Donald Trump: First Robert E. Lee, What's Next George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?

Donald Trump made the same argument that many defenders of Confederate symbols make. If we take down statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, what’s next Washington and Jefferson? Watch:

In this clip, Trump also defends participation in the Unite the Right rally if the participants weren’t white supremacists. He said there were many people who weren’t in that group at Charlottesville in the rally. This line of thought is hard to fathom.
By now, no one should be surprised. Trump’s slow and confusing initial response is consistent with his attitudes.
Trump does not have the ability to think through these things for himself. He doesn’t have the ability to reason through the differences between Robert E. Lee who was committed to slavery as a moral good for African slaves, and George Washington who freed his slaves at his death and didn’t fight a war to maintain slavery.

Glenn Beck Also Misled Ted Cruz Audiences About George Washington's Diary Entry

In at least seven speeches I have found online, Glenn Beck misled Ted Cruz rally audiences about his copy of Don Quixote once given by George Washington as a gift. Beck told audiences that he owned the copy of Don Quixote purchased by George Washington on the day the Consitution was signed. He didn’t. He has a later one which Washington gave as a gift to Tobias Lear. While Beck has yet to admit to his readers or listeners, he did admit it to HuffPo yesterday (see this link for the speeches and background).
Now I can report a discrepancy between Beck’s story about George Washington’s diary and the diary entry for September 17, 1787 found in the published collection of his entries online.
Here is just one instance where Beck tells audiences that Washington’s September 17, 1787 entry consisted of two lines. Watch:

The last day of the Constitution…the last day of the Convention, in George Washington’s diary he only wrote two lines. The first one was ‘signed the Constitution today.’ Next line, ‘I picked up my copy of Don Quixote.’ Now I’ve never understood that. ‘Hey, I just saved the world today and I’m going to Barnes and Noble in about an hour.’ This is George Washington’s copy of Don Quixote. This is the copy he picked up the day they signed the Constitution.

However, according to the online Diary of George Washington, Washington didn’t mention Don Quixote or buying any books in his September 17, 1787 entry. He did mention the Constitution and provided more than one line about it. For photos of the original entries see the Diaries of George Washington (page one, page two).

Monday 17th. Met in Convention when the Constitution received the Unanimous assent of 11 States and Colo. Hamilton’s from New York (the only delegate from thence in Convention) and was subscribed to by every Member present except Govr. Randolph and Colo. Mason from Virginia & Mr. Gerry from Massachusetts. The business being thus closed, the Members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other—after which I returned to my lodgings—did some business with, and received the papers from the secretary of the Convention, and retired to meditate on the momentous wk. which had been executed, after not less than five, for a large part of the time Six, and sometimes 7 hours sitting every day, sundays & the ten days adjournment to give a Comee. opportunity & time to arrange the business for more than four Months.

The members partied at the City Tavern and then Washington recorded that he went to his lodging. He did pay for the copy of Don Quixote on that day but we don’t get that information from his diary. Thanks for the good folks at Mount Vernon, I can show you that we know the book was paid for on that day because Washington recorded the purchase in his cash account book.
In Washington’s Philadelphia Cash Accounts, he recorded the purchase of Don Quixote on September 17, 1787.
On the 17th of September, Washington recorded the purchase of the 4 volume set of Don Quixote.
The story behind the purchase more likely relates to Washington’s meeting earlier that month with the Spanish ambassador who engaged Washington in a discussion of the book. For more on that, see this entry on the Mount Vernon website.
If Beck has a source for his claim, I would certainly like to see it.
However, I feel sure he doesn’t. If Rick Tyler gets fired for relating a false story he thought was true, then how can Cruz make Glenn Beck the front door of his campaign?

Glenn Beck Says He Takes Full Responsibility for Misleading Ted Cruz Crowds Then Faults Huffington Post for Calling Him Out

No wonder Glenn Beck likes David Barton so much.
At recent Ted Cruz rallies, Glenn Beck told audiences he owns the copy of Don Quixote originally owned by George Washington and which was picked up by Washington the day he signed the Constitution. As it turns out, Beck’s copy of Don Quixote was given as a gift by Washington to Tobias Lear. That is not what he told audiences, and to HuffPo, Beck admitted the error. However, on his website, he chides Calderone and HuffPo as if they made the error. Let me unpack this.
First, in a January 30 HuffPo article, Calderone reported that Beck told a Cruz rally he owned the copy of Don Quixote purchased by George Washington the day he signed the Constitution.

