Joseph Waligore sent over another excerpt from his forthcoming book on Deism that relates to George Washington's belief in a Providential God. I am going to publish it in two posts. The first is below.
On the morning of March 5, 1776, George Washington was with the troops of the American army in Boston, encouraging them to fight bravely if the British attacked. So far in their war for independence, the Americans had yet to win a significant victory. Things were looking bleak, and it was a major defeat for the Americans that the British troops were in control of Boston, the center of resistance to British rule and one of the most important cities in America. However, the previous night the Americans had managed to secretly drag cannons up Dorchester Heights, a bluff of land that was within cannon range of the British troops. The British either had to dislodge the Americans from Dorchester Heights or evacuate Boston. Otherwise, the Americans would just rain cannonballs on the British troops. Furthermore, the British attack had to happen immediately since the longer the Americans were on the hill, the better they could fortify their position and resist any assault. The British general ordered the troops to immediately attack, but a wind and snow storm arose, which was so violent, the British troops were unable to move. By the time the storm was over, the Americans had so fortified their position, the British called off their assault and chose to evacuate Boston instead. George Washington claimed it was God who had caused the storm and helped the Americans win their first major victory of the war. He claimed that the storm that prevented the British attack “must be ascribed to the interposition of that Providence, which has manifestly appeared in our behalf through the whole of this important struggle.” He then said, “May that Being, who is powerful to save, and in whose hands is the fate of nations, look down with an eye of tender pity and compassion upon the whole of the United Colonies; may he continue to smile upon their counsels and arms, and crown them with success, whilst employed in the cause of virtue and mankind.”1
Unlike the religious beliefs of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, Washington wrote extremely little about his religious beliefs. Those who think he should be considered a Christian, often focus on two major pieces of evidence. One, he believed God miraculously helped the Americans during their war for independence. Two, he often prayed, and particularly he often prayed for God’s help in worldly events. When it is assumed deists had a distant and withdrawn God who never intervened in the world, then these two points are good evidence that Washington was not a deist, or not exclusively a deist. However, when one gets a better historical understanding of deism, these two points tell us nothing at all about whether Washington was a Christian or a deist.
Providence and the deists of the French RevolutionAs shown by Washington’s statement that the Boston storm was an act of God, he believed God intervened to help the Americans win the Revolutionary War. Because many scholars define a deist as a person who believed in a distant, inactive deity, the scholars then assert that Washington could not have been a deist. For example, Vincent Phillip Munoz declared that “Washington’s belief in divine providence means, by definition, that he could not be labeled a deist.”2 A number of scholars go even further and claim that when Washington was mentioning the interposition of Providence, he must have been referring to the Christian God because only the Christian God helps people in a providential way. So Kristo Miettinen declared, "’Providence’ is not some squishy generic God-term. . . . Deists, to the extent that they invoked God as Providence, were making an explicitly Christian theological claim.”3While the English deists believed in an active God who cared about people, they did not mention God helping countries fighting for their liberty. This, however, was most likely due to historical circumstances: the English deists were writing at a time when England was generally secure from foreign invasion, and none of them were worried about their freedom. Thus we should not make any claims about the deist God being unconcerned with helping countries based on the English deists. We should instead look at the large number of French deists who were fighting both internal oppressors and foreign invaders during the French Revolution. These French deists continually claimed God miraculously helped their revolution survive, and unlike the American deists, almost all of these French deists despised Christianity, equating it with pure superstition. Thus anything the French deists claimed about God, they were referring purely to the deist God.I have been arguing throughout this book that the deist God was more completely good and fair than the Christian deity. It is not clear that there is any necessary link between a good deity and one who helps nations become free. Nevertheless, if a good deity is one that helps downtrodden countries fight for their liberty, the deists believed in that kind of deity also.In 1789, the French Revolution began when the Bastille prison was stormed and its prisoners were released. As the Revolution progressed, one of the most important questions was whether the king, Louis XVI, should be deposed, or whether the country should try to forge a constitutional monarchy like England. This question was especially troubling as the other European monarchs, led by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, threatened to invade France if they mistreated the king or the royal family. The other monarchs saw the mistreatment of the French king as a matter of concern to all the monarchs. The French soon imprisoned the king and his queen, Marie Antoinette. This caused the monarchs of Europe to unite, and the French were soon at war with Prussia, Spain, Naples, Netherlands, Portugal, Britain, and the Holy Roman Empire. The situation for the French Revolution was dire at first as many people inside France, especially the Catholics, were against the Revolution, and the French army was so disheartened that in one of the early battles, the French soldiers all fled.Many of the prominent leaders of the French Revolution, including Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins, Maximilien Robespierre, and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, were deists. Considering the rest of Europe was attacking France, and the French themselves were divided over the Revolution, the French situation in the early 1790s was similar to the American situation at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Just as Washington thought God helped the Americans in their fight for liberty, so too did the French deists think God’s Providence helped the French in their struggle for liberty.The best-known example of a French deist claiming God providentially helped the French Revolution came from Maximilien Robespierre, the most prominent of the radical revolutionary leaders. Robespierre claimed God had purposively killed the leader of the countries that were attacking France, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Despite being a healthy man in his forties, Leopold suddenly and mysteriously died at the beginning of March in 1792. His death was a great blow to the anti-French forces, and Robespierre claimed God killed Leopold in order to help the French defeat the foreign powers who were attacking France. A short while after Leopold’s death, Robespierre spoke to the Jacobin club, the most radical faction of revolutionary leaders. Robespierre declared that France had been menaced by foreign armies organized by Leopold II, as well as civil war, and traitors in the army. At this time of deep trouble, he claimed that “Providence, which always watches over us much better than our own wisdom, by striking Leopold dead, disrupted for some time our enemy’s projects.” Then another revolutionary leader, Marguerite-Élie Guadet, interrupted Robespierre. Gaudet said that “I do not see any sense in this idea” of providence. He claimed that the French did not fight “for three years to rid ourselves of the slavery of despotism, to afterwards put ourselves under the slavery of superstition.” After Gaudet spoke, a commotion broke out in the hall, with some people murmuring and some applauding. Robespierre could have replied that he was just speaking rhetorically, and he did not really believe in Providence. Instead, he repeated his claim saying that “the eternal Being influences essentially the destiny of all nations, and he appears to me to watch in a particularly singular manner over the French Revolution.” Finally, he declared that the belief in God’s providential care “is a heartfelt belief, it is a feeling with which I cannot dispense.”4Robespierre was far from the only French deist who thought Providence had a part in the death of Leopold II of Austria. Another prominent leader of the radical revolutionary faction, Georges Auguste Couthon, agreed. Couthon said of Leopold’s death that “Providence, who always has greatly served the revolution, has killed Leopold, one of our most cruel enemies.” Couthon often talked about Providence helping the French Revolution, but the event that Couthon thought most showed God’s miraculous Providence was the attempted assassination in May of 1794 of the revolutionary leaders Robespierre and Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois. Couthon wrote that the assassination failed even though the assassin had planned it well, because “in truth there was a miracle.” Couthon then went on to describe the event in detail. First, the assassin presented himself at Robespierre’s home, “but Heaven wished that he not be admitted.” Then the assassin went to the door Robespierre always entered and left his home. Couthon claimed, in a passage he did not explain, that “Robespierre’s custodian spirit (génie conservateur) made him take a different route that day.” When he could not kill Robespierre, the assassin went to Collot’s home. This time the assassin was able to find Collot and get very close to him. The assassin tried to shoot Collot once, but the pistol did not go off. The assassin fired a second time and, even though he was standing right next to Collot, the assassin missed him. Couthon finished by writing, “I wish to say again that it is by a miracle that Robespierre and Collot escaped. When one is guarded by Providence and the virtue of the people, one is well-guarded . . . it is the supreme Being who guards us.”5 It was not just Couthon who thought God was personally protecting Robespierre. Another French revolutionary leader, Louis Legendre, asserted that the assassin tried to kill Robespierre, “but the God of nature did not suffer that the crime was successful.”6Robespierre, Couthon, and Legendre were major political leaders during the Revolution, and one can always wonder about the sincerity of political leaders talking of God helping their cause. But a large number of French deists who were not political leaders made the same claim about God helping the Revolution. For example, Jean-Baptiste Febvé was an obscure official in the criminal bureau of the department of Meurthe. In 1794, in the city of Nancy, Febve gave a long speech honoring God for all the help God had recently given the French. He declared, that the only way to explain all the miracles of the French Revolution was “the power of divine Providence. . . . The projects of the enemies of liberty were always confounded, their criminal maneuvers discovered, their plots always destroyed. . . . The most formidable powers of Europe were allied against France, and France was victorious… doesn’t this show well enough the existence of a Supreme Being who protects the French nation?” Another example is a speech in 1797 given by Louis Dubroca, a former Catholic priest who had become a prominent deist leader. In this speech, which was read to many deists gathered throughout France to worship God, Dubroca proclaimed that it was all due to God’s help that France had won the war. He declared,Oh God . . .we love to proclaim that it was you who guided in combat the invincible battalions of our troops, who roused the heroic fighters, and who aided their generous devotion by victory. They fought for their fatherland, for their liberty, how could you, God powerful and good, not sustain a cause so beautiful? … when you have crowned a peace which fulfills our wishes, who is able to doubt your Providence did not itself preside over the new destiny of France, that the republic is not your work?7Dubroca proclaimed that no one could doubt that God guided the French troops in battle and presided over the establishment of the French Republic.Deists are commonly seen as so emphasizing natural laws, that they believed that God never broke these natural laws. I have argued throughout this book that the English and American deists did not fit this stereotype, and they believed in miracles and other forms of divine intervention. The French Revolutionary deists were so far from fitting this stereotype that they saw God and nature as their allies helping them defeat their enemies. For example, when bad weather shipwrecked some English warships on the French coast, Georges Auguste Couthon wrote, “it is evidently Providence which produces these miracles.” In her book on the way nature was pictured in the French Revolution, Mary Ashburn Miller claims it was common for the French revolutionaries to see nature itself as a “revolutionary and providential force. Nature became a space of particular providence, not just a regulating system.”8Deists living during the French Revolution in the 1790s, who were very anti-Christian, continually claimed God was providentially helping them by defeating the plans of their enemies. Thus there is no connection between believing in God’s providential help and being a Christian. So Washington’s belief that God miraculously intervened during the American Revolution gives no support to him being a Christian.