By Nick Gier
As a fellow minister in Peter Lillback’s denomination
[conservative Presbyterian], I can tell you that a large number
of us are embarrassed by his poor historical methodology.
—Anonymous posting to a review of Lillback’s Sacred Fire
Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors
of Christianity in the church with that road to Heaven, which to them
shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception.
—George Washington in a letter to Lafayette (August15, 1787)
Rather than scoring points in the culture wars against liberals,
Lillback’s argument boomerangs on everyone who thinks that taking
religion seriously applies only to the “other” side.
—Old Life Theological Society (Presbyterian)
Religion was one sturdy pillar of the temple of government
Washington helped design and construct, but Christ, about whom
he was deafeningly silent, was absent from the temple’s architecture.
—Forrest Church, So Help Me God, p. 7
Thanks to Glenn Beck’s fawning promotion, an obscure self-published book on George Washington’s religion has become a best seller on amazon.com. On his show Beck enthused: “It so discredits all of the scholars and it’s amazing. It’s the best book on faith and the founding I think I’ve ever read.”
Did Beck actually read this huge tome? Running almost 1,200 pages with 500 pages of endnotes and 10 indices, conservative Presbyterian minister Peter Lillback’s George Washington’s Sacred Fire certainly gives the impression of thorough scholarship. But a closer look reveals a series of invalid arguments.
Washington and Communion
Lillback’s most interesting argument is an alternative explanation of why Washington refused to take Communion at two churches while he was president. The reasons that he adduces have to do with church politics, plus the fact that the Rev. James Abercrombie once criticized him harshly from the pulpit about his refusal to celebrate the Eucharist. The fact that a person takes Communion is not a definite sign that they are orthodox Christians. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson regularly took Communion and he explicitly rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.
Washington and Jefferson: Both Nominal Anglicans
Lillback really has to stretch the evidence and indulge in a lot speculation to make Washington an orthodox, trinitarian Christian. Lillback likes to use syllogistic reasoning to refute previous Washington scholars. Here is the essence of his argument in the form of a syllogism: major premise: Anglicans are orthodox Christians; minor premise: Washington was an Anglican; therefore, Washington was an orthodox Christian.
Thomas Jefferson was also a vestryman in the Anglican church and attended church regularly throughout his life, but Lillback would never draw the conclusion that Jefferson was an orthodox Christian. This fact leads us to believe that the major premise is obviously false.
Washington was a nominal Episcopalian (the Anglicans renamed after the Revolution) who attended church irregularly, ceasing after his retirement. His diaries show that he frequently dishonored the Sabbath. We learn from one entry that he would have collected his rents on Sundays, but he declined because the people living on his land were “apparently very religious.”
No Evidence for Belief in the Trinity or the Deity of Christ
The weakest arguments in the book are the ones devoted to proving that Washington believed in the deity of Christ and the Trinity. In all of his voluminous writing only once does he speak of Jesus and this single incident, a speech to the Delaware Indians, most likely written by an aide more orthodox than he. On the manuscript of another speech to Indian leaders, we can clearly see the word “God” crossed out and the phrase “Great Spirit” written in Washington’s own hand.
With so little evidence to work with, Lillback is forced to make some very indirect and dubious inferences. For example, he thinks that Jesus is the referent in phrases such as “divine author of our blessed religion,” when in fact it most likely means God himself or Providence, which is more characteristic of Washington.
The only argument that Lillbeck can make that Washington believed in a triune deity is that as an Anglican he would have affirmed church creeds, which contain that doctrine, and he would have read from the trinitarian Common Book of Prayer. Incredibly enough, he maintains that the general aura of “Virginia’s Trinitarian faith” would have made Washington an orthodox Christian, but of course that would have made everyone in Virginia one, including Unitarians such as Thomas Jefferson. Does that mean that everyone who crossed the state line became a trinitarian in an instant? Methinks the good pastor presses his points a tad too hard.
Washington’s Poor Church Attendance
Jefferson attended church more often than Washington did, and he, too, would have joined the congregation in reciting the trinitarian creeds. Witnesses also noticed that he always put his prayer book in his pocket as he rode off to church. In stark contrast to Washington, Jefferson, after his retirement, rode all the way to Charlottesville to church.
For the 16 years that I could get diary evidence (periodic from 1760 to 1791), Washington attended church on average only 10 times a year. Scholars at Mt. Vernon state: “Washington’s diaries show no church attendance by anyone in the family after they returned to Mount Vernon at the end of his presidency.” Washington obviously did not follow his own advice to his soldiers when he commanded: “See that the men regularly attend divine worship.”
Both Washington and Jefferson Supported Mission to the Indians
Pastor Lillback admits that one could never say that Washington was an evangelical Christian, but he did once rise to the level of evangelism when he supported the Anglican mission to the Indians. But that would make Jefferson a Christian evangelist as well, because he signed bills from 1802-04 supporting the building of churches and the sending of missionaries to the Indian tribes. No doubt Jefferson saw Christianity as the best way to instill morality in these people. As Jefferson proclaimed: “The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man.” As we are dealing with an author who would be tempted to draw this conclusion, please note that just because a person praises Christianity does not mean that he is an orthodox Christian, or even a Christian at all.
