Monday, October 13, 2008

Was George Washington an "Infidel"?

Infidel or Christian: The Spiritual Identity of George Washington

by Brian Tubbs

In previous posts, Jonathan Rowe has argued that George Washington was not an orthodox Christian, but instead a "soft infidel." Rowe's articles are generally excellent in terms of their research and argumentation. My disagreement with him here is in the spirit of respect. I simply wish to pose the question...

Would George Washington have thought himself an "infidel" in any way?

In a 1778 letter to Thomas Nelson, General George Washington wrote the following about the American Revolution: "The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations."

Note the phrase "worse than an infidel that lacks faith." It calls to mind I Timothy 5:8, where the Apostle Paul tells Timothy that if anyone "provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel."

General Washington lifts the phrase out of Paul's context of provision and places it in the realm of gratitude. He does this by adding that a person who "lacks faith" is "more than wicked" if he does have not have "gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations."

Washington's letter to Mr. Nelson reveals a couple important facts:

1. Washington's familiarity with biblical language
2. Washington's disapproval of the term "infidel"

With respect to the former, Washington shows his comfort and familiarity with the Bible by putting the phrase in his correspondence. Washington of course routinely did this, as Peter Lillback painstakingly shows in his awesome work George Washington's Sacred Fire.

Most significant to the issue at hand, however, is Washington's clear disapproval of the term "infidel." It's highly unlikely that General Washington would see himself as an infidel - "soft" or otherwise - while so clearly putting down those who would wear such a label. In Washington's mind, to be an "infidel" was a bad thing.

While it's possible that a person with questions about Jesus' deity might not be called an "infidel" by Washington, it IS clear that a person who "lacks faith" in God's Providence or who didn't feel gratitude toward the Almighty WOULD be considered an "infidel."

Mr. Rowe (and a few others here) have suggested (in different ways) that Washington believed in God, but rejected the deity of Jesus Christ. While Mr. Washington's letter to Mr. Nelson does not, in and of itself, refute this charge, it does raise the stakes a bit.

If Washington was no infidel, this means that he HAD faith. That Washington had faith in God can easily be demonstrated. Accordingly, if a person has faith in God, the issue of Jesus' deity isn't a matter of God's ability to pull off an incarnation or a virgin birth or a resurrection (these things would be small potatoes for God, would they not?).

Think about it. If God is real, then miracles are automatically possible! (See "The Case for Miracles" over at Suite101.com). And this includes the incarnation of God in man. The deity (and, yes, virgin birth and resurrection) of Jesus is possible -- IF God is real.

This doesn't mean that God would necessarily do things that way. I'm not arguing that faith in God requires one to also embrace the deity of Jesus. But I AM saying that faith in God requires one to LOGICALLY accept the POSSIBILITY of Jesus' deity (as well as the possibility of the other miracles in the Bible - a book that Washington was clearly familiar with).

Mr. Rowe and others have done an exceptional job in pointing out reasons to wonder whether Washington ever fully embraced Christian orthodoxy. It's clear, for example, that Washington was never an enthusiastic evangelist of the Gospel. He was much more comfortable speaking of Providence than he was of Christ.

But Washington did, at times, speak of Christ. And he did pledge his loyalty to a Church that embraced Jesus' deity. And he did believe in a God who Washington understood was certainly capable of carrying out a sovereign plan, as described in the Bible -- a book he was well familiar with.

Was George Washington an infidel? Absolutely not. Was he an orthodox Christian? It's not possible to climb into the private corners of his mind, but one can say that he aligned himself with an orthodox Christian church. Would he do so, if he didn't believe in its tenets? To say that he would requires one to challenge Washington's integrity - something very few of his contemporaries dared to do.

One thing is certain, though. If Washington disagreed with the Anglican (and later Episcopalian) Church over Jesus' deity (an "if" for which there is no documentary evidence), it wasn't because he was an "infidel." Washington never "lacked faith" in the power of God.

25 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Brian,

I don't disagree with this. I admit I'm being a little playful and with the word "infidel." I'm trying to speak to those with an "orthodox Christian" reading of history on their own terms and simply note that orthodox figures of the past considered non-orthodox beliefs as "not real Christianity," "heresy," or at worst "infidelity." The first two terms are probably a little more accurate in describing how orthodox today might still view such a creed. The third term is, again, a little provocative.

