GEORGE WASHINGTON’S RELIGION
So many of us want to believe that the great man thought as we do. That Washington believed in the same things as you. A belief system of one who was a family man, a farmer, a great military leader, and our first President. A role model. And one lifted up high for us to admire.
But George Washington was his own man, and tight-lipped about many things. He was not glib, and not a fashionable speaker. And he suffered many attacks from other great leaders who were, like Thomas Jefferson. Maybe we can all benefit from a review of who George Washington really was and how he grew as a leader through silence and experience!
George Washington had some immediate advantages. He was tall, broad of shoulders [but not deep of chest], and he was handsome. That helped him marry the widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, and gain the status of one of Virginia’s wealthiest plantation owners. And his facial smallpox scars were moderate and not prominent [his resulting immunity would save him from the smallpox epidemic during the Revolutionary War].
So what did this man believe, our greatest founder? He wrote no biography, but did keep a periodic diary for much of his life. But his writings were not confessional or philosophical in nature. They were mainly about what was then happening around him. He did write letters by which we might see into his thinking [though both he and his wife, Martha, destroyed many of them]. And we have comments by many others who observed him. It was said that people parted before Washington as though he were a god.
But Washington was not a god, rather an unusual type of citizen. For, as history reports, he gave up supreme power twice. Once as commander of the Revolutionary Army, and then after two terms as President of the new United States. Our modern gods-in-making would be well served by the study of his greatness. For true leaders leave and then lead by example.
Let us deal immediately with the issue of religion. The argument is made that America was founded as a Christian nation. It was actually founded by a group of free thinkers who wanted the freedom to practice whatever they believed freely. And the history of religion in early America is truly freaky. Many fringe sects fled Europe to the religious safety of America, and many more new belief systems sprouted when they got here. Then there was the “First Great Awakening” in the mid 1700s, and the “Second Great Awakening” in the early 1800s. The latter earned Western New York the reputation as the “Burned-Over District” because of its religious ardor.
We need not review such religious expressions here, for this is a free country of free believers, developing their own view of what is important. And in many ways, religious thought is the fabric of American society, and why we are a colorful [if somewhat disputatious] nation.
What George Washington thought about the subject is best reflected in the replacement of our clumsy Articles of Confederation by our remarkable Constitution, whose First Amendment clearly squared with Washington’s own belief system:
“The convention of a number of the states, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added …” [The preamble to the Bill of Rights]
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” [First Amendment to the United States Constitution]
Well, where to begin with him? Washington’s father died in 1743, when he was eleven, leaving him a small farm, ten slaves, and the care of his siblings. Washington’s mother lived there, too, and did not remarry. She would live, sometimes austerely, until 1789, aged 81, the year Washington took office as President.
His half brother, Lawrence, inherited the land on the Potomac where he began building Mt. Vernon. George Washington would get all of that after Lawrence, his wife, and daughter, died young. And he would operate it with the funds brought to him through his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis.
Life and family experiences teach one their religion. Churches and institutions contribute structure, much of which is based on sacred scriptures. But those were early freewheeling days of thinking in Washington’s new America. And there was a popular religious concept about that, which had been brewing in England, called “Deism.” Belief in a God that was too busy to now interfere in human activity. Maybe.
Was Washington a “Deist?” Let us deal with that later. Labels rarely define a personality, and certainly not in regard to spirituality. What did George Washington really believe?
Washington attended the Anglican Church and was baptized as an infant. That would be the Church of England, the one then headed up by the King of Britain, George III. The one just defeated in war by George Washington, and who would go insane around 1788. Washington was concerned with the Anglican Church as a result.
America’s fertile evangelical thinkers would go on to change the thinking of many of the nation’s faithful. Great revivals would sweep the nation, focused on Jesus and his embracing message. But that was not necessarily current in Washington’s Anglican Virginia, although Thomas Jefferson would create his own version of the New Testament in 1819, with only words that he thought had actually been said by Jesus.
Much of organized religion was different back then, as was reference to the God that had created it. Martha Washington was certainly a believing person, often mentioning God and, periodically, Providence. Not so much the name of Jesus specifically.
Washington never wrote much about his personal religious beliefs. He would attend church, though not so often when he was home at Mt. Vernon. We also know that, at one time or another, he attended religious services at Dutch Reformed, Quaker, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic churches.
One aspect of his religious activity bears closer scrutiny. The Anglican Church [and after the war, the Episcopalian Church which developed in America] offered communion during some of its services. Washington often partook of the sacrament. But after the Revolutionary War, he stopped doing so, and would sometimes leave the church before communion services.
This was a puzzling change in religious behavior. The Catholic Church believes in the miracle of transubstantiation, where the Parishioners actually partake of the body and blood of Christ. Anglicans believed something different. For them, Christ was present in the ceremony, but not necessarily in flesh and blood.
Catholics are taught in confirmation that one must not partake of communion if they are in the state of what the church describes as “mortal sin.” That can be a difficult determination [but can be addressed through confession].
Anglicans also cited scripture in their concern about taking communion in the wrong spiritual condition.
“For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause, many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” [I Corinthians 11:29-30 KJV; also see Matthew 5:24]
Did George Washington’s change in taking communion reflect a change in his belief system? Or did it, instead, reflect on how deeply he believed scripture? And had something significant happened to his thinking?
Washington had just led an army through eight years of war. Men at his command had died, and many more were wounded or taken prisoner. Property had been destroyed and civilians had suffered throughout the colonies. Were these tragedies continuing to trouble his spiritual state of mind?
And it seems as though, through the war and its aftermath, Washington had come to abhor the system of slavery in which he was raised. One that he still relied on for his farming income. Had he come to realize that slavery was morally wrong?
We do not know why he stopped taking communion, for he never told us. But it must have been a momentous decision for a man with the courage to face down the British.
We do know some of what he thought of religion in general, however. He wrote to the Baptists of Virginia, “I have often expressed my sentiments, that every man … ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
And when he voluntarily left the Office of the Presidency, he wrote, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
And one month before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Virginia adopted a Declaration of Rights. Section 16 stated:
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”
Deism is a belief in God and the power of reason. It flourished as a movement in the 1700s of the European enlightenment. A complexity of thought addressed traditional religious concepts. Revelation was often challenged. John Locke, David Hume, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine were prominent contributors to discussions of Deism. Whether God interacted with human activity was a significant question. Yet Washington often reflected on the “Hand of Providence” managing human affairs.
So what was George Washington’s religion? Here is an opportunity to study a school of thought then current called “Latitudinarianism” [even though “isms,” like labels, are equally suspect in application]. Maybe further investigation will deepen the appreciation we have for the freedom of religious expression in this country.
Washington’s dying words were, “Tis well.” Maybe that was the last expression of his religious convictions.