George Washington and religion

George Washington and religion

The exact nature of George Washington's religious beliefs has been debated by historians and biographers for over two-hundred years. Unlike some of his fellow Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry, Washington rarely discussed or wrote about his religious and philosophical opinions in any great detail yet he quite often displayed a humble and gracious respect towards God in much of his personal letters and public speeches.

His Anglican affiliations

George Washington was baptized as an infant into the Church of England, [Family Bible entry] [Image of page from family Bible] which, before the American Revolution, was the state religion of the colony of Virginia. [ [ Colonial Williamsburg website] has 4 articles on religion in colonial Virginia] Since the English monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and its clergy are obliged to swear an Oath of Supremacy to the monarch, following the revolution churches of this denomination in the United States joined together to establish the Episcopal Church. Until Virginia enacted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, the Episcopal Church retained its role as the state religion of Virginia. [ A History of Religious Liberty in American Public Life by Charles C. Haynes (1991 Council for the Advancement of Citizenship and the Center for Civic Education)] (The denominations that share the Church of England tradition remain associated in the Anglican Communion).

As an adult, Washington served as a member of the vestry (lay council) for his local parish. Office-holding qualifications at all levels, including the House of Burgesses to which Washington was elected in 1758, required affiliation with the current state religion, and an undertaking that one would not express dissent nor do anything that did not conform to church doctrine. At the library of the New York Historical Society, some manuscripts containing a leaf from the church record of Pohick were available to Benson Lossing, an American historian, which he included in his "Field Book of the Revolution." The leaf contained the following signed oath, required to qualify individuals as vestrymen:

cquote|I, A B, do declare that I will be conformable to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England, as by law established.,

"1765. May 20th. – Thomas Withers Coffer, Thomas Ford, John Ford.

"19th August. – "Geo. Washington", Daniel M‘Carty ..." [ Lossing, Benson J., " [|The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution] "]

His attendance at religious services

Washington regularly attended Sunday services and purchased a family pew at several churches. Rev. Lee Massey, his pastor in Mt Vernon, wrote: "I never knew so constant an attendant in church as Washington." [ [ The History of Truro Parish in Virginia ] ]

Whether Washington partook of communion is a question of tremendous controversy. An 1833 statement by his adopted daughter, Nelly Custis-Lewis, states of her mother Eleanor Calvert-Lewis (who resided in Mount Vernon for two years), "I have heard her say that General Washington always received the sacrament with my grandmother before the revolution." [] Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis' letter written to Jared Sparks, 1833]

Major William Popham, one of General Washington's aides during the Revolution wrote, "the President [Washington] had more than once—I believe I say often—attended the sacramental table, at which I had the privilege and happiness to kneel with him." [Major William Popham to Jane Washington, March 14, 1839,City::va::14793.html]

Another contemporary, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (the wife of Alexander Hamilton), is reported by her great-grandson to have said the following to him: "If anyone ever tells you that George Washington was not a communicant in the Church, you say that your great-grandmother told you to say that she 'had knelt at this chancel rail at his side and received with him the Holy Communion.'" [Cited by Lillback, "George Washington's Sacred Fire", p 421. This is the recollection of a 70 year-old man (around 1915) about what he was told to say when he was 7 by his 97 year-old great-grandmother. The event is said to have taken place immediately following Washington's First Inauguration in 1789.]

Besides a few other contemporary accounts such as the ones above, the record of his taking communion is in opposition to such claims. [ "Six Historic Americans" by John Remsburg, Chapter 3] .] Among the sources, ministers at four of the churches Washington frequently attended have written that he never took communion. Rev. Dr. James Abercrombie, rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, related a story in which Washington himself said he was never a communicant. [Abercrombie did not himself hear Washington say this. Abercrombie said an unnamed person whom he thought was a U.S. Senator told him that Washington, in recounting the incident of Abercrombie's sermon reproving him, said he had never been a communicant.] Washington regularly left services before communion along with the other non-communicants. When Abercrombie mentioned in a weekly sermon that those in elevated stations set an unhappy example by leaving at communion, Washington ceased attending at all on communion Sundays [cite web
title=Annals of the American Pulpit
volume=Vol. v
pages=p 394
first=Rev. Wm. B.
] [cite web
title=article reprinted from "Episcopal Recorder"
first=Rev. E.D.
publisher=NY Times
pages=p 3
length=510 words
] (communion was not celebrated every week in the Episcopal Church at that time). Long after Washington died, when asked about Washington's beliefs, Abercrombie replied: "Sir, Washington was a Deist!" [ "The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents" by Franklin Steiner] ]

Washington took his oath on the King James Version of the Bible at his first inauguration as President. (There is no known record of a Bible being used at his second inauguration.)


Washington was buried according to the rite of the Episcopal Church, with the Rev. Thomas David, rector of Christ Church, Alexandria, officiating. [cite web
title = Funerals of the Famous: Washington
url =
publisher = Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service
accessdate = 2008-02-20
] Masonic rites were also performed by members of his lodge. [cite web
url =
title = The Papers of George Washington: The Funeral
publisher = Alderman Library, University of Virginia
accessdate = 2008-02-20

Testimony from others

His adopted daughter, Nelly Custis-Lewis, in response to a request from Jared Sparks in 1833 for information on Washington's religions views, wrote, "He attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles (a one-way journey of 2-3 hours by horse or carriage). In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition [sickness] ." She continues by saying "No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect." She adds: "I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, that they may be seen of men."

On February 1, 1800, a few weeks after Washington's death, Thomas Jefferson made the following entry in his journal, regarding an incident on the occasion of Washington's departure from office: [ [ The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul L. Ford (Federal Edition) (New York and London, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904-05). 12 vols — VOLUME I: THE ANAS (1791–1806) AND VARIOUS CONVERSATIONS WITH THE PRESIDENT] ] [ "Six Historic Americans" by John Remsburg] Remsburg also presents a very similar account from Rev. Ashbel Green, one of the members of the clergy in the group] cquote|Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they thot they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.

I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.

In the 1840s abolitionist newspapers printed interviews with and testimony of Oney Judge, a slave who escaped from the Washingtons in 1796. One such article, from the "Granite Freeman", stated: "she never heard Washington pray, and does not believe that he was accustomed to. 'Mrs. Washington used to read prayers, but I don't call that praying.'" cite news|work=Granite Freeman|first=T. H.|last=Hayes|location=Concord, New Hampshire|date=May 22, 1845|title=Washington's Runaway Slave as quoted in cite web|url=|title=Two 1840s Articles on Oney Judge||accessdate=2008-08-27] (It should be noted that reading of printed prayers is typical of Anglican practice.) In another case, the Rev. Benjamin Chase, in a letter to the "The Liberator", wrote that "She says that the stories told of Washington's piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, "have no foundation". Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day." cite news|work=The Liberator|first=Benjamin|last=Chase|date=January 1, 1847|title=letter to the editor as quoted in cite web|url=|title=Two 1840s Articles on Oney Judge||accessdate=2008-08-27] In both cases it should be borne in mind that these statements were intended to disparage Washington's character in so far as he held slaves; for example, Chase continues, "I do not mention this as showing, in my estimation, his anti-Christian character, so much as the bare fact of being a slaveholder, and not a hundredth part so much as trying to kidnap this woman; but, in the minds of the community, it will weigh infinitely more."

References to religion in his writings and speech

Throughout his life, he spoke of the value of righteousness, and of seeking and offering thanks for the "blessings of Heaven".Though Washington often spoke of God and Providence, there is little if any reliable source material for quotes by him containing the words "Jesus", "Christ", or "Christianity". In his letters to young people, particularly to his adopted children, he urges upon them truth, character, honesty, but says little or nothing related to specific items of religious practice. Analysts who have studied Washington's papers held by the Library of Congress assert that his correspondence with Masonic Lodges is replete with references to the "Great Architect of the Universe" (which Masonic historian S. Brent Morris refers to as a neutral Masonic style of referring to God — probably derived from the writings of John Calvin), [cite book|author=S. Brent Morris|title=The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry|publisher=Alpha/Penguin Books|id=ISBN 1-59257-490-4|pages=212 - The usage entered Masonic tradition from the "Book of Constitutions" written in 1723 by Reverend James Anderson. Anderson, a Calvinist minister, probably took the term from John Calvin who, in his "Institutes of the Christian Religion" (published in 1536), repeatedly calls the Christian god "the Architect of the Universe", also referring to his works as "Architecture of the Universe", and in his commentary on Psalm 19 refers to the Christian god as the "Great Architect" or "Architect of the Universe".] but that "his response to a Christian clergyman conspicuously avoids mention of Jesus Christ or acknowledgement of personal Christian faith." [cite web|title=GEORGE WASHINGTON'S CORRESPONDENCE: Did George Washington Tell a Lie?|work=Watch Unto Prayer|url=|publisher=Watch Unto Prayer]

Various prayers said to have been composed by him in his later life are highly edited. [ "Six Historic Americans" by John Remsburg] ] An unfinished book of copied Christian prayers attributed to him (as a youth) by a collector (around 1891) was rejected by the Smithsonian Institution for lack of authenticity [ [ Steiner ] ] although it has not been dismissed altogether by some in the Christian community.

