Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
George Washington's Sacred Fire
George Washington's Sacred Fire
Jerry Newcombe; Peter A. Lillback
Providence Forum Press, 2006
1208 pp., 56.0

Buy Now

John Haas

The Greatest Heresy?

George Washington as civil-religious saint.

Compared with an Indonesian author's 5,000-plus page biography of Barack Obama, Peter Lillback's book is relatively modest. George Washington's Sacred Fire is only 1,179 pages. But then, Lillback isn't intending a full biography. His goal is primarily to investigate George Washington's religious beliefs, specifically, to demonstrate that the first president was an orthodox Christian of the low-church, Anglican variety. Published in 2006 to a modest reception, the book's sales sky-rocketed after the author's appearance on Glenn Beck's show, and has been a bestseller since.

At its core, Lillback's book is an attempted refutation of George Washington & Religion, by Paul Boller, Jr. Boller's 1963 effort focused—as one would expect in the wake of the Kennedy election and the controversies over school prayer—on Washington as an advocate of religious liberty. "Broadly speaking, of course," Boller claimed, "Washington can be classified as a Deist." Lillback quotes this judgment of Boller's repeatedly (the index, by the way, is not reliable), but he fails to note that Boller also insists Washington should not be lumped with his more heterodox contemporaries, Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine; that Washington was "no infidel"; that Washington "had an unquestioning faith in Providence"; that his professions of faith were "no mere rhetorical flourish … designed for public consumption."

Lillback ignores all this nuance because he's convinced Boller's book was a turning point in the national understanding of Washington. Until comparatively recently there was no controversy over Washington's orthodoxy, Lillback thinks. That changed around the middle of the 20th century, when revisionist scholars began "to tear down the traditional understanding of our nation and its origin." "The re-creation of George Washington as a Deist," he adds, "has been considered necessary by secular historians in order to create a secular America." Boller, it seems obvious to Lillback, was part of this radical secularist conspiracy to write Christian faith out of our history, and now Lillback is determined to correct the record. He does so, he admits, as part of a larger project to "empower, enable, and defend the presence of a strong Judeo-Christian worldview in the ongoing development of our state and national government and our courts."

Agenda-driven as it is, any quest to really understand who Washington was gets overshadowed by Lillback's determination to expose "the utter unhistorical depths to which the skeptics must stoop to make Washington into a Deist!" For Lillback, the question is rather simple. Washington grew up in a Christian society; he received a Christian education; he was a moderately faithful church attender and vestryman; he spoke often of "Providence" or "the Divine Architect" or "that Supreme Being"; his relatives, neighbors and acquaintances testified to his piety and prayerfulness; and he said he was a Christian—and we know he prided himself on his candor and virtue, so certainly he wouldn't have lied.

Along the way Lillback dismisses certain canards tossed at Washington's orthodoxy: True, he employed odd, Masonic-sounding euphemisms for God, but that's just how he talked—he was a formal Anglican after all, not a chummy evangelical. He didn't often mention the name of Jesus, but it's not true that he never said "Jesus": he did, once, telling a group of Delaware Indians in 1779, "You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ." This shows that Washington did believe in Jesus (not just an abstract Deity), and his "above all" proves he thought nothing more important. That he didn't use "Jesus" more often is, again, attributable to his Anglican reticence. He knew the Bible well, however, and scattered biblical allusions throughout his writings (Lillback includes a 20-page chart as one of his ten appendices, documenting around 200 examples of such). Yes, he often skipped out of church before communion (and even stopped attending on communion Sundays after a rector called him on it), but he was a very busy man, as a general and then as president. (Lillback devotes three chapters—about 60 pages—to the communion issue.) It's true that he was a Mason, but the Masons weren't so unorthodox in those days. On the positive side, authors such as Parson Weems sometimes sent him religious books, which he sometimes thanked them for, demonstrating how much he valued good Christian instruction. And so forth.

There is a point here, though Lillback, being more of a polemicist than a historian, fails to make it very well. Historians have been too eager to divide the colonial world that produced a man such as Washington into zealous Puritans and evangelicals on the one hand, and formal, wealth-and-status-seeking Anglicans on the other; the true religious partisans building a religious utopia and the at-best nominally Christian fox-hunters, plantation-owners, and politicians. But even if Washington's Virginia church wasn't exhilarated about revivalist George Whitefield, it did attract the talents of the equally evangelical Devereux Jarrett. It may be that historians have imbibed too much the evangelical critique of 18th-century Anglicanism, and thus lost the ability to see it as a serious religious alternative. Moreover, even the truly unorthodox Jefferson, who brutally redacted his Bible, did actually read it, and he did pray. Not being an evangelical (or being a Mason) in 18th-century Virginia wasn't tantamount to being completely "secular" in our understanding of the word.

