Thursday, June 12, 2008

Oaths as the Smoking Gun in GW & Religion:

I'm glad to see American Creation coblogger Roger Saunders dissent on the position that Brad Hart and I have been pushing there -- that George Washington was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. The purpose of this blog is to engender civilized debate on these issues, not to push one particular point of view. And Washington's religious creed is disputed for good reason: Washington systematically spoke of a warm intervening Providence and used many honorific, diverse philosophical titles for God. But he never explicitly revealed his exact religious opinions on matters like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation, infallibility of the Bible, etc. Therefore it's possible for many of us to "read in" a more specific creed to Washington's rather generic God template (keeping in mind, it is beyond dispute that Washington's God was an active personal God, not a distant non-intervening Watchmaker).

In making an argument for Washington's specific religious creed, one searches for "smoking guns" or "key evidence" to "settle" the issue. I've concluded there are no smoking guns in Washington's case, but rather pieces of a puzzle. Saunders invokes the same "smoking gun" that Peter Lillback and Michael and Jana Novak invoke, and that is when Washington became a vestryman and then a Godfather in the Anglican Church he took a set of oaths to God that he believed in the orthodox Trinitarian doctrines of said Church.

Now, Mr. Hart and I, following the most distinguished scholars in the historical academy, argue that Washington probably didn't believe in those Trinitarian doctrines, which touches upon a bit of controversy: many "key" Founding Fathers were affiliated with Trinitarian Churches (all of the established churches in the Founding era were Trinitarian until the 1780s, when the first church officially proclaimed itself "Unitarian" even though ministers had preached unitarianism since long before) but didn't believe in those doctrines which their church confessed.

Those who are particularly disturbed by this nuance and wish to downplay it often say something like, "if they were members of churches in whose doctrines they didn't believe, then they were hypocrites." Indeed, both the Novaks and Lillback make this argument with Washington. And in 1831 Origen Bacheler, in a classic "Christian v. Freethinker" argument over America's Founders religion, said the following about John Adams:

As John Adams was a member of a congregational church, he was either a believer in Christianity or a hypocrite. Should Mr. Owen therefore succeed in proving him to have been a skeptic, he will in so doing likewise prove him to have been a hypocrite; in which case, he would be perfectly welcome to him.

But we now know that not only was John Adams a theological unitarian since 1750, but his own minister in the New England Congregational Church preached unitarianism from the pulpit as of that date.

I don't feel the need to address the "hypocrisy" claim; I see it as a way of trying to paint scholars into a corner where they will be afraid to uncover facts about the Founders that may disturb some folks. Given the Founding Fathers owned slaves and many secular scholars routinely trash them as racist, sexist, classist, etc., I don't think the charge of "hypocrite oath breaker" is going to scare off secular historians from drawing certain conclusions about the Founders' orthodoxy.

[This is, I understand, a larger theme that plays out in the historical community: History as hagiography v. the modern tendency to "deconstruct" sacred historical cows. One of the best episodes of The Simpsons with guest Donald Sutherland satirized this theme.]

I simply stress John Adams, Jefferson and many other elite Founders were affiliated with Trinitarian Churches in whose doctrines they didn't believe to show that it was not uncommon then. For many "key Founders," it was par for the course and thus shouldn't be inconceivable that this also applied to Washington.

Regarding those "oaths," let's examine them:

I, A B, do declare that I will be conformable to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England, as by law established.,

Saunders' post reproduces a longer one:

I, AB, as I do acknowledge myself a true son of the Church of England, so do I believe the articles of faith therein professed, and do oblige myself to be conformable to the doctrine and discipline therein taught and established; and that, as Vestryman of this Parish, I will well and truly perform my duty therein, being directed by the laws and customs of this country, and the canons of the Church of England, so far as they will suit our present capacity; and this I shall sincerely do, according to the best of my knowledge, skill, cunning, without fear, favor, or partiality; so help me God.

