Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Waligore on Washington, Providence & Prayer

And how it relates to Deism.

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 Revolution

As 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.”3

While 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.”4

Robespierre 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.”6

Robespierre, 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?7
Dubroca 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.”8

Deists 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.


Tom Van Dyke said...

While I don't necessarily believe Washington was a Christian [though I certainly believe he was not poisoned against it as were Jefferson and Adams], there is a smoking gun where Providence is indeed the God of the Bible.

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

Letter to the Jews of Savannah, 1790


Jonathan Rowe said...

And he twice called God the Great Spirit. So I wonder ...

Tom Van Dyke said...


clearly the religion of the Great Spirit was inadequate

You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life and above all—the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.

Jon Rowe said...

But he still used the term The Great Spirit twice. That’s twice as many times as he was ever recorded using the term “Jesus Christ.” And that sole reference which you reproduced was given to Natives who had already decided to convert. GW thought it a good idea, which makes sense.

Tom Van Dyke said...

yes I should just have written "unresponsive" and left it at that

Washington does equate the God of Exodus to the God of the American revolution

Jonathan Rowe said...

GW equates the God in which he purports to belive exists with the Natives’ “Great Spirit.” Re the Exodus point, Jefferson did it too, but unlike GW, did it in a Presidential Address.

Is that “responsive”?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Which proves or at least strongly suggests that the "rational-Christian-deist" God is still Jehovah in the Founding-era mind. In fact, as you know, notorious and oft-cited "deist" Ethan Allen puts in his own autobiography that he demanded the British surrender Ft. Ticonderoga "in the name of Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"

Any private doubts are of academic interest [or the secularist agenda] only: The Founders' God was essentially Jehovah. This must be the starting point of any discussion of the Founding era.

joseph waligore said...

Tom, I do not understand how you conclude the God of the Founders was Jehovah. The God may have the same characteristics as Jehova in that he is active in the world and performs miracles. I do not see how you can so cavalierly decide the God is Jehova when he might be the Stoic God or the Platonist God which has many of the same characteristics.

If you think I am a secularist making arguments for secularism, you are very much mistaken. A secularist would never have published 3 articles all about how the English deists were spiritually-oriented thinkers. The book I am writing now is tentatively subtitled "the Spirituality of the English and American deists." I am about as far from a secularist s you will find.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The discussion as it's gone leads right into the secularist wheelhouse, ala Stephen Pinker's recent paean to "The Enlightenment Now, The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress," which credits "rationality" for all human good, of course obviating Christianity's effect on civilizing the human race.


Your personal feelings are not really at issue here, Joseph, just as Gregg Frazer's personal religion is irrelevant to his thesis about "theistic rationalism."

My rebuttal here is that the Founders were erudite men, but not particularly historians or scholars. They were intellectual dilettantes. None cite Plato, Washington's familiarity with the Stoics is questionable beyond reading some Cicero. Their theologies [when not simply orthodox] were idiosyncratic, their philosophies derivative.

They started with the "Judeo-Christian" God, and modified it as suited their prejudices and fancies.

Even Jefferson used the pillar of fire from Exodus as a personal seal. Whether or not he believed the story as fact, this still tells us of the prevailing theological milieu of the time--the God of Exodus was the same Providence of the American Revolution. You have no evidence to the contrary that I can see. Even notorious deist [and a true deist] Ethan Allen calls on Jehovah!

Tom Van Dyke said...

I would, however, love to see an analysis of the continental Enlightenment and French deism [such as Robespierre's "Cult of the Supreme Being"], an inquiry into which I think would show the difference from the God of the American Revolution and the Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment in sharp relief.

I think you have a live wire here but it leads the other way across the Atlantic.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Washington's familiarity with the Stoics is questionable beyond reading some Cicero."

I think this is extremely mistaken. Cato, Seneca, Cincinnatus. They are all not just profound influences on GW, but made a tremendous difference. I don't need to go into it at length; but, to give one example it was the "benevolent dictator" Cincinnatus who voluntarily gave up power at the height of the Roman republic to peacefully retire to his farm. GW followed him when he stunned the world by voluntarily giving up the Presidency after completing his 2nd term.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I do think he fancied himself a Stoic, that his idea of virtue was pagan, not Christian--but I doubt he appreciated the difference. And I was speaking of Washington actually reading Stoic writings to derive a theology, a conception of God.

Yes, they all fancied themselves Romans of its republican age [where else would they look for a model republic?], and Washington modeled himself on Cincinnatus. But it's a long and twisted road to turn "Old Muttonhead's" God into the Roman one[s] or the Stoics' for that matter. There was a monotheism buried in Stoic thought, but show us where Washington saw it.

Jeffrey Morrison:


Jonathan Rowe said...

That book brings back memories. My copy is autographed. Jeffry is a fan of this site. I didn't know him when he was a James Madison Program fellow, but met him shortly thereafter. He came back to Princeton to present on this book. I had drinks with him (who wasn't drinking alcohol), Paul Sigmund and a few others after his presentation. Paul Sigmund RIP. I think Sigmund used to house James Madison fellows and housed Morrison.