Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Waligore on Washington, Providence & Prayer II

Below is the second part by Joseph Waligore.

George Washington and prayers

There is no doubt that Washington frequently prayed as many visitors to his house reported seeing him in prayer, often early in the morning. In his book on George Washington’s religious beliefs, Peter Lillback argues that Washington’s frequent prayers meant that he had to be a Christian. Lillback states that Washington’s praying shows that he could not have been a deist because the deists abandoned “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.” Lillback then concludes that “Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism.”

If it were true that the deists had abandoned prayer, then Washington’s frequent prayers would prove he was not a deist. But the English deists believed in a deity who watched over his creation and the vast majority of them believed in miracles, revelations, and other forms of divine intervention in the world. They thus believed in a deity who was in constant contact with the world and for this reason a large number of English deists believed in prayer. Earlier chapters highlighted how Herbert of Cherbury, James Pitt, Thomas Amory, David Williams, Thomas Morgan, and Thomas Chubb all emphasized the importance of prayer, and the table on page thirty-nine shows that many other English deists emphasized prayer. But because it is so widely believed that the deists had a distant God and so eschewed prayer, I will give two more examples of the kind of attention the English deists focused on the importance of praying. One example is from an anonymous writer, and the other example is from Peter Annet.

In 1765, an anonymous writer who called himself “Rational Christian” published a book in which he wrote God was so good and loved every person so much that “The love of God is the most natural and rational passion that can take place in the mind of man . . . [a] man must be insensible to all the feelings of virtuous humanity, who can be so ungrateful as not to love his father, his friend, and benefactor.” He claimed that people who acknowledge their “dependence on a superior being, who are conscious that this being is able and ready to assist them, will naturally pray to him.” Prayer also drew us closer to God because it made us more humble, charitable, and forgiving, and thus “fitter objects of the favour of God, . . . [who] never withdraws himself from his creatures.”9

Rational Christian believed that because God was so good, it was our duty to publicly pray to him and worship him; this set a good example for others and made piety more widespread. Nevertheless, he valued private prayer and worship even more as then a person was collected within himself and his devotions purer. During his private prayers, he particularly felt God’s presence, asserting, “At such time, methinks I see the omniscient eye penetrating my very soul.” Even more than setting aside certain arranged times for public or private prayer, he emphasized spontaneous prayer to God, which he called “internal heart-worship.” He thought this worship could happen at any moment when we are particularly struck by God’s wisdom or goodness. During such times, there “is an immediate call upon us, to express our love and reverence. Adoration of his power, and gratitude for his goodness, are, as it were, spontaneously wafted up to heaven, from a good and pious heart.”10

Peter Annet was one of the few English deists who denied both miracles and revelation, but he considered prayer one of the main components of true religion. In recommending prayer, he was not referring to petitionary prayer, that is prayer which asked God for things, but instead prayer which helped a person develop a closer relationship with God. This kind of prayer, Annet believed, helped people to subdue their passions and submit to God’s will. He said of prayer, “It keeps up a Dependence on Deity in the Minds of the People, and so may be a Means to help to subdue the Mind to Virtue, and Submission to God’s Will.” Annet believed that prayers, if done fervently and sincerely, brought people closer to God. He compared a person praying to sailors tossing an anchor to a rock: the sailors “pull as if they would hale the Rock to them, but they hale themselves to the Rock.”11 Annet believed as a person prayed and became closer to God, a person was transformed; he declared that intimacy with God helps a person because it “clears his Apprehensions, and informs his Judgment, producing Satisfaction and Serenity, Joy and Tranquility.” Annet advised his readers to become closer to God through prayer, so “that the Divine Fragrancy may flow over [into them]. So thou Reader shalt be filled with God, and the Rays of the Divinity will enoble thy Thoughts, adorn thy Speech and direct thy Ways.”12