Washington’s “Prayers” and their Theological Insignificance
The Rev. Abercrombie criticized him from the pulpit not only for not taking Communion, but also he once remarked that he never saw him kneel in prayer, another Anglican requirement. A slave in Washington’s home reported that while he witnessed his wife praying, he never saw his master in that pose. The huge mural in the Capitol’s Rotunda depicting Washington kneeling in prayer in Valley Forge is based on very flimsy evidence. I’m pleased that Lillback agrees that the incident cannot be satisfactorily validated. As a Unitarian, I also say that Christ and the Buddha are my favorite religious teachers.
The Federalists were very keen on national days of prayer and fasting, and the Federalist and Unitarian John Adams proclaimed many of them during his presidency. Surprisingly enough, they caused lots of controversy, primarily because the Jeffersonian Republicans wanted a stricter separation of church and state. Church historian Forrest Church writes that Adams’ national “fasts divided the electorate. He later claimed that they cost him the election of 1800.” Again the fact that presidents support and participate in national days of prayer does not in any way indicate that they are orthodox Christians.
In Appendix Three entitled “Washington’s Written Prayers” Lillback scours his writings for anything with “pray” or “prayer” in it, including his will, which begins with a formulaic “In the name of God, Amen.” (A google search showed hundreds of 18th Century wills starting with this boilerplate.) This obviously does not count as a prayer or an indication of orthodox belief. I suspect that many other examples Lillback cites do not count as prayers either, especially since the word “pray” is many times used as simply “to wish.”
With regard to those examples that are indeed prayers, Lillback admits, much to the detriment of his argument, that some of them were written for the president, and one of the authors was none other than that sly Unitarian Thomas Jefferson. I was especially struck by the “prayer” to the “God of Armies” that Lillback quotes that ends with the following phrase “the most fervent prayer [=wish] of my soul.”
Once again I admire Lillback’s intellectual honesty in confessing that the authenticity of the so-called “Daily Sacrifice Prayers” cannot be attested. Sometimes called the “Spurious Prayers,” Worthington C. Ford and Rupert Hughes have conclusively proved that these prayers, not found among Washington’s possessions, are a clumsy forgery. Washington’s handwriting and spelling was known to be atrocious, but this particular hand is elegant and spell-perfect. The prayers also have a very strong resemblance to the Anglican Book of Prayer. As final proof of the hoax, the Smithsonian Institution rejected the book as genuine Washingtonian memorabilia.
Washington’s Condemnation of Thomas Paine
Lillback praises Washington for refusing to have anything to do with Thomas Paine after the publication of his controversial Age of Reason, in which he ridicules orthodox Christianity. But he surely cannot draw any theological significance from this because Paine was shunned by everyone, including liberally religious Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. His own Quakers refuse to bury him.
The fact that Paine was ostracized is not cause for praise but shame on the early American Republic for being so uncivil and hostile to its great patriot. (The fact that Paine himself was uncivil was not a reason for Christians refusing to take a higher moral ground.) It is significant and praiseworthy that Barack Obama is the only president of whom I’m aware who mentioned unbelievers in his inaugural address. But wait, I just fell into the trap of implying a deist is an unbeliever.
My interest in the religion of the founders was first sparked by learning that Theodore Roosevelt called Paine “that dirty little atheist,” and a hint of this distaste is found in Lillback’s satisfaction that his hero rejected Paine. I’m please that some conservative Presybetarians see this intolerance in Lillback. The Old Life Theological Society has this comment about Lillback on its website: “Rather than scoring points in the culture wars against liberals, Lillback’s argument boomerangs on everyone who thinks that taking religion seriously applies only to the ‘other’ side.” Paine, Jefferson, and Adams took theology very seriously and they devoted a lot of deep thought to the subject. Washington appeared to be much more committed to the form of religion rather than its substance.
Washington’s Death: No Minister and No Prayers
In a recent biography of Washington Joseph J. Ellis describes the scene at Washington’s death: “There were no ministers in the room, no prayers uttered, no Christian rituals offering the solace of everlasting life.” Although Lillback takes issue with Ellis’ claim that the great president did not believe in an afterlife, he cannot deny that there was no minister and no prayers, except for those uttered privately by his wife Martha. The excuse that Washington died quickly and there was no time to call a minister simply does not persuade.
The fact that Washington’s fellow Masons dominated his funeral procession back to Mt. Vernon leads us to consider the claim made by many scholars that Washington was a better Mason than he was a Christian. Lillback’s response is an impressive scholarly retort. He shows that the Masons of Washington’s earlier years were much more orthodox than those even of his later years. From the fact that Washington was less inclined to maintain his Masonic duties later in life, Lillback infers that he withdrew because of their lack of orthodoxy. Lillback’s argument backfires a bit when we notice that the language that he quotes from the Christian Masons is much more orthodox than Washington own general theism.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, medical scientist and friend of Franklin, reported to Thomas Jefferson that upon leaving office Washington met with a group of clergy who submitted a number of questions for Washington to answer. Since he had never made any public affirmation of Christianity, one of their questions was whether or not he was a Christian. Washington very kindly answered all of the questions except that crucial one.
As historian Paul Boller concludes: “If Washington was a Christian, he was surely a Protestant of the most liberal persuasion.” He would have fit Adam’s definition of a Christian very well: “I believe all the honest men among you are Christians, in my sense of the word.”
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his article on the religious views of our founding thinkers at webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/foundfathers.htm.