"Though the General attended the churches in which Dr. White officiated, whenever he was in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary war, and afterwards while President of the United States, he never was a communicant in them" (Memoir of Bishop White, p. 188).
Bird Wilson was also purported to have given a sermon in Albany in 1831, on the religion of the Presidents from Washington to Jackson which concluded "among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." The following, further, was preached in that sermon:
When the war was over and the victory over our enemies won, and the blessings and happiness of liberty and peace were secured, the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it.... There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God's laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public profession of Christianity.... Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 120-121, emphasis added).
After the sermon was published in the Daily Advertiser, freethinker and Utopian Robert Dale Owen, personally visited the Reverend to dialogue on the matter of Washington's religious views. It was during this discussion that Owen testified in a letter to Amos Gilbert dated November 13, 1831:
I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been grievously at fault, I met an honest man and sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor's residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently approaching fifty years of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken a part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not.... I then read to him from a copy of the Daily Advertiser the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, "Washington was a man," etc. and ending, "absented himself altogether from the church." "I endorse," said Dr. Wilson, with emphasis, "every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr. Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was--for I well remember the very words--`Sir, Washington was a Deist.'"
The fact that Washington didn't commune in Philadelphia under Dr. Abercrombie and Bishop White is not in dispute. However, the minister who gave the fiery sermon terming all of the Presidents thus far elected "unitarians" and "infidels" was not, (or likely not) Bird Wilson but rather James Renwick Willson.
I was first alerted to this by a Brown doctoral candidate in history, James Kabala, in a comment on my blog:
I'm a historian currently working on church-state relations in the early republic who stumbled across this blog. The sermon you attribute to Bird Wilson, an Episcopalian, was actually delivered by James Renwick Willson, a Reformed Presbyterian or Covenanter and no relation to the Founding Father James Wilson. I've seen this error in books by a number of authors and have been trying to trace it back to its origins; I've traced it as far back as Paul Boller's book on Washington's religion, but the source he cites is not at my university's library. Willson's sermon was still largely accurate, but it lacks the authority of being by James Wilson's son.
I've been emailing him back and forth over the past few days and we have tried to get to the bottom of the matter. John E. Remsburg's book Six Historic Americans seems to be the origin of the error, though Remsburg doesn't technically make the error. If you read Remsburg carefully he treats "The Rev. Dr. Wilson" and "Rev. Bird Wilson, D.D." as two different people, but does not make this clear enough. And he misspells James Renwick Willson's last name with only one l, further adding to the confusion. And to confuse even more, ironically both "Rev. Wilson" and "Rev. Willson" were domiciled in Albany!
The first scholar, relying on Remsburg's work to confuse the two "Wilsons" into one was Franklin Steiner, where he writes:
Here is honest, straightforward talk, both on the part of Washington and the clergyman. 'What is more, it is confirmed by others. The Rev. Dr. Wilson, the biographer of Bishop White, in his sermon on the "Religion of the Presidents," says....Dr. Wilson's sermon was published in the Albany 'Daily Advertiser,' in 1831. Mr. Robert Dale Owen, then a young man, was attracted by it, and went to Albany to interview Dr. Wilson, and gives the substance of the interview in a letter, written on November 13, 1831, which was published in New York two weeks later....
From there relying on Steiner's work, Paul F. Boller, in George Washington and Religion continues to treat James Renwick Willson's work as thought it were Bird Wilson's. And from Boller, various George Washington scholars on both sides of the culture war debate over just how "Christian" Washington was have attributed to Bird Wilson words which probably came from James Renwick Willson. They include David Holmes, Peter Henriques, Farell Till, Brooke Allen, Michael and Jana Novak, and Peter Lillback.
I know all of this Wilson v. Willson stuff is confusing. This email that James Kabala sent me helps to clarify:
Steiner seems to be our culprit (or at least, the farthest back we can definitively trace this mistake at the present time; perhaps he himself was drawing on someone else). The Rev. Dr. Wilson who wrote a biography of Bishop White was, I assume, Bird Wilson. The Rev. Dr. Wilson [sic; should be Willson] who spoke with Robert Dale Owen was undoubtedly James Renwick Willson; the dialogue between the two men as quoted by Steiner is quoted verbatim from the Free Enquirer of December 3, 1831. The misspelling as "Wilson" occurred in that original article and is the likely source of much later trouble. This mistake is relatively inconsequential in the long run, since we know from other sources that Washington was undoubtedly a non-communicant and probably a Deist (or "theistic rationalist"), but it is remarkable how an error can spread from book to book without ever being caught. It will make me even more vigilant to make sure my own work is free from such errors!