In a letter to George Mason in 1785, he wrote that he was not among those alarmed by a bill "making people pay towards the support of that [religion] which they profess," but felt that it was "impolitic" to pass such a measure, and wished it had never been proposed, believing that it would disturb public tranquility. [ [ to George Mason regarding Memorial and Remonstrance ] ]

Washington was a firm believer in the importance of religion for republican government. While he declined suggested versions [ [ Library of Congress - see Farewell Address section] ] of his 1796 Farewell Address that would have included statements that there could be no morality without religion, the final version remarked that it was unrealistic to expect that a whole nation, whatever might be said of minds of peculiar structure, could long be moral without religion, that national morality is necessary for good government, and that politicians should cherish religion's support of national morality:

Even though Washington is widely credited with first adding the words "so help me, God" after the presidential inaugural oath, [ [ Library of Congress - Presidential Inaugurations] ] there is no known firsthand account that can support this claim. [ [ Boston 1775: Swearing into Office "So Help Me God"] ] These words are not part of the Constitutional oath.

Washington made several official statements as General of the Army which were filled with references to religion. Sparks quotes orders given by General Washington to his Army requiring them to attend to their religious duties and "to implore the blessing of Heaven" upon the American Army. [Sparks, Jared, "The Writings of George Washington", (Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, Publisher, 1838), Vol. III, p. 491]

Early in Washington's presidency, at the request of Congress, [ Background events leading up to the proclamation] he issued the first official National Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1789. The proclamation was sent to the governors of the each of the states, and assigns the day upon which "the people of these States" devote themselves in service to "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." It exhorts the people in the young country to express their gratitide to God for: his protection of them through the Revolutionary War and the peace they had experienced since; for allowing the Constitution to be composed in a "peaceable and rational manner"; for the "civil and religious liberty" they possessed; and "in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us." The proclamation also states that "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." It concludes by calling the people of the United States to prayer and to beseech God "to pardon our national and other transgressions"; to allow the national government to be wise and just; to "protect and guide" all nations; to promote "true religion and virtue, and the increase of science"; and to "grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best."

His support of religious toleration

Washington held that all religions, and nearly all religious practices, were beneficial to humans. On some occasions, such as during the Constitutional Convention, he attended Presbyterian, Catholic, and Friends Sunday services.

Washington was an early supporter of religious toleration and freedom of religion. In 1775, he ordered that his troops not show anti-Catholic sentiments by burning the pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Night. When hiring workmen for Mount Vernon, he wrote to his agent, "If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans (Muslims), Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."

Washington was an officer in the Freemasons, an organization which, at the time Washington lived, required that its members "will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine", [ [ Ancient Charges of a Free Mason] , writen by Rev. James Anderson for the Grand Lodge of England, 1723] which meant that they should believe in God, regardless of other religious convictions or affiliations. [ [ Membership] , Grand Lodge of Virginia webpage] [ [ Becoming a Mason] , Grand Lodge of New Hampshire web page.]

Some biographers [Eidsmoe, John, "Christianity and the Constitution" (Grand rapids, Missouri: Baker Books House Company, 1987), p. 115.] hold the opinion that many of the American Founding Fathers (and especially Washington) believed that, as leaders of the nation, they should remain silent on questions of doctrine and denomination, to avoid creating unnecessary divisiveness within the nation; instead they should promote the virtues taught by religion in general.

cholars' views regarding Washington's beliefs

American philosopher Michael Novak, author of "Washington's God" (with his daughter Jana), maintains that his book proved that Washington could not have been strictly a Deist, but was a Christian:

What we did prove, and quite conclusively, is that Washington cannot be called a Deist — at least, not in a sense that excludes his being Christian. Although he did most often address God in the proper names a Deist might use — such as "Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be" and "Disposer of all human events" — the actions that Washington expected God to perform, as expressed both in his official public prayers (whether as general or as president) and in his private prayers as recorded, are the sorts of actions only the God of the Bible performs: interposing his actions in human events, forgiving sins, enlightening minds, bringing good harvests, intervening on behalf of one party in a struggle between good and evil (in this case, between liberty and the deprivation of liberty), etc. Many persons at the end of the 18th century were both Christians and Deists. But it cannot be said, in the simpleminded sense in which historians have become accustomed to putting it, that Washington was merely a Deist, or even that the God to whom he prayed was expected to behave like a Deist God at all. [ [] Washington’s Sun God: Reviewing a review. National Review Online, March 14, 2006]

