Tuesday, June 1, 2010

From the Vault: Lillback's Sacred Fire and Washington's "God Talk"

***With the recent flood of Lillback posts here at AC, I thought I might resurrect this post that I did from a while back and see what people had to say now.***

Perer Lillback, author of the book George Washington's Sacred Fire, makes the assertion that America's first President and Commander-in-Chief was, "an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ" (27). Lillback, who received his Ph. D. in Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary, is only the latest in a series of religious figures who have crossed over into the field of history, in an effort to "save" American history from the hands of secularists.

In Sacred Fire, Lillback presents to the reader a large collection of sources, which he feels help to prove his thesis that Washington was a devout orthodox Christian. In addition, Lillback presents evidence to counter the argument that Washington was a Deist. And while I am in complete agreement with Lillback's assessment that Washington was far from being a Deist, I still remain unconvinced of his orthodox Christian leanings.

In "Appendix Three" of Sacred Fire, Lillback puts together a collection that he calls "George Washington's Written Prayers." In reality, this collection of documents are not actual prayers but instead are an assortment of letters, general orders and presidential declarations, which Lillback passes off as Washington's "written prayers." Lillback then asserts that these "prayers" serve as concrete proof that Washington was indeed a Christian. As Lillback states at the beginning of this appendix:
One of the elements of the Christian faith that was suspect, and eventually abandoned by Deists, was the practice of prayer. This was logical since there was little purpose in speaking to a Deity who on principle had abandoned all contact and communication with his creation.

Given this understanding, Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism...The sheer magnitude of the umber of prayers, coupled with the expansive topics included in his prayers, give substantial credence to the universal testimony of Washington's contemporaries of his practice of corporate and private prayer.

This underscores how misplaced contemporary scholars have been in claiming that Washington was a man of lukewarm religious faith
With this in mind, I decided that it would be worthwhile to dissect the various "written prayers" that Peter Lillback sites in his book. After all, the language that Washington used in these prayers should be a valuable tool in determining Washington's actual beliefs.

Here are the actual phrases that Washington used in his "written prayers" to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

With such a large assortment of phrases, I find it amazing that Lillback does not provide a single example of where Washington prayed to Jesus specifically or directly. In fact, the only time the word "Christian" is mentioned in all of appendix three is on page 775. In a letter to the king of France, Washington begins the letter by writing, "To our great and beloved Friend and Ally, his Most Christian Majesty." [My emphasis added].

Despite these obvious discrepancies in his argument, I must also point out the fact that Lillback provides AMPLE evidence to support his claim that Washington was NOT a Deist. The simple fact that these prayers exist is sufficient proof of this fact. Regardless of who Washington was praying to, the fact remains that he did, in the end, pray regularly.

In addition, there are a number of statements in Washington's "written prayers" that seem to suggest at least a possible allegiance to Christian philosophy. For example, Washington regularly issued thanksgiving and fasting proclamations, which seem to petition God for a forgiveness of sin. Phrases like, "we may unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions" (Source here). Or other instances where Washington states, "Instant to be observed as a day of 'fasting, humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God' that it would please him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions" (Source here). Clearly there is AT LEAST a remnant of Christian belief, and possibly a sincere devotion to Jesus as the savior of mankind.

Regardless of what we may insinuate from these various statements, the fact remains that there are NO specific public or private records showing Washington in prayer to the Christian God. While I will agree that Washington is far from a Deist and that he did pray and believe in a great deal of Christian doctrine, I remain unconvinced that he was an ORTHODOX Christian as Lillback suggests.


bpabbott said...

Re: "Washington was NOT a Deist."

I apologize the repeating myself ... but ...

We should be careful in how we qualify Deism.

The Deism of the founder's day didn't necessarily fit the watchmaker anology we are familiar with today.

Consider the five common notions of Lord Herbert of Cherbury

(1) There is one Supreme God.
(2) He ought to be worshipped.
(3) Virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship.
(4) We ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them.
(5) Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after it.

These notions appear (to me) to be descriptive of Washington's religion. Of course they are also descriptive of Christianity .... minus doctrine unique to scripture.

Baruch Spinoza's God is a better fit for today's view of Deism, which is a great distance from Washington's theism.

Brad Hart said...

Fair enough. I suppose the qualifications for deism are sort of like those for Christianity: a bit vague.

King of Ireland said...

What Ben states here seems to jive with Jon's post on Locke a while back. In that frame, Washington would be a Deist and not a Christian most likely.

