Monday, December 31, 2012

New Source Introduction

America's God and Country is a self proclaimed encyclopedia of quotations put together by William Federer. This book contains quotations from men and women who were vital throughout America's history from Christopher Columbus to George H. W. Bush. The quotes are pulled from speeches, diaries and letters and are all cited in the book's enormous index. I am going to be using this as a reference tool as I read about our presidents. As I have written before, bias is something we need to be aware of, and this book has a lot of it. Not the kind of bias where an author is ragging on someone or praising someone to a fault, but bias of omission. The quotes in this book only made it here because they mention God and this leaves us with a very positive and religious angle of all of the men and women quoted. Speeches and quotes need to be balanced with action and virtue.

With the help of this encyclopedia and the future biographies I read, I am trying to get a balanced view of these men. Did their lives really reflect their pious vocabulary? Were they really exhibiting the values and morals of the Bible? I think this will be a very helpful reference and cut down on some of the time I have to take searching for primary sources floating around out there.

All glory to Jesus!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Peter Shaw: The Character of John Adams

John Adams, 1783 (Age 48) By: John Singleton Copley
In his introduction of The Character of John Adams Peter Shaw states "I have tried to introduce Adams to readers outside the profession of American history without sacrificing the standards of historical scholarship". Shaw continues to say that he brings a more literary style to his writing about Adams which for the reader means that it will keep them interested and leave out some minutia that make our eyes heavy.

This biography does not have very many in depth reviews on the net. From what I have read Shaw seems to draw directly from writings of Adams. If you remember, this was my first tip for picking a biography worth reading. Primary sources are vital in accurate biographies. However, some biographies that do a great job with historiography are not well written and may focus on a wide variety of details that we never wanted to know about. This leads me to my second tip for choosing a biography: define your purpose.

 For this blog I have decided to skip biographies with names like "The Politics of John Adams" and "Abraham Lincoln's Hat". While both of these fictional biographies probably contain great and interesting information, I don't need them for a blog that focuses on their spiritual lives. When you pickup a biography read the introduction and the back to make sure that the content will be useful to your desires. Not all biographies will satisfy the history buff in you. Decide what things about history grab your attention and try to find a biography focusing on that.

I chose this biography by Shaw because it takes a wide angle approach and progresses in chronological order from birth to death much like Flexner's bio of Washington. I also opened to a random page and it seems very well written. Remember that I am avoiding biographies that are written specifically about the spiritual life of these men because those biographies are biased in all the places I need more objectivity. All biographies are biased, the choice we have as readers is what biases we want to avoid and what biases we are OK with.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Washington: A Concluding Summary

 The call to move forward has rung in my ears and seeing as I have finished Flexner's biography on Washington, there is not much left to do but conclude and move on. Without reading another biography or renting a copy of Washington's Papers and pouring over them we have reached a rather brief but profitable picture of Washington (I think so anyway). I wanted to conclude our look at Washington by saying that as far as it depends on men, he will be a hard president to top.

His ability to lead by exceptional moral example is something that we really don't find in politicians today. One could argue that this is due to a contrast of the romanticism attached to him by the citizens of a brand new America against the cynical partisan media of today. Yet, Washington did have critics toward the end of his life. The Republicans (different than today's) continually accused him of trying to reinstate a monarchy and they saw the Jay Treaty (a treaty with Britain) as a warning sign of tyranny. These accusations and many more were thrown at him, yet his ability to lead and his moral excellence were challenged by no opponent. It is argued that he would have won the presidency for a third term had he not chosen to step down.

As we looked at the spiritual life of Washington, it was concluded that he probably was not a Christian as he never spoke of Jesus as his Lord or Savior in any of his speeches, diaries and letters. His morality does not seem to have come from a saving knowledge of Jesus but rather an extreme measure of self discipline. This is a sad truth about the life of Washington, but one that we have to be honest about. This "Christian Nation" did not have a Christian first president. In taking charge of the nation and working as hard as anyone to make sure the United States "worked" Washington seems to have neglected his own soul and spiritual well-being. As sad and sobering as this thought is, it does not mean that Washington's political life was a failure.

  Washington's sense of duty to his country and fellow citizens was so strong that he would hold out of retirement three times: after the French and Indian war to serve as Commander of the Continental Army, after his first term as president although he expressed desire to step down, and as Commander of the Army again during the Whiskey Rebellion. He was a devoted man who managed to rally thirteen separate governing regions around one cause and name. Denying himself, he lead the country in a remarkable neutral manner seeking only what was constitutional and what the people wanted. These are the reasons why we can agree with Flexner when he calls Washington the "Indispensable Man".

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Washington and Slavery

One of the ironies surrounding the American colonies' fight for freedom from political slavery was the agrarian-southern states' dependence on chattel slavery for economic independence and survival. Washington's estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia was no exception to this trend. Yet, toward the middle and end of his life, Washington began to express moral and fundamental objections to slavery. Here are a few quotes that I pulled from Felxner who has an entire chapter devoted to Washington's treatment and management of his slaves.