Regarding the sermon in the Daily Advertiser, the primary source is not available online (nor in most libraries either!). However, one of Willson's sermons with almost identical sentiments is available here. The sermon in question was titled, PRINCE MESSIAH’S CLAIMS TO DOMINION OVER ALL GOVERNMENTS: AND THE DISREGARD OF HIS AUTHORITY BY THE UNITED STATES, IN THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION, and as the site says, because of the way in which he criticized the Presidents, he was denounced.
The whole thing makes for an interesting read. Here are some excerpts:
There is no satisfactory evidence that Washington was a professor of the Christian religion, or even a speculative believer in its divinity, before he retired from public life. In no state paper, in no private letter, in no conversation, is he known to have declared himself a believer in the Holy Scriptures, as the word of God. General eulogy, by a Weems, or a Ramsey, will not satisfy an enlightened enquirer. The faith of the real believer in the word of God, is a principle so powerfully operative, that you cannot conceal "its light under a bushel." "It works by love." "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh." Is it probable that he was a true believer in Jesus Christ and his Bible, when in times so trying, and in a Christian nation, he wrote thousands of letters, and yet never uttered a word, from which it can be fairly inferred that he was a believer? Who ever questioned whether Theodosius or Charlemagne believed the Bible? "He that is not against us is for us." And it is as true, that he who is not for us, is against us.
He was President of the convention, that voted the name of the living God out of the Constitution. His influence was great among the members of that body. Had he taken part with Dr. Franklin, in the attempt to have an acknowledgment of God inserted in the Constitution, they could hardly have failed of success. The conviction forces itself upon us, that that act of national impiety, was done with the approbation of Washington. It is to his everlasting dishonor, that he is not known to have opposed that insult offered to the Lord God, who had made him so great and successful a captain.
While President, in Philadelphia, his habit was to arise and leave the church, when the Sacrament of the Supper was dispensed. After the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie had preached a faithful sermon against the evil example thus set by the President of the United States; Gen. Washington remarked, that he would not set such an example for the future; and from that time, he did not attend church on the Sabbath, in which the Lord’s Supper was dispensed.
When the several classes of citizens, were addressing Washington, on his retirement from office, the clergy, who doubted his Christianity, resolved to frame an address, so that he could not evade, in his reply, an expression of his faith, if he were really a believer. He did, however, evade it, and the impression left on the mind of one of the clergy, at least, was that he was a Deist.
Mr. Jefferson, affirms that Washington was a Deist. To be ashamed of Christ, which no one can reasonably doubt he was, is infidel. He did not set an example of godliness, before the nation, over which in the Providence of God, he was made President.
The Cabinet which Gen. Washington chose, indicates that he was not a fearer of the Lord. Mr. Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, was an unchaste man, and died by a duel. Mr. Jefferson, his Secretary of State, was an avowed infidel, who mocked at every thing sacred. You know men by their society. Among the members of the first Cabinet of the Federal Executive, vital godliness would have been mocked at as fanaticism. Which of the heads of departments prayed in his family daily? Which of them sanctified the Lord’s day, by abstaining from worldly conversation, company, and business? The practical piety of the Bible, as exhibited in [Thomas] Boston’s Fourfold State, [Jonathan] Edwards on [Religious] Affections, and [Alexander] McLeod on True Godliness, had she been introduced to the inmates of Washington’s Palace, would have been derided as a fanatic.
And here Rev. Willson uses the "God was voted out" of the US Constitution language:
Besides, there is some reason to believe, that the people were not so bad as a few practical atheists, into whose hands the management of the national affairs fell, immediately after the revolution. These men voted God out of the Constitution, and discarded all moral qualifications for office. But the people, pending the election of Mr. Jefferson to the office of President, adopted a test. The opponents of that gentleman, insisted that he was an infidel, and therefore not to be honored with the highest office in the gift of the people. His friends admitted the doctrine that a deist ought not to be President; but denied the charge against Mr. Jefferson. His Notes on Virginia, are essentially deistical. But comparatively few had read them. The people, many thousands of Christians, did not believe the charge, and thinking it a slander of his political enemies, they voted for him. Had the people known his malevolent opposition to the Bible, truth, church and worship, of God as it is now known, the writer believes that he never would have been President of the United States. That very contest rendered Deism forever unpopular in this nation.
And in the footnotes, Willson relays that it was he who had been in correspondence with Washington's minister, Dr. Abercrombie.
Since the above was written, the author has heard some facts respecting Washington’s last days at Mount Vernon, which give reason to hope, that he became, at least a speculative believer in revealed religion, after he withdrew from the cares of empire, and found time for investigation and devotion. We are sure the first President did not acknowledge Prince Messiah. Dr. Abercrombie said to, the writer—"Sir, General Washington was a Deist."
