Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hagiography in Action, Part II:

Commenter AMW thought my response to a hagiographic reading of George Washington's religion was weak. I tried to make the post brief. The conversation which gave rise to my post ensued where I detailed more why Washington's creed probably doesn't quite comport with orthodox Christianity. Here is the latest reply followed up by my response:


Thank you for the links. As to the spurious nature of Washington's prayer that I cited in #87, I am befuddled. I did not get that from any internet source, but copied it word for word from a document that I got many years ago at Mt. Vernon. If any place could be trusted for authenticity regarding Washington, that was it, I thought.

I went to your link and then to the University of Virginia Press digitized collection of Washington's papers. I must concede that the phrase "…through Jesus Christ our Lord" appears to have been added at some later time, for I could not find it in any of the more authentic sources. My turn to eat humble pie. You are correct on this point and I should have been less caustic in my related remarks — my apologies.

As I searched through Washington's papers, I was disappointed in the scarcity of specific references to Christ. I can see how many scholars thus characterize him as a deist. Yet, it is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative through lack of evidence. In my opinion, for them to be convincing with the claim that Washington was not a Christian, they would have to find statements from Washington where he denounced or specifically disclaimed Christianity. Apparently those cannot be found, anymore than specific statements of allegiance to Christ.

On the other hand, we find large amounts of circumstantial evidence of his allegiance to Christianity — evidence that would also be consistent with the reluctance of some people to publicly discuss their private religious sentiments, especially when in a position of public office.

He attended a Christian church even though he disagreed with the pastor on certain aspects of communion. If he had been a deist I should think he would have attended some kind of universalist church, or no church at all.

If he had been a deist he would not have fought so hard for a Christian chaplaincy for the military, specifically referring to the need for Christian soldiers to attend religious services.

In a letter to the German Reformed Church in Jun of 1789, he appealed to the Throne of Grace, a distinctly Christian, Christ oriented term.

In a letter to Savannah Hebrews in May of 1790 he spoke in admiration of Jehovah God. Even though the Jews disagree about Jesus Christ, our Jehovah God is one and the same.

In a letter from Countess Huntingdon to Washington in Mar of 1784, she called him a Christian and a soldier.

In a letter to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1789, Washington speaks of a "true Christian" from the perspective of being one himself.

In the inventory of Washington's library at Mt. Vernon we find many volumes of sermon collections and commentaries from prominent Christian pastors of his day: Blair, South, the Bishop of Bath, Yorrick, Sherlock, Brady, and Foster. By seeing this collection of the works of Christians he obviously admired, I am convinced he was of like mind.

On top of this, Washington makes many more general references to Almighty God, Providence, Author of our blessed Religion, etc., all of which can be considered supportive of and complimentary to Christianity.

Absent specific Christ oriented mini-sermons from Washington's own lips, all of this is very strong circumstantial evidence of his allegiance to Jesus Christ. It is considerably stronger on the positive side than the non-evidence advanced by the deist camp.

My reply:


Thank you for your reply. I'll repeat, I don't argue GW was a "Deist." My research has found that not just Washington, but other "key" Founding Fathers (the men who grace US currency) including Jefferson, seem to fit neatly into neither box: strict Deism or orthodox Christianity.

I'm working on a publication on Washington where I deal with a few of the points you cite. They want the bio to be factual, not argumentative in nature, so here is how I conclude on GW's faith:

A man of mystery, Washington refused to put his explicit religious cards on the table leaving generations to come wondering exactly what it was he believed beyond the "few and simple" tenets he identified in his speeches and writings.

GW once stated: "In religion my tenets are few and simple."

On the letter to the Hebrews, he used the term "Jehovah" for God only once, when speaking to Jews. Twice when speaking to unconverted Native Americans, he referred to God as "The Great Spirit," exactly as they did. Putting these together suggests not exclusive belief in the God of Scripture, but a syncretic universalism which views many world religions as valid ways to God.

(It's telling that he used "Jehovah" when talking to Jews, "The Great Spirit" when talking to Indians, but didn't use either of those terms when talking to non-Jews or Indians; a pattern of GW using the addressee's terms for God.)

Regarding his letter to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1789, I've carefully examined it -- and this also relates to his support of the chaplaincy, and promoting "morality" through the auspices of Christianity to his soldiers -- Washington, like Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin probably believed the key factor of religion was to make men moral, not to save men's souls through the blood Atonement of Christ. Or to put it another way, men would be saved through works and not grace. If you look at Washington's praise for the Christian religion -- and you are right, he does this in a way that a strict deist would not -- it almost invariably is done in the context of equating Christianity with character or virtue. This is exactly what Adams, Franklin, Madison and Jefferson believed. And, as Franklin once put it (see the quotation below), if the "ends" (virtue) are achieved the "means" (which religion you are) really don't matter, you could see how they might draw an equivalence between Christianity and other world religions, as long as they promoted the morality necessary to support our republic. I did a big post on this months ago with quotations from the key Founders where I showed Washington's opinion about Christianity in this regard exactly paralleled Jefferson's, Adams', and Franklin's.

As Washington put it in that very letter to which you refer:

"[F]or no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society."

Notice the words, "a credit to his own religious society...," which implies as long as your religion promotes the necessary virtue, whether it is Christian or not, it is "sound" or "valid." Washington clearly had no problem with the orthodox evangelical sects of his day and thought they did great work for society in promoting morality; but he didn't seem to have problems with non-Christian religions either, as long as their religions likewise promoted morality.

Here are some quotations from other key Founding Fathers which shed light on this belief which does not neatly comport with orthodox Christian notions of salvation (the supposed "Deist" Ben Franklin actually refers to Jesus as "Savior" something Washington never did; yet, as is shown, Franklin believed men were saved through works, not grace):

"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.

"No point of Faith is so plain, as that Morality is our Duty; for all Sides agree in that. A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian."

-- Benjamin Franklin, "Dialogue between Two Presbyterians," April 10, 1735.

"Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one....Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means."

-- Ibid.

"...the design of Christianity was not to make men good Riddle Solvers or good mystery mongers, but good men, good magestrates and good Subjects...."

-- John Adams, Dairy, Feb. 18, 1756

No comments: