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Was George Washington a Christian?

Jay Haug

[COMMENT:    See also, George Washington's God.    E. Fox] 

 

Was George Washington a Christian?
 
                                                                      By Jay Haug
 
 
Was George Washington a Christian? Between historical revisionists, evangelicals and atheists, one is likely to receive a variety of answers. The clearest perspective is gained by examining the complete arc of Washington’s life. I have just finished reading Ron Chernow’s  Washington: A Life which in 817 pages gives a comprehensive picture of our first president’s life, including his spiritual and religious beliefs and practice. But before we examine the record, a caveat is in order.
 
Some writers and researchers have attempted to edge Washington into the Deist camp. Some out of prejudice. Others as the result of faulty research. This is a mistake, for two reasons. First, many have too often misconstrued eighteenth century Christianity, with its rationalism and reserve, as indicating a lack of personal faith. Washington was born too late (1732) to experience the First Great Awakening directly with its personal zeal and piety, though he may have seen some of its emanations on the frontier trail as a young army officer during the French and Indian War. But both inside and outside evangelicalism, it was common then to refer to “providence” rather than to “God” directly. This was simply the language of the day. John Wesley himself preached a sermon entitled “Divine Providence.” To modern ears this sounds more like a distant deity than a personal God. But this simply reflects different language for an earlier more formal age.
 
Secondly, if one compounds the mistake of failing to appreciate a more formalized era with Washington’s own personal reserve, partly stemming from his military background, it is easy to confuse emotional reticence with lack of personal faith. Ron Chernow continually references the reality that Washington’s emotional reserve masked deeply felt and powerful feelings. Do not confuse Washington’s visage with a remote and rationalistic faith. It simply reflected George Washington’s personal style which showed disdain  for overt familiarity.
 
These two mistakes have led many to conclude that Washington was some kind of deist, an erroneous conclusion contrary to the evidence. Let’s examine the record as Chernow presents it. (I would also recommend Michael and Jana Novak’s Washington’s God)
 
After the battle of Great Meadows in the French and Indian War, Washington buried the body of  Major General Edward Braddock by the side of the road at night, no doubt using the Anglican 1662 Burial Office. This reverent and kindly act was hardly the work of someone unfamiliar or uncomfortable with his church’s religious practice. He also made sure the gravesite was ridden over by wagon wheels to assure it would not be located and desecrated by Indians. Washington imbued his army with religious practice.  As an antidote to drunkenness and swearing, Washington lobbied for the appointment of a regimental chaplain saying “Common decency, sir, in a camp calls for services of the divine.”
 
George Washington clearly had a significant devotional life. This included Bible reading, prayer, sermon reading, use of the Book of Common Prayer and helping the poor. Of  Washington’s personal devotions, Chernow writes, “He also devoted time to private prayers..” In addition, “General Robert Porterfield recalled that when he delivered an urgent message to Washington….he found him on his knees, engaged in morning devotions.” Though the famous painting of Washington at Valley Forge inspired by Parson Weems hagiography has never been chased down to a specific incident, this may have been its origin. When told of this, Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide de camp replied that “this was his common practice.”  On Sunday evenings, Washington would “often read aloud from newspapers or from sermons.”
 
George Washington was a vestryman of Truro parish for twenty-two years, a time in which Chernow records that he “help (ed) to pay the minister, balance the budget, choose a site for a new church, scrutinize its construction and and select furnishings for a new communion table.”  When living in New York in his first years as president, Washington attended St. Paul’s Chapel where he had his own “canopied pew.” When Washington also joined Christ Church, Alexandria, he bought a pew and served on the vestry there too. He also served three terms as a church warden, during which time he “helped to care for poor people and orphans.” In fact, Washington often attended to the needy.  Chernow writes, “When destitute veterans flocked to his door, Washington frequently dispensed alms to them.” He also gave liberally and regularly to the poor, preferring anonymity in doing so. He designated November 26, 1789 as the first Thanksgiving Day, contributing “beer and food for those in jail for debt.”
 
Washington’s views on religious freedom were consistent  with the rest of the founding generation. What often remains unsaid is that Christianity itself was the inspiration for religious freedom, having been purged of political prejudice by the painful lessons of European wars and persecutions. George W. Bush, who referred to God often as “the Almighty” said  he believed in religious freedom not “despite being a Christian but because he was a Christian.” Nothing could be more American than religious tolerance.
 
 As president, Washington’s famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation affirmed  “the government of theUnited States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” He prayed that God would “still continue to water them with the dews of heaven.”  According to Chernow, when  Washington “needed a good bricklayer at Mt. Vernon, he stated that “if they are good workmen,” they could be “Mahometans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists.” This belief in freedom of religion would eventually vindicate the American Revolution, while the French Revolution to follow, driven downward by the “single sacred truth” of the God of reason, would founder in a pool of guillotine-soaked blood.
 
Washington’s views on Christianity profoundly impacted his political philosophy. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he wrote in his farewell address. “No man who is profligate in  his morals or a bad member of the civil community can possibly be a true Christian.” This idea might seem odd and moralistic to a culture infused with cheap grace. To a new nation needing social and political cohesion, it was a moral necessity. Despite not publicly endorsing any particular form of religion, he wrote that “national policy needed to be rooted in private morality which relied on ‘eternal rules of order and right’ ordained by heaven itself.”
 
