Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dialog on Washington's Religion Continues

At American Creation Brian Tubbs left an apt comment on my long post that tried to put Washington's religious beliefs into perspective.

Good post, Jon. But, you've only cast some doubts here and raised some questions. You have not shown that GW rejected the Trinity or the deity of Jesus.

I think all we've established here is that there's an element of mystery to GW's Christian doctrine. This much, I readily grant.

And Tom Van Dyke left the next comment about "burdens":

Well, Brian, I must admit I don't see much "Christian" in GW's doctrine either. Claiming him for Christianity by default---by what he didn't say, which seems to be Liliback's argument---doesn't rock for me. Burden of proof must be shared, and made by affirmative argument.

In fact, the most explicitly theological thing from Washington I've seen is Masonic, and I've seen nothing comparably "Christian":

"At the same time, I request you will be assured of my best wishes and earnest prayers for your happiness while you remain in this terrestrial mansion and that we may hereafter meet as brethren in the eternal Temple of the Supreme Architect."---from a 1792 letter

Indeed I agree both sides should equally share the burden. And I've searched for smoking guns in Washington's 20,000 pages of known recorded writings and speeches and on the doctrines of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, there are none. You can try the search engine there and see for yourself. There's lots of evidence on Washington's belief in Providence and his support for religion in general, how it fosters virtue necessary for republican government. And there's evidence of his positive feelings on Christianity, but no smoking guns on his belief in doctrines like the Trinity, Atonement or infallibility of the Bible. He simply never discusses these things. And when one peers into the void of abstract God words like "Providence" that's when folks on various sides "read in" their desires, not what Washington specifically said.

In Peter Lillback's case, he reads in belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. If you watch the following video of him discussing Washington's creed, he too discusses "burdens" and acts as though the fact that Washington regularly worshipped in the Trinitarian Anglican/Episcopal Church is something that skeptical scholars would have a hard time answering.

Not only is this claim easily answered, but it's answered with a factual dynamic that probably disturbs Lillback, such that he and likeminded folks desire to explain it away (he certainly didn't adequately deal with it in the 1200 pages of "George Washington's Sacred Fire"): Key Founders commonly worshipped in Trinitarian Churches while privately disbelieving in orthodox doctrines. This certainly applies to Jefferson, Franklin, Marshall, and probably James Madison whom George Ticknor founder of the Boston Public library testified "pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines." In John Adams' case his Congregational Church -- a Church with Trinitarian origins -- had ministers that preached these unitarian doctrines as of 1750! Indeed in many ways, unitarianism was spearheaded by ministers coming out of Trinitarian Churches (like Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, who preached Unitarianism in the English Presbyterian Churches, and more New England Congregational ministers that I can name in a short space) who rejected the official Trinitarian doctrines of their churches.

Lillback in his book does attempt at a smoking gun to prove Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism: Oaths that he took while becoming a Godfather and a Vestryman in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. As the argument goes, if Washington not only worshipped in a Trinitarian Church but took oaths to Trinitarianism while privately disbelieving in those doctrines, he was a dishonorable hypocrite. [I guess in the same sense that folks who get divorced are dishonorable hypocrites because they -- the ones who got married the Church -- pledged in a covenant before God "till death do us part."]

Lillback et al. paint themselves into a corner by invoking such an argument. And that's because if we take those oaths too seriously, we might be forced to conclude that he was such an oath breaker. Washington never took oaths to low church latitudinarian orthodox Trinitarian Anglicanism (because those oaths didn't exist), what Lillback argues Washington believed in. Rather those oaths were high church Anglican oaths that not only commanded believers to engage in the Lord's Supper (which Washington systematically refused to do) but pledge loyalty to the King of England! You can read more on them here.

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 of England. Taking these oaths too literally forces one to conclude that Washington violated his oaths by not just engaging in but leading a rebellion against said King to whom he pledged, before God, his loyalty.

Further on the matter of Washington's systematic avoidance of communion, Lillback, engaging in pure speculation, constructs an argument that it had something to do with Washington's political disagreement with Dr. James Abercrombie and the other high church Tory Episcopalians. Well indeed, if you worship in the Anglican Church, a church whose theology pledged itself to loyalty to England, you are bound to hear a lot of Tory sentiments. The fact that Whigs could remain formal members of a Church whose official theology posited Tory loyalty to England raises the same issues of hypocrisy that unitarians worshipping in Trinitarian churches does. Why didn't the Whigs like George Washington just leave the Church of England? There were no Unitarian Churches for them to join, but plenty of Baptists or Presbyterian ones. That's because, as with Roman Catholics like Joe Biden, it's a very common thing in the present and the past to be attached to a Church in sentiment and tradition but not believe in all of the Church's official theological stances, be it on loyalty to England, abortion, birth control, or the Trinity.

