Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Leathley v. Farley Debate GW & Religion

I hadn't heard of either of these folks before stumbling onto this debate in the Daily Jeffersonian. Jared A. Farley, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Political Science Ohio University- Zanesville. Pastor Steve Leathley is associated with the Bible Baptist Church - Cambridge Ohio. It's strange when encountering the "Christian America" debate how many of its promoters are pastors, and how many detractors are academicians. This certainly fits the narrative here. This is not to poison the well, the pastors could be right, the academicians wrong. Though, on this issue, it's usually, I have found, the academicians -- trained historians and political scientists -- who are right. It certainly is in this case.

The debate began with Pastor Steve Leathley's Feb. 25, '09 letter to the editor (I haven't yet seen the article or commentary to which he was responding) that claimed Washington as a "Christian." It's brief enough that I'll reproduce the entire thing:


On May 12, 1779, George Washington told a gathering of Indians, "You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ."

On another occasion he prayed, "Almighty God ... I beseech thee, my sins, remove them from thy presence, as far as the east is from the west, and accept of me for the merits of thy son Jesus Christ, that when I come into thy temple, and compass thine altar, my prayer may come before thee as incense; and at thou wouldst hear me calling upon thee in my prayers, so give me grace to hear thee calling upon me in thy Word ... for his sake, who lay down in the grave and rose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen."

Obviously, when Washington spoke of "Providence," the "Grand Architect" and "Author of all Good," he knew exactly of whom he was speaking.

The trend in our day is to deny the Christian heritage of our country and replace it with "Deists" and "Moralists." However, even our 50 separate State Constitutions all acknowledge this Christian heritage (example: Ohio 1852, "We the people of the state of Ohio, grateful to almighty God for our freedom..." We that are Christian are proud of this heritage and simply ask that it be accepted as it is.

Pastor Steve Leathley


This letter actually helps prove that Washington, though not a "Deist" was the very "moralist" that Leathley invokes. The Daily Sacrifice Prayer is a debunked fraud. That the pastor would turn to it as a "smoking gun" shows just how little there is in the record that proves GW was a "Christian" as Pastor Leathley understands the term.

Dr. Farley left a comment at the bottom of Pastor Leathley's original post where he sheds light on the historical context. To which Pastor Leathley replied:


There is such a vast volume of material available attesting to the fact of George Washington's Christian faith that I could fill the "Mailbox" for months!

To those interested I would recommend the book "George Washington the Christian" published in 1919 and written by William J. Johnson. It can be read on-line at and it is a wonderful and thorough 299-page biography of our first President and his Christian faith. It speaks of the "Daily Sacrifice" prayers previously mentioned (beginning on page 23) in which Washington uses the titles "Jesus Christ" and "Saviour" repeatedly. The footnote (page 277) regarding this prayer book states, "Experts in Washington City, Philadelphia and New York are satisfied that it is Washington's handwriting without a doubt."

Jared Sparks (1789-1866), who was a noted historian and later became President of Harvard, wrote a 12-volume exposition on the life of George Washington (he also did a 10-volume work on Benjamin Franklin). After years of research and looking through all writings, correspondence, etc. he wrote the following the conclusion, "To say that he (George Washington) was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty."

John Marshall, who fought with Washington in the Revolutionary War and served with him at Valley Forge (and later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), said of Washington, "Without making ostentatious professions of religion, he was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man."

George Washington's adopted daughter, Eleanor, wrote the following in a letter dated February 26, 1833, "I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writing, prove that he was a Christian."

Pastor Steve Leathley


Again, Pastor Leathley invokes the debunked Daily Sacrifice digging himself deeper in the hole. However, the quotations from John Marshall, Jared Sparks, and Nelly Custis are accurate. And again, we need to better understand them with historical context. The bottom line is "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'Christian' is." And that's something Prof. Farley does an outstanding job explaining. You can read his response here.

