Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 27 years.
George Washington's Faith
As a boy living in Alexandria, Virginia, I would often look for the Washington Monument while riding in the car, especially as we approached a certain hill on Highway One. Sometimes visibility would not allow it, but often it was visible on that hill, even though we were over ten miles away.
At 555 feet high, the Washington Monument stands as the world's tallest stone structure. Even from a distance, it captures your attention. As you draw closer and look toward its top, you can lose your balance as you try to grasp the power and reach that it projects skyward.
Like that monument, George Washington remains impressive even from a distance. There would likely have been no successful War for Independence or a written national Constitution without him. As the colonial historian Forrest McDonald said, he was the “indispensable man.” The power of his presence changed the historical landscape whether he was home at Mt. Vernon, on the battlefield at Yorktown, or sitting at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia with other state delegates as they hammered out a new government for the ages.
While we get a grasp of Washington's accomplishments from a distance, the man, like his monument remains daunting up close. Unlike the Jefferson Memorial with its verbosity, the Washington Monument is mostly silent. Washington did not pen his mental ramblings on every topic in his orbit as was the practice of Jefferson. With our third president we know too much; with our first, too little.
This is especially true when it comes to Washington and his faith. Washington rarely mentioned religion in his writings. However, from what he did say and the reputation he left, it had been assumed that Washington was a Christian. Despite a few dissenting voices, most people knew Washington as a man that attended church, was a godfather, was a generous contributor, spoke favorably of the Christian religion, and exemplified many of the Christian virtues.
However, in the twentieth century when American history took a jog toward progressivism, Washington’s actions were taken to be more secular. The actions emphasized by progressives were that Washington attended church, but rarely, and only attended as often as was expected in an era of established religion. And he was not a communicant, stood during prayer when others knelt, and rarely referred to God or Jesus in his writings. When he did mention God, he referred to Him as “Divine Providence” or “that Supreme Being,” phrases that reflect a more impersonal God. Furthermore, he was a member of the Masonic Lodge, supposedly a haunt for deists that, nonetheless, valued the “utility of religion.”
These collected facts and others led secular historians such as Paul Boller and Rupert Hughes to conclude that George Washington was a deist, a believer in a creator of the universe, but not the personal and knowable God of the Bible. Especially since Paul Boller’s book, George Washington and Religion, the assumption of many historians has been that Washington was a deist.
What is a Deist?
In his American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster defined “deism” as the belief that one God exists but denied any revelation from God, save possibly the revelation that might come through the “light of reason.(1)” If the deists of Washington’s time denied the possibility of revelation, then a deist could not be a Christian.
Recently, historical analysis on George Washington and religion has come full circle as interest in Washington’s religion has enjoyed a comeback. These studies and some others have looked more closely at George Washington and the role that religion played in his life:
- Washington’s God by Michael Novak & Jana Novak
- In the Hands of a Good Providence by Mary V. Thompson
- George Washington’s Sacred Fire by Peter Lillback
Each of these works has concluded that whatever might be made of Washington’s Christian faith, the claim that Washington was a deist is dubious. In this essay, I will take a similar tack, concluding that George Washington was not a deist.
Progressive historians made several claims to support their conclusion that Washington was a deist. The following four claims appear to be the strongest points advanced by these historians:
- George Washington was called a Deist
- He was a Mason
- Like many of his day, he was a man of the Enlightenment
- He spoke rarely of God and even more rarely of Jesus Christ
1. Washington Was Called a Deist During His Lifetime
One reason that George Washington was a deist according to proponents was that he was once called a deist by some who knew him. Speaking to another man, the Rev. James Abercrombie, the assistant rector at Christ Church in Philadelphia, said, “Sir, Washington was a deist. (2)” However, this appears to be a chastisement aimed at Washington because he was not a communicant in Abercrombie’s church in Philadelphia because the same minister followed up this comment by saying that “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.(3)”
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In Washington’s Anglican tradition, a communion service would follow the preaching service. After the preaching service, the—“liturgy of the word”—most would dismiss and a few would stay to receive the communion. While he was in Philadelphia, Washington would get up after the preaching service with most of the congregants and leave before the communion service.
Regardless of his reason for not communing, that he dismissed himself is hardly evidence of deism. As a deist, why would Washington participate in every ritual of the Anglican tradition, save communion? Why would a deist even feel the need to participate in a Christian service at any level whether it was the preaching service or the communion service? At most, the fact that George Washington did not commune might support the proposition that he was not a good Christian or not a Christian at all, but it would not support the claim that Washington was a deist.
In any event, it’s odd that some modern historians have given so much attention to Washington’s failure to commune, yet ignore his church attendance which had the reputation of being regular. In most Christian traditions, church attendance is considered more important than taking communion. In fact, the Bible has warnings against those that partake of communion “unworthily.”
