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George Washington’s writings have long served as a guide to America’s first president—what he thought, how he made his decisions, even how he felt about his wife.
But when it comes to his personal religious beliefs, Washington seems to have been a closed book—or, at least, unwilling to commit many of his own views to the page. Unlike many of his peers, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, Washington never explicitly laid out his own beliefs—even as he alluded to them in passing on many occasions.
With so few actual accounts to draw from, historians are mostly limited to analyzing what Washington did, to try to understand what he may have believed. The trouble is, even his most straightforward actions can be hard to read and, at times, appear contradictory. The first president encouraged his fellow Americans to show up for worship, for instance, but sometimes struggled to make it to church himself for weeks at a time. For many years, he served as a dedicated vestryman and church warden, but left services instead of taking communion. And while he peppered his writings with references to Providence, there’s comparatively little mention of God or of Jesus Christ.
READ MORE: 5 Myths About George Washington, Debunked
Did George Washington believe in God?
Scholars and biographers have long puzzled over how to reconcile these inconsistencies. Some argue that he appears to have followed Deism, an 18th-century movement that placed human experience and rationality over religious dogma. Others have suggested he may even have been an atheist, drawing on accounts from Jefferson, who described him as not believing "of that system” of Christianity. Stories of Washington’s prayers, even as they exist, are often unreliable. Original sources for the famous tale of the first president “kneeling” in prayer at Valley Forge have been called into question; several historians have noted that Washington, when he prayed, always remained standing.
Explore George Washington's life in our interactive timeline
What is known is that Washington grew up in the Church of England, then Virginia’s state religion. The great-great grandson of an Anglican pastor, he was baptized as an infant and remained somewhat active in the Anglican church for the rest of his life. But it’s not clear whether he did so out of belief or out of necessity, since religious affiliation was a virtual requirement across many areas of his life. In order to hold office in colonial-era Virginia, for instance, officials had to be affiliated to the state religion, follow its doctrine and avoid disagreeing with it. As a young adult, Washington became a member of the freemasons, a secretive fraternal organization, modeled on Old World guilds, that stressed intellectual, spiritual and moral improvement. The group at that time banned its members from being either “a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine,” according to its constitution, and required them to adhere to a religion of their choice. He remained a Mason for the rest of his life.
READ MORE: 11 Key People Who Shaped George Washington's Life
He saw political utility in referencing a higher power
Whatever his own beliefs, Washington seems to have viewed organized religion as a valuable, unifying force in often fractious times. As a military leader in the French and Indian War, he unsuccessfully pushed for a unit chaplain; even when he failed to get one, he encouraged his men to take part in public prayers. Religious beliefs, he argued in his Farewell Address, could help to establish a moral code to help maintain democracy and decorum, even if not everyone believed precisely the same things. The "wisdom of Providence," he declared, "has ordained that men, on the same subjects, shall not always think alike.”
In late 1789, Washington issued what some historians have since described as the first-ever executive order. The last Thursday of November, he said, would be a day of thanksgiving and prayer, marking the end of a brutal Revolutionary War.
His 456-word Thanksgiving Proclamation gives a few clues about how he may have seen a higher power. It was, he wrote, “the duty of all Nations” to acknowledge, obey and be grateful to “Almighty God.” That same God is a “great and glorious Being,” he goes on to explain, and the “beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
But historians note that the political context in which Washington gave this proclamation makes it harder to distinguish between what he genuinely believed—and what he thought citizens needed to hear as the war came to a close and the new nation faced its “what next?” moment. The only “favor” he directly encourages Americans to thank God for, for instance, is the “opportunity...to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Later on, he thanks Him for “favorite interpositions of his providence,” essentially chalking up the end of political strife, and his own election as president, to divine intervention.
