In Support of Memorial Art-Why Dr. Mohler is Wrong about George Washington

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. [1] [2] The title of the talk was typical, given today’s social climate: George Washington’s Public Virtue is Insufficient.[3] 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. [4] 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.[5] 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.”[6]

***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.[7]  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.”[8] 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…?”[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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).[12]  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.”[13] 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.[14] He does, however, offer to cover all Onesimus’ debts: “If he has wronged you, or owes you anything, charge that to my account”.[15] Piper notes how Philemon would have been shamed by this offer of financial assistance.[16] 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…”[17]

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.[18]

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.[19] 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.”[20] 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.[21] 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.

 

[1] http://news.sbts.edu/2018/05/03/mohler-george-washingtons-public-virtue-though-laudable-insufficient/  Accessed Nov. 20, 2018

 

[2] “Leadership Briefing: George Washington’s Public Virtue is Insufficient”, Southern Seminary Magazine, Vol. 86, No. 2, p. 43.

 

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] https://www.mountvernon.org/library/research-library/washington-papers/

 

[5] http://news.sbts.edu/2018/05/03/mohler-george-washingtons-public-virtue-though-laudable-insufficient/

 

[6] Ibid.

 

[7] Acts 5:41, I Peter 2:20, 4:16

 

[8] I Timothy 6:2

 

[9] http://news.sbts.edu/2018/05/03/mohler-george-washingtons-public-virtue-though-laudable-insufficient/ Accessed November 18, 2018.

 

[10] John MacArthur Study Bible, “The Epistle of Paul to Philemon” (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997)             1890.

 

[11] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Volume 2: New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) 936.

 

[12] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005) 571,578, 592.

 

[13] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-paul-worked-to-overcome-slavery Accessed Nov. 9, 2018

 

[14] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Volume 2: New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) 935.

 

[15] Philemon 1:18

 

[16] Ibid.

[17] https://www.mountvernon.org/education/primary-sources-2/article/george-washingtons-last-will-and-testament-july-9-1799/ Accessed Nov. 18, 2018.

 

[18] http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/george-washingtons-last-will-and-testament/ Accessed Nov. 20,2018.

[19] https://providenceforum.org/podcast-washington-slave-owner/ Accessed Nov, 18, 2018.

 

[20] https://providenceforum.org/podcast-washington-slave-owner/ Dr. Lillback speaking at 3:20 to 3:57.

 

[21] Jonathan Swift. Gulliver’s Travels (Garden City, NJ: Doubelday and Co., 1945) Chapter V.

 

8 Comments

  1. Wonderful article! I find it more than frustrating that Christian leaders are jumping on the bandwagon of political correctness when believers, of all people, should have the understanding and discernment to help people see the truth in within the broader context of history and culture—as well as Scripture. You’ve done just that in this article. Thank you. We need more voices like yours!

  2. Richelle Bryan

    This article undermines pretty much every defense against the view of slavery in the Bible given by Biola Apologists. This article is seriously misguided if it is based on the premise that 1st century slavery condoned in the Bible makes the transatlantic slave trade okay. They are not the same and you should know this by now. Further, even if George Washington changed his mind in his late years that doesn’t mean he needs to be honored! Christian virtue should ABSOLUTELY take into account how you treat fellow human beings. Otherwise what is it based on??? I am praying for you Scarlett.

    • Thanks for your comment, Richelle. You may have missed the emphasis I put on responding preemptively to the very point you’ve criticized me for. I deliberately put in a separate disclaimer directly underneath the second paragraph that my point was not to condone slavery of any kind. I’ll paste it here for your reference:

      ***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.***

      I don’t think I could have made that any clearer. Thanks, Richelle.

  3. Nefertiti Robinson

    Hi Scarlett! I have some questions about your assertions and some of the passages you referenced. It seems that you have not intended to condone or approve of slavery, but the impact of your assertions do nothing but that, as is.

    “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.”

    In the assertion above, you are squaring 18th century slavery in Virginia with 1st century slavery in Rome. You say ‘the words of Paul have not changed over the centuries’ but considering that American chattel slavery was inseparable from heretic theology that disregards the doctrine of Imago Dei and that 1st century Roman institution of slavery contained no such heresy, wouldn’t the apostle’s words change based on the context and ideological content of 18th century chattel slavery? And if the words explicitly about slavery itself were not to change even if addressed to American chattel slavery, could it be that all of the other apostolic teachings that American chattel slavery violates help us to glean a more accurate statement on American chattel slavery?

    “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.[10] 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.”
    “Despite the absence of any public outcry against slavery……”

    The apostles were all Jewish and Torah observant, and the Torah most likely shaped their imagination on slavery. Christian theology and the church’s mission in 18th century America (Virginia), however, are polluted by satanic agendas like racialization and colonization. Do you honestly believe George Washington’s complicity in such activity would get a pass from Apostle Paul, who harshly rebuked a fellow apostle for less?

    “…….. 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.[14] He does, however, offer to cover all Onesimus’ debts: “If he has wronged you, or owes you anything, charge that to my account”.[15] Piper notes how Philemon would have been shamed by this offer of financial assistance.[16] 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.”

    I’m a bit confused. Your personal correspondence can’t undermine what you publicly participate in.

    Is George Washington ‘Philemon’ or ‘Paul’ in this article?

    If he’s ‘Philemon’, since Washington’s orthopraxy proves that his orthodoxy itself was compromised (because American chattel slavery is inseparable from white supremacy on the individual and collective level) and considering his (George’s) position in society, would apostle Paul be attempting to compromise with him at all?
    If likening Washington’s selected approach to slavery to apostle Paul’s selected approach to address Philemon (and therefore slavery in his household), who is the ‘Philemon’ Washington is responsible to address? Philemon led a church. Washington led a country. Wouldn’t it have been his nation and not merely his household?

