Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Gregg Frazer on Lillback's Sacred Fire:

Dr. Frazer has written a review on parts of "George Washington's Sacred Fire." He emailed me:

I received my copy of Lillback’s book in the mail today. Obviously, it will take some time to do it justice, BUT: I turned to the chapters on communion to get a glimpse of his argument in that area. I am profoundly UNimpressed. It seems to me to be much smoke and not much “sacred fire.”

His arguments are supposition based on 3rd & 4th hand accounts decades after the fact. So-and-so’s grandson told of what his mother told him of what his grandmother told her 50 years after the fact. And then Lillback says they had no motivation to make it up – no motivation? Has he missed the whole hagiography associated with GW and the mythologization? Is he not familiar with (for example) post-election poll results which show that thousands more people report voting for the winner than the number who actually did? Or people remembering non-existent personal contact with people with whom they went to college – once that person becomes famous? His argument for oral history is actually (unbeknownst to him) hurt by his reference to Homer and Herodotus. No historian of ancient Greece considers Homer’s accounts to be historically reliable – especially in details – but as myth. Likewise, even Herodotus warned: “my duty is to report all that is said; but I am not obliged to believe it all alike – a remark which may be understood to apply to my whole history.” Herodotus used much oral history, as Lillback suggests, but he understood the profound limits of its value – which Lillback apparenty does not (unless it’s Boller using it).

Dr. Abercrombie & Bishop White are the ones who had no motive to “sully” the reputation of the Father of the Country – and they wrote 1st-hand accounts at the time. Nelly Custis had no motive to sully the reputation of her beloved “grandfather.”

As to references to a “bitter cup”: there are plenty of other allusions which might be apt for that time and culture. Especially, a reference to TEA, which was often referred to as a bitter cup. Lillback desperately wants the reference to be to communion – and it would be such a reference for him (and therefore reasonable to him), so it must be that. But, even if the reference is to the communion cup, that says nothing about whether he partook or not – only that he was familiar with that cultual allusion (which ANYONE would have been in that culture/time). I may refer to doing surgery or to a sports metaphor for a sport I do not play or many other cultural allusions – but that says nothing of whether I’ve done surgery or played the sport. In particular, I’ve used war metaphors hundreds of times, but I’ve never been in the military!

Finally, almost all of the footnotes (if one can find them and read them in pt. 2 font) are to secondary sources and 19th-century sources – often those of the hagiographers to which I referred above! One gets the impression that he would consider Parson Weems to be a reliable source!

There’s also a significant amount of circular logic. To wit: we may not have any real evidence of GW taking communion or giving a reasonable explanation for why he didn’t; but, from what we’ve already supposed and imagined about his piety – doesn’t this creative idea sound plausible? And, if it’s plausible and fits with what we’ve already decided (without demonstrating), then it must be true. He falls victim to that of which he accuses Boller, in particular.

At first blush, it appears to me to be argument by intimidation: “I bet I have more pages and more footnotes than you.” The issue is quality, though, not quantity. So far I don’t see much of that.

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