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Sacred Fire fight

Q&A | Seminary president Peter Lillback exhaustively writes about George Washington, Christian

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary, was the beneficiary of one of last year's major publishing surprises. George Washington's Sacred Fire, a 1,208-page book Lillback self-published in 2006 after a conservative pastor pledged to purchase 19,000 copies, had sold an additional 4,000 copies in four years. But last May Glenn Beck told his listeners, "Go out and buy this book today. Get on Amazon and buy it today." Sacred Fire quickly rose to No. 1 on Amazon.com, and another 100,000 copies came off the printing press.

Your scholarly field was the Protestant Reformation. What led you to start two decades of research on 18th-century America and George Washington? President Reagan issued a proclamation declaring 1983 the Year of the Bible. The Gideons began to pass out children's Bible stories at local schools, and the ACLU and others were offended. They threatened lawsuits if schools let the Gideons do this. I was appalled: We're just telling children to read Bible stories, how scary can that be?

You wrote a letter to the editor. . . . I decided to do something I had never done before: a letter of protest to the weekly newspaper. I went through my arguments: the Founders were faith-friendly, our first educators in America took the Bible seriously, First Amendment protection. It got printed, but if you stick your head out of the foxhole you get shot at. The next week there's a letter to the editor from the ACLU that says the minister who wrote last week knows nothing about American history, nothing about the constitutional understanding of the First Amendment. I was angry and extremely embarrassed.

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Why? I asked, "What if I'm wrong?" I thought maybe I had better be quiet and not speak on this topic again until I knew my stuff, so I retreated and developed a whole new hobby. After two or three years of investigating the field I had discovered something I had never expected: that the faith of George Washington had been debated but never dealt with adequately.

Yet Washington has been the subject of so many books. In the first part of American history people blithely accepted the claim that Washington was a Christian, basing that assumption on stories and anecdotes. Then, at the bicentennial celebration of Washington's birth in 1932, the intellectual change of the Progressive era took hold, with everything being redefined in a non-Christian, post-Christian, anti-Christian way. They took those stories, called them legends and myths, debunked them, tore them apart. They claimed Washington was a deist, not a theist. They threw out the old-fashioned Washington and came up with a new one.

Your research indicated something different. I didn't think that new depiction was right, so I moved from my first, broad investigation-what did our Founders believe-and narrowed in on Washington. I discovered there were 37 volumes of letters that George Washington wrote. I said my job was to go through that corpus and find out what he really believed. I worked on that for the next 10 years, on and off.

What pushed you to get a book done? When Coral Ridge Ministries said it would purchase 19,000 copies to distribute all around the country, I was already president of Westminster and still a pastor of a church in Pennsylvania. I had to give up sleep to get it done. For nine months from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., I did nothing but try to assemble all of my research into a final book. By God's grace it got done. I was convinced that people would laugh at my thesis that George Washington was a Christian, and that unless the evidence showed it, they would not believe it. So I decided to throw in everything I found-there are 300 pages of footnotes at the end. I determined to be able to say that I had turned over every rock.

The most intriguing puzzle concerning Washington's religion is why he stopped taking communion for a season. What's your sense of that? If a person doesn't take communion, it's possible that he's not a Christian-or he could be declaring himself friendly to the church but not committed to Christ. You have to put all of these arguments in their historical context. Communion was only once a quarter. The majority of Virginians on communion Sundays who were Anglicans in that era did not commune. The service was so long; one had probably ridden nine miles to go to worship, heard a very full sermon, and then another sermon and a very long liturgical sermon added on top of it. Busy persons could easily determine that they had worshipped enough, that communion was a discretionary decision, especially since they were in a low-church setting and it was not a sign of whether they were or were not a Christian. They would leave.

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