Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why Didn't George Washington Commune?

"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."

-- Dr. James Abercrombie, George Washington's minister in Philadelphia, commenting on the fact that George Washington systematically refused to take communion in his church. Indeed, from the revolution until his death, the best evidence shows that Washington wasn't a communicant, either in the Anglican Church or after the Revolution when said church became the Protestant Episcopal Church.

The exact answer is, because Washington never so explained, we really don't know. That's the answer Richard Brookhiser gave me when I asked him. However, some answers are more probable than others.

Peter Lillback constructs a "political reason" as to why Washington didn't commune. The problem is Lillback has to construct two different, wholly unrelated theories to explain this because the first theory -- GW didn't want to commune with the Anglican Church because we were rebelling against Great Britain, whose head of state was also head of Church -- doesn't explain why he didn't commune in Philadelphia after the Anglican Church became the Protestant Episcopal Church. So he makes up some cockamamie political dispute between Washington and Abercrombie et al., who was quoted above.

More importantly, communion at heart, is not a social or a political act anyway, but theological. Christians don't commune with their fellow Church members but with Christ.

The logic of Occam's Razor therefore suggests that GW didn't commune because he didn't believe in what the act represents -- the atonement. This theological explanation certainly "fits." Indeed, Lillback claims we must look for some non-theological explanation because a plethora facts Lillback already produced in his book show that Washington wasn't a "Deist." Indeed, invoking Johnny Cochran, Lillback claims, since the "Deist" charge doesn't "fit," we must "acquit," and thus look for a different explanation. Lillback fails to see that one doesn't have to be a "Deist" like Thomas Paine to disbelieve in the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc. Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson certainly didn't believe in these, what they called "corruptions of Christianity." And neither likely did Madison. Further, nearly all evidence Lillback offers showing Washington wasn't "Deist" -- that he believed in an active personal God, that he prayed, that he somewhat regularly attended Church, that he was a Vestryman in the Anglican Church, indeed that he may have understood himself to be "Christian" rather than "Deist," -- could also have been said of Jefferson. And yet Jefferson disbelieved in the following doctrines:

The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.

Indeed, Washington never affirmed these doctrines. The best Lillback can do is take Washington's general words and attempt to "read in" such beliefs. For instance, Washington says something about man having an imperfect nature, well he must be referring to "original sin." Though, Washington doesn't deny these doctrines either. He simply doesn't discuss them.

When it comes down to it, Lillback's strongest claim that Washington believed in the creeds of orthodoxy is that as both a vestryman and a Godfather, Washington had to take the following oath:

I, A B, do declare that I will be conformable to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England, as by law established.,

That's the closest Washington ever came to explicitly affirming the creeds of orthodoxy, which are not specifically mentioned in the oath, but are implicit in it.

Yet, we could also view this as perfunctory -- necessarily said as a means to an end. Indeed, Jefferson, who clearly didn't believe in the doctrines of his Church, took those oaths to become a Vestryman, which back then in Anglican Virginia was more of a political than a religious position anyway.

Those same oaths are required to be a Godfather in the Church. And here is one of the few instances where we see a difference between Washington and Jefferson on their personal religious beliefs: Jefferson refused to be a Godfather, whereas Washington did so numerous times.

In what was probably a painful letter to write, Jefferson gave the explicit reason why he refused to be a Godfather. In his July 25, 1788 letter to J.P.P. Derieux, Jefferson laments that he could not be Godfather to his child because he did not want to take an oath to articles in which he did not believe.

Someone once suggested to me if Washington, unlike Jefferson, assented to articles in which he didn't believe, that shows Jefferson to be a greater man of honor and that is highly unlikely. I think common sense can still explain why Jefferson would refuse and Washington assent to creeds in which neither of them were sure to be true. Jefferson, from his writings and testimony thought quite a bit about those creeds and the arguments for and against them. After such ponderous deliberation Jefferson bitterly rejected and often directed harsh words of criticism against them. Washington's writings, on the other hand, reveal no such deliberation on those creeds -- no assent to them, no rejection of them, no thought about them at all.

Indeed, when asked to pontificate about Washington's religious beliefs, James Madison (through Jared Sparks) gave what seemed an ambiguous answer. And that's because, on many of the doctrines of Christianity, Washington's public words (and private letters) reveal an ambiguous (or agnostic) faith. Madison claimed he had

"not suppose that Washington had ever attended to the arguments for Christianity, and for the different systems of religion, or in fact that he had formed definite opinions on the subject. But he took these things as he found them existing, and was constant in his observances of worship according to the received forms of the Episcopal Church, in which he was brought up."

Washington's words reveal him to be a devout theist who believed in a warm-personal God. Evidence lacks from Washington's own mouth that he believed (or actively disbelieved) the following creeds which Jefferson rejected:

The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.

Yet, if Washington were agnostic on these specifics, they clearly did not irritate him like they did Jefferson and that explains why Washington would be willing to assent to a set of creeds in which he really weren't sure to be true, and Jefferson would refuse to assent to a set of beliefs which he actively rejected.

Though, all that certainly can be gleaned from the historical record is that Washington was a devout theist. I cannot assent to Washington being any more than agnostic on the tenets of orthodox Christianity which Jefferson rejected. And Washington's refusal to take communion is highly suggestive of the fact that he didn't believed in what that act represents -- Christ's atonement. Thus, the historical record most strongly points towards Washington being a theistic rationalist as opposed to an orthodox Christian or a strict Deist.

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