READ MORE: How George Washington’s Iron-Willed Single Mother Taught Him Honor
He supported—and laid the groundwork for—religious freedom
Invoking divinity may have served as a useful political tool to support the birth of a nation, but there’s good evidence that, if Washington believed anything, it was that American citizens should be free to worship however they pleased. As early as 1775, he pushed for religious plurality, tolerance and freedom, ordering his troops not to burn an anti-Catholic effigy of the Pope on Guy Fawkes Night, out of respect to the Catholic church. Later on, he would oppose committing the state to one religion (the Episcopal church), and he publicly decried a tax that would have supported that church, on the grounds of supporting religious freedom.
On a personal level, Washington took pains to spend time with people of all different religious affiliations, including speaking at synagogues, going to many different kinds of churches and spreading the message that this new country would be against religious persecution in any forms. As he traveled across the country, Washington attended services seemingly indiscriminately at Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic, Congregationalist, Baptist and Dutch Reformed churches alike. Even when choosing workmen at Mount Vernon in 1784, he was agnostic about their religion, suggesting they could be “Mahometans, Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists"—so long as they were good at their work.
For the last 25 years of his life, as he sought to manage 13 often recalcitrant colonies, Washington consistently supported the tolerance of different religious traditions, publicly and individually. This, writes historian Mary Thompson, was something he saw as “a unique and basic quality of the new United States.” It was a radical proposition, and one that set the fledgling United States at odds from most other nations.
It may be that we learn the most about Washington’s beliefs by what he doesn’t say—that, in choosing not to promote his own religious creed, he encouraged those around him to respect, engage with and promote the many different faiths of their new American peers.
George Washington: Respect for God, Bible, Religious Freedom
George Washington served eight years as the first President of the United States. He was the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and chairman of the Constitutional Convention that composed the Constitution. He is often called the "Father of our country." Surely of all men he would have understood the views of the founding fathers about the relationship between government and the Bible and faith in God.
"When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice But when a wicked man rules, the people groan" - Prov. 29:2.
"Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people" - Prov. 14:34
"I exhort . that supplications, prayers, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence." - 1 Timothy 2:2
When a person knows the truth about the views of the founding fathers of this country, who can seriously defend the view that they intended to write the Constitution in such a way as to remove the teachings of the Bible and the praise of God from all governmental and educational institutions?
Please consider carefully the following quotations of Washington's views of Bible teaching and respect for God in our nation.
Respect for God, the Bible, Christian principles
In his first inaugural address, April 30, 1789, Washington said:
It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect . In tendering this homage to the great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either.
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 been advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of his providential agency.
. we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained. (Morris, pp 326-238 Federer, pp 651f Barton, p114)
In his Farewell Speech, Sept. 19, 1796, Washington said:
The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of right and order which Heaven itself has ordained. . Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." (Morris, pp 634,635, Federer, p661, and Barton, p116f cf. Wikipedia article on "George Washington and Religion")
On May 15, 1776, Washington ordered his soldiers:
"The Continental Congress having ordered Friday, the 17th instant, to be observed as a day of "Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God, that it would please him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions, . and finally establish the peace and freedom of America upon a solid and lasting foundation. " (Morris, p343)
On May 2, 1778, Washington ordered:
While we are duly performing the duty of good soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of a patriot it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian. (Morris, p346, and Federer, p643, and Barton, p105)
In a circular letter to the Governors of the several States in June, 1783, Washington wrote.
