Monday, July 12, 2010

George Washington and Holy Communion

It's often been noted that at one point, George Washington stopped taking Communion at his Anglican [Episcopal] Church.

Many explanations have been offered, and we will never know for sure why that was, since Washington never said. Some say it's because he didn't believe the Eucharist was Jesus; some argue he didn't believe in Jesus like orthodox Christians do in the first place. Some argue he felt he was a sinner [as a slaveholder?] and so theologically "unworthy" to take part in the "Lord's Supper."

Still others argue that in leading the American Revolution against the King of England, who by law was also the head of the Church of England [Anglican, now "Episcopal" in America], Washington simply couldn't be a good Anglican, since C of E religious services contained prayers for the king.

The much-reviled Rev. Peter Lillback---a theologian, not an accredited historian, mind you---author of George Washington's Sacred Fire, on his blog the other day, argues the last theory:

Scholars are agreed that Washington ceased to commune and resigned as a vestryman at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Taking these actions, he was breaking with both Church and State as he began to lead the American Revolutionary Army. While some have identified these actions with a nascent deism, a better explanation is he recognized he was no longer able to be in communion with the King or the King’s clergymen. Thereafter in the Revolution, reports of Washington’s communing occur in non-Anglican settings such as the Presbyterian church in Morristown, New Jersey. Furthermore, Mrs. Alexander Hamilton reported to her family that on the day of the new President’s inauguration in New York City, she had the privilege to kneel and take communion with him in an Episcopalian Chapel. Washington’s actions in this regard are consistent both with his break from the lawful Church and his return to its successor that was legally recognized on both sides of the ocean by the King and Congress.

An interesting claim, and Lillback offers Mrs. Alexander Hamilton as a witness, that after the success of the American Revolution that freed Anglicanism from the monarch of England as the head of his church, George Washington ex-ex-communicated himself.

Also interesting and relevant to this academic debate are Lilliback's claims that Washington sought to take Communion from non-Church of England sources during the Revolution.

Me, I don't care much about this issue. The public GWash swore his first oath as president on a Bible, a public act.

And in his Farewell Address,

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.

But since our American Creation blog is about clarity, and so much has been made of the theological implications of Washington and the Eucharist, I figger the culture warriors should have a shot at Peter Lillback's claims and research, since they're the ones who care about it so much.

At least now we have Lillback in his own words, not what people say he said, the stuff of straw men. Have at it. But even if Mrs. Alexander Hamilton was a liar for Jesus, that doesn't make Lillback one for choosing to believe her testimony. At some point, that ugly rhetoric must stop.


Jonathan Rowe said...

The problem with the narrative as you presented it is that GW systematically avoided communion his entire adult life, from at least the revolution till his death.

The testimony of Bishop White and Rev. James Abercrombie is from when GW was sitting President after the Anglican Church became Episcopalian.

Re Ms. Hamilton's claim, I believe it was made when she was in her 90s. She had to "remember" back many years.

Almost all of the eyewitness accounts of GW taking communion during that time are one time anecdotes often based on 2nd and 3rd person accounts. But even the 1st person accounts are singular anecdotes. Bishop Whites and John Abercrombie's accounts are SYSTEMATIC observances of GW's conduct.

secular square said...

Here's another theory: Washington was not alone in this practice and an excessive amount of ink and kilobites have been spend focusing on him as if his behavior demonstrated some aberration of Anglican religious practices in Virginia. A great many of Virginia's planter elite refused communion. One function of the Anglican Church in Virginia was to support the existing social order. People sat in church according to their social status: elites up front, the middling sort behind, and others in the back (or in the balconies of the larger buildings). Sunday morning worship services thus reinforced everyone's "place" in the social heirarchy. The elite planters usually waited outside until services had actually began before parading in together last to take their seats up front ina display of their social authority. Then most were the first to leave, rarely taking communion. They would not bend their knee to a priest that they considered their social inferior. One Anglican minister in Virginia, Rev. Devereaux Jarratt, wrote of the planters that "generally speaking, none went to the table, except a few of the more aged." In the planter elite world of manly self assertion, communion was for the sick, the aged, and women.


Ray Soller said...

In Lillback's book, Sacred Fire (pg. 421), he lets the reader know that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton's inaugural recollections don't appear in print until 1925. Where there may be a germ of truth in parts of Mrs. Hamilton inaugural story, I'm not aware of any contemporaneous inaugural account stating that communion was part of the commemorative service held on that day.

Here's what Tobias Lear wrote to George Augustine Washington at Mount Vernon in his letter of May 3, 1789:
After the President had finished his [inaugural] speech we proceeded from the Hall on foot to St. Paul's Church in the same order which we had observed in our Carriages, where the Bishop [Senate designated chaplain, Samuel Provost] read prayers suited to the occasion --- when this was performed, we were met at the Church by the carriages and returned home. Thus ended this Great event!

Jonathan Rowe said...

Lee, that's very interesting.

I'd like to see more on the primary sources. Do you think those elites disproportionately had deistic and unitarian tendencies?

I know appeal to authority is technically a logical fallacy, but if we are to, David L. Holmes of William & Mary is the preeminent scholar of Founding era Anglicanism. And he concludes the systematic avoidance of communion was because of deistic or unitarian tendencies within the Church, that the folks not communing didn't believe in the supernatural elements of what communion symbolically represented.

King of Ireland said...

Good take Lee. Right in line with the biblical account of the hypocrites taking the seat of honor. Good to know that not much changes.

secular square said...


Primary sources from planters themselves are slim. Few kept diaries (that I am aware of )or were not into theology or the tortured self examination that one reads in Puritan diairies. They contain routine notations about plantation operations. The most interesting ones are the journals of Wm. Byrd II. (a distant relative of the late Senator from west Virginia.)He kept his in some 18th century shorthand that no one could read for years. Finally, some professor researched the shorthand and translated it. One interesting oft quoted entry: "Like one of the patriarchs, I have my flocks and my herds, my bondmen and bondwomen . . so that I live in a kind of independence on everyone but Providence." Meanwhile, he describes fights with his wife because of his carrying on with the servant girls, followed by their passionate reconciliation during which he gives his wife a "flourish on the billiard table."
Sadly, after his wife's death, many pages of his journal contain brief entries about his adventures "whoring" in London,each with a "may God forgive me" postscript.

King of Ireland said...


Then where do you get this information from?

secular square said...

most info from this period in Virginia comes from memoirs of Anglican clergy, sermons by evangelical preachers, travel accounts,and journals of tutors hired from Princeton or overseas to educate plantation children. Most travel accounts left by people who came from more pietistic or evangelical communities recognized that they had entered a different world. Sermons by Presbyterian Samuel Davies regularly attacked the lifestyle of the planters and sometimes the lack of "vital" religion among Anglican clergy. One easy to find account left by a tutor was a journal by Philip Fithian, who lived on Landon Carter's planatation for several years. One of my favorite but very obscure accounts comes from a presbyterian tutor named james reid. It was a searing satire that he published in pamplet form called "The Religion of the Bible and Religion of King William County Compared." In it Reid suggests that Virginia planters must worship their bellies because of the frequency with which they offer up sacrifices of bbq hog and observes that any discussion of the truths of Christ will "lock up every jaw." If you can get a hold of a copy, its a riot.
Now one may offer that these accounts are distorted by the religious prism through which these outsiders observed Virginia. But I guess that's the point. Religion in Virginia before the arrival of the evangelicals was nothing like anything they knew.

If you are that interested, I can post specific primary sources, or some secondary sources that will give you a good taste.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As we see here

the question of the Eucharist is in dispute among Protestants, even within Anglicanism. Deism or unitarianism need not necessarily be brought into the issue.

Indeed, any Sunday at a Catholic church shows only half taking Communion.

Thx for the replies, everybody. I figgered y'all would be on top of this one. The recollections of a 90-yr-old published over 100 years later isn't the best of evidence. However, even if

Almost all of the eyewitness accounts of GW taking communion during that time are one time anecdotes often based on 2nd and 3rd person accounts. But even the 1st person accounts are singular anecdotes.

is so, that doesn't mean they should all be discounted out of hand. Another Washington mystery that must remain so.

secular square said...

as for your question on deism among Anglican clergy, I do not know. Accounts describe Anglican sermons as short and full of practical morality, but little doctine. When evangelical preachers arrived, they mostly expressed concern about latititudianism --that basic conformity to the Anglican church was all that was required of parishers, as if "everyone is crowding promiscuously into heaven."
If Dr. Holmes has research Angican sermon,he would be the expert. And his thesis of course is compatible with the view I expressed at the top.

J. L. Bell said...

Jonathan Rowe's comment above notes how the contemporaneous evidence works against Lillback's thesis that Washington began taking communion after the Anglican/Episcopal Church was separated from the king of England.

When Lillback writes, "Scholars are agreed that Washington ceased to commune…at the beginning of the Revolutionary War," that strongly implies that Washington was a regular communicant up to 1775. Yet where is the evidence for that? Scholars are not agreed on the point. In fact, true scholars note how most Americans didn't break with King George III at the beginning of the war; the intellectual journey to independence and republicanism took several months.

Lillback may honestly believe that what Hamilton supposedly said about the first inauguration was true. However, he bends the evidence too often in the rest of this essay for me to consider him intellectually honest.

secular square said...

Participation among communion among 18th reformed protestants was slim as well. Usually, in the days leading up to communion, prospective communicants had to go through an inquiry with a minister into the state of his soul before being admitted. They called it fencing the table. If the man passed the inquiry, he received a communion token. Then on communion sunday, he presented the token to receive communion. At a presyberian museum in Montreat, NC they have a collection of tokens. Someone named Tenney I think wrote a book about them and included photos. And of course, in this Google Image age . . .

secular square said...

Speaking of google image, Wm Byrd II I believe was one of the richest men in Virginia. He had a nice crib (as you young people say) called Westover plantation. Check it out. Wm Byrd III gambled away much of the wealth before he shot himself.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exc stuff on the "tokens," Lee. Pretty wack, and certainly an infringement on any privacy between a man and his God. Rebellious types like ourselves [and Washington] would be tempted to skip Communion just out of protest.

Brian Tubbs said...

As an aside, Tom reminds us that Peter Lillback is "a theologian, not an accredited historian, mind you."

I what?

Does one have to be an accredited historian in order to comment on history with any credibility or accuracy?

If that's what we really think, then this blog needs to be completely restructured, so that only credentialed, accredited historians post articles.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The thing is, Brian, he does state things in an advocate's manner. The evidence from Mrs. Alexander Hamilton is, to the non-advocate, not totally conclusive, yet he presents it as such.

Historians don't do that.

The accreditation thing is secondary; historians have reputations to uphold. But this is not to say accredited historians don't pull the same stunts.

Further, Lillback's background is indeed in theology, not history, and this will tend, unfortunately, to lead him to find what he wants to find.

Having read his short essays describing his thesis, I simply think he presents inconclusive evidence as conclusive, not that he presents bad info necessarily.

King of Ireland said...

"Having read his short essays describing his thesis, I simply think he presents inconclusive evidence as conclusive, not that he presents bad info necessarily."

Most Christians I have dealt with on this topic seem to do that. There is a whole lot more that is debatable here than both sides let on.

Snowbrush said...

Interesting post. Thank you.