No, George Washington Didn’t Believe in the Mormon God

WashingtonWe live in an age and a country where intellectual authority is validated through an appeal to the “founders.” Even if one doesn’t believe in the extreme, and wrong-headed, philosophy of “originalism”–where we pretended all the men who crafted America’s foundational documents believed the same ideas, that those ideas could be objectively reconstructed today, and that those reconstructed ideas could serve as arbiters for modern society’s issues–it is still typical to couch our arguments in a way that adds historical heft. (On this modern dilemma, see these two recent and excellent volumes.) It just makes you feel good to know, in the words of #Hamiltunes, that “Washington is on your side.”

This idea is amplified in the religious sphere, as a certain circles of modern-day evangelicals have made a cottage industry of proving the founding fathers were actually devout Christians. (This is the most egregious example, but it is far from alone.) In confronting the common, and often commonly overstated, argument that the founding was a profoundly “secular” moment, Christians often go far in the other direction to prove Franklin as a pious providentialist, Washington a devout congregant, and Jefferson a closet believer. (If you want an excellent introduction to this issue, see here.)  Mormons have a long history of doing this as well: we have repeatedly and metaphorically baptized Roger Williams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and CS Lewis. (They’ve probably been literally baptized posthumously as well, of course.) We’ve all cringed when we see family members carrying around Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap. And we’ve all seen the painting that depicts the famous story of America’s “eminent spirits” appearing to Wilford Woodruff in the St George Temple and asking to be baptized. (On which, read this.) Both of these instances have broad cultural currency. So in a way, this is just another example of Mormonism reflecting its broader American context.

But is there something uniquely “Mormon” about this? Perhaps the apex of this tradition is found in two recent books published by Deseret Book and written by Timothy Ballard. (BTW: Ballard seems like a tremendous person, and his Operation Underground Railroad project looks terrific. So he has achieved far more than enough good elsewhere to overshadow the flaws in these books that I’m discussing.) Ballard had already written a couple of books on the “covenant” he believes was present at America’s founding. But he’s lately taken the game to another level. Two years ago he published The Lincoln Hypothesis, which argues that Lincoln was influenced by the Book of Mormon(!) in his quest to abolish slavery. And after conquering that challenge, he just released a sequel, The Washington Hypothesis, which posits Washington as a proto-Mormon who made a covenant with God–and surprise! a God who reflects Mormonism’s scriptures and rituals–that that the covenant framed the way he brought America into being.

To say these “hypotheses” lack credibility would be an understatement. They frankly misinterpret sources and evidences, ignore literally centuries of scholarship, and make a mush of the historian’s craft. What’s especially egregious is that Washington and Lincoln have probably received more attention than anyone else in American history, and to think that a hobbyist found evidence that not only everyone else overlooked, but evidence that completely contradicts everything else that has been written and is available, is more than a tad jejune. As a historian, this kind of thing makes me cringe. These types of books severely hurt Deseret Book’s credibility and stagnate the development of the Mormon community’s historical consciousness.

But more important than being offended as a historian, I’m offended as a Mormon. More than just a mistaken jaunt into historical malfeasance, these books embody a certain strain of cultural parochialism that still plagues certain spheres of my faith tradition: we are unable to recognize good done outside of the Mormon faith. We’ve been so entrenched on the belief that we have a monopoly on truth and goodness, that progress is only achieved through our form of divine assistance and revelation, that the accomplishments of other individuals, whether contemporary or antecedent to the restoration, pose a profound theological problem. Sure, we talk about the “light of Christ” tinging all of humanity, but then follow that up by reaffirming that such is not enough. When we posit our faith as the pinnacle of civilization, we must find ways to maintain that civilizational chain of being. So we make these figures Mormon, both through our proxy rituals and our mental gymnastics. And more than just retaining a form of spiritual adolescence, this mindset has practical implications: it precludes our ability to look externally for assistance and inspiration.

Our community needs to learn how to appreciate historical actors without first having to baptize them.

Comments

  1. While we’re at it, that famous Arnold Friberg painting of Washington praying is nothing short of pornography. It is the worst kind of sentimental garbage.

  2. I am not sure if pornography and sentimental garbage are the same category.

  3. These types of books severely hurt Deseret Book’s credibility

    You mean it has some?

  4. Lincoln is more my area. I highly doubt Lincoln read the Book of Mormon (I am not convince that most Mormons have). As a Republican in the 1850s and 1860s it is mostly likely the case the Lincoln had a pretty negative and dismissive view of Mormonism.

