Thursday, November 18, 2010

Washington's Pagan Providence

If George Washington’s religion could be reduced to a single word, that word would be “Providence.” He seldom used the term “God” in his public pronouncements, preferring other epithets for his divinity like the Beneficent Being, the Almighty, the Grand Architect of the Universe and All-Wise Disposer of Events. But when referring to the divine, his favorite term was “Providence.” It recurs again and again, in varied disguises. Sometimes Washington’s “Providence” seem to be a guiding presence in history, at times a personal protector against harm, at other times simply a synonym for Fate or Fortune.

But where did his usage originate? Surprisingly, the word “providence” occurs only once in the King James Bible (the translation that would have been most familiar to Washington from church services), and then not in a very flattering context. It appears in Chapter 24, Verse 2 of the Book of Acts, where a prosecutor named Tertullus praises the “providence” and wise administration of a Roman-appointed governor, who is presiding over the trial of the apostle Paul. Naturally, Washington owned a copy of the Bible, although probate records list his personal volume as an edition of Brown’s Bible, an illustrated study Bible produced by the Scottish divine John Brown in 1778 which included various marginal references comparing scripture passages and offering details of geography and other lore of the Holy Land. Surely this is an unlikely source to inspire Washington’s peculiar passion for a “providential”deity.

On the other hand, probate records also show that Washington’s library included a volume of Seneca’s Morals, which opens with a full essay titled “On Providence.” There the philosopher reflects that “Fate guides us, and it was settled at the first hour of birth what length of time remains for each. Cause is linked with cause, and all public and private issues are directed.” The good man will not resist what cannot be prevented, Seneca advises, finding consolation in the observation that “together with the universe we are swept along; whatever it is that has ordained us so to live, so to die, by the same necessity it binds also the gods. One unchangeable course bears along the affairs of men and gods alike,” a force that governs not only human affairs but also the “swift revolution of the heavens, being ruled by eternal law.” This sounds very much like the later Washington, who wrote to Sally Fairfax that “There is a Destiny, which has the Sovereign control of our Action, not to be resisted through the strongest efforts of Human Nature.”

Like Washington, who was a disinherited son and outsider in English colonial society, Seneca was a Spanish colonist living under Roman rule, a patriot who was tried and found guilty of conspiring against the tyrant Nero, a role model for young George. In the face of hardship and overwhelming odds, and in keeping with his Stoic outlook, Seneca counseled patience, inner fortitude and self-possession: life lessons that would guide the American throughout his own rise to greatness.

On the face of the evidence, Washington’s “Providence” owed less to Biblical or explicitly Christian sources than to Stoic philosophy. Indeed, Washington never employed Christological terms like “Savior” or “Redeemer” as names for the divine. His Providence was a noble but primarily pagan deity.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Very nice. This may help explain why some scholars simply categorize GW a "Deist." Though I might disagree slightly with the conclusions. No doubt, GW's Providence sounded at times impersonal and was strongly influenced by the Stoic conceptions of Providence. But other times I hear him speaking about the active monotheistic God, the God of "theism." Those sympathetic Michael Novak's analysis would call it "Judeo-Christian" (but not necessarily, "he was a 'Christian'").

I do find it fascinating the way GW could synthesize and vacilliate between these two concepts.

Tom Van Dyke said...

His Providence was a noble but primarily pagan deity. .

Pagan providential monotheism?

Sure, whatever, Gary.

First of all, in the full passage, he says it's "an opinion he'd long entertained." This is not belief.

Secondly, Calvinism says the same stuff re predestination.

Third, he's writing to Sally Fairfax, perhaps the secret love that was never meant to be.,+which+has+the+Sovereign+control+of+our+Actio

I don't hold Washington was an orthodox Christian. But "paganism" is far less supported than Peter Lillback's argument that he was.

Jason Pappas said...

And we might remember that Washington was an admirer of the Stoic Roman Senator, Cato (the younger).