"I now make my earnest prayer that God would have you and the States over which you preside in his holy protection that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate the spirit of subordination and obedience to government . and, finally, that he would be most graciously pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. (Morris, p360, Federer, p646, and Barton, pp 108f)
On October 3, 1789, Washington issued the following National Day of Thanksgiving Proclamation:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the twenty-sixth day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be that we then may all unite unto him our sincere and humble thanks for his kind care and protection of the people of this country . And, also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue. (Morris, pp 329,330, Federer, p654, and Barton, pp 115f cf. Wikipedia article on "George Washington and Religion")
On July 4, 1774, Washington ordered his soldiers:
"'The general most earnestly requires and expects the due observance of those articles of war established for the government of the army which forbid cursing, swearing, and drunkenness, and in like manner he requires and expects of all officers and soldiers, not engaged on actual duties, a punctual attendance on divine service to implore the blessing of Heaven upon the means used for safety and defence.' (Morris, p342, and Federer, p638)
In 1776 Washington also ordered his soldiers:
The general is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in an American army, is growing into fashion. He hopes the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it, and that both they and the men will reflect that we can have little hope of the blessing of Heaven . if we insult it by our impiety and folly. Added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense and character detests and despises it. (Morris, p344)
In May, 1777, Washington sent to the brigadier-generals of the army the following instructions:
Let vice and immorality of every kind be discouraged as much as possible in your brigade . Gaming [gambling] of every kind is expressly forbidden, as being the foundation of evil, and the cause of many a brave and gallant officer's and soldier's ruin. (Morris, p345) The following event occurred on March 10, 1778. A soldier was convicted . . for attempting to commit sodomy . [and for] Perjury. [He was sentenced to be dismissed from the service with infamy.] His Excellency the Commander in Chief [George Washington] approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders [the soldier] to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the army never to return. (From The Writings of George Washington, published in 1934 by the U.S. Government Printing Office, quoted by Federer, pp 643,644)
In 1789 Washington wrote regarding religious freedom:
If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I should never have placed my signature to it and, if I could now conceive that the General Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny and every species of religious persecution. For . I have often expressed my sentiments that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience. (Morris, p559, Federer, p653, and Barton, p112)
America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations, edited by William Federer, 1994 FAME Pub. Inc., 820 S. MacArthur Blvd., Suite 105-220, Coppell, TX 75019-4214.
Christian Life And Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, Benjamin F. Morris Philadelphia, 1863 (2nd edition, 2007, American Vision, Powder Springs, GA 30127-5385)
Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion, David Barton, 1996 WallBuilder Press, PO Box 397, Aledo, TX, 76008.
- Bible-Government is a free Bible study newsletter about government involvement in religion, morality, and the family available by e-mail or blog.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2012
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America Dedicated to God
On April 30 th , 1789, America had a Constitution and a newly formed government. On that day, the government, the House, and the Senate gathered for the Inauguration of our first president, George Washington. In his Inauguration Address, Washington gave a prophetic warning: “We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and the right which heaven itself has ordained.” Washington’s warning was, if we would begin to depart from God, He would remove His blessings, His prosperity and His protection from our nation.
After Washington’s address, the government, the House, the Senate, and America’s first president traveled on foot to Saint Paul’s Chapel. No one knows exactly what was said inside but we do know the entire government was on their knees praying and consecrating this nation to God. In the chapel there is also a plaque above Washington’s pew with the words “Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer that you will keep the United States in Holy protection.” Saint Paul’s Chapel is located at the corner of Ground Zero and is the spiritual birthplace of America.
America’s first Presidential Inauguration – that of President George Washington – incorporated seven specific religious activities, including the use of the Bible to administer the oath affirming the religious nature of the oath by the adding the prayer “So help me God!” to the oath inaugural prayers offered by the president religious content in the inaugural address civil leaders calling the people to prayer or acknowledgement of God inaugural worship services attended en masse by Congress as an official part of congressional activities and clergy-led inaugural prayers.
 See, for example, The Federal and State Constitutions: Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America, compiled and edited under the Act of Congress of June 30, 1908, by Francis Newton Thorpe (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909), 7 volumes see also http://www.constitution.org/cons/usstcons.htm
 See, for example, The History of the Centennial Celebration of George Washington as First President of the United States,Clarence Winthrop Bowen, editor (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), p. 51 Benson J. Lossing, Washington and the American Republic (New York: Virtue & Yorston, 1870), Vol. III, p. 93 and numerous others.
