Columnists > Voices

Faith of the father

Presidents Day celebrates the birthdays of two-thirds of the American trinity of sorts

Issue: "Marathon man," Feb. 17, 2007

Presidents Day celebrates the birthdays of two-thirds of the American trinity of sorts, with Washington as father, Lincoln as savior, and numerous candidates for presiding spirit, depending on one's political philosophy. The motives and goals of these men have been painstakingly dissected, often with a view to proving a point about the nation itself.

Within the last 80 years, revisionism has savaged the cloak of nobility that once wrapped our Founding Fathers. Their religious beliefs have undergone particular scrutiny in these days of church/state conflict: Supposedly they were all deists, except for a few second-stringers like Benjamin Rush and John Witherspoon. Even conservative historians like Richard Brookhiser more or less agree that the faith of the fathers was something other than historic Christianity.

But George Washington's Sacred Fire, by Peter Lillback (Providence Forum Press, 2006), puts rumors to rest about the ultimate Founding Father. This 1,170-page tome by the president of Westminster Theological Seminary proves that Washington was an orthodox believer of the 18th-century mode: a low-church Anglican who never hesitated to reference his faith in letters, speeches, and memoranda.

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Neither a narrative history nor a biography, Sacred Fire is best regarded as a sourcebook. The text is largely commentary on the appendices, which include the famous "Rules of Civility," a list of biblical references and allusions in Washington's own writings, testimonies to his faith and character by those who knew him, texts of influential contemporary sermons, and a collection of his written prayers and references to prayer. Almost 200 pages of endnotes provide the documentation, and one-third of the bibliography consists of primary sources. By sheer weight the case is made.

Why is this important? According to Lillback, "The question is whether we will light our future with Washington's 'sacred fire of liberty' or the wildfire of a culture marked by a rootless, historical amnesia" (p. 724). The faith of the fathers obviously does not dictate the faith of their descendants, but it does claim a rightful place at the table of public policy. Elections and issues come and go, but historic Christianity is woven into our fabric from the beginning-just ask George Washington.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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