Saturday, January 06, 2007

Boller, Lillback, George Washington & Religion:

Paul Boller's magnificent work of scholarship "George Washington & Religion" can be accessed here. This is not a free site. But if you are associated with a college or a research institution, you may have privileges. Boller's book is out of print and the cheapest you can find it on Amazon is $75.

A couple things about the book. Boller concludes that Washington was not a Christian, but some kind of Deist. His money quote is:

[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.

Though, Boller explicitly notes that Washington was not a Deist in the sense of believing in a cold distant watchmaker God; rather Washington's God intervened. A problem though, with categorizing Washington as a "Deist" is that too many folks define Deism as belief in a non-intervening God and such a categorization, without immediate caveat, likely misleads. So the religious conservatives who don't want to believe that Washington's Providence was non-interventionist have a valid complaint.

Enter Peter A. Lillback. Like Michael and Jana Novak, he too has authored a recent book which attempts to show that Washington was Christian not Deist. But Lillback explicitly makes Boller an enemy (the Novaks don't), the one responsible for what he considers the error that Washington was Deist and not Christian.

In fact, most modern works which explain Washington's religion do in some way trace back to Boller. But this isn't because of anything nefarious; it's just Boller's work is damn good. And it's not just secularists or liberals. Conservatives like Richard Brookhiser, James Hutson, Gregg Frazer, and others rely on Boller's work, which meticulously examines the primary sources.

Note: I haven't read Lillback's book. And, at 1200 pages, I'm not planning on buying it. If someone wants to send it to me for free, or if a publication wants me to review it like I did the Novaks' then I'll read it. [NOTE: I HAVE SUBSEQUENTLY BOUGHT AND READ LILLBACK'S ENTIRE BOOK.]

From what I have read and heard from Lillback -- a number of articles and seen and heard him on various media -- I get the impression that his book attempts to "spin" or explain away the historical record which shows Washington wasn't an orthodox Christian, in mindnumbingly pedantic detail. Note to Mr. Lillback: quantity doesn't equal quality.

Here is one of Lillback's articles which I've read. Let me deal with some of it.

This article shows that Lillback engages in what is commonly termed "law office" scholarship; focus only on those facts which seem to support your side and ignore or otherwise come forth with clever ways of explaining away what contradicts your case.

First, towards the very end, Lillback reveals why it's important to prove Washington was Christian not Deist and thus shows his level of "objectivity": "Where a nation begins largely determines the course it treads. If our Founding Father was a deist, we should certainly be secularists today."

Next: What Washington called himself. Lillback correctly notes that Washington never called himself a "deist" (neither did Jefferson, Adams, or Madison). Washington, as far as we knew, never called himself a "Christian either." But Lillback apparently finds a letter where Washington signs it "on my honor and the faith of a Christian."

The problem: This letter, if genuine (I haven't been able to locate it in Washington's papers, which are archived online), is the only instance of the kind. One must examine in overall context, systematic behavior. And Washington systematically did not refer to himself as a "Christian" (or a Deist). More often, he talked of Christians in the third person, as though he weren't part of that group.

The following statement of his is typical: "I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception."

Or: "I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their [my emphasis] religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society."

And, I might add, both Adams and Jefferson commonly referred to themselves as "Christian." My thesis is that Washington believed in the same system they did -- which Adams termed "liberal unitarian Christianity," but arguably, because it rejects all of the tenets of orthodox Christianity, isn't Christianity at all.

Regarding Washington's refusal to take communion, Lillback writes:

When he finished his oath of office at his first inaugural, he added the words, "So help me God," and bent down to kiss the Bible. Then he led the crowd across the street to St. Paul's Chapel for a two-hour service. Alexander Hamilton's wife said she was at Washington's side when he took Communion that day.

[Note: Whether Washington ever said "so help me God," is uncertain, and kissing the Bible is a Freemasonic ritual; indeed the Bible he kissed was a Masonic Bible].

Now, apparently in one letter written in old age, Eliza Hamilton "remembers" taking communion with Washington (elsewhere Lillback offers testimony of an instance of Washington communing in a non-Episcopal-Anglican Church). Contrast that with testimony from three of Washington's own ministers, who observed his behavior for YEARS, and testified that Washington never communed. Likewise Washington's step-granddaughter, in a letter trying to defend his Christianity, testified that while Martha communed, George didn't. From an "overall" perspective that puts things in context, the weight of the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Washington never communed.

I have also heard it said that Washington didn't commune because we were at war with Great Britain and the Anglican Church was too connected against whom America rebelled. That absolutely fails to explain why Washington didn't commune his entire adult life, even after the Revolution was over and the Anglican Church became the Protestant Episcopalian Church.

The relevance of his not being a communicant? As his own minister, Dr. Abercrombie said: "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."

Regarding Washington never mentioning the words "Jesus Christ," Lillback's explanation is that he didn't say those words because he held them in reverence; but that elsewhere he refers to Jesus as the "Divine Author of our blessed religion." The problem: Again, looking at the "big picture," records indicate Washington only mentioned the words "Jesus Christ" once. And only spoke of Jesus one other time as the "Divine Author of our blessed religion." Other than that, Washington never spoke of Jesus at all!

Regarding Washington's terminology for God, Lillback writes:

Washington's titles for God, such as "Great author of the Universe," were not deist titles. These were the titles of honor used for deity by the preachers of his day. He also used several biblical titles for God. These included: Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Lord, God of Armies, Lord of Hosts, Almighty, Redeemer, Creator, Maker, Lord of Nations and Father.

First, Washington never spoke of God as Redeemer; that is an error. And arguably he didn't speak of God as Jesus Christ either. The one instance of him using that name was as follows: "You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are." This is not an explicit endorsement of Trinitarianism. And even the term "Divine Author of our blessed religion" is consistent with Arianism, a very popular form of unitarianism in the day which views Jesus as a divinely created being inferior to God the father.

Scholars also doubt whether those two references (again, the only two that exist!) to Jesus convey Washington's true beliefs, because the original documents were not written in his own hand, but were signed by him (aids probably prepared them).

Regarding the other ways of referring to God, Lillback baldly asserts that this is how Chrisitans referred to God, not Deists. Well, at best for his side, we could say that Washington referenced God in generic terms, which deists, unitarians and Christians could use. The way he spoke of God was entirely consistent with how Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison spoke of God. He did not speak in explicitly Trinitarian terms, but rather in the language of generic monotheism.

Finally, regarding Washington's use of the term "Jehovah." Washington was not indicating that he believed exclusively in the "Biblical" or "Judeo-Christian" God. Rather, when Jefferson, Washington, and the other key framers addressed a particular community, they customarily referred to God in terms used by the addressees. The only time Washington ever referred to God as "Jehovah" was in one address to Jews. Likewise, when Washington addressed his fellow Freemasons, he referred to God as "The Great Architect of the Universe." And when addressing the Cherokee Indians, Washington referred to God as "The Great Spirit" exactly as they did. In fact, Washington crossed out the word "God" in one of his speeches prepared for the Indians and substituted "the Great Spirit." When Madison and Jefferson addressed the American Indians, they too systematically referred to God as "the Great Spirit."

Lillback aims his book at a scholarly audience. He wants the community to take him seriously, similar to how Gordon Wood commented on the Novaks' work. I haven't seen Lillback's book in bookstores. And his co-author, Jerry Newcombe, has co-authored notoriously revisionist books with D. James Kennedy.

I have seen a few conservatives in respectable positions in the academy say positive things about this book. Of course, it's selling well in "Christian Nation" circles. Whether it will be taken seriously by the scholarly community, only time will tell.

The success of both the Novaks' and Lillback's books shows that people are interested in this subject. I have no idea why Boller's great book is out of print.

My prescription would be for Boller, who is still alive but getting on in years, to reissue his book with a new chapter responding to recent works of scholarship which challenge his thesis.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Washington not taking communion implies certain disagreements with orthodox Christian beliefs.

However, it should be noted that a "Masonic" bible is a Bible, OT & NT, no more, no less. Some speculate it was used because a) it was the only one available or b) that it was not denominational. Denominationalism was the true enemy of the state, not religion or even Christianity.

Sam said...

It's quite apparent from your writing that you have not read Sacred Fire by Lillback and draw your assumptions from a few of his articles. Boller's work, is quite presumptious, in that he draws conclusions on from his pre-conceived notions rather from base-less fact. When you regularly have to use words such as "probably, seem, or must have been" it should be a red-flag to readers that you're argument is entirely skeptical. I would sooner take the words of Nelly Custis, his adopted grand-daughter and who lived with Washington for 20 yrs, stated, "To say that Washington wasn't a Christian is to question his very patriotism." First hand familial references are more factual than Boller's weak, pre-determined conclusions.

I would recommend the writing of Lilliback and Nelly Custis long before Boller's hardly magnificent novel.