Saturday, April 3, 2010

"I Am The Resurrection And The Life...": Washington's Very Christian Tomb

There has been considerable debate here at American Creation over whether George Washington was a genuine, authentic Christian -- a debate that is of course not limited to this site. Many claim Washington was a Deist. Some, while acknowledging "Deist" is a bit extreme, say Washington was only nominally a Christian, and that, in all likelihood, he never really embraced the deity of Jesus Christ or the orthodox tenets of the Christian faith.

One thing is certain, though: The tomb which currently contains the remains of George and Martha Washington is very Christian.

The Washington Family Tomb

When George Washington died in 1799, his remains were placed temporarily in a family burial vault that was in a state of disrepair. In his will, Washington directed that a new tomb be constructed "at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Inclosure."

The project was delayed for several years, but in 1831, the remains of George and Martha Washington were finally moved to their new resting place. Work on the tomb, particularly its majestic brick enclosure, were concluded in 1835. Today, twenty-five Washington family members are at rest in the tomb.

The Washington Tomb's Christian Message

Visitors to Mount Vernon have the opportunity to look into the tomb containing the remains of George and Martha Washington, along with those of several other members of the Washington family. Standing just a few feet away from the actual remains of our nation's First Couple is something that's quite impressive to any true history buff.

And those who carefully study the back wall of the open vault will find an inscription that quotes some of Jesus' most famous words: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."

This quote is taken from John 11:25-26, where Jesus tries to assure Lazarus' family that his earthly death is not the end.

The inclusion of John 11:25-26 unmistakably associates the Washington family, including George and Martha, with the promise of the resurrection of the dead, the central claim of Christianity.

Christianity's Resurrection Claim

Since this blog is read by people from many different faiths, it's not my intention to preach. And since it's more about the study of early American history, I won't provide any kind of detailed explanation of the Christian belief in resurrection. Nevertheless, in order to understand the rationale behind the inscription on the Washington tomb, some explanation is in order.

In I Corinthians 15, Paul emphasizes the promise of life after death, tying its credibility to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What's more, Paul makes clear that he's not offering some kind of poetic platitude designed to make people feel good. He truly believes in the reality of the Christian faith and elevates Christianity above any exercise in wishful thinking.

**See "Paul And The Deity of Jesus" over at Suite101 Protestantism

The fifteenth chapter of Paul's first letter to Corinth declares the resurrection of Jesus to be an actual event and claims that over five hundred people (many of whom still alive at the time of his writing) saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. In between the lines, he is essentially daring those who are skeptical to seek out those eyewitnesses.

It's because of this resurrection, Paul writes, that Christians can believe in the "resurrection of the dead." And, says Paul, if somehow the resurrection didn't happen (if it was a hoax), then "our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (I Corinthians 15:12-14).

In his letter to Rome, Paul similarly writes that belief that "God raised [Jesus] from the dead" is essential to one's salvation (Romans 10:9-10).

It is this resurrection that Christians celebrate every Easter, and it's this resurreciton that gives Christians everywhere the assurance of their faith and validates the promises of eternity with God (John 3:16; Romans 3:22-26).

Washington's Christian Faith

Was the decision of Washington's family to put John 11:25-26 above his and Martha's remains reflective of the general's faith? Did George Washington believe in the "resurrection of the dead"? Did Washington believe in Jesus' resurrection?

Joseph Ellis, in his Washington biography His Excellency, concludes that based on the lack of clergy present and/or any recorded overt declarations of faith in Jesus, George Washington "died as a Roman Stoic rather than a Christian saint."

Of course, as Michael and Jana Novak point out in Washington's God, there is "not really a contradiction between being a Stoic and a Christian...regarding key virtues of daily living." Nevertheless, Ellis joins the ranks of many scholars and everyday Americans who argue that George Washington was not really a Christian.

It should also be noted that, one month after his husband's passing, Martha Washington wrote Jonathan Trumbull: "When the mind is deeply afflicted by those irreparable losses which are incident to humanity, the good Christian will submit without repining to the dispensations of divine Providence, and look for consolation to that Being who alone can pour balm into the bleeding heart, and who has promised to be the widow's God."

Martha's note reflects a biblical knowledge of God's promises regarding grief, widows, and sovereignty. She clearly casts herself as a Christian, striving to be a "good" one. Given Martha's use of the word "Providence" (her husband's favorite word for God) and the closeness of their marriage, is it too much to conclude that George and Martha Washington had more in common in their understanding of God and Christianity than not?

