Professor Stone’s evidence for deism’s surpassing significance is flawed. By his own description of their beliefs, some of which were indisputably deis?tic, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson do not belong in the “flat-out” deist category to which Professor Stone assigns them. Deists thought that God does not “intervene[ ] in human history,” yet Franklin believed that God “‘governs the World by his Providence.’” Jefferson was “the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence.” Professor Stone characterizes this document as “a statement . . . of American deism,” but its language shows the opposite to be true. If God does not interact with mankind, why did the signatories appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the World” to vindicate their honorable intentions, and also express confidence in “the Protection of divine Providence”?
Another way to overemphasize the impact of deism is to overstate the decline of orthodox Christianity. Professor Stone does this in part by oversim?plifying the record concerning the complex issue of George Washington’s religious faith. A letter to Lafayette is quoted in which Washington said that he was “‘no bigot . . . to any mode of worship.’” It is also claimed that “Washington’s personal papers . . . offer no evidence that he believed in . . . Jesus’[ ] divinity”; that “[i]n several thousand letters, he never once mentioned Jesus”; and that, “[a]s president, Washington was always careful not to invoke Christianity[, but h]is official speeches, orders, and other public communica?tions scrupulously reflected the perspective of a deist.”[JSK1]
Contrast this rendering with the fuller picture. Washington’s statement to Lafayette is accurately related as far as it goes, but Professor Stone omits the critical words that follow the quoted phrase: “Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception.” Professor Stone is correct to suggest that had Washington been a committed Christian, one would expect to find more references to Jesus and Christianity in his works. But Professor Stone once again gives an incomplete account. First, at least one of his three specific claims about Washington’s use of language is incorrect. Washington as president did not “scrupulously reflect[ ]” a deistic perspective. In an October 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Washington referred to “Almighty God,”[JSK2] hardly a “deistic phrase[ ],” and also urged that various “prayers and supplications” be offered, a nonsensical entreaty had he shared the deistic belief that God does not “listen[ ] to personal prayers.” Second, Professor Stone ignores two public occasions when Washington did refer to Jesus. In 1779, General Washington urged the Delaware Chiefs “to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.” More importantly, Washington ended his 1783 Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States on Disbanding the Army by stating in his prayer for the Governors and their respec?tive States thatGod would . . . dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.
Prof. Stone responds. A taste:
In reading Professor Calhoun’s response, I was struck not only by his determination to refute almost every statement, but also by his sharply accu?satory tone. (I should note that, in a rare moment of magnanimity, Professor Calhoun generously acquits me of being “shrill,” though I’m not at all sure I can return the compliment.) I have often challenged the work of scholars with whom I disagree, and they have often challenged me. But rarely have I seen so uncivil a tone as that evidenced by Professor Calhoun. Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of free speech and I would defend to the death Professor Calhoun’s right to be as uncivil as he likes. Indeed, if he truly believes that I “distorted” the evidence in order to “mislead” my audience, then he is certainly right to take me to the woodshed. But why would he accuse me of intentionally distorting the evidence and attempting to mislead my audience? Whatever happened to honest error (if error there be) and collegial disagreement? Professor Calhoun seems like a perfectly decent fel?low, so what is going on here? Why in God’s name is he so overwrought?
My puzzlement goes well beyond Professor Calhoun’s litany of quibbles and un-Christian tone. More substantively, he attacks me repeatedly for claims I never made. This is vexing. I was quite careful in my lecture to state pre?cisely what I was claiming. I made three claims that seem most relevant to this discussion: First, and most importantly, I claimed that the Framers did not intend to establish a Christian nation. Second, I claimed that the Framers believed that religion “should play a role in helping ‘to preserve the civil morality necessary to democracy,’” but that they also thought that “in the ‘public business of the nation’” it was “essential for the government to speak of religion ‘in a way that was unifying, not divisive.’” And third, I claimed that when we consider what the Constitution “allows” in the realm of relig?ion, “it helps to know the truth” about what the Framers believed and “what they aspired to when they created this nation.”
With respect to my first claim, Professor Calhoun concedes the point. Thus, we can put aside the Christian nation issue. Ironically, in light of the fury of his attack, this was the primary point of my lecture, as was evident from its title—The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?
One quibble with Prof. Calhoun's analysis of GW & the letter to the Delaware Indians (which like the 1783 Circular was not written by Washington but signed by him). The entire context of GW's correspondence reveals he wasn't URGING them to “to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ" but rather APPROVING of their already made decision to do so.
This is exactly what Washington said with MY EMPHASIS on how the phrase SHOULD read when one understands the context:
Brothers: I am glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us. I am sure Congress will open the Arms of love to them, and will look upon them as their own Children, and will have them educated accordingly. This is a great mark of your confidence and of your desire to preserve the friendship between the Two Nations to the end of time, and to become One people with your Brethen of the United States. My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.
For more on the context see here. I noted that GW was replying to a REQUEST from the Indians a part of which read as follows:
5th. That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation — the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far away as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their power.
It's a non-sequitur to conclude -- as some have -- that Washington was an orthodox Christian based on his expressed sentiments (written by aide, Robert Hanson Harrison) to the Delaware Indians. Rather Washington intuitively thought it a good idea for Indians to convert to the dominant religion of America and learn our other ways of life. George Washington thought the purpose of "religion," -- i.e., why Indians should convert to Christianity -- was civic utility. No evidence shows GW thought only Christianity true, other religions false (i.e., the orthodox position). Did he, GW wouldn't have twice (here and here), when speaking to unconverted Natives, termed God the "Great Spirit" suggesting unconverted Natives worshipped the same God Christians do.