If George Washington Gets A Pass, Why Not William Ernest Hocking?

Well, one reason is that Washington was the nation’s first president and the U.S. Capitol has a whole lot of hullabaloo about him as a divine-like being (see the image of Washington’s apotheosis). Hocking, by contrast, was merely a professor of philosophy at Harvard University. As positions go, teaching at Harvard is not too shabby, but it runs well behind the founding president of the greatest nation on God’s green earth.

But when you read the religious statements of each man, you do begin to scratch your head about the relative orthodoxy of George Washington, regarded by most professional historians to be a deistical member of the Masons, compared to the theological liberalism of Hocking, who wrote the controversial report on American Protestant foreign missions, Re-Thinking Missions (you know, the report that led Machen to found the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions and to Machen’s conviction and suspension from ministry in the PCUSA).

Here is Washington’s statement regarding a national day of thanksgiving

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor–and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be–That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions–to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness onto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

And here is a statement from Hocking about the aim of missions:

The goal to which this way leads may be variously described, most perfectly perhaps in the single phrase, Thy Kingdom come. This is, and has always been, the true aim of Christian missions.

Its detail varies as we learn more of what is involved in it. It means to us now, as always, saving life. It means representing to the Orient the spiritual sources of western civilization, while its other aspects, technical and material, are being represented so vigorously in other ways. It means paving the way for international friendship through a deeper understanding. It means trying more definitely to strengthen our own hold on the meaning of religion in human life. Should we try to express this conception in a more literal statement it might be this: To seek with people of other lands a true knowledge and love of God, expressing in life and word what we have learned through Jesus Christ, and endeavoring to give effect to his spirit in the life of the world.

Whatever the merits of either statement, it is curious to note that Hocking at least mentions Jesus Christ while Washington rarely referred to the second person of the Trinity, except when using the conventional language of the Book of Common Prayer. (It is odd, by the way, for evangelicals to cling to the language of formal prayers when defending Washington’s piety when that same liturgical language was and is off limits in born-again worship where sincerity demands extemporaneous prayers and repudiates merely going through the motions of “prayer-book” religion.)

Which leads to the question: if we can make allowances for George Washington’s religious statements, don’t we have to extend the same generosity to Harry Emerson Fosdick, Hocking, and Pearl Buck? In other words, if you show charity to the American founders, don’t you have to extend the same to Protestant liberals? In which case, if we believed in the orthodoxy of the Founders, would we actually have communions like the OPC and the PCA?


7 thoughts on “If George Washington Gets A Pass, Why Not William Ernest Hocking?

  1. I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that politically conservative Christians are largely inconsistent, and swallow a lot of inaccurate rhetoric that is fed to them. Then again, maybe that is controversial…

    A somewhat related question, to play the devils’ advocate (since when does he need an advocate anyway?): Does Hocking’s spiritual responsibilities require greater orthodoxy than GW? In other words, isn’t it a bit easier to give Washington a free pass because he didn’t hold any religious office?


  2. Carter, if GW didn’t hold religious office, then why work so hard to prove he was orthodox? It could be that someone thinks the United States is more important than the church.


  3. If you want “Sacred Fire” from WTS-P’s bookstore you’ll have to wait 3-6 weeks, at least.

    Someone in the WTS bookstore really missed the boat on this one. Should not have taken too much foresight to recognize a show with a couple million viewers (not to mention the radio audience) where your President will be, in effect, hawking his book may cause a run on said book from your bookstore.

    I guess my view that the Revolution does not meet the threshold of “Just War” and was in fact an act of sedition would not be welcome on Beck’s show.


  4. I don’t get it. Why is the spiritual status of George Washington so important? If George Washington was a Christian, then _______. If George Washington was not a Christian then _________. Neither answer makes me see the United States any differently. Is there some kind of political apostolic succession argument buried here? Is there an implicit argument that our presidents should be kings AND priests?


  5. Michael, I think the point is that if Washington was friendly to religion, then Obama should be also. What I don’t get is that Obama is friendly to religion, at least by Washington’s deistical standards. What Christian America folks don’t seem to recognize is that civil religion from either a federalist or a democrat is still a trivialization of Christianity.


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