"Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice" -- The Remarkable Hypocrisy of David Barton (Part 2)
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Jun 03, 2007 at 05:52:47 PM EST
For those who didn't read Part 1 of this series, and to refresh the memories of those who did, I'm beginning this post by repeating Barton's definition of revisionism, and his playbook list of revisionist methods.

In Chapter 16 of Original Intent, entitled "Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice," Barton, after defining "historical revisionism" as "a process by which historical fact is intentionally ignored, distorted, or misportrayed in order to maneuver public opinion toward a specific political agenda or philosophy," goes on to present and provide examples of the following nine methods employed by those that he claims to be the "revisionists."

1. The Use of Patent Untruths
2. The Use of Overly Broad Generalizations
3. The Use of Omission
4. The Use of Insinuations and Innuendos
5. Impugning Morality
6. The Use of "Faction"
7. The Use of "Psychohistory" and "Psychobabble"
8. A Failure to Account for Etymology
9. A Lack of Primary Source References

In Part 1, I showed how Barton, in creating his examples of "The Use of Patent Untruths" by secularists, used three of the methods from his list, including "The Use of Patent Untruths." In this part, I'll be looking at method #3, "The Use of Omission," and how Barton makes particularly good use of this method to create his examples of method #2, "The Use of Overly Broad Generalizations." The overly broad generalization debunked by Barton is the characterization of the founders as deists, but the overly narrow examples he presents to make his accusations focus almost entirely on one founder -- George Washington.

In "Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice," Barton defines "The Use of Omission" as follows:

3. The Use of Omission

Omission (the deletion of certain sections of text) is another effective tool of revisionists and can also completely transform the tone of a work.


The ellipses (". . .") indicate that a portion of the text was omitted. When used correctly, such deletions shorten the text but do not change its context...

Barton, of course, uses this omission tactic throughout his book to alter historical quotations, but what's interesting in this chapter on revisionism is his use of it to alter the words of those who he accuses of being revisionists.

In his examples of secularists using method #2, "The Use of Overly Broad Generalizations," Barton presents the following from W.E. Woodward's 1926 book, George Washington: The Image and the Man:

George Washington....seemed, according to the evidence, to have had no instinct or feeling for religion....He refers to Providence in numerous letters, but he used the term as a synonym for Destiny or Fate. W.E. WOODWARD

This is what Barton plucks these phrases from:

George Washington, surveyor, wealthy planter, fox hunting sportsman, officer of the Virginia Militia, General of the Continental Army during the War of Independence, President of the Constitutional Convention, and First President of the United States was without a trace of "Christianism." He was so completely indifferent to its pious irascibilities that he never appears to have made any comment on them. Indeed, he seemed, according to the evidence, to have had no instinct or feeling for religion, although he attended church twelve or fifteen times a year.

The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned even once in the vast collection of Washington's published letters. He refers to Providence in numerous letters, but he used the term as a synonym for Destiny or Fate. Bishop White, who knew him well for many years, wrote after Washington's death that he had never heard him express an opinion on any religious subject. He added that although Washington was "serious and attentive" in church, he never saw him kneel in prayer.(1)

Barton next quotes the following from Steven Morris's article, "America's Unchristian Beginnings," which appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 3, 1995:

George Washington....seems to have had the characteristic unconcern of the 18th century Deist for the forms and creeds of institutional religions.... [H]e referred to Providence as an impersonal force, remote and abstract. STEVEN MORRIS

Here are the entire two sentences from Morris's article:

George Washington, first president: He seems to have had the characteristic unconcern of the 18th century Deist for the forms and creeds of institutional religion. Although he often referred to Providence as an impersonal force, remote and abstract, he never declared himself to be a Christian according to contemporary reports or in any of his voluminous correspondence.

Why does Barton employ "The Use of Omission" to alter these quotes? Because Woodward's and Morris's statements, when read in their entirety, indicate that Washington's contemporaries didn't seem to think he was a Christian, and that he was not a regular church attendant. This would make what Barton presents next -- his evidence that Washington was a devout Christian -- seem a bit questionable, and weaken his accusation that these secular revisionists, who do refer in their statements to historical eyewitness testimonies, "artfully omit the historical eyewitness testimonies."

