Saturday, May 19, 2012

George Washington's Sacred Fire

In about first grade or so, every kid in America learns that George Washington was the first president of the United States of America, is on the $1.00 bill and the quarter, and "could never tell a lie."  Later, by about fifth grade or so, most American kids are being told by the same schools that George Washington was a backwards slave owning white man that was something or other called a deist, which is typically presented to mean something akin to atheist, and that the cherry tree story was a lie.  I guess it is always somewhat inconsistent to make broad generalizations, but for the 90–100 kids in fifth grade at the same school I was in for fifth grade, the above story is true, and I can't help but assume it holds for many, many others.  That early attempt at indoctrination didn't totally grab hold of me, and I always thought George Washington most definitely deserved his place on Mt. Rushmore as one of the greatest presidents in American history.  For me, he was a man most daring and intrepid as he led the troops across the Delaware River to surprise the British-allied Hessian forces in New Jersey.  He was also an incredibly humble and grounded man who should figure larger in our modern-day politicians' worldviews: he refused to become king and wanted nothing more than to return to his family and estate at Mt. Vernon.  Finally, Washington was a great spiritual leader.  His prayer at Valley Forge was always truly inspiring and reminded me of great leaders in ancient times such as Helaman and Captain Moroni.

Book cover.In his very thoroughly researched work, George Washington's Sacred Fire (ISBN: 978-0-9786052-6-8), Peter A. Lillback (with Jerry Newcombe), attacks the revisionist history of my fifth grade class.  The book is a very careful examination of the case that has been made and widely accepted regarding Washington's deism.  Lillback explains the arguments that writers, including a Paul Boller that seems to have written the standard in Washington religion-related books up to this point, have used to cast our founding father as a deist.  He then picks those arguments apart one by one.  He does this largely based on Washington's own words.  He claims that this concept has received the short end of the stick throughout time.  One prominent example is that it is often claimed Washington never or almost never used the name of Deity.  Lillback found, after carefully combing through everything Washington ever wrote, that he not only used the name of Jesus Christ, he used hundreds upon hundreds of other names and titles for God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Similar research and proof were conducted and presented regarding other arguments against Washington being a Christian including topics as varied as communion, service attendance, other religiously-motivated behavior, knowledge of the Bible, and library holdings (Washington collected, signed, and sometimes commented on religious books, including compendiums of sermons).  Lillback carefully establishes that Washington communed, attended services and participated in his church community, knew the Bible inside and out, owned many Christian books (and no deist ones), and, arguably most importantly, lived a Christian life.  That final bit is important, because even though Lillback amply proves through Washington's own words (the main text of the book is over 700 pages; the appendices, including hundreds of excerpts from Washington's written prayers or communications where he indicates he is praying, are a couple hundred more), one must always remember with Washington, it was "deeds, not words."

I enjoyed the book immensely.  (As a short aside before explaining that in a little more detail, the book didn't always flow as easily as I might've liked, there were a distracting number of typos, and there were a couple sections that seemed slightly redundant.)  I think I would've enjoyed even if it had not satisfied me with regard to Washington's Christianity.  First, truly understanding the beliefs and positions of the founding fathers helps us think about and understand the way we should look at government today.  Government based on Christian principles and executed to encourage not just a Christian lifestyle, but a fully Christian life and faith, is quite a bit different from what many claim the founders wanted and what the government should be doing.  Second, the man was simply amazing!  He was one of the rare men who practice what they preach, and of said preaching do very little.  While Lillback admits that the cherry tree story is hard to verify (he, though, does not discount it completely), Washington did not lie.  Washington was the humble man I learned about in kindergarten.  He was a great general, a wonderful statesman, and a moral giant.  I found myself over and over noting how important it was to be more like Washington in my everyday life.  He was known to have a terrible temper, but very few people knew that because of his incredible self-control.  That talent was present in other aspects of his personality, too.  Washington understood morality and its bearing on the kind of people and the kind of society we create.  Washington always strove to forgive and to improve himself so he, too, could be forgiven.  Most often, he succeeded.  He was thrifty and abhorred debt.  He was fair, positive, and worked hard to bring others up.  He was a man of prayer who knew where to look for answers he couldn't find on his own.  He knew Whom to thank for any and all answers.  While the book set out to explain Washington's Christianity and succeeded, it also ended up inspiring.

Creative Commons License
This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

No comments: