Friday, February 12, 2010

Evangelicals Should Not Claim George Washington as a "Christian"

Jim Fletcher, writing at WorldNetDaily, asserted the following about George Washington:

But at Mount Vernon, I was struck by the lack of information about Washington's faith. Even the bookstore, with its dozens of volumes about the great man, doesn't stock many titles that deal with George Washington, the Christian.

All this makes "The Life of Washington" an especially important book. Newly published by Attic Books, this rich historical treasure was originally published in 1842 by the American Sunday School Union (now known as the American Missionary Fellowship) and authored by Anna Reed – a niece of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. This is an amazing book!

If liberal historical revisionism is considerably more than an annoyance to you, projects like "The Life of Washington" take on vital importance. It doesn't hurt that this little volume, produced by Attic Books' crack team of editorial, design and marketing professionals, has a vintage feel. From the rough-cut edges to the scan of the original pages, "The Life of Washington" is a look back in time (and, hey, at $16.99, it's a value-packed prize).

Of course the primary value of this book is that it was originally produced much nearer to the time George Washington lived, so the history recorded here is accurate. When it was released in 1842, it proved to be one of the most widely read biographies of Washington.

We know we are reading a 19th century book when we find in the opening of Chapter 1, "To give us the delightful assurance, that we are always under the watchful care of our almighty and kind Creator, He has told us that He notices the movements of every little sparrow; and as we are 'of more value than many sparrows,' He will surely ever care for us."

Try finding such a line in one of our modern textbooks. Lefty historical revisionists would have none of that.

If interested in the book, don't bother buying it, you can download it for free via googlebooks here.

I wrote the following to Jim Fletcher:


I read your WND article, posted today, on Washington. While you assert GW a "Christian," you offer no evidence for it. A book written in the mid 19th Cen. may offer valuable insights, but ultimately, it's the historical record that counts. Some/much of what was thought in the 19th Cen. has been rightly corrected (or to use that boogey word, "revised"). For instance, if you took a poll of Americans in the 1950s on Rock Hudson's sexual orientation, they would (probably) have wrongly termed him straight. "Revision" does not necessarily equal "wrong."

Based on my exhaustive research of Washington's religion (I've read Peter Lillback's entire 1200 page book, footnotes and all, as well as countless other books and primary sources), the record shows GW was, like Jefferson, Franklin, and others, formally and nominally associated with "Christendom," i.e., he probably thought himself a "Christian" in an identificatory sense (though little evidence shows him calling himself a "Christian"). But NOTHING shows GW would pass an evangelical's test for "Christian." In 20,000 pages of Washington's recorded writings (the Fitzpatrick ed., in NONE of Washington's personal letters (where he often speaks of "God," "religion," "Providence," etc.) does he speak of Jesus Christ by person or example. And in only TWO of Washington's public addresses does he invoke JC by name or example. And both of these addresses were written by aides (but signed by GW).

In short, NO EVIDENCE shows GW had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, accepted Him as Savior, 2nd Person in the Trinity, believed the Bible the inerrant, infallible Word of God., etc.

Evangelicals need to stop claiming Washington as a "Christian."


Jon Rowe....


Brian Tubbs said...

What if GW were alive today and someone walked up to him and asked him straight up: "Sir, are you a Christian?"

Jon, I honestly believe GW's answer would be something similar to "Of course!"

But...we probably wouldn't get much more than that from him. :-)

It's unlikely he'd allow himself to get drawn into talking about his beliefs regarding the Incarnation, Trinity, biblical inerrancy, etc.

Bottom line...GW almost certainly considered himself a Christian, but kept the details of his faith close to the vest.

Brian Tubbs said...

I would add that what I say about GW above could NOT be said of Jefferson and Franklin.

And that's probably the part of your letter to Mr. Fletcher that I disagree with the most. Jefferson and Franklin were more or less unitarians (depending on what stage of their life we're focused on). Washington never identified himself that way. Franklin and Jefferson acknowledged openly their doubts about Jesus, the Bible, etc. Washington did not, thus I think it's unfair to speculate so confidently that he had them and that he, in fact, rejected much of the core doctrines of the Christian faith. I think you're going beyond the evidence in that direction as much as Dave Barton, Fletcher, and others go in the other direction.

Brad Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Hart said...

Brian writes:

What if GW were alive today and someone walked up to him and asked him straight up: "Sir, are you a Christian?"

Jon, I honestly believe GW's answer would be something similar to "Of course!"


Jefferson and Franklin were more or less unitarians (depending on what stage of their life we're focused on). Washington never identified himself that way.

