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.