time.

Just about all of this can be found on my website if you look further.

Brian Tubbs said...

George Washington was certainly not an activist evangelical Bible-thumper. And he didn't wear his Christian faith on his sleeve the way D. James Kennedy argues. I have heard Kennedy's messages on Washington, and I too tend to cringe.

However, too many people - and it would appear, Jonathan, that you might fall in this category - go to the OTHER extreme by minimizing Washington's religious faith.

Joseph Ellis takes this tack in his biography His Excellency (not as good as Founding Brothers).

George Washington took his faith in and relationship with God very seriously. As to the depth of his Christian convictions, that is the subject of much debate - and I'm afraid we'll never know the full truth of that.

**Forgive the self-promotion, but I just wrote an article about GW's religious faith on my blog. You can find it (and other stuff) at..