The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Washington’s Dentures, Syphilis, and Deism

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I received the following email from a Christian-school family:

My daughters attend a Christian School in Tucson, AZ. The 11th grade US History teacher told the class that the "founders" were deist, didn't have a relationship with Christ -- so, were not Christians, that George Washington had a sexually transmitted disease -- her explanation due to the fact that he wore a wig, lost his hair, he had an STD.

I was SHOCKED that this teacher made these types of statements to her class.  . . . Do you have any material that I could use to challenge this teacher on her “opinions”?  My husband and I have made tremendous sacrifices to send our daughters to a Christian School and find what this teacher is teaching as “fact” very troubling.

Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated.

Let’s begin with the claim that George Washington had a sexually transmitted disease, probably syphilis. These are probably the same people who believe Washington’s false teeth were wooden. They weren’t. Laser scans of Washington’s dentures found gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth. An ingenious spring mechanism was used to open the set. In all that I’ve been able to find, the syphilis accusation is a modern-day myth that Washington scholars have repeatedly dispelled.

No one who has ever espoused the myth that Washington died of syphilis has ever attempted to link any of the disease’s symptoms to Washington’s last illness, nor have they claimed that any of his symptoms mimicked those of syphilis. Rather, they just mindlessly repeat the canard (see here).

The claim may have been popularized for schools in the documentary “George Washington: The Unknown Years” (1997). A study guide was produced by Discovery Education, a division of the Discovery Channel.

The following comments were made by Washington Scholar Jack Warren, an advisor to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm, the former editor of the papers of George Washington: “There is no credible evidence that he [suffered from syphilis], and no credible evidence that he suffered from any of the symptoms.”

The claim is often made that deism was the prevailing religious worldview leading up to and including the Constitutional era. Unfortunately, many who make this claim rarely follow the classic definition of deism in making their assessment of the religious beliefs of those who qualify as the “founders of America” and the documents they drafted. Here’s a typical definition of Deism:

“The primary leaders of the so-called founding fathers of our nation were not Bible-believing Christians; they were deists. Deism was a philosophical belief that was widely accepted by the colonial intelligentsia at the time of the American Revolution. Its major tenets included belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political problems and belief in a supreme deity who created the universe to operate solely by natural laws.”

As if Christians didn’t believe in human reason! Christians maintain that reason is reliable but limited. God Himself says, “Come, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18). The NT tells us to love God with “all your mind” (Luke 10:27). While the Bible recognizes that the mind can become futile (Eph. 4:17) and be depraved (2 Tim. 3:8), it requires that we renew it (Rom. 12:2). The mind can go into two directions (Rom. 8:6–7). But nowhere in the Bible are we told not to use reason. It’s a tool—God’s tool for us to understand His word and world. Paul “reasoned with” his opponents (Acts 17:2; 18:19). To claim that Deists were the ones who resurrected reason and Christians buried it is the epitome of historical revisionism. The question is, What is the foundation for reason?

The above quotation is representative of the current secular understanding of the founding of America, but is it an accurate definition of deism, and does it truly represent the views of the founders?

Many Christian founders were outspoken Christians. They are rarely if ever mentioned by historical revisionists. Consider, for example, John Dickinson (1732–1808) who was a lawyer, militia officer during the American Revolution, Continental Congressman from Pennsylvania and Delaware, delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, President of Delaware, and President of Pennsylvania. On the Bible, he wrote the following:

“The Holy Scriptures are able to make us wise unto Salvation, through Faith which is in Jesus Christ.” “All Scripture given by inspiration of God is profitable for Doctrine, for Reproof, for Correction, for Instruction in Righteousness that the Man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good Works.” The Scriptures give a full and ample testimony to all the principle Doctrines of the Christian Faith; and therefore no Divine or inward Communication at this Day, however necessary, do or can contradict that testimony.

There are others, all of whom signed the Constitution: Charles Pinckney and John Langdon were founders of the American Bible Society; James McHenry was founder of the Baltimore Bible Society. Rufus King helped found a Bible society for Anglicans. Abraham Baldwin served as a chaplain in the War for Independence. Roger Sherman, William Samuel Johnson, and Jacob Broom wrote on theological subjects. James Wilson and William Patterson were placed on the Supreme Court by President George Washington. They had prayer over juries in the U. S. Supreme Court room. John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister who signed the Declaration of Independence, helped draft the Articles of Confederation, served twice in the New Jersey Legislature, and strongly supported the adoption of the United States Constitution during the New Jersey ratification debates.

Why don’t these men count? Why do we only hear of Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams? Witherspoon, like so many men of his day, believed that reason and revelation were not in opposition. “Hence arises a question,” Witherspoon wrote in his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, “is it lawful, and is it safe or useful, to separate moral philosophy from religion? It will be said, it is either the same or different from revealed truth; if the same, unnecessary—if different, false and dangerous. . . . If the Scripture is true, the discoveries of reason cannot be contrary to it; and, therefore, it has nothing to fear from that quarter.”

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