I actually think that Washington would NOT call himself a Christian. Contemporaries of Washington tried to pin him down with that same question but were unable to do so. As Jefferson once put it, the "old fox" dodged the question.

I think this topic is where Brian and I may disagree more than any other. Brian essentially tries to argue that Washington was a "quiet Christian" who kept his cards to himself and privately revered Jesus (and Christianity) but zipped his lips on the matter in public. I, however, believe (much like J. Rowe) that Washington was sort of a hybrid between Unitarianism and Christianity...a "Christian-leaning Unitarian" as I have put it in the past.

But here's the bottom line: neither I or Brian have the right (if we're being honest with ourselves) to conclusively say what Washington was. The "smoking gun" evidence just isn't there. This is why I agree with Jon's post. It is wrong for Evangelicals (or anyone else for that matter) to claim Washington as their own. Lillback's book, despite its obvious length and sincere desire to prove Washington's "Christianity" falls dramatically short of its goal. And if you can't prove the case with 1200 pages you never will.

With that said, I think it's worth reiterating here that Brian, Lillback, Novak and others are 100% right to refute the ridiculous "deist" argument for Washington. In reality, that claim is even more ridiculous than the "Washington was a Christian" claim. But simply because Washington doesn't meet the deist standard does not therefore mean he was a Christian. And based on the totality of the available evidence, I think the "Christian-leaning Unitarian" label works.

But alas, as is the case with most labels, it's difficult to make them stick...and sometimes I think we get too caught up arguing semantics more than substance.

Ray Soller said...


How has anybody refuted the deist argument? I don't see any evidence in the historical record contemporary with the FFs where it says that a deist believed in a non-interventionist clockmaker god. The Watchmaker analogy appears to have been most notably introduced by William Paley in his book, Natural Theology (1802). And even there, I don't see Paley indicating that God is limited to being a disinterested onlooker.

To quote Jon Rowe from a comment that dates back to 10/20/2006 on his Positive Liberty Blog, Founders & Religion Hits the Blogsphere, "If a Deist was someone who, in understanding God, looked primarily to reason and nature, as opposed to revelation, and broke with traditional Christianity on a number of key doctrines, then, yes, I think it’s fair to say that these Founders were 'Deists' of some sort."

Brad Hart said...

Sorry Ray but yes, the Deist argument has been shot down. It holds virtually no ground. I won't repeat the arguments made but there are a-plenty here at AC.

Washington was no deist.

Ray Soller said...

Sorry Brad, but you are shooting blanks. Instead of searching through AC, why don't you consult
Deism Historically Defined - S. G. Hefelbower, 1912, Washburn College, Topeka, KS:

There is no accepted definition of Deism. If you try to find out what it is from the books and articles that discuss it you will be left with confusion. Scholars differ as to what should be considered characteristic of the movement; some emphasize one thing, some another. Often it is conceived wholly or almost wholly, as a metaphysical theory, which represents God as the Creator of the world, but now withdrawn and separate from it and its concerns; it is the absentee of literature. There is no foundation in fact for this interpretation of Deism. With the exception of Herbert of Cherbury Deists scarcely touched philosophical problems.

Often Deism is presented as an undefined movement that fostered a hostile attitude toward the supernatural in religion. In one sense this is true. And frequently it is defined as a type of unbelief, as a reconstruction of Christianity that leaves little that is virtualy characteristic of the Christian religion. These definitions, though they are almost wholly negative, they represent Deism as other than or as contrary to some accepted standard; but they fail to say what it really was.

These more or less popular definitions of Deism are wrong or inadequate. Deism was a phase in religious thought; it should therefore be defined historically with reference to the thought of the age in which it flourished. A proper definition should show how it is related to and how it is distinguished from the historical background on which it appeared. [My italics.]

If someone could show, lets say in the case of GW, that Washington believed that Jesus was born of a virgin, who had been able to walk on water, and ascended into heaven after his death, then there's no conclusive way of sayng that GW was not a Deist.

Brad Hart said...

Nope, not shooting blanks...that would be making a mountain out of a mole the ad nauseum SHMG trends we see here.

But to play along, even the definition you provided doesn't fit with Washington.

He wasn't a deist. It really is that simple.

Ray Soller said...

Brad, you're huffing and puffing a lot, but I don't see anyting but smoke. My statement is that there's no conclusive evidence showing that Washington disqualified himself as a Deist as defined in the contemporary terms of his day.