Finally, the evidence supporting Washington’s failure to commune is not universal. Alexander Hamilton’s wife, for example, testified to her descendants that she saw Washington taking communion shortly around the time of his inauguration. Anyway, the question of why he did or did not commune is of interest if we are considering whether or not Washington was a Christian; it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not he was a deist.
2. George Washington was a Freemason
A second argument from progressives is that Washington was a deist because was a member of the Masonic Lodge. The fact that Washington was a Mason is undisputed. Washington joined the Fredericksburg Lodge in 1752 when he was twenty and was an active Lodge member until 1768. After then, he only attended the Lodge meetings once or twice according to his testimony. According to historian Paul Johnson, Washington received a Masonic apron from the Marquis de Lafayette when the Marquis visited him in 1784. (5) Furthermore, Washington was sworn into office with his hand on a Masonic Bible and received both an Episcopalian and Masonic funeral with the six pallbearers, all being Masons.
However, it’s a mistaken assumption that if one is a Mason, he's also a deist. Today, many professing Christians belong to the Lodge. Former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms (1921-2008) was a member of the Lodge. Helms was demonized by liberals as an “extreme right-wing conservative,” a pit bull for the Religious Right. No progressive ever accused him of being a deist
A further look at the Lodge of eighteenth-century America reveals some nuances about the Masonic Order that are not likely to be obvious in our day. For example, the teachings of the Lodge in Washington’s day were more likely to be influenced by Christianity, given that such a large part of the population was Christian. In fact, a Masonic Constitution that was employed by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania stated that the Mason “cannot tread in the irreligious paths of the unhappy Libertine, the Deist, nor stupid Atheist...(6)” This Masonic Constitution was written by Dr. William Smith, a Philadelphia clergyman. So Dr. Smith was a Mason and an Episcopalian, the same religion as George Washington.
The above quote is also informative in that it suggests that, during Washington’s time, being a Mason in the American colonies was incompatible with being a deist, a libertine, or an atheist, but was compatible with being a Christian. In fact, Christian sermons were preached at the Masonic Lodges during Washington’s time, even sectarian ones. Washington had a sermon collection and one of the sermons in his collection was from Mason Rev. Smith in which the minister is giving a Mason’s message, a message that states “[speaking of judgment day] let us remember that it will be assuredly asked—were we in CHRIST JESUS? (7)”
As for the conspiratorial elements of the Masonic Order, they were not known to George Washington until much later. In the year prior to Washington’s death, 1798, Washington was given a book called the Proofs of a Conspiracy by John Robinson, in which the author claimed that the American Lodge had been infiltrated by an anti-religious element called the Illuminati. In response to the book, Washington wrote Rev. G.W. Snyder (the man who originally sent him the book) and told him that he did not believe that such elements were a part of the American Lodge, saying that “I believe notwithstanding, that none of the Lodges of this Country are contaminated with the principles ascribed to the Society of the Illuminati.(8)” Furthermore, Washington informed Snyder that he had only attended Lodge meetings once or twice over the past thirty years (that would be going back to 1768, prior to the war). (9)
So, being a Mason does not make one a deist. Apparently, in some quarters, the two were incompatible. Washington was a member of the Masons, a group during his time that was compatible with being a Christian. Washington’s involvement in the Lodge was mostly during his younger years (prior to 1768) and this roughly corresponds with the years that he served as a vestryman in the Anglican Church. Washington stated that he did not believe that the Illuminati was prevalent in American Lodges.
3. Washington was a Man of the Enlightenment
Third, progressive historians emphasize Washington’s Enlightenment beliefs, claiming that these better explain Washington’s beliefs than does Christianity. Certainly, Washington appears to have been influenced by Enlightenment ideals. Washington speaks much of the spread of knowledge and overcoming superstition and bigotry. In a circular letter Washington wrote in 1783 to the state governors, he said that “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition…(10)” However, in the same letter, Washington also said, “....the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.” So from Washington’s frame of mind “Ignorance and Superstition” are not the same as the “benign light of Revelation.” For a deist, they would be. No deist considers Revelation as a “benign light.” As was mentioned earlier, deists reject revelation. For the deist, “Revelation” is “Ignorance and Superstition.”
It needs to be remembered that while we often associate the Enlightenment with unbelief, there were some Enlightenment figures that came down on the side of belief and were trying to ground Christianity in reason. One such man was the English philosopher, John Locke. Locke’s ideas were some of the most influential of the founding generation. This is obvious from reading the Declaration of Independence and then reading Locke’s The Two Treatises on Government. Locke was a figure of the Enlightenment but he was also a Christian who wrote an apologetic called the Reasonableness of Christianity in which he pursued belief in God along rational lines. And while Washington praised Thomas Paine for his publication of Common Sense, which spoke respectfully of God, Washington appears to have rejected Thomas Paine about the time he was writing the more deistic Age of Reason. Even Ben Franklin, who is thought to be even closer to the deist sentiments than Washington, was critical of Paine’s contempt for religion. Franklin, after having read Paine’s Age of Reason, wrote him a letter July 3, 1786, in which he asked Paine “if men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it (11)”?