I don't know, Tom, if an Anglican like Washington would sign on to the Calvinist version of predestination. Adams had trouble with it as did Franklin. Could Washington be more of a Calvinist than Puritan-bred Franklin and Adams?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I don't even want to go into this nonsense about paganism.

What I'm saying is that a sense of God having a plan for us or that some things are "not meant to be" hardly requires paganism.

Nor are fate and providence the same thing.

And of course, in his letter to the Jews of Savannah, Washington says that the same providence led the Jews out of Egypt favored the revolution. That is not pagan.

And Gary chopped the GW quote, and ignored its context as well.

Shoddy work.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Pagan providential monotheism?"

It depends on what the meaning of the word "pagan" is.

I don't feel like getting the dictionary out; I think it has to do with some kind of "false" God from the "Christian" perspective. Or some kind of God who is not the God of Abraham.

I've heard orthodox Christians term "Allah" a pagan moon God (even though Allah claims to be the God of Abraham).

Tom has a very generous eccumenicity (or is the better word "eccumenicism"?) that has scriptural support in Acts 17.

But not everyone is so generous in believing, for instance, if you believe in a monotheistic God (for instance, the unconverted Native Americans' "Great Spirit" God) you believe in the God of Abraham, even if you don't have all the details right or never heard of the God of the Bible before. Therefore you are not a pagan.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans -- the Stoics -- certainly qualify as "pagans" in the eyes of many believers. And there's not question that GW's conception of Providence was strongly shaped by Stoicism's conception.

Jason Pappas said...

I’m not arguing that Washington is a pagan or a Christian or eclectic. In my ignorance I’m trying to understand the secondary literature of writers I respect and wonder why they can’t agree on Washington’s religious beliefs.

The Catholic doctrine—”Divine Providence, while, as a constant force at work in the physical universe, it is nothing more nor less than natural law”—is identical to the Stoic doctrine. It is the Epicureans, who introducing lawless chance, are generally regarded as atheistic materialists by the members of the other major classical schools of philosophy (Academic, Peripatetic, and Stoic).

The Stoics also see God as an animate force in an animate world. Unlike a deist, who might see God as merely the initiator of a Newtonian world, the Stoics see God as an active agent continually at work in a lawful world. Thus, what Jon describes is consistent with Stocism:

“No doubt, GW's Providence sounded at times impersonal and was strongly influenced by the Stoic conceptions of Providence. But other times I hear him speaking about the active monotheistic God, the God of "theism."”

Of course, it is also consistent with some Christian theologies, as you point out. To conclude more I’d have to see a pattern of statements that are solely founded on Stoic thought or solely founded on Christian thought—like salvation through faith in Jesus as the son of God, who was crucified for our sins, etc. That would be a clear give away.

jimmiraybob said...

I posted this comment Jon Rowe’s posting here. However, that post is buried below mounds of new posts so I’ll redirect here since it is applicable. I tried earlier to post here (apparently too long so I've cut in half) so if this shows up again please delete.


Have you read Seneca the Younger, Roman Stoic philosopher & statesman (1st century AD), or Marcus Aurelius, Roman Stoic, Emperor & military commander (2nd century AD)? Seneca’s stoic influence on GW is discussed here (I included a link to this post).
I’m currently reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (2003, Gregory Hays, ed.) and am struck by the similarities of use for Providence between GW and MA.

Some excerpts:

Book 2, page 18
“What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it.”

Book 12, page 161
“1. Everything you’re trying to reach – by taking the long way around – you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.”

Book 12, page 164
“14. Fatal necessity, and inescapable order. Or benevolent Providence. Or confusion – random and undirected. If it’s an inescapable necessity, why resist it? If it’s providence, and admits of being worshipped, then try to be worthy of God’s aid.”

Continued below

Tom Van Dyke said...