In another sermon, Rev. Willson repeats similar sentiments:
Never in any form, since the United States became an independent nation, has it acknowledged the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, nor professed subjection to his law. The convention that ratified and unanimously signed the present Federal Constitution, could not have meant to do so, as is demonstrated by many solid arguments. 1. The question was debated, and a very large majority refused to insert any acknowledgment of God, or of the religion of his Son. 2. Had this not been done, the members were men of too much discernment, to have overlooked, through inattention, a matter of so great magnitude. If they intended to acknowledge Christ, it would have been in such terms, as to admit of no doubt. 3. There were many deists in the convention, such as Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Thomas Mifflin, Governor Morris, and James Madison. Governor Morris and Thomas Jefferson, affirm that General Washington was also a deist. Yet all these infidels signed the constitution. Would they have done so in the presence of those who knew them to be opposed to revealed religion had the instrument been christian. 4. Could the Presidents of the United States, three of whom, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, were certainly infidels, numerous members of congress, Governors of States, and many other officers of the General and State governments, have sworn to the Federal Constitution, had it been understood to recognize the headship of Messiah, whom they held to be an impostor? 5. It has never been the understanding of the nation that the constitution acknowledges the Lord Jesus Christ, or professes subjection to his laws. All infidels have sworn to the support of that instrument, and no one has ever thought of charging them with inconsistency. 6. The present President of the United States, in his message to congress, at the opening of the extra session of 1837, says: "The will of a majority of the people is the supreme law, in all things that come within the jurisdiction of the Federal government." In all the opposition to his administration, this sentiment has never been called in question. The politicians of the nation, would generally reject with detestation, the doctrine, that the constitution binds to the acknowledgment of the Bible as the supreme rule of legislation in this commonwealth. 7. All these arguments are sealed, by the following provision. "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." This prohibits the passage of any law excluding gamblers, whoremongers, slaveholders, profane swearers, sabbath violaters, gross idolators, blasphemers of the divinity of Christ, deists or atheists, from access to the highest honours of the land, for to exclude any of these, would be to require a religious test. A man might be convicted of any and even of all these sins, and yet be eligible to any office. Here is a flat contradiction to the Bible. "He that ruleth over men must be just ruling in the fear of God." 2 Sam. 23:3. If the constitution acknowledged Christ, the christian religion, or Jehovah, in any article directly or indirectly, it would thereby establish a religious test, as no deist or atheist could swear to its support. This sweeping clause is found in the conclusion of a section declaring, "that all executive and judicial officers both of the United States and of the several States shall be bound, by oath or affirmation, to support this constitution." It has been plead[ed] that this provision acknowledges the christian religion . But how vainly? Heathens swear oaths. An atheist might come into office by an affirmation. The concluding sentence forbidding all religious tests, shews how anxious the framers were to avoid even a seeming acknowledgment of God or his holy religion.
As noted, this is not verbatim of the actual sermon "The Religion of the Presidents" printed in the Albany Daily Advertiser. That is a primary source available in few libraries. Ultimately someone, probably James Kabala, will get his or her hands on it and settle this issue. But the sentiments are so similar, it's almost certain that the Rev. terming the Founders "infidels," that none of the Presidents from Washington Jackson were professors of religion beyond Unitarianism, that the record shows Washington was a Deist and nothing more, and stating that God was voted out of the US Constitution, was Rev. James Renwick Willson, not Bird Wilson. Bird Wilson was "esteemed." James Renwick Willson after delivering this sermon attacking the Presidents and the US Founding was burned in effigy. Bird Wilson's father, James, whose work Bird catalogued in detail, was likely not an orthodox Christian, but rather adhered to the same system of "theistic rationalism" that the key Founders (early Presidents) did. Thus, Bird would be attacking his own father as an "infidel." Not likely.
Finally, note that Rev. Willson was an early prominent member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Covenanted and they were notable dissidents on the US Constitution. They believed its lack of supplication to God, absence of a religious test, and absence of explicit covenant with the Triune God of the Bible made it a document, at the very least, inconsistent with their view of covenant theology and civil government. (At the worst it is an anti-Christian, infidel document). This is the very group to whom Gary North dedicates his ebook. And though North doesn't cite Rev. Willson, many of Willson's same arguments against the US Constitution are fleshed out in detail in North's book.
Rev. Willson was a true "dominionist," and he should remind the Reconstructionists that a dominionist theology is inconsistent with the US Constitution. (On a personal note, he was a mean looking dude as well!)
Nice and very well done. Thank you for taking the time to put this up on the web.
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