    “***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.***”

    It is clear that you have no intention of condoning or supporting slavery by writing this article, but I fear you have made harmful assertions (that echo slave owners of previous generations, using the same rhetoric) at a far greater expense.

    I’m not sure if you’re aware but there is an entire branch of apologetics and cultural analysis being developed to address the harmful rhetoric propagated, and it’s necessary at this point just to reach the African diaspora with the gospel. Centuries of this rhetoric has resulted in a modern American evangelicalism’s incompetence to model gospel implications and this rhetoric is wreaking actual havoc in urban communities spiritually.

    You can slap on disclaimers about intent, but intent does not outweigh impact.

  4. It is like bizarro world to read your words.

    The Southern Baptist Church split away from the Northern Baptist Church over the issue of slavery. I’m sure you remember this, and that after 150 years (!) the SBC apologized. This is also something you may recall as having happened in your lifetime.

    I’m sure you realize that to your fellow black brothers and sisters in Christ, to be reminded of slavery’s pre-eminence and literal favor in America, to see white slavers elevated and honored because we hide their monstrous sins under the fig leaf of “well, they were men and women of their time,” is to tell them, right now, with your own words, that the pain–and the lives–your black brothers and sisters is worth less than your white-centered desire to keep your false memories about the past intact.

    You are using your white privilege and your white feelings to dismiss the faces of those *in your very own denomination* who are, right now, the targets of racist actions and racist words.

    Is George Washington the father of our country (as a phrase, of course: he was sterile in real life)? Sure. I can accept that *fact*.

    Was George Washington a white slaver even during his two terms as president, and was he known by his sobriquet “Slave-catcher George” because of his desires, even as a president and after being a president, to continue to enslave black human beings who, according to our faith in the Lord Jesus, are equally co-inheritors of the kingdom?

    Yes. Multiple times yes. George Washington was a white slaver.

    If we are going to say that “because he was a man of his times about his own participation in white supremacy and white enslavement of black human beings, we can’t judge him,” then how is it that we can simultaneously say he was a “good” man or even an “ideal” man? We are doing the same thing by elevating a “good” thing out of its time, but suppressing the “bad” thing as somehow coincidentally occurring but in no way staining his character and thereby his reputation.

    Twelve of our white male presidents have been slave owners, including Ulysses S. Grant, at some point in their lives. Some of them were slavers while president. These white men could somehow read their Bibles and read their Constitution and remember their Declaration of Independence, and simultaneously ignore their own actions, or, in Thomas Jefferson’s case, wring their hands about their own wickedness and yet continue to pursue it, even when offered payment to free their own enslaved people. White supremacy and being white slavers was more important to them than freedom, even a freedom at no cost to them–so it is rather precious to think that we can excise their support of black chattel slavery as some aberration of their character.

    The example of Christians in history has been terrible. We have justified murdering our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ because of a theological dispute over a single Greek vowel. We have invaded foreign lands with our Christian crusades, killing our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, because religious leaders told us it was God’s will. *We white Christians invented chattel slavery*. We in America in 1667 formalized the slave codes that made chattel slavery perpetual and inescapable, and then proceeded to our churches to celebrate our piety. We had the breathless audacity to proclaim that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”–and then proceeded immediately to *alienate those rights* for women, Native Americans, and our chattel slaves, considering all of them as not truly human because they *could not* be granted those inalienable rights. That *you* have a voice in America is because enough people recognized the wickedness and hypocrisy of the white founders of America, and passed an Amendment to acknowledge your purported “inalienable rights” and enable your enfranchisement.

    If we want to honor the men who made such great statements but lived such hypocritical lives, then we can have a memorial for the good that they did *while including the terrible wickedness they implemented and condoned*. Both / And.

    If we put our own feelings about the past above the record of the past, we Christians are of all people the most foolish and the most easily fooled.

    I would appeal to you to consider your fellow SBC members who are black, who read these words, and see how you devalue their witness and their lives. I would think that if you have a single black friend, that you would not be so bold as to dismiss from the outset the black chattel slavery your heroes condoned and extended. But to be honest, sometimes it’s not possible to have to have a personal encounter in order to change one’s mind.

    I would therefore simply say that the Lord Jesus Christ hates chattel slavery, hates the enactment and extension of white supremacy, and that he calls us to repudiate the things of the past that are wicked and destructive and wrong, including any honor given to those in the past who participated in that wickedness and destruction and evil.

    To follow Jesus means to die to all of our past, including the past romanticized as not that bad for black people because we got a pretty flag out of it.

    You can take nothing with you when you enter the Kingdom, and anything that holds you back needs to be discarded before it becomes the thing that blocks you from entry.

  5. hey, scarlett.
    this post is deeply harmful to all; especially to the church and especially people of color.

    you came close to realizing impact because you felt the need for this disclaimer:

    “***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.***”

    sadly, intentions pale in comparison to the weight of impact here. following your disclaimer, as i see someone else commented above, you proceed to outright parrot “good slaveowner” jargon and ideals.

    please listen, take time with the critique you’ve received above, specifically nefertiti and stephen have graciously pointed to your harmful errors.

  6. Book Robinson

    I was going to say something, but the homies nailed it. I would like to get together next time I am in Texas. My wife and I will be there several times next year. I would like to get your personal perspective, ask questions, and engage in intelligent dialogue. There are many Christians who share your sentiments, so this is a chasm which sooner or later must be crossed. I only hope to do so in love.

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