Let's consult Lillback's Sacred Fire, pgs. 37-38. First, Lillback consults Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary of the American English Language to define Deism and Deist. The following 1828 Webster Dictionary definitions happen to be from Deism and the Founding of America.

Deism. The doctrine or creed of a deist; the belief or system of religious opinions of those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny revelation: or deism is the belief in natural religion only, or those truths, in doctrine and practice, which man is to discover by the light of reason, independent and exclusive of any revelation from God. Hence deism implies infidelity or a disbleief in the divine origin of the scriptures.

Deist. One who believes in the existence of a God, but denies revealed religion; one who professes no form of religion, but follows the light of nature and reason, as his only guides in doctrine and practice; a freethinker.

Now recognize that this definition is being given by a devout Orthodox Christian named Noah Webster. It seems to me to be cut from the same cloth as worn by those evangelical Christians who define Mormonism as a cult. Look at the 5/11/2007 LivePrayer Daily Devotional blog where the author says, "Romney is an unashamed and proud member of the Mormon cult founded by a murdering polygamist pedophile named Joseph Smith nearly 200 years ago. The teachings of the Mormon cult are doctrinally and theologically in complete opposition to the Absolute Truth of God's Word. There is no common ground."

Reverend Lillback, like Noah Webster's definition, can categorize Thomas Paine as a Deist, but he is blind to the possibility that there is any common ground between Washington and Paine when it came to their understanding of natural religion.

Brad Hart said...


Haven't we been down this road many times before? Just go look up "George Washington" of the blog search. You'll see that we've addressed everything you have already said.

I'm going back to watching the opening ceremonies in Vancouver.

Brian Tubbs said...


You write: "My statement is that there's no conclusive evidence showing that Washington disqualified himself as a Deist as defined in the contemporary terms of his day."

Must Washington "disqualify himself" from the label 'Deist' in order for you to be satisfied that he wasn't?

Shouldn't the burden of proof be on those who say that Washington WAS a Deist, especially since there's no record of Washington identifying himself as such????

Brian Tubbs said...


GW did refer to himself as a Christian and he affiliated himself with a Christian denomination.

Let me put it this way...if Washington had been a member of the "World Union of Deists," we would ALL agree that he was a Deist, would we not? Guilt by association, yes?

Well, Washington was part of the Anglican and later Episcopal Church, serving even as a vestryman within the Church. And yet we're going to say he wasn't a Christian.

Doesn't make sense to me.

I agree with you and Jon that evangelicals shouldn't claim him as one of their own (i.e., an evangelical). What's more, I acknowledge that there are a lot of questions about the specifics of his beliefs on the Trinity, the Incarnation, Communion, biblical authority, etc.

But I think it's accurate to categorize him in the "Christian" camp, even if one wants to put an asterisk next to his name.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I totally get and respect what you say except one small but important assertion of yours:

"I would add that what I say about GW above could NOT be said of Jefferson and Franklin."

It's true that J & F offer more evidence of denying historic orthodox Christian doctrine than GW (especially Jefferson!) and embracing the label "unitarian."

However, BOTH J & F offer AS MUCH EVIDENCE IF NOT MORESO than Washington EMBRACING the label "Christian" and otherwise affiliating with Christian churches (all three were affiliated with Anglicanism/Episcopalianism; Franklin was also affiliated with Presbyterianism but had an apparent falling out with said church over the Rev. Hemphill affair where Franklin seemed to want said church to liberalize away from Calvinism and permit unitarian preachers like Hemphill).

Jefferson was likewise a Virginia Anglican Vestryman and there is more evidence of Jefferson identifying, not just himself but his unitarian creed (that denied original sin, the trinity, etc.) as "Christian" than there is for Washington.

Lillback marshals only one early letter where GW seems to identify himself a "Christian," and there, GW seems to equate Christianity with "honor" or generic morality (as opposed to orthodox doctrines like grace). Whenever GW talks up "Christianity" in the abstract sense, it's always on moralizing (as opposed to grace or orthodox) grounds.

That's exactly how Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin viewed "Christianity."

Now, I don't have a whole lot from Franklin going around calling himself a "Christian." (There is more from Jefferson and J. Adams calling themselves "Christians.")

However, I could make a case that Franklin thought himself more a "Christian" than a "Deist." There is certainly as much evidence in the record of Franklin thinking himself a "Christian" as there is for Washington.

Brian Tubbs said...

Franklin and Jefferson offset their friendliness and affiliation with Christianity via their expressed statements of disagreement with certain, key Christian beliefs and their self-descriptions of their faith.

