[Vision2020] Happy 283rd BD to Honest (and Religiously Liberal) George
ngier006 at gmail.com
Thu Feb 19 10:57:39 PST 2015
Good Morning Visionaries,
Glenn Beck is of course an intellectual embarrassment and his promotion of
this book on Washington's religion is just one of many examples.
Appended below is my column from the Daily News. You can read the full
version at www.NickGier.com/WashRel.pdf My article on the religious
liberalism of the founders is found at
One of the worst ways to dishonor any person's memory is to distort their
views, especially for political purposes.
You all have a great day.
*GEORGE WASHINGTON’S RELIGION REVISITED*
By Nick Gier, The Palouse Pundit
Thanks to Glenn Beck’s fawning promotion, an obscure
self-published book on George Washington’s religion has become a best
seller on amazon.com. On his show Beck enthused: “It so discredits all of
the scholars and it’s amazing. It’s the best book on faith and the founding
I think I’ve ever read.”
Did Beck actually read this huge tome? Running almost 1,200 pages with 500
pages of endnotes and 10 indices, conservative Presbyterian minister Peter
Lillback’s *George Wasghinton’s Sacred Fire* certainly gives the impression
of thorough scholarship.
Lillback really has to stretch the evidence and indulge in a lot
speculation to make Washington an orthodox, trinitarian Christian. Here is
the essence of his argument: Anglicans are orthodox Christians; Washington
was an Anglican; therefore, Washington was an orthodox Christian.
Thomas Jefferson rejected the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, but he
was a life-long member of the Anglican church. This fact leads us to
believe that Lillback’s major premise is obviously false. Washington was a
nominal Anglican who attended church irregularly, ceasing after his
Washington’s diaries show that he frequently dishonored the Sabbath. We
learn from one entry that he would have collected his rents on Sundays, but
he declined because the people living on his land were “apparently very
religious.” This is the real “honest George,” making no pretenses about
The weakest arguments in the book are the ones devoted to proving that
Washington believed in the deity of Christ and the Trinity. In all of his
voluminous writing only once does he speak of Jesus and this single
incident, a speech to the Delaware Indians, most likely written by an aide
more orthodox than he.
On the manuscript of another presidential speech to Indian leaders, we can
clearly see the word “God” crossed out and the phrase “Great Spirit”
written in Washington’s own hand. Church historian Forrest Church states
that on the question of his belief in Christ Washington was “deafeningly
With so little evidence to work with, Lillback is forced to make some very
indirect and dubious inferences. For example, he thinks that Jesus is the
referent in phrases such as “divine author of our blessed religion,” when
in fact it most likely means God himself or Providence, which is more
characteristic of Washington.
The only argument that Lillbeck can make that Washington believed in a
triune deity is that as an Anglican he would have affirmed church creeds,
which contain that doctrine, and he would have read from the trinitarian
Common Book of Prayer.
Jefferson attended church far more often than Washington did, and he, too,
would have joined the congregation in reciting the trinitarian creeds.
Witnesses also noticed that he always put his prayer book in his pocket as
he rode off to church. In stark contrast to Washington, Jefferson, after
his retirement, rode all the way to Charlottesville to church.
For the 16 years that I could get diary evidence (periodic from 1760 to
1791), Washington attended church on average only 10 times a year. Scholars
at Mt. Vernon state: “Washington’s diaries show no church attendance by
anyone in the family after they returned to Mount Vernon at the end of his
presidency.” Washington obviously did not follow his own advice to his
soldiers when he commanded: “See that the men regularly attend divine
Pastor Lillback claims that Washington's Christian faith is proved by the
fact that he suppored the Anglican mission to the Indians. But that would
make Jefferson a Christian evangelist as well, because he signed bills from
1802-04 for building churches for Indians and sending missionaries to
In a recent biography of Washington Joseph J. Ellis describes the
scene at Washington’s death: “There were no ministers in the room, no
prayers uttered, no Christian rituals offering the solace of everlasting
life.” Lillback’s excuse that Washington died quickly and there was no time
to call a minister simply does not persuade.
Dr. Benjamin Rush reported to Thomas Jefferson that upon leaving
office Washington met with a group of clergy who submitted a number of
questions for him to answer. Washington very kindly answered all of the
questions except the one asking him whether he was a Christian.
As historian Paul Boller concludes: “If Washington was a
Christian, he was surely a Protestant of the most liberal persuasion.” In
closing I would like to wish the honest and religiously liberal George a
very happy 283rd birthday.
Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31
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