Monday, February 05, 2007

George Washington's Sacred Fire, First Thoughts:

The book by Peter A. Lillback with Jerry Newcombe has just arrived in the mail and at 1200 pages, obviously I haven't finished it. This book attempts to overturn the conventional wisdom in scholarly circles that George Washington was a Deist, but rather argues that Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. I'm sure I'll have plenty to say about it over the next few months, but some initial reactions.

First, It's impressive to see the list of distinguished scholars who write blurbs for it: Rodney Stark (Baylor), Robert P. George (Princeton), James Kurth (Swarthmore) and Walter McDougall (Penn). Lillback and his assistant, Jerry Newcombe are not really part of the "academy." Lillback is a Calvinist-Presbyterian minister and President of Westminster Theological Seminary, and Newcombe works for D. James Kennedy's The Coral Ridge Hour and has co-written books with Kennedy. This book has been heavily promoted by The Coral Ridge Hour.

This book essentially is coming from the "Christian Nation" circle (a circle, my readers know, I often criticize). And indeed, authors like David Barton, William Federer, and D. James Kennedy himself have put forth shoddy scholarship which deserves harsh criticism.

This book is different, however. Though it claims to be accessible to ordinary readers (perhaps why they brought Newcombe in), and though many ordinary readers are buying the book through various "Christian America" outlets, most ordinary folks will not finish or even read a fraction of a 1200 page book with 200 pages of footnotes in fineprint. (Indeed, see the comments section where evangelicals-intellectuals Joe Carter and John Rabe both admit not being able to make it through this "doorstopper," as Carter puts it.) No, this book is squarely aimed at the scholars, notably those scholars who are experts on Washington's life, from Paul F. Boller to James Flexner, who claim Washington was some kind of Deist. Paul F. Boller's George Washington & Religion, among the community of historical scholars, is generally accepted as the standard work of scholarship on the matter. And Boller claims that Washington was some kind of "Deist" and that the evidence for his Christian orthodoxy is lacking. One of the virtues of Lillback's book is that he is familiar with almost every claim that Boller makes and seeks to answer them. Most "Christian Nation" scholars asserting Washington was a devout Christian simply ignore such evidence, like for instance that Washington refused to take communion and that his own ministers termed him a "Deist" or "not a real Christian" for this.

Indeed, much in the historical record suggests that Washington was not an orthodox Christian, and Lillback puts these facts on the table for his readers to see even as he tries to explain them away. In a sense, Lillback acts as a "Johnny Cochran" defending Washington against the charge that he wasn't an orthodox Christian. Cochran, of course, had mountains of evidence indicating OJ's guilt (even if presented by Prosecutors in not the most effective manner) which he had to explain away. Likewise, many of Lillback's proposed explanations are about as tenable as Cochran's arguments for OJ. In a chapter, Lillback puts Washington's Deism on trial and actually writes, "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit!"

Another virtue of the book is how deeply it digs into the primary source record; Lillback has been working on this for 15 years. However, as impressive as his factual reporting is, his analysis, the lens through which he views the facts, is about as biased as one can imagine. Lillback strives as mightily as possible to "read in" orthodox Trinitarian Christianity to Washington's statements, and otherwise explain away evidence which casts doubt on that notion.

Washington was not a "strict Deist" like Thomas Paine, one who believes in a non-intervening God and it doesn't take 1200 pages to demonstrate this. However, aside from showing that Washington believed in an active Providence (and that he, unlike Paine was not at all hostile to Christianity) the evidence for Washington's orthodoxy/Trinitarianism is still lacking. Washington never admitted to being an orthodox Trinitarian Christian and simply refused to answer the question when a group of pious ministers asked him to put his explicit religious cards on the table. As Joe Carter put it, speaking as an evangelical to another evangelical:

No serious historian would claim that Washington was an "orthodox, Trinitarian Christian." If he was it cannot be gleaned from the historical evidence. We simply should not claim for the man what he refused to claim of himself.

Finally, the size of Lillback's book is a drawback. Lillback's case could have been made using a few hundred less pages and there is much redundancy in what I have read so far.

Anyway those are my thoughts so far.


Reeves said...

I am a fifteen-year-old history buff, and avid reader, and unlike mentioned above, I plan to finish my copy of George Washington's Sacred Fire. I think it is an excellent work. I have been thoroughly enjoying it. I highly recommend it. It is mentioned above that Washington never said he was a Trinitarian orthodox Christian, however he never said he was a deist either. In referring to Providence and other names like that, he was using the language of the church of his day. His language isn’t evidence enough to prove that Washington was a deist. Looking at Washington as if he was living today will not give us an accurate description of his beliefs. Actually, Washington was quite a churchman if you look at everything else he had going on in his life.
I highly recommend that any history buff or scholar check out this book. It is a wealth of knowledge. It is inappropriate to look at it from a biased perspective saying that Lillback tried to twist history. He used facts. Anyway, all who knew Washington claimed he was a Christian.
If you are interested in Washington or America, this book is a must read. It glorifies the founder of our nation in an excellent way.
George Washington's Sacred Fire is an excellent work.

Jonathan said...

"Anyway, all who knew Washington claimed he was a Christian."

This is wrong. His own minister Dr. Abercrombie called him a "deist" and not a "real Christian."

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