Washington’s faith and practice necessitated personal restraint as well. Chernow demonstrates conclusively that after his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Custis, there were nevertheless two women to whom Washington was attracted and they to him.  Sally Fairfax of Virginia and Eliza Powel of Philadelphia. Both were attractive, wealthy and married. Though Washington enjoyed the company of attractive women and would often count their numbers in the endless round of receptions and parties he attended, there is no evidence he ever was unfaithful. When women were overly flattering or flirtatious, Washington would pull back into formality. From every indication, Martha Washington appeared to trust her husband during the many years he was away for the simple fact that he had proven himself trustworthy.
 
Washington engaged with personal tragedy faithfully on numerous occasions. When his step-daughter (Washington had no natural children) Patsy died suddenly at Mt. Vernon on June 19, 1773, he “solemnly recited prayers for the dying, while tears rolled down his cheeks and his voice was often broken by sobs.” Pasty’s brother Jackie wrote a condolence note to his mother Martha after the funeral encouraging her to “remember you are a Christian.”
 
Despite hardships, militia desertions, strenuous retreats and the difficult Valley Forge Winter of 1777-78,Washington was blessed with what Chernow calls a “supernatural immunity to bullets.” In 1776, David McCullough describes the near miraculous events of Dorchester Heights, Brooklyn Heights and Trenton, all maneuvers accomplished in the dead of night and possessing  more than a hint of divine providence. On numerous occasions, General Washington stood directly in the line of fire only to be missed. In one incident in the French and Indian War, he exited the battle with four bullet holes through his vest and two horses shot from underneath him.  On another occasion, a British soldier had him dead to rights from the rear and failed to fire believing the man in his sights was someone else. According to Chernow, Washington “construed favorable events in the war as reflections of Providence…transforming him into a tool of heavenly purpose.” When the war was won, Washington sent a “Circular to State Governments” giving thanks to “the Divine author of our blessed religion.” He went on. “I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the state over which you preside, in his holy protection…”
 
When France eventually entered the Revolutionary War on behalf of the United States, trapping the British escape by sea from Yorktown, Washington wrote thankfully,
 
It having pleased the Almighty ruler of the Universe propitiously to defend the cause of the United American  States and finally by raising us up a powerful friend among the princes of the earth, to establish liberty and independence upon lasting foundations, it becomes us to set apart a day for gratefully acknowledging the divine goodness.” Washington continued to see a providential hand ruling in the birth of this new nation. In his first inaugural he wrote, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States.”
 
There is no question that Washington’s views on Indians and slaves were less than noble. While in keeping with his age in the practice of slavery, he clearly chafed under the inner conflict between belief and practice. Freeing slaves was a noble idea rarely implemented in his day, particularly in the plantation south which required enormous manual labor. Washington continually referred to his desire to free his slaves, but when they escaped, he would often send other people after them, protected by fugitive slave laws. Washington and his wife Martha failed to appreciate the desires of their slaves to be free, telling themselves that their being relatively good masters should mitigate any desire for their slaves to seek freedom. To be fair, Washington could not by law free his large minority of dower slaves, which were inherited through Martha. As law dictated, they would redound to her heirs. Chernow notes that foreign visitors would remark on the evils of slavery during their visits to Mt. Vernon, while American visitors would often remain silent.  Washington’s will dictated his own slaves were to be freed upon his death. What does this all tell us? Perhaps only that following our faith at great personal and financial cost is always difficult in any generation, no matter what our intentions may be. What future generations can tell us about our own hypocracies is anyone’s guess.
 
In one speech to Indians, Washington makes his most specific recorded reference to Jesus. “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life and, above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”   He remained convinced that settling western lands presented  the possibility of  a “new American Eden.” He told Princeton president John Witherspoon, “It would give me pleasure to see these lands seated by particular societies or religious sectaries with their pastors.
 
Despite Washington’s faith, his church attendance remained somewhat sporadic and according to Chernow, he “avoided Sundays when communion was offered.” We are not sure why this was. [See Communion was generally a once a month affair in most Anglican/Episcopal churches of the day. In our present day, we are used to presidents whose church attendance is sporadic, often because they feel it is disruptive to the congregation or their own personal lives. It is clear that Washington, especially after the war, felt the “burden of celebrity.” For decades, he protested that all he wanted was to return to Mt. Vernon to farming and retirement. He was  the first American president to attend church irregularly. But he was not the last.
 
George Washington was a mason. When he was buried at Mt. Vernon in December 1799, four Episcopal priests were present along with masons who conducted Masonic burial rites. Though many might see free masonry as in conflict with Christianity, at least in part, Washington did not see it that way. When he was sent Masonic ornaments “late in the war” he credited “the Grand architect of the Universe, who did not see fit to suffer the superstructures and justice to be subjected to the ambition of the princes of the world.”
 
Washington faced his own demise with evident faith. “I am not afraid to die and therefore can bear the worst…Whether tonight, or twenty years hence, makes no difference. I know that I am in the hands of a good Providence.” Three months before he died, George Washington lost his last sibling Charles. Both he and Martha were to outlive all their siblings. “I was the first and am now the last of my father’s children by the second marriage who remain. When I shall be called upon to follow them is known only to the giver of life.”  Three months later, seized by a throat infection, the father of our country was gone. General Henry Lee delivered his eulogy after the procession moved from Congress Hall in Philadelphia to the German Lutheran Church. Lee reflected on the love America bore toward its revolutionary leader, first president and father of his country. “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
 
George Washington was a sinner, an Anglican/Episcopalian (the American Episcopal Church was formed during his life) and a Christian. The record is abundantly clear. Contrary to much popular thinking, there were a handful of deists among the founders of our country. George Washington was not one of them. Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is evidence enough.

See also, George Washington's God.
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Date Posted - 10/19/2011   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012