Historian Richard Brookhiser has stated, "No aspect of his (Washington's) life has been more distorted than his religion."(1) On the one extreme many historians have called Washington a fully "dyed-in-the-wool" Deist whose references to prayer and life after death were nothing more than affirmations for public consumption whose beliefs were more traditional, to those at the other end of the religious spectrum, such as Tim LaHaye, who has argued that if Washington were alive today he would be a Bible-believing evangelical Christian.(2)
The difficulty is found in Washington himself who, while commenting on prayer, Providence, and life after death, never actually elaborates on his doctrine of God (was it Trinitarian?), nor does he ever comment on his understanding of Christ nor atonement. And if Washington ever commented on doctrine to his wife Martha in private correspondence, we will never know since upon her husband's death in December of 1799, Martha burned all their personal letters.
Coupled with this is the fact that Washington's most influential early biographer, Mason Weems, consciously fabricated stories about Washington, including the famous story of his youthful indiscretion in chopping down his father's cherry tree. It is Weems who told the story of George Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge. And while such a story, as we will see, could have been true, it comes from a source which is quite suspect and, therefore, of little help.(3)
What we know about Washington's faith in his own words comes to us in his comments on Providence, prayer, and the afterlife.
In characteristic fashion of the day, Washington often refers to God with the word "Providence." Some historians have drawn the conclusion from this that Washington clearly had Deistic leanings. And while it is true that the terms "Providence" and "Nature's God" were characteristic terms of those who embraced Deism, Michael Novak demonstrates sufficiently that such terminology had caught on in the religious culture at large.(4)
The matter of understanding Washington's understanding of Providence, therefore, is not to be found in the term itself, but what we can determine from the contexts in which it appears in his writings. Clearly for Washington Providence was not cover terminology for fate or a vague kind of force. Throughout the American Revolution, Washington credits Providence for preserving the army while speaking of Providence in personal ways. That some historians have interpreted Washington's words as cover language for his Deistic leanings is less about the work of the historian and more about a cynical approach to a valid historical interest. Unless it can be demonstrated otherwise (as in the case of Weems) that a person is being disingenuous, we should give the subject of our historical concern the benefit of the doubt in sincerity. All of us expect no less from others in their interpretation of our convictions. We should do no less for those characters of concern who are no longer here to answer for themselves.
Washington's views of Providence are also seen in his comments about prayer and life after death. Clearly Washington believed in prayer as more than a psychological exercise and life after death for the first President was a real and blissful existence.
During the American Revolution, Washington often called on his troops to set some time aside for worship and prayer. Mapps writes, Many of his (Washington's) associates were Deists, and many Deists considered praying a waste of time. But we know that some others, though having no hope of diverting God from a predetermined course, believed that prayer had value as a conduit to obtain divine inspiration. Washington quite conceivably went farther than this. He believed that the deity intervened in human affairs. Therefore it would not have been inconsistent for him to petition for such intervention. There are reports of his praying at various stages of his life.(5) Having said that, however, we do know of one obvious Deist who was open to the possibility that God might answer prayer-- Thomas Jefferson; yet Washington seemed more than simply open to the idea.
Washington appeared to have a strong confidence in the afterlife. Upon the death of his stepdaughter, Patsy Custis, Washington remarked that she was in a more happy and peaceful abode. In a letter to a Mrs. Stockton, Washington mentions his belief in the immortality of the soul.(6) Most Deists were agnostic on the afterlife, though another well-known Deist, Benjamin Franklin, affirmed it.
Two other matters require our attention. While George Washington was a Vestryman in the Episcopal Church, he was not a regular church-goer, particularly before the Revolution, although he was known to attend worship on special occasions when it would not necessarily have been expected of him, such as on the day of his presidential inauguration.
Second, not only is there no evidence of Washington ever having taken Holy Communion, there are specific reports of Washington having declined to do so even though his wife Martha, who was with him, participated.
So what do we make of all this? It is difficult to say. Washington's understanding of Providence cannot be said to line up with the typical Deism of his day. His belief that God answers prayer and his affirmation of the afterlife were not typical of Deistic thinking, although we know that some Deists were at least open to the consideration of such things. His lack of regular church attendance really tells us nothing about what he believed, except that he lacked a robust ecclesiology, which many believers lacked then as well as today. And while his refusal to partake of Communion is quite rare, and while many Deists thought the Sacraments unimportant because they were based on silly superstitions, Washington never explains why he never communed. So we are simply left to guess as to whether he found the Sacrament to be an outmoded practice, or if he continually felt himself to be unworthy. Whatever the reason, history reveals no clues.
In the final analysis, it is probably not wise to classify Washington either as a Deist on one end or a Bible-believing, evangelical Christian on the other. The evidence is too sparse to allow either conclusion. And in spite of his views on Providence, prayer, and eternity, we will never know his convictions on Trinity, Christ, and atonement to name just a few doctrines. We must also be careful in wild speculation as to why he never comments on such matters. It could be that Washington never mentioned doctrine because he knew his views would be publicly controversial. It could also be that like many in his day, his faith was that of a private Anglican. It could also be that like more than a few Christians, even today, doctrine was not something he was particularly interested in nor concerned about.
Brookhiser is right; Washington's religious views have been distorted. Not only that, they have been appropriated by two extremes in order to serve a particular agenda. But the faith of the first President of the United States cannot be appropriated in such ways and still hold on to the reality of serious historical scholarship.
Fortunately, the faith of our next Founder is not so ambiguous-- John Adams.
The Faith of Our Founders #1: Introduction
The Faith of Our Founders #2: Deism
(1) Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York: Free Press), 1996.
(2) Tim LaHaye, Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Green Forest: Master Book, 1996).
(3) Alf Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers.
(4) Michael Novak, Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country (New York: Basic Books), 2006.
(5) Alf Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers.
(6) Michael Novak, Washington's God.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)