The view of prayer shared by Peter Annet and Rational Christian was shared by a large number of English deists, and so Lillback is mistaken to say Washington was not a deist because he prayed. Another contemporary scholar, Michael Novak, makes a different point about how Washington’s prayers meant that he was not a deist. Novak states that Washington prayed for specific things that the deist God never performed; rather, Washington prayed for God to do actions that only the Christian God performed. Novak claims that the actions Washington prayed for were “the sorts of actions only the God of the Bible performs: interposing his actions in human events, forgiving sins, enlightening minds, bringing good harvests, intervening on behalf of one party in a struggle between good and evil.” Because he claims that Washington could not have been praying to the deist God, Novak concludes, “Washington cannot be called a Deist—at least, not in a sense that excludes his being Christian.”13
 Some English deists did pray for God to interpose in human events. In the introduction to this book, it was shown that Herbert of Cherbury believed God gave him a divine sign after he prayed about whether he should publish the first deist book by an Englishman. Thomas Chubb also thought God sometimes gave us the things we asked for in prayer,14 while Thomas Amory believed God helped a person be more charitable and loving if she prayed for those qualities.15 Nevertheless, Novak is right that the English deists did not pray for God to help their side in their struggle for liberty or for better harvests. But that is probably because in the eighteenth century the English people did not need these things. If we look at the French revolutionary deists, however, a different picture appears. In the 1790s, the French desperately needed better harvests and help in their struggle for liberty, so they often prayed for God to give them these things. For example, Silvain-Phalier Lejeune, who had been elected to the National Convention and was the official agent of the revolutionary French government in eastern France, recited a public prayer which had been previously approved by the local revolutionary committee. In this prayer, he asked God to do the very things Novak claimed the deist God never did. Lejeune started his prayer by saying, “God of all bounties … take this generous and brave nation under your divine protection, we who only fight for equality.” Then he went through a long list of things he asked God to bless, including the French armies and their fields. Lejeune prayed, “Bless, O my God, . . . our armies, fill our legislators with your light and . . . make the work of our farmers prosper, they who nourish our many battalions.”16 At the same time, an unknown deist named Jacques Piron wrote a prayer he was hoping the government would use in their festivals to honor God. Piron’s prayer went, “Supreme Being . . . bless our work and make our fields flourish . . . we supplicate you to pardon our sins . . . we invoke you for our country, bless us with your benefits, Give the light of wisdom to our legislators, aid the courage of our warriors.”17

Washington’s prayers do not show that he could not have been a deist. The English deists often prayed very reverentially to God. Furthermore, the French deists prayed for God to bring good crops and help them in their struggle for liberty. These were not things that only the Christians thought their God did; many deists thought their God did these things too.

Just as his belief in Providence and prayers not show Washington was a Christian, neither does the fact that he often attended Christian worship or read the Bible.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The overarching rebuttal I make to all this is that these "Deists" simply took the Judeo-Christian concept of God and de-Christified and de-credalized it.

But the God that remains is still Jehovah for any practical purpose, which is why George Washington could so easily call the God of Exodus the same as the Providence of the American revolution. The God of Founding-era deists [or "Christian-deist" God] was a derivative concept. Unlike the deistic "god of the philosophers," they prayed to Him.

[So too the Christian concept of "natural law" survived largely unmolested despite Locke's esoteric deviations from it, But that is another matter, though perhaps a more relevant one.]

By the 1700s, Protestantism had so fractured agreement on the nature of Christ that it had obviated the theological question. Unitarians sat cheek-by-jowl with Trinitarians in New England churches throughout the Founding era. Their eventual full schism in the 1800s was an ecclesiastical matter, not a theologico-political one, IOW outside the realm of our concern.

joseph waligorer said...

Tom, one possibility is that you are right and the deists just de-Christified the Judeo-Christian concept of God. Another possibility is that Stoicism as a separate tradition is stronger and more influential than you believe. I have been investigating lately scholars who think Stoicism was very influential on the basis of Christianity back in the first century of the Common Era. Just before reading your comment I was reading this masters thesis.

Pauline Christianity as a Stoic Interpretation of Judaism by
Diotima Coad
B.A., University of Victoria, 2011

This thesis investigates the social context of the Apostle Paul and the communities to which he preached with the aim of showing that early Pauline Christianity was shaped by a social milieu that included: first, a Greco-Roman and particularly Stoic philosophy, second, a universalizing Jewish movement and third, an overarching Roman political framework. Paul’s philosophy was built on a foundation of Judaism, interpreted with the tools of Stoic philosophy, and communicated to a largely Roman audience. Chapter One presents the figure of Paul as a Jew and Roman citizen with a Greek education, a product of three cultural worlds. Chapter Two argues that through allegory, Paul replaced Jewish nationalistic and ethnocentric aspects with symbolic ones, and communicated its ethical core with Stoic language and concepts to a primarily Roman audience. Chapter Three examines this audience and determines that they were largely Roman citizens who were both steeped in the prevalent philosophy of the time, Stoicism, as well as being associated with the Jewish community as sympathizers, God-fearers, or “Highest-God” worshippers, as a result of the popular Judaizing movement in the first century. Through the study of Paul, his letters, and his audience, this thesis argues that Pauline Christianity was, at its core, a Stoic interpretation of Judaism.