Beck also described how Washington picked up a copy of Don Quixote on the day he signed the Constitution, before holding up what he claimed was Washington’s own copy. Beck joked that today, the action would be as extraordinary as signing the Constitution before taking a trip to Barnes & Noble.

About the copy of Don Quizote brandished by Beck, Calderone yesterday quoted Beck as saying:

He wrote two lines [in his diary] on the day of the signing of the Constitution,” Beck said of Washington during a Jan. 30 stop in Ames, Iowa.”First line: ‘Signed the Constitution today.’ Second line: ‘I pick up my copy of Don Quixote.’ This is his copy of Don Quixote that he picked up that day.

Watch Beck tell the same story at Morningstar Church in South Carolina (see below for another time when Beck related the same story):
Contradicting Beck, Calderone yesterday published a report demonstrating that the copy of Don Quixote Beck displayed was not the copy he said it was. The copy of Don Quixote secured by Washington the day he signed the Constitution is owned by Mount Vernon’s Washington library. The library also owns a Spanish language copy of Don Quixote.
In his speeches, Beck clearly identified his book as Washington’s copy which he picked up the day he signed the constitution. In a statement to HuffPo today, Beck acknowledged his false statement:

“The lesson that I take from Washington’s diary where he says ‘Signed the constitution. Bought Don Quixote’ is that we are never done in our service to God and Country,” Beck said. “I have incorrectly stated that my copy is the copy that Washington purchased the day he signed the Constitution. That version is one of the copies owned and housed in Mount Vernon. I take full responsibility for connecting my book (which is dated 1796) to the book Washington purchased that fateful day of September 17th, 1787. But make no mistake the copy in my possession is from the private library of George Washington.”

I don’t think Beck and I view taking “full responsibility” in the same manner. On Beck’s website, here is what his readers see:

Unlike Glenn, the Huffington Post is evidently not a student of history — nor fond of research, for that matter.
Rather than publish with journalistic integrity, HuffPo decided to throw caution to the wind and publish an unsubstantiated hit piece questioning the authenticity of a book Glenn owns and has taken along on the campaign trail. The book in question is George Washington’s volume of Don Quixote. The hit piece, titled “Mount Vernon Says It Owns George Washington’s Copy Of Don Quixote, Not Glenn Beck,” was published yesterday.

Beck’s article doesn’t provide the statement given to HuffPo. Beck tries to change the subject. Calderone questioned exactly what Beck claimed. Beck told audiences repeatedly that he had a book he didn’t have. Either Beck intentionally deceived the audiences or he is not the history buff he claims to be.
On his website and on his show, he doesn’t admit what he did to HuffPo and doesn’t take any responsibility for connecting his copy to the book picked up by Washington on the day he signed the Constitution.
When Ted Cruz’s former campaign communications director Rick Tyler falsely reported a story about Marco Rubio’s statements about the Bible, Tyler was fired by Cruz.  Will Cruz now demote Beck or remove him from the rallies?
More Instances Where Beck Connected His Copy to the Copy Held by Mount Vernon
It appears that Beck told Richard Dreyfuss the same or a similar story. Watch at the beginning of this clip.
In the description of the video with Dreyfuss, the story appears:

Published on Jan 31, 2016

Glenn Beck ran into actor Richard Dreyfuss by surprise backstage at a Ted Cruz rally over the weekend and had a chance to show the actor two of George Washington’s personal artifacts he was carrying with him in a briefcase. (Video: Josiah Ryan

One was George Washington’s compass, which he received at age fourteen and carried with him for his entire life. The other was the first president’s copy of Don Quixote,
“A compass is used for exactness,” said Beck, later from the stage. “I’m here to support Ted Cruz because he is exact in everything he does. His word is his bond. He believes, as George Washington did that deeds not words.”
Beck said Washington went and purchased the copy of Don Quixote just hours after signing Constitution signaling that the responsibility of keeping the Constitution was now in the hands of the voters.
He joked it was the modern day equivalent of running to Barnes & Nobles.
“The response is always the same, especially for his compass — reverence and awe,” Beck said later on his Facebook, referring to his encounter with Dreyfuss.

Beck said yesterday that he sometimes said the copy of Don Quixote was the one Washington picked up the day he signed the Constitution and other times he didn’t say that.

GLENN: Jeez. If I need to drag around the documentation for everything — so when I was on the road and said, “This is George Washington’s.” And we went back and checked the tape. There were times that I said, this is the one that he got on that day, and that wasn’t the one he got on that day. He had three copies. So that wasn’t the one that he got on that day. But usually I said, “This was George Washington’s copy of Don Quixote.” And they’re questioning that this was George washington’s copy. And the only reason why they said that it wasn’t was because they went on record because people were calling Mount Vernon saying, “Glenn Beck is lying, isn’t he?” And they said, “No, we have George Washington’s copy of Don Quixote.” Yes, you have two of two them. He had three of them. I have the other one. But nobody cares to listen to that. And so it’s just sloppy journalism, at best.

If Beck has a video of a speech at a Cruz rally where he didn’t claim to have Washington’s Constitution Day copy of Don Quixote, he should post it.
In Aitken, South Carolina on February 15, Beck told the same story. Watch:

Here’s the same story at Ames, IA (at 7:00), a rally in SC (at 16:07) and then again in Nevada (start at 3:39)
As recently as February 21, Beck told a Nevada crowd that he had Washington’s Constitution signing day copy. Watch:


Message to Glenn Beck and Fellowship Church: Congress Didn't Print the Aitken Bible

In addition to faulty theology, there are several glaring historical errors in Glenn Beck’s talk to Fellowship Church on July 5. Sadly, the audience is less knowledgeable now than before he spoke. Here is one example.
Glenn Beck told Fellowship Church that the first thing Congress did after the United States won the Revolutionary War was to print a Bible in English. Watch:

Don’t let anybody tell you we are not a Christian nation because we absolutely are a Christian nation. This is one of seven Bibles, three or four of them are held by the Smithsonian. Three are in private hands; extraordinarily rare. It’s called the Aitken Bible. This was the first thing Congress did when they started. We couldn’t print the Bible. So when we first established ourselves and we won the war, the first act was to print the Aitken Bible. When it was given to George Washington, he wept, and he said, ‘finally, a gift that is meaningful enough to give to the men that served by my side.’ We are a Christian nation. And we need to start behaving like a Christian nation, with love and respect, and take the beam out of our own eye before looking at the speck in someone’s else’s. We’re losing memberships in our churches because, stop talking about the things that the Bible tells us to do.  Let’s start doing them!

It is ironic that Beck tells the audience to start doing what the Bible says just after he consistently bore false witness about the Aitken Bible.
Let me take Beck’s claims bit by bit.

It’s called the Aitken Bible. This was the first thing Congress did when they started. We couldn’t print the Bible. So when we first established ourselves and we won the war, the first act was to print the Aitken Bible.

Beck was holding up a copy of what appeared to be the Aitken Bible. It is rare and valuable. It is also true that the British prohibited Bibles printed in America. However, nothing he said after that is true. Congress did not print the Bible and the involvement with Aitken’s project was not initiated by Congress. Furthermore, the timing of Aitken’s request and Congressional response do not match Beck’s passionate claim. It most certainly is not the first thing Congress did after the United States won the war for independence.
Robert Aitken petitioned Congress in a letter dated January 21, 1781. He wanted the approval of Congress for a Bible he was printing and he wanted to be the official Bible printer of the United States. You can read his petition here and here. I have it below as well.

To the Honourable The Congress of the United States of America

The Memorial of Robert Aitken of the City of Philadelphia Printer

Humbly Sheweth

That in every well regulated Government in Christendom The Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament, commonly called the Holy Bible, are printed and published under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming Injuries the Christian Faith might suffer from the spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation. That your Memorialist has no doubt but this work is an Object worthy the attention of the Congress of the United States of America, who will not neglect spiritual security, while they are virtuously contending for temporal blessings.

