George Washington's Religion, the Founding, and the Perils of Glorified Self Published Books

I'm pleased to guest post a contribution from Jon Rowe, who normally blogs at American Creation and at his own blog as well. Jon has done a lot of reading on religion and the American founding, and has the following thoughts on a popular history text, George Washington's Sacred Fire by Peter Lillback, which has stormed from Glenn Beck's show onto the top seller lists. On Glenn Beck's show, they had the following conversation:

BECK: Yesterday, it was like 475,000 on I think it was two or three when I checked.

LILLBACK: Up to two now. Thanks to you. Boy, I'll tell you, you're the best publicist in town.

BECK: This is — America, this is a book that every house should have. Buy this book. It is an avalanche of information. It so discredits all of the scholars and it's amazing. Best — best book on faith and the founding I think I've ever read.

Wow -- "all of the scholars" are wrong! With Fox News street cred like that, who could ask for anything more? Immanent Frame has more on this bizarre story
here (the story notes a silver lining, which is the attention given to the excellent historian Thomas Kidd after his appearance to talk about George Whitefield and the Great Awakening).

Review of
George Washington's Sacred Fire

by Jon Rowe

Peter A. Lillback’s
George Washington’s Sacred Fire, now a top seller on thanks to Glenn Beck’s promoting it, attempts to overturn wisdom conventional in scholarly circles that George Washington was a Deist, but rather argues Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. Lillback is President of Westminster Theological Seminary and a notable figure in the “Christian America” movement.

That “the masses” are buying the book in great numbers is ironic. Most ordinary folks will not, like me, finish or even read a fraction of a 1200 page book with 200 pages of fineprint footnotes. No, this book aims squarely at respected scholars, notably experts on Washington's life, from Paul F. Boller to James Flexner, who claim Washington was some kind of Deist.

George Washington & Religion, among respected historians, is the generally accepted standard-bearer work of scholarship on the matter. And Boller claims Washington some kind of "Deist," that evidence lacks for his Christian orthodoxy.

To his credit, Lillback is familiar with almost every claim Boller makes and seeks to answer them. Most "Christian America" scholars asserting Washington’s devout Christianity simply ignore such evidence, like for instance that Washington refused to take communion in his church such that his own minister termed him a "Deist" or "not a real Christian.”

Lillback does answer the claim that GW was a strict Deist, that is one who believes in a non-interventionist God and categorically rejects all written revelation. Though some notable scholars have so claimed, Boller did not. And Lillback didn’t need to write 1200 pages to demonstrate Washington believed in an active personal God. Michael and Jana Novak and Mary V. Thompson both have written books in the 300 page range that prove Washington’s belief in an active Providence.

Indeed, Boller admits that Washington’s Grand Architect “Deist” God was an active intervener. Here Lillback rightly objects that terming such theology “Deism” when that term, to too many modern ears, connotes a non-interventionist God, is problematic. George Washington was a theist, not a Deist.

But Boller rejects Washington’s “Christianity” because, as he put it,
[I]f to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense.

So Boller and Lillback both agree that Washington believed in an active Providence. They disagree on whether Washington’s creed is properly termed “Deist” or “Christian.” And Lillback, to solidify the case for Washington’s “Christianity,” disputes Boller’s above passage and terms Washington “orthodox.”

The problem is, the evidence Lillback offers from Washington’s mouth, though it shows belief in an active Providence, fails to refute Boller’s challenge. Instead, Lillback strives mightily to "read in" orthodox Trinitarian concepts to Washington's more generic God words, and otherwise to explain away evidence that casts doubt on Washington’s belief in orthodox Trinitarianism.

In over 20,000 pages of Washington’s known recorded writings, the name “Jesus Christ” appears only once. One other time Jesus is mentioned by example, not name. And both of these were in public addresses, written by aides but given under Washington’s name. Nowhere in Washington’s many private letters is the name or person of Jesus Christ invoked. Though Washington’s private correspondence mentions “Providence” and other more generic God words very often.

Why this is so, Lillback can only speculate. And Lillback slams Boller for enaging in similar speculation. For instance, Lillback,
not Washington himself, claims GW didn’t discuss Jesus because he was afraid of profaning Jesus’ holy name. When pondering why Washington let the one references to Jesus written by an aide pass, Boller claims Washington must have been pressed for time, or would have revised the document before he signed it. Lillback terms Boller’s speculation “feeble.” If so, Lillback’s speculation on why Washington avoided mentioning Jesus’ name is equally “feeble."

Though Washington didn’t, as far as we know, identify as a “Deist,” Lillback can marshal only one letter, to Robert Stewart, April 27, 1763, where Washington claims to have been a “Christian.”

More often, he talked of Christians in the third person, as though he weren't part of that group. The following statement of Washington’s, to Marquis De LaFayette, August 15, 1787, is typical: "I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception."

Or, to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792: "I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see
their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society." (Emphasis mine.)