And I would note, though Washington never told us why he systematically avoided communion the most common sense answer is he disbelieved in what the act stood for: Christ's Atonement. That's far more common sensical than political problems he may have had with Tory preachers or Tory doctrine in the Church. The Lord's Supper does NOT represent communing with your fellow believers; it represents Christ's Atonement. Sitting in a church and worshipping with other people represents communion with them. And that's something Washington was willing to do with Tories.

Why is this important? The only evidence for Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism is indissolubly tied to his membership in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. If one weakens the case for Washington's belief in official Anglican/Episcopal doctrines (like pledging loyalty to Great Britain) then out of logical necessity one simultaneously weakens the case for positive evidence of Washington's belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

I would concede that showing Washington was only formally connected to the Anglican/Episcopal Church and didn't necessarily buy all that it stood for is not negative evidence against his orthodox Christianity. He really could have been a "Christ only" orthodox Trinitarian Protestant who disregarded the high church doctrines that were superfluous to Christianity anyway. But there is absolutely no positive evidence for this. The only positive evidence for Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism comes through official Anglican/Episcopal doctrine. And as we've seen, that evidence rests on shaky grounds.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Key Founders commonly worshipped in Trinitarian Churches while privately disbelieving in orthodox doctrines. This certainly applies to Jefferson...

I believe this is game, set & match, Jon.

You also add Franklin, whom we're currently disagreeing about. His doubts about the Trinity [and he did have them] don't quite hit the threshold of "disbelief."

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think Washington could have "doubted" or been agnostic on the orthodox doctrines. I think Franklin, however, when he said "doubt," this was polite for "disbelieve." When he referred to the "corrupting" of Christianity in said letter to Stiles, that term ("corruptions of Christianity") had specific meaning (it was in the title to one of Priestley's most influential books). It was coined by Priestley and referred to original sin, the trinity, incarnation, and atonement.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, I conceded that point---and Franklin explicitly disagrees with the notion of original sin---but attributed it to disagreements with prevailing theology, which I think is what he means by "corruptions."

As for the Jesus' divinity, I take Franklin at his word when he said he didn't think or trouble himself much about it. I assure you there are many "orthodox" Christians who don't, either. As Franklin notes, we shall all find out soon enough.

What is apparent is that Franklin returned to the Bible after unsatisfactory results with "free-thinking," i.e., deism. As for his being troubled with certain parts of the Bible that seem to sanction evil when done at God's command, this is definitely worth a further look, as his reservations are quite legitimate. Theologically speaking, I think consulting pre-Reformation thinkers or rabbinical Judaism would shed more understanding than a simple reading of the KJV. I do not know if Franklin had access to these schools of thought.

Brian Tubbs said...

Two points...

First, Jon writes: "And I would note, though Washington never told us why he systematically avoided communion the most common sense answer is he disbelieved in what the act stood for: Christ's Atonement."

Sorry, but no dice. I have been in Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican services in which I declined to take Communion. I declined - NOT because I rejected Christ's atonement. I declined, because I did not believe the same things concerning Communion that these church bodies embraced. Catholics and Anglicans (and Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox) see Communion in a VERY DIFFERENT WAY from Baptists and other evangelicals.

Obviously, I'm not claiming that GW was a Baptist. But I am saying it's possible that there were OTHER reasons why GW refused Communion.

Second, Tom says that Jon's reference to OTHER Founders attending churches with which they had some disagreements is "game, set, and match." Hardly. You can't prove Washington disbelieved in the Trinity, because Franklin disbelieved in the Trinity. Or Jefferson. Or Adams. It doesn't work that way.

Sorry, gentlemen. Next argument???

Tom Van Dyke said...

I was referring to Jon rebutting a specific Liliback argument, for the record.

Brian Tubbs said...

Okay, I stand corrected, Tom. Sorry about that.

Of course, I'm still right and you're still wrong. :-)

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think I've admitted there are no smoking guns here. The communion thing is not a smoking gun because GW never told us why he didn't take communion, so there will ALWAYS be another possibility. Maybe he didn't take communion becuase he was a germ phobe.

The question is what's the most rational explanation. I say it's because he disbelieved in the atonement. There is evidence in the primary sources of other Anglicans not taking communion for that very reason.

If you are going to go down the road of the Anglicans position on communion is superflous to orthodox Trinitarian Christian, you admit GW could have been a member of a Church with whose theological positions he disagreed which is exactly what our side argues when we note unitarians/theistic rationalists belonged to Churches in whose orthodox doctrines they did not believe.

