Monday, July 09, 2007

Washington's Creed and Historical Ideology:

I've done much armchair history on these posts over the past few years. Though I have no history degree, lawyers with JD degrees like me, do study the history of the law. Even before Marxists asserted all history to be political, I think folks were aware that no history is bias free. Though, my question for professional historians is, should that fact then give carte blanche to historians to act like attorneys? -- that is advocates who view every fact to fit their ideological perspective and seek to dismiss, minimize or fail to mention those facts which don't.

What brings this to mind is Peter A. Lillback's 1200 page book which attempts to "settle" the record and prove Washington was Christian not Deist. Many of his arguments read like Johnny Cochran defending Washington against a charge that he wasn't an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. Indeed, Lillback in there even uses the line, "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit" (acquit Washington of being a "Deist").

A number of powerful pieces of evidence suggest GW was not Christian against which Lillback offers Cochrane-esq defenses. As I noted before, GW systematically refused to take communion from the Revolution until his death. Since he never explained why, we'll never for sure know. Lillback, with no evidence other than idle speculation, constructs some cockamamie political explanation. Simple logic leads me (and most historians who have studied the matter) to believe it was because GW disbelieved in what the act represents -- Christ's atonement.

In over 20,000 pages of Washington's recorded writings and speeches he mentions the words "Jesus Christ" exactly once -- in a speech given to the Delaware Indians which was not even written in his own hand and point-by-point restated what the Indians requested. The Indians indicated they wanted their children to learn the religion of Jesus Christ and Washington responded with "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." In one other public speech -- the 1783 Circular to the States -- GW refers to "the Divine Author of our blessed religion" which probably was Jesus. Other than that, there exist no identifiable instances of Washington using the words "Jesus Christ" or talking about His person. And in none of Washington's private letters does he talk of Jesus or use the words "Jesus Christ."

Here is how Dr. Gregg Frazer responds: "It is almost inconceivable that a sincere believer in the deity of Jesus who accepted him as the Christ would never mention anything about such a belief to friends or family in correspondence." Ph.D. Dissertation, 165.

Indeed, Thomas Jefferson talked much more about Jesus, praising him as a great moral teacher, which Washington never did.

Lillback's response: Washington refused to talk about Jesus because he held Him in such reverence he didn't want to risk profaning His name. He further stated that deist or unitarians were actually more likely to casually talk about Jesus because they didn't fear such.

Again, this strikes me as Cochrane-esq. He offers no evidence for this other than speculation. Perhaps a present day evangelical -- who has no problem constantly speaking the words "Jesus Christ" -- might believe that this is what devout Christians really were like in more conservative times. However, Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinat, Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, Roger Sherman...all of them were orthodox Christians and all, unlike GW, had no problem constantly speaking about the person of Jesus Christ or in otherwise readily identifiable Trinitarian language.

A devout theist, George Washington's Last Will and Testament begins "In the name of God, Amen" and otherwise contains no identifiably Christian language. Lillback responds he doesn't know why Washington didn't explicate his faith there but this still doesn't make him a "Deist." He also notes Martha, whom most do not dispute as an orthodox Christian, likewise didn't explicate her faith in her will.

But, unlike George she did 1) take communion and 2) confess Christianity on her deathbed. George, on the other hand, asked for no ministers and said no prayers. His final words were "tis well." The Rev. Samuel Miller, a founding era figure, 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?" Lillback's response: Washington's "sore throat" was so severe it would have prevented him from taking the Eucharist. Moreover, his confidence in the face of death expressed "confident faith." And Martha, along with GW's other Christian relatives, likewise were confident he was in Heaven.

The notion of a loved one burning in Hell for eternity I'd imagine is so horrific that most orthodox Christians would hold out hope that relatives whose orthodoxy was uncertain still made it in. I'd further imagine that many if not most conservative evangelicals and Catholics either disbelieve that all non-Christians (especially their loved ones!) go to Hell or strongly hope this not to be the case.

I know my devoutly Catholic grandmother didn't believe in eternal damnation for most folks including her agnostic husband. Likewise my next door neighbor growing up is a moderately conservative evangelical of the Robert Schuller/Billy Graham variety. When I attended the funeral for her non-believing husband (among other things, he refused a Christian burial but donated his body to science) the minister at her church spoke of him -- whose lifelong hobby was carpentry -- as in Heaven talking carpentry with Jesus. And both of these men, like GW, financially supported their wives' Christian Churches.

I view the historical facts as showing, for certain, GW to be a devout theist, not a strict deist. Though, the historical record is most certainly not "settled" that GW was "Christian" any more than it is "settled" that he was "Deist." I came into this debate, a few years ago, thinking Washington a Deist but changed my mind when I saw evidence that he believed in an active personal God.

I am inclined to believe historians, in their craft, ought to try to put ideology aside, even if, ultimately, biases inevitably creep in. I don't accept that because everyone wants Washington for his side, it's okay for historians to blatantly "read" facts as advocates. Notable historians and political scientists have in fact, on this very issue, taken positions which belie their expected biases. Drs. Gregg Frazer and Gary Scott Smith are both conservative evangelicals (indeed, as chair of the History Dept. at Grove City College, Smith is one of the most distinguished evangelical historians) and neither claim GW as an orthodox Christian, but rather think the available evidence points towards his belief in theistic rationalism.

