Saturday, June 28, 2008

Forrest Church: So help me God
& The First Great Battle

My first encounter with Forrest Church's book, So help me God: The Founding Fathers and The First Great Battle Over Church and State, was when I read a July 03, 2006, preview article, This Year, Lots of Fireworks Over The Founders' Faith, by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. As soon as I finished reading the article, I shot off an e-mail to Jeffrey MacDonald explaining:
I hope Rev. Forrest Church, author of the forthcoming So Help Me God: Presidential Faith and Religious Politics in the Early Republic ... , will find a new title to his book, because none of the Founding Fathers, who were elected President, are known to have used the words, "So help me God," when they were inaugurated.
When Forrest Church's book was finally published, the title did change, but the So-help-me-God part stayed the same, and, for good measure, I found out that Church included an Appendix in his book with the subtitle Did George Washington say "So help me God"? Needless to say, given the title of his book, Church defends the tradition where Washington is thought of having added a "sacred codicil" to his presidential oath.

I ordered the book, read the book, listened to several promotional interviews, and engaged Forrest Church in a discussion regarding what actually took place during Washington's first inauguration, which the author considers to be something of a minor skirmish in The First Great Battle Over Church and State. (You can find a published edition of Church's book here.) Several interesting promotional interviews are available. My selection for the best one was broadcast on The Tavis Smiley Show. Here's a snippet:
Tavis: . . . Tell me about this title, "So Help Me, God." We hear that phrase all the time. Why it as the title of the text?

Church: Well, in the oath of office, the inaugural oath of office that's set in the Constitution, it's a purely secular oath. And when George Washington was inaugurated the first time, when he got done with the oath as it was presented to him, he added the words "so help me, God."

Tavis: Impromptu.

Church: Impromptu, although I think he was scripted by his managers at that point. But that has become part of the presidential - it's a mantra.

I recently happened across an online article, Defining the moving line between church and state, March 9, 2008, by Howard Barnes (a professor of history at Winston-Salem State University) in the Winston-Salem Journal that summarized Forrest Church's book. I sent Professor Barnes an e-mail because his article had repeated Church's position regarding Washington having said "So help me God." Howard Barnes told me that he appreciated the information I had sent, and wished he had this information when he had written his article. He went on to indicate that he "wouldn't mind" if I added my "correction" as a Comment. I jumped at the opportunity, only to find out that the comment window was limited to 3,000 characters. (For best results, the reader should, at least, skim through Church's Appendix before continuing.) After much cutting back here's the final result:

Readers Comments
Posted by (raySoller) on June 6, 2008

In reviewing Forrest Church's book Professor Barnes writes:

According to several eyewitnesses (which the author affirms to be reliable), Washington not only ended his first inauguration ceremony with an oath on a borrowed Bible, but also added "so help me God" and bent down and reverently kissed the Bible.

Please note, two different issues are at stake. The first is whether Washington kissed the Bible, and the second is whether Washington added "So help me God."

There are four known firsthand accounts for Washington having kissed the Bible, but there are no known firsthand accounts saying that Washington added "So help me God" to his oath. Consequently, the first issue is not in doubt.

However, when it comes to the Appendix, where Forrest Church defends the notion that Washington added a sacred codicil to his oath, this is a very different matter. First off, Washington Irving was not the first person who claimed that Washington said "So help me God." This notion made its debut in 1854 when Rufus W. Griswold wrote his book, Republican Court. Many feel that Griswold used Washington Irving as his source, but that hardly matters, since Irving is not a reliable source.

According to Griswold, Washington Irving (age six) was not in a position to have reliably seen or heard what took place on the balcony some 200 feet away. Regardless, this didn't stop Griswold from saying that Washington had his "eyes closed" when he swore his oath, and it didn't stop Irving from having to refresh his "memory" by plagiarizing from the Memoirs of Eliza S. Morton Quincy.

Another problem relates to Church's misleading description of the oath that was approved for federal employees. There is no record that the God acknowledgements in the ad hoc House oath of April 6, 1789 were ever treated as part of the formal oath that was signed into law. In fact, from April 23rd, the day Washington arrived in New York, through to May 22nd, the date Congress submitted the bill to the President, there was no mention of any congressional disagreement when it came to the wording of the oath.

Of all the problems in Church's Appendix the most serious one stems from a bad case of mistaken identity. The "David Humphreys" of the Pennsylvania Mercury article has absolutely no connection to Washington's principal aide. He is actually Daniel Humphreys the newspaper editor, and the article is only a snippet selected from a very lengthy letter to the editor, Mr. Humphreys, that was serialized for nearly a month. Finally, on May 9th it is signed by Apocalypsophilos.

