Missing the point on Washington and the Bible

Last time I argued that in his book George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Peter Lillback occasionally sees meanings in Washington’s writings that aren’t there.  In other words, he commits a fallacy that scholars of the Bible call eisegesis—reading meanings into a text, rather than extracting the original meaning out of it.  He finds allusions to Scripture where I think Washington didn’t necessarily intend to make them.

Washington did quote or reference Scripture with some frequency, of course, as Lillback correctly points out.  And he also correctly points out that his favorite allusion was to the image of the “vine and fig tree.”  In the Old Testament this phrase connotes peace, comfort, and safety.  In 1 Kings 4:25, it’s part of the description of Israel’s prosperity in the days of Solomon’s reign: “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.”  It’s also in 2 Kings 18 and Isaiah 36, when the Assyrians besieging Jerusalem try to convince the inhabitants to surrender, “and then eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree,” until the time comes for their deportation.

Most notably, the image of vine and fig tree appears in Micah chapter 4, as part of a vision of the restoration of Jerusalem:

1But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it.

 2And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

 3And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

 4But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.

 5For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.

Micah 4:4 was, according to Lillback, Washington’s favorite verse, and it’s hard to argue with him.  Here’s just a small sample of Washingtonian references to this passage.

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, from Wikimedia Commons

Washington to Charles Thomson (Jan. 22, 1784): “…I shall soon be enabled, I expect, to discharge that duty on which Nature and inclination have a call; and shall be ready afterwards to welcome my friends to the shadow of this Vine and Fig tree; where I hope it is unnecessary to add, I should be exceedingly happy to see you, and any of my late Masters, now representatives.”

Washington to John Quincy Adams (June 25, 1797): “I am now, as you supposed the case would be when you then wrote, seated under my Vine and Fig-tree; where, while I am permitted to enjoy the shade of it, my vows will be continually offered for the welfare and prosperity of our country; and for the support, ease and honor of the Gentleman to whom the Administration of its concerns are entrusted.”

Washington to Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (May 15, 1797): “If to these I could now and then meet the friends I esteem, it would fill the measuse and add zest to my enjoyments but if ever this happens it must be under my own Vine and Fig tree as I do not think it probable that I shall go beyond the radius of 20 miles from them.”

Washington to Landon Carter (October 17, 1796): “A few months more will put an end to my political existence and place me in the shades of Mount Vernon under my Vine and Fig Tree; where at all times I should be glad to see you.”

Washington to Charles C. Pinckney (June 24, 1797): “As for myself I am now seated in the shade of my Vine and Fig tree, and altho’ I look with regret on many transactions which do not comport with my ideas, I shall, notwithstanding “view them in the calm lights of mild philosophy”, persuaded, if any great crisis should occur, to require it, that the good sense and Spirit of the Major part of the people of this country, will direct them properly.”

Washington to Sarah Cary Fairfax (May 16, 1798): “Worn out in a manner by the toils of my past labour, I am again seated under my Vine and Fig tree, and wish I could add that, there are none to make us affraid; but those whom we have been accustomed to call our good friends and Allies, are endeavouring, if not to make us affraid, yet to despoil us of our property; and are provoking us to Acts of self-defence, which may lead to War.”

There are a couple dozen more, but you get the idea.  Now, what I find interesting about this is the fact that Washington’s use of the “vine and fig tree” motif is quite radically different from Micah’s.  Micah used it to describe a time in the “last days” when God would set things right, when Jerusalem would be restored to its rightful place and the nations’ proper relationships with each other and with the Lord would be established.  It’s a classic instance of an Old Testament restoration oracle.

Washington uses it in a more everyday sense.  He doesn’t refer to Kingdom Come; he just wants to go home to Mt. Vernon and stay there, away from the stresses of military command or political office.  Lillback catches the Micah reference, but equally important here is the way Washington uses it to express the Cincinnatus ideal of the savior of the nation who hangs up his sword and heads back to the farm when his job is done. 

I’m not denying that Washington got the image from the Bible.  In fact, I’m quite certain that this is a conscious invocation of Scripture.  I don’t, however, think there’s anything specifically religious about the invocation.  It serves him as a figure of speech as much as anything else, and in this respect he’s not at all unusual.

In fact, the entire enterprise of trying to use biblical quotations or allusions to bolster the case for some historical figure’s religious beliefs seems dubious to me.  The Bible was such an important cultural touchstone that even deists could quote it with ease.  (For the record, I don’t think Washington was a strict deist.)

Lillback’s least convincing attempt to use this tactic is in the same chapter that deals with the vine and fig tree motif.  Lillback notes a couple of instances in which Washington made humorous references to the Bible, such as a letter written to Annis Boudinot Stockton in 1783, and then makes the incredible contention that there is something distinctly Christian about this theological humor.  Washington knows the Bible and Christian tradition well enough to kid about it, and therefore he must have had some intimate familiarity with it.  “His humor avoids derision,” Lillback states, “but still evokes a smile.” 

I don’t mind telling you that this treatment of Washington’s words seems remarkably cavalier, and even a bit sloppy.  How anyone could believe that allusions to such a well-known text as the Bible serve as a reliable indicator of personal faith is entirely beyond me.  If Lillback ever decides to take a crack at Lincoln, that other famous American who never made a formal profession of faith but nevertheless steeped his words in Scripture, he’ll have a field day.

There’s a considerable amount of irony to all this.  Lillback has tried to use Washington’s use of the Bible to build up his case that he was a Christian, and he’s become an intellectual darling of those who argue that the Bible played a critical role in America’s founding era.  I think there’s a sense in which Lillback has unintentionally understated the Bible’s prominent place in early America. 

He has assumed that since Washington quoted it, he must have had the same relationship to it that all orthodox Christians share.  The truth is probably even more remarkable.  The Bible was ingrained so deeply in the American mind that even a nominal churchgoer like Washington, whose Christian faith was and is a matter of dispute, was culturally hardwired to sprinkle it liberally throughout his writings.

If Lillback wants to make the case for a Christian America, he might more profitably explain why a guy like Washington could quote Micah in his letters and assume that his correspondents would catch the reference, as they undoubtedly did.  Whether or not he was a Christian, he lived in a young nation that had already steeped in the Bible for so long that it was virtually saturated in it.



Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory

4 responses to “Missing the point on Washington and the Bible

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Missing the point on Washington and the Bible « Past in the Present -- Topsy.com

  2. Trey

    This is a well thought-out response. As someone who’s on the inside of all this, know that it’s appreciated and not everyone buys in to the SF hermeneutic of history (and especially not when exegeting). Thanks for the words.

  3. AD

    I am reminded of the issue of faith vs. works. Perhaps Lillback considers being well versed in the bible per se to be of secondary importance because he believes that it is primarily faith that makes one a true Christian.

  4. Michael Lynch

    I don’t know–his point seems to be that Washington knew his Bible pretty well, and that this is evidence that he did, in fact, have faith.

    I’m not saying that Washington didn’t know the Bible or that he was mistaken in his use of it, just that he used it in these instances as a simple figure of speech and that his use of it doesn’t necessarily mean that he had an orthodox belief in it.


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