The author of a new book about President George Washington yesterday countered the historically accepted belief that Washington had a distant religious affiliation. In fact, the former President’s religious beliefs have often been misinterpreted, said Dr. Peter A. Lillback, author of the George Washington’s Sacred Fire.
Lillback delivered a Witherspoon Lecture yesterday morning at the Family Research Council that focused on his book, which will be released in July. Lillback, with the help of co-author Jerry Newcomb, presented a case that discounted what previous studies have shown regarding the first President’s religious beliefs.
Since 1932 historians have come to the general consensus that Washington was a Deist. Deists believe in the existence of God, but on merely rational grounds. They believe that God created the universe, but had nothing to do with creation.
Lillback, through 15 years of research, has concluded that the Founding Father was of a Christian faith. The author found that most the historical accounts concerning Washington’s life as a deist had no proof behind them. He said that the President’s beliefs were misinterpreted. “Washington knew his faith better than any scholar,” he said.
Lillback presented his lecture in three parts: Washington’s view of God, his Christian worldview, and the gospel according to Washington.
The author provided evidence of his Christianity with numerous examples of the words he spoke and the letters he wrote. Lillback said that Washington referred to God at least 146 times and heaven 133 times in his written records.
Although he was a politician, he did not use these words to appeal to the evangelical right because he was the only President who was elected unanimously. “He did not need to appeal to any political party,” said Lillback.
Through Washington’s actions and integrity it is evident that he held himself to the tenets of a religion, said the author. He openly identified himself in public and private settings as a Christian. He came from a colony that had an established Christian church. He had an active religious family and his childhood education was from his family.
Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, who was a devout Christian. He supported Christian missionaries to the Indians and was also a sponsor in the sacrament of Christian baptism to eight children. He ended his friendship with Thomas Payne after he published Common Sense, said Lillback.
“He did not avoid God; he left a permanent mark upon the psyche of our entire culture,” said Lillback. Historians who have classified Washington as a Deist have taken him out of his 18th century cultural context, he said.
Lillback said that Americans are reminded of the country’s Christian foundation every four years, when a President takes the oath of office, which ends with the phrase, “so help me God.”
“I believe that when we explore who he was, we’ll find that where we’ve started, is with a Christian Washington, who calls Christians to still fashion and shape the government that we are a part of today,” he said.