"I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle." (pp. 386)

"The unfortunate condidtion of the persons whose labors I in part employed has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the adults among them as easy and comfortable as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence would admit, and to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born, affords some satisfaction to my mind, and could not, I hoped, be displeasing to the justice of the creator." (pp.388)

While these quotes do contain elements of ignorance on the part of Washington and some ethnocentric leanings, they are almost unheard of for this time period in the South. Washington refused to sell slaves without their consent and as a result had many more slaves than Mount Vernon needed. This policy proved a financial burden yet one that we see Washington willing to bear for moral reasons. Washington lacked any real plan for emancipation and never brought it up as a serious issue for political consideration but he did try and solve the issue in his own estate. He would free his slaves in his will.

In December 1800, a year after his death, 150 slaves (half of the total ) would go free and Martha would free the remaining 150 before the end of that year. George and Martha did not enjoy the thought of these slaves set adrift in society with no resources. Different plans to educate the future free men and women in a trade ultimately was not a success. Abigail Adams reflects on Martha's treatment of the newly freed slaves by mentioning that "at her own expense she has cloaked them all, and very many of them are already miserable at the thought of their lot. The aged she retains at their request; but she is distressed at for the fate of others." (pp.393)

While it is doubtful that Washington knew and loved Christ, we see here an admirable trait in the first president. He seems to have grasped some element mankind's equality under our  Creator. Equality of all men regardless skin color, race and ethnicity before God is something that we see emphasized in the gospel. God's gospel and love are not bound to one people and ultimately heaven will be a mosaic of God's grace to all peoples. We get a glimpse of this in the new song that the saints sing to Christ the lamb.
"Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth." (Rev. 5:9 ESV)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Washington's Sacred Fire: Was Jesus the Source?

In the book George Washington's Sacred Fire Peter Lillback sets out to make the case that George Washington was not a deist but rather a "Latitudinarian" Anglican. In short this means that while a person holds to the faith, they express little outward regard for liturgy and doctrine. Lillback's work is one of defense for this founding father. Lillback tries to take the common cases brought against Washington and discredit them or put them into a better context. This changes the issue and the discussion becomes one of defining "Christian". What things are necessary for a person to be rightly called a brother or sister in the faith? As far as the world is concerned every person who goes to church and holds some sort of profession of faith is a Christian. However, this is not all that makes a historical biblical Christian.

Washington has no conversion story. In John 3:3 Jesus said "Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Washington evidences no time period in his life where there is a change comparable to what Jesus talks about here. We have many of his diaries and letters and personal letters and while he often speaks of "Providence", he never references a time when that vital change from life to death occurred in his own soul by believing on the blood of Jesus.

 Washington never confessed Jesus before men. In Matthew 10:32 Jesus promised "everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven." The reason why a book had to be written defending Washington as a Christian is because he never acknowledged Christ before men. Washington would often acknowledge Providence (pp125, 148) and "that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe" (pp216) and "The Greatest and Best of Beings" (pp172). While each of these are valid titles for God, it is sad that Washington's thoughts were lacking of the Person of Christ. The Savior of the World, our Mediator, our Brother and our King is left out of Washington's discussion of God and this is the most worrisome fact about Washington's spiritual life.

Washington was a moral man. It is true that Washington conducted himself in a notoriously upright manner. Abigail Adams (John Adams wife) said of him "He is polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise, and good" (pp228). One of his aids said "a complete knowledge of his honesty, uprightness, and candor in all his private transactions have sometime led one to think him more than a man" (pp.186). Comments like these and many more have rightfully left a great imprint in how we think of Washington. They inspire us to be great. Some scholars have even argued that the executive branch was crafted with his extreme moral responsibility in mind. Washington even had written a set of guidelines to help him in his daily interactions which you can find here. Yet, these resolutions are starkly contrasted with Jonathan Edward's which were full of God and faith and a devotion to his creator and savior.

Conclusion: Washington  was a great moral example, and there is evidence that he went to church and mentioned a Higher Power on different occasions. But did he love Jesus? Did he see Jesus as the source of all his success and morality and life? The answer to these questions is sadly no because he never gave Jesus as much credit as "providence" or "that almighty being". If you know somebody you use their name and Washington rarely if ever used Jesus' name. When I try to summarize what was missing in Washington's spiritual life I think about what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17:
"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ." (ESV)
 Amidst Washington's excellent ability to lead, exercise of great self control, and an inclination that there was a Higher Power who is leading this world forward he was sadly missing Jesus the Christ and therefore the true essence of Christianity.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Prayer at Valley Forge?

