Wednesday, April 29, 2009

John Fea on Washington's Religion

Just wanted to briefly mention a recent posting done by historian John Fea over at his personal blog. Dr. Fea briefly mentions a recent class he held on Washington's religion along with some of his own comments.

Obviously this has been a major topic here at American Creation. Of all the founders discussed, Washington seems to come up much more than the others. Personally, I see the religious creed of George Washington as a bit of an enigma, since he rarely if ever mentioned it in his personal writings. However, I am in agreement with Dr. Fea that when judging Washington's personal faith we must do so by the traditional 18th century standards of his time. As a result, Washington comes off looking like a nominal Anglican/Episcopalian at best.

I am reminded of the efforts of Christian Nation supporter Peter Lillback, author of the book Sacred Fire, which attempts to portray Washington as a ultra-evangelical Christian -- in the 21st century context of course. Anyway, Lillback claims that the "written prayers" of Washington clearly portray our nation's first Commander-in-Chief to be a staunch Christian. I find his conclusions a bit confusing, given the fact that Lillback provides NOT ONE reference to Washington praying to Jesus. Here are the actual words -- the "God Talk" if you will -- that Washington used in his "written prayers" to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used. Again, this all comes from Lillback's book:

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Salvation" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

With such neutral language combined with his limited church attendance and his lack of regular communion, I find it difficult to defend Washington's orthodoxy. My guess is that Dr. Fea would agree.

Anyway, I encourage you all to read Dr. Fea's post on this subject!


Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not one to pump Washington's Christian orthodoxy. Some of his remarks about the coldness of the seem more pagan than "saved."

However, I do wonder about the 5 references to "Lord," The Lord being a uniquely Christian locution.

Fea also mentions Washington's spotty church attendance. Leafing through his diary one day, I was struck at how often GW attended services, especially in his first year as president. One day, he went twice!

Washington's diary here.If Washington wasn't devout in private life, he seemed to want to set an example of piety as president.

[Also interesting in the diary is that Washington speaks little of politics, but is fascinated by the farms of the countryside. It's often been said that he liked his life as a farmer at Mt. Vernon far more than being a general or a president.]

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oooops. I meant to write "coldness of the grave."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Good post Brad. Though I think Lillback is a little more slippery than you make him out to be. He states Washington was an "orthodox Trinitarian Christian," and tries to avoid the "evangelical" label. But at times, I can see Lillback trying to press it on him.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Lillback makes his thesis here. I'm not terribly impressed, but he should be allowed to speak for himself.

His best argument, albeit not proving Washington was an orthodox Christian, or even a Christian of any recognizable stripe, is this:

Washington referred to himself frequently using the words “ardent,” “fervent,” “pious,” and “devout."

Brad [& Jon], Lillback claims that

There are over one hundred different prayers composed and written by Washington in his own hand, with his own words, in his writings."

True? False?

Still, Lillback does make the "theist" case quite convincingly---

"He described himself as one of the deepest men of faith of his day when he confessed to a clergyman, “No Man has a more perfect Reliance on the alwise, and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have nor thinks his aid more necessary.

Me, I'd like to know what Washington meant by his references to "The Lord." Or was it "The" Lord, or just "Lord" of this or that or whatever?

Dr. Lillback, as head of the Westminster Theological Seminary, is more part of the culture wars than the scholarly historical wars, so my interest in him is minimal. But I'll examine people's claims on their own merits. When Lillback writes the below, I tend to agree with his counterattack on secular revisionism.

"It was not until around the time of the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, in 1932, that the consensus began to shift to the view that Washington was a Deist, that is, one who is generally non-religious, believing merely in a very remote and impersonal God.

The definitive change in scholarly attitude seems to have occurred in 1963 when Professor Paul Boller wrote his book entitled George Washington and Religion. Professor Boller wrote, “Broadly speaking, of course, Washington can be classified as a Deist.” Most recent scholars have accepted Boller’s thesis and have developed this perspective. Thus recent works on Washington’s faith describe our Founding Father as: “A lukewarm Episcopalian,” “a warm Deist,” “not a deeply religious man,” “not particularly ardent in his faith,” “one who avoided, as was the Deist custom, the word ‘God.’” If these evaluations of Washington’s faith are accurate, then it would seem appropriate to minimize the role of faith in Washington’s life.

