Washington and Religion
George Washington, the great-great grandson of Anglican pastor Lawrence Washington, was “always a strict and decorous observer of the Sabbath.” Born February 22, 1732 he thought the only Being a citizen had to answer in terms of religion was God. Evangelical George Whitefield and the first Great Awakening made little impression.
“You doubtless remember, that I have often expressed my sentiments, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience,” newly appointed President George Washington wrote Virginia’s United Baptist Chamber in 1789.
Washington—described as a Deist by twentieth century historians James Thomas Flexner and Paul F. Boller, Jr., also nineteenth century spiritualist Robert Dale Owen—“maintained a relationship with God that was strictly his own.” He was, in fact, an Anglican who became a vestryman in Truro Parish, in Pohick Church; also in Fairfax Parish, in Alexandria’s Christ Church. The Washingtons, by the 1770s, owned family pews in both Churches.
“George Washington, like several other Founding Fathers, believed strongly that religion played an important role in the establishment and nurturing of our new nation,” former Mount Vernon Director Jim Rees said in 2008. “He believed our leaders—and our citizens in general—needed to possess strong morals and a national character, and in essence, religion promoted these shared values.”
“Washington realized that democracy could easily descend into anarchy,” Mount Vernon research historian Mary Thompson noted. “Without a citizenry which had internalized a strict moral code, not even an educated citizenry could make up for a lack of religion in people’s lives.”
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” President Washington wrote in his 1796 Farewell Address. “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” George Washington died on December 14, 1799.
In 1803 evangelical Lyman Beecher, a Protestant “harnessed to the Chariot of Christ,” used Washington’s Farewell words to encourage churches to promote virtue in public life. Dueling and temperance were but two of his moral causes. Unlike Beecher, Washington never explicitly mentioned the name of Jesus Christ in private correspondence.
“George Washington’s religious beliefs changed over the course of his life,” Thompson explained. “The Revolutionary War played a big part in it. Nelly Custis tells us via her mother that Washington took communion before the War, but not after.”
Young Washington’s early want: to encourage the unifying aspects of religion. “Arrived two or three Families of the Shawnee; We had Prayers in the Fort [Necessity],” Colonel Washington noted in 1754. His later need: to reduce the dissension religious differences cause. Washington’s God was “the great Governor of the Universe.”
“George Washington went past support of mere toleration,” Thompson concluded. “He took up the cause of religious freedom.” In 1776 nine of the thirteen American colonies participated in established religions, a state supported practice which stopped with ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868.
“No man’s sentiments are more opposed to any kind of restraint upon religious principles than mine are,” George Washington penned George Mason in 1785.
“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind those which are caused by a difference of sentiment in Religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing and ought most to be deprecated,” President Washington wrote Edward Newenham in 1792. “I was in hopes that the enlightened & liberal policy which has marked the present age would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society.”
George Washington may be guilty of prejudice, but if so, it was not for reason of religion. In 1784 General Washington wrote Baltimore agent Tench Tilghman with a household request. “I am informed that a Ship with Palatines [Germans] is going up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Tradesmen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner & Bricklayer (who really understand their profession) & you would do me the favor by purchasing one of each…They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews or Christian of any Sect—or they may be Atheists—I would however prefer middle aged, to young men.…”
“Washington loathed religious fanaticism, and on that subject he sounded like a true student of the Enlightenment,” Ron Chernow wrote. Today Iraq is being stripped of its ancient religious communities: Mandaeans [monotheists], Yazidis, and Christians. As Islamic State jihadists fight to overturn national rule; to establish transnational, religious boundaries to what extent does their Muhammad succession claim—an abolished 1924 Ottoman caliphate—“endanger the peace of Society?”
When traveling, George Washington “attended whatever local church was available,” Patricia Brady wrote. “Charity was almost daily—cash to old soldiers, wood to old widows; large numbers of tickets purchased for charity concerts, fifty guineas for the relief of imprisoned debtors.”
“[President] Washington’s respect for the clergy, as a body, was shown by public entertainments to them, the same as to the corps legislative and diplomatic,” George Washington Parke Custis recollected. “Among his bosom friends were the present venerable bishop of Pennsylvania Right Reverend William White, and the late excellent prelate and ardent friend of American liberty Doctor John Carroll, born in Upper Marlborough, Maryland, the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Church of the United States.” Doctor Carroll founded Georgetown University.
“While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences; it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will be emulous of evincing the sincerity of their profession by the innocence of their lives, and the beneficence of their actions,” President Washington wrote the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1789. “For no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.”
“Bear in mind the example of Washington [and] make that God your friend,” Reverend James Madison of Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church said in 1800. “Then like your beloved fellow-citizen, will you be strong in virtue, and incapable of dismay.”
“May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy,” President Washington wrote the Newport, Rhode Island, Hebrew Congregation in 1790.
Happy holidays to all!
Written by: Sarah Becker, © 2014