Washington offers no such offset, other than his refusal to take Communion (which is NOT sufficient evidence to judge him a non-Christian) and his coyness on the specifics of his beliefs.

What's more, I think it's fair to say that George Washington was much more preoccupied with his reputation as a honest man and his character than was Jefferson. I'm not slamming Jefferson as unethical or amoral, but merely pointing out that Washington towered over most of his peers in the Character/Integrity department.

Thus, I can see Jefferson affirming basic Christian doctrine in an oath to serve as an Anglican vestryman, while not really believing it. I can see TJ doing that. I can't see Washington doing that. It's just not in keeping with the man's MO.

Brian Tubbs said...

I do want to make clear that I'm not projecting onto GW my own faith. I'm sure that, as an evangelical Baptist preacher, I would have several differences with GW. And I do detect that GW probably (and I think "probably" is as far as we can go) had some doubts concerning the nature of Jesus' deity.

Like many conscientious people of integrity, Washington spoke out publicly and privately on matters with which he was confident. His reluctance to mention the name of Jesus Christ is telling. I concede that, and there's no doubt something to that. So, I'm not claiming him as an evangelical. I assure you of that. But....

I genuinely think it's much too speculative to go to the other extreme and say he privately denied the Incarnation or the Trinity and that he, deep down, wasn't really a Christian. I just think that's going too far.

Jonathan Rowe said...


On the oath thing is where, I guess, we simply disagree.

I CAN see GW taking an oath as a means to an end because the FFs existed in an historical context when they had to take various sectarian oaths for various political-religious offices and that was something that really bugged a lot of them (for obvious reasons).

Still, they had to do what they had to do.

Here is Richard Price on how he didn't believe CHURCHES should be reciting orthodox oaths and creeds, given the high content of congregants (and sometimes ministers!) who didn't believe in them:

Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.

And this was quoted from one of the political sermons that GW specifically commented on and approved.

I've also noted those vestryman oaths required taking an oath of allegience to the Crown, something GW arguably later violated by leading the armed rebellion against it.

Brian Tubbs said...


There's no "smoking gun" direct piece of evidence to show that GW disagreed with the doctrines in the Anglican oaths. There IS such evidence, when it comes to Jefferson.

As to the allegiance to the Crown, he most certainly was sincere in that, until the Revolutionary War, really right up until the Declaration of Independence. And this was long after he took those vestryman oaths.

You'd have more of a case if he took an oath to the king, while in the act of leading the Continental Army in rebellion against him. No such thing happened. Thus, GW's integrity remains intact.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well Washington's utter silence in his personal religious talk about those doctrines tells me he didn't think much about them (and Madison echoed that point when GW died). It's possible that whereas Jefferson, J. Adams rejected orthodox doctrines, Washington was merely agnostic on them.

Further, if GW's loyalty oaths were temporary, not applicable to when he later revolted, it's also possible that any affirmative belief in orthodox doctrines he may have had when becoming a vestryman was also temporary.

Brian Tubbs said...

Yes, Jon. It is POSSIBLE that GW disagreed with several core doctrines of Christianity. I acknowledge that. It's going from "possible" to "probable" (even "likely") that I have a problem with. We just don't have enough information. Thus, I think we have to default to Washington's affiliations. That's all I"m saying.

But, be that as it may, I want to agree with you on your MAIN point: Evanglicals shouldn't claim Washington as their own. BUT...neither should Deists, unitarians, and other non-Christians.

bpabbott said...

I think it to be expected that individuals who admire GW and find that his words resonate within themselves would reasonably expect GW to share their own religious opinions. For that reason, there is not shortage of Evangelicals, nominal Christians, Deists, and even Atheists who see GW as one of them.

Regardless of how I feel about GW's religious perspective, I think it proper to put aside how I feel about the subject and to examine his words.

"Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience."
-- George Washington, letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia, May 1789.

"I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna-Charta of our country."
-- George Washington, responding to a group of clergymen who complained that the Constitution lacked mention of Jesus Christ, in 1789, Papers, Presidential Series, 4:274, the "Magna-Charta" here refers to the proposed United States Constitution

"Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society."
-- George Washington, letter to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792

While I think it clear that GW was friendly towards Christianity ... I also think he'd have proclaimed himself a Christian, or a Deist, if he desired history to associate him as one or the other.

Since GW chose to avoid making a direct associating, I think it respectful and proper to leave it at that.

Brian Tubbs said...

GW definitely and unequivocally opposed religious bigotry and was a strong advocate for religious freedom and tolerance.