4. Washington’s Scarce Mention of God and Jesus
Finally, proponents of the “Washington was a Deist” thesis say that Washington rarely made references to God or Jesus Christ. The rationale is that Washington did not believe in a personal God. Rather, being a product of the Enlightenment, Washington used more impersonal names for God like “providence” (one of his favorites) or the “Author of our blessed Religion.”
It might help to know what Washington meant when he spoke of “providence.” Washington believed in a providence that was a superintending agent in the affairs of man. This is apparent in Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation (1789), in which he connects providence with a God that provides “benefits,” possesses a “will,” and is a Being that we should “implore” and “beseech.” Furthermore, Washington acknowledges the national problem of unrighteousness by suggesting that we should seek His forgiveness for our national sins. (12)
Further evidence that Washington believes in a “superintending agent” comes from an undated letter that Washington sent to a Hebrew congregation in Savannah, GA in which he identified “providence” as none other than that being which delivered the Hebrew children from their taskmasters and that he was the same being that had been obvious in the creation of the republic. As Michael Novak notes, the god that George Washington prays to is the Hebrew God and if Novak is correct, then Washington’s providential God is not the God of deism (13). A deist would believe in an unintending agent.
If expressions like “divine providence” are reasonable proxies for the biblical God, then we can add to Washington’s repertoire many more references to God and Jesus. For example, he referred to Jesus as “our gracious Redeemer,” and “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations. (14)” Washington also made generous references to the Christian faith and referred to the teachings of Jesus often such as the wheat and the tares, the will of God, the “narrow path,” “good and faithful servant” among others. The many references to the teachings of Jesus suggest that Washington was biblically literate. The biblical concepts are found throughout his written conversations.
Finally, it's a myth that Washington’s fanciful expressions for the Deity were deistic in character. When Washington referred to “divine providence,” this was not a deistic euphemism for “God.” Thomas Paine, for example, did not employ these elaborate titles for God. In the Age of Reason, Paine limited himself to the expressions “God,” “Creator, and “Almighty. (15)” As for Washington, he had over a hundred such titles for God.
A further observation is that Christian ministers also used creative titles for the Almighty. In 1793 Reverend Samuel Miller preached a sermon entitled “A Sermon on the Anniversary of the Independence of America” in which he uses such expressions as “the grand Source,” “the supreme Arbiter of nations,” and “the Governor of the universe” to refer to God. (16) Rev. James Abercrombie, the same minister that called Washington a “deist,” called God “the divine Author of our holy religion.” (17) Political scientist Mark David Hall points out that even the 1788 American revised Westminster Standards refers to God as the "Supreme Judge" and the "first cause," making the point that American Calvinists would have embraced these descriptors as legitimate references to their God. (18)
So, unless we're going to consign gospel ministers to the deist camp, it's not likely that this flourish used by colonials is any serious evidence of deism.
Today, it's a popular indoor sport of progressive historians to attack evangelicals such as the late D. James Kennedy and David Barton because they would presume that George Washington was a Christian. The argument is that evangelical Christians have read their own faith into George Washington and see what they wanted to see. There is some evidence that this is true. However, it appears equally true that secular historians have done the same by reading their own unbelief into their analysis of George Washington. Given their general lack of interest in religion, unless it’s something “fanatical” like the Great Awakening or burning witches in Salem, it's likely that secularists would easily overlook the nuances of Washington’s own words on religious matters. Rather, they've looked for a president who headed a secular republic and expounded a civil religion. And I believe that they found what they were looking for and have portrayed Washington in such a light for decades.
While I did not tackle the issue of whether or not George Washington was a Christian, I have provided a refutation of four common arguments that George Washington was a deist. From my investigation, it's a reasonable conclusion that George Washington was not a deist.
(1) Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,deism
(2) John Remsburg, Six Historic Americans: George Washington. http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/john_remsburg/six_historic_americans/chapter_3.html
(3) Paul F. Boller, Jr. 1963. George Washington and Religion. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 90. Abercrombie’s accusation is dubious regardless of the clarification of his comment. In 1793 Abercrombie had been passed over for a government position in the Washington Administration. It is possible that the remark was retaliation from a disgruntled jobseeker.
(4) Peter Lillback. 2006. George Washington’s Sacred Fire. Bryn Mawr, PA: Providence Forum Press. Lillback offers several historical reports of Washington being a communicant. See pp. 405-436.
(5) Paul Johnson. 2005. George Washington: Eminent Lives Series. New York: Harper Collins, 11.
(6) Dr. William Smith, quoted in Lillback, 505.
(7) Dr. William Smith, quoted in Lillback, 506.