Christian thought subsumed Stoicism, as it did Aristolianism. One must illustrate a conflict between GW's God and the Judeo-Christian one to claim him for paganism, and with much more than a half-quote from GW.

Good stuff, tho, JP and JRB.

jimmiraybob said...

I wasn't sure if the first part of my comment would go through so I waited. Here's part two.

Seneca and Aurelius (Antoninus) were writing some 500-700 years after Zeno (and the advent of Stoicism in Greece). My understanding is that, while Stoicism evolved over time, the central tenet is a world that is “organized in a rational and coherent way” (Hays). Hays goes on:

"More specifically, it is controlled and directed by an all-pervading force that the stoics designated by the term logos. The term…has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable. At a basic level it designates rational, connected thought – whether envisioned as a characteristic (rationality, the ability to reason) or as a product of the characteristic (an intelligible utterance or a connected discourse). Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. In individuals it is the faculty of reason. On a cosmic level it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe.1 In this sense it is synonymous with “nature,” “Providence’” or “God.” (When the author of John’s Gospel yells us that “the Word – logos – was with God and is top be identified with God, he is borrowing from Stoic terminology.)"

It seems a difficult matter to parse the use of Providence when used by the founders, most of whom were steeped in classical education and as familiar with pagan philosophy as well as Christian tradition. Given the sum of Washington’s life, his behavior right up to death, it seems as reasonable to view his use of the term as that of a Stoic statesman/general as opposed to Christian profession.
I don’t see the use of Providence as being a sole reliable indicator of Christianess in this context. You have certainly read more GW than I have, do you see this as a reasonable assessment?
I’d add that Marcus Aurelius was talking about a creator force or God that was both cause and an active deity. He also distinguishes between fate/chance and divine Providence. Aurelius, as his mother was before him, was very pious and saw religion and pious worship as constituting a good for the maintenance of Roman governance.

jimmiraybob said...

Christian thought subsumed Stoicism, as it did Aristolianism.

But it did not consume them either. Stoicism as well Aristolianism remained open and available aside from the church borrowing and polishing (and later attempts to shut down competing philosophies/religions). Many of the founders discussed here abouts were open to and conversant in pagan, semi-pagan, quasi-pagan, and/or subsumed paganism in the form of Christian tradition - often reading in the Greek or Latin. Because Christianity as we know it today developed after and profited from previous non-Christian source materials does not make the source materials disappear.

Of course, if it hadn't been for the east and eastern tradition, the pagan scholarship might have been lost, never to emerge in the west.

It's not about claiming GW for paganism, not everybody thinks in terms of conquest and flag planting, it's about understanding influences on the founder's thinking. And, in the case of GW and his use of Providence as a strictly Christian identifier, I just don't see it.

Personally to me it doesn't matter either way. GW was what he was and that is fairly darned impressive. There were unquestionable Christians that did some pretty darned good work too. To try to nail GW down to Christian v. Non-Christian, is largely useless from a historical standpoint and reduces him to a caricature puppet.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not only that, Washington's heart-of-hearts doesn't matter in the least. It's a private thing, and American pluralism and freedom of conscience is built on that.

And to my knowledge, you won't find Ronald Reagan saying much about Jesus Christ either. Or Rush Limbaugh, for that matter!

I quite agree about the flag-planting. The equation is this---most folks in the Founding era were Christian. And despite private demurrals on doctrine from GW (we assume for the sake of argument) and even publicly in the case of Franklin, they developed a public theology that was in conflict with neither Protestantism or the Bible itself. And I think that Reagan and Limbaugh (for the sake of argument, and judging from their similar lack of Jesus-thumping) illustrate this dynamic.

[However, as an academic matter, Stoicism for practical purposes ceased to exist as a separate entity after Roman times. And you'll find early church father Tertullian referring to him as "our Seneca."

And this book mentions that (although scholars reject their authenticity) it was believed by the early church that Seneca and Paul the Apostle exchanged letters!

Fascinating stuff.]

Gary Kowalski said...


