June 2, 2010

George Washington's Religion

An ongoing subject of some contention here is the recurrent question of the religion of the Founders.  I point Readers interested in that discussion to a very interesting piece on George Washington and his manner of expressing religious feelings:
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
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

With such a large assortment of phrases, I find it amazing that Lillback does not provide a single example of where Washington prayed to Jesus specifically or directly. In fact, the only time the word "Christian" is mentioned in all of appendix three is on page 775. In a letter to the king of France, Washington begins the letter by writing, "To our great and beloved Friend and Ally, his Most Christian Majesty." [My emphasis added].

Despite these obvious discrepancies in his argument, I must also point out the fact that Lillback provides AMPLE evidence to support his claim that Washington was NOT a Deist. The simple fact that these prayers exist is sufficient proof of this fact. Regardless of who Washington was praying to, the fact remains that he did, in the end, pray regularly.
In this, I see support for my own view of things -- which is that even if one concedes that the Founders were deeply religious men, the way in which the Founders were religious was very different than the way that modern people are religious, and it is therefore not appropriate to call them "Christians." The author of the reviewed book labored mightily to come up with justifications for Christians claiming Washington as one of their own, but it would seem that the content of Washington's own words does not support that conclusion. Now, based only on the review that I read and linked for Readers here, I don't think it would be fair to call Washington an "atheist," either. It seems that he believed in something, and of course he was a man of his times and his culture which would have caused him substantial knowledge and appreciation for Christianity. But it's very interesting indeed to see him shy away from the kinds of names and phrases used by Christians, both contemporary and subsequent.

Instead, let no one claim him.  It's best if we say he was an "American" and leave it at that.  In that way, Washington can belong to all of us regardless of our personal beliefs, which surely is what Washington himself would have wanted.


A Teacher said...

Where this gets interesting is that the few times I've seen this dicussion it has been an "us vs them" kind of thing. Athiests insist that Washington (and the rest) were non-religious, and Christians insisting they were, well, Christian.

I think we agree the truth is a bit more in the middle. None of them, as far as I know, were devout 'church goers'. Franklin had significant distaste for the Quakers who made up the majority of Philedelphia. Jefferson refered to "Their Creator" as opposed to "God" or "God the Father".

In either case I do think there is evidence that they believed in something "divine", though how much of that is honest belief and how much of it was solid lip service for the sake of politics I'm willing to conceed.

zzi said...

"A patriot must be a religious man.”

“God who gave us life gave us liberty,”

“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?”
Th Jefferson

The truth is not in the middle. They were very religious. Jefferson also participated every week in Christian church services in the Capitol Building.

In 1776, General George Washington issued the following message to his troops: “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary, but especially so in times of public distress and danger. The general hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.”

and to commemorate today
FDR D-Day Speech June 6, 1944