(8) George Washington to G.W. Snyder, September 25, 1798.
(9) Lillback, 507-508.
(10) The Papers of George Washington. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/
(11) Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Lillback, 553.
(12) “Rediscovering George Washington.
(13) Michael Novak and Jana Novak. 2006. Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of our Country. New York: Basic Books, 125.
(14) Lillback, 57.
(15) Lillback, 40.
(16) Samuel Miller. 1793. “A Sermon on the Anniversary of the Independence of America,” quoted in Lillback, 41.
(17) James Abercrombie, quoted in Lillback, 410.
(18) Mark David Hall, "Did America Have a Christian Founding." Heritage Lectures #1186, Published June 7, 2011, 7. http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2011/pdf/hl1186.pdf, accessed 8/12/16.
George Washington & Religion
- George Washington and Religion - Probe Ministries
Probe's Kerby Anderson demonstrates that contrary to what many believe, George Washington was a Christian, not a deist.
- Role of faith in life of George Washington - YouTube
In this show segment from 2-9-12 Beck and his guest David Barton provides little known historical information about the role of faith in Washington's life.
- "Washington and His God" from Colonial Williamburg Magazine (Spring 2009)
Noted historians are quoted on their views about Washington and his religion.
© 2009 William R Bowen Jr
The Logician from then to now on on October 28, 2014:
Bibowen, it is refreshing to see someone (you) demonstrate that reasoning requires looking at and analyzing the facts and from there drawing valid conclusions that are supported by a preponderance of the evidence instead of starting with a premise and then looking only for (or cherry picking) information, whether factual or not to support the premise. The latter approach (second only to "the ends justifies the means") is a hallmark of the "progressive" movement which is just another name for liberalism, which can be explained by it's own acronym
R aise a straw man
A ssert superiority
L ie some more
....And if you are Nancy Pelosi add an S for
S ee dead people http://dailycaller.com/2012/08/09/nancy-pelosi-see...
While liberals have chosen these nefarious deceptions as their modus operandi others can commit these errors. For example I don't believe George Washington never told a lie for if that was true he wouldn't have been a Christian, he'd have been Christ himself. :-)
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on February 11, 2012:
Bryon, I am not sure that he wrote a book of prayers. I think that he did use the Anglican Book of Common Prayers. As for being a chaplain, I have never heard that before. But you are right that he did, as president, declare a day of Thanksgiving at the request of Congress. Thanks for your interest and your comments.
Bryon on February 08, 2012:
Washing also wrote a book of prayers, served as chaplain for his troops when none was available and declared a day of Thanksgiving.
Ryan Higgins on November 06, 2010:
Great article. You taught my American Gov. class n college and although I did not give it 100% I thoroughly enjoyed your class. I intend on reading your other article as well.
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on August 04, 2010:
Larry, you are correct that eternity is settled for George Washington and all who are dead. But for the historical record of those who live now, it is important. It matters if the historical record of Washington is being distorted either by ignorance or intent. We are called to be faithful in this life and a part of that faithfulness for a historian is to put forth a faithful and accurate record. Thanks for reading.
LARRY THOMPSON on August 04, 2010:
IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER OR NOT WASHINGTON WAS A CHRISTIAN. IF HE NEVER TRUSTED CHRIST AS HIS LORD AND SAVIOUR,THEN HE IS BURNING IN HELL RIGHT NOW AND WILL CONTINUE FOREVER WITHOUT ANY RELIEF EVER. WITH MR. WASHINGTON AND ALL THOSE WHO HAVE GONE ON, THEIR DESTINY WAS SETTLED WHEN THEY TOOK THEIR LAST BREATH ON EARTH. NOW WE, WHO ARE ALIVE, CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT OUR DESTINY BY TRUSTING JESUS AS OUR PERSONAL LORD AND SAVIOUR. YOU SEE THE BIBLE SAYS IN THE BOOK OF JOHN IN THE THIRD CHAPTER AND VERSE SIXTEEN ::: FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON,THAT WHOSOEVER BELIEVETH IN HIM SHOULD NOT PERISH,BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE.. NOW IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BURN IN AN ETERNAL LAKE OF FIRE, THEN TRUST JESUS CHRIST, IF YOU THINK RIGHT NOW, YOU DO NOT CARE,THEN STAY LIKE YOU ARE, EITHER WAY WHEN YOU GO OUT INTO ETERNITY, THEN YOU WILL FIND OUT THE RELIGION OF ALL THOSE DEAD DOES NOT MATTER ANY AT ALL...
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on November 08, 2009:
It's not that the inference is negative or positive, the point is that you can't draw any inference from what was not stated. As for your final statement, I am in complete agreement.
Jon Rowe on November 08, 2009:
I agree that "negative inferences" are not conclusive. However, I would just note that those advancing the thesis that GW was an orthodox Christian equally share the burden.
