Friday, February 09, 2007

George Washington's "Infidel" Worldview:

Peter Lillback's 1200 page book on George Washington's faith probably contains more non-sequiturs than any other book ever written. As I've noted before, he and his assistant do a great job reporting many facts about George Washington's life as it relates to religion; but almost everything they uncover simply does not support the their thesis that he was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. And it's quite amusing to see how as they uncover every single new fact, they also attempt to weave those facts into an argument that repeats the same mantra over and over again: this shows Washington was a Christian not a Deist.

I've entitled this post George Washington's "Infidel" Worldview to counter a chapter in the book entitled George Washington's Christian Worldview. Now, like the terms "Christian," "Deist," and "Unitarian," the word "Infidel" also has various meanings. George Washington (and the other key Founders, Jefferson, Franklin, etc.) didn't consider themselves infidels and both Washington and Franklin used the word in a pejorative sense. For instance, Washington once said, "The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations...." Yet, Franklin once said, "Atheism is unknown there; Infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great Age in that Country, without having their Piety shocked by meeting with either an Atheist or an Infidel." However, Franklin himself was a theological unitarian who denied the infallibility of scripture. And indeed, theological unitarianism and universalism were preached openly in various parts of America. Franklin and Washington didn't regard their "hybrid" belief system, which was theologically unitarian and somewhere between Christianity and Deism with rationalism as the trumping element, as "infidelity." The problem, though, is that the orthodox Trinitarian Christians did.

Indeed, even though in one part of the book, Lillback insinuates that "99.8%" of Americans were "professing Christians," elsewhere he notes that pious Christians of that era were concerned with the ever increasing number of "infidels" among not just church members, but church preachers as well. (A surprising number of notable "infidels," including Joseph Priestly and Samuel Clarke in England and Elihu Palmer in America, were ministers in Churches which professed orthodoxy. Indeed, the New England Congregational Clergy was so overrun with unitarian infidels, that these Puritan Congregations eventually adopted "unitarianism" as their official Church doctrine and became "Unitarian" instead of "Puritan" Congregations.) Colleges like William and Mary, Harvard, and Yale likewise were hotbeds of infidelity. And as with many Congregational Churches, Harvard's official creed became Unitarian in the early 19th Century (though theological unitarianism was firmly entrenched at Harvard in the mid to late 18th Century).

And so it was that orthodox Christians in the late 18th Century urged Virginia's Committee on Religion to be concerned with the rising infidelity in that state. George Washington, when serving in Virginia's House of Burgesses, was a member on its Committee on Religion. Lillback intimates that this committee's purpose was to advance Christianity and impede Deism in Virginia, and this, in turn is more evidence Washington was a Christian, not a Deist. In fact, the Committee's purpose was more simply, how Virginia, which at that time had an established church, would deal with Church-State matters. Washington's membership on the Committee on Religion is the ultimate non-sequitur when we consider that fellow "infidels" Jefferson and Madison, when members of Virginia's House of Delegates, were also on the Committee on Religion, and it was there that they initiated Jefferson's revolutionary Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom which, when passed, separated Church and State in Virginia.

Another non-sequitur put forth by Lillback is that Washington was a "collector of sermons." We do know that many ministers sent Washington their sermons for him to read. And he didn't throw them away, but kept them in his library alongside the works of infidels like Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestly. Most of those sermons were from orthodox Christian ministers and many of them preached against Deism and "Infidelity." Washington almost always politely thanked them for this. His thanks and thoughts on the sermons were invariably brief. And where his language is positive, Lillback, again, tries to make the most out of this as evidence that Washington personally believed in the orthodoxy of the ministers.

When one examines, in context, how ministers viewed Washington's religious beliefs, one doesn't get the impression that they firmly believed he was an orthodox Christian. Rather, one gets the message that they hoped he was, but had doubts and wanted him to clarify his specific beliefs. Indeed, that they often sent him sermons preaching doctrines of orthodoxy, was probably one way in which they thought they might get Washington to "open up" about what he really believed. But that is something that Washington did not do. Rather, in letters of response, he invariably gave brief, perfunctory thanks for their thoughts.

When Jefferson noted he believed Washington wasn't an orthodox Christian, he said so in the context of recalling an incident when a group of pious ministers tried to pin Washington down into admitting whether he believed in orthodox Christianity. Those ministers were concerned because Washington was too secretive on the matter:

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 tho[ugh]t 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.

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.

