Friday, August 22, 2008

George Washington & The Clergy

This is Chapter 33 in Peter Lillback's 1200 page book on Washington's religion. This chapter illustrates Lillback's repeated use of three logical fallacies in his book. One he draws a false dicotomy between Deism and Christianity; that two, permits him to knock down a strict deist "straw man"; and three Lillback offers evidence from which it does not follow that Washington was an orthodox Christian, which is his thesis.

Washington did read sermons and corresponded with various religious figures, and almost always thanked them for their work in polite, perfunctory ways. Lillback constructs an argument that when Washington says positive things about the work of a particular religious figure, Washington essentially "internalizes" those beliefs. Further, Lillback argues all of these figures/sermons were "orthodox." Hence GW was "orthodox Christian." But, that's not the case. Most were orthodox because most Christian Churches were. Some of the notable orthodox figures for whose work Washington had kind words include William Linn (one of Jefferson's slanderous pious clergy enemies), Jedidah Morse and Timothy Dwight (they were hard core orthodox). Typically such figures or their cohorts would, unrequested, send Washington their sermons and GW would reply with a polite thanks, got it, very nice. The following to Rev. REVEREND ZECHARIAH LEWIS regarding the work of Timothy Dwight (President of Yale, and professed enemy of "infidelity") is typical:

I thank you for sending me Doctr. Dwights Sermons to whom I pray you to present the complimts. of Yr. etc.

Yet, I've stumbled upon a number instances where Washington gives the same perfunctory nods to explicitly UNORTHODOX figures whose work expressed heterodox content.

For instance, Richard Price, a British Whig divine who profoundly influenced the American Founding. He was an open Arian in the late 18th Century. He was sort of an Arian counterpart to his Socinian friend, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley, another British Whig divine who profoundly influenced the American Founding.

Washington expressed his approval of Richard Price's work in a letter to BENJAMIN VAUGHAN, February 5, 1785:

Sir: I pray you to accept my acknowledgment of your polite letter of the 31st. of October, and thanks for the flattering expressions of it. These are also due in a very particular manner to Doctr. Price, for the honble mention he has made of the American General in his excellent observations on the importance of the American revolution addressed, "To the free and United States of America," which I have seen and read with much pleasure.

And you can read the contents of that sermon here. [I blogged about in in detail here.] The sermon professes to be "pro-Christian," and asserts Jesus Christ as Messiah and Savior. For instance it holds:

When Christianity, that first and best of all the means of human improvement, was first preached it was charged with turning the world upside down.

Yet, it is also explicitly anti-Trinitarian [again Price was an avowed Arian Unitarian]. Price attacks the "Athanasian creed" which is the quintessential statement of Trinitarianism:

Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.

The sermon further includes the following pro-unitarian, heterodox sentiments. In the context of arguing religious liberty and equality for all (not just "Christians"), Price asserts:

Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?

So ultimately what can we conclude regarding Washington's positive thoughts about various sermons when he positively reacts in similar ways to the orthodox ideas of Timothy Dwight on the one hand and heterodox sentiments of Richard Price on the other? This is why I argue it is a non-sequitur for Lillback to conclude all of the nice things Washington said about the orthodox clergy and their sermons prove him an orthodox Christian. No. They merely show that he was more "pro-religion" than a cold Deist like Thomas Paine was.

Finally, there are other examples of Washington praising non-orthodox or heterodox ideas. For instance, here I noted Washington's praise for the Universalist Church who denied eternal damnation/asserted universal salvation. He basically said whatever it was he valued about religion for the way it supported republican government the Universalists had it.

Postscript: In the short future I will show more evidence on Richard Price's influence on Washington and many other Founders, including Alexander Hamilton. I will show Price's influence was especially high when the Constitution was being framed and ratified.


Matt Huisman said...

Jon, I don't believe I will end up disputing your larger point regarding Ch. 33 of 'Sacred Fire' - but the examples cited here are not particularly overwhelming.

The non-orthodox portions of the Price sermon that you cite are so trivial to his larger point (he does take his time getting there, doesn't he?) that a charitable reader would be forgiven for not even noticing them.

As for Washington's kind words to the Universalist Church in Philadelphia, how, exactly, should we hope that an orthodox political representative respond to the well wishes of his constituents? I don't see how he would alter his comments to assemblies of Jews, Muslims or Atheists.

Perhaps your future posts on Price will convince me otherwise.

[BTW, I see that Robert P. George of Princeton has 'blurbed' for Lillback's book. Despite my respect for your work (and the pleasant company you keep), I'm wondering if I should concede the nature of Washington's faith so easily.]

Tom Van Dyke said...

Perhaps y'all can help me here---

After looking up John Locke's self-penned epitaph [which points at the goodness of the gospels as How Man Shall Live], I thought I'd take a whack at G. Washington's.

I figger that back in the day, one wrote his own epitaph, and would tell therein his own cosmic truth, after the grave gave him peace from the contentions of this world.

