Thursday, August 12, 2010

George Washington's Sacred Fire

I'm reading this book by Peter A. Lillback and Jerry Newcombe at the moment.  It is an attempt to refute the "Washington was a Deist" claim that have become fashionable in some circles the last few years.

As a history, I'm not particularly thrilled with it.  It is structurally a bit warped.  In places, the authors go pretty far afield from Washington's faith, chasing bunny trails to illustrate the extent to which Washington's Low Church Anglicanism was part of the mainstream of Virginia life.  I also find them reusing the same quotes multiple times--which makes the book a good bit longer than it might otherwise have been.

Nonetheless, they make many of the points that I have long noticed: Washington's preference for words like "Providence" instead of "God" fits better with a devout and reverential Christian than with a Deist--simply because Providence implies a God that knows about, and intervenes in human affairs.  George Washington's Sacred Fire nonetheless contains a lot of pretty devastating quotes that show that, if he might have been regarded as a bit too intellectual to fit into many evangelical churches today, he is part of the evangelical Christian tradition--not any form of Deism.

As I usually do when reading books with which I fundamentally agree, I've been checking some of the quotes, to make sure that they are accurate and contextually valid.  For example, on p. 472, they quote from Washington's June 8, 1783 circular to the thirteen governors.  Washington refers to the advantages that the U.S. enjoyed coming into existence when it did, including, "above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation."  When I look for the quote in contemporary documents, I find the circular in London Magazine, or, Gentlemen's Monthly Intelligencer 52:179 (1783).  The word "revelation" is not capitalized, but I am inclined to agree with the authors when they assert that Washington is referring to the Bible--not the reason that Deist/blind watchmaker sorts believed was the source of man's improving knowledge and awareness.

The authors also point out this rather bluntly Christian part of the same circular (at 52:182):

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which, you preside, in his holy protection ; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow-citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field ; and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion; without an humble imitation of  whole example, in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.
This is not a Deist statement!

UPDATE: A reader asks if Washington ever said anything explicitly Christian.  Here's one example from The Writings of George Washington, 11:342-3:

Head Quarters, V. Forge, Saturday, May 2,1778.

The Commander in Chief directs that divine Service be performed every Sunday at 11 oClock in those Brigades to which there are Chaplains; those which have none to attend the places of worship nearest to them. It is expected that Officers of all Ranks will by their attendence set an Example to their men.

While we are zealously performing the duties of good Citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to thehigher duties of Religion. To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal Instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labours with complete Success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of Gratitude and Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good. [emphasis added]

Clear enough?


  1. Clayton,

    Thanks for the post. I haven't researched this issue -- the extent to which the Founders were Deist, rather than Theists -- but I've presumed that while some were Deists, that wasn't the dominant view. Again, without having researched it carefully, I would think that Jefferson might be a more likely candidate for the label than Washington. Jefferson certainly wasn't a "Christian" in the traditional sense. And I wonder, too, about Washington. While the evidence you cite certainly shows belief in a "Divine Providence," I don't see any mention of Jesus or Christ. Is that addressed at all in the book?

  2. Here is the review I wrote for a history of religion professors blog:

    I'd caution about making too much of the 1783 Circular. Though it was given under GW's signature, it wasn't written in his hand. As I note, it is one of only two places where GW mentions Jesus by name or person. Both were in public address written by aides. If GW commonly went around speaking like that (as he did with the term "Providence") it would be one thing. But he didn't.

  3. Likewise when you look at the quote about Christian character, I've found that this fits perfectly with the "rational Christianity" professed by J. Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson that equated being a "Christian" with being a good person, that men were saved thru their good works not faith/grace.

    It's not secular deism, but not orthodox Christianity either.

    Reflect on the following quotation of Franklin's:

    "Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one….Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means."

    If GW can be considered a "Christian" it's more likely that he was THIS kind of Christian than orthodox Trinitarian.

  4. Franklin, even in his own time, was definitely less devout and less orthodox than most. More orthodox than Jefferson perhaps, but that's not saying much.

    I can't imagine that Washington would have approved sending a major document like the 1783 circular or the 1778 orders if he didn't believe them. And I should note that many of his other orders, prohibiting card playing on Sunday, for example, fit a devout Anglican better than a Deist.

  5. My point about the 1778 orders was that they fit perfectly with the quotation reproduced by Franklin.

    Most scholars see GW's affiliation with the Anglican church to be more nominal/ceremonial. That's why he systematically avoided communion in that church.

  6. Yet GW did take communion before the Revolution, and during the Revolution, in non-Anglican churches. Since the Anglican Church was still nominally loyal to the crown, this is really not surprising.

    Most scholars today look for some way to treat GW's religion as "nominal/ceremonial." A couple of generations back, that did not seem so widely held. In the generation or two after GW's death, it was generally recognized that his religion was devout. I suspect that whatever the deficiencies of this book, there's some merit to the claim that recent scholars have been trying to de-Christianize the Framers because the alternative is to admit how far we have moved from the Framers' mindset.

  7. "Yet GW did take communion before the Revolution, and during the Revolution, in non-Anglican churches."

    Not exactly. Nelly Custis testifies there was an oral tradition (which she never witnessed) of GW taking communion before the revolution. And the other eyewitness testimonies of GW taking communion in other churches are hearsay and singular.

    The ones who systematically observed GW's behavior (Custis when she was younger and then Bishop White and Rev. James Abercrombie) testify that GW systematically avoided communion.

    "Since the Anglican Church was still nominally loyal to the crown, this is really not surprising."

    The question there is what were GW and the other Whigs doing remaining members of a church against whose official doctrines they rebelled. Remaining Anglican for cultural/social/ceremonial reasons perfectly "fits." The reason I raise this is Lillback, knowing there is little from GW's mouth to prove his orthodox Trinitarianism, instead tries to prove it thru his relationship with the Anglican Church -- a church whose doctrines he rebelled against and where he systematically avoided communion!

    I think scholars have underplayed GW's belief in an active Providence; but the evidence that GW was on orthodox Trinitarian is so sparse that it is virtually non-existent. That means GW may be a "Christian" in some broader meaning of the term; but he doesn't meet the minimum for "mere Christianity" according to the way evangelicals understand the term.