In the midst of this culture war, no Founder’s life and legacy is as bitterly contested as our nation’s revolutionary leader and first President, George Washington. He has been called everything from “indifferent to religion” to a Deist to a “warm Deist” (whatever that means) to a “lukewarm Episcopalian” and finally (most often by our side) a God-fearing, Bible-believing Christian. These characterizations, which have been part of a now 200-year debate over Washington’s religious faith, led biographer Richard Brookhiser to observe: “No aspect of his life has been more distorted than his religion... For two centuries, Washington has been a screen on which Americans have projected their religious wishes and aversions.”
While no respectable historian has accused Washington of being an atheist (at least in recent years), a large number of mainstream scholars (perhaps even most of them) reduce Washington’s religious beliefs to be little more than a utilitarian submission to some mystical, abstract conception of “Providence” (a favorite word of Washington’s).
According to historian and biographer Joseph Ellis, George Washington saw God “as a distant, impersonal force, the presumed well-spring of what he called destiny or providence.”
That Washington saw God as the “well-spring” of “providence” is not contested by this author. The evidence for that is overwhelming. But George Washington himself would have objected to any characterization of God as being “distant” or “impersonal.” In 1789, a reflective Washington wrote:
When I contemplate the interposition of Providence, as it was visibly manifested, in guiding us through the Revolution, in preparing us for the reception of a general government, and in conciliating the good will of the People of America towards one another after its adoption, I feel myself oppressed and almost overwhelmed with a sense of divine munificience.
As a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and later of both the First and Second Continental Congress, Washington supported resolutions for and participated in days of prayer and fasting. As the Commander-in-Chief during the war, he made clear his support for prayer and submission to God through the appointment of Army chaplains and his ordering mandatory church attendance for the men under his command. As President, he signed the first official Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in U.S. government history, declaring it the “duty of all nations” to “acknowledge” and “obey” the “Supreme Being.”
In his First Inaugural Address, he emphasized this duty of acknowledgment and submission, saying:
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. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.
Washington did not see God as some abstract, detached entity to which we owed little more than symbolic or ceremonial acknowledgment. For Washington, God was real, active, and worthy of our worship and obedience.
Washington also understood humanity’s proper posture before God to be one of humility. Washington personalized this ethic at an early age, when he copied out his famous “Rules of Civility,” which included the following injunction in Rule #108: “When you speak of God, or His attributes, let it be seriously and with reverence.”
For this reason, he never played politics with his faith. In fact, Washington worked hard to stay above the religious battles in his day. He spent his public life working for unity. As the late Henry Cabot Lodge, a Washington biographer and famous statesman in his own right, explained, the first President “was as far as possible from being sectarian, and there is not a word of his which shows anything but the most entire liberality and toleration. He made no parade of his religion, for in this as in other things he was perfectly simple and sincere.”
This, however, did not stop Washington from expressing repeatedly his fervent wish that Americans would embrace God, worship God, and obey God. “The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in [the American Revolution],” he wrote Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Nelson, “that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”
It is beyond dispute that George Washington practiced a sincere faith in God. To argue or imply otherwise flies in the face of established historical facts, not the least of which are the voluminous writings of Washington himself.
Washington’s self-discipline and high moral character are the stuff of legend. It is not necessary for this article to prove that Washington was a moral man. However, can we see his moral character as a manifestation of his faith?
A clue that Washington’s morality was more than mere Stoicism is found in one of his famous “General Orders” issued at Valley Forge in 1778: “To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to laud the more distinguished character of Christian.”
It is clear that Washington associated proper conduct with Christian principles of morality. It is therefore not a stretch to conclude that Washington’s own moral compass was set according to the Christian teachings he had grown up on.
How a person faces their prospective death is another indicator of where one stands in relationship to his or her faith. According to Lodge, Washington “regarded death with entire calmness and even indifference” and was helped in this “by his religious faith.” According to family and friends, when death came in 1799, Washington made sure his final affairs were in order and that his wishes for funeral arrangements were to be honored. Once those assurances were given, he met his end with utter peace.
We cannot know for certain anyone’s heart other than our own, and sometimes even that is problematic. However, based on overwhelming evidence (of which this article merely scratches the surface), it is beyond question that George Washington believed in God and was a man of reverential worship and prayer. The assessment of many historians that Washington was a Deist, no matter how often it is repeated, is demonstrably false.
America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln by Mark A. Noll. Oxford University Press, 2002
Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser. Simon & Schuster, 1996
The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations by James H. Hutson. Princeton University Press, 2005
George Washington by Henry Cabot Lodge. Cumberland House, original published 1898 (new edition 2004)
George Washington’s War: The Forging of a Revolutionary Leader and the American Presidency by Bruce Chadwick, PhD. Sourcebooks, Inc., 2004
God and the Oval Office: The Religious Faith of our 43 Presidents by John C. McCollister, Ph.D, W Publishing Group, 2005
His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis. Knopf, 2004
Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady. Viking, 2005
Prayers of our Presidents by Jerry MacGregor and Marie Prys. Baker Books, 2004
Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by his Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis by George Washington Parke Custis. Originally published by Derby & Jackson in 1860. Republished by American Foundation Publications, 1999.
WEBSITES OF INTEREST
Letter from Nelly Parke-Custis discussing Washington’s faith, found at Wallbuilders website. http://www.wallbuilders.com/resources/search/detail.php?ResourceID=13
George Washington Masonic National Memorial. http://www.gwmemorial.org/
The Papers of George Washington. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/
Mount Vernon. http://www.mountvernon.org
John Remsberg’s analysis of Washington’s Christianity. http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/john_remsburg/
John Gano biography. http://www.therestorationmovement.com/gano,john.htm