Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why Did George Washington Not Call a Priest or Pastor to His Deathbed?

On this day (December 14) in 1799, the father of the United States of America breathed his last breath. George Washington was the greatest statesman North America ever produced and, quite possibly, one of the greatest in all of human history.

Given his immense stature in world history, it's understandable that many debate the specific nature of his faith. Washington was formally associated with the Anglican Church (which, of course, in America, became the Episcopal Church). He was also a Freemason. Yet, when it came to his faith, he played his cards close to his vest and many argue that these affiliations were more social than spiritual. They allege that Washington was never really a genuine, orthodox Christian and one of their best (at least in their mind) pieces of evidence is that neither Washington nor his family called a priest or pastor to his bedside at the time of his passing. Is the absence of clergy at Washington's passing indicative of his true spiritual or intellectual leanings?

In my short book Was George Washington a Christian?, I examine much of the debate surrounding the specifics of Washington's faith. I talk about the fact that he rarely, if ever, took Communion. And I address how little he publicly spoke of Christ. And I talk about the absence of clergy at his deathbed, which is what we will focus on in this article.

In His Excellency: George Washington, historian Joseph J. Ellis argues that Washington died a "Roman stoic" and not a Christian, and he points to the lack of clergy as Exhibit #1 in drawing that conclusion. This is a huge overreach on Ellis' part. Let me give you four reasons why:
  1. While Stoicism was distinct from Christianity in the ancient world, there are many Christians today (and many in Washington's day) who displayed Stoic tendencies or who held some Stoic convictions alongside their biblical beliefs. There's no reason to make this an "either-or" scenario. Yes, Washington was, in many ways, a "Roman Stoic." He was also, in many ways, a Christian. One such way was his official membership in the Episcopal Church.
  2. Calling clergy to one's bedside was not as convenient or as simple in Washington's day as it would be in later years. As a pastor, I've been called to the bedside of dying members...literally. Clergy in Washington's day had no phone. Getting a priest or pastor to Washington's bedside required a little more effort.
  3. According to the Bible, it's not necessary for clergy to be at someone's bedside when one passes into eternity. Catholics believe that "last rites" are a crucial part of someone's passing, since they involve a set of sacraments meant to prepare the soul for death. Anglicans, at least traditionally, put more emphasis on faith than on works or sacraments when it comes to a person's relationship with God or eternal destiny. If a member of the clergy had been at Washington's bedside, it would've been to provide spiritual comfort and encouragement to the Washingtons, not to help usher Washington into eternity. 
  4. Clergy were a part of Washington's funeral.
When it comes to those who question whether Washington was a true Christian, the best argument they have is that Washington rarely spoke of Christ publicly. That he didn't have clergy at his deathbed is frankly irrelevant to the authenticity or specific nature of his faith. And, honestly, the whole Communion issue is likewise a bit of a red herring. There are several reasons why someone, including a professed Christian, might decline to take Communion. We should not conclude that such a refusal equates with a denial of the faith.

George Washington died with dignity and confidence. He did not fear death, having faced the prospect of death many times before. He knew his time had come, and he was ready for the "Hand of Providence" to usher him from this life into the next.

For more on Washington's faith, I encourage you to read Was George Washington a Christian?