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.