The complete lack of references to Jesus Christ in his private letters would seem to show this. But I think some take the complete lack of the same in the DOI to mean something it does not in that political theology has nothing to say about atonment or other matters of sotierology.

Mark D. said...

This whole question also revolves around what it means to "affirm." I would argue that Washington did indeed affirm, publicly, the orthodox Christian faith in the Trinity in its full Nicene glory. He did this every Sunday he attended the liturgy at his Anglican (later Episcopal) parish -- even if he never took communion. During the Anglican liturgy of Washington's time (as during today), the congregation would publicly recite the Nicene Creed as part of the Sunday worship service (a service which in Washington's day did not usually include communion). As a congregant and member of the parish, Washington would have recited that creed every time he was in church. He also would have affirmed the creed as a member of the vestry of his parish. So, while Washington's private writing may not resound with Nicene rhetoric, he would have affirmed the creed multiple times in his life, in public, amidst the people of the parish involved in common prayer.

bpabbott said...

Just to be clear, I'm not asserting Washington was a Deist, only that his words are consistent with both Christianity and Deism.

Jonathan Rowe said...


The strange dynamic, though, is that men like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin and other deistic and unitarian minded figures likewise had formal and nominal connections to orthodox Trinitarian churches without believing in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

Going to such a church that affirms orthodox Trinitarian doctrine doesn't necessarily equate with personal affirmation of said doctrine.

Though public affirmation?!? That's another discussion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark writes: This whole question also revolves around what it means to "affirm." I would argue that Washington did indeed affirm, publicly, the orthodox Christian faith in the Trinity in its full Nicene glory. He did this every Sunday he attended the liturgy at his Anglican (later Episcopal) parish -- even if he never took communion...

This would start to get out of the culture wars, and the "subjective" Washington, the private Washington, what did he believe in his heart of hearts?

No man can answer about what's in another man's heart, and Washington made it impossible by saying next to nothing on the subject of Christ.

However, in our theolgico-socio-political context---the historical study of religion and the Founding, the public Washington is really our only concern.

Just as he wanted it to be, by intention, to be judged by his public actions. The private Washington he designed to be private. It's nobody's business but his own [and his God's], then, and now. This isn't that complicated.

Jonathan Rowe said...

While I have noted GW systematically avoided communion and its implications re orthodox doctrine, I haven't found him ranting against orthodox doctrine like Jefferson and J. Adams or politely denying such doctrine like Franklin.

However, I have compiled (and will continue to compile) a vast amount of evidence showing "dissenters" in orthodox churches -- some/many ministers themselves -- who had serious problems with orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and liturgy, that was required to be recited.

So we did have instances of words recited in church that folks had problems with. And to make an analogy whenever GW worshipped in an Anglican church that recited Tory political-theology, you knew his lips weren't moving.

Such unitarian "reform" movement in New England led to an Anglican church scrapping its orthodox Trinitarian dogma entirely and hence being cut off from the Anglican communion.

Look for more on King's Chapel later. While most "Unitarian" churches began from Congregational roots, KC, one of the earliest, was an Anglican Church.

I have also found some interesting letters between James Freeman, the head of King's Chapel, and the first American Episcopal Bishops.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Let me note, from what I remember (and look very soon for the primary sources) James Freeman asked the Bishops to stay part of the Anglican organization, in communion with its ecclesiastical authority, while it made unitarian reforms and suggested the rest of the church make such reforms.

Unknown said...


As I was re-reading this it ocurred to me that one thing you may have overlooked in that Jesus himself prayed to the Father. It would be interesting to see some prayer of Samuel Adams and others to see if they are the same and thus if this was just a custom of the day.

This is not to say that I doubt that you and Jon are right about Washington. It is telling that he almost never mentions Jesus by name in his private letters.

Brian Tubbs said...

It is true that George Washington rarely spoke of Jesus in his writings, but it's also true that he DID speak of Jesus at least on those rare occasions. It's true that Washington rarely referred to himself as a Christian, but he DID do so on rare occasions and he publicly affiliated with a Christian denomination.

It's quite fair to categorize George Washington publicly and officially as a "Christian," even if one wants to speculate that he may have harbored some doubts or that he may not have shared in all the evangelical tenets.

bpabbott said...

Re: "It's quite fair to categorize George Washington publicly and officially as a "Christian""

I like this wording. It leaves the question to his personal theology private. Which is appears is how he wanted it.

Even if GW didn't personally embrace Christianity, he clearly associated himself with Christians and participated in Christian worship.