What Barton does is to "artfully omit the historical eyewitness testimonies" of anyone who didn't think Washington was a Christian. He presents carefully selected quotes from "contemporaries," most of whom wouldn't have known Washington well enough to speak with any authority about his religious beliefs, something that even his closest friends, as well as a number of clergymen who knew him well, were admittedly unsure of.

Four of Barton's six eyewitness testimonies of Washington's devotion to Christianity come from eulogies and orations delivered in the weeks and months following his death. Two of the four authors didn't know Washington personally at all. One, as a member of Congress during his administration, would presumably have had some contact with him during that time. One, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, would have had the closest contact with him, but only for this four month period of time.

The first comes from Gunning Bedford, Jr., who was asked by his masonic lodge in Wilmington, Delaware to deliver an oration on Washington.

To the character of hero and patriot, this good man added that of Christian… Although the greatest man upon Earth, he disdained not to humble himself before God and to trust in the mercies of Christ. GUNNING BEDFORD, SIGNER OF THE CONSTITUTION

Here is a longer excerpt from Bedford's oration:

To the character of hero and patriot, this good man added that of christian. All his public communications breathe a pure spirit of piety, a resignation to the will of heaven, and a firm reliance upon the providence of God. In those achievements which redounded most to his reputation, we hear him exclaiming with King David, "Not unto us, not unto us, O! Lord, but to thy name be the honor and praise." Although the greatest man upon Earth, he disdained not to humble himself before God, and to trust in the mercies of Christ. He regularly attended in the temples of the most high, and joined with his fellow mortals, in paying adoration to the Supreme Governor of the Universe, and in supplicating blessings for his country, and pardon and forgiveness for himself....(2)

The problem here, which sheds doubt on Bedford's opinion being from personal observation, is his assertion that Washington "regularly attended in the temples of the most high." According to Washington's diaries, he only attended houses of worship four times during the entire Constitutional Convention -- the only time when Bedford would have been an eyewitness to his church going habits.

Washington's church attendance during the Constitutional Convention consisted of one visit to a "Romish Church", presumably with John Adams, whose letters indicate a visit to a Catholic church on the same date; the Fourth of July celebration at the Race Street Church, at which he appears to have stayed only long enough to hear an oration by a law student, leaving before the religious service; a visit to a Quaker meeting house, which occurred the same week he was meeting with Quaker leaders in Philadelphia; and a service at which Bishop William White, who had just returned from his trip to England to be consecrated a Bishop, was to ordain deacons for the first time. Bishop White, referred to by W.E. Woodward in the part of his statement omitted by Barton, was the brother-in-law of Robert Morris, Washington's host in Philadelphia during the Convention. White was one of a number of clergymen who, knowing Washington well enough to make such an assessment, doubted his belief in the Christian religion.

The second comes from an oration delivered by Abiel Holmes:

[I]f we cannot aspire at his talents as a General, a President, or a Statesman, we may imitate his virtues as a man, a citizen, and a Christian. ABIEL HOLMES, REVOLUTIONARY SURGEON; HISTORIAN

First of all, Abiel Holmes was not a Revolutionary War surgeon, an erroneous description that would give the impression that he might have known Washington. Abiel Holmes was a Congregationalist minister in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had been about twelve years old when the Revolutionary War began, and a student at Yale when it ended. It was his father, Captain David Holmes, who was the surgeon. Interestingly, with the exception of saying he was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s father when he was actually his grandfather, Barton gets Abiel Holmes's biography right in his biographical sketches appendix in Original Intent, even listing him as Rev. Abiel Holmes.

The third comes from the eulogy delivered by Jonathan Mitchell Sewall:

He was a firm believer in the Christian religion....For my own part, I trust I shall never lose the impression made on my own mind in beholding, in this house of prayer, the venerable hero, the victorious leader of our hosts, bending in humble adoration to the God of armies, and great Captain of our salvation! JONATHAN SEWELL, ATTORNEY

Just to clarify who this quote actually comes from, the attorney Jonathan Sewell (spelled the way Barton does) was a close friend of John Adams when they were young men, but was a loyalist who moved to England when the Revolutionary War began. What Barton quotes comes from Jonathan Mitchell Sewall, who was also an attorney, but is better known as a poet. Sewall did not know Washington personally. What he was referring to in the quote used by Barton was Washington's visit to St. John's Church, in Portsmouth in New Hampshire during his presidential tour of the New England states in 1789.