Since Lillback can’t prove Washington’s Trinitarian orthodoxy from his words, he instead turns to GW’s membership in the Anglican/Episcopalian Church. Since that body formally adhered to orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, Lillback argues, Washington, as an Anglican, did as well.

Indeed, Lillback charges if Washington were a member of an orthodox church, at times taking oaths to its officially orthodox doctrines, but didn’t believe in those doctrines, he was a hypocrite. And he saddles more “secular” or “skeptical” scholars with smearing the Father of America as a hypocrite. As we will see below, Lillback’s logic falters.

Lillback doesn’t do well with the reality that deistically and unitarian minded figures abounded in the churches that professed orthodoxy in that era. Washington’s church attendance of, on average, once a month is consistent with such reality. Further, the two American Presidents who followed Washington, without question, fit that description. And the three who followed them likely did as well.

Deistically and unitarian minded members of orthodox churches were the ones who, like Washington, systematically avoided communion in said churches because they didn’t believe in what the act symbolically represented: Christ’s Atonement.

This was the explanation that Washington’s own minister, Rev. James Abercrombie, offered when he reacted to Washington‘s behavior. He noted, "I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace."

Lillback offers another explanation, which again, is sheer speculation: That GW didn’t commune because he had problems with “Toryish” ecclesiastical authorities. Instead Washington was a “low church,” latitudinarian Anglican, while still an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

No doubt, as a leader of a Whig rebellion, Washington did have a problem with Tories. Lillback’s explanation, however, doesn’t avoid the charge of hypocrisy that he accuses skeptical scholars of making. Washington, when he became a Vestryman for example, didn’t take an oath to “low church” latitudinarian Anglicanism, but rather, those oaths were “high church” and demanded loyalty to the crown. And those oaths and doctrines demanded Anglican believers partake in the Lord’s Supper.

Many Anglicans remained loyalists precisely because their church taught a theological duty to remain loyal. Washington was in rebellion, then, not just against England, but against his church’s official doctrines. If not to believe in the official doctrines of your church, indeed, doctrines in which you took oaths, makes you a hypocrite, then Lillback unavoidably falls into a trap that he set for scholars who argue GW was not an orthodox Christian.

Lillback attempts to marshal other facts that prove Washington’s orthodox Christianity. As President, Washington communicated with many pious churches in a friendly manner, and friends and acquaintances often would send him sermons for which GW invariable gave perfunctory thanks.

Straining, Lillback sees this as evidence of Washington’s orthodox Christianity. True, Washington did seem to approve orthodox figures and sermons. But, trying to be all things to all people, Washington also seemed to approve heterodox and heretical figures as well.

For instance, Washington stated, “I have seen and read with much pleasure,” an address by Richard Price, a non-conformist minister and author, that slammed the Athanasian creed, the quintessential statement of Trinitarianism that Washington’s Anglican church used. Washington also stated to the Universalists, a notoriously controversial church that preached universal salvation,

It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that, in our nation, however different
are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing; for their political professions and practices are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society. (Emphasis mine.)

Twice when speaking to uncoverted Native Americans, Washington referred to God as the “Great Spirit,” suggesting they all worshipped the same God. This is even more generous than claiming the Muslims’ “Allah” is the same God Jews and Christians worship -- a sentiment to which most “Christian Americanists” balk -- because Allah at least claims to be the God of Abraham, while the “Great Spirit” made no such claim.

Lillback, of course, tries to dismiss these as outliers. Yet the two times GW referred to God as the “Great Spirit” are exactly as many times the name or person of Jesus is found in Washington’s entire writings.

On Washington’s non-Christian death, where he asked for no ministers and said no prayers, Lillback likewise makes excuses. Indeed, in addition to a great deal of facts, “George Washington’s Sacred Fire” contains much idle speculation, illogical arguments, and redundant prose in 1200 pages. No respectable academic publisher would publish a book that length where so much could have been edited down. “Providence Forum Press,” the publisher, is part of a group of which Lillback himself is leader. This is essentially a glorified self published book.


Brad Hart said…
GREAT review, Jon!

Your write:
In over 20,000 pages of Washington’s known recorded writings, the name “Jesus Christ” appears only once. One other time Jesus is mentioned by example, not name. And both of these were in public addresses, written by aides but given under Washington’s name. Nowhere in Washington’s many private letters is the name or person of Jesus Christ invoked. Though Washington’s private correspondence mentions “Providence” and other more generic God words very often.

I think it gets even worse than that. Lillback intentionally misleads his readers into believing that Washington was a pious Christian by referring to his "prayers." In Appendix Three of Sacred Fire, Lillback puts together a collection that he calls "George Washington's Written Prayers." In reality, these documents are not actual prayers but rather an assortment of letters, general orders and presidential declarations, which Lillback passes off as "prayers." He then insinuates that these "prayers" are proof positive that Washington was an orthodox Christian. As Lillback states at the beginning of this appendix:

One of the elements of the Christian faith that was suspect, and eventually abandoned by Deists, was 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.

