Peter Lillback argues that the faith of George Washington has been underplayed and misrepresented in modern scholarship in his new book, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, and HNN has published a short article where he outlines some of his main arguments.
The article starts by saying that until 20th century, Washington’s faith was never questioned, but starting in about 1932, the viewpoint began to shift towards Deism. Lillback says the scholarly shift occurred in 1963, which Paul Boller wrote a book on Washington’s faith and classified Washington as a Deist. Lillback then asks why scholars have so easily – and he says uncritically – accepted Boller’s view.
He agrues this happened for three reasons:
The reasons for the scholarly minimizing of Washington’s faith seem to be due to factors related to three reasons: the uniqueness of Washington himself, the perspectives of recent historians, and the nature and availability of the relevant evidence.
In the first reason, Lillback states that Washington chose not to make a point of his religion because he was trying to unify a country and didn’t want to touch on anything devisive. Add to that, Lillback says that Washington himself was “an inward man who prided himself on non-self-disclosure,” and thus would naturally leave the topic unstated.
For the second, he states:
If the recent zeitgeist has been a conscious move toward secularism in the academy and in the courts, then it stands to reason that Washington would begin to take on a more compatible secular image in the hands of such authors who so significantly shape our American culture. If the separation of Church and State is a fundamental tenet of our view of American culture, then the scholarly shaping of Washington’s life to fit this view is an inexorable result…While some of the testimony for Washington’s faith falls in the arena of unsupportable legend, there is a temptation simply to dismiss all evidence of his faith by assuming that there is only hagiographical and apocryphal testimony to support it.
In the third, Lillback says that much of the material necessary to discuss this topic has been unavailable, but now with the digital age both access and searching is easier, thus making this a topic that needs to be revisited. Washington’s collection of out or print sermons and correspondence with religious leaders Lillback says are “a treasure trove for understanding his religious thinking.”
From this letters, Lillback discovered many interesting points:
Washington referred to himself frequently using the words “ardent,” “fervent,” “pious,” and “devout.” There are over one hundred different prayers composed and written by Washington in his own hand, with his own words, in his writings. He described himself as one of the deepest men of faith of his day when he confessed to a clergyman, “No Man has a more perfect Reliance on the alwise, and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have nor thinks his aid more necessary.”
Lillback ends this article by arguing that historians need to revisit this topic and resurrence the faith of Washington from his words and writings rather than simply following along with the current historical trend.