Under this persuasion, your Memorialist begs leave to inform your Honours That he hath begun and made considerable progress in a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools, But being cautious of suffering his copy of the Bible to Issue forth without the sanction of Congress, Humbly prays that your Honors would take this important matter into serious consideration & would be pleased to appoint one Member or Members of your Honourable Body to inspect his work so that the same may be published under the Authority of Congress. And further, your Memorialist prays, that he may be commissioned or otherwise appointed & Authorized to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures, in such manner and form as may best suit the wants and demands of the good people of these States, provided the same be in all things perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as heretofore Established and received amongst us, And as in Duty bound your Memorialist shall ever pray

Robt. Aitken Philadelphia. 21, Jany. 1781.

Aitken appeared to be under the impression that the United States might operate like Britain and regulate the authorized version of the Bible. He wanted his Bible to be the one approved by the government. In addition, he wanted Congressional awareness and approval because it had been illegal to do what he was doing under British rule. In fact, the war had not yet been won when Aitken began his work. He had already printed the New Testament but wanted to finish the job. “Being cautious of suffering his copy of the Bible to Issue forth without the sanction of Congress,” Aitken didn’t want to do anything which Congress might oppose.
Cornwallis surrendered to the American forces on October 19, 1781 so Aitken’s petition came prior to the end of the war, not first thing after we won. Congress appointed a committee to interact with Aitken as he progressed on his project. Aitken sent a copy of his Bible to Congress on September 9, 1782. The Congressional proclamation about the Bible was dated September 12, 1782. . The treaty of Paris formally ending the war did not come until September 3, 1783.  The proclamation from Congress is below in the first paragraph:

There is nothing in this proclamation about Congress as Bible printer. Congress clearly recognized Aitken as the author and recommended his work for religious and artistic achievement. It was Aitken’s idea, his work, his investment, and eventually his loss. He didn’t make money on the project, and because Congress didn’t fund the project, he offered the Bibles to George Washington with the suggestion, made by a friend, that Washington ask Congress to purchase Bibles for the troops who had fought in the war.
Beck embellished the story more by involving Washington. Beck claimed:

When it was given to George Washington, he wept, and he said, ‘finally, a gift that is meaningful enough to give to the men that served by my side.’

There is no record that Washington wept when Aitken’s friend, John Rodgers, requested that Washington asked Congress to buy copies of the Bible for his troops. Washington declined politely saying that most of the troops had gone home and so he couldn’t make such a request. Washington’s return letter on the subject indicated that he would liked to have given the troops a Bible but not in the manner claimed by Beck. Here is what Washington replied to Aitken’s friend, Rev. Rodgers.

Your proposition concerning Mr. Aikin’s Bibles would have been particularly noted by me, had it been suggested in season, but the late Resolution of Congress for discharging part of the Army, taking off near two thirds of our numbers, it is now too late to make the attempt. It would have pleased me well, if Congress had been pleased to make such an important present to the brave fellows, who have done so much for the security of their Country’s rights and establishment.

Beck’s quote from Washington is quite a dramatic embellishment as is most of what he had to say to Fellowship Church. Beck’s story about Congress and the Aitken Bible is false; his citation about Washington is highly inflated and misleading. Most people listening would go away thinking that the first thing Congress did after winning the war for independence was to use public funds to print a Bible and give it to the American troops with the heartfelt approval of George Washington.
Beck’s key story used to support the claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation turns out to be a fabrication.
Beck has to know this. It has been pointed out publicly by numerous writers. Even if somehow he has avoided reading the many debunkings of this story, the alternative isn’t much better. He is either knows the story is a fiction or he is a very, very bad historian. Fellowship Church’s spokesman told Christian Post that Beck was “unmatched” in his knowledge of history. If that is so, then Beck misled Fellowship Church on July 5 with knowledge aforethought.
If Glenn Beck and Ed Young want to honor the passionate plea Beck made to Fellowship Church to stop talking about the things the Bible says to do and to start doing them, then they need to come clean to the congregation and set the facts straight.
For more on the Aitken Bible lie and the involvement of Washington, see this Huffington Post article by Chris Rodda

Pastor Jack Hibbs Takes Lessons from David Barton

The third video in Jack Hibb’s mini-series (see a previous post on a prior episode) with David Barton features Hibbs trying his hand at historical interpretation. Watch Hibbs talking about Washington and Jefferson as slave owners (for context, here is the complete segment).