 See, for example, The History of the Centennial Celebration of George Washington as First President of the United States, Clarence Winthrop Bowen, editor (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), p. 52 Benson J. Lossing, Washington and the American Republic (New York: Virtue & Yorston, 1870), Vol. III, p. 93 and numerous others.
 James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (Published by Authority of Congress, 1897), George Washington, Vol. 1, p.44, April 30th, 1789.
 James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (Published by Authority of Congress, 1897), George Washington, Vol. 1, pp. 44-45, April 30th, 1789.
 The Daily Advertiser, New York, Thursday, April 23, 1789, p. 2 see also The History of the Centennial Celebration of George Washington as First President of the United States, Clarence Winthrop Bowen, editor (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), p. 41, and many other sources.
 Senate: Annals of Congress (1834), Vol. I, p. 25, April 27, 1789 House: Annals of Congress (1834), Vol. I, p. 241, April 29, 1789.
 George Bancroft, History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882), Vol. II, p. 363 see also The History of the Centennial Celebration of George Washington as First President of the United States, Clarence Winthrop Bowen, editor (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), p. 54, and many other sources.
George Washington and Religion
Kerby Anderson presents a compelling argument for the view that George Washington was a devoted Christian rather than a deist. He points to Washington’s insistence on the importance of services for his soldiers, his personal church attendance, his prayer life and his commitment to the spiritual upbringing of his godchildren.
What was George Washington’s view of religion and in particular of Christianity? The historical perspective used to be that Washington was a Christian and orthodox in most of his beliefs. But the modern view has been that he was a either a lukewarm Anglican or more likely a Deist.
I want to look at some new research that argues for the traditional view and against the modern view of George Washington’s religion. One book is Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of our Country. It is written by Michael Novak (American Enterprise Institute and winner of the Templeton Award) and Jana Novak. Another book, written by Peter Lillback with Jerry Newcombe, is George Washington’s Sacred Fire.
George Washington was born into a Virginia family of moderate wealth and was exposed to various religious activities: lessons in religion, regular prayer, Sunday school attendance, and reverence for God. His mother had a daily ritual of retiring with a book of religious readings.
By the time he was a teenager, Washington had already assumed serious responsibilities as a professional surveyor and then as a major in the Virginia militia. His adventures in the wild lands gave him invaluable lessons about the military, Indians, and the British. Years later in a speech to the Delaware chiefs, Washington said, “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”
He studied the Bible as well as the writings of ancient heroes. The busts and portraits at Mount Vernon demonstrate this. There are busts of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charles XII of Sweden, and Frederick II of Prussia. In the dining room are portraits of the Virgin Mary and St. John.
Washington’s own stepgranddaughter “Nelly” Custis saw him as a religious man. She wrote this to one of Washington’s early biographers:
It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o’clock, where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun, and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, “that they may be seen of men.” He communed with his God in secret.
In what follows we will look at the evidence for George Washington’s faith as it surfaced in his letters and actions as general and president.
Deism vs. Christianity
Pick up a book about George Washington written during the nineteenth century, and you will probably see that he is described as being a Christian. However, if you pick up a book written in the last seventy years, it will describe him as a Deist. Why the change?
The turning point seems to be a study by historian Paul F. Boller, Jr. entitled George Washington and Religion. His conclusion can be summarized in a single sentence: To the “unbiased observer” George Washington appears as a Deist, not a devout Christian. Most historians since Boller accepted this idea and were less likely to assert that Washington was a Christian.
What do we mean by “Deism”? Deism is the belief that God is merely a watchmaker God who started the universe but is not involved in the affairs of humans and human history. One definition of Deism is that “There is no special providence no miracles or other divine interventions intrude upon the lawful natural order.”
Was George Washington a Deist? He was not. It is worth noting that even historian Paul Boller admitted that religion was important to Washington as a leader. Boller writes, “he saw to it that divine services were performed by the chaplains as regularly as possible on the Sabbath for the soldiers under his command.” We might reasonably ask, Why would chaplains be important to a Deist?