Forrest Church has acknowledged his error by saying, "I needn't have included that piece to begin with, and it doesn't change my sense that Washington is more likely than not to have said "So help me God" when he was inaugurated, though you will note that I nowhere claim that we can be certain about this." My response is, "Why does one prefix a title with an uncertainty?"
I just can't understand why Forrest Church chose to start the title of his book with an uncertainty. I couldn't understand why he did this when I first read the Christian Science Monitor article by Jeffrey MacDonald, and I can't do any better today.


Brian Tubbs said...

Respectfully, I still don't understand the near-obsessive desire to knock down this traditional understanding of the inaugural oath.

EVEN IF YOU ARE RIGHT and Washington did NOT say the what????

We know, for a fact, that George Washington appealed to the American people to pray in his inaugural address. And we know he went to a church service immediately AFTER the inauguration.

I just don't see how dropping "so help me God" gains you anything. George Washington bathed his inauguration in religious language and symbolism. "So help me God" is icing on the cake.

Remove that icing, and you still have the cake, and there's no way you can get rid of that.

Jonathan Rowe said...


There is no question that GW was a devout believer in God and wanted the American Citizens to be "religious" in the sense that they believed in God and a future state of rewards and punishments.

Ray will probably give his own answer but from what I can tell, the motivation has to do with treating atheists with equal respect and not subjecting them to such things as "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. We need to get Michael Newdow's clever musical video on the matter posted here.

Lindsey Shuman said...

I think this argument matters because George Washington was...well...George Washington. If there ever was a life or legacy in American history that has been more dissected than Washington's I would be surprised.

Anonymous said...

It matters to me whether George Washington said SHMG and I'm grateful for the work that's been done on this. I'm an "outsider", not from the US. The blurring of the distinction between religion or "Church" and government or "State" matters a great deal to me. Since I understood that the US was founded on the basis that people are free to practice the religion of their choice, including none, I would submit, was important historically, as I understand it, at least in part because so many immigrants to America had suffered oppression in the old "religious" countries, religious in the sense that there was a state religion (or none) and all citizens were forced in one way or another to abide by it.
For me, that is an important issue in modern times. In fact, if it wasn't, there really wouldn't be so much of an issue here.
People refer to history and tradition in order to rationalize and defend modern day practices, such as the SHMG part of the oath. That may make sense, or not. But either way, it's important to know history if you're going to rely on it.
The idea that George Washington, who seems to have been a Christian, would leave out the phrase seems to indicate a respect for religions other than Christian, as well as no religion at all, that is often lacking today.
I think it will be some time before America is ready for an avowedly atheist President.

Ray Soller said...

Brian is right. I'm obsessed.

The more important question than asking "so what????" is why are so many of our distinguished national institutions so intransigent when it comes to recognizing what actually took place at Washington's first inauguration? Could it be that there are some who don't see the "cake" still standing, but see a chain of falling dominos instead.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I wouldn't get hung up on the "o" word. Sometimes obsessiveness can lead to meticulously good works of scholarship. I can be a bit obsessed too when it comes to chasing footnotes. And Peter Lillback's book certainly seems obsessed in pouring through all of the primary sources to answer the "Deist" claim.

Phil Johnson said...

I doubt that there is any controversy whatsoever in Christian circles where the issue of G.W.'s oath is raised. They want to believe that the Founders were mostly Christian and motivated to create a Christian nation.
Only when the issue is raised in public circles are there any questions.
The issue has the effect of strengthening the Christian Right politically.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ray, I respect your scholarship. I really do. You've taken a lot of time on it. It's just that I see your efforts leading toward (at best) a pyrhhic victory (for your side). Washington was a devout believer in God, and his inauguration reflected that in every way. Even if you cast doubt on whether he said "so help me God" at the end of the oath, you haven't changed really anything.

bpabbott said...

Brian: " Even if you cast doubt on whether he said "so help me God" at the end of the oath, you haven't changed really anything."

hmmm ... Personally, I think the study of history has value, and that evidence should be needed prior to accepting a claim as being historically propable :-)

While the act of misrepresenting histories facts with fictional account for it does not really change the past, I think that an accurate record of history is important.

I particularly think it important to correct those who fabricate history to suit their own purposes. If such corrections really have no effect, then what motives so many to invent such fictions?