IF GW didn't believe in official high Church Anglican doctrine, then what, most likely was his private theology. We'll never know the answer for sure unless more evidence is uncovered. But I don't see his Providential God talk as at all like that of Timothy Dwight or Jedidiah Morse --the "sola Scriptura" Christ only orthodox Protestants -- but rather much closer to J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison.

Dustin said...

That he received the communion at any point in his life represents that he would be received into heaven, forgiven, providing he did not reject the Holy Spirit or put Christ to an open shame. Washington was a peacemaker, and a peacekeeer- willing to let every man lead himself in good character, and to his own destination. The Bible says:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.
Washington was a man of truth and good character. He was smart enough to know that the government was a product of the Christians who were ultimately driven to freedom by the Dominion (Holy Spirit)of God in their hearts. Men with those convictions need only unity in defence to maintain a nation! Those without cannot be consoled.

Edward T. Babinski said...

To point up their [the founders] practical deism, Holmes invokes the contrasting orthodoxy of the presidents' wives and daughters (Abigail Adams, however, was as deistic as John).

By David L. Holmes,
Oxford University Press, May, 2006

Review: "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers sticks closely to the sources. When it discusses such matters as the possible return of James Madison to Christian orthodoxy in old age, it clearly labels its supposition as speculation. Its chapter on the religion of James Monroe is especially illuminating. And I agree with the book's overall assessment that the Founders were Deist-like, but not exactly."
--Mark A. Noll, author of 'America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham

From Booklist
Against the Religious Right's insistence that the Founding Fathers were conventional Christians, Holmes pits facts about religion and religious language in late colonial and early republican America. He doesn't consider all the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution, and he concedes that private convictions are ultimately unknowable. Hence, his evidence is partial and circumstantial. Yet his argument is very persuasive. After precis of religion in the colonies circa 1770, the Anglican tradition in America, and deism, which was then at the height of its influence, he turns to Franklin and the first five presidents, inspecting their church attendance, observance of sacraments, and the terms they used to refer to the deity and religion. All six seem more deistic than orthodox; that is, they inclined against the Trinity and other supernatural concepts. To point up their practical deism, Holmes invokes the contrasting orthodoxy of the presidents' wives and daughters (Abigail Adams, however, was as deistic as John) and three other founders (Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay). A modest but definite triumph of temperate historical argumentation.
Ray Olson

Edward T. Babinski said...

Much has been made of Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that the Convention open its morning sessions with prayer. His motion was turned down, however, and not again taken up. Franklin himself noted that "with the exception of 3 or 4, most thought prayers unnecessary." (Ferrand, Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, rev. ed., Vol. 1, p.452.)
While there can be little doubt that Christian values shaped the thinking of the Founders, it is wrong to jump to the conclusion that the Founders were almost all orthodox evangelicals Christians.

"Although it had its share of strenuous Christians... the gathering at Philadelphia was largely made up of men in whom the old fires were under control or had even flickered out. Most were nominally members of one of the traditional churches in their part of the country.. and most were men who could take their religion or leave it alone. Although no one in this sober gathering would have dreamed of invoking the Goddess of Reason, neither would anyone have dared to proclaim his opinions had the support of the God of Abraham and Paul. The Convention of 1787 was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit." (Clinton Rossiter, 1787; The Grand Convention, pp. 147-148.)

The country America won her independence from was Great Britain whose founding documents, as well as those of other European nations, mention "God" many times. But the members of America's Constitutional Convention decided against mentioning "God" in America's founding document. We are a government "by the people and for the people."

One interesting note: When the Southern states seceeded from the Northern ones right before the Civil War, they added the name of "God" to their Constitution.
(But it didn't help them.)

Indeed, it if had been true that America's founders were Bible-loving orthodox evangelical Christians, then they overlooked the words of Paul in the Bible in which he commanded Christians to obey the powers that be, not revolt against them. "For the powers that be are ordained of God and do not bear the sword in vain."

Christian author, Dennis Woods, a political pollster with credentials in journalism, education and theology, in his book (Discipling the Nations--The Government Upon His Shoulders), asks:

If the U.S. Constitution is a Christian document why does it contain no substantive references to God?

Why do the Federalist Papers contain no references to the Bible and almost 30 references to the governments of pagan Greece and Rome?

Why does the U.S. Constitution deny a religious test for public office, when almost all of its colonial forerunners required such a test?

Why does the Constitution rely on "we the people" to "ordain and establish this Constitution" rather than God, as did nearly every one of its predecessors?

What is the critical difference between government by social compact and government by Biblical covenant? Which one is the U.S. Constitution?

Why were the state legislatures excluded from a part in confirming the U.S. Constitution, as required by the Articles of Confederation? (p. 33)

Why did strong Christian statesmen such as Patrick Henry, John Hancock and Samuel Adams explicitly refuse the invitation to attend the Constitutional Convention? [Patrick Henry wanted only Trinitarian orthodox Christians to be able to serve in public office.--E.T.B.]

Why did George Washington not receive communion?

Why was the convention shrouded in secrecy, with all notes sequestered until after the death of the last delegate?

Why did James Madison believe that Christianity was a source of faction rather than the unifying factor in civil government?

Woods believes that the naive or simplistic responses typically offered by Evangelicals like John Eidsmoe, David Barton (Wall Builders), Peter Marshall, and D.J. Kennedy damage the credibility of the very cause they are trying to defend.

Edward T. Babinski said...

"Of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, the theological leanings of some twenty have been identified. Three have been characterized as deists: Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, and Stephen Hoepkins of Rhode Island. Two others, John Adams of Massachusetts and George Wythe of Virginia, are described as liberal Christians strongly influenced by deism. Four, including Jefferson's friend Benjamin Rush, were liberals not inclined toward deism. About eleven were definitely orthodox believers. Samuel Huntington, Philip Livingston, and John Witherspoon, president of Princeton University, were prominent in this last group... Among the founders of the American republic who were not signers of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington, James Madison, and George Mason were religious liberals leaning toward deism. Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Alexander Hamilton were generally orthodox Christians opposed to deism... In the closing decades of the eighteenth century, deism in the United States, as elsewhere, seemed to be sweeping everything before it... The deist outlook... in the American colonies... became popular among the rich and well-born about the time of the Revolution."
-- Cardinal Avery Dulles in his article "The Deist Minimum" in the Jan. 2005 issue of First Things magazine

See also the New Historical Atlas of Religion in America (Oxford U. Pres, 2001) According to that atlas only 25% of the country attended church at the time of the American Revolution. Church attendance grew over the years.

Other sources corroborate that between the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and the start of the Civil War (1861), the "rate of adherence" to Christianity more than doubled.
-- Christianity Today, Aug. 16, 1993, p. 62, book review of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark's The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press).

"Why Revolutionary America Wasn't a 'Christian Nation'" by Jon Butler (the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University) in James H. Hutson, ed., Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America (England: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000)

Butler takes a "look at government, society, and people to recover what men and women of the time did and believed" (p. 189). He discovers that the answer to his question is complicated.

In some ways, America on the eve of the Revolution was more religious than it had been in the seventeenth century. Revivalism and denominational expansion during the eighteenth century caused a tremendous growth in the number of congregations. Moreover, the "state church apparatus" (p. 189) was also becoming stronger, with seven of the thirteen colonies giving legal support to a single Protestant church. Even in colonies without an establishment, Catholics, Jews, and blasphemers frequently endured legal discrimination and penalties.

But despite congregational growth and legal support for churches, most eighteenth-century Americans remained indifferent to religion. Before the Revolution, about eighty percent of adults did not even belong to a church. America was only nominally and formally Christian. Indeed, Butler argues that the laws establishing state churches and favoring Protestant Christianity were needed "precisely because actual Christian adherence in the population was relatively weak" (p. 191).

After the Revolution, denominational rivalries and Enlightenment objections to religious coercion led states "to withdraw from or greatly reduce government involvement with religion" (p. 192). In state after state, single-church establishments fell after religious pluralism provoked bitter political squabbles over tax support and legislative favoritism. The culmination of Americans' increasing suspicion of government partiality in religion was the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Going far beyond the prohibition of an established church, the First Amendment "banned government activity in religion generally" (p. 196).

Revolutionary Americans understood that theirs was "a society where Christianity was important yet not ubiquitous" (p. 197). It was not a Christian nation. There was too much indifference, heterodoxy, and atheism to call it that. Given their religious diversity and its potential for turmoil, Americans realized that they could preserve civil peace and promote spiritual renewal only by keeping government from meddling in religion. If the United States were ever to become a Christian nation, it would do so as "a matter of practice, not law or governmental encouragement" (p. 198).

Looking back, Butler marvels at the "remarkable risks taken by remarkable men and women in remarkable times" (p. 189). In separating government and religion, they boldly devised an arrangement that was, in its day, virtually unprecedented and that became, in the days to follow, notably successful. As Butler comments, their risks and their achievements still "challenge modern Americans who would pretend to exercise equal leadership on still difficult questions of religion, the state, conscience, and faith" (p. 189).