Paul F. Boller, Jr. stated "Washington was no infidel, if by infidel is meant unbeliever. Washington had an unquestioning faith in Providence and, as we have seen, he voiced this faith publicly on numerous occasions. That this was no mere rhetorical flourish on his part, designed for public consumption, is apparent from his constant allusions to Providence in his personal letters. There is every reason to believe, from a careful analysis of religious references in his private correspondence, that Washington’s reliance upon a Grand Designer along Deist lines was as deep-seated and meaningful for his life as, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s serene confidence in a Universal Spirit permeating the ever shifting appearances of the everyday world." ["George Washington & Religion", Paul F. Boller Jr., Southern Methodist University Press: Dallas, 1963, p. 92]

David L. Holmes, author of "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers", in a sidebar article for Britannica categorizes Washington as a Christian deist. [Encyclopedia Britannica's "The Founding Fathers, Deism, and Christianity"] His usage of this category implies a religious spectrum of sorts for deism. Holmes also distinguishes between strict deists and orthodox Christians by their church attendance, participation in religious rites (such as baptism, Holy Communion, and confirmation), the use of religious language, and opinions of contemporary family, friends, clergy, and acquaintances. Regarding these specific parameters, Holmes describes Washington as a Christian deist due to his religious behavior falling somewhere between that of an orthodox Christian and a strict deist. Although Washington was clearly not a communicant, was infrequenct in his Church attendance, and did not deem it necessary to participate in religious rites, Holmes labels him as a Christian deist due to his references of God, which resemble strict deistic terminology yet add a Christian dimension of mercy and divine nature. Additionally, Holmes states that Washington's "dedication to Christianity was clear in his own mind" as to imply that Washington's own religious self-analysis should be deemed at least as noteworthy as that of critics who claim he was unorthodox.

In 2006 Dr. Peter Lillback published a 1200 page book dedicated entirely to settling the question of Washington's religious beliefs. The book, "George Washington's Sacred Fire", concluded that Washington was an orthodox Christian within the framework of his time. Lillback claims to have entirely demolished the deist hypothesis. [Peter Lillback, "George Washington's Sacred Fire" (Providence Forum, 2006).]

Biographer Barry Schwartz has stated that Washington's "practice of Christianity was limited and superficial, because he was not himself a Christian. In the enlightened tradition of his day, he was a devout Deist—just as many of the clergymen who knew him suspected". [ [ Deism] ]

Two recent books exploring Washington's religious beliefs — "Realistic Visionary" by Peter Henriques, and "Faith and the Presidency" by Gary Scott Smith — both categorize Washington as a "theistic rationalist" which is a hybrid belief system somewhere between strict deism and orthodox Christianity, with rationalism as the predominant element.Fact|date=June 2007

ee also

*Religious affiliations of United States Presidents

Further reading

* Boller, Paul, "George Washington & Religion", Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, ISBN 0-87074-021-0
* Eidsmoe, John, "Christianity and the Constitution" (Grand rapids, Missouri: Baker Books House Company, 1987)
* Grizzard, Frank E., Jr. "The Ways of Providence: Religion and George Washington." Buena Vista and Charlottesville, VA: Mariner Publishing. 2005. ISBN 0-9768238-1-0.
* Holmes, David L., "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers", Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-19-530092-0.
* Johnson, William J., "George Washington the Christian," (Milford, Michigan: Mott Media 1919, 1976)
* Lillback, Peter, "George Washington's Sacred Fire" (Providence Forum, 2006).
* Lossing, Benson J., "The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution" (New York: Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1859), Vol. II, p. 215.
* Muñoz, Vincent Phillip. "George Washington on Religious Liberty" "Review of Politics" 2003 65(1): 11-33. ISSN 0034-6705 Fulltext online at Ebsco.
* Novak, Michael and Jana Novak "Washington's God", Basic Books, 2006, ISBN 046505126X
* Novak, Michael "On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding" Encounter Books, 2003, ISBN 1893554686
* Peterson, Barbara Bennett. "George Washington: America's Moral Exemplar", 2005, ISBN 1-59454-230-9.

*"The Writings of George Washington", Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, Publisher, 1838), Vol. XII, pp. 399-411
*"The Religious Opinions of Washington", E. C. M'Guire, editor (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836).
*"The Messages and Papers of the Presidents", James D. Richardson, editor (Published by the Authority of Congress, 1899), Vol. I, pp. 51-57 (1789), 64 (1789), 213-224 (1796), etc.


External links

* [ George Washington and Christianity]
* [ George Washington and Deism]
* [ "George Washington and Religion", Peter Henriques, unpublished notes]
* [ Last Will and Testament of George Washington]

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