Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ron Chernow on GW & Religion

I was sent an advance copy to review for American Creation, Ron Chernow's 800 plus page, "Washington: A Life."

I thank the publishers for this.

We are part of an online book tour.

I constrain my review to Chapter 12, "Providence," because that's where I'm most interested and useful.

Chernow begins by noting GW's formal and nominal affiliation with the Anglican (later Episcopalian) Church, but that "mysteries have surrounded George Washington's religious beliefs." He relays the Ashbel Green affair and Thomas Jefferson's interpretation of it (click on my links to see what I'm talking about).

That leads readers to wonder, ... hmm, maybe GW was a traditional Christian of the Anglican bent; but maybe, like a lot of today's politicians and church attendees, he was something more nominal.

To support the "nominal" thesis, Chernow relates that GW's church attendance was irregular, that he never took communion, that he prayed while standing, (as opposed to the Anglican custom of kneeling) and that his public and private God words were invariably generic, not specifically orthodox Trinitarian.

Chernow rightly understands that GW believed in an active Providence, but was not identifiably or provably someone who believed Jesus Christ was God in the flesh or the Bible the inerrant infallible Word of God.

Chernow also properly notes the active Providence in which GW believed was not consistent with most understandings of "Deism," that, indeed, GW's God "evince[d] a keen interest in North American politics." (In short, GW's God was a Whig, not a Tory.)

Importantly, Chernow mentions that although most of GW's contemporaries would have categorized him as a "sincere" and "devout" Christian, he was religiously shy, and displayed no religious zeal on matters of Hellfire or damnation. (Hence GW was, if anything, NOT an evangelical or "born again" Christian.) I would have gone further and explored the probability that Washington disbelieved in eternal damnation (as opposed to temporary punishments in the afterlife) given his support for the Universalist Church.

Chernow also identifies GW's religious non-sectarianism and ecumenicism and, Enlightenment rejection of "religious fanaticism." Here Chernow includes one of my favorite quotations of Washington's, given to the Swedenborgians, a group whose beliefs today and when Washington wrote that note, the "orthodox" term (like the Mormons) "heretical" and "cultic."

"We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth & reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition,..."

[Washington wrote that quotation in the context of assuring the Swedenborgs that they possessed the full rights under the US Constitution's guarantee of religious rights.]

Finally, Chernow notes Washington's oft-cited "Farewell Address" where GW connects the importance of "religion" (generally speaking, not necessarily "Christianity") as the foundation for republican morality.

I see Chernow's chapter on Washington's religion fair, informed and generally correct. He properly avoided the politicized historical-culture war, false dichotomy categorization of GW as either a "secular Deist" or "devout (orthodox) Christian."


Brad Hart said...

Great review, Jon. I have been looking forward to this for a while. It sounds like Chernow recognizes the problems that exist for those who try to label Washington as a devout Christian. However, I wonder if he devoted equal air time in his refutation of those who insist on his deism. In my opinion, both viewpoints are equally inaccurate.

Ray Soller said...

I have to quibble. If Washington believed that Providence was capable of causing the earth to stand still for three days or that British bulwarks would fall down with the blast of a ram's horn for the sake of the American Cause, then I would agree that Washington was not a deist. If he thought otherwise, then I can see his belief system, as we understand it, being reasonably consistent with the deism of his day.

I just watched an interesting National Geographic video, The Real George Washington that can be seen on YouTube. The video includes Washington's military career from being a Virginia militiaman to that of General of the Continental Army. The video shows that many of the military obstacles that stood in Washington's way were overcome with a combination of good fortune, uncanny craftiness, logistic mobility, superior knowledge of the local climate and terrain, and sheer determination. None of which required supernatural intervention.

Oh yes, Peter Henriques, author of Realististic Visionary is one of the main narrators in the show.

bpabbott said...

Ray makes a good point. I think it is plausable that GW was a deist ... Not in the sense of a detached clock-maker but in the sense of what nominal deism is. Do a google on "notions of deism". Those notions are monotheism, worship, virtue, repentance, and providence (not necessarily in order).

What deism is silent on are the doctrines that separate Judiasm, Christianity, Islam, etc.

Brad Hart said...

Did deists pray like Washington did? Not really.

bpabbott said...

The prayer habits of deists varies. What is it about GW's prayer habit that is inconsistent with Deism?

Daniel said...

I have problems with the word "nominal" with respect to Washington. "Nominal" usually implies an unthinking assent to a religious label with a tepid willingness to occasionally go through the appropriate ceremonies. Washington's unwillingness to participate in key ceremonies is probably an indication of some sort of strong belief or opinion. Although it may be technically accurate to call him a "nominal" Anglican, he was not nominally religious. (I am not meaning to imply any insight into the content of that religious belief; but it seemed to be deeply personal.)

Heather J. @ TLC Books said...

Thanks for being a part of the tour! I really enjoyed this look at one chapter of the book in detail - it gives me a much clearer idea of what I'll find in the rest of the book, and it sounds fascinating.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, good review of Chernow's take on Washington's religion. I agree with your overall assessment that Chernow's chapter in question is "fair, informed, and generally correct." Well put.

I differ with your parenthetical statement that Washington's lack of zeal with respect to "hellfire and damnation" shows he wasn't "born again." That phrase "born again" comes from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says a man must be "born again" (Jesus' way of describing belief in Him and personal repentance). Did Washington place his faith and trust in Jesus Christ? That is the question. If he did, then GW was "born again." If he did not, then GW was only a nominal, social "Christian."

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think if Tom sees your comment he might object to the last part more than I would. He's trying to get me away from viewing evangelical Christianity as normative.

I'll admit I still have much to learn (and I think I've learned a lot) but "born again" Christianity is one form of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity and the non-evangelical orthodox Trinitarians (Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxism) don't put as much stake in "born again-ism" as evangelicals do.

Lillback argues GW was "orthodox" thru his church. He may have been. I see no evidence that GW thought of himself as "born again" and put his faith and trust in JC alone.