In this clip, Hibbs makes some Bartonesque statements about Washington and Jefferson. Below I give the claim and then after that what I believe to be the truth.  Hibbs said:
1. George Washington was one of the ten wealthiest men in American at the time.
This may be true. Washington was certainly wealthy and may have been in the top ten, although I cannot find a source to that effect.
2. George Washington was a good horseman.
I believe we can all agree to that.
3. Washington’s personal slave William (Billy) Lee was the second best horsemen after Washington.
By all accounts, until he injured his knees, Lee was able to keep up with Washington on horseback.
4. Washington would not allow his attendant (William Lee) to be called a slave.
I searched Washington’s papers for evidence relating to this claim and found nothing to support it. In his will, Washington called Lee, his “mulatto man William.” Elsewhere he called him “my mulatto servant Billy” (see the letter to the Connecticut Journal below). It is true that Washington provided good care for William Lee, but there was no confusion about Lee’s status as a servant.
5. A quarter or half of Washington’s estate went to William (Billy) Lee.
This is a fabrication. In Washington’s will, Lee was given his freedom, a monthly stipend, and a place to live at Mt. Vernon if he wanted it. The following excerpt is from Washington’s will:

And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which ha<v>e befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, whic<h> shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; & this I give him as a test<im>ony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.

Commendably, Washington recognized his “mulatto man William’s” faithful service and provided him with monthly living expenses and a place to stay. Lee did not own any part of the estate.
6. When Jefferson went to Europe (France), he took slaves with him.
That is true. Among the slaves, he took James Hemings, the older brother of Sally Hemings. Sally later accompanied Jefferson’s youngest child Polly to France to live with Jefferson.
7. It was illegal to educate slaves (according to the crown of England).
I don’t know why Hibbs mentioned the crown of England, but it was not illegal to educate slaves in Virginia for most of the period of time Jefferson owned slaves. Schools for Black children existed in Virginia and offered classes for slave and free children. For instance, Ann Wager was a teacher at a school in Williamsburg, VA from 1760 until 1774. Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister, educated slaves as a means of converting them to Christianity. By 1819, however, Virginia greatly restricted slave gatherings so that classes were viewed as possible meetings to plan rebellion. With most statements about the founders, it is important to specify a time period as a part of a claim. In the case of the founders, they lived and owned slaves when slaves could be educated and freed but also during times when such freedoms were restricted.
8. Jefferson had his slaves educated.
According to the Monticello website, there is no record of it. Jefferson’s family members taught some of the slaves to read but there is no record Jefferson did anything systematically to educate his slaves. In an aside to a friend, he proposed that his system of public education might include slave children but this never was implemented. Jefferson also believed that freed slaves should be educated before being removed to a colony outside of America. He favored somewhere in the West Indies.
9. Jefferson demanded that his slaves be well versed in the Scriptures.
I can’t find anything that supports this. If anything, Jefferson took a hands off attitude toward slave religious observances (again, see the Monticello website). Hibbs indicated that this claim is based on a visit to Monticello. I have also visited Monticello and I don’t recall anything I saw or heard there which indicated Jefferson demanded that his slaves be well versed in the Scriptures. As the Monticello website indicates, slaves were allowed to practice Christianity but they also included some of the religious beliefs learned prior to conversion.
There is something unseemly watching two privileged white males stretch the truth to make the white founding fathers seem like they were benevolent and good slave owners. While Washington and Jefferson appear to be better than some other slave owners, and Washington perhaps better than Jefferson, neither of them compare to Robert Carter who freed all of his slaves beginning in 1791. But no matter how good Washington and Jefferson were, I cannot understand why it is important for Hibbs and Barton to stretch the truth to make the situation seem better than it was. In the process, Hibbs’ audience is less educated and less equipped to speak intelligently than before the program began. How does this help the church achieve anything?

MD County Official Uses Faux George Washington Prayer in Violation of Judge's Order

A First Amendment case is brewing in Maryland involving sectarian prayers and a prayer book wrongly attributed to George Washington.

The prayer recited by Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier Thursday that she said is from George Washington has been proven to not belong to the first president, but is often used by Christian Conservative politicians, according to a scholar.

