Thursday, January 17, 2019

Kidd on GW's Faith

From this post in 2017, Thomas Kidd examines "Ron Chernow’s extraordinary 2010 biography of Washington" and makes some observations about George Washington's faith. A taste:
For his own part, Washington’s Anglican faith was moderate and utterly reserved. That is how we should account for Washington’s irregular church attendance and his failure to take communion, Chernow explains. He never liked to make a public show of his own faith. This is also the reason why Chernow doubts that Washington was ever seen praying as depicted in the popular painting “George Washington in Prayer at Valley Forge.”
“The reason to doubt the story’s veracity is not Washington’s lack of faith,” Chernow writes, “but the typically private nature of his devotions.” Chernow’s portrayal of Washington’s near-secretive faith seems quite plausible, although it would still not account for Washington’s strange decision hardly ever to utter or write the name of Jesus Christ in his thousands of surviving letters and public statements.
Yes this is true. In the perhaps 20,000 pages of words that George Washington left us, the name "Jesus Christ" is mentioned only once by name and one other time by example. Both in public addresses written by aides, but given under Washington's hand. In none of Washington's private letters is the name or example of Jesus Christ invoked. Though more generic God words are replete throughout Washington's recorded public and private words.

38 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

He never liked to make a public show of his own faith. This is also the reason why Chernow doubts that Washington was ever seen praying as depicted in the popular painting “George Washington in Prayer at Valley Forge.”


This is a poor argument. Although I would agree that it’s questionable whether GWash believed that Jesus was The Christ—the Son of God, indeed God Himself as part of the Trinity, who suffered and died for our sins—after he was inaugurated as president, Washington “let himself be seen” in St. Paul’s Chapel in the then-capital of New York most every day.

It’s in his diary.

Even if what that faith was is foggy, he certainly DID make a “public show” of his faith. It would have been totally in character to let himself be seen kneeling "in prayer" in the snow so that the story would get around and edify the troops in their darkest hour, that bitter winter at Valley Forge.

Jon Rowe said...

GW was definitely a man of prayer. Though, those who observed his behavior at noticed noticed that he didn't kneel why praying.

Art Deco said...

Though, those who observed his behavior at noticed noticed that he didn't kneel why praying.

As you didn't in the Presbyterian congregations in which my mother was raised. Your point?

Jon Rowe said...

He is seen kneeling in the famous apocryphal painting.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"One well-known report stated that Washington's nephew witnessed him doing personal devotions with an open Bible while kneeling, in both the morning and evening. "

https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/george-washington-and-religion/


Perhaps Washington did not kneel in public, then, according to what Mr. Deco was the prevailing custom. We should not assert conclusions one way or the other.

Is the painting true? I'd guess probably not, but as a matter of history, it is wrong to assert it isn't. Washington did and said many things publically in support of religion, for instance his attendance at St Paul's even on weekdays.

mrssalina said...

Anglicans of that time rarely used Jesus. Generally, they considered
it too irreverent. Martha's letters contain not a single noted mention of "Jesus" and Martha's faith is not disputed.

A lot of these arguments about Washington seem to presuppose that he would act like an modern American Evangelical. Of course he didn't talk like a modern American Evangelical.

But he letters do indicate a belief in the Bible, God, and Christianity. And the greatest proof is that life and actions demonstrate that faith in the choices he makes and helps explain why he was able to withstand being corrupted by power.

Our Founding Truth said...

"Anglicans of that time rarely used Jesus. Generally, they considered
it too irreverent. Martha's letters contain not a single noted mention of "Jesus" and Martha's faith is not disputed."

Exactly. And the evidence supports your point. GW said he didn't want to show an "inaustintatious example of religion." I discovered this reading James Hutson on GW's faith. Hardly any of the Episcopalians (including pastors) spoke like reformed evangelicals. This has thrown off many historians, possibly including Gregg Frazer.

Jon Rowe said...

This is from my online friend Mary V. Thompson.

https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/religion/george-washington-and-religion/

It's very fair.

On a personal note, if you want to call GW a "Christian" or a "Deist" in some broad sense, I think you could make a case. I don't see GW as an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

GW never told us why he didn't commune. Though for some of the folks who did not -- like John Marshall -- it was because they were unitarians who didn't believe in the "doctrine" behind communion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

There are several reports of Washington taking communion, esp during the war. One report came from Alexander Hamilton's wife.

I had forgotten, but Google reminds me that I covered the subject here.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/07/george-washington-and-holy-communion.html

Our Founding Truth said...

Mary Thompson believes GW was a Christian.

" I do believe that the evidence suggests that George Washington was a true Christian, but would remind everyone that he was a rather typical 18th century Anglican."

She's right. The anglicans did not act like evangelicals. However, GW took communion, meaning he could not be a deist. It's an air tight case. He also called Christ Divine in his circular to the states. Finally, he didn't trust the Episcopalians. However, that doesn't excuse him from neglecting communion, even though anglicans rarely communed.

My personal opinion is that he believed they were still loyal to the king of England. That's why he communed with the Presbyterians at Morristown.

Jon Rowe said...

This is from Dr. Frazer on the supposed "evidence" of GW communing with those folks.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/06/gregg-frazer-on-lillbacks-sacred-fire.html

Our Founding Truth said...

Frazer is wrong on this. There's like ten separate testimonies, some eyewitnesses, that GW took communion. This account sounds more authentic than the others because the Presbyterian pastor sounds like he'd lay his life down on this testimony. It sounds too authentic for them to lie.

Read the account.
https://books.google.com/books?pg=PA90&dq=George+Washington,+the+Christian&id=MzWruWAnHM0C&ots=DzZSBGhpH7#v=onepage&q&f=false

It's documented they had communion both years at that very spot. My mind is sure of these accounts.

The only riddle remaining is if GW's issue was the Episcopalians, why did he walk out of communion at Christ church in Philly and take communion at Trinity church and St. Paul's church? The only answer I can think of, is, he had issues with those men at that church, which leads me to believe, perhaps he thought they were still loyalists.

Bishop White wasn't ordained in America. That must have had an effect on him.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks for the link, OFT, and I hate agreeing with Gregg Frazer [j/k, Gregg] but these accounts of GWash taking communion

https://books.google.com/books?pg=PA90&dq=George+Washington,+the+Christian&id=MzWruWAnHM0C&ots=DzZSBGhpH7#v=onepage&q&f=false

are all hearsay--no first-hand testimony.

I remain agnostic on the subject, though I lean toward Washington refraining for reasons that may have had nothing to do with his actual Christian faith--for instance a resistance/resentment to "fencing the Lord's table" or perhaps re his sin of slaveholding.

A principled abstention seems very much in character for GWash, even if his motivation was merely secular-minded, to not align himself to heavily with any one sect of Protestantism. [The Anglican/Episcopalisn concept of Communion differs sharply from the Calvinist view of it as "communion," if you apppreciate the distinction here.

[Communion is a sacrament, and may include the Real Presence; the "communion" of Reformed theology is more a symbolic act.]

The rest of my conjecture is that Washington never made his mind up one way or the other about the doctrines of the Christian faith, although he remained very interested, as evidenced by his collection of sermons, including ones with unitarian and universalist leanings.

As he fancied himself a classically-minded man, Washington would have agreed with Aristotle that it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without necessarily accepting it.

This would include not only orthodoxies but the aforementioned heterodoxies as well.

Our Founding Truth said...

Some of the accounts are eyewitness accounts.
This one is an eyewitness account in Bishop Meades old churches. This military officer apparently served with GW and it's while he's President.


Extract From Major Popham's Letter To Mrs. Jane Washington 

New York, March 14, 1839. My Dear Madam: You will doubtless be not a little surprised at receiving a letter from an individual whose name may possibly never have reached you; but an accidental circumstance has given me the extreme pleasure of introducing myself to your notice. In a conversation with the Reverend Doctor Berrian, a few days since, he informed me that he had lately paid a visit to Mount Vernon, and that Mrs. Washington had expressed a wish to have a doubt removed from her mind, which had long oppressed her, as to the certainty of the General's having attended the communion while residing in the city of New York subsequent to the Revolution. As nearly all the remnants of those days are now sleeping with their fathers, it is not very probable that at this late day an individual can be found who could satisfy this pious wish of your virtuous heart except the writer. It was my great good fortune to have attended St. Paul's Church in this city with the General during the whole period of his residence in New York as President of the United States. The pew of Chief-Justice Morris was situated next to that of the President, close to whom I constantly sat in Judge Morris's pew, and I am as confident as a memory now laboring under the pressure of fourscore years and seven can make me, that the President had more than once—I believe I may say often—attended at the sacramental table, at which I had the privilege and happiness to kneel with him. And I am aided in my associations by my elder daughter, who distinctly recollects her grandmamma—Mrs. Morris —often mentioned that fact with great pleasure. Indeed, I am further confirmed in my assurance by the perfect recollection of the President's uniform deportment during divine service in church. The steady seriousness of his manner, the solemn, audible, and subdued tone of voice in which he read and repeated the responses, the Chrisitan humility which overspread and adorned the native dignity of the saviour of his country, at once exhibited him a pattern to all who had the honor of access to him. It was my good fortune, my dear madam, to have had frequent intercourse with him. It was my pride and boast to have seen him in various situations—in the flush of victory, in the field, and in the tent—in the church and at the altar, always himself, ever the same. [bold face mine]

--Bishop Meade, Old Churches Vol. II. p. 490. George Washington The Christian by William J. Johnson. Andover-Harvard Theological Library Cambridge, Mass. 1919.

It corroborates others who say he took communion at St. Paul's. Otherwise, why would this guy lie to Jane Washington and bishop meade? The letter is probably still extant. Perhaps Dr. Berrian signed the guest log at mt. Vernon for corroboration.


https://ourfoundingtruth.blogspot.com/2011/02/did-george-washington-commune.html?m=1

Tom Van Dyke said...

"I am as confident as a memory now laboring under the pressure of fourscore years and seven can make me, that the President had more than once—I believe I may say often—attended at the sacramental table, at which I had the privilege and happiness to kneel with him."

1839, almost 50 years after the fact. This may be good enough for you--and I'm not saying it shouldn't be--but it's not good enough for the historian, when there are contrary recollections out there as well.

Memories fail. Memories even lie, sometimes innocently.

Our Founding Truth said...

Where are the contrary recollections? GW walked out of communion at one church because he did not respect the leadership of that church. Besides, you shouldn't have those thoughts about Major Popham because Bishop Meade knew him personally and vouched for his character. And, Popham knew GW personally. He wasn't a stranger.

Major Popham's mind was superb, being elected president general of the society of Cincinnati at 92 urs old.
https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/about/history/remembering

He was great
https://books.google.com/books?id=N3QsAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91&dq=major+william+popham&source=bl&ots=9bcEAICpkC&sig=ACfU3U1inOFS-ARJBI0ZecF3AfsNnP2kNQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjgibSSipzgAhVbIDQIHWO9CxgQ6AEwB3oECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=major%20william%20popham&f=false







Tom Van Dyke said...

Asked and answered, OFT.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/06/gregg-frazer-on-lillbacks-sacred-fire.html

"Finally, almost all of the footnotes (if one can find them and read them in pt. 2 font) are to secondary sources and 19th-century sources – often those of the hagiographers to which I referred above! One gets the impression that he would consider Parson Weems to be a reliable source!"

Our Founding Truth said...

What Frazer posted are not contrary recollections. They corroborate Major Popham's excellent memory. He was a war hero and the longest living revolutionary war officer:

"He was brought to this country at the early age of nine years, and his parents having settled in the town of Newark, state of Delaware, it was in that place that he spent his youth, and where he received a finished education. It was his intention to enter upon the holy office of the ministry, but on the breaking out of the revolutionary war, he was fired with military zeal, and accepted a commission in the army, and immediately raised a company in defence of his country. “His first engagement was at the battle of Long Island, where he greatly distinguished himself by taking prisoner the famous Capt. Ragg, with eighteen more of the enemy. He was then appointed a captain in the army, and having followed the American arms to White Plains, he there again distinguished himself as an accomplished soldier and brave man. As a captain he took part in the battle of Brandywine, and also acted as aid to Gen. Clinton in the northern division of the army, and was also the aid of Gen. Sullivan in his western expedition among the Indians. “After the war he resided a few years in the city of Albany in this state, where he entered upon the study of the law, and practised his profession. Subsequently to that time he came to New York, and practised his profession for a few years...“He was ever a remarkably religious man, and died at the age of ninety five, the peaceful and happy death of a firm Christian, and a member of the Episcopal church.. He was a friend to the poor and needy, and derived much of his happiness by doing good. He was the friend and companion of Washington, and claimed as his intimates many of the most remarkable men of his day. He belonged to the old school of American gentlemen, and in mind and body was distinguished for activity and sprightliness He was an accomplished scholar, and in every particular a thoroughbred gentleman..He lived the life of a noble man, and died the death of a happy Christian—leaving behind him three children, two sons and one daughter.” Major Popham was President of the New York State Society of Cincinnati, and as the oldest member, President General of the General Society of Cincinnati of the United States, an office first held by General Washington. As president general he had in his possession the golden eagle of the order, most splendidly set in diamonds. It bears the following inscription: “Presented in the name of the French sailors, to his Excellency the General Washington.” This precious relic of the society, goes to his successor in the office."

In private life he was respected and beloved by all who knew him; his mental faculties were retained with great vigor until the last moment of his life, and died as a Christian soldier, with the confident hope, that his piety and faithfulness, would entitle him to the reward in the life to come, promised to those who continue faithful to the end.


A History of the County of Westchester, from Its First Settlement ..., Volume 2
By Robert Bolton, 1848.

https://books.google.com/books?id=3MMBAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA129&lpg=PA124&ots=OtvQO8Bznk&focus=viewport&dq=major+william+popham&output=text#c_top


"

Tom Van Dyke said...

"I am as confident as a memory now laboring under the pressure of fourscore years and seven can make me..."


This is an admission he may not be remembering correctly.


There are too many recollections and incidents of Washington declining to take communion that we cannot trust after-the-fact recollections such as these as absolute proof of the contrary.

Our Founding Truth said...

No, he's only saying he's old because he claims "Indeed, I am further confirmed in my assurance" People can have memory issues regardless of age.

An entire officer society for over fifty years confirms his memory was sharp as a tac until the day he died. This man was known for his memory. The evidence regarding his is the opposite of your assertion.

The only recollection of him declining communion was at Christ church in Philadelphia unless you know of others.

GW also spent his own money for wine, communion cups and an altar. Someone who rejected what communion stands for would never do that. Incidentally, I found Alexander Hamilton spent money on communion as well.


Jon Rowe said...

"GW also spent his own money for wine, communion cups and an altar." Are you sure about that, or was this actually part of his work as a vestryman?

On the other stuff, I would still defer to Frazer, Abercrombie and Bishop White are the ones who witnessed this stuff systematically and it wasn't just at one church.

Nelly Custis too. Though, she noted GW apparently wasn't alone in not communing. That the Whigs were in rebellion against England also made them in rebellion against the tenets of the Anglican Church may have had something do with it. But there are other explanations as well.

I do find it fascinating that there were so many Anglican Whigs when Anglican "fundamentalism" for lack of a better word taught Toryism.

Our Founding Truth said...

Unless, someone can prove GW walked out of communion at any other church other than bishop white's church in Philadelphia, it's an isolated incident. Bishop White was not ordained by Americans in America; that was the issue. Communion was a vital institution of the Anglican body.

On GW's financial records, it even mentions paying for red wine "for administering ye Lord's Supper."

Mary Thompson doesn't mention being a vestryman has anything to do. That he's paying for it is all that matters.

No way he could have been a vestryman all those years and skip out on communion and the entire church not know about it, least of all his best friend George Fairfax and his family not know about it.

Also, no way whatsoever, GW would have written love letters and fallen in love with Sally Fairfax, without being a strict Anglican. She wouldn't have given him the time of day, yet alone the family allow him into their house and inner circle. The entire Fairfax family were STRICT anglicans. Had it come out that GW skipped out on that ordinance, or rejected it, would have destroyed his reputation and possibly his career. Lord Fairfax was the most famous man in Virginia.

