The Faith of the Founding Fathers, Part II: George Washington

As mentioned previously, I want to show you the true spectrum of beliefs and acceptance of other belief systems during the Revolutionary War. Yes, many of our founding fathers were Christians but that doesn’t negate the wide array of beliefs and opinions they held. If you haven’t read the last post, check out Part I: Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush.

I had originally meant to make each post about two founders, but I got a little sidetracked with this one!

George Washington

I believe Washington came as the greatest surprise to me as the rest I either knew little about or already knew their beliefs. I think legends like that of young George Washington and the cherry tree give us this idea of a man who was quite devout, yet that doesn’t seem to apply to him in the way some would think. I ended up going down quite the rabbit hole of research when I got to him, making a post entirely devoted to him seem appropriate.

There is so much material about Washington and so many opinions, but I came to the conclusion that there are a few quotes which quite aptly summarize his attitudes.

From my readings, Washington regularly attended church and did at different times take Communion. However, in his own writings and speeches you’ll notice that he sticks to words like “God” or “Providence,” acknowledging a supreme being without throwing his support behind a specific denomination or even, really, a specific religion. There is one letter attributed to him containing “Jesus Christ” but it seems to have actually been written by an aide on his behalf and is not Washington’s chosen wording. He supported religion and supported having faith in God, clearly believing in a higher power but without supporting a national religion or manner of religious observance. There is a lot of guesswork where people have claimed one thing or another about him but nothing I’ve read seems conclusive and certainly nothing conclusive from Washington himself.

Washington’s religious beliefs were as much a mystery to others of the time as they are today. Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“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.”[1]

On Other Beliefs:

Much easier to ascertain is Washington’s thoughts on religious diversity and being open to differences in religious beliefs. He repeatedly spoke in favor of welcoming other faiths, preferring to judge people on how they acted rather than which religion they professed. In 1779 an anonymous writer referred to Washington as:

“…strictly just, vigilant, and generous; an affectionate husband, a faithful friend, a father to the deserving soldiers; gentle in manners, in temper rather reserved; a total stranger to religious prejudices, which have so often excited Christians of one denomination to cut the throats of those of another; in his morals irreproachable; he was never known to exceed the bounds of the most rigid temperance; in a word, all his friends and acquaintance universally allow, that no man ever united in his own person a more perfect alliance of the virtues of a philosopher with the talents of a general” (emphasis added).[2]

In a letter from George Washington to Tench Tilghman regarding the purchase of an indentured servant/slave, he speaks of welcoming any religion or nationality to Mount Vernon. ‘Palatine’ was a term for certain German immigrants and ‘Mahometans’ was referring to Muslims.

“I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone 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 a favor by purchasing one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect—or they may be Athiests—I woud however prefer middle aged, to young men. and those who have good countenances & good characters on ship board, to others who have neither of these to recommend them—altho, after all, the proof of the pudding must be in the eating.”[3]

In another instance, Washington wrote to the Presbyterian Ministers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire (also called the first Presbytery of the Eastward) in response to a letter they had written which included a complaint that the Magna Carta (Constitution) of the United States ought to have contained “Explicit acknowledgement of the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.”[4] Ever the “old fox” as noted by Jefferson, in his response to them Washington wrote:

“The tribute of thanksgiving which you offer to “the gracious Father of lights” for his inspiration of our public-councils with wisdom and firmness to complete the national constitution, is worthy of men, who, devoted to the pious purposes of religion, desire their accomplishment by such means as advance the temporal happiness of their fellow-men—and, here, I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna-Charta of our country.”[5]

In all his actions and words, Washington seems a man who judged people by their choosing to live a virtuous life and having a sincere set of religious beliefs, not by what those beliefs happened to be.

 


 

[1] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Vol. 1. 2/12/2016. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/800>

[2] Baker, William Spohn, 1824-1897. Early Sketches of George Washington: Reprinted With Biographical And Bibliographical Notes. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott company, 1894. < http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006785149>

[3] “From George Washington to Tench Tilghman, 24 March 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0174 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 1, 1 January 1784 – 17 July 1784, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992, p. 232.

[4] “From George Washington to the Presbyterian Ministers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, 2 November 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0193 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 274–277.

[5] Ibid.

The Faith of the Founding Fathers, Part I: Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush

It can be very easy to generalize the beliefs and opinions of our founding fathers as the culture of the time seems much more simplified than now. Perhaps ironically, that generalization differs depending on who you ask. Some say they were all “Christian” as if that leaves no room whatsoever for variances in beliefs. Some say many or must were Deists in an attempt to separate them from religious belief. Some say that the colonies were intended for the religious freedom of Christians, as if it was only considered acceptable if the beliefs fell within that spectrum. Often we hear about the United States’ “Judeo-Christian heritage.” At this point you get the idea.

