Saturday, May 31, 2008

The God of Washington's Prayers

Perer Lillback, author of the book George Washington's Sacred Fire, makes the assertion that America's first President and Commander-in-Chief was, "an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ" (27). Lillback, who received his Ph. D. in Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary, is only the latest in a series of religious figures who have crossed over into the field of history, in an effort to "restore" or "save" history from the hands of secularists.

In Sacred Fire, Lillback presents to the reader a large collection of primary sources, which he feels help to prove his thesis that Washington was a devout orthodox Christian. In addition, Lillback presents evidence to counter the argument that Washington was a Deist. While I am in complete agreement with Lillback's assessment that Washington was far from being a Deist, I still remain unconvinced of his orthodox Christian leanings.

In "Appendix Three" of Sacred Fire, Lillback puts together a collection that he calls "George Washington's Written Prayers." This collection contains an assortment of letters, general orders and presidential declarations, which Lillback believes helps to prove Washington's orthodoxy. As Lillback states at the beginning of this appendix:

One of the elements of the Christian faith that was suspect, and eventually abandoned by Deists, was the practice of prayer. This was logical since there was little purpose in speaking to a Deity who on principle had abandoned all contact and communication with his creation.

Given this understanding, Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism...The sheer magnitude of the umber of prayers, coupled with the expansive topics included in his prayers, give substantial credence to the universal testimony of Washington's contemporaries of his practice of corporate and private prayer.

This underscores how misplaced contemporary scholars have been in claiming that Washington was a man of lukewarm religious faith.

With this in mind, I decided that it would be worthwhile to dissect the various "written prayers" that Peter Lillback sites in his book. After all, the language that Washington used in these prayers should be a valuable tool in determining Washington's actual beliefs.

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
"Salvation" - 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 addition, there are a number of statements in Washington's "written prayers" that seem to suggest at least a possible allegiance to Christian philosophy. For example, Washington regularly issued thanksgiving and fasting proclamations, which seem to petition God for a forgiveness of sin. Phrases like, "we may unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions" (Source here). Or other instances where Washington states, "Instant to be observed as a day of 'fasting, humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God' that it would please him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions" (Source here). Clearly there is AT LEAST a remnant of Christian belief, and possibly a sincere devotion to Jesus as the savior of mankind.

Regardless of what we may insinuate from these various statements, the fact remains that there are NO specific public or private records showing Washington in prayer to the Christian God. While I will agree that Washington is far from a Deist and that he did pray and believe in a great deal of Christian doctrine, I remain unconvinced that he was an ORTHODOX Christian as Lillback suggests.


Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree with every word you have written here.

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad, I think you sell Lillback a little short. He isn't simply a "religious figure" who has "crossed over" into history. There's a little smidgeon of "elitism" in your words - similar to the elitist snobbery that some historical scholars show writers like David McCullough.

I don't believe a person has to have a PhD in history and numerous years of experience as a history professor in order to be a good historian. In fact, there are probably several people with those credentials who are NOT good historians.

For the record...I'm not accusing you of snobbery. :-) I don't think you need that disclaimer, but for the others observing this, I consider Brad a great online friend and enjoy his writings. He's on this point. :-)

Brad Hart said...


Long time no see! I am relieved to see that you are not dead. We were beginning to wonder.

As you know, I am a defender of McCullough. I think his work (and the work of any person for that matter) should be judged on its material. Winning 2 Pulitzer Prizes is pretty good, so McCullough stands on his own.

I also agree with you when you say that a person does not need a PhD to be an effective historian. I will say, however, that professional education in history DOES do a tremendous amount to further a person's credibility and ability. It's like being a pilot. You don't have to have served in the Air Force to fly planes, but the training one receives in the Air Force is certainly superior to attending a random flight school.

As far as Lillback's work is concerned, I believe that he clearly proves half of his argument - that being that Washington was NOT a Deist. However, Lillback does not convince me - or the professionals within the historical community for that matter - that he was an orthodox Christian. For this he receives low marks.

And yes, it is more than ok for Brian to disagree openly with what I say. I've come to admire Brian's take on things, even if we don't always see eye-to-eye on every issue.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi Brad. I am just leaving this comment here to let you know, that I received yours on my Hamilton blog, and responded there.

Thanks for your consideration. :)

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree that ultimately Lillback's work has to stand on its own and be viewed as such -- NOT whether his PhD is in history or whatnot (perhaps I'm saying that because I hold no PhD in history; though "JDs" such as myself have done notable work in the field of "legal history").

One thing that irritates me a little about Lillback -- and, to his credit, this quality is totally lacking in Michael Novak's book on Washington -- is Lillback's often insulting and irritated tone. It's interesting because I've seen recordings of him speaking in debates and this doesn't come across at all; he's very civil. But in his book he often insults and belittles actuals historians because he's angry that they have propped up a thesis with which he disagrees. They've "stolen" GW from the Christians.

But then again, perhaps this is just my bias showing through. Two very distinguished scholars -- Kramnick and Moore -- wrote their book "The Godless Constitution" with the same polemical tone and belittling of the religious right, like D. James Kennedy. And I didn't find it irritating.

I know I can be a little shrill when speaking about folks like Barton. This is something I'm trying to transcend. Focus more on the scholarly case without being in shrill attack mode. Sometimes I can't help it though.

Chris Anderson, Barrington, RI said...

Just discovered this blog while searching for info on Washington's prayers. Would like to weigh in with the following:

One source of Washington's prayers not discussed here (nor apparently in the Lilback book which I have not read) is that of Washington's alleged prayer book Daily Sacrifice, a 24-page handwritten manuscript as reproduced in William Johnson's 1919 work George Washington the Christian, republished in 1976 by Mott Media of which used copies can still be had on Amazon. These prayers found in Chapter 2, said to be written in Washington's youth, do abound in the clear convincing personal evangelical Christian language.

These prayers, which carry a Davidic tone, address the Heavenly Father personally, make numerous references to Jesus Christ, and their language is found entirely within the context of accepted evangelical doctrine pertaining to salvation through the atonement of Christ.

Johnson's work otherwise lists 79 more nebulous names/titles used by Washington to refer to God througout his life, expanding on the list presented above. Assuming the book Daily Sacrifice was indeed penned by Washington, the appearance then is that, despite his own youthful committment to Christian faith, Washington confined his adult expression of it to the language of Anglicanism and of the hybrid religion of Freemasonry, to which he also subscribed (--a factor rarely discussed for its impact on his religious expression).

Brad Hart said...


Thanks for the comment.

The "Daily Sacrifice" prayerbook is actually a fraud. It was not written by Washington.

If you are interested in religion and the founding I would suggest that you check out my other blog (which we update almost daily). Here is the URL:

Thanks again!

Chris Anderson said...

Thanks Brad. Will check it out. I would be particularly interested in verifying the fraudulence of the Daily Sacrifice if it is indeed a fraud. Any direction to something authoritative on this would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I read in a GW Parke Custis's memoirs that he seen Washington in prayer and reading his Bible in his study many times.

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