Plus nelly custis says GW always took communion before the revolution.

Jonathan Rowe said...

OFT: Your logic on B. Fairfax is faulty. Yes Fairfax was a "strict Anglican." That's why he was a Loyalist. If GW were a "strict Anglican" he would have been a loyalist as well.

Our Founding Truth said...

Granted, the above is not eyewitness evidence, but there are two other eyewitness accounts; General Robert Porterfield and of the family of rev. Lee Massey of pohick church.

Our Founding Truth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Our Founding Truth said...

Jon: OFT: Your logic on B. Fairfax is faulty. Yes Fairfax was a "strict Anglican." That's why he was a Loyalist. If GW were a "strict Anglican" he would have been a loyalist as well."

I see a difference between religion and politics. They don't have to overlap.

I would like to hear what Mary Thompson thinks of my GW, Fairfax dynamic. If anything is legit in this conundrum it's that. Paying for red wine with his own money is bizarre if he was a unitarian or theistic rationalist. It only makes sense if had no scruples about communion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Unless, someone can prove GW walked out of communion at any other church other than bishop white's church in Philadelphia, it's an isolated incident.


Mary V. Thompson:

According to Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, George Washington regularly took communion prior to the Revolution, but did not after the war. There is evidence from his financial papers that Washington supplied wine for the communion service at Pohick Church before he left for the war. During the presidency, when he was chastised from the pulpit for regularly leaving prior to the communion service in Philadelphia (something Nelly said was true of most of the congregation), Washington informed the minister that he was sorry for setting such a bad example and would not do it again. From that day on, he would simply not attend services on Sundays when communion was offered (at this time, the Anglican/Episcopal Church only observed communion 3-4 times per year, not every Sunday). It should be noted that Martha Washington continued to take communion.


Among Thompson's musings about why Washington stopped taking communion are two I have floated [and two I never thought of]:


a) One reason might have to do with “scrupulousness,” the idea that it was sinful to partake of communion, when one was not in the right frame of mind, as propounded by the Apostle Paul in the biblical book, 2 Corinthians 11:27-29.


d) The war also led to a change in Washington’s beliefs about slavery—he went from a man who does not seem to have questioned slavery as an institution, to someone who believed it was wrong. Just because a person knows something is wrong, doesn’t mean that they necessarily know what to do to extricate themselves from the situation. Washington came up with several plans that did not work out, leaving him ultimately to arrange to free those slaves who belonged to him in his will. Feeling that one is involved in a continuing sin (holding slaves), that one is either not willing or not able to stop, could well lead to feelings of guilt that precluded taking communion.


https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/religion/george-washington-and-religion/

I also think it's quite possible he simply stopped believing in it. As he somewhat haughtily confided to Lafayette

Aug. 15, 1787, alluding to the proceedings of the Assembly of Notables:

"I am not less ardent in my wish that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church with that road to heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yeah that quotation that Tom quoted (also of course, quoted by Frazer in his first book) DOES make it sounds like GW is "religious," certainly "pro-religious," but not necessarily Christian himself.

Our Founding Truth said...
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Our Founding Truth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Our Founding Truth said...

According to Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, George Washington regularly took communion prior to the Revolution, but did not after the war. 


This isn't proof. Even Mary Thompson says nelly was mistaken in her account. GW walking out of communion under a person he didn't respect is consistent with him resigning his position as vestryman at his church after 22 years. He did it because of his aversion to the king, who was the head of his denomination. To me, this sounds the most plausible for skipping out on communion, rather than the sin or slavery issue.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

The interesting thing is that many people left before communion, not just Washington. And I'm sure you've never set foot in a Catholic church, but you may find it probative that many stay in their seats rather than go up to the altar rail and take the sacrament of Holy Communion.

It is never questioned, BTW--reasons for receiving or declining Communion are between each person and God. Which is where I prefer to leave it in Washington's case--He was a supporter of religion in society and in the public square as a self-evident good, and for the purposes of our study and of this blog, that is sufficient.

Brian Tubbs said...

Did Washington stand up in the boat as he crossed the Delaware River?

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