I ran across the aforementioned [by Jon] Peter Lillback in this article, claiming that Washington's grave [or whatever] bears this quote from John 11:25-26:

"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

After a thorough scouring of the internet, I can't find any confirmation, and I don't loive anwhere near Virginia to check it out personally. I also found somewheres else the claim that there's a plaque on Washington's casket reading, "Glory to God" [in latin, of course].

Anyone who can help, I'd be appreciative. It seems quite relevant to our joint inquiry.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I do believe the John 11:25-26 thing is accurate; though GW had nothing to do with putting its language in there.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I absolutely encourage folks to give Lillback's thesis a chance. Though at 1200 pages, he may have shot himself in the foot at producing a book that more than a handful of folks (like me) will read the whole thing.

He gets impressive scholars like George to blurb him. Though, I'm not sure which of his 2 theses George endorses.

Thesis 1 is that Washington was not a Deist. And Lillback easily proves this (Michael Novak and his daughter proved it in less than 300 pages). Thesis 2 is that Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. And Lillback does not, in my opinion, prove this.

I agree with your assessment of Washington on Price's sermon. However, that same argument can be used against all of the brief polite responses he gave to all of those orthodox sermons. That was really the overall point of this post: His brief words of praise for the clergy and their sermons is not determinative.

My next post will try to show Richard Price's influence not just on GW but some other Founders in more detail.

bpabbott said...

Regarding Washington's epitaph, I'd read something on that recently but do not recall where :-(

Unfortunately, I don't even recall if he wrote it himself or if it was penned by his family or another source. I can't even find a reliable reference that an actual epitaph exists in his tomb :-(

Jonathan Rowe said...

My agnostic grandfather was given a Roman Catholic funeral because my grandmother was a devoted Catholic and grandpop donated thousands of dollars to them over the years. He bought some of the stained glass windows that are still there at St. Ignatius Church in Yardley, Pa.

I don't think this dynamic is all that odd. I remember reading that Robert Novak regularly attended the Roman Catholic Church -- because his wife was a Catholic -- for a few years before he actually converted.

Washington's reported behavior at Church struck me as that very type of nominal Anglican/Episcopalian.

Jonathan Rowe said...

On another note, I'd encourage Tom, Matt, and Kevin (and anyone else) to check out my most recent post at Positive Liberty on religious convictions and bigotry.

bpabbott said...

Jon, that is an interesting post over at PostiveLiberty.

Personally, I don't think the propriety of an individuals words and/or actions depend upon whether or not such are consistent with religious doctrine.

Anticipating future comments, some pre-emptive qualifications may be in order ;-)

Critique does not make one a bigot.

The preference for "A" which necessarily excludes "B" does not mean individual has a prejudice for "B".

OT: I'd have posted on PositiveLiberty, but noticed I am unable to since I haven't logged in. Meanwhile I have no idea how to set up an account on that site (although I frequently posted there in the past).


Jonathan Rowe said...

I didn't even know that you had to set up an account at the site. I just thought that your comments get moderated once and once you are vetted you are in. However, if you post with different information (like a different IP) you might have to be vetted again. Just post and if it doesn't show up JK will moderate your comment eventually. I used to be able to moderate comments there, but I can't anymore.

bpabbott said...

Apparently the comment policy at PL has changed?

I'm not able to get a window to type a comment into. At the bottom of your post I see the text ...

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Jonathan Rowe said...

I'd email Jason. I have no clue about this. It could be a wordpress error.

Pinky said...

Interesting post here.
Made me wonder why Jefferson referred to Washington as an Old Fox.

A Fox is usually thought of as having much guile.
So, was this handsome and tall politician a foxy dude that pulled the wool over a lot of eyes?

bpabbott said...

Pinky asked: "Made me wonder why Jefferson referred to Washington as an Old Fox."

Here's a more complete quote with the context you inquired of.

"Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice."
-- Thomas Jefferson, quoted from Jefferson's Works, Vol. iv., p. 572.

Pinky said...

And, how many chicken coops did the Old Fox invade?
It gives me new respect for the Father of our country.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, I appreciate how you show Lillback the respect of engaging his arguments and conclusions point-by-point. I think his book deserves that level of respect.

It bothers me to hear others lump Lillback in with D James Kennedy, David Barton, and others who aren't as thorough in their scholarship. Lillback is very thorough, even if some of his conclusions are not fully supported.

On the issue itself, I agree with you in PART. Lillback essentially makes the argument that...

a. Washington collected sermons
b. Washington made favorable comments to people about many if not most of these sermons that he collected, and...
c. Given that most of the sermons collected reflect orthodox Christian doctrine...
d. It therefore seems likely that Washington AGREED with orthodox Christian doctrine.

That's Lillback's case in a nutshell, and he does an impressive job in making the case. Lots of research.

But I think Lillback takes the conclusion too far. In that, I agree with you.

Two things that Lillback can readily prove (and does) is that Washington was...

a. Interested in reading and studying sermons
b. Friendly to members of the clergy

One would be very hard-pressed to challenge the above conclusions.

But these conclusions don't automatically lead to Washington being an orthodox Trinitarian.