Given this understanding, Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism...The sheer magnitude of the umber of prayers, coupled with the expansive topics included in his prayers, give substantial credence to the universal testimony of Washington's contemporaries of his practice of corporate and private prayer.

This underscores how misplaced contemporary scholars have been in claiming that Washington was a man of lukewarm religious faith. (761).

[Continued on the next comment]
Brad Hart said…
With this in mind, I decided that it would be worthwhile to dissect the various "written prayers" that Peter Lillback sites in his book. After all, the language that Washington used in these prayers should be a valuable tool in determining Washington's actual beliefs.

Here are the actual phrases that Washington used in his "written prayers" to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Christianity" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

So, you are 100% right, Jon. Washington's "God Talk" is noticeably absent the traditional Christian verbiage.

Lillback's book is a farce!
Manlius said…
Lillback's definitely got major footnote disease. Too few footnotes make an argument weak; too many footnotes make you a pedantic freak!
Anonymous said…
It's interesting how Beck supports this - I wonder if it's the "long book effect" going into practice here... here's a long book which no one will read but seems like it has an acceptable grasp on history.

As a public educator, this worries me greatly.

Anonymous said…
As a fellow minister in Lillback's denomination, I can tell you that a large number of us are embarrassed by his poor historical methodology, and even more than that, of how all this distracts us from our main mission of proclaiming the Gospel of grace to needy sinners. It is really hard for us to fathom why any of this matters to the work of Word, Sacrament and Prayer which is ostensibly our main calling, regardless of what kind of country or culture we find ourselves in.
Seeker said…
First of all, anyone can, and most politicians did, flood their words with religious overtones.

It means nothing.

Notice the avalanche of religious justifications for slavery -- just astonishing floods of rhetoric, from Lee's defense of torture (God intends pain for slaves "for their instruction) to Davis "God delivered the Negro unto us, fit only for servitude..."

And "slavery is a Divine gift."

But what happened -- virtually overnight -- when Lee surrendered?

See "Death of the Southern God" the best blog on Southern religious posturing on earth, and I say that entirely because I wrote it.

But instantly, every Southern leader, who shouted "GOD TOLD US TO DO IT", never mentioned this God of Slavery again.

This God that shaped their lives, told them to enslave, told them to torture women, sell women, and burn an occasional violent slave to death -- that GOD, was dumped like a bed pan in a diarrhea ward.

Even in private, Southern leaders, as far as I can tell, NEVER said that nonsense again.

They spoke their beliefs on everything else -- white supremecy, the inferiority of blacks, they claimed blacks shouldnt vote, or marry whites, etc etc.

Why not ever mention the God of slavery again? They mentioned him every day, many times a day, in private and in public, before.

Why suddenly dump that God?

Why the BIG HUSH?

What made these men ALL - ALL -- instantly abandon their God?

Simple. They knew that was bullship already. They never believed a word of it. They were lying.

The thousands upon thousands of times they told their wives and each other, that slavery and torture was from God, they never believed a word of it.

If they had believed it, they would have continued to say that was God's word, after Lee surrendered. They would have claimed God told them to enslave, even if they could not do it anymore. They would have complained about not being able to do God's will.

So when you judge Washington's religious nature -- forget it. It's futile. You might was well throw shredded wheat in the air, and then decipher the patterns when they fall down. It's meaningless.

All their words are meaningless posturing.
Bruce Kelly said…
I wonder if anyone one would be talking about this book without Glenn Beck's endorsement. The fame of this book speaks more to the growing influence of Beck rather than the specific content. Also the length of the book should not count as a fault. If the work has failings in its argument or research, that is enough I doubt Beck or Lillback intended some kind of 'long book effect' that is giving them too much credit.
Unknown said…
Mr. Kelly, You've stumbled upon a small and heretofore unexplained fragment of the numerous criticisms I've amassed in regards to this book. Dr. Lillback has went completely overboard on the issue of GW's spiritual beliefs i.e. that he was a practicing Christian and not a Deist. I believe that the author could've made--and did indeed make--his point in 3-5 pages (with perhaps 1 or 2 references). So why all the elbow room on the bookshelf? Why did he add 100 pages of ludicrous speculation? Why detail the beliefs of Jamestown colonists as further proof of our first President's religion w/o acknowledging to the reader that you've taken the liberty of omitting nearly 170 yrs of human history? (He'd be better off adding them; putting the comparitive "proof" right in the middle of the administration of the like-minded Eisenhower)Why the effort of printing, word-for-word, the strict catechism that GW,as a grade-schooler, had to similarly suffer through as a homework assignment? Or for that matter, why present a full text of a sermon given to a congregation where the adult George Washington may or may not have been in attendance? Did Peter Lillback think he needed this kind of volume to take on this fashionably secular and modern (1926) controversy? The modus-operandi behind such regurgitation remains a mystery.