Secular historian Dr. Peter Henriques likewise endorses theistic rationalism as Washington's creed. Brooke Allen who wrote a widely reviewed book on the key Founders' faith endorsed the term on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog after reading me use it in a comment. Though, in her book she categorized the key Founders as "Deists." Dr. Frazer thus chimed in that the term he coined is meant to distinguish from both Christianity and Deism.

When folks whose political perspectives vary like this can come together and agree, it means they are probably in the right. When two sides tell completely incompatible historical narratives, they both can't be right; but both can be wrong. And the truth usually lies in between.


Our Founding Truth said...

I firmly believe Washington was not a Christian. He not only didn't ever take communion, he walked out on it.

Born again Christian Benjamin Rush seemed to believe Washington wasn't a xtian.

It seems to me too much evidence against the xtian label of Washington. If his adopted daughter had testified he claimed to be a xtian, my view would differ, but we only have her opinion.

Doctor Rush tells me that he has it from Asa Green, that when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, 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 Christian religion, and they thought 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 and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.

Source of Information:

Entry by Thomas Jefferson in his Anas. February 1, 1800, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Selected and Edited by Saul K. Padover , The Easton press. (1967) pp 217-218)


Hercules Mulligan said...

"Our Founding Truths":

You say that your opinion on Washington's Christianity is negative, even in spite of his grand-daughter's testimony (she lived with him for 20 years, because he adopted her). You did not live with Washington for 20 years and know him personally. I can't change your mind, but isn't it a bit arrogant to say that you know better about someone you never knew, than someone else who knew that person??

As to the Jefferson quote above, allow me to simply state rather bluntly that Jefferson often lied about people in his letters after they died, and that this was especially true of Washington. Jefferson had been a severe critic of Washington's administration, and so he slandered Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, and even his colleague Patrick Henry, years after they died (only Adams he slandered while Adams lived, but he softened as a result of their renewed friendship). When Patrick Henry was slandered by Jefferson in a letter to William Wirt, who was preparing a biography of Henry, Henry's grandson William Wirt Henry became furious at the outright lies that Jefferson had told, and W. W. Henry wrote his own biography of his grandfather, and debunked Jefferson's slander with P. Henry's writings, which W. W. Henry had inherited.

So Jefferson's statements about men and events, which he made years after those events occurred and those men had died, need to be examined with extreme scrutiny.

Jonathan said...


Do have any evidence that Jefferson ever lied about these people? I know that he sometimes said nasty things about them (even before their deaths -- for instance, in a letter to Madison he wished for Patrick Henry's death).

4 things about the Custis letter:

1) If you read it carefully she says she never witnessed his private devotions or talked with him about his personal beliefs; she pretty much says he must have been a Christian without offering any proof or even stating that he told her so. That's why she came forth with the line about "deeds not words" which is hardly biblical. "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh."

2) She admits there that GW never communed; and

3) The context of the time was quite hagiographic. Parson Weems had remade Washington into a devout orthodox Christian and that was the myth/sacred cow society was supposed to respect. Though lots of chatter behind closed doors doubting the story continued.

At that time orthodox Churches still held more of a cultural, and at the state level, sometimes a legally established hold on society.

Custis' letter reads like she's defending someone's reputation -- his personal business -- from inquiring minds that have no business so inquiring. She didn't want to see her beloved grandfather go down in history as an infidel or heretic. So it's not like she was entirely without biases or motive for peddling myth (I used the analogy of the key-Founders' infidelity to homosexuality in today's day and age; we can probably offer endless examples of the relatives of closeted public figures trying to "set record straight" saying, "he's not gay," for reputation protection purposes when in reality, he was).

Even a lot of good historians I respect still don't fully appreciate this context. For instance, I've blogged about the misunderstanding that Bird Wilson (James' son) gave a sermon terming all of the Presidents from Washington to Jackson "infidels" not more than Unitarians. Bird Wilson was a respected figure and historians write about this episode as though it were something preachers in the early 19th Century could get away with without much controversy ensuing.

In fact, it was a reformed Calvinist Covenater named James Renwick Willson who preached this sermon from Albany. And was a member of the "non-respectable" right, he was against the US Constitution for its lack of covenant to the Triune God and its failure to impose a national theocracy.

When he claimed in the 1830s, with good evidence, the first six Presidents as infidels, he was burned in effigy.

One of the advantages of living in more iconoclastic times is we are free to explore, without fear, what these public figures of the past really believed.

4) Finally Custis and Sparks don't define the term "Christian" with enough specificity to settle the matter. Jared Sparks thought of himself as a devout Christian and was so trying to push the notion Washington was too. But Sparks was a Unitarian (anti-Trinitarian) and the orthodox preachers of the day probably would term Spark's Unitarianism as a softer form of infidelity.

Do you, Herc, believe Unitarians, who disbelieve in the Nicene Creed, to be "real Christians."

I don't deny that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin might have been "Christians" in a broader sense (and "Deists" in a broader sense as well). Franklin and Washington both talked of atheists and strict Deists (of the Paine and Allen variety) as "infidels." But, again, to the orthodox, the creed of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, was not real Christianity, but a softer form of infidelity.

It's entirely possible that Custis' assertion meant to settle that GW wasn't an atheist or a strict deist, but a "Christian" in a broader sense which just as Jefferson understood himself to be a Christian in a broader sense while denying every single tenet of orthodox Christianity. It still doesn't prove or even purport to prove that GW was orthodox Trinitarian Christian.