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on November 07, 2009:
This is getting too lengthy: I'll try to deal with this point by point. My overall comment is that your approach is speculative: you are trying to take the "absence of evidence" and claim it as "evidence of absence." Translated: you are trying to take, say, the absence of words by Washington about Christianity and make that evidence that Washington lacked a Christian faith. But, I'm afraid that this will not do if we are considering historical evidence.
As for your point about there being more evidence about John Adams, the reason why is Adams was verbose. When it comes to him and Jefferson, we know more than we want to about what they thought (although for the sake of history, I'm not complaining).
The fact is that we don't have much evidence about Washington's thinking on religion or most other matters. Your point about Adams is well-taken: we have good reasons to believe that he was not a Christian based on what he said. You can't take the absence of such rhetoric to make a case that George Washington was not a Christian.
Jon Rowe on November 07, 2009:
First paragraph: We agree fully. I don't believe, based on the historical evidence, that GW was a strict deist.
Second paragph: It's interesting, more evidence shows John Adams as President, sounding like an orthodox Trinitarian (preparing a speech/prayer as Pres. where he used the language of "redeemer") than there is for GW; yet JA was, without question, a militant unitarian. GW, like JA, arguably like TJ and JM, believed "Christianity" (whatever its forms) good because they believed "religion" good. In other words, "religion," whatever its forms, helped to make men moral and consequently supported republican self government. GW & the other key Founders were pro-Christianity, not because they believed it true, other religions false, Christ the only way to God, 2nd person in the Trinity, but rather because religion & morality helped make men moral. And as such, if they "ends" (morality) are achieved it doesn't matter the "means" (which religion you profess).
This could (and may) turn into a long, complicated discussion. I'll just note that only one "redeemer" quote of GW exists (and not written by him). I'd argue it's consistent with, not just an orthodox approach to Christianity, but also the approach of Jefferson and J. Adams which argued Jesus redeemed men through his superior moral example, that all good men were Christians (regardless of whether they consciously accepted Christ) that Jesus was not the 2nd Person in the Trinity, but something less than fully God.
"Second, the fact that the statement '[Divine] Author of our Blessed Religion' was compatible with Unitarianism does not get you very far. Even many of my beliefs are consistent with Arianism and I am a born-again Christian!"
I don't think so. Arians believe Christ was NOT God the Son, 2nd person in the Trintiy, but a divinely created and subordinate being to the Father, who is the only God to be worshipped as per the 1st Commandment. My point is the 1783 Circular to the States, the ONLY place you will find in GW's official writings where JC is referred to as "divine" (and only one of TWO places in GW's 20,000 pages of recorded writings where he refers to JC by name or person at all) is not smoking gun evidence of his Trinitarianism.
"Finally, let's not forget that for you to embrace Abercrombie is to reject what was commonly believed about Washington at the time."
And what was commonly believed often turns out to be false. J. Adams was commonly believed to be a "Christian" yet few in the general populace knew that he fervently rejected original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation, infallibility of the Bible, just like Jefferson did.
"Abercrombie’s rejection as a potential job seeker, not to mention the source of his pronouncement (that Washington was a deist because he was not a communicant), draw into question the credibility of the statement."
This is to commit the genetic fallacy or to poison the well, in a truth/logic sense. Abercrombie's supposed false "motives" matter not, accordingly (i.e., I might have a bad motive for proving YOU a "born again" Christian, but it doesn't detract from the truth that you are). But if we accept this logical error in argumentation (the genetic fallacy/poisoning the well), we could equally poison Nelly Custis' well (see below). And btw, the words recorded out of Abercrombie's mouth (in a letter that he personally wrote, not what was recounted by Rev. Wilson) did not say "GW was a deist," but rather that GW was not a "real Christian" because he systematically refused to commune and thus seemed not to believce in what the ACT symbolically represented: Christ Atonement (the deistic and unitarian minded Anglicans refused to commune for that very reason).
This is notable b/c GW was NOT a "strict deist" but rather someone who believed in an active personal God, that Christianity (and most other religions) was/were good because they promoted morality, without believing in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. I think Rev. Abercrombie understood that GW was somewhere between a "strict deist" and an "orthodox Christian."
"Finally, let us not forget that Washington’s own niece said that you would do as well to question Washington's patriotism as to question his Christianity."
Three points: 1) She also, in that letter, confirmed GW didn't commune; 2) her understanding of "Christianity" might not have been "orthodox" -- indeed she was writing to Jared Sparks, a "Christian minister" who denied original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement -- and trying to convince HIM that GW was a "Christian"; she might have been arguing GW was not an atheist or strict deist, period, everything to the right of strict deism (i.e., the unitarianism that JS believed in) is "Christianity"; and 3) you could argue, just as you did with Rev. Abercrombie, that NC had "motive" to argue GW was "Christian," not "something else" and that calls into account HER credibility. She was trying to protect GW's reputation. Of course, to argue this would be to commit the genetic fallacy or poisoning the well. But the SAME DEFENSE could be raised against Rev. Abercrombie's remarks.