George Washington signed the vestryman oath for Fairfax Parish in Alexandria on August 19, 1765 according to PICTORIAL FIELD BOOK OF THE REVOLUTION. VOLUME II, by BENSON J. LOSSING, 1850, Chapter 8, Footnote 30.

The most important of the many doctrines taught by the Church of England are found in the 39 Articles of Religion as they existed when the oaths were taken. In a past post I focused on Article XXV: Of the Sacraments to show these articles command believers to take communion and systematically refusing such arguably violates those oaths.

But there is perhaps an even bigger issue to confront: Vestryman oaths, on the whole, pledge the oath taker not simply to orthodox Trinitarian Christianity but high Church Anglicanism and are extremely Toryish. Bishop Meade in Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, Volume II, pp. 41-42 details the oath of allegiance Vestrymen in VA had to take:

"I. Oath of Allegiance.

"I, A. B., do sincerely promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King George the Second, so help me God."


"II. Oath of Allegiance.

"I, A. B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge and promise, testify and declare, in my conscience, before God and the world, that our sovereign Lord, King George the Second, is lawful and rightful King of this realm and all other his Majesty's dominions and countries hereunto belonging...."

Peter Lillback to his credit, gives this information in the footnotes on pp. 1043 of "George Washington's Sacred Fire"; however, he completely misses the issue that these oaths are part of a covenant to the divine right of King George II to rule not just England but America (I know we were under a new King when rebellion actually took place; I'm not sure if that works as a "loophole"). Again, this was Tory, high church Anglican doctrine to which Washington pledged an oath before God. And indeed, many American Anglican colonists remained Tory loyalists precisely because they took similar oaths and believed they had a Christian duty to remain loyal to the King. If we take these oaths too literally, we might be forced to conclude that Washington violated his vestryman oaths by not just engaging in but leading a rebellion against said King to whom he pledged loyalty.

1 comment:

Explicit Atheist said...

In colonial Virginia and North Carolina, all justices of the peace, officers in the militia and other appointed officials of the King were required to take the series of four oaths quoted in Old Church Ministers and Families of Virginia In Two Volumes, by Bishop Meade, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1857 Vol. II pp. 41-2 as a condition of appointment. In the records for Culpeper County for July 20, 1749: George Washington, Gent, produced a commission from the President and Masters of William and Mary College, appointing him to be surveyor of this county, which was read and thereupon he took the usual oath to his majesty’s person and government and took and subscribed the adjuration oath and test, and then took the oath of surveyor, he became an officer of the colony. February 1, 1753 George Washington was appointed by the royal governor Robert Dinwiddle to the position of major in the Virginia militia. The following year he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and then colonel. Every commission officer in the militia was required to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, the abjuration oath, and subscribe the same, with the test.

Contrast that with the Articles of Confederation, which had been proposed by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 11, 1776 (before independence), and was agreed to by Congress on November 15, 1777, and “ratified and in force” on March 1, 1781. It mentioned only one oath, and that was neither an oath of office nor an oath of allegiance, but a juridical oath to be administered to “commissioners or judges” temporarily appointed to decide “disputes and differences” between states of the confederation. The specified oath was “well and truly to hear and determine the matter in question, according to the best of his judgement, without favor, affection or hope of reward”.

The revised oath of allegiance adopted Feb. 3, 1778 by the Continental Congress (Journals of the Continental Congress, 196) makes no mention of God. For the Continental Congress resolutions specifying the loyalty oath adopted February 3, 1778 (Journals of the Continental Congress, 197) the “So help me God” phrase is outside of the quoted oath apparently to make it optional. George Washington’s Valley Forge oath of allegiance signed on May 12, 1778 has no “so help me God”.

This history, together with the no test oath clause in the constitution, indicates that GW and the other Founders probably found the mandatory oath taking for some employment, government office, etc. to be wrong, which is consistent with the view that they themselves didn’t agree with the contents of the oaths that they found themselves obligated to take. They abruptly abandoned the European religious test oath tradition shortly after they declared they would no longer accept British rule.