Friend and Messiah College history professor John Fea provided the expert commentary:

John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College, said the prayer comes from the so-called George Washington Prayer Book, which was found in a chest of papers by one of Washington’s descendants in the 1890s. The University of Virginia, which houses the Papers of George Washington, and the Smithsonian Institution have concluded, based on the handwriting, that it was not written by Washington, Fea said.

More from the Baltimore Sun.

Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson Uses Fake George Washington Quote

Phil Robertson is getting all manner of scrutiny these days. Given his high profile and recent controversy over his remarks to GQ, it is understandable that his prior speeches will be examined. In the one below, Robertson appears to advise marriage for young teens. I say appears because I don’t have the entire video. He did however marry his wife when she was 16 and added that one should get parental permission.
Various bloggers (e.g. Rawstory where I saw it first)  have examined Robertson’s dating advice which is just silly if he really means it. I want to call attention to use of a quote falsely attributed to George Washington. At 1:10 into the clip, Robertson says:

The reason you Georgia boys can deer hunt, duck hunt, squirrel hunt, hog hunt, (holding up his Bible) that’s the reason you can do it. What I’m holding in my hand right there. That’d be a Bible. You said, now let me get this right. If it were not for this, you would not hunt here. No sir. Here’s a quote, Georgia. ‘It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.’ George Washington, your first president. You know what they said? Name the capital of our country after him!

This quote has been misused frequently over the years and can be traced back at least David Barton’s 1992 book Myth of Separation. Barton took heat over use of such quotes and issued a list of what he called unconfirmed quotes. Nonetheless, those who get their history from Barton, and perhaps Phil Robertson is one of those folks, still use the spurious quotes to bolster their Christian nation view of the Constitution, in this case the Second Amendment. Mount Vernon addresses this particular quote here and even Barton now acknowledges that there is no indication Washington ever said it.
This is another illustration of why getting history right matters. Mr. Robertson has been misinformed by some religious leader who claimed expertise in history. He probably trusted the source because of common religion. As I said in a prior post, evangelicals claim to have a message of love and reconciliation and yet they often mix it up with lots of other messages, based on faulty information, that detract from the core.

Were Unitarians Evangelical?

David Barton told Liberty University students in their September 9 chapel that Unitarians were at one time “a very evangelical Christian denomination.” In his effort to define what he called modernism, he said this about the Unitarians the late 18th and early 19th century:

And the example of that is what happens when you look at Universalist Unitarians; certainly not a denomination that conforms to biblical truth in any way but as it turns out, we have a number of Founding Fathers  who were Unitarians. So we say, oh wait, there’s no way the Founding Fathers could have been Christians; they were Unitarians. Well, unless you know what a Unitarian was in 1784 and what happened to Unitarians in 1819 and 1838 and unless you recognize they used to be a very evangelical Christian denomination, we look at what they are today and say the Founding Fathers were Unitarians, and say, there’s no way they were Christians. That’s modernism; that’s not accurate; that’s not true.

Barton is correct that one cannot judge Unitarians then by the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists now. I don’t know if any serious historian does that, but if so, it would be misleading. However, Mr. Barton did not stop with that claim. He added that Unitarianism during the Founding era was a “very evangelical Christian denomination.”
Researching this claim, I came across a well-written post by Jon Rowe. Rowe describes himself as “a libertarian lawyer and college professor” who writes on issues relating politics and religion. In 2007, Rowe provided a nice outline of the unitarian thought among the Founders. Here are some snippets:

The term “unitarian” has to be qualified because it is associated with a particular Church of which only John Adams (and his son) were members. And even with Adams’ Church, though it preached unitarianism as of 1750, it didn’t officially become “Unitarian” until the 19th Century. Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were all theological unitarians who were formally members of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, which held to a Trinitarian creed. Besides theological unitarianism, these Founders also believed in theological universalism, syncretism, rationalism. So if we want a common term to describe the religious beliefs of the 5 key founders — the first four presidents and Ben Franklin — “proto-unitarian” might do, as well as some others, for instance “theistic rationalism.”