Nelly Custis-Lewis wrote that George and Martha Washington "were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian" and that Martha "had no doubts, no fears for him" as she "resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity." Ms. Custis-Lee should know. She was Martha's granddaughter and adoptive daughter to both George and Martha, upon her father's untimely death. It should also be noted that Nelly was the wife of Lawrence Lewis, the Washington nephew who oversaw construction of the tomb.

It is true that George Washington made few public statements, verbally or in writing, in which he mentioned the name of Jesus Christ. This isn't to say that Washington never mentioned Jesus (as some who challenge Washington's Christian faith allege), but it's true that Washington kept public pronouncements about Jesus to a minimum. It's also true that Washington so frequently refused to partake of Communion that many biographers have concluded he rarely (if ever) took Communion.

John Marshall, a Washington friend and future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, argued that this shouldn't be used as evidence against Washington's Christian beliefs. Marshall explained: "Without making ostentatious professions of religion, [George Washington] was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man."

Nineteenth century histian Jared Sparks bluntly declared: "To say that [George Washington] was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty."

Whatever the degree of George Washington's personal belief in Jesus Christ, the Washington tomb, completed in 1831, points to the central promise of Christianity - the one that hundreds of millions of people around the world celebrate each and every Easter, including this one:

"I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."

Happy Easter!




23 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

"resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity."

Brian,

I know of the authenticity of Nelly's letter to Jared Sparks. However, I'm having a hard time finding this in a good primary source.

Can you point to one?

Jonathan Rowe said...

I would also hesitate to draw too much of a conclusion from Martha's faith. I myself have been personally aquainted with marriages where one party (the wife) was a lifelong Christian, the other, agnostic. And in both cases, the agnostic gets a Christian burial (one of whom was my grandfather).

I also wonder whether noble lying or hopeful universalism is present here.

My next door neighbor growing up (btw one of the nicest people I've ever come across in this world) is a very devout evangelical, but somewhat theologically moderate. You can tell her theology from her two favorite preachers: Billy Graham and Robert Schuller.

Now her husband died a lifelong agnostic. He was given a Christian funeral in her church. And the Rev. even made jokes about Ray (his name) talking carpentry with Jesus now (because Ray was a carpenter as a hobby).

But it was also clear that Ray didn't (or probably didn't) have a last minute conversion to Christianity because his body wasn't present at the funeral. An agnostic man of science, he donated his body to a hospital for medical and scientific research.

Most folks at the funeral (at least seemingly) don't think too hard about dynamics like this. I do.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm with Jon and Joseph Ellis on this one. But it seems to me Washington was quite willing to leave the public with the impression he was a Christian, so much so that even friends like John Marshall had that impression.

And yes, Brian, you did sneak in a preach.

J. L. Bell said...

As this article states, the Washingtons’ tomb was created more than three decades after George and Martha died.

There’s nothing in George Washington’s will or other documents to indicate that he wanted those Biblical verses included in a memorial to him. They reflect how others wished to remember him and have him remembered.

This article says a lot about the writer’s faith, and eagerness to proselytize, but little about George Washington’s thinking.

Brian Tubbs said...

It's interesting that a person who disagrees with Christianity can take full liberties of explaining and analyzing Christian theology - and NO ONE says a thing about his (or her) trying to proseltyze.

But when a Christian does it, and does so legitimately as part of an explanation to an inscription on a tomb, he's accused of having an "eagerness to proselytize" and "sneaking in a preach."

Oh well.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon,

I got the quote from an article about Washington's faith. If I had the time, though, I could go to Mount Vernon and comb through their records and, I'm sure, find it there. And were I writing a dissertation or scholarly paper, I would do that.

Anyway, here's what Mount Vernon has to offer...

http://www.mountvernon.org/visit/plan/index.cfm/pid/353/

Brad Hart said...

I think Brian is, at least, partially right. I don't really see him preaching here, and its silly that he should be restricted in some way of mentioning Christian theology in any matter simply because he is a pastor. Nothing he said here, as it applies to Christian theology, was inappropriate, nor do I see an attempt to "preach" on his part. Perhaps Brian was a bit overzealous in his attempt to portray Washington in a certain light (and for the record, I agree with Mr. Bell that this hardly proves anything as it relates to Washington's faith).

With that said, I do have to agree with everyone else here, Brian. Washington's gravestone does not seem to prove very much except that subsequent generations wanted to portray Washington in a certain way. And Jon's point about a devout spouse holding a Christian ceremony for his/her agnostic spouse makes a lot of sense.

I know that this is probably the biggest issue that you and I disagree on, Brian. But again, I see zero conclusive evidence, either way, proving Washington's orthodoxy/heresy. This seems to simply be more of the same: circumstantial material that cannot really prove much.

But let's not discount your argument entirely either. I think this post can be further evidence to discredit the "Washington is a deist" crap.

Brian Tubbs said...

My post was designed to show that Martha Washington, Nelly Parke Custis-Lewis, and Lawrence Lewis all believed George Washington to be a Christian. The tomb inscription reflects this, at least as it pertains to Lawrence and Nelly Lewis.

I'm not suggesting that it's conclusive evidence, but it IS evidence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Since I've noted when other bloggers have done "commercials" for their faith, although I wouldn't go so far as calling it "proselytizing,"

Whatever the degree of George Washington's personal belief in Jesus Christ, the Washington tomb, completed in 1831, points to the central promise of Christianity - the one that hundreds of millions of people around the world celebrate each and every Easter, including this one:

"I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."


qualifies as a "preach" IMO. I just thought I should be consistent.

Upon further review of Brian's link, that

Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph Ellis similarly downplays Washington's faith, arguing that the nation's first President was “never a deeply religious man" and saw God merely “as a distant, impersonal force, the presumed well-spring of what he called destiny or providence"

I think is a bridge too far, and I withdraw my agreement with Ellis. Washington's first inaugural speech indicates a God who is more than a distant, impersonal force.

http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres13.html

But I do agree there's nothing on record---at least that I'm aware of---that indicates Washington envisioned a Christian-style afterlife.

Brian Tubbs said...

Tom, it's not a point of major contention between us, but I have to respectfully disagree. The only thing that might qualify as preachy in my post is my "Happy Easter" salutation at the end.

The quote you provide as an example of a "preach" is a statement of fact.

Lawrence Lewis and his wife, Nelly, most certainly intended for the inscription to "point to the central promise of Christianity" which is "the one that hundreds of millions of people around the world celebrate each and every Easter," namely that Jesus is the "resurrection and the life" and those who believe in him "will never die."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aw, Brian, I felt really bad about being such a humbug on Easter Sunday, but felt obliged to be equal-opportunity about faith "commercials" on our blog. We just can make no link between GWash and the afterlife from his writings or speeches, let alone resurrections of any sort.

But I do want to return to the point about the "public" Washington, which is the only one that really matters in our study of religion and the Founding, since it tells us more than just about the private man, it tells us about the people around him and the spirit of the times, and this incredibly sensitive, astute and likely instinctive statesman's awareness of them.

Because our purpose is to study the whole, the zeitgeist, the prevailing sentiments of the age: since we have no Pew polls to lean on, things like this are our best windows.

Clearly, Washington purposely extended the ambiguity about his personal beliefs to his personal relations so thoroughly that even a friend, John Marshall, and a member of his own household,
Nelly Custis-Lewis, were left with the impression he was as orthodox a Christian as [presumably] the next guy. [Especially if the "next guy" was the unitarian John Marshall.]

And let me add here---as good a time as any---something we almost completely miss, something that you, Brian, touched on and that Jonathan Rowe expanded on: women and religion.

I haven't done any serious digging into the women of the Founding and their religious beliefs, Martha Washington for instance, but I believe it's a fairly accepted truism that at least in the Olden Days, women were more "religious" than their men. I won't dig into the most recent Pew polls, but men have historically being credited with the attitude "my wife takes care of the religion for the both of us."

I once challenged a former contributor to this blog, a putative modern "feminist," judging by her screen persona, to speak on Martha and the rest of the Founding Women's "religion." The putative feminist ignored that challenge.

And if we read our Tocqueville, although denied the vote, the American woman was by no means a second-class citizen, no thankless drudge nor was she put on some pedestal where she was worshipped but expected to keep silent about the doings in the real world. The American woman was a full member of her household, no more no less.

Yes, of course in the private ballot, the man of the house could vote as he wished, regardless of his wife's input. But the American woman was emancipated long before she had the right to vote. This was palpable---obvious---to the foreigner Tocqueville as soon as he hit American shores.

My point being after all this, that George Washington lies at rest under words reflecting Martha's religious beliefs, which I believe would not trouble him atall, indeed quite pleased, if she turned out to be right that there was indeed a Resurrection, and there is an afterlife afterall.

Brian Tubbs said...

Tom,

Three things...

1) As far as the "faith commercial" thing, I know where you are coming from, but I think there's a difference between my saying "There is an afterlife" and "Christians believe there is an afterlife." The first is preaching. The second is not, and if you re-read my post, you'll see I'm writing more in the form of the latter. I honestly didn't think I was being preachy.

2) It's funny you bring up the women angle, because I'm planning my next post to be about Martha Washington's faith.

3) I don't see Washington "purposefully extending ambiguity" about his faith. I see him as a man who was absolutely, unequivocally devout in his belief in God and prayer, but much more reserved (perhaps in doubt, perhaps just reserved) when it came to Jesus. There is SOME evidence he believed in Jesus' deity and resurrection. There is NO evidence that he rejected Jesus' deity and resurrection. (His refusal to take Communion is NOT evidence of rejecting the deity of Christ. There are MANY reasons why a person would decline Communion).

Jonathan Rowe said...

"There is SOME evidence he believed in Jesus' deity and resurrection. There is NO evidence that he rejected Jesus' deity and resurrection. (His refusal to take Communion is NOT evidence of rejecting the deity of Christ. There are MANY reasons why a person would decline Communion).

I think this is just wrong. There is in fact EVIDENCE for both propositions. The evidence on both sides is just not conclusive in a smoking gun sense.

The fact that GW systematically avoided communion IS evidence that he didn't believe in Christ's atonement. Yes there are other explanations. That's why it's not a smoking gun.

Likewise the fact that in all of GW's RECORDED personal correspondence he never talks of JC by name or example, but has lots of Providence talk is evidence that GW had no personal relationship with Him, accepted Him as a risen Savior.

Likewise, the evidence that you can marshal for why GW might have believed in Jesus' Deity and Ressurection is so small that it could be explained away as well.

Tom Van Dyke said...

OK, Brian, sorry. No preach.

Looking forward to Martha's religion.

As for George's, if we can believe Jefferson;

"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.

jimmiraybob said...

“Nelly Custis-Lewis wrote that George and Martha Washington ‘were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian’ and that Martha ‘had no doubts, no fears for him’ as she ‘resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity.’ Ms. Custis-Lee should know.”

This is no more than speculation. That someone that is held up as a key and knowledgeable witness, someone so close to the situation that they surely must have special knowledge, cannot produce any tangible evidence is telling. Not one letter or note to her from GW? She cannot even recount one conversation in which GW witnessed to his devotion to JC as a personal savior? This is an appeal to authority and a form of special pleading.

Consider the mother of a gang member that’s been arrested for murder. You see her on the nightly news sobbing and swearing that her boy was raised in a good Christian home and certainly couldn’t have done the crime because he was a good boy. Unfortunately, there’re video, fingerprints and eye witnesses, including a former member of the gang the son belonged to, that clearly implicates the son. Oops. Yes, she was close but has a vested interest in believing in and conveying her son’s innocence. Perhaps to protect the son’s and the family’s legacy. Perhaps she can’t admit her own culpability. Perhaps something else.

"’Without making ostentatious professions of religion, [George Washington] was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man.’"

Conjecture, unsupported by independent objective evidence. Additionally, the statement itself is ambiguous. Did GW believe in the central tenet*(s) of the Christian faith or did he believe in the Christian faith as a means toward the kind of private and public virtue that all of the founders thought to be the central foundation of a successful republic? If so it would come as no surprise since he has provided written evidence to that effect that also includes other pathways to virtue. And, GW may have been “a truly devout man” but that doesn’t necessarily equate with Christianity.

[continued]

jimmiraybob said...

"To say that [George Washington] was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty."

Ascribing one’s own prejudices isn’t evidence. Sincerity and honesty are not singularly Christian virtues and are not necessarily ubiquitous within Christianity.

“’not really a contradiction between being a Stoic and a Christian...regarding key virtues of daily living.’”

