Sunday, June 01, 2008

More on Why Washington Was Likely Not An Orthodox Christian:

At the American Creation, we've gotten some comments skeptical of the claim that GW was not a "orthodox Christian." Arguing the claim, Brad has, after David L. Holmes, stressed among other things that GW was not confirmed, that he didn't take communion in his church, as well as the fact that he didn't talk like an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, but rather spoke almost exclusively in generic terms for God. It's true that one need not take communion, be confirmed or even be a member of a church to qualify as a "Christian" in the orthodox Protestant "Christ only" sense. The problem is, the case for GW's Christianity rests almost entirely on his being a devoted member of the Anglican or Episcopal Church. And that he was not confirmed and systematically avoided communion in said Church gives strong reason to doubt he was anything other than a nominal member of the Church who saw "religion" as a "social duty" and not a set of orthodox doctrines like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, and blood atonement of Christ. In fact, one reason why we skeptical scholars doubt Washington was an orthodox Christian was because he didn't publicly confess that he were one, or speak like one at all.

The closest thing to a "confession" of orthodoxy GW made was in the form of oaths he was forced to take in order to achieve certain ends -- 1) becoming a vestryman and 2) a Godfather. Yet, those were not oaths to "Christ only" Protestant Christianity, but to high church Anglicanism. The vestrymen oaths required him both to commune and to remain loyal to the King of England. The acts of refusing to commune and rebelling against England itself arguably violated those oaths which supposedly prove his orthodoxy.

Why is the matter important at all? Well, in case you haven't noticed those folks who most zealously try to "claim" Washington as a Christian also have a fairly narrow (but one that is arguably justified in historical terms) understanding of "Christianity." "Christianity" means belief in the infallibility of the Bible along with the traditional doctrines of orthodoxy found in places like the Apostles' Creed -- i.e., original sin, the trinity, incarnation, blood atonement of Christ, resurrection, etc.

Other than the above mentioned perfunctory oaths to high-church Anglicanism, GW never confessed orthodoxy and his language gives strong reason to doubt that he was one such "Christian." In fact, the historical record shows GW rarely even identified as a "Christian." Peter Lillback could marshal only one letter from 1763 where Washington explicitly identifies as a Christian. In a number of other letters Washington speaks of "the Christians" in the third person.

For instance:

“I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception.”


“I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their [my emphasis] religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society.”

There are some references where he speaks to his troops as "Christian" in a "we" sense; but the idea that GW thought of himself as a "Christian" in some broad, loose sense is entirely compatible with my thesis. Founders like Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin also thought of themselves as "Protestant Christians," and were more likely to present their heterodox theological ideas under the auspices of "Christianity" not "Deism." They thought of it as "rational Christianity" and such rejected among other things original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement and infallibility of the Bible. Here Franklin argues true Christianity rejects original sin:

But lest they shou’d imagine that one of their strongest Objections hinted at here, and elsewhere, is designedly overlook’d, as being unanswerable, viz. our lost and undone State by Nature, as it is commonly call’d, proceeding undoubtedly from the Imputation of old Father Adam’s first Guilt. To this I answer once for all, that I look upon this Opinion every whit as ridiculous as that of Imputed Righteousness. ’Tis a Notion invented, a Bugbear set up by Priests (whether Popish or Presbyterian I know not) to fright and scare an unthinking Populace out of their Senses, and inspire them with Terror, to answer the little selfish Ends of the Inventors and Propagators. ’Tis absurd in it self, and therefore cannot be father’d upon the Christian Religion as deliver’d in the Gospel. Moral Guilt is so personal a Thing, that it cannot possibly in the Nature of Things be transferr’d from one Man to Myriads of others, that were no way accessary to it. And to suppose a Man liable to Punishment upon account of the Guilt of another, is unreasonable; and actually to punish him for it, is unjust and cruel.

Why are the opinions of Franklin et al. relevant? Because Washington never explicitly identified his exact theological opinions other than constantly speaking of a warm intervening Providence, we must turn to other sources for a proxy. Peter Lillback et al. turn to the teachings of the Anglican/Episcopalian church to which GW belonged for such a proxy. But that church at that time was filled with nominal members who disbelieved in its orthodox doctrines. They were the one's who, like George Washington got up, walked out, and turned their backs on communion.

John Marshall was one such nominal Anglican. And here is his daughter's testimony on why he didn't commune.

The reason why he never communed was, that he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society. He told her he believed in the truth of the Christian Revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church.

The theological connection between unitarianism and not communing is that communion represents Christ's blood atonement and you need an Incarnate God to make such an infinite sacrifice to pay for man's original sin against an infinite God. Original sin, the trinity, incarnation, and atonement all rise and fall together. And notice, as with Franklin's quote above, how such "unitarianism" tried to present itself under the auspices of "Christianity," not "Deism." But ultimately, the deists and unitarians in the Church were the ones who didn't commune because they didn't believe in what the act stood for.

We also have Washington speaking positively on a number of occasions about "Christianity." And a critic implores us to investigate "[w]hen Washington told his troops that he desired the character of a Christian from them, what did he mean?" The answer is every single time Washington ever spoke of "Christianity" in the positive sense he invariably equated it with virtue or its utilitarian or positive civilizational effects and NOT with orthodox doctrine like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible, etc. In short, to be a "Christian" was to be a "good person," not necessarily someone who is redeemed through Christ's blood atonement. Accordingly, men were saved through their good works, not grace.

Again, I'm getting more explicit here than George Washington was, but Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were explicit that this is what "rational Christianity" means. Here is Jefferson elevating works over faith:

“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.

Here is Franklin on how works, as opposed to faith, defines the essence of true Christianity:

“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.”

– Benjamin Franklin, “Dialogue between Two Presbyterians,” April 10, 1735.

Here is John Adams on how "good people" are Christians:

“I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.”

– John Adams to Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820.

And here George Washington speaks of the death of a loved one and suggests that people are justified through works:

“She is now no more! But she must be happy, because her virtue has a claim to it.”

If GW were an orthodox Christian what I'd expect him to say is "But she must be happy because she has trusted in Christ and His blood atonement."

[For more see here and here.]

I could have offered (and have offered in past posts) much more such as quotations from GW's contemporaries doubting his orthodoxy or "real Christianity," pietiests of his day trying to "smell him out" to no avail and thus testifying that he hid in a religious closet by refusing to disclose his specific religious opinions. Making my case in toto would require a book, which, who knows, there may be one in the future.

No comments: