Saturday, May 31, 2008

The God of Washington's Prayers

Perer Lillback, author of the book George Washington's Sacred Fire, makes the assertion that America's first President and Commander-in-Chief was, "an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ" (27). Lillback, who received his Ph. D. in Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary, is only the latest in a series of religious figures who have crossed over into the field of history, in an effort to "restore" or "save" history from the hands of secularists.

In Sacred Fire, Lillback presents to the reader a large collection of primary sources, which he feels help to prove his thesis that Washington was a devout orthodox Christian. In addition, Lillback presents evidence to counter the argument that Washington was a Deist. While I am in complete agreement with Lillback's assessment that Washington was far from being a Deist, I still remain unconvinced of his orthodox Christian leanings.

In "Appendix Three" of Sacred Fire, Lillback puts together a collection that he calls "George Washington's Written Prayers." This collection contains an assortment of letters, general orders and presidential declarations, which Lillback believes helps to prove Washington's orthodoxy. As Lillback states at the beginning of this appendix:

One of the elements of the Christian faith that was suspect, and eventually abandoned by Deists, was the practice of prayer. This was logical since there was little purpose in speaking to a Deity who on principle had abandoned all contact and communication with his creation.

Given this understanding, Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism...The sheer magnitude of the umber of prayers, coupled with the expansive topics included in his prayers, give substantial credence to the universal testimony of Washington's contemporaries of his practice of corporate and private prayer.

This underscores how misplaced contemporary scholars have been in claiming that Washington was a man of lukewarm religious faith.

With this in mind, I decided that it would be worthwhile to dissect the various "written prayers" that Peter Lillback sites in his book. After all, the language that Washington used in these prayers should be a valuable tool in determining Washington's actual beliefs.

Here are the actual phrases that Washington used in his "written prayers" to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Salvation" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

With such a large assortment of phrases, I find it amazing that Lillback does not provide a single example of where Washington prayed to Jesus specifically or directly. In fact, the only time the word "Christian" is mentioned in all of appendix three is on page 775. In a letter to the king of France, Washington begins the letter by writing, "To our great and beloved Friend and Ally, his Most Christian Majesty." [My emphasis added].

Despite these obvious discrepancies in his argument, I must also point out the fact that Lillback provides AMPLE evidence to support his claim that Washington was NOT a Deist. The simple fact that these prayers exist is sufficient proof of this fact. Regardless of who Washington was praying to, the fact remains that he did, in the end, pray regularly.

In addition, there are a number of statements in Washington's "written prayers" that seem to suggest at least a possible allegiance to Christian philosophy. For example, Washington regularly issued thanksgiving and fasting proclamations, which seem to petition God for a forgiveness of sin. Phrases like, "we may unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions" (Source here). Or other instances where Washington states, "Instant to be observed as a day of 'fasting, humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God' that it would please him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions" (Source here). Clearly there is AT LEAST a remnant of Christian belief, and possibly a sincere devotion to Jesus as the savior of mankind.

Regardless of what we may insinuate from these various statements, the fact remains that there are NO specific public or private records showing Washington in prayer to the Christian God. While I will agree that Washington is far from a Deist and that he did pray and believe in a great deal of Christian doctrine, I remain unconvinced that he was an ORTHODOX Christian as Lillback suggests.


Cato said...

Hmm. Interesting post. If I am correct, you are not convinced that Washington was not an Orthodox Christian because he did not pray or mention the name "Jesus," "Messiah," "Salvation," etc. This is your only basis for believing thus?

I am an Orthodox Christian. I rarely write the name of Jesus, Messiah, Salvation, Jehovah, Redeemer, etc in any of my writings. When I pray, I use the name "Father" and "God" about 85% of the time. The rest of the time, I use "Lord" and sometimes "Jesus." But this is according to 21st century church standards.

Before you make a any further conclusions, I recommend that you:

1) not judge a person's Christianity based on what you think is Christianity, save the basic doctrinal beliefs (virgin birth, Jesus' suffering and death, resurrection, etc, as staed in the Apostles' Creed);

2) not judge prayer of the 17th century according to 21st century prayers. DID people of the 17th century pray "Jesus" frequently? Was it an anomaly that one did not back then?

3) Be more inclined to perceive basic Christian tenets when judging Washington. When Washington told his troops that he desired the character of a Christian from them, what did he mean? That they pray in the name of Jesus frequently?

In conclusion: as I stated, I am an Orthodox Christian. However I do not take the "wafer and wine" communion, I use no Book of Common Prayer, I do not throw the name of Jesus around... will history judge me as a non-believer, a deist, or as an non-Orthodox Christian? So, what are you classifying as "orthodox" here, and is it the same classification as Washington and his peers held?

Jonathan Rowe said...


I don't think history will judge you as anything but an orthodox Christian because you've just, unlike Washington, termed yourself one.

Brad, myself, and others who don't believe Washington not to be an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, use more than just this fact in drawing our conclusion. If interested, keep reading our blog for our other reasons as to why it's likely that GW was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

One thing I might ask of you is why , as a Christian, you use the name of a pagan figure from antiquity who did the very UNCHRISTIAN thing of committing suicide, as a matter of principle.

Brad Hart said...


I am not convinced of Washington's orthodoxy because of the totality of the evidence available. He simply never makes the claim. It would be silly to label him an orthodox Christian without some strong evidence to back it up.

I also do not believe that it is essential to "throw the name of Jesus around" in order to be considered an orthodox Christian. There are, however, certain key elements that are required of the orthodox believer (i.e. communion, confirmation), which Washington clearly omitted.

Cato said...

I see no one is attempting to answer my suppositions.

Jonathan, I'm terribly sorry to disappoint you, but your feigned logic fails you: GW never HAD to defend his position as an orthodox Christian. So maybe that's why he never did! Dare I say he probably never would have anyway, being the humble chap he was (Nelly had said to dare to question his Christianity one might as well question his patriotism. But then again, she was a dumb ole' granddaughter and not educated like you all, so what did she know?) (p.s. there's more to being an orthodox Christian than just claiming that you are).

I think Step Number One would be to open up your mental frame of reference-- that being your own opinions and conceptions-- to judge GW and his conduct based on the history of the time, not on your own conception of what Christianity is today (which is scripturally and historically inaccurate, as I stated before). As I stated, it is the Apostles' Creed and belief in the scriptures that is the general, accepted basis of orthodox Christianity-- not the eucharist, not pew-purchasing, not confirmation.

I also see that the argument thrown back at me is that of "well, we have other evidence that makes us believe GW was not an OC." Uhh, I always supposed that when one writes a thesis disputing a topic, one usually presents the best evidence. I assumed the evidence you presented (that GW never used the word "Jesus," etc) was your best evidence. Now you are telling me that you have alternative evidence, not stated. What shall I say to this?

As far as my "name," Jonathan, I recall that you have brought up this tedious question before, and received an answer. For some reason (or perhaps a very bad memory), you are intent on bringing it up again. Is this intended to hurt my feelings? Bring shame? Or perhaps, to PROVE to all the world that I am not an ORTHODOX Christian?!?! I'm a little older and wiser than that, sorry.

I had some semblance of expectant hope for this blog when I found it. Unfortunately, it seems like it is just another discordant note in a cacophony of youthful arrogance, applied history, and misguided judgments. I apologize for such harsh words (good heavens, I'm starting to sound like George Clinton!), but I cannot hide my disappointment at your tactics. Farvel.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I asked the question again because I never got an answer the first time.

If you did answer it was after I stopped looking back for your reply; so you can gladly point me to the URL where you did answer.

People did question GW's orthodox Christianity back in the day and tried to "smell him out," giving him opportunities to clarify his religious specifics but he never answered them. So if GW did in fact believe in the Apostle's creed and that the Bible was infallible, he kept it a secret. For instance, his own Bishop's testimony:

"I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation ; further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance on Christian worship, in connection with the natural reserve of his character."


"Although I was often in company of this great man, and had the honour of dining often at his table, I never heard any thing from him that could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion. I knew no man who seemed so carefully to guard against the discoursing of himself or of his acts, or of any thing pertaining to him....

"Within a few days of the leaving of the Presidential chair, our vestry waited on him with an address prepared and delivered by me. In his answer, he was pleased to express himself gratified by what he had heard from our pulpit; but there was nothing that committed him relatively to religious theory."

So you see, he was keeping religious secrets from his own Bishop William White and pious figures did tried to "smell him out," to no avail. You have to wonder if GW were an orthodox Trinitarian Christian why he would keep religious secrets from folks who expected him to affirm Trinitarian orthodoxy.

