I got Peter Lillback’s George Washington’s Sacred Fire (that argues Washington an “orthodox Trinitarian Christian”) when it came out in 2006 and began blogging about it. I don’t know the exact numbers of its original run; I seem to remember it doing well with the “Christian America” crowd (WorldNetDaily et al.). Yet, I never saw it at my local Borders until Glenn Beck promoted it just a few months ago in 2010.
From Beck’s radio show May 19, 2010:
BECK: Yesterday, it was like 475,000 on Amazon.com. I think it was two or three when I checked.
LILLBACK: Up to two now. Thanks to you. Boy, I’ll tell you, you’re the best publicist in town.
Suddenly I was in demand as Lillback’s most persistent critic on the matter. The blog “Religion in American History,” run by college prof. historians, asked me to review the book which I did here. I also reproduced the review at GWSF’s Amazon page.
Please read those links to see a more comprehensive case against Lillback’s thesis than what I write below.
I don’t think the book is without its merits. It really could have used an editor to pare it down. The book has two theses, one of which I think Lillback easily proves, the other, he does not.
I think I wrote my review in harsh terms because Lillback uses the same polemical rhetoric to attack historian Paul F. Boller (and others) when I see Lillback engaging in many of the same scholarly overreaches for which he attacks Boller. It’s kinda strange. I’ve seen Lillback speak publicly (never live) and he usually comes off as a “nice guy.” But in GWSF he comes off as mean when discussing Boller and other historians.
But what Lillback easily proves (where many modern historians go wrong) is that GW was not a “Deist” as strictly defined (one who believes in an absentee landlord God). GW was a theist, believing in a warm, active personal Providence. (I think I understand why some scholars think of GW as a strict Deist; some of his letters do seem to refer to an impersonal Providence; but others clearly don’t.) To prove this, Lillback can simply quote Washington over and over again.
But Lillback fails to show, at least from the horse’s mouth, that GW was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. We can study all 20,000 pages of GW’s known recorded utterances (public addresses, private letters). If one puts the words “Jesus Christ” in its search engine we get only ONE result, in an address written by one of GW’s aides, but given under GW’s imprimatur.
To make the case FOR GW’s “mere Christianity” Lillback makes a number of leaps, speculative and for which there are other reasons to doubt, to impute orthodox Trinitarian dogma into GW’s more generic religious talk. (Again, I detail this more in my linked to review.)
It’s surprising that Glenn Beck so loves this book. I wonder how much of it he read. Lillback’s “thesis one” certainly fits with what Beck believes. But Beck is a Thomas Paine loving Mormon. And to argue “thesis two,” Lillback commonly attacks Paine and affirms a Trinitarianism in which Mormons do not believe.
Finally, check out this post I wrote for The League of Ordinary Gentlemen where I now regularly blog that covers much of what I above wrote but also compares Washington’s “Christianity” with President Obama’s. The bottom line: More evidence from the horses’ mouths demonstrates Obama’s “mere Christianity” than Washington’s.