Earlier this year, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave a Leadership Briefing on the Louisville campus. A summary was published on the SBTS website May 3, and a précis was included in the most recent celebratory issue of the seminary’s magazine, marking Dr. Mohler’s 25th anniversary as president.   The title of the talk was typical, given today’s social climate: George Washington’s Public Virtue is Insufficient. Breaking with the long-held tradition of extolling the positive legacy of our Frist President, Dr. Mohler now finds our First President’s legacy lacking. If we examine Washington’s public virtue in light of scripture, Dr. Mohler’s assertion raises important questions. You may want to snap a photo of any nearby statuary honoring George Washington as soon as you can, however, for when secular and religious leaders take aim at historical figures, memorial art doesn’t stand a chance.
Historical records are accessible to all. Washington owned slaves for most of his life, participated in the institution of slavery in full measure, and did not publicly argue for abolition.  Dr. Mohler’s argument against Washington specifically pertains to the latter. He is quoted in the article, saying, “…although he [George Washington] wrote privately about his distaste for the institution of slavery, he did not have the moral fortitude to speak publicly about his private convictions. Additionally, another quote from Mohler, says, “Despite all of Washington’s virtues, he fell short of distinctly Christian virtue…his legacy is polluted by his short-sighted views on slavery and race.”
***Please note that the remainder of this article is NOT to be interpreted, under any circumstances, as an approval of slavery. This is an evaluation of the criticism levied against Washington’s memory, in light of biblical teaching and historical records. Again, this article is NO WAY condones slavery of any kind.***
Where do we go to find what “distinctly Christian virtue” looks like? Surely, the Bible is the best guide. When the books of the New Testament were being penned under the superintending work of the Holy Spirit, persecution against Christ’s followers was fierce. The apostles encouraged new Christians to stand strong in their faith for the sake of their Savior. Moral fortitude was a necessary character trait of those professing to follow Christ in the early years of the Church. Unfortunately for Dr. Mohler’s claim, the moral fortitude we see demonstrated by the first Christians did not include the call for abolition of slavery, though it was deeply imbedded in the culture at that time. Instead, it was fortitude committed to proclaiming the gospel message of forgiveness and freedom from the bondage of sin. A far cry from the call for abolition, Paul exhorts slaves to devote themselves to their masters in his first letter to Timothy: “And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefitted are believers and beloved.” The claim that moral fortitude necessarily included the public decrying of slavery in 18th century Virginia is difficult to square with the absence of it in the 1st century’s inspired text.
More to the point, Dr. Mohler asks, “How could someone like George Washington [and the other Founding Fathers], who so prized liberty and claimed that all human beings possess inherent natural rights, then deny those very natural rights to an entire class of human beings…?” We do not have access to a straightforward response from Washington on this particular question, but a similar question could be put to the Apostle Paul. How could Paul, who so prized the grace of God and believed all human beings were made in the image of God, fail to address the issue of slavery that was so prevalent in his day? Paul did not own slaves, but slavery was no less widespread across the Roman Empire than it was in colonial Virginia; indeed, slaves could be purchased and sold, given and inherited, exchanged and seized. There were plentiful opportunities for Paul to call for abolition of slavery as an institution; however, there is no account of a direct condemnation of slavery by Paul or any other New Testament writer. Does Dr. Mohler accuse the Apostle Paul of failing to display distinctly Christian virtue?
Undoubtedly, there were political and societal differences between these time periods, separated as they are by a millennia and a half; however, the words of Paul have not changed over the centuries, including Paul’s letters to Timothy and Philemon (both dated early 60s AD). Despite the absence of any public outcry against slavery, the Apostle Paul did work to undermine it in his personal letters within the context of his appointed mission. Author and pastor, John Piper, says, “Instead of a frontal attack on the culturally pervasive institution of slavery, Paul took another approach…in his letter to Philemon.” In the letter to Philemon, Paul writes with sincere appeal regarding Philemon’s slave Onesimus. We learn that during Paul’s time with him, the runaway slave converted to Christianity and was a great help to the imprisoned Paul. Scour the letter as we may, Paul does not openly ask Philemon to set Onesimus free. He does, however, offer to cover all Onesimus’ debts: “If he has wronged you, or owes you anything, charge that to my account”. Piper notes how Philemon would have been shamed by this offer of financial assistance. The entire reference to Onesimus is one in which Paul desired his good.