I've determined that the Founders defined "infidels" as someone to one's religious left. So to the Founders like Washington, and indeed, I can quote Ben Franklin using the same understanding, an "infidel" was someone who lacked belief, either in God at all or an interventionist God. But the orthodox tended to lump such theists/unitarians as Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin in with the "infidel" deists and atheists. And this in turn, was something to which Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin strongly objected. They tended to wish to be in communion with the other "Christians" as "Christians."

Phil Johnson said...

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Thanks for answering my question which was misplace in the wrong post. (The God's Ticket post)
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Here's the misplaced post:

Does anyone here know what meaning was applied to the word, infidel, during Washington's lifetime?
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Generally, these days, infidel is used to connote a person of a different religious belief. Could not a staunch Catholic think of an Baptist as possibly being an infidel?
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It seems like a "soft infidel" might be someone for whom you're not very sure about their belief.
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Brad Hart said...

First off, it is great to have another post from Brian Tubbs. I for one have missed them! Keep it up, Brian!

As you already know, Brian, I am fully in the "Jon Rowe" camp when it comes to Washington. With that said, I think you have raised some good points that deserve discussion.

Brian states:

"If Washington was no infidel, this means that he HAD faith. That Washington had faith in God can easily be demonstrated. Accordingly, if a person has faith in God, the issue of Jesus' deity isn't a matter of God's ability to pull off an incarnation or a virgin birth or a resurrection (these things would be small potatoes for God, would they not?)."

I agree that Washington was most likely a man of faith. The simple fact that he prayed on a regular basis demonstrates this. After all, prayer is one of the supreme acts of faith. As for the "small potatoes, issues like virgin birth, etc. may seem irrelevant to a person's faith, but they were -- and still are -- HUGE factors in determining a person's orthodoxy.

It is ORTHODOXY that is the key point in this discussion. Surely Washington -- and the other founders for that matter -- did not see themselves as infidels. In the same way that I and other Mormons do not see ourselves as infidels -- yet most other Christian denominations consider us to be such -- the ORTHODOX religions of the 1700s would have seen Washington and other founders as possibly being infidel in their religious views.

As for "climbing into the private corners of Washington's mind" I believe this is a two-edged sword. You are right to point out that nobody can say for sure that Washington was devoted to Christian tenants. However, that same test applies to those who assert Washington's absolute Christianity. The bottom line is that we simply do not know for sure.

It is for these very reasons that I prefer classifying Washington as a Christian-centered u(U)nitarian or a u(U)nitarian-centered Christian...take your pick. Simply put, there are no "smoking guns" (to steal a phrase from Rowe) to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt. With that said, I think we can, based upon the preponderance of the evidence, make certain assumptions about Washington's faith:

1.) Washington was familiar with the Bible (you are right in this point, Brian).

2.) Washington was AT LEAST hesitant to participate or align himself in any way with orthodoxy. This is evident from his participation in Communion, never being confirmed, etc.

3.) Washington (in some fashion or another) maintained a faith in the divine, but we cannot say for certain.

4.) Washington never DENOUNCED or PROCLAIMED an allegiance to Christianity in any form.

Hence, he is a Christian-leaning u(U)nitarian or a u(U)nitarian-leaning Christian.


BTW, excellent post! It's nice to have your perspective back in full force!

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, you're being rather mischevious then, aren't you? :-)

Brad, thanks for the kind words.

To clarify...my 'small potatoes' comment was in reference to God's ability and power to perform miracles (like the virgin birth of Jesus). I certainly did not mean to suggest that the ISSUES were 'small potatoes.' But thanks for bringing that up, so I had the opportunity to clarify.

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad, on your "assumptions" re: Washington...

1.) Washington was familiar with the Bible (you are right in this point, Brian).

We agree...yah! :-)

2.) Washington was AT LEAST hesitant to participate or align himself in any way with orthodoxy. This is evident from his participation in Communion, never being confirmed, etc.

I would modify this to say that Washington was "hesitant to openly display any strict orthodoxy." And I'd also point out that Peter Lillback pretty convincingly refutes the longstanding assumption that Washington never participated in Communion.

3.) Washington (in some fashion or another) maintained a faith in the divine, but we cannot say for certain.

Perdone. (My weak attempt at French). What do you mean "we cannot say for certain"? Washington's REPEATED use of the term "Providence" PROVES - beyond ANY doubt - that he believed in the divine. There's absolutely NO question - or at least there SHOULDN'T be any question - that Washington believed in God (and did so sincerely).

4.) Washington never DENOUNCED or PROCLAIMED an allegiance to Christianity in any form.