So perhaps Lillback is right, that Washington was a believing, orthodox Christian, only of a sort that we can barely recognize today. But it's equally plausible that Washington's determination to force his life into the mold of a classical gentleman extended into his religious life, too. As Gordon Wood has argued, Washington was painfully conscious of the example he set; indeed, says Wood, "Washington judged all his actions by what people might think of them."[1] He hesitated to accept the presidency because he did not want to appear ambitious for power; at the same time he worried that appearing too disinterested would mark him as ostentatiously virtuous. Obeying the religious customs of the country would have come natural to one so concerned, and if he did, he was far from alone. John Marshall, for example, was also a faithful church-goer, though he only converted late in life.

By evangelical standards, where "the heart" is all-important, such hyper-concern for reputation seems like hypocrisy. But what if you believed that the Supreme Architect had so constructed the world that different classes and temperaments would find him by different means, and that it was important that the leading men of society not disparage the means favored by women and common folk? Lillback is surely right to sum Washington up as someone who "desired to be known as an honest man from Virginia who was loyal to his roots, his family, his church, his country, and his God," but he seems unaware just how ambiguous a judgment that is.

Washington was a bit of a sphinx, after all, and he cultivated his image as such. He knew that in the America of the 1790s a battle was raging between freethinkers and Deists on the one hand and more conventionally orthodox believers on the other. He also knew the believers were eager to claim him as one of their own. When several dozen Philadelphia clergymen attempted to lure him into a bolder public confession of his Christian faith, he responded by noting only that "religion and morals are the essential pillars of civil society." Who would disagree? Not the evangelicals. Not the Unitarians, or the Episcopalians, or Congregationalists, no matter how liberal. Few Deists—in America, at least—would argue either.

Lillback believes no one questioned Washington's orthodoxy until about the era of John Lennon, but questions about Washington's faith actually began during his lifetime. They sprang up again in the 1830s and '40s, when Sabbatarians were attempting to push the nation in a more explicitly evangelical direction, and off and on they've been asked ever since.

Questions about Washington's faith arouse peculiar intensity because, many think, if we can only identify him definitively as a secularist or a Bible-believing Christian then it will also be plain that any departure from his stance is a declension—a failure to be truly American. "Is it possible," Lillback asks, "to preserve America's 'sacred fire of liberty' if we strip the divine from our history and suppress our heroic founders' the concern for the sacred?" (sic; emphasis his).

Lillback warns the sacred fire of liberty is being overwhelmed by the "wildfire" of "licentiousness," and he points to the French Revolution as an example of what happens when the "refining fire of faith" is lost: "widespread bloodshed" leaving "devastation and carnage behind." This is fine as a reiteration of the Federalist platform circa 1800, but one need not be a Kenyan anti-colonialist to note, if only in passing, that "the sacred fire of liberty" Washington declared was a war cry, not St. Paul's freedom from sin and the curse.

Washington's "liberty" was fundamentally economic and political: The freedom not to be taxed, the freedom to speculate in western lands (which the British, keen to keep peace with the Indians, had disallowed) and, for later generations following his example, the freedom to take the continent, to own slaves, and so on. Over and over again, "sacred liberty" and "devastation and carnage" have walked hand in hand.

Lillback notes that, as General of the Continental Army, Washington had "a strategic policy to put the enemy in the wrong, so that in the day of battle, heaven's blessings would favor the just army, since God stood with the righteous." For Washington, "worship itself became part of the arsenal of the army," ensuring God's blessings even "upon the soldiers' weaponry." For all his diligence in reading and assembling so many of Washington's writings, Lilback doesn't seem aware that the evidence he presents raises serious moral questions, especially for Christian believers. I am not trying to insinuate that Washington should be condemned for not being a pacifist. (I am not a pacifist myself.) I like our freedoms as much as the next American. I probably enjoy more of the world's prosperity than I otherwise would because I am an American. I like low taxes, and I like representative government. I even like the electoral college. Heck, I've "friended" the Department of Defense on Facebook. These are all results of regarding our liberties as sacred. But we only have these things because men like Washington have been willing to shoot other people in the face for them. These are just the facts.

Lillback dedicates his book to "the children of America." It would be easy to take him at his word, and think this was some kind of a children's book. He has, in short, provided a primer in American civil religion, a faith that often acknowledges Christ but serves the less gentle masters of economic and political liberty, frequently by far from gentle means.

There are many difficult questions involved as we assess Washington and his legacy, and I don't mean to imply Washington was always (or obviously) wrong. But Lillback's book isn't an invitation to ponder these questions in the light of Christ's gospel. By insisting that the liberties General Washington fought (and killed) for were and are sacred, and by regarding him as a civil-religious saint, Lillback cuts such questions off. They become, as in Nelly Custis' telling response to those who would question Washington's Christianity, "the greatest heresy."

1. Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin Press, 2006), p. 43.

John Haas is associate professor of history at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Most ReadMost Shared