I first encountered Lillback's Sacred Fire a couple of years ago while in graduate school. Having read the book and debated it with several other historians, I am convinced that this book is an utter waste of time. Not only does it fall short of proving that Washington was a devout Christian (the basic goal of the book) but its prose is hard to follow, difficult to read and frankly boring. For those out there who may be interested in learning about George Washington's religion, this is NOT the book for you.
But don't take my word for it. Here is an excellent and brief review of Sacred Fire by historian Gregg Frazer:
I received my copy of Lillback’s book in the mail today. Obviously, it will take some time to do it justice, BUT: I turned to the chapters on communion to get a glimpse of his argument in that area. I am profoundly UNimpressed. It seems to me to be much smoke and not much “sacred fire.”In addition, click here to read an excellent and thorough review of Sacred Fire done by my friend and fellow blogger Jon Rowe.
His arguments are supposition based on 3rd & 4th hand accounts decades after the fact. So-and-so’s grandson told of what his mother told him of what his grandmother told her 50 years after the fact. And then Lillback says they had no motivation to make it up – no motivation? Has he missed the whole hagiography associated with GW and the mythologization? Is he not familiar with (for example) post-election poll results which show that thousands more people report voting for the winner than the number who actually did? Or people remembering non-existent personal contact with people with whom they went to college – once that person becomes famous? His argument for oral history is actually (unbeknownst to him) hurt by his reference to Homer and Herodotus. No historian of ancient Greece considers Homer’s accounts to be historically reliable – especially in details – but as myth. Likewise, even Herodotus warned: “my duty is to report all that is said; but I am not obliged to believe it all alike – a remark which may be understood to apply to my whole history.” Herodotus used much oral history, as Lillback suggests, but he understood the profound limits of its value – which Lillback apparenty does not (unless it’s Boller using it).
Dr. Abercrombie & Bishop White are the ones who had no motive to “sully” the reputation of the Father of the Country – and they wrote 1st-hand accounts at the time. Nelly Custis had no motive to sully the reputation of her beloved “grandfather.”
As to references to a “bitter cup”: there are plenty of other allusions which might be apt for that time and culture. Especially, a reference to TEA, which was often referred to as a bitter cup. Lillback desperately wants the reference to be to communion – and it would be such a reference for him (and therefore reasonable to him), so it must be that. But, even if the reference is to the communion cup, that says nothing about whether he partook or not – only that he was familiar with that cultual allusion (which ANYONE would have been in that culture/time). I may refer to doing surgery or to a sports metaphor for a sport I do not play or many other cultural allusions – but that says nothing of whether I’ve done surgery or played the sport. In particular, I’ve used war metaphors hundreds of times, but I’ve never been in the military!
Finally, almost all of the footnotes (if one can find them and read them in pt. 2 font) are to secondary sources and 19th-century sources – often those of the hagiographers to which I referred above! One gets the impression that he would consider Parson Weems to be a reliable source!
There’s also a significant amount of circular logic. To wit: we may not have any real evidence of GW taking communion or giving a reasonable explanation for why he didn’t; but, from what we’ve already supposed and imagined about his piety – doesn’t this creative idea sound plausible? And, if it’s plausible and fits with what we’ve already decided (without demonstrating), then it must be true. He falls victim to that of which he accuses Boller, in particular.
At first blush, it appears to me to be argument by intimidation: “I bet I have more pages and more footnotes than you.” The issue is quality, though, not quantity. So far I don’t see much of that.
And finally, here is my brief take on Sacred Fire and some of the problems that Lillback doesn't address:
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 "save" American history from the hands of secularists.
In Sacred Fire, Lillback presents to the reader a large collection of 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. And 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." In reality, this collection of documents are not actual prayers but instead are an assortment of letters, general orders and presidential declarations, which Lillback passes off as Washington's "written prayers." Lillback then asserts that these "prayers" serve as concrete proof that Washington was indeed a Christian. 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.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.
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. (761).
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
"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.