    This stuff is total rubbish, but it feeds our narrative and our need for a logical connection with a meta-narrative which might not actually be logical at all. Nor should it be logical.

    Does he make Masonic connections? Just curious.

  5. RAF, Deseret Book did co-publish Patrick Mason’s Planted. But it is mostly committed to selling intellectual Twinkies.

  6. Don’t you get it? Washington’s whole life was an allegory. The tree George Washington chopped down was a metaphor for the tree of good and evil. And the reason he could not tell his father a lie about said tree was because he now knew the consequences for sinning. I’d say that the tree-chopping incident is so similar to the who-told-you-you-were-naked exchange in the Garden of Eden that you can’t just explain that away with your academic sophistry. And can it be mere coincidence that Washington never had kids of his own, but still is considered the father of a nation, i.e., the protector of a chosen people? I think not. It’s a similitude, I tell you. A similitude!

  7. I am not sure if pornography and sentimental garbage are the same category.

    They’re both intended to stimulate feeling that overrides reason, and do so in a manipulative, crass fashion. They’re also both aesthetically dubious.

  8. This is a deliberate project of political fundamentalism that unfolds in two steps. The first is to create a false history woven through with religious fundamentalism. The second is to use the language of political conservatism to urge a “return” to the historical situation posited. This allows conservatives to accept fundamentalist tenets (which are actually radical and modern) without ever having to process fundamentalist arguments. The recent speech at BYU by a Catholic bishop borrowed heavily from this two step process.

  9. Josh Smith says:

    For those of you still attending, could you please post the last two paragraphs of the OP in your ward bulletin?

    Well said, Benjamin Park. Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this.

  10. Eric Russell says:

    Well everyone knows that Washington didn’t believe in the Mormon God. What this book presupposes is, maybe he did?

  11. Thanks for this, Ben.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Eric for the win.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    Chris, out of curiosity have you read Junius And Joseph: Presidential Politics and the Assassination of the First Mormon Prophet? It’s been a while since I read it last. I don’t remember it making the claim that Lincoln ever read the Book of Mormon but I do remember coming away more surprised there were connections. I do remember thinking the ultimate conspiracy theory and whom they blame was weak though.

  14. Anon for this one. says:

    APM. I’ve got one in my law office of Lincoln down on one knee praying. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t historically accurate. Frankly, I don’t care. I like the Washington one too. Works for me whether inaccurate or not.

    I do agree about the books, though. I get asked about the Lincoln Hypothesis all the time and I haven’t bothered with it. I don’t intend to either.

  15. Which raises another question: why do so many Mormons put kitsch on their walls?

  16. Great closing sentence, Ben!

  17. Mary Ann says:

    Vara, the same reason people have posters of favorite movies and celebrities on their walls – it’s something they enjoy. That and leaders have advocated putting up pictures of the temple in your home (and IIRC the Family Proc as well).

  18. Carl Youngblood says:

    It’s probably also worth considering the high likelihood that Operation Underground Railroad is also profoundly misguided: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-henry-sterry/everything-you-think-you-_1_b_9772910.html

  19. Rob Osborn says:

    George Washington did believe in God and as far as I can tell his God is the same God of Mormons.
    Not sure if you guys have such but I have “The Founders Bible” compiled by David Barton and it contains a bibles worth of commentary regarding all of the founders and their religious beliefs and commentary.

  20. Rob Osborn says:

    “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.” (George Washington from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs, May 12, 1779)

  21. Rob Osborn says:

    “I now make it my earnest prayer that God would… most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of the mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion” (George Washington in his last address to the Legislature of the United States, 1783)

  22. I am well aware of all those quotes, Rob, and even engage them in my own scholarship. There is a context there that is often glossed over in the type of superficial scholarship offered by Barton, whose work is routinely dismissed as unreliable. I strongly recommend the book by John Fea I linked to in the post.

  23. Ben, I think our religion’s done an excellent job of recognizing that, in fact, we don’t have a monopoly on all truth. In the same way that you criticize Ballard for his religious misconstruction of history (well deserved though that critique may be), you do yourself the unforgivable injustice of implying that somehow the progress towards Zion relies on the modern intellectual adherents of Mormonism. If the church were composed of nothing more than Galilean fishermen I think it would get along just fine. A piece elucidating or unblinking cultural and historical connections does not need to descend to these diatribes. In fact, the fact that it does is a mark against any faith oriented mission of this blog.

  24. Since we decontextualize and proof-text the scriptures in order to advance the Mormon narrative, why would we hesitate to re-interpret the lives and re-imagine the thoughts and motives of the founding fathers to further the same objective? Unless, of course, we are concerned that our arguments will be perceived as absurd and people will conclude we are a bunch of loons. There’s that.

    Excellent post, Ben.

  25. Rob Osborn says:

    Barton an unreliable source? I highly doubt that, eh heh, but whatever.

  26. Teaspoon says:

    Do prophets, or even angels, also engage in revisionist history?

    Mosiah 3:13 (quoting an angel): “And the Lord God hath sent his holy prophets among all the children of men, to declare these things to every kindred, nation, and tongue, that thereby whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy, even as though he had already come among them.”

    Find me a secular egyptologist, assyriologist, classical scholar, or other ancient historian who agrees even remotely with this beyond Ancient Israel. (I suppose that Christian scholars with certain biblical approaches believe this message was communicated to Ancient Israel, but certainly not to “every kindred, nation, and tongue” and not “among all the children of men.”)

    It reminds me of church members who say that the Berlin Wall fell so that we could engage in more missionary work. The world truly revolves around us.

  27. andrewheiss says:

    Yeah, related to FarSide @9:30, I wonder if our propensity to “baptize” non-Mormons into our narrative is related to what we do with the Book of Mormon (and Old Testament), where we assert that there were large proto-Christian communities and Christian prophets before Christ was born. That is, if Adam, Noah, Moses, Nephi, King Benjamin, Alma, etc. all taught about Christianity, it’s easier to make the leap that the founding fathers (and Lincoln) were proto-Mormons.

  28. Dog Pface says:

    I’m somewhat sorry to draw this parallel, but this kind of historical interpretation/appropriation reminds me of the claim that ancient Christians who left Jerusalem once inhabited the Americas…

  29. Franklin says:

    Thanks, Ben. Excellent post. It gives me another reason to totally ignore everything published by DB.

  30. Rob Osborn says:

    David Barton is a great guy. Just like Joseph Smith though, all great guys have an army of darkness to attempt to discredit their works.

  31. I know plenty of great guys who are still full of crap.

  32. I don’t think I can top comparing David Barton to Joseph Smith, so I’ll admit defeat.

  33. I also know plenty of good historians who I do not like personally.

  34. Rob: I will quickly point out that among those who have called out Barton’s work are conservative evangelicals themselves, so it’s not a mere secular conspiracy or liberal smugness: http://www.worldmag.com/2013/01/david_barton_is_wrong

  35. Rob Osborn says:

    Ben,
    You are not going to convince me. Secular society no doubt wants to discredit the man, just the same as they tried with Joseph Smith.

  36. Rob, I’m not sure what you mean. There’s nothing to discredit here. Either the history is accurate or it isn’t. If it isn’t, that’s the real discredit.

  37. Rob Osborn says:

    “Real history”, that is truly what it is about. Whether people like it or not, our founding fathers were men raised by God in heaven for the very purpose of establishing a constitution, based on biblical morals and principles, that would protect the rights of their Christian worship.

  38. Rob is already converted, and so doesn’t need to be conned into fundamentalism like the rest of us do.

  39. Rob: mmmmkay.

  40. Well, I’m convinced.

  41. An article about bad “history” becomes, in the comments, something of an object lesson. It’s efficient, if nothing else.

  42. it's a series of tubes says:

    Rob, D&C 101:77-80 definitely makes a statement about the men who established the Constitution, but verse 78 seems to apply a much broader brush to the purpose (agency), rather than the much more narrow (and historically less supportable) “protect the rights of their Christian worship”.

  43. If the constitution really was divinely inspired, then we have to look for that inspiration not just in the Bible but in many places we may not have considered. For example, it borrowed liberally from the amazing Iroquois Confederacy of native Americans and from the Masons who played an ongoing role in the creation of our country from the Declaration of Independence to the construction of the U.S. Capitol. No amount of Mormonizing history can deny that.

  44. I concur with Publius above.

    I note also that if George Washington knew and accepted LDS theology, there would have been no need for Joseph Smith and the Restoration.

    I don’t find it parochial to see historical figures who were obviously not Latter-day Saints as doing God’s work. I find it breathtakingly liberal, particularly for the Nineteenth Century. Wilford Woodruff’s “eminent men” included non-LDS social and religious reformers, artists, statesmen, scientists, etc., in a century when Catholics would place Luther (and others) in hell and Lutherans and other Protestants would return the favor regarding some of the popes (and others) based on their particular religious confession or lack of it

    The original post gets rather close to the Fundamentalist Evangelical position that Mormons worship a “different god,” that Muslims worship a “different god,” and Jews might or might not worship a “different god,” depending on which Evangelicals you talk to. It is interesting to see BCC coming so close to a Fundamentalist Evangelical theological and rhetorical position, while at the same time not celebrating the Church’s liberalism in embracing, honoring, and loving non-LDS historical figures.

