04 July 2010

george washington's sacred fire

Peter A. Lillback, George Washington's Sacred Fire (Bryn Mawr, PA: Providence Forum Press, 2006).

This past week I have worked through this tome of George Washington's faith, knowing that a book such as this would have a love-hate relationship among those who engage it. Why? Because it is the intersection of faith and politics (political history), and the two have become as oil and water in our current culture. However, God and country have not always held this wide distinction, and any discussion that we have regarding the Founders must certainly examine the role of their religious belief. Figuring out just how the two come together is the real issue.

There are many who have asserted (academically), and many who have accepted the premise (popularly) that George Washington, along with the rest of the Founders, were Deists. Although this is true, and easily verifiable, for some of them (e.g., Thomas Jefferson), such a sweeping historical statement refuses to hold water. And that is where Lillback's volume comes into the discussion.

At first blush it is an impressive book: 725 pages of text, 228 pages of appendices, and 198 pages of footnotes (the print of which strains the naked eye). The weight of this volume has no doubt already sent many curious readers heading the other direction. But this is part of the problem one will encounter when publishing within one's own organization. Lillback is the the president of Providence Forum, and thus probably did not receive an honest and challenging editorial process for his own work (Providence Forum Press should be concerned with other volumes being produced, which would have helped this book become more solid and would have helped clear the air of editorial bias and charges of self-publishing).

Indeed, the writing style of this book is often redundant and repetitive. Often the primary source material is presented two or three times as though it were unique. Those who would wish to challenge the book's credibility could easily point to this as an attempt to make the source material appear more abundant than it actually is. Further, such writing style is frustrating to the reader who quickly begins to gloss over and lose portions of the argument. Certainly, a more strenuous editorial process would have caught and challenged this disappointing aspect of the book.

In terms of content, the book does well at providing a good amount of source material which allows Washington to speak for himself when he can. The difficulty here is that Washington doesn't always speak for himself, and it becomes the role of historical scholarship to fill in the gaps with speculation - hopefully informed and responsible speculation. Lillback is no exception to this, although he perhaps could have demonstrated more scholarly humility in this fact. For as much as he charges other Washington scholars (most notably Boller and Flexner) for their theorization, he does not always accomplish a greater method.

My point in challenging Lillback is this: The argument he presents should have (and could have) been presented better, seeking a more sound case for the faith of George Washington. There are many points at which I think Lillback gets it right, and a few places where his assertions wear thin and are not supported by the evidence in front of us. Although I am a biblical scholar, I do know how to evaluate an argument, consider evidence and understand the historical method. Hence, I believe that my comments are justified here - there is a better case to be made.

Lillback succeeds in making the case for George Washington to be separated from the Deists. Simply, this can be done by setting him next to Hume and Jefferson and watching the worldviews quickly part ways. Many look to the context of the Age of Reason and dismiss the impact which it held on the entire world, even the church. I learned a long time ago that every age has its impact on the faith of those who live through it, and the Founders are more apt to look like Deists from our perspective than from their own. We are examining Christianity in conversation with the Age of Reason, a world that we do not experience.

The words and deeds that survive George Washington (along with the testimonies of those who knew him well) give us a strong probability that he was a Christian in his belief, though a few disappointing unanswered questions linger. Perhaps the strongest conclusion which Lillback makes is the founding of the United States as a whole, with a figure like George Washington leading the way: A nation with these values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, defined in the manner which the Founders have demonstrated in their own work could not have come about by people who believed that God was not present in the daily affairs of the world.

George Washington's words captured this often throughout his life as he demonstrated a strong faith in Divine Providence for the forging of this new nation. Overall, I recommend this book - even with its shortcomings and disappointments - to those who would be interested in understanding Washington's faith from the inside, as we see his own words exhibit a deeply rooted and embedded faith.

Part of his own words:
"You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are."

1 comment:

Ryan G said...

Michael this is an honest and well-intended commentary on the book. I created a new discussion thread on Providence Forum's Facebook group that links to this in hopes to garner more dialog about the book in general and your commentary.

Dr. Lillback is considering everybody's feedback and blogging about it so maybe someday he can do a formal follow-up.