Jonathan Mitchell Sewall made many dramatic claims about Washington's religious beliefs in his oration, but what is more revealing about this one is its partisan nature, including references to political events that led to the emergence of parties in the early 1790s. Remember, Washington's death occurred at same time that the Federalist clergy were launching their attack on Jefferson, writing pamphlets and delivering sermons on why Christians should not elect this deist in the election of 1800. Even the paragraph from which Barton gets most of his quote is immediately followed by a dig at deists, making it impossible to consider Sewall's testimony an objective one.

For my own part, I trust, I shall never lose the impression made on my own mind in beholding, in this House of Prayer, the venerable Hero, the victorious leader of our Hosts, bending in humble adoration to the GOD of ARMIES, and GREAT CAPTAIN OF OUR SALVATION. Hard and unfeeling indeed must that heart be, that could sustain the sight unmoved, or its owner depart unsoftened and unedified.

LET the Deist reflect on this, and remember that Washington the Saviour of his Country, did not disdain to acknowledge and adore a GREATER SAVIOUR, whom Deists and Infidels affect to slight and despise!(3)

The fourth comes from Jeremiah Smith:

Christianity is the highest ornament of human nature. Washington practiced upon this belief...He was neither ostentatious nor ashamed of his Christian profession. JEREMIAH SMITH, REVOLUTIONARY SOLDIER; U.S. CONGRESSMAN; GOVERNOR OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

Smith's oration is unremarkable. As a congressman during Washington's administration, he would have observed him at the only time in his life during which he did attend church on a consistent basis, so statements like"he publicly professed the religion in which he was educated" do reflect what Smith actually would have seen. The following are the paragraphs from which Barton gets the phases for his quote.

In our country there are few, who will hesitate to acknowledge the obligations, we are under, to make the concerns of another world, the governing principle of our lives in this; and that christianity is the highest ornament of human nature. WASHINGTON practiced upon this belief -- He publicly professed the religion in which he was educated; and his life affords the best evidence of the purity of his principles, and the sincerity of his faith.

He had all the genuine mildness of christianity with all its force. He was neither ostentatious, nor ashamed of his christian profession. He pursued in this, as in every thing else, the happy mean between the extremes of levity and gloominess, indifference and austerity. His religion became him....(4)

Statements that Washington was a Christian, but not an "ostentatious" one, are very common. Barton includes this one among his examples, although chopping off the beginning of it.

[H]e was a sincere believer in the Christian faith and a truly devout man. JOHN MARSHALL, REVOLUTIONARY GENERAL; SECRETARY OF STATE; CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE U.S. SUPREME COURT

This is the entire sentence from Marshall's biography of Washington:

"Without making ostentatious professions of religion, he was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man."(5)

John Marshall, whose father, Thomas Marshall, was a close friend of Washington, would, of course, have known Washington better than any of the authors of the eulogies and orations quoted above. He was not, however a revolutionary general, as Barton claims in yet another biographical error that would conveniently imply a closer association with Washington. John Marshall did serve in the Revolutionary War, but his highest rank was captain.

What seems to be a recurring assumption in the quotes used by Barton and others that I've looked at is that many Christians of the time just couldn't fathom, or didn't want to admit, that a man as virtuous as Washington could have been so virtuous without sharing their religious beliefs. For example, Nelly Parke Custis, Martha Washington's granddaughter, who was also adopted by Washington as his daughter, considered Washington's long and happy marriage proof that he must have been a Christian.

She [Martha] never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties; and she and her husband were so perfectly united and happy, that he must have been a Christian.(6)

The above sentence appears in a letter written by Nelly Parke Custis to Jared Sparks in 1833 in response to Sparks's request for information about Washington's religious beliefs. Sparks was then writing what eventually became his twelve volume edition of Washington's writings. Barton quotes the following from the same letter.

I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian.

Here is the paragraph that sentence comes from:

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o'clock, where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun, and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men." He communed with his God in secret.(7)

In her letter, Custis also stated the following:

No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother.(8)

But wait...Jonathan Mitchell Sewall's eyewitness testimony conflicts with Nelly Custis's eyewitness testimony. Sewall emphatically stated that Washington was a communicant.

He constantly attended the public worship of god on the LORD's day; was a communicant at HIS table...(9)

Nobody can honestly claim to know for sure what George Washington's religious beliefs were. He deliberately and successfully managed to keep his beliefs a secret, as Thomas Jefferson noted in the following journal entry, dated February 1, 1800.