I'll do another blog post with the primary sources link.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And by the way, while I can't speak for Brad, over the past many years, I have spent many waking hours studying the context of 18th Century Christianity and can attest that when George Washington "told his troops that he desired the character of a Christian from them," this was arguably more evidence of his theistic rationalism, not his orthodox Christianity. Theistic rationalism equates Christianity with mere morality, or character. The purpose of "religion" was to make men good and hence "governable," not save their souls through Christ's blood atonement. As such, if the ends (character or morality) are achieved, the means (what doctrines you believe in, which religion you are) don't matter. That's why John Adams said he believed all "good people" to be "Christian," regardless of whether they professed to be so. Christianity was preferable and had an edge over the other religions not because of its unique doctrines of orthodoxy -- that "Christ" was the only way to God -- but rather because Jesus' moral teachings were superior. That way most or all world religions could be valid ways to God with Christianity the most efficient path up the mountain, not the *only* way to God.

Brad Hart said...


First off, I do not include ALL of the evidence in any given posting because it would take far too long. This posting has to do with Lillback's book - specifically his appendix - so I felt that I only needed to present the evidence needed for that particular topic. I'm sorry you were so disappointed.

As to your definition of Christianity, I believe that much of the problem in defining Washington's "orthodoxy" comes from the fact that individuals seem to have a different definition of what orthodoxy actually is. For example, you state that one only needs to believe in the apostles creed and the scriptures, and that communion, confirmation, etc. are irrelevant. Obviously you don't understand what orthodoxy meant to 18th century clergymen. For example, the Reverend Samuel Miller of New York questioned Washington's faith by asking why, "a true Christian, in the full exercise of his mental faculties, would die without one expression of distinctive belief or Christian hope."

Dr. James Abercrombie, who worked closely with Reverend William White - Jon already discussed White's take - stated that he could not "consider any man a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace." Abercrombie went on to attack Washington in a public sermon when he stated, "I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Abercrombie later admitted that this remark was, "intended for the president."

You see, Cato, it is not how we personally choose to define orthodoxy, but how orthodoxy was interpreted by Washington's contemporaries.

As far as this blog being yet another "cacophony of youthful arrogance, applied history, and misguided judgments," I am sorry you feel this way. Believe me when I say that I would LOVE to call Washington and many of the other founders orthodox Christians. As a Christian myself, I would be happy if such a conclusion could be met. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. Keep in mind, nobody here is trying to portray the fathers as atheist or anything like that. I fully recognize the reality that our founders embraced morality and religion. I cannot, however, twist the facts simply so that I can feel better.

I understand why so many people want our founders to be seen as orthodox in their religion. After all, our founders tell us a great deal about who we are as a nation and people. We want our founders to reflect our current beliefs. This objective, though noble in its overall goals, actually ends up distorting history, which would be something our fathers would vehemently argue against.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm working on a longer post with lots of evidence that Cato asks for. The bottom line is even if we define orthodoxy as Cato wants (which is just fine with me; it's a legitimate way to understand orthodoxy) the evidence still fails to show GW was an orthodox Christian. Things like communion and confirmation are actually useful because they are indicators of believing in orthodoxy as Cato defines the term. For Anglicans, they showed they were orthodox -- that is they believed in Christ's Atonement -- through communing. The one's who didn't commune were the one's who didn't believe in the atonement because the atonement is what communion symbolizes in the Anglican/Episcopal Church!

Lindsey Shuman said...

I think that it is extremely important for us to not forget the fact that Washington's choice of words are very indicative of his beliefs. Most Christians of the eighteenth century (and today) recognize how important it is to verbally express one's devotion to God.

We all know and recognize the fact that Washington was an extremely private man. There is also no doubt that we will probably never be provided with a clear-cut way of deciding this argument. That doesn't mean, however, that we are unable to come to a logical and educated conclusion.

Brad is right to point out the fact that so many in today's America long to prove the orthodoxy of our founders. I believe that this can (and often does) distort objective research. Now I know that Cato and others will state (and they rightfully should) the fact that secular historians have tried to "deflate" the religion of our founders into nothing more than Deism. This too I find to be very objectionable.

If we could imagine ourselves as detectives I believe that we would be better able to OBJECTIVELY look at the evidence and realize that Washington (in this debate) falls very nicely into the middle area. Perhaps this is why we have such passionate debates over him.

Carolina said...

At its core, Lillback's book is an attempted refutation of George Washington & Religion, by Paul Boller, Jr. Boller's 1963 effort focused—as one would expect in the wake of the Kennedy election and the controversies over school prayer—on Washington as an advocate of religious liberty. "Broadly speaking, of course," Boller claimed, "Washington can be classified as a Deist." Lillback quotes this judgment of Boller's repeatedly (the index, by the way, is not reliable), but he fails to note that Boller also insists Washington should not be lumped with his more heterodox contemporaries, Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine; that Washington was "no infidel"; that Washington "had an unquestioning faith in Providence"; that his professions of faith were "no mere rhetorical flourish … designed for public consumption."