You're right on the first verb. Wrong on the second. Washington intentionally affiliated himself with the Anglican and later Episcoplian Church. In so doing, he "proclaimed an allegiance to Christianity."

Now, you can surmise that Washington did this only for social or political reasons, but that is YOUR interpretation of his affiliation. The historical FACT is that he aligned himself with a mainline, orthodox CHRISTIAN denomination. That is beyond dispute.

Brad Hart said...

Brian:

You caught me one thing. I forgot to conclude my 3rd point with "we cannot say for certain THAT HE WAS AN ORTHODOX BELIEVER." My bad. I am in complete agreement with you on that point.

As for point #2, Peter Lillback's research on Washington participating in communion is, sorry to say, completely wrong. Lillback's sources on the matter (allegedly Hamilton's wife and a few others) have been proven to be less-than-accurate. i remember reading the same parts with a lot of excitement, thinking that a "smoking gun" had finally been discovered. Sadly, Lillback is wrong on the matter.

On point #4 your write:

"The historical FACT is that he aligned himself with a mainline, orthodox CHRISTIAN denomination. That is beyond dispute."

Actually, there is quite a lot of room for dispute. For one, Washington was NEVER confirmed in the Anglican/Episcopal Church, which was an ordinance of extreme importance to the faith. Second, Washington did not regularly participate in Communion, another major ordinance of the church. Now, as the Communion argument goes, some people assert that Washington refused communion because Bishop White was a loyalist during the war, or because he did not feel worthy. I will concede that this is AT LEAST possible. However, Washington's religious language, his lack of confirmation and his leanings toward u(U)nitarian principles leads me to believe that he was NOT an Orthodox Christian. Instead, he was -- as I have mentioned before -- a Christian-leaning u(U)nitarian.

I hope you will believe me when I say that I am anxiously hoping for a smoking gun example to prove Washington's faith. For the most part, I think you and I are in agreement when it comes to this topic. There is no doubt that Washington was a man of faith and that he FAVORED Christianity. However, I am not prepared to declare him an orthodox believer based on the evidence available.

Brian Tubbs said...

I think that Washington, at the LEAST, was a "Christian-leaning unitarian," in that he MAY have questioned or privately doubted Jesus' deity (just as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did - though they did it more publicly).

But this is UNLIKELY, since Washington signed off on describing Jesus as "the Divine Author of our Blessed Religion." (I'm aware of the argument that Washington's aide wrote that phrase, but Washington signed off on it, thus taking responsibility for it). To me, it seems that he was at least comfortable with describing Jesus that way. And that means he professed belief in Jesus' divinity.

Brad Hart said...

"To me, it seems that he was at least comfortable with describing Jesus that way. And that means he professed belief in Jesus' divinity."

I agree with you that Washington professed a belief in Jesus. In addition, we should remember the numberous orders for prayer and fasting, most of which petitioned for a forgiveness of sins...a very Christian thing to do.

With that said, we still should not slide down the slippery slope of declaring Washington an ORTHODOX beliver. There are just too many gaping holes for that one to stand. This doesn't mean that Washington was a non-believer. Washington was just too private of a man for us to really know with any certainty.

Being a Christian-leaning u(U)nitarian is a nice fit because it fits with the evidence. Nobody can deny Washington's affection for Christianity, and on the same token, nobody can deny how a number of unitarian beliefs are evident in Washington's behavior.

Jonathan Rowe said...

This is the one passage in Brian's post -- one I see raised by Lillback and the Novaks -- that I think I disagree with the most.

Was he an orthodox Christian? It's not possible to climb into the private corners of his mind, but one can say that he aligned himself with an orthodox Christian church. Would he do so, if he didn't believe in its tenets? To say that he would requires one to challenge Washington's integrity - something very few of his contemporaries dared to do.

I'm not sure how much of a choice Washington felt he had with his "allegiance" to the Anglican/Episcopal Church. One could argue that he was "wedded" to the Church in a social institutional sense. Before Jefferson's 1786 VA Statute, that church was a [or perhaps I should say *the*] social and legal institutional and any "gentleman" who wished to exercise his social and political power, as George Washington needed to do, would have to be a member.

