George Washington's Religion, the Founding, and the Perils of Glorified Self Published Books
BECK: Yesterday, it was like 475,000 on Amazon.com. 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).
by Jon Rowe
Review of George Washington's Sacred Fire
Peter A. Lillback’s George Washington’s Sacred Fire, now a top seller on Amazon.com 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.
Boller's 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.