  45. It may be interesting to note that my great-x-6 grandfather Ute Perkins lived in Ramus Illinois – a location relatively close to both Carthage and Nauvoo – the church organized a stake in this place and Ute’s home became the center of that little community. In fact D&C 130 and 131 are annotated to have been received in Ramus. So, here’s the interesting part – he had his last Will and Testament made up in Hancock County, Illinois. One of men signing as witness on Ute’s last will and testament as Ab. Lincoln.

    I did some amateur signature sleuthing and am convinced this was NOT Abraham Lincoln the man who would become President. However, it was likely his first cousin, son of Mordecai Lincoln – who is buried in Fountain Green (it was called this before it was Ramus.)

    My suggestion on this post is that some people draw conclusions where there are none to draw, others draw none where there is in fact evidence, and in many cases, we just don’t know and have to make due with what evidence we are fortunate to have, being careful not to misinterpret or misrepresent or speculate. While it would be foolish to draw conclusions based on wishful thinking, it is at least as foolish if not more so to cast away what good information we do have in order to gratify our pride as experts on matters we stake out as our domain.

    It also seems uncharitable to cast aspersions on Wilford Woodruff and his account (which is a beautiful painting hanging in the St. George temple) as well as the latter-day saints who believe in the account. Cast it aside if you will, but it won’t make you a better historian just because it is a faith-based account.

    Finally, rather than the assertion in the title regarding George Washington’s God, why not provide the evidence for your own assertion made in the title. All you have done is pointed to others you with scorn, yet failed yourself to affirm in any way how George Washington’s God is different from that author of all true scripture you oddly contain in the phrase the Mormon God. “Accusing others of parochialism whilst engaging in it” – that should have been your title.

  46. Josh Smith says:

    “I don’t find it parochial to see historical figures who were obviously not Latter-day Saints as doing God’s work.” –Leo

    Please define “God’s work.” (Hint: you make a better argument the less you use LDS authority figures to make your point.)

  47. Rob, I find it silly that you are so adamant in your claims about who the people the founding fathers were, yet you absolutely refuse to actually engage in any study or learning about them. You found a historian who makes claims that you WANT to agree with, and then you ignore every opposing idea.

    Now I’m not saying that the founding fathers weren’t Christian, nor that they weren’t devout. But you’re taking one man’s opinion about how they were practically Mormon, when they really weren’t, all because it fits your current line of thought. That’s what we call a confirmation bias, and is a bane towards learning and growth.

    Ben – I think you’re spot on to challenge these claims being made about George Washington. I’d like to see a bit more contradicting evidence in your article though. You can’t challenge with only words, even if they make sense, you need more fact.

  48. If anyone ever comes back to read this, here’s a great take-down of the evidence by Ardis P: http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2016/05/23/no-the-angel-moroni-did-not-appear-to-george-washington/

  49. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    Both the post and some of the reactions are so indicative of the Mormon internal battle between those who want to promulgate the faith without sources and those who promulgate sources without faith. Both are wrong in their intent as good as it might seem to be. If Mormon scholars are to become a voice within the faithful they must be able to critique and converse without engaging in such demeaning criticism. Ben is right about our parochialism but he is wrong (or is it Ardis) to imagine that people are converted by what they read in books. Most people who accept Mormonism do so because they know so little of the “world’s commentary on it” and are open to its life-saving message. Those who have formed an opinion are not likely to be swayed by great historical work. This is a book that few outside the faith will read and those who believe it inside the faith are already predisposed to believe that kind of work. Tolerance and charity is also for those who believe in this kind of work. Ben, I think the world of your work but in this one you added fuel to a fire that continues to divide us and which will not be solved by marginalizing each other. Here, sticking to the facts and analyzing so beautifully as you do would have worked better.

  50. Benjamin Park says:

    Honestly, Ignacio, it seems like you are trying to imply false and faithless intent where there is none. Nobody is claiming belief has no role in these matters, only that we have a responsible faith. Sometimes it appears you are more interested in decrying the culture wars than actually trying to admit important critique.

    I say this with full acknowledgment that you have done so much within Mormon culture. I just wish you would see that yours is not the only right approach.