Boller even admits there are testimonials of Washington’s church attendance. This is important since many historians even go further than Boller and assert that Washington did not even attend church as a mature adult.
Michael Novak admits that some of the names Washington often used for God sound Deist, but that does not mean that he was a Deist. In fact, his prayers for God’s action were just the opposite of what you might hear from a Deist. Washington believed God favored the cause of liberty and should be beseeched to “interpose” his action on behalf of the Americans. He called for public thanksgiving for the many ways in which Americans experienced God’s hand in key events in our history.
Washington used more than eighty terms to refer to God, among them: Almighty God, Creator, Divine Goodness, Father of all mercies, and Lord of Hosts. The most common term he used in his writings and speeches was “Providence.” When he did so, he used the masculine personal pronoun “he.” Washington never refers directly to God as an “it,” as he does occasionally with Providence. God is personal.<8)
If we look at the history of the eighteenth century, there were many with orthodox religious beliefs who sometimes used the philosophical language of the enlightenment. Washington was a Christian, even though he often used terms for God associated with Deists.
A Religious Nation Goes to War
There has been some dispute about how religious America was during the Revolutionary War. There was a shortage of churches and clergy (especially along the paths of westward migration). But we should also remember that this War of Independence followed the First Great Awakening.
At the first meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia (September 1774), the first motion from the floor was for prayer to seek guidance from God. But there was resistance, not because of the prayer, but because of the theological disagreements among the members (Anabaptist, Quakers, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians). Sam Adams settled the dispute by saying he was no bigot and could pray along with any minister as long as he was a patriot. I have in my office a picture of a painting showing George Washington praying with men like Patrick Henry, John Jay, and Richard Henry Lee.
At the second meeting, they proposed that Washington be appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army. He did not think he was equal to the command but accepted it. He wrote his wife, “I shall rely, therefore, confidently on that Providence, which has heretofore preserved and been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return safe to you in the fall.” At the time, Washington was the only man on the continent in uniform since no Continental Army yet existed. To the British, he was the supreme traitor, in open rebellion to the King. His neck was at risk, and the American independence depended on him.
One event that George Washington believed showed God’s providence was the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Washington and his men were trapped on Brooklyn Heights, Long Island. The British were poised to crush the American army the next day and that would have been the end of the rebellion. Washington planned a bold move and began evacuating his troops under the cover of darkness using everything from fishing vessels to rowboats. But there was not enough time to accomplish the task. When morning came, the fog of night remained and only lifted in time for the British to see the last American boat crossing the East River beyond the reach of their guns. You can read more about this miraculous event in Michael Novak’s book, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.
Washington also required chaplains for the Continental Army, and personally took time for prayer. He forbade his troops under pain of death from uttering blasphemies, even profanity. He called upon them to conduct themselves as Christian soldiers because the people demanded it.
Washington’s actions during the Revolutionary War demonstrate his Christian character.
First in War and First in Peace
In his eulogy for George Washington, Henry Lee said he was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” We could also say the Washington demonstrated Christian character both in war and in peace.
While fulfilling his duties as general, he came to be known as a “nursing father.” This is a biblical phrase (Num. 11:12, Is. 49:23 KJV) that appears in many of the tributes to Washington after his death. He brought together very diverse groups to fight the Revolutionary War by bridging ethnic and social divisions. This ranged from the regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts (that included men of mixed race, blacks, and Indians), to the Virginian and southern aristocrats to the yeomen in hunting shirts from western Virginia.
One of his orders stated that “All chaplains are to perform divine service tomorrow, and on every succeeding Sunday. . . . The commander in chief expects an exact compliance with this order, and that it be observed in future as an invariable rule of practice—and every neglect will be consider not only a breach of orders, but a disregard to decency, virtue and religion.”
Washington grew even more explicit as the war dragged on: “While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian.”