After Washington died, some of those ministers expressed their hopes he died a real Christian. Many of them, however, saw the evidence for this lacking. On his deathbed, Washington asked for no ministers and said no prayers. His final words were "tis well." The Rev. Samuel Miller, a founding era minister, thus commented: "How was it possible...for a true Christian, in the full exercise of his mental faculties, to die without one expression of distinctive belief, or Christian hope?"

Those ministers were concerned that Washington's mind, secretly, had been dominated by "infidel principles." And they had good reason to be so concerned. Though most of them were raised in orthodox Christian homes, our key Founders (including Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) ultimately had their minds captured by a different system. But note, they didn't go completely for strict Deism as did Paine and Allen, but rather settled for a hybrid system, that lied somewhere between strict Deism and orthodox Christianity with "rationalism" as the trumping element. This system, which Dr. Gregg Frazer has termed "theistic rationalism," was more Arminian than Calvinist, and was theologically unitarian and universalistic.

This system was so attractive to the elite Whig Founders that even a few of them who were generally understood to be "orthodox Christian" ultimately doubted some tenets of orthodoxy. For instance, Benjamin Rush was an orthodox Christian but ultimately converted to Arminianism and then universalism, believing all will eventually be saved. He wrote:

At Dr. Finley's School, I was more fully instructed in these principles by means of the Westminster Catechism. I retained them but without any affection for them 'till abut the year of 1780. I then read for the first time Fletcher's controversy with the Calvinists in favor of the Universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of Universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Revd. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient calvinistical, and newly adopted Armenian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White,Chauncey, and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of these authors future punishment, and of long, long duration.

Likewise, John Jay was also an orthodox Christian but ultimately doubted the Trinity. He wrote in his February 18, 1822 letter to Samuel Miller: "For proof of [the Trinity] I searched the Scriptures diligently -- but without Success. I therefore consider this Position of being at least of questionable Orthodoxy."

And of course Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin are on record as explicitly rejecting the Trinity. And Madison likewise, according to first hand accounts, rejected trinitarianism/the Anathasian creed and accepted theological unitarianism. Thus, given the zeitgeist of the elite Whig subculture to which Washington belonged -- the unitarian, "infidel" worldview that dominated the minds of so many key Founders -- one cannot assume or otherwise read in "orthodox Christianity" to Washington's statements when he himself refused to explicitly put those cards on the table.


Leo said...

I had to chuckle yesterday as I read the latest issue of World Magazine and their very positive spin on Mr. Lillback's book, page 11 of the February 17th issue. Quite interesting is their comment that, "...Washington was an orthodox believer of the 18th Century mode who never hesitated to reference his faith in letters, speeches and memoranda"

Another interesting byte is "By sheer weight the case is made" i.e., 200 pages of endnotes and 1/3 of the bibliography is primary sources.

Looks like I may have to keep my eyes peeled for Mr. Lillback's Magnum Opus (No offense to Kansas)

Jim Babka said...

Jon, I wish I had more time to write at length. But your use of "universalism" seems as inaccurate as most modern folk in their description of "deism" of that era. Like deism, universalism had a different meaning back then.

Calvinists believe in limited atonement -- that Christ's death was only for the predestined elect.

Arminians rejected predestination and believed that Christ died for all. The term for this at the time was "universalism."

But Arminians still believed that this "gift" must be accepted. They didn't believe that all were saved. They still believed in the judgment of God (just like, apparently, the Theistic Rationalists did).

I don't know a sufficient amount about Unitarians to comment, but I belong to a Wesleyan denomination and thus know what an Arminian is (was), as well as who Rush's "Fletcher" was.

Jonathan said...


You have a good point. But it seems to me that universalism -- the belief that all will eventually be saved -- is just one step beyond Arminianism. To put it another way: some Arminians believe in eternal damnation for those who don't accept the "gift" of the Atonement (they wouldn't be Universalists). Some Arminians DO believe that all men will eventually be saved, and they are both Arminian AND Universalist.

When Rush says: "From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White,Chauncey, and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of these authors future punishment, and of long, long duration."

To me, that says he thinks the men who aren't rewarded immediately upon death with Heaven will be temporarily punished and then eventually redeemed. I don't know about "Fletcher," but I do know what Chauncey taught. And he taught the eventual salvation of all men.

Jonathan said...


Lillback's book is definitely worth a read. From what I've read, however, his research fails to show that Washington believed in orthodoxy, just that he wasn't a strict Deist.