Tuesday, August 14, 2007

George Washington's Sacred Fire

Dr Lillback gives us a masterful display of Christian historiography.

Thesis: George Washington was neither a Deist nor a modern Fundamentalist Evangelical. Rather, he was an orthodox Latitudinarian within the Anglican church. This means that while he did not have the outward, expressive, emotional zeal of 20th century counterparts, he did have a real faith in a Personal Triune God, and sucha faith did inform his public policies and inspire commitments.

Critics object that Washington never referred to Jesus; refused to partake of the Lord's Supper, and among other things, used Deistic language. Lillback skillfully rebuts all claims:

(1) Washington did refer to Jesus, and those who say otherwise just ignore several letters where he recommends "the author of our Faith" (a reference to Christ in the book of Hebrews), and the religion of Jesus to the Indians. Also, Washington didn't like to speak of himself at all. It is not the case that he refused to speak of his Faith. Rather, he refused to speak of Washington.

(2) It is true at times that Washington refused to take communion, but a number of points need to be made: a) this was not like the modern, high church Episcopalism. Due to the lack of ministers, and the frontier nature of the church, congregations would celebrate communion only a few times a year. Given that other evidence shows Washington took communion, this objection is actually a strong argument for Washington's faith: it is only a few times that Washington actually missed communion!

(3) Did Washington use Deistic language? I think we can answer no on two counts. Dr Lillback shows that terms that Deists use were actually Christian terms that were subsequently stripped of their orthodox meaning. Therefore (2) if he used Deistic language, his lifestyle and other references indicate that he did not mean by it the same thing Deists meant by it.

This book is a monster! Over 200 pages of valuable endnotes. Reading Washington's letters is quite devotional and reading of his struggles is inspiring. Was Washington a practicing Christian? I leave on the following count: Given the nightmare and stress of Valley Forge, wouldn't it make sense if Washington indeed got down on his knees and prayed?


Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm one of the few people who read the entire book and who knows the record as well as Lillback. He actually provides very LITTLE evidence (despite writing a 1200 page book) that Washington believed in a Triune God. And he didn't need 1200 pages to show GW believed in an active personal God.

Critics are right to note that GW virtually never spoke about Jesus Christ, suggesting he had no personal relationship with Him. Never in his private letters. Twice in public addresses. Once by name, once by example. Neither written in GW's hand, but both signed by him.

Lillback tries to cleverly explain that away by reading "JC" into Washington's otherwise generic God talk.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I also think you misunderstand Lillback's chapter on communion. GW SYSTEMATICALLY avoided communion in the Anglican Episcopal Church. That's something Lillback concedes, although, again he tries to cleverly explain it away.

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