The reasons for the scholarly minimizing of Washington’s faith seem to be due to factors related to three reasons: the uniqueness of Washington himself, the perspectives of recent historians, and the nature and availability of the relevant evidence.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Lillback is right re the prayers; but none, not one, was found done in Jesus' name or using orthodox biblical language. The kind of prayers Lillback finds are exactly the kind that Jefferson ended his 1802 Wall of Separation Letter to the Danbury Baptists.

As I read Lillback's book he proves GW was not a "Deist" in the same sense that Franklin and Jefferson were not "Deists."

Brad Hart said...

Yep, I agree. Clearly Lillback destroys the ridiculous argument that Washington was a deist. Anywone worth half their salt will realize this. One the flip side of that coin, I think it's also clear that his "orthodoxy" "Christianity" whatever is strongly in doubt. There's just so very little evidence to support it.

Ray Soller said...

Speaking of Paul Boller, here's a snippet of a 3/26/09 letter I received from him:

When I was working on Presidential Inaugurations, I examined King George III's coronation in 1761 to see how different it was from an American Inauguration. I found that it was a religious ceremony that involved the Anglican Church bishops and lasted all day. But things went wrong, here and there, at the fancy ceremony, which made people look ridiculous. It ended with a grand banquet for the King and Queen, and at one point that evening the Steward was scheduled to ride into the banquet hall on horseback and do some obeisance to the King. The steward realized that after honoring the King he'd have to leave the banquet hall with the horse's rear facing the King. So he carefully trained the horse to walk backward so it would never have its rear facing the King. Trouble was, when the time came for him to enter the hall, the horse insisted on walking backward up to the King with his hind end full in view.

You might be interested in knowing that years ago, when I was beginning my academic career, I published a book on Washington and Religion, in which I came to the conclusion that Washington was basically a Deist. The book appearing in 1963, has been out of print many years, but during the past few years some pietists have published books calling my book, :iconoclastic and insisting Washington was an evangelical Christian. They're wrong of course, but there are some people who are defending my book.

I guess, if we're not careful, some people will be portraying Washington as a preacher who delivered rip-roaring sermons at Valley Forge! [end snippet]

I could be dead wrong about this, but I view Boller's horse story as something of an anecdotal commentary on the Lillback & associates approach towards George Washington & his religion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I guess, if we're not careful, some people will be portraying Washington as a preacher who delivered rip-roaring sermons at Valley Forge! [end snippet]Well, since at least the 1960s, the error has been on the other side, painting Washington as a deist.

Brad & Jon, I was unaware of Washington's hand-written prayers. Apparently this slipped through the cracks of the culture wars.

I'd like to examine them. Can you direct me to a reliable source for them? I'm quite aware there are lots of bogus ones out there circulating on the internet.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Henriques' speaking notes for a debate on Washington's religiousness.

[not for publication, he writes, just FYI for all here interested...]

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

Actually Tom, this may be misleading on Lillback's part to term them "handwritten prayers." They are LETTERS like the kind we've been examining all year here where GW ends with colloquialisms like "I pray that you accept...."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, well that's nonsense. "Prithee" doesn't necessarily refer to God.

Still, anything you got. I'd like to examine it all for myself. The truth is getting pinched between the two agendas.

Brad Hart said...


Jon pretty much answered this. There are no "written prayers." This is simply a phrase coined by Lillback, who uses Washington's old letters, General Orders, etc. and then cites them as "written prayers."

To be honest, Lillback's book is the only place I know of where the "written prayers" are mentioned. An entire appendix from his book is devoted to them. That is where I went to count up the number of times certain words were used by Washington. I guess that is why I made such a big deal of them. Lillback's own book gives zero accounts of Washington praying to Jesus specifically.

I've looked all over the internet and cannot find anywhere for you to access a digital copy of the book. Sorry, but I think you'd have to buy it. Just FYI, it isn't a terrible book. Lillback does do an excellent job of refuting the whole "deist" garbage, which is half of his thesis. However, he falls terribly short of convincing the reader of anything more.

Maybe we should do some kind of a book exchange on this blog. I'll send you my copy of "Sacred Fire" if you like, in exchange for something you might have of interest...that is, if you'd be interested in such a thing.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well here is a document that you are probably familiar with, GW's THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATION.