Well, I agree that Washington's faith was not "in conflict" with Protestantism (although I'm not sure why you drag in Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh, as though they could help shed light on historical issues related to the Founding Fathers). And the quotation that I excerpted comes from a romantic letter to Sally Fairfax, but I'm not sure why that changes the meaning. Washington is of the opinion that a destiny operates in human affairs that we are powerless to resist, and supplying the entire passage does nothing to change the meaning as far as I can see. I'm also not sure that you can substantiate your claim that "most folks in the Founding era were Christian." Most historians say that about 1/8 of the population in colonial times were formally church members. Do you have better evidence that 51% or more were professing Christians? Jefferson, at least in his early career, described himself as an Epicurean and felt that classical morals were superior to Christian teachings. He later reversed this opinion. But clearly, a substantial percentage of the population of the colonies in the 18th century, including some of the signal architects of the American Revolution, considered themselves out of communion with the Christian heritage and found more dependable guidance from classical (or "pagan") sources.

And Tom, instead of calling my piece "shoddy work," why not rely on argumentation and documentation? In my experience, ad hominem arguments and name calling generally arise from individuals who don't have any scholarly points to make and so resort to bad-mouthing.

Respectfully, Gary Kowalski

Tom Van Dyke said...

You truncated the GW quote, Gary, then built a whole thesis around it. Shoddy work, I'm sorry. Should you flesh out your thesis with actual evidence, then it would be good work, even if I disagreed with its conclusion.

And before we get into whether "unchurched" is synonymous with not-Christian, you can provide evidence to support your assertion that

But clearly, a substantial percentage of the population of the colonies in the 18th century, including some of the signal architects of the American Revolution, considered themselves out of communion with the Christian heritage and found more dependable guidance from classical (or "pagan") sources.

Was America Founded as a Pagan Nation?

Prove that and you have your bestseller. Indeed, simply prove that

[GW's] Providence was a noble but primarily pagan deity.

and you'll sell quite a few copies. Until then, I disagree with both your bland assertion and your scanty "proof."

Tom Van Dyke said...

In other words, Gary, man up and defend your thesis. Peter Lillback spent 700+ pages defending his, and he gets savaged by Jon Rowe anyway, and even I don't agree with Lillback either.

You simply have to do better than a half of a GW quote. I do not say this uncharitably. The first thing you could do is respond to GW's letter to the Savannah Jews, where he equates their Jehovah with the providence that smiled on the American revolution.

Please, sir, get into the game or get out of it. You clearly don't even read this blog---your own groupblog---and the discussions here. If you're going to lob a grenade like "pagan" onto our mainpage, at least have a creditable scholarly basis. Our respectful and respected commenters like JRB never show up empty-handed or half-assed.

Brian Tubbs said...

The original post succeeds in demonstrating that George Washington was more comfortable referring to "Providence" than he was in talking about God and certainly more comfortable than he was talking about Jesus. Had that point been made and left there, it would've been a fine piece.

But Gary goes on to argue that Washington was more pagan than Christian. That's a huge leap, one that is frankly not supported at all by the evidence.

bpabbott said...

Brian: "The original post succeeds in demonstrating that George Washington was more comfortable referring to "Providence" than he was in talking about God and certainly more comfortable than he was talking about Jesus. Had that point been made and left there, it would've been a fine piece."

Kudos Brian.

Ignoring paganism for the moment, I'd be interested in your thoughts on GW as a deist. Not the deism as understood today, but of an earlier time.

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

jimmiraybob said...

“However, as an academic matter, Stoicism for practical purposes ceased to exist as a separate entity after Roman times.”

Not really. As I alluded to, major competing pagan philosophies, as well as competing “heretical” forms of Christianity (non-Chaldean) were suppressed or ignored by the western Roman Catholic Church going into the Middle Ages (not so much in the east where Hellenistic influences thrived). However, in addition to being subsumed by the church for its purposes, Stoicism as a separate philosophy did not die – except for a while in the west where the Church was strong (mostly in urban areas, which interestingly enough, brings up the early definition of Paganism as “country folk,” where Christianity never completely suppressed the old pagan ways).