The whole thesis is posted online at

I have not had time to evaluate this piece yet, but it is part of a growing trend which sees the influence of Stoicism on Christianity, particularly Paul.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Paul’s philosophy was built on a foundation of Judaism, interpreted with the tools of Stoic philosophy, and communicated to a largely Roman audience.

Yes, this is a thesis I have no problem with. Tertullian calls Seneca "our" Seneca. That Paul used the tools of classical philosophy--and in so doing reconciled faith and reason--is a feature, not a flaw. Aquinas does the same with Aristotle, and although the Protestants of the Founding era seldom acknowledge him, Richard Hooker was a thorough Thomist and Hugo Grotius leaned heavily on the Scholastic Francisco de Vitoria.

Back to the Stoics,

As St. Justin Martyr explained in the second century, “In moral philosophy the Stoics have established right principles, and the poets too have expounded such, because the seed of the Word was implanted in the whole human race” (Second Apology VIII, 1).

This dovetails with natural law theory, which is the other wing of Christian thought.

Of Seneca let me simply note that his maxims were especially loved by the early Dominicans and that St. Thomas Aquinas made copious use of them when extolling the virtues in his Summa Theologica.

The Stoics had their shortcomings, but Christians have always recognized them as powerful cultural allies in explicating a morality rooted in the natural law and the inculcation of virtue.

[I would venture here that Washington's conception of virtue is more pagan, that of magnanimity, but Franklin's is thoroughly Christian.]

Thx for the reply.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon Rowe: Just as his belief in Providence and prayers not show Washington was a Christian, neither does the fact that he often attended Christian worship or read the Bible.

Then what would? I mean at some point...

For all historical purposes--in the eyes of the American people--he was. He even went to St Paul's Chapel almost daily at the beginning of his presidency and sometimes attended services somewhere twice on Sunday--literally!

Now, I don't think he was or if he was, his devoutness came and went. He enjoyed sermons; kept a collection of them. He showed an interest in universalism and other non-mainstream theology but that was not out of line in those days. The Reformation had gone turbo, so much that one could deny Jesus was God and still be a member of a mainstream [for example, Congregationalist] denomination.

The point here is that Washington consciously cultivated the public image of a Christian: this is impossible to deny. And this tells us more about the Founding era than anything about Washington the private man. The secularist argument has lost the forest for the trees.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Jon Rowe: Just as his belief in Providence ...."

Still part of Waligore's excerpt. I'm interested in reading the rest. GW attended Church more as President than the once a month on average when he wasn't President.

I think St. Paul's was one of the places where GW notably was observed not communing.

I think a number of scholars including Dr. Waligore agree GW was not unusual among "low church latitudinarian Anglicans/Episcopalians." But that group, again thanks to the research of Dr. W, included many in the unitarian/Christian-deist wing.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That Washington cultivated the public image of a devout Christian is sadly skipped over in these "controversies" when it's the most important question.

Ronald Reagan also said precious little about Christian theology but it matters not a whit.

I don't mind all this as an academic exercise, but in the cases of both men, I think they never did decide what they did or didn't believe. As Franklin said of the Trinity, he would find out soon enough.

joseph waligore said...

Tom, I think believing in the Bible makes one a Christian. Based on this, I think there were very few deists during the 1770s and 1780s in America. I would not count Unitarians like John jay or Joseph Priestley who believed in the Bible as deists. I have not found good evidence that Washington believed in the Bible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But this is about the conception of God, and I've presented enough evidence that the God of the Bible and the God of the Founding were seen as the same. No evidence to the contrary has been offered. Now you are moving the goalposts.

Protestantism had introduced so much disagreement about the nature of Christ that Jesus was politely tabled as an issue, political or otherwise in favor of the "Judeo-Christian" God--although many states were specific about Christianity in their own laws and constitutions--even Massachusetts, whose constitution the putatively deistic John Adams principally drafted.

Article I.
[Any person chosen governor, lieutenant governor, councillor, senator or representative, and accepting the trust, shall before he proceed to execute the duties of his place or office, make and subscribe the following declaration, viz.--

"I, A. B., do declare, that I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth; and that I am seised and possessed, in my own right, of the property required by the constitution as one qualification for the office or place to which I am elected."

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