The piece of art that heads this blog is known as "The Prayer at Valley Forge" and there is a lot of speculation as to whether it ever even happened. We first need some background information on where Valley Forge was located and why in the world George Washington was there. Washington needed somewhere to camp his troops and bear the winter of 1777-1778. Washington realized that the morale of the civilian population was vital to winning the war. In this frame he refused to demand goods at gunpoint from the civilians and he also refused to settle his army in towns that would hurt or strain the infrastructure and economy. As a result Washington chose a spot on some hills about 20 miles north of Philadelphia (recently taken by the British). This way he could keep an eye out for chinks in the defense of the city while not bothering neighboring towns.  Washington had his men create a large camp with rigid structures to hopefully withstand the winter conditions. The soldiers lacked adequate winter clothing as the months of war had worn away most of their uniform to rags. Washington's ability to sympathize with his troops and others is something we hear little about, but there are a few quotations that give us an insight into his care for others.

"The misfortunes of war, and the unhappy circumstances frequently attendant thereon to individuals are more to be lamented than avoided; but it is the duty of everyone to alleviate them as much as possible." (Flexner,110)

"However, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, distressed soldiers, I feel super-abundantly for them, and from my soul pity those miseries which it is neither in my power to relieve of prevent." (Flexner,111)

 It was during these hard months and with these sentiments taken into account that the above 1975 painting was created by Arnold Friberg. The myth is not totally unfounded however and I found a great article written by a fellow blogger who explains the origins of this myth as well as the flaws with it. It boils down to one man's shaky journal entry about how a man he knew encountered Washington praying in the woods near Valley Forge and there just isn't much evidence other than this to back up the claim. Thus, the painting and stories that continue down this thread are considered fiction. I chose the piece because it represents the very kind of myths that this blog is dedicated to looking into and because if nothing else, it is a beautiful painting! Here is a link to the in depth article on the historicity of the painting.

As the winter turned into spring, Washington's troops used the time to train (something that they had little time to do since they enlisted). The furlough and training in Valley Forge proved profitable  for the Continentals as they prepared for the 1778 campaign and a hard earned victory at the battle of Monmouth.

The sympathetic sentiment that Washington would show again and again is a trait to be admired in a leader and helped keep public relations for the Continental Army as positive as possible. If Washington had been a man of the Bible we might read his reflections on Romans 12:15b "...mourn with those who mourn" and we see this trait best exemplified in Christ who wept with Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11:35) and his compassion in feeding the multitudes who came to hear him speak in Mark 8. Yet, as we will continue to find as we study Washington, he was not a Christian and therefore his meditations sadly lack the reference to the most sympathetic man who ever lived and who Washington desperately needed to know.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Introduction: Flexner, primary sources and God's word

Washington: The Indispensable Man is written by Thomas Flexner and is the condensed (normal person) version of his own four part biography on Washington. You can find this book on Amazon here. The reviews  praise it for its unbiased picture of Washington as well as its readability. Each chapter deals with a new time period and topic in Washington's life. This means the book proceeds in chronological chunks that help make the time easier to handle.

Flexner does a great job of referencing primary documents such as letters and diary entries. Leading me to my first tip for picking a biography; always pick a biography that has a bibliography steeped in primary documents from the time. This is one factor (there are many) to help eliminate falsehoods that hang around famous people in the past. Also make sure the claims of the author are being backed up accordingly. This will make you a more accurate historian and a bigger cynic with your roommate (in my opinion the former outweighs the latter).

In one sense Flexner is only the gateway or search engine that I will use to comment about Washington. My wish is that no fact or claim  made about Washington will be based on anything but tried and true primary documentation and the examination of said character trait in light of God's word. My hope is to make a couple posts every now and then as I read and pick general topics in Washington's life and compare them to scripture. Remember, this is not a president bashing blog: the good and bad of each man will be objectively looked at from God's word. No political party is safe!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Who are they?

I decided to create this blog on the same day that I decided to read a biography on every United States' President. I am a 20 year old college student at the University of Missouri studying to be a high school history teacher. I am also a Christian and can't help that when reading through a biography of important leaders of the past their faith always intrigues me. This blog is not only an outlet for my love of history but it is also a response to a felt need for in depth information on the faith of our "leaders". Who were these men really? Did they believe in any god? Were they moral? Did they ever crack open a Bible? How much did their faith influence their leadership? So that is the purpose, now let's talk about the strategy.

I am not going to read biographies that focus specifically on the religious leanings of each president because not all of those books exist and  not all of the ones that do exist will be very entertaining to read. Instead, I will be choosing the best reviewed biographies and assume that the faith of said president will be evident through their actions, character and dialogue (speeches, letters, etc). The posts will be one (or more) per president and focus around the spiritual life of the man. We also want to avoid bashing men who were not of the faith and focusing only on their failures while focusing only on the success of Christian presidents; historiography dictates that we remain without bias and give credit to good leadership when it is due and mistakes as well: Christian or not. Yet, if the man seems to be a follower of Christ and exemplifies a Christian leader then praise the Lord!

PS: Suggestions on biographies and events that you would like to see mentioned are very welcome.