This is about as prayerful as GW gets:

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord.When discussing the Trinity, Lillback is so desperate to find evidence of it that he finds it there. "Lord and Ruler of Nations" -- since the Bible says Jesus is Lord and would Rule over nations then that's got to be GW offering a prayer to Jesus. It's all these bridges too far that make for very annoying reading; but in his sorta defense, more secular scholars like Boller make those bridges too; but two wrongs don't make a right, especially when your book is in part dedicated to finding the speck or the mote in Paul Boller's eye!

Tom Van Dyke said...

I must admit I don't have much in the way of books. I get angry at how both sides bend the truth, even the ones my POV is sympathetic to.

Case in point, this Lillback thing. "Written prayers," my ass.

On the other hand, Lillback writes:

Washington referred to himself frequently using the words “ardent,” “fervent,” “pious,” and “devout."This stuff seems completely glossed over by Lillback's opponents, par for the adversarial course the topic of religion and the Founding has taken.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's all these bridges too far that make for very annoying reading; but in [Lillback's] sorta defense, more secular scholars like Boller make those bridges too; but two wrongs don't make a right, especially when your book is in part dedicated to finding the speck or the mote in Paul Boller's eye!Yes, Jon, and then vice-versa and the snowball to hell [or epistemological nihilism] keeps rolling and growing. These people are all so bloody annoying.

Ray Soller said...

As a result, Washington comes off looking like a nominal Anglican/Episcopalian at best.

In the course material, hist615 - The Final Struggle Between George Washington and the Grim King:
Washington’s Attitude Toward Death and Afterlife
, Henriques offer one of his best insights into Washington's "religion" where he offers this snippet:

Certainly, Washington’s courage in the face of possible death, stoical in nature from whatever source it was drawn, was one of the trademarks of his life. At the age of seventeen, young Washington owned an outline in English of the principal Dialogues of Seneca the Younger. One of the chapter heads was entitled, “The Contempt of Death makes all the Miseries of Life Easy to Us”. Seneca also wrote, “He is the brave man…that can look death in the face without trouble or surprise”.

In classical stoicism, the true stoic may fall victim to circumstance beyond his control, suffer and perhaps die, but his superior control over his passions calls forth admiration and leads to a reaffirmation of the dignity of man. [end snippet]

Ray Soller said...

Sorry, I hit the publish button too soon. I was about to offer my opinion about the Fea/Hart summing up of GW's religion as contrasted to what Henriques had to say. On second thought, I'll just leave as it is.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Stoicism's effect on Washington is something that requires cross-disciplinary study: of history, religion and philosophy. There is no doubt the effect of Stoicism carries into GW's adult life, as it pops out now and then in his less guarded moments in his letters.

In the entire Greco-Roman sphere, Seneca [and the Stoics as a whole] were the best embodiment of what Aquinas called "general" revelation---"right" reason living in harmony with the natural law and an objective sense of The Good. Tertullian, an early church father, called him "our Seneca" and Dante's Inferno assigned him to Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, the kinda mellow, untorturous place where the very best of the "unsaved" went, the virtuous, the philosophers. There they would wait until the Second Coming, according to most Christian theologies.

[NEWSFLASH: The Vatican has closed Limbo. Seneca and Washington's are unknown at this time. Updates as they come in...]

But seriously, it's likely Washington was aware of the Inferno, and absent a rip-roaring faith in the tenets of orthodox Christianity, might have seen his fate as the same as Seneca's.

We should also keep in mind that the Stoics had a grave sense of divine providence, that what God [or the gods] decreed, it must be accepted, so much so that their religion might be said to subscribe to Divine Command Theory, that x is good because God says so, grounding the moral law in the divine law, although "natural law" offers itself as a bridge between them.

We've touched on all this in our discussions of such figures as John Locke and "key" Founder James Wilson, who also submit---going past earlier natural law thinkers---that the "natural law" is the will of God. The question isn't so much whether Seneca or Aquinas or Locke or Wilson are philosophically correct; our mission at this blog is to inquire into whether this belief system, this philosophical view, was the basis of the Founding.

I believe all of the above argument comports with Washington's writings, counterarguments welcome as always.

More here on DCT in the current moment, for those interested.

We can't know exactly what was in every Founder's head. Half the time, we don't even understand what's in our own heads. But we can find out the ideas and sentiments that were "in the air" of the time, and try to decipher the language they used to communicate with each other.