Further, on the matter of calling into question his integrity, I'll simply note that belonging to a Church that confessed Trinitarian doctrines, but personally NOT believing in those doctrines was quite a common thing for elite gentleman of the Founding era and EVEN for some ministers of Trinitarian Churches. Indeed, Trinitarian Churches that later became Unitarian [i.e., the Congregational Churches in New England] only did so because the ministers disbelieved in the Trinitarian doctrines in which they were supposed to believe. And with enough influential members of the Church converting to unitarianism, the Churches themselves ended up scrapping those doctrines.

I guess the overall point is, this -- non-Trinitarians officially worshipping at Trinitarian Churches -- was common enough among elite figures during the Founding era, that it shouldn't raise an eyebrow with Washington.

Ray Soller said...

Whatever Washington's personal attitude towards religious faith, he never, it appears, saw that his slaves had any need for religious instruction. In Peter Henriques' "Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington" (pg. 176) we read, "[T]here is no evidence that Washington provided any religious education for his slaves. Ona Judge, Martha's seamstress who successfully ran away from the Washingtons in the 1790's, averred in an interview in the 1840s that there was none: 'She never received the least mental or moral instruction of any kind while she remained in Washington's family . . . The stories of Washington's piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation. Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his pasrties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day.'" (Benjamin Chase, "Interview with Ona Judge [Stains]." The Liberator 1 January 1846)

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, your argument is similar in its logic to the one made saying that Jesus must have been married. THAT argument goes like this...

"It was common for a Jewish man to be married by his thirties. In fact, it would have been very odd, almost unthinkable, for a man that age NOT to be married. Therefore...Jesus must have been married."

I'm sorry. I don't buy it. You can't prove someone's motives or decisions, simply through circumstantial association.

In Jesus' case, the best documentary records we have of his life show him to be single. Therefore, historically, we can conclude he was most likely single.

In Washington's case, he aligned himself with the Anglican and later Episcopal Church. There's no reason why we should have to say things like "Yeah, but he really didn't agree with the church" or "He really didn't believe the things that the church taught." Unless you can show me DOCUMENTARY evidence where Washington disagrees with Anglican orthodoxy, our DEFAULT conclusion should be that he was comfortable with it.

Brian Tubbs said...

Follow up -- My statement "You can't prove someone's motives or decisions, simply through circumstantial association" should read "You can't prove someone's motives or decisions, simply through circumstancial supposition." I don't know why I said "association."

Brian Tubbs said...

Ray, I'm familiar with that quote. And it should be considered as part of the overall picture we have of Washington. However, should Ona Judge's testimony be given more weight than that of Nelly Custis? And, for that matter, Ms. Judge's comments COULD be construed to imply that Martha was also not religious, and historians have pretty well agreed that (say what you will about George) there's NO question Martha was devout in her faith.

Brad Hart said...

Brian states:

"I'm sorry. I don't buy it. You can't prove someone's motives or decisions, simply through circumstantial association."

I think that is EXACTLY what Jon and I are trying to say. Remember that you don't have ANY concrete evidence to prove that Washington was an orthodox Christian. The sword cuts both ways.

But on the PREPONDERANCE of the evidence it is clear that Washington AT LEAST had some reservations about orthodoxy.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Brian,

Instead of dragging the argument out here, I think I'll respond in a substantive post, hopefully that will be up by tomorrow.

Brad Hart said...

I look forward to it Jon.

One further thing:

Brian states:

"In Washington's case, he aligned himself with the Anglican and later Episcopal Church. There's no reason why we should have to say things like "Yeah, but he really didn't agree with the church" or "He really didn't believe the things that the church taught." Unless you can show me DOCUMENTARY evidence where Washington disagrees with Anglican orthodoxy, our DEFAULT conclusion should be that he was comfortable with it."

I fail to understand how Washington's attendance to a particular church is somehow a "DEFAULT" conclusion in defense of his orthodoxy. We may not have his words on the Anglican/Episcopal Faith, but we certainly have his actions. He may never have stated that he was AGAINST the faith, but the fact that he was never CONFIRMED raises suspicion. And as Jon has already pointed out, attendance to a Trinitarian church is in no way indicative of a person's belief in said faith. A large number of attendees to these meetings believed in a more unitarian doctrine. I guess the best analogy would be to point out that most catholics do not believe they are partaking of the LITERAL body and blood of Christ, yet they still attend Mass.

Again, nobody is denying that Washington was a man of faith. What we are saying is that there is no evidence to support his orthodoxy or his loyalty to the Anglican/Episcopal faith. Mere attendance does not suffice.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, Jon, it was just starting to get good. Mr. Tubbs had the floor...

His initial quote was quite provocative, and we should concentrate on it first.

But we must examine the quote in whole and in better context. Note "obligations" is quite a temporal, not eternal concern.

The source document.

Washington is pleading for more support. Is he merely playing Gen. Nelson, pushing his buttons, as any Great Leader might and must? Whether or not he's sincere about becoming a preacher someday, the somewhat desperate Gen. Washington is surely arguing that "God is on our side!"

It is not a little pleasing, nor less wonderful to contemplate, that after two years Manoeuvring and undergoing the strangest vicissitudes that perhaps ever attended any one contest since the creation both Armies are brought back to the very point they set out from and, that that, which was the offending party in the beginning is now reduced to the use of the spade and pick axe for defence. The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that [he who---TVD] has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations, but, it will be time enough for me to turn preacher, when my present appointment ceases; and therefore, I shall add no more on the Doctrine of Providence; but make a tender of my best respects to your good Lady; the Secretary and other friends and assure you that with the most perfect regard I am etc...

Lordy, people are so impatient around here.

Phil Johnson said...

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It's apparent that I'm not one of those persons who is driven to check out every historical detail; but, I do spend quality time in the overall.
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It comes to me that the Founders made up a coterie of intellectual philosophers each of whom was driven to bring about a new nation for high purposes beyond what average men might conceive.
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Politicians always take the power of the masses into consideration when they give speeches and express their preferences. No politician ever achieves straight out success claiming unpopular stances with the electorate being romanced.
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With all due respect to George Washington, it seems most probable that being referred to as "that old fox" had something to do with what it meant to be a fox. Most of the Founders, if not all, raised chickens and they knew all about foxes. So, rather than come out and put his beliefs on the table for all to see, I am sure he made comments out of which his audiences inferred what they wanted to hear--not just then; but, today as well.
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I seriously doubt George Washington wanted the electorate to know anything about him that might have been untoward his most ardent desires.
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Brian Tubbs said...

Phil, I agree with your point about the "fox" thing. Well said.

For the record, I agree that Washington PROBABLY had some doubts or reservations concerning Episcopal orthodoxy.

But Episcopal orthodoxy goes beyond the basic, core CHRISTIAN tenets. One does not have to be an orthodox Episcopalian in order to be a Christian.

Brad Hart said...

Yes, Washington embraced a number of Christian tenets. Of this there is no debate.

As for his orthodoxy, I think we have reached a good understanding. There is more than a reasonable doubt on this issue. Most likely Washington was not an orthodox believer.

Brian Tubbs said...

I guess my point is that, even if Washington was not fully in agreement with Episcopal orthodoxy, that doesn't mean he disagreed with the deity of Jesus.

I think people too quickly jump from Washington's reluctance and frequent refusal to take Communion to "Washington didn't believe in Jesus." That's a big jump.

I can't say for certain that Washington saw Jesus in the same general way that I - and other evangelicals - do. But I can say that the evidence stacks up pretty well that he did, even if he may have had some quibbles with other doctrines of the Episcopal Church (which doesn't bother me, since I'm not an Episcopalian. :-) ).

Brad Hart said...

Brian writes:

"I think people too quickly jump from Washington's reluctance and frequent refusal to take Communion to 'Washington didn't believe in Jesus.' That's a big jump."

I am in complete agreement. I think going either way on this issue -- too far to the orthodoxy or too far to deism -- is a grave mistake.

Jonathan Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

"But I can say that the evidence stacks up pretty well that he did,..."

This may be a Rorschach moment on the way we react to Washington's deafening silence on Jesus Christ. The only two instances Washington's public or private writings speak of Jesus by name or person were written in other peoples' hand. And the Circular to the States which describes GW as "divine" is at least consistent with Arianism which saw JC as a divine but created but and perhaps consistent with Socinianism which saw JC as on a divine mission.

Two times in 20,000 pages (esp. not written in GW's hand) is not much in my opinion. That's exactly the number of times GW referred to God as "the Great Spirit" when addressing unconverted Native Americans, something Lillback has no problem waving away with his intellectual hand.

Brian Tubbs said...

A couple years ago, I wrote an article on GW's faith for a Baptist preachers' leadership journal. My conclusion was that George Washington was "probably" a Christian (in that he embraced the deity of Jesus and identified himself as a Christian), BUT that he was nowhere near as evangelical or as evangelistic as we (my audience was fellow Baptists) would like.

I'm open to the possibility that Washington may NOT have confessed Jesus as God, but I don't think the evidence takes us that far.