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on November 07, 2009:
Thanks for your comments, but you're confronting a straw man on this thread. I'm arguing that the deism claim is more likely false than not; I'm not arguing that George Washington was a Christian (although I do believe that he was). Even if Washington did not say those things directly (BTW, thank you for correcting the one point and illuminating the other), my assessment of the unlikelihood of deism still stands. Furthermore, Unitarianism (as you know) is not the same thing as deism. So your second point about Washington's compatibility with Unitarianism is actually support for my position that George Washington was not a deist.
But do your corrections advance the thesis that Washington was not a Christian? I don't think so. Granted, the "Gracious Redeemer" statement would provide better evidence for his Christian faith had he said it than if he is publishing what was already printed. However, I believe it was the General's prerogative to have read to the troops various documents. The General had read such works as the Declaration of Independence and the writings of Thomas Paine, for example. I guess we'd have to believe that Washington had such a statement read, but he did not really believe it. However, this does not compel me given my knowledge of the character of the man. I think the best inference on this piece of information is that he had it read because he believed it, even if the statement was incidental to the purpose of the reading.
Second, the fact that the statement "[Divine] Author of our Blessed Religion" was compatible with Unitarianism does not get you very far. Even many of my beliefs are consistent with Arianism and I am a born-again Christian! Remember, I demonstrated in my article that even ministers of the gospel spoke this way. Call it "rhetorical flourish" or what-have-you, it fails as evidence of Christian apostasy.
Finally, let's not forget that for you to embrace Abercrombie is to reject what was commonly believed about Washington at the time. Abercrombie’s rejection as a potential job seeker, not to mention the source of his pronouncement (that Washington was a deist because he was not a communicant), draw into question the credibility of the statement. Finally, let us not forget that Washington’s own niece said that you would do as well to question Washington's patriotism as to question his Christianity.
Thanks again for you interest and comments.
Jon Rowe on November 07, 2009:
Sorry for the late reply (I lost track of this discussion thread).
Two points: 1) GW NEVER referred to God or JC as "our Gracious Redeemer." Those were part of an address by the Continental Congress that GW reproduced for his troops. And 2) the address where GW termed JC as the "[Divine] Author of our Blessed Religion" was not written in his hand AND is consistent with Arianism, a form of unitarianism popular among the Founding Fathers that viewed Jesus as a divine but created and subordinate being. It may even be consistent with Socinianism a form of unitarianism that saw Jesus as 100% man, not divine at all, but on a divine mission.
That your two proofs weren't even written by GW is evidence of how little conclusive proof there is that Washington was a "Christian" in the orthodox Trinitarian sense.
Re his denial of the tenets of Christianity, GW denied the atonement when he systematically avoided communion in his church -- THAT is the simplest explanation, NOT Lillback's convoluted explanation.
I believe GW's minister Dr. Abercrombie over Lillback.
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on October 09, 2009:
Thank you for your comments. In this essay, I didn't focus primarily on whether Washington was a Christian or not. Rather, I wanted to tackle the Deism question. I agree, no one has offered "proof" that George Washington lived and died a Christian. Having said that, I think the scales tip in favor that he was. Thanks again.
Tony Ballatore on October 09, 2009:
I'm not sure which I enjoyed the most: Your article, or the back and forth comments that followed.
Regardless: I enjoy reading about the who's who regarding Masons, and GW is noteworthy in this regard.
I agree, of course, that "historical research is not an exact science.". However, I am sure that you, Jon, and I inject our wishes into our conclusions. I'm fine with this. We are only human. GW could well have been this that or the other. One thing I am sure of is that what we think he was will not change reality. "On his death, he was proclaimed by most to be a Christian." is evidence, but far from being proof. Constantine was also pronounced a Christian on his deathbed, but the people who made this pronouncement had their interests. We will most likely never know the truth in either of these matters, but ain't it fun to read, research, discuss, and wonder.
Another job well done. Thank you.
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on September 09, 2009:
As for the matters of communion or confirmation, Lillback offers the conflict b/t "Low Church" and "High Church" Anglicans as a possible contenetion in Philadelphia that might have caused problems for Washington in fulling participating in that church.
I am leery of attempting to add adjectives to "deism" given that deism was more of a disposition than a dogma, more of a "denying belief" than an affirming belief. So, deists were known more by what they denied than what they affirmed. You speak of a "strict deist" but what is a "loose deist"? I think those concpetions borderline on being starved of meaning.