In the same way, Washington’s personal correspondence often undermined slavery, within the context of his purposes, and his last will and testament revealed his position on the matter. Washington directed his slaves to be freed upon his wife’s death, directing the younger ones to be educated and provided for until they were of age, and the elderly and infirm to be provided for financially from his estate:
And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my Will and desire that all who come under the first & second description shall be comfortably clothed & fed by my heirs while they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the Court, upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children and I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretense whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay…”
He freed his slaves (the only slave-holding president to do so) and provided for the old and young financially. Technically, that was George Washington’s last public statement, and just as Paul’s virtuous offer to pay Onesimus’ debts undoubtedly impacted Philemon and the early church, Washington’s last statement impacted his culture, as well. His executors presented Washington’s will for probate in January 1800, and a few days later it was printed and circulated throughout the country in pamphlet form.
It seems difficult to reconcile Dr. Mohler’s charge against Washington with the New Testament, but can’t we all agree that Washington really should have said more about the evils of slavery from public platforms, perhaps during his military service or while serving in public office? With historical integrity, it should also be acknowledged that Washington, like all of God’s elect, underwent sanctification. This key doctrine of the Christian faith must be taken into consideration, as every one of us in the family of God is undergoing the same. As we survey Washington’s life, from inheriting his first slaves in 1743 upon his father’s death (he was only eleven), to the writing of his last will in 1799, we see an increased understanding of the immoral nature of American slavery. Author and historian, Dr. Peter A. Lillbeck, notes this is especially true after the passage of the Virginia Fairfax Resolves in the early 1770s. Additionally, there seems to be some evidence Washington did share his opposition to slavery publicly toward the end of his life. Dr. Lillback recounts that Washington met with Methodist Bishops of America and their diary records George Washington saying, “I’m no longer in public office, so I have no power to change the law of the land, but I’ve become convinced that we must work to end slavery.” According to Dr. Lillback, the diary entry records a statement made in the presence of witnesses where Washington openly opposed slavery before he died, and provides a counter example to Dr. Mohler’s criticism.
What amount of moral fortitude does it require to take disparaging shots at George Washington in 2018? The claims that George Washington’s public virtue was insufficient begs the question, “Insufficient for what?” As we’ve seen, it was not insufficient to meet the demands of the Apostle Paul and the writers of the New Testament. To assert Washington’s lacked moral fortitude and sufficient Christian virtue for failing to call for abolition is tantamount to accusing the Apostle Paul and all New Testament writers of the same. It is primarily for this reason Dr. Mohler’s criticism of Washington fails. Historical figures should be evaluated according to scripture, and never sanctimoniously denigrated to appease a current political ideology. Washington’s legacy is not polluted by a “short-sightedness on slavery and race” unless “slavery and race” become the sole lens through which his legacy is evaluated.
If you visit the University of Texas at Austin you’ll encounter a sorely compromised aesthetic created by empty marble pedestals. Numerous pieces of statuary have been deposed around the plaza and only one remains: the statue of George Washington. Who knows how much longer it will remain as secular and religious leaders continually attempt to topple Washington’s gallant legacy from its seat of honor and criticize a man whose Christian virtue, rightly regarded, makes many of today’s leaders appear tenured at the Academy of Lagado. To view Washington’s legacy in this way seems to be a true example of short-sightedness and I fear the statue, and the legacy, that may be chosen to take his place.
 “Leadership Briefing: George Washington’s Public Virtue is Insufficient”, Southern Seminary Magazine, Vol. 86, No. 2, p. 43.
 Acts 5:41, I Peter 2:20, 4:16
 I Timothy 6:2
 http://news.sbts.edu/2018/05/03/mohler-george-washingtons-public-virtue-though-laudable-insufficient/ Accessed November 18, 2018.
 John MacArthur Study Bible, “The Epistle of Paul to Philemon” (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997) 1890.
 Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Volume 2: New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) 936.
 D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005) 571,578, 592.
 https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-paul-worked-to-overcome-slavery Accessed Nov. 9, 2018
 Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Volume 2: New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) 935.
 Philemon 1:18
 http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/george-washingtons-last-will-and-testament/ Accessed Nov. 20,2018.
 https://providenceforum.org/podcast-washington-slave-owner/ Accessed Nov, 18, 2018.
 https://providenceforum.org/podcast-washington-slave-owner/ Dr. Lillback speaking at 3:20 to 3:57.
 Jonathan Swift. Gulliver’s Travels (Garden City, NJ: Doubelday and Co., 1945) Chapter V.