I like either of those terms. Either way you cut it, however, the Founders in question were not evangelicals, nor was Unitarianism “a very evangelical Christian denomination.” Speaking about key Founders, Rowe writes:

The most common sense explanation for why Washington didn’t commune was that he disbelieved in what it represented: Christ’s Atonement. And logic also dictates if one doesn’t believe in the Atonement, one also doesn’t believe in the Trinity and Incarnation. And one need not be a “strict Deist” to disbelieve in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. Indeed, the other key Founders — Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison — following Joseph Priestly believed in this system of “pro-unitarianism” that denied the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, yet still believed in an active personal God, prayer, the legitimacy of some revelation, and often presented itself under the label of “Christianity,” not “Deism.”

Barton, in his speech to the Liberty students identified Jared Sparks as a contemporary who testified to Washington’s Christianity. But guess what? Sparks was a Unitarian. At that time, one could be a Unitarian and considered a Christian, especially by other Unitarians. However, Unitarians were not orthodox and by any definition of evangelicalism, can’t be considered evangelical. Rowe explains further:

So it was not just the “strict Deists” in the Trinitarian Churches who refused to commune, but also the “unitarians” some of who, like Marshall could be quite “biblical,” believing in the “Christian Revelation,” others like Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, rationalists who elevated reason over revelation. And because this “unitarianism” often presented itself under the auspices of “Christianity,” key contemporaneous testimony that Washington and other Founders were “Christians” is not inconsistent with the notion that they were such “proto-unitarians.” Indeed, John Marshall himself was one such testifier of Washington’s Christianity as was Jared Sparks. And both were “unitarians” who disbelieved in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, but still understood themselves to be “Christians.” In all likelihood, so was George Washington.

I urge you to read the entire post and check out Rowe’s blog.

Letter from George Washington to an annual meeting of Quakers

Does Washington, in this letter, sound like he is talking about Christianity alone?

George Washington
September 1789
Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but, according to their stations, to prevent it in others.
The liberty enjoyed by the people of theses states of worshiping Almighty God agreeably to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights. While men perform their social duties faithfully, they do all that society or the state can with propriety demand or expect; and remain responsible only to their Maker for their religion, or modes of faith, which they may prefer or profess.
Your principles and conduct are well known to me; and it is doing the people called Quakers no more than justice to say, that (except their declining to share with others the burden of the common defense) there is no denomination among us, who are more exemplary and useful citizens.
I assure you very explicitly, that in my opinion the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be as extensively accommodated to them, as a due regard to the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify and permit.

Did the First Amendment Make America a Christian Nation?
David Barton: Pluralism not the goal of the First Amendment

Today in history: George Washington on religious freedom

To Bigotry No Sanction, to Persecution No Assistance…

-George Washington

On August 17, 1790, President George Washington wrote a letter to Moses Seixas and the Jewish congregation of Newport, RI. Washington did so in response to a letter sent by the group when Washington visited their city. The account is on the Library of Congress website and provides important historical context for debates over freedom of religion for Muslims.

On August 17, 1790, the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, presented a congratulatory address to President George Washington on the occasion of his visit to their city. Both the address, written by Moses Seixas, and Washington’s response appeared together in several newspapers. They encapsulate Washington’s clearest articulation of his belief in religious freedom and the first presidential affirmation of the free and equal status of Jewish-American citizens.

And here is part of what he told the congregation:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I suppose those opposed to Muslim houses of worship would appeal to Washington’s condition at the end – that they conduct themselves as good citizens by providing “effectual support.” I don’t believe religious freedom can be used as a means to protect subversive activities. Thus, one would need to demonstrate that individual projects or religious groups have treasonous plans in order to make a case that religious freedoms should be set aside.

Washington’s words also are in sharp contrast to the spin on religious freedom offered by some on the Christian right (e.g., Bryan Fischer), namely that the founders only intended to stop the government from taking sides in Christian denominational disputes, and knew nothing of tolerance for other faiths. Moses Seixas congregation was not a denomination of Christianity.

Not all founders considered themselves Christian. Thomas Jefferson edited the New Testament producing his own gospel by omitting the supernatural aspects of the life of Jesus. His references to religion were not directed at Christian denominations exclusively but religion in general. So on this day in history, let’s reflect on the common grace of God and the First Amendment.

To Bigotry No Sanction, to Persecution No Assistance…