There is no evidence that Washington "denied" any of the Christian tenets that you mentioned. Washington called the Lord the "Author of our Blessed Religion" and "our Gracious Redeemer." If he believed what he said, then that takes care of the matter of atonment. Also, Washington did make several references to man's sinfulness. I don't know what his beliefs were about infallability of the Scriptures and eternal damnation. But I don't think that even an aberrent belief on those two issues is going to make him an unbeliever. I think C.S. Lewis was a Christian, but he did not affirm the infallibility of the Scriptures.
Thanks for your comments.
Jon Rowe on September 06, 2009:
"As a deist, why would Washington participate in every ritual of the Anglican tradition, save communion?"
There's more than just communion, GW was also not confirmed in said church when he had the opportunity to do so.
I'd caution you against drawing a false dichotomy between "Deist" and "Christian." There is no question that GW was not a "strict Deist" in the Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Elihu Palmer sense. And he also wasn't as hostile to orthodox Christian forces as Thomas Jefferson was. However, the record does NOT demonstrate that GW was someone who believed in original sin, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Eternal Damnation and infallibility of the Bible. Could one be a "Christian" and NOT believe in these doctrines? If the answer is "yes" than GW was probably a "Christian." If the answer is "no" than GW probably was NOT a "Christian." Not a "Deist" either, but something else, something in between.
Tom B on September 02, 2009:
Thanks for your responses. I know you're a busy guy so I won't comment further. Enjoy registration... it was always the highlight of my semester. ;)
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on September 02, 2009:
I would rather discuss one question at a time. Since I have done most of my recent research on the deism question, I'd like to stick to it unless you think it's sufficiently covered. My reasons for this are
1. The presumption for most of American history up till the 1960s was that Washington was a Christian. Since then the presumption among progressive historians has been that he was a deist. So, I want to know what good reasons we abandoned the traditional view. I have looked at the reasons given, but my take (at least at this point) is that the reasons given by progressives (1) to not provide an adequate case for deism as a hypothesis and (2) do not provide sufficient doubt as to cause me to abandon what was thought to be true by those that were closer to the events at the time.
2. The deism question, I think, is easier to deal with, so I'd like to focus on it first. That is basically the thrust of my article: deal with the major claims by the "pro deist" camp. Whether or not he was a Christian is more problematic, I'll admit. Also, if it can be shown that the evidence supports that he was a deist, then the "Christian question" is, de facto, answered. He could not have been a Christian if he was a deist.
On your second point, I don't think a historian should do that, Christian or not. As a personal operating procedure, you may operate that way, that is, assume a man is lost until you have confidence of his salvation, for witnessing purposes, for example. However, when writing history, you have to be more even-handed. The same thing would be true of law. We can't assume that Colonel Mustard really did kill the master in the parlor with the lead pipe because "men are sinners and are prone to commit crimes so I'm going to default to the criminal position until proven otherwise." We should always approach historical claims with evidence and, as much as possible, make a case for the hypotheses we present. So, I think you might take your approach when engaged in certain activities related to fulfilling the Great Commission, for example. But I believe it is untenable as a historical method.
As to the last point, Webster's definition is similar to the one by Samuel Johnson. A deist, according to Johnson was (1) a heretic, (2) not religious (note: even though he believed in one God, he was still deemed a nonreligious man), (3) rejected any notion of revealed religion, natural or otherwise and (4) adhered to no other article of faith, save the belief in one God.
To my knowledge, Washington was never accused of being a heretic. He was chastised for not being more vocal about his faith and for his aversion to taking communion in Philadelphia from the high-church Anglicans. As for not being religious, I don't know of many who are going to say this. Even those that reject his Christianity will acknowledge that he was religious. In fact, people today will say "Washington was religious, but he was a deist." But according to Johnson, the two are mutually exclusive. As for revelation, Washington believed that God revealed himself in the affairs of man. Washington read the Bible: I think Lillback makes a good case that Washington was biblically literate. He used the Book of Common Prayer. As for #4, Washington called himself a Christian, enjoined his soldiers to be "Christian," and called Jesus the "Author of our Blessed Religion" and "our Gracious Redeemer."
One final point about Webster's definition. You could certainly be right that definitions can change. But we should always prefer a framework that is closer to the time period. And what does that tell us? I guess that historical research is not an exact science.
You may find that my responses will not be as prompt as we begin registration this Saturday. I am having to wrap up my preterm projects to get ready for the fall. Thanks
Tom B on September 02, 2009:
First, because you mentioned it, what specific events in Washington's life do you regard as being convincing evidence of his Christian faith or living a Christian life?
Second, the default view should always be that a historical figure is an infidel. We then take his/her words and actions into consideration to form a different conclusion, if necessary. When there is not convincing evidence either way, we must assume this default position. I understand this default position may be untenable to secular historians (being a presupposition), but as a Christian it is the most biblical approach.
Finally, while helpful, Webster's 1828 dictionary was published almost 30 years after Washington's death. Could definitions / perspectives have changed within those three decades?