I say "outstanding" because the trap many modern academicians make is to term Washington a "Deist" which connotes Thomas Paine style belief in a non-intervening God, categorical rejection of revelation, and hostility to the "Christian" religion (in virtually any of its forms). This not only doesn't describe Washington, it also doesn't describe J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, or Franklin -- the other supposed "Deists." On the other hand, Pastors like Leathley understand and define "Christianity" fairly strictly as well. From his own Church's articles of faith:

We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the super-naturally inspired words of God. These Scriptures, as contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, were inerrant and infallible, and the complete revelation of God to Man. We believe that just as God supernaturally inspired His words, so He has, in His divine providence, supernaturally preserved His words, inerrant and infallible, in the King James Bible, The King James Bible shall be the official and only Bible used by the church. (II Tim. 3:16-17; II Pet. 1:20-21; Ps. 12:6-7)

2. GOD
We believe in one God, eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost; each one equal in every divine perfection, but executing distinct offices in the great work of redemption. (Mt. 28:19; I Jn. 5:7)

We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man without ceasing to be God; having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin, Mary, in order that He might reveal God and redeem sinful men. (Is. 7:14; Lk. 1:35; Jn. 1:1-2)

We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished our redemption through His death on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice; and, that our justification is made sure by His literal, physical resurrection from the dead. (I Pet. 2:24; Eph. 1:7; Lk. 24:39)

We believe that the Holy Ghost is a person who convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment; that He applies the Word of God to the heart of the listener; and that upon salvation, baptizes them into the body of Christ, indwelling and sealing them unto the day of redemption. (Jn. 16:8-11; I Cor. 12:12-14; Eph. 1:13-14)

We believe that man was created in the image and likeness of God, but that in Adam's sin, the human race fell, inherited a sinful nature, and became alienated from God; and that man is sinful and, of his own works, utterly unable to remedy his lost condition. (Gen. 1:26-27; Eph. 2:1-3; Eph. 2:8-9)

We believe that salvation is the gift of God brought to man by grace and received by personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, whose precious blood was shed on Calvary for the forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 1:12; Col. 1:14; I Pet. 1:18-19)

The evidence that Washington believed in even one of these articles is thin. And there is not a shred of evidence that he believed in all six. And I can attest this as one of the probably handful of people who read Peter Lillback's entire 1200 book, footnotes and all, that attempts to portray GW as an orthodox Christian. Lillback offers lots of evidence that GW was a man of religion, morality, prayer, and thougt the "Christian religion" (as Washington understood it) to be "good." But very thin evidence that GW believed in those 6 points that the "orthodox" believe define what it means to be a "mere Christian," at least a mere "Protestant Christian."

In short, there is a huge gulf between Thomas Paine style Deism on the one hand and orthodox Trinitarian Christianity (esp. of the "evangelical" or "born again" bent) on the other. It's clear that J. Adams, Jefferson and Franklin fit somewhere in that gulf, very likely that Madison did as well. And, it's likely Washington fit there as well. And Prof. Farley does a great job arguing this here.

I'll let you read his post for the evidence why the "Daily Sacrifice" is a fraud. However, what he says about Sparks, Marshall, and Custis is worth reproducing:

What Pastor Leathley neglects to point out, or does not understand, is that both Rev. Jared Sparks and John Marshall were Unitarian Christians and not traditional/orthodox Christians. Rev. Sparks was the minister of the Unitarian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, before accepting the presidency of Harvard University, a Unitarian school since 1805. Chief Justice John Marshall attended an Episcopalian congregation, but, like Washington, refused to partake in the Eucharist because of his personal Unitarian beliefs.


Here is a summary of a letter that John Marshall's daughter wrote concerning his religious faith: "The reason why he never communed was, that he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society. He told her he believed in the truth of the Christian Revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church."
(see )


...[W]hen Rev. Sparks and Marshall spoke about Washington's faith their definition of what qualifies someone to be a "Christian" was not very strict and much different from what would qualify as a "traditional Christian" today. Pastor Leathley clearly does not understand this.


Pastor Leathley's final reference is to Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis's correspondence with Rev. Sparks about her step-grandfather's religious faith. Pastor Leathley conveniently neglects to mention that just a few lines before she writes that her step-grandfather had a "firm belief in Christianity", she also states that she would usually leave church services early with Washington on Eucharist Sundays. Apparently, her definition of Christianity, like those of Rev. Sparks and Marshall, was as vast as to include someone who rejected communion, and by inference the deity of Christ! Again, why else would Washington refuse communion, except that he could not accept what the Lord's Supper represents?????


