Friday, May 21, 2010

George Washington, David Barton and Unitarianism:

David Barton, apparently, has a blog. It doesn't look too "noticed."

I am going to respond to this post entitled "Episcopal Church." Barton writes the following:

A further example of how revisionism attempts to misportray the religious faith of George Washington recently appeared in an ad in a national magazine. 72 That ad (promoting a new book) claimed “George Washington was Unitarian” and not Christian. The only problem with the charge is that it is not true. All of George Washington’s religious ties were to the Episcopal church, which did not hold Unitarian beliefs; furthermore, Washington died in 1799, and the Unitarians did not even organize until 1818 – nineteen years after Washington’s death!

I suspect this passage was lifted from another article of Barton's and the "72" is a footnote. I'd like to see where the footnote is to. The blogpost doesn't say. The problem with Barton's assertion is that he appears to 1) knock down a straw man, and 2) peddle factual inaccuracies while doing so.

The inaccuracy: It's not true that Unitarians didn't begin to organize in America until 1818. King's Chapel -- an Anglican/Episcopal Church! -- was (arguably) "Unitarian" as of 1786. Joseph Priestley helped found the First Unitarian Church in 1796.

It would help to know the exact claim Barton is attempting to counter. He almost certainly either 1) misunderstands it, or 2) intentionally misrepresents it. No one is stupid enough to argue that George Washington was a member of an official capital U Unitarian Church (like the kind Priestley helped form).

The claim rather made is that Washington was a theological unitarian, like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, and probably Madison. And theological unitarians, according to John Adams' own testimony, date back in America since at least 1750.

Jefferson and Madison were both, like Washington, formally connected with the Anglican/Episcopalian Church. There is no need to rehash Jefferson's religious creed here. His example shows one could reject every single doctrine of Christian orthodoxy while remaining an Anglican/Episcopalian and thinking himself a "Christian" and a "unitarian" at the same time.

Less evidence exists for Madison but we do have the following eye-witness account from George Ticknor, founder of the Boston public library:

I found the President more free and open than I expected, starting subjects of conversation and making remarks that sometimes savored of humor and levity. He sometimes laughed, and I was glad to hear it ; but his face was always grave. He talked of religious sects and parties, and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.— TICKNOR, GEORGE, 1815, Letter to his Father, Jan. 21 ; Life, Letters and Journals, vol. I, p. 30.

If this is accurate, that would be another Virginia Anglican/Episcopalian "key Founder" and President who was a theological unitarian. This doesn't prove George Washington was anything, but rather shows it was not unheard of for American Founders to be formally connected to a "Christian" church that professed orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, but still privately believe in unitarian doctrines.

And as my last post noted, to be an Anglican Whig meant, by nature, belonging to an institution from whose official doctrines you dissent.

The claim that Washington was a unitarian stems from, among other things, 1) that he systematically avoided communion in his church, suggesting he didn't believe in what the act stood for: Christ's Atonement; and 2) that in the voluminous extant corpus of his recorded words, there is no orthodox Trinitarian God talk. Yet, there is lots of God/Providence talk. Which would make him a theological unitarian by default.

This is an argument that Barton doesn't even begin to address.

Finally, the exact claim Barton claims to address is “'George Washington was Unitarian' and not Christian." The "unitarians" of the day -- for instance Thomas Jefferson, John Adams -- tended to call and think of themselves as "Christians" as well. Further, they likely believed Jesus "Savior" or "Messiah" in some unorthodox sense. Jared Sparks who offers testimony on behalf of Washington's "Christianity" was himself a unitarian in this sense and considered his creed a form of Christianity.

That begs the question are "unitarianism" and "Christianity" mutually exclusive concepts? Or can one be a "Christian" and a "unitarian" like the proponents of the latter claimed? Are doctrines like original sin, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, eternal damnation non-negotiable tenets of "Christianity" or things over which rational Christians can in good faith disagree? So when Jared Sparks, for instance, claimed Washington a "Christian," I don't believe he meant Washington believed in original sin, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc., but rather that Washington wasn't an atheist or a strict Deist.

This is an issue Barton needs to clarify as well when claims Washington a "Christian" and not a "Unitarian."

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