This brings nothing to the table other than the possibility of overlapping virtues. Jefferson thought himself (in writing) an Epicurean and a Christian, which in my view also indicates overlapping virtues but really doesn’t settle the question of one over the other. Many a devout and pious Roman Pagan probably also practiced some overlapping virtues with Paul.

The conclusion that GW was a Christian does not necessarily follow from the evidence presented. These analyses amount to accumulated weak testimony to support a desired conclusion. At best, after objectively examining the evidence, we’re only left with the possibility of GW having been a Christian believing in the central tenet of Christianity*.

As to whether or not GW believed in the central tenet of Christianity* based on a plaque with Scriptural verse, there’s no mention of Scripture or the resurrection in his last will and testament (or Martha’s). GW (and Martha and other family members) was happy to be interred in a simple and unadorned vault until the new tomb could be completed. That someone later thought that the addition of Scripture was appropriate in no way shines light on GW’s beliefs.

As to speculation, I just can’t imagine that someone of such strong character as GW that piously and devoutly believed in salvation through Jesus and the resurrection would not have shared his testimony to that effect. Maybe just once. Maybe someday a letter may surface that puts the whole kit and caboodle to rest. But until then......

* a belief in salvation through the resurrection.

Pinky said...
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Pinky said...

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Brian Tubbs said...

To All: I never claimed any of the evidence I presented was "smoking gun," nor did I conclude that George Washington was a devout, Bible-believing, evangelical Christian.

I do feel, however, that the opinion of Washington's family is a PERSPECTIVE that's not been given enough attention at this site. I thought my piece therefore would add something to the discussion.

Tom Van Dyke said...


Ascribing one’s own prejudices isn’t evidence.


I think JRB hits the nail on the head here as a method of historical analysis re Nelly Parke Custis-Lewis' letters and observations.

But I'd like to restate a point made above, which supports what Brian's saying here, that Washington held his theological cards so close to the vest that even members of his household couldn't tell his theology, let alone the general public.

This tells us more about the religious landscape of the Founding era than whatever we might find in Washington's private beliefs or even private letters, that he found it necessary and desirable to keep mum.

[As a minor point, from what I've read about Episcopalian church services of that time, a) Communion (the Eucharist) wasn't offered every Sunday as in the Roman church and b) it appears that a substantial proportion of the attendees headed for the exits when Communion was offered. Not taking Communion was a bit of a scandal according to the clergyman's instructions in The Book of Common Prayer, but socially in America, no big deal.]

[Sorry I never did a post on this, but I'm lazy and I consider it a minor point. I found this factoid not in some historian's account, but in reading through the Book of Common Prayer for myself.]

Anonymous said...

For those who doubt President Washington's knowledge and belief of christianity read his first inaugural speech. Then read George Washington, Christian, 1917, read The Life of George Washington, 1807, read his letters to his nephew.

There is a book of George Washington quotes in which he refers to God in biblical terms over 70 different ways. How many biblical reference can you make for God?

Anonymous said...

What is your test of a Christian? Does the era in which you live have an influence on the words and phrases you use to describe your beliefs?

For instance would declaring days of prayer and fasting be an indication? How many such events did President Washington declare? How about as General Washington? We have records of such declarations.

Would that be an indication?

How about adding "So help me God" to the ending of the Oath written in the Constitution? The ending that is used to this day but not written in the Constitution version of the oath. Would that be an indication?

How about his speech to the troops in New York in 1775 when he talked about

"We have therefore to resolve to conquer or to die. Our own, our country's honor, calls upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion; and if we now shameful fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us then rely on the goodness of our cause, and the aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions. The eyes of all our countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the tyranny mediated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a freeman contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth."

Bouncy said...

People trying to asset that Washington was not a Christian are hoping that he wasn't. All one has to know is that he was a praying man, that his God was not other than the Judao-Christian God and we all know that. There would be no other God that is a personal God. If he had been a Buddhist his life would have reflected that. His peers and colleagues were Christians, too. In his time people did not mention "Jesus" directly. They didn't know that maybe they should, like today's Christians do. Prayers were ended with "Amen," not "In Jesus' Name, Amen."
The atheist HOPES that he was not a Christian. Everything he did regarding his life as a believer showed a godly man's life, with the Judao-Christian God. Athiests, and Muslims, can hope every day that he was not a Christian but that won't make it so. They don't want his greatness attributed to Jesus.