Thanks again for the discussion
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on September 01, 2009:
Washington professed the doctrines of the Christian faith. There is no evidence that he denounced or repudiated any of them. He lived the life of a Christian. If you took all the events of his life and laid them out, I believe they would point to a Christian man, not an infidel. On his death, he was proclaimed by most to be a Christian. What we have is testimony and the testimony is sound. There were a few that claimed he was otherwise, but the bulk of the testimony was that he was Christian.
I don't accept that the default view that Washington is an infidel until proven otherwise and I don't know many historians, Christian or otherwise, that would take such a view. Besides, this is just stacking the deck in your favor. It allows you to do nothing, prove nothing so that the contrary claimant has to provide the preponderance of the evidence.
True, we can't prove conclusively that he was a believer. But we can offer a claim that best fits the available evidence. What hypothesis best fits the facts that Washington believed in God and that he used Christian terminology? It best fits that he was a Christian. It certainly better fits that hypothesis than the hypothesis that says that he was a deist. No, it doesn't "make" him a Christian. But all other things being equal, "Washington was a Christian" best fits the evidence you gave. The problem with your using Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson is that, even though they believed in God and used Christian terminology, there are other facts to be considered that run contrary to the claim that they were Christian. For Washington, there just isn't much there that convinces me other than the traditional view. I believe I dealt with the primary claims pertaining to deism in the essay above.
As for your final comment, we have to be careful that we don't make a definition so fluid that, in the end, everything or nothing fits under its umbrella. In fact, I did not use a modern definition of deism; I used Webster's 1828 definition. Even then, a deist did not believe in an immediate or an intervening God, the kind of God that Washington did believe in.
As for why bother vindicating Washington, I don't think I'd be trying if the kind of evidence for unbelief existed against Washington like it does for Jefferson or Franklin. It's just that I think he should be given the benefit of the doubt. To call him an unbeliever when he's not is to vilify him. Besides, if we don't vindicate him, who will?
Tom B on September 01, 2009:
Soteriologically, the default view is that Washington was an infidel. I don't ascribe "Christian" to individuals unless there is clear and convincing evidence (i.e. fruit) that their life was lived in obedience to God's Word. Does that clear and convincing evidence exist for Washington?
That being said, if we can't determine conclusively that Washington was a believer, why do we think the fight against the deism hypothesis is worth fighting? So what if Washington believed in God and used Christian terminology? That doesn't make him a Christian, as our previous discussion about Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson point out.
BTW, is it possible that Deism, as practiced in the 18th-Century, was more fluid than we think of it today? Certainly it wasn't in its definitive form. Could it have been more a type of Voltairean Pantheism? If so, is it possible that Washington was in fact a Deist, but not in the sense we hold to today?
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on September 01, 2009:
Historians have to go by physical evidence. Based on physical evidence you can say that a person, like Washington, was a deist or a Christian. But as to whether or not he believed what he was outwardly professing, I don't know. So I think you have to make a distinction between the two. Now, if you were going to say that "well, he may have said he was a Christian, but he really wasn't," then you'd have to have some physical evidence of that. It is simply not enough to say, "well, they professed Christianity but they didn't really believe it...." There needs to be some evidence that they professed one thing publicly but denied it privately. Furthermore, along with such a view, you'd need to give some rationale for why we should distrust Washington on matters religious, but believe him on all other stated beliefs.
As for pragmatism, my only point was that it's better to apply conceptions of their time as opposed to those created recently. Pragmatism is a 19th century, mostly American, conception, rooted in the philosophies of Pierce and James.
Now, if you're trying to say that Washington just "talked the talk," then I want to see some evidence of that, and not just have it asserted.
As for Franklin, I have never said that Franklin was a Christian--the evidence supports that he was not, especially his credo toward the end of his life. My point was that he said that he wasn't a deist. He believed in a God that superintended in the affairs of man. By definition, he doesn't qualify as a deist.
As I said before, deism is not the default view. The evidence for it has to be presented like any other thesis.
Tom B on September 01, 2009:
From our FB Washington discussion: Can an unbeliever "adhere to the religion of Christianity?" If so, does that make Washington a Christian or prove that he's not a Deist? I would answer no. Of course, it doesn't prove he is a deist either. There must be other evidence. Again, Christianity was the pervasive culture of the time, and it makes sense that individuals wrote using Christian terminology.
Regarding pragmatism, that philosophy was in place in politics long before George Washington was born, most notably in the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli. Consequently, referring to pragmatism and the founding fathers isn't anachronistic.
Finally, regarding Franklin and Deism. If he wasn't a deist, he certainly wasn't a Christian based on his behavior both in the colonies and abroad (reading Mccullough and Isaacson was enlightening).
William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on August 29, 2009:
Glad it was a help. Thank you.
atomswifey from Michigan on August 29, 2009:
Wow! Excellent! I read the whole thing and loved every minute of it.