Friday, May 21, 2010

George Washington, David Barton and Unitarianism

David Barton, apparently, has a blog. It doesn't look too "noticed."

I am going to respond to this post entitled "Episcopal Church." Barton writes the following:

A further example of how revisionism attempts to misportray the religious faith of George Washington recently appeared in an ad in a national magazine. 72 That ad (promoting a new book) claimed “George Washington was Unitarian” and not Christian. The only problem with the charge is that it is not true. All of George Washington’s religious ties were to the Episcopal church, which did not hold Unitarian beliefs; furthermore, Washington died in 1799, and the Unitarians did not even organize until 1818 – nineteen years after Washington’s death!

I suspect this passage was lifted from another article of Barton's and the "72" is a footnote. I'd like to see where the footnote is to. The blogpost doesn't say. The problem with Barton's assertion is that he appears to 1) knock down a straw man, and 2) peddle factual inaccuracies while doing so.

The inaccuracy: It's not true that Unitarians didn't begin to organize in America until 1818. King's Chapel -- an Anglican/Episcopal Church! -- was (arguably) "Unitarian" as of 1786. Joseph Priestley helped found the First Unitarian Church in 1796.

It would help to know the exact claim Barton is attempting to counter. He almost certainly either 1) misunderstands it, or 2) intentionally misrepresents it. No one is stupid enough to argue that George Washington was a member of an official capital U Unitarian Church (like the kind Priestley helped form).

The claim rather made is that Washington was a theological unitarian, like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, and probably Madison. And theological unitarians, according to John Adams' own testimony, date back in America since at least 1750.

Jefferson and Madison were both, like Washington, formally connected with the Anglican/Episcopalian Church. There is no need to rehash Jefferson's religious creed here. His example shows one could reject every single doctrine of Christian orthodoxy while remaining an Anglican/Episcopalian and thinking himself a "Christian" and a "unitarian" at the same time.

Less evidence exists for Madison but we do have the following eye-witness account from George Ticknor, founder of the Boston public library:

I found the President more free and open than I expected, starting subjects of conversation and making remarks that sometimes savored of humor and levity. He sometimes laughed, and I was glad to hear it ; but his face was always grave. He talked of religious sects and parties, and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.— TICKNOR, GEORGE, 1815, Letter to his Father, Jan. 21 ; Life, Letters and Journals, vol. I, p. 30.

If this is accurate, that would be another Virginia Anglican/Episcopalian "key Founder" and President who was a theological unitarian. This doesn't prove George Washington was anything, but rather shows it was not unheard of for American Founders to be formally connected to a "Christian" church that professed orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, but still privately believe in unitarian doctrines.

And as my last post noted, to be an Anglican Whig meant, by nature, belonging to an institution from whose official doctrines you dissent.

The claim that Washington was a unitarian stems from, among other things, 1) that he systematically avoided communion in his church, suggesting he didn't believe in what the act stood for: Christ's Atonement; and 2) that in the voluminous extant corpus of his recorded words, there is no orthodox Trinitarian God talk. Yet, there is lots of God/Providence talk. Which would make him a theological unitarian by default.

This is an argument that Barton doesn't even begin to address.

Finally, the exact claim Barton claims to address is “'George Washington was Unitarian' and not Christian." The "unitarians" of the day -- for instance Thomas Jefferson, John Adams -- tended to call and think of themselves as "Christians" as well. Further, they likely believed Jesus "Savior" or "Messiah" in some unorthodox sense. Jared Sparks who offers testimony on behalf of Washington's "Christianity" was himself a unitarian in this sense and considered his creed a form of Christianity.

That begs the question are "unitarianism" and "Christianity" mutually exclusive concepts? Or can one be a "Christian" and a "unitarian" like the proponents of the latter claimed? Are doctrines like original sin, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, eternal damnation non-negotiable tenets of "Christianity" or things over which rational Christians can in good faith disagree? So when Jared Sparks, for instance, claimed Washington a "Christian," I don't believe he meant Washington believed in original sin, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc., but rather that Washington wasn't an atheist or a strict Deist.

This is an issue Barton needs to clarify as well when claims Washington a "Christian" and not a "Unitarian."


Steve Finnell said...

you are invited to follow my blog

Brad Hart said...

Great stuff, Jon. I will seriously look forward to your comments over at his blog. BTW, have you told Chris Rodda? I'd love to read her stuff too!

Brad Hart said...

Jon, after reading over the blog, I get the impression that this isn't David Barton but rather a fan. I hope I am wrong.

Jonathan Rowe said...

It could be someone else is running. But if they are, from the design of it, it better be with Barton's permission and under his authority. Or else the person is violating Barton's intellectual property he owns in his name and is comitting a fraud.

Brad Hart said...

I wonder if Barton/whoever is writing this blog would use the same logic with Thomas Jefferson. After all, he too was an Episcopalian. Does that mean he was a devout Christian as well?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think the real scholarly scandal here is a modern revisionist scholar grabbing hold of what should be a source text, "The Maxims of Washington," and putting his own arguable opinion at the top of each chapter.

That's the real story here. If Barton did it, my opinion would be the same. Washington's personal beliefs are unknown, because he wanted them that way.

Washington should be permitted to speak for himself, without any assistance from the culture warriors.

The original Maxims of Washington was recently reprinted in its entirety 70 – at least, almost in its entirety. The difference was that the introduction to each section was changed; and in the section on Washington’s religious maxims, the personal, eye-witness testimonies from those who declared George Washington to be a Christian were replaced by the commentary of a present-day professor claiming that George Washington was a deist, not a Christian. 71 This is revisionism – rejecting the testimony of eyewitnesses and replacing it with the opinion of a so-called “expert” two hundred years after the fact.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And far more interesting is a post below that one---where the great Deist [or whatever] Ethan Allen demands the British surrender of Ft. Ticonderoga:

"I ordered him to deliver to me the fort instantly; he asked me by what authority I demanded it: I answered him, “In the name of the great Jehovah, and the Continental Congress.”

...presumably that account is from Ethan Allen himself.

Apparently, of course. This source only goes back to Jedidah Morse in 1824, but seems to be from Allen himself. If anyone feels like digging and confirming/disconfirming it, I'd be interested.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Washington should be permitted to speak for himself, without any assistance from the culture warriors."


The only thing I'd change is to remove the part after "without any assistance from", and replace it with "without any assistance from anyone".

I have no problem criticizing those who knew him and were eager to do what GW clearly avoided ... to make a proclamation of his faith.

Regarding The Maxims of Washington is there *any* version that isn't corrupted by the opinions of others?

bpabbott said...

Tom, while looking for a direct quotation by Ethan Allen, I came across some that may be of interest to you regarding our nation's founding religious ethos.

For many today both reason and secularism appear to be incompatible with religion (no need to point to the left or right, the guilty are on both sides). A position I find ironic, because as each gained popularity, in large part, because they secured religion from corruption and religious liberty from tyranny.

I think the words of Ethan Allen, below, speak to this narrative.

"Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle that they are laboring to dethrone: but if they argue without reason (which, in order to be consistent with themselves they must do), they are out of reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument."
-- Ethan Allen, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784)

"There is not any thing, whilch has contributed so much to delude mankind in religious matters, as mistaken apprehensions concerning supernatural inspiration or revelation; not considering that all true religion originates from reason, and can not otherwise be understood, but by the exercise and improvement of it."
-- Ethan Allen, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784)

I'll keep looking for the quote.

bpabbott said...

I found two earlier references to the Ethan Allen quote; "In the name of the great Jehovah, and the Continental Congress".

One dated 1822.

[1] H. C. Charey and J. Lea, "The geography, history, and statistics, of America, and the West Indies," pg 139 (1822)

… and an earlier reference in 1821.

[2] A citizen of Massachusetts, "History of the United States of America: with a brief account of some of the Principal Empires & States," pg 146 (1821).

There may be earlier ones, but they are not presently in Google Books.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ben, I thought Ethan Allen invoking "Jehovah" to be pretty interesting. He's not even in the top 100 Founders, yet his "deism" or whatever it was is trotted out along with Jefferson as some sort of representative of religion and the Founding.

The document appears to be authentic. Allen's accounts of his exploits seem to have been popular with the reading public.

I find his comments rather ignorant and bigoted above---Green Mountain Boy Allen was apparently unfamiliar with Aquinas and the Skoolmen, or the Calvinists like Vermigli, or even the notorious fire-and-brimstone Rev. Jonathan Edwards, who wrote more books than Allen likely ever picked up in his life---Edwards likely was more steeped in Newton and Locke than Allen could ever dream of---Jonathan Edwards was quite a reasonable man.

bpabbott said...

I agree Ethan Allen doesn't rank high among the founders. I've always liked this list which doesn't mention his name (doesn't mention Washington either, but as he wasn't a career politician that's no surprise).

Nice work on tracking down the original. I'm surprised Google didn't make the job easier.

Regarding the appearance of ignorance and/or bigotry, toward Christianity, on the part of a deist's, I've observed the same to be true of Christians who passionately express their view of other religions.

Or more accurately, the words, of most individuals who are religiously passionate and are discussing a religion other than their own, are typically characterized by ignorance, or prejudice (sometimes both).

In any event, Ethan Allen's life was much more diverse and successful than other well known Deists of his day. It is to be expected that he is a favorite among those who favor his religious position.

Matt said...

Thanks for putting up this discussion! As some one who's both unitarian and Christian, it's really refreshing to see some one who (unlike Barton) doesn't view unitarianism as a counterfeit Christianity (or something similar).

On that note, I just wrote a similar response to his recent statements on John Adams' unitarianism that hits a lot of the same notes here.