Also, notice the part of the letter where she says, "I never witnessed his private devotions and never inquired about them." Yet, the letter makes clear that Nelly was clearly aware of the pious nature of her grandmother. I wonder why?????

Question- why would Nelly Washington agree to help a Unitarian minister write a book about her step-grandfather rather than one of the many more traditionalist Christian authors who also wanted to write a biography of him? Perhaps because she and the rest of Washington's family thought that a heretical Unitarian minister would present Washington's religious beliefs in a more favorable fashion, i.e., refer to him as a "devout Christian" because of Spark's own Unitarian beliefs...surely he thought himself a devout Christian?[]

The problem with Pastor Leathley's analysis is that he is attempting to make an ideological argument devoid of a complete understanding of the complexities of American religious history.


I want to stress that I am sure Pastor Leathley will eventually be able to find a quote seeming to give legitimacy to Washington's traditional Christian faith from someone who was not a theological Unitarian, but that will not really prove much. Why? Because even back during Washington's time you could find somebody to say just about anything. And just like today, there were people back then who wanted to BELIEVE that Washington shared their traditional/orthodox faith. So even if they had no evidence, they would simply say he obviously was a traditional Christian because they wanted to believe it was true. Furthermore, we have to remember that being a Deist or a Unitarian was not a very popular thing, and so in order to protect Washington's reputation and the Washington family's reputation, some people may have lied and said Washington was a devout Christian, but that does not mean much considering all the other bits of evidence we have. More likely than not, George Washington was a Unitarian was John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams (who actually attended a Unitarian congregation), among many others. (Notice I did not say Washington was definitely a Unitarian Christian.I cannot prove that. This is just my best guess based upon all of the evidence.)

Ultimately the question that remains follows -- the question that I would pose to Pastor Leathley: Is someone (regardless of how they self define and understand) who rejects or otherwise does not believe in those above reproduced six articles of faith from Leathley's church still able to be a "Christian"? If the answer is yes, then GW could be a "Christian." If the answer is "no" then Washington likely was not a Christian.


Brian Tubbs said...

Historically, the term "Christian" refers to someone who embraces the deity of Jesus, believed in his resurrection, and followed him. See the books of Acts and Romans.

I think you and others have done a commendable job casting doubt on whether GW was "orthodox" in his Anglicanism. But you haven't demonstrated he rejected the deity of Jesus, and THAT is what is central to being a "Christian" (historically speaking anyway).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Brian, there certainly were a number of Founders who rejected Jesus' divinity. Washington or no, the phenomenon cannot be ignored.

On the other side, when folks like Pastor Leathley make bad arguments [Washington's orthodoxy], they enable their opponents to ignore their better ones.

The trend in our day is to deny the Christian heritage of our country and replace it with "Deists" and "Moralists." However, even our 50 separate State Constitutions all acknowledge this Christian heritage (example: Ohio 1852, "We the people of the state of Ohio, grateful to almighty God for our freedom..."

That's a good argument, and although Ohio doesn't quite get us to Christianity, there are a number of state constitutions that do.

I think it was Jim Babka who said that it's the pastor-types making bad arguments that make it easy for their opponents to appear to be winning the argument.

hoosiertoo said...

"...definition of Christianity... was as vast as to include someone who rejected communion, and by inference the deity of Christ!"

Or perhaps it was just that his conscience prevented him from doing so. I frequently skip communion because I am well aware of my own condition.

bpabbott said...

Brian: "I think you and others have done a commendable job casting doubt on whether GW was "orthodox" in his Anglicanism. But you haven't demonstrated he rejected the deity of Jesus, and THAT is what is central to being a "Christian" (historically speaking anyway)."

I haven't encountered anyone who claims that Washington rejected the divinity of Jesus. Rather, it appears to me that they reject the claim that the matter has been settled in the affirmative.

"Feb. 1. Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the Government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article in their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice…. "I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in the system (Christianity) than he did." (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, p. 284.) [emphasis mine]

Pesonally, it is my opinion that anyone making a claim, one way or the other, shows disrespect to the wishes of this great man.