Doctor Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green, that when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation, that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address, as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes, he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers, except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the States, when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of "the benign influence of the Christian religion."

I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.(10)

The other three founders named in Jefferson's journal entry, frequently appear in the religious right American history books -- Dr. Benjamin Rush, because he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and also the founder of the Philadelphia Bible Society; Asa Green (Rev. Ashbel Green) because he served in the Revolutionary War, and was also a chaplain to Congress during the Washington administration; Gouverneur Morris, because he was the most frequent speaker at the Constitutional Convention, and because the religious right have found a few quotes that, without an explanation, can be used to make Morris, one of the most irreligious of all the founders, appear to have been very religious.

The first collection of Jefferson's papers, published in 1829, included this journal entry. One minister who was present at Washington's address to the clergy denied that there had been a plan to trick him into revealing his religious beliefs, saying that Dr. Rush must have misunderstood Ashbel Green, that Green had denied the story, and that there were two separate address. Green, on the other hand, appears to have stuck to the story, retelling it years later in almost exactly the same words used by Jefferson. The reason I bring this up, however, is not the discrepancy in the story. It's because the minister who brought it up was Bishop William White, the same Bishop White mentioned earlier.

Remember that part of W.E. Woodward's statement that was omitted by Barton so he could make his accusation that secularists "artfully omit the historical eyewitness testimonies?" Woodward wrote:

Bishop White, who knew him well for many years, wrote after Washington's death that he had never heard him express an opinion on any religious subject. He added that although Washington was "serious and attentive" in church, he never saw him kneel in prayer.

Where did Woodward get this information? From the letter Bishop White wrote to Jared Sparks in 1832 in response to a request similar to the one that Sparks sent to Nelly Custis. In fact, Bishop White's letter is the very next letter in Sparks's book -- the same book that Barton cites as his source for the Custis letter. Before offering his take on how the story in Jefferson's journal entry might have come about, Bishop White made the following statements about Washington.

His behaviour was always serious and attentive; but, as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to declare, that I never saw him in the said attitude.


Although I was often in company with this great man, and had the honor of dining often at his table, I never heard any thing from him, which could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion.(11)

So, Barton not only employs the "Use of Omission" to eliminate Bishop White from Woodward's statement, but quotes Custis's letter while conveniently overlooking the letter on the very next page of Sparks's book that supports Woodward's statement.

I'm going to end here with a question raised by Nelly Custis in her letter to Jared Sparks:

Is it necessary that any one should certify, "General Washington avowed himself to be a believer in Christianity?"(12)

Good question. If, as the authors of the religious right history books would have us believe, the questioning of Washington's religious beliefs is a product of recent historical revisionism, why did Jared Sparks and the authors of the orations quoted earlier feel the need to go to such lengths to convince the people of their time that he was a Christian?

1. W.E. Woodward, George Washington: The Image and the Man, (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926), 142.
2. Gunning Bedford, Funeral Oration Upon the Death of George Washington, (Wilmington: Franklin Press, 1800), 15-16.
3. Jonathan Mitchell Sewall, Eulogy on the late General Washington, Pronounced at St. John's Church, Portsmouth Newhampshire, (Portsmouth, NH: William Treadwell, 1800), 17-18.
4. Jeremiah Smith, An Oration on the Death of George Washington; Delivered at Exeter, February 22, 1800, (Exeter, NH: Henry Ranlet, 1800), 24.
5. John Marshall, The Life of George Washington, vol. 2, (Philadelphia: James Crissy, 1832), 445.
6. Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of George Washington: Being His Correspondence, Addresses, Messages, and Other Papers, Official and Private, vol. 12, (Boston: American Stationers' Company, John B. Russell, 1837), 407.
7. ibid., 406.
8. ibid.
9. Sewall, 17.
10. Saul K. Padover, ed., The Complete Jefferson, (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., 1943), 1279.
11. Sparks, 408.
12. ibid., 407.

Other Parts of this Series:
Part 1
Part 3

Congrats, Chris, excellent article (as usual)!!!
But - a little question.
Who was the FIRST US president AFTER Washington,
who had to beat himself in the chest about his christianity?
Washington didn't do that (GOOD man!), but what about subsequent presidents?

Thanks in advance.
by Condottiere on Tue May 13, 2008 at 06:34:00 PM EST

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