What I want to do here is show you the true spectrum of beliefs and acceptance of other belief systems during the Revolutionary War. Yes, many of our founding fathers were Christians but that doesn’t negate the wide array of beliefs and opinions they held. And for that matter, many colonists didn’t even welcome all Christians. Now people often think that different denominations and all doesn’t really matter but back then differences of opinion on theological issues could be a major point of contention. I think this is something that many people could use a reminder of.

If you know of any quotes that would make a good addition, feel free to suggest it in the comments below! (I’ll only use information where citations are available, so if you know that too I appreciate the help.)

Thomas Paine

I couldn’t resist making Paine my first post because he was an unusual character and yet his writing contributed so much to our American Revolution. Paine was scandalous for the time in many ways, daring to challenge conventional thought and unconcerned about whether he made people uncomfortable in the process. His pamphlet Common Sense was instrumental in convincing many colonists of their rights to and the necessity of secession from Great Britain.

His Beliefs: Paine was, to all intents and purposes, a deist though he had been accused by some of being an atheist. He believed in a supreme, heavenly being but refused to subscribe to any one religion. His Age of Reason goes into a great deal of detail on this. To describe himself, Paine wrote:

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” [1]

He wrote of Deism by name as well, stating that:

“The only religion that has not been invented, and that has in it every evidence of divine originality, is pure and simple Deism. It must have been the first, and will probably be the last, that man believes.”[2]

On Other Beliefs: Although Paine was content to simply believe in the existence of a creator and in doing right to those around us, he does express that others have “the same right to their belief as I have to mine.”[3] That didn’t mean that those other beliefs were free from his criticism though.

He was especially critical of Christianity:

“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics.”[4]

Some additional quotes from Age of Reason:

“Each of those churches shows certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say that their Word of God was given by God to Moses face to face; the Christians say, that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say, that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all.”

“Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.

Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God. The Jews say, that their word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say, that their word of God came by divine inspiration: and the Turks say, that their word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from Heaven. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.”

“When the Church Mythologists established their system, they collected all the writings they could find, and managed them as they pleased. It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as now appear under the name of the Old and New Testament are in the same state in which those collectors say they found them, or whether they added, altered, abridged, or dressed them up.

Be this as it may, they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made should be the WORD OF GOD, and which should not. They rejected several; they voted others to be doubtful, such as the books called the Apocrypha; and those books which had a majority of votes, were voted to be the word of God. Had they voted otherwise, all the people, since calling themselves Christians, had believed otherwise — for the belief of the one comes from the vote of the other. Who the people were that did all this, we know nothing of; they called themselves by the general name of the Church, and this is all we know of the matter.”

“Some Christians pretend that Christianity was not established by the sword; but of what period of time do they speak? It was impossible that twelve men could begin with the sword; they had not the power; but no sooner were the professors of Christianity sufficiently powerful to employ the sword, than they did so, and the stake and fagot, too; and Mahomet could not do it sooner. By the same spirit that Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant (if the story be true), he would have cut off his head, and the head of his master, had he been able. Besides this, Christianity grounds itself originally upon the Bible, and the Bible was established altogether by the sword, and that in the worst use of it — not to terrify, but to extirpate. The Jews made no converts; they butchered all. The Bible is the sire of the Testament, and both are called the word of God. The Christians read both books; the ministers preach from both books; and this thing called Christianity is made up of both. It is then false to say that Christianity was not established by the sword.

The only sect that has not persecuted are the Quakers; and the only reason that can be given for it is, that they are rather Deists than Christians. They do not believe much about Jesus Christ, and they call the scriptures a dead letter. Had they called them by a worse name, they had been nearer the truth.”

“Nothing that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practised was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before; by the Quakers since; and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.”

Benjamin Rush

Not as well known as some but Rush was a very interesting man. Born in Pennsylvania, he was a skilled physician, wrote the first American textbook on chemistry, served as surgeon-general of the Continental Army and was later a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately for his patients, Rush was an avid supporter of the practice of bleeding. [5]

His Beliefs: Rush was a Presbyterian and wholly supportive of the Christian religion, up to the belief that we should base our public education on the Christian faith and teachings.       

On Other Beliefs: Despite Christianity being his first choice, Rush was not opposed to the followers of other religions. He wrote:

“Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.”

Further, he said:

“It is foreign to my purpose to hint at the arguments which establish the truth of the Christian revelation. My only business is to declare, that all its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society, and the safety and well being of civil government.”[6]

 


 

[1] Paine, Thomas. Age of Reason. http://www.ushistory.org/paine/reason/singlehtml.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/rush.htm

[6] The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush. Edited by Dagobert D. Runes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch18s30.html