Anyway, there is a rather large literature on Stoicism and its influence on Middle Age and Renaissance philosophical development. The following quote is from John Sellars’ Stoicism (1971; Berkley: University of California Press).

Page 3
“Although stoicism had declined in influence by the beginning of the third century CE, its philosophical impact did not end then. Despite the loss of nearly all of the texts of the founding Athenian Stoics, the school continued to influence later philosophers, first via the readily available Latin texts of Cicero and Seneca during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and later via collections of the fragments of the earlier Stoics gathered from a wide variety of ancient authors who quoted their now lost works or reported their views. Stoicism proved especially influential during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and formed one of a number of influences that contributed to the important developments in philosophy during that period. Thinkers ranging from Erasmus, Calvin and Montaigne, to Descartes, Pascal, Melebranche and Liebnitz were all well versed in Stoic ideas. Debates during the period concerning the nature of the self, the power of human reason, fate and free will, and the emotions often made reference to Stoicism. This later influence of Stoicism has continued right up to the present day, and the most striking recent example can be found in the later works of Michel Foucault and his analyses of the “care of the self” and “technologies of the self”. Thus Stoicism was not only one of the most popular schools of philosophy in antiquity but has also remained a constant presence throughout the history of Western philosophy.”

Additional references regarding Stoic influence in the Middle Ages and Renaissance see pages 181-182. This is a period of time in which Humanism was a force in the Church, largely associated with teaching the classics.

Overall, I'd say the Mr. Spirit's thesis is not so far fetched. As an aside, I don't think that he was saying that America was founded as a pagan nation. Although he'll have to reply to this.

jimmiraybob said...

And since I'm geeking it out on a Saturday night.......

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines Paganism as:

“Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. The term is also used as the equivalent of Polytheism.

“It is derived from the Latin pagus, whence pagani (i.e. those who live in the country), a name given to the country folk who remained heathen after the cities had become Christian. Various forms of Paganism are described in special articles (e.g. Brahminism, Buddhism, Mithraism); the present article deals only with certain aspects of Paganism in general which will be helpful in studying its details and in judging its value.”

And from Wiki:

“The term pagan is a Christian adaptation of the "gentile" of Judaism, and as such has an inherent Abrahamic bias, and pejorative connotations among monotheists,[4] comparable to heathen and infidel also known as kafir (كافر) and mushrik in Islam. Peter Brown observes:

“’The adoption of paganus by Latin Christians as an all-embracing, pejorative term for polytheists represents an unforeseen and singularly long-lasting victory, within a religious group, of a word of Latin slang originally devoid of religious meaning. The evolution occurred only in the Latin west, and in connection with the Latin church. Elsewhere, 'Hellene' or 'gentile' (ethnikos) remained the word for 'pagan'; and paganos continued as a purely secular term, with overtones of the inferior and the commonplace.’”[5]

“For these reasons, ethnologists avoid the term "paganism," with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism.”

And before I start getting a reputation as some kind of a neo-pagan I'd just like to point out that I think of myself more as an unaffiliated heathen.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Like Jefferson?

Gary Kowalski said...

"Pagan" is a term generally accepted in scholarly circles, as in Robin Lane Fox's "Pagans & Christians in Early Christianity," or E.R. Dodd's "Pagans and Christians in an Age of Anxiety," a text I had to read eons ago at Harvard. Mr. Van Dyke, if you object to the term pagan, I suggest you submit your thesis that Washington drew his use of the term "Providence" from Calvinist rather than pagan sources to a peer reviewed journal, rather than blustering and bullying other contributors to this blog. You'd be the first to produce evidence for such a view. What a novel contribution, if only there were anything to substantiate it!