Washington lost a great deal of money during the war by paying for things out of his own pocket and by refusing a salary. He happily returned to Mount Vernon and spent happy years with his wife. But the constitutional convention in 1787 brought him to elective office. He was elected as president by unanimous vote in 1789.
In his inaugural address, Washington said, “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.”
He issued a thanksgiving proclamation in 1789 in which he asserted “the duty of all nations” in regard to God. His thanksgiving proclamation of 1795 proclaims there are signs of “Divine beneficence” in the world. And in his farewell address, he reminded Americans that “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.”
Washington demonstrated Christian character in war and in peace.
Washington as Christian: Pro and Con
Let’s summarize the arguments historians make about Washington’s religious faith. Those who believe that George Washington was a Deist and not a Christian usually make the following observations.
First, Washington never took communion at Sunday services. Second, he refused to declare his specific beliefs in public. Third, he rarely used the name of Jesus Christ in private correspondence and in public utterances. Finally, while he believed in God and had an awareness of Providence in his life, it all seems more like a Greek or Roman view of fate.
Michael Novak’s response to these observations is helpful. “All these objections have a grain of truth in them. Still, they are consistent with Washington’s being a serious Christian who believed that he had a public vocation that required some tact regarding his private confessional life.” Novak adds:
It is not at all unusual for public men in pluralistic American life to maintain a notable reserve about their private convictions. They do not burden the public with declarations of their deepest beliefs, whose general force they trust their actions will sufficiently reveal. In the public forum, they happily give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and in the private forum, to God what is God’s.
What are some of the reasons to believe Washington was a Christian? First, he religiously observed the Sabbath as a day of rest and frequently attended church services on that day. Second, many report that Washington reserved time for private prayer. Third, Washington saved many of the dozens of sermons sent to him by clergymen, and read some of them aloud to his wife.
Fourth, Washington hung paintings of the Virgin Mary and St. John in places of honor in his dining room in Mount Vernon. Fifth, the chaplains who served under him during the long years of the Revolutionary War believed Washington was a Christian. Sixth, Washington (unlike Thomas Jefferson) was never accused by the press or his opponents of not being a Christian.
It is also worth noting that, unlike Jefferson, Washington agreed to be a godparent for at least eight children. This was far from a casual commitment since it required the godparents to agree to help insure that a child was raised in the Christian faith. Washington not only agreed to be a godparent, but presented his godsons and goddaughters with Bibles and prayer books.
George Washington was not a Deist who believed in a “watchmaker God.” He was a Christian and demonstrated that Christian character throughout his life.
1. Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of our Country (NY: Basic Books, 2006).
2. Peter Lillback, with Jerry Newcombe, George Washington’s Sacred Fire (Bryn Mawr, PA: Providence Forum Press, 2006.
3. Novak, Washington’s God, 93.
4. Ibid., 136.
5. Lillback, Sacred Fire, 28.
6. Novak, Washington’s God, 110.
7. Lillback, Sacred Fire, 28.
8. Ibid., 577.
9. Novak, Washington’s God, 123.
10. Ibid, 64.
11. Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco: Encounter, 2002).
12. Novak, Washington’s God, 30-31.
13. Ibid., 90.
15. Ibid., 219.
16. Ibid., 219-220.
The views and beliefs of our country's founders were as diverse and complicated as today. Don Closson focuses on the role of deism. In his book Is God on America's&hellip
The Declaration of Independence Many are unaware of the writings and documents that preceded these great works and the influence of biblical ideas in their formation. In the first two&hellip
Kerby Anderson takes through a summary of the Federalist Papers as seen from a biblical worldview perspective. Does a Christian view of man and government undergird these foundational documents? Kerby&hellip
The Faith of 5 Founding Fathers
The religious views of the Founding Fathers have always been a source of interest. People with political interests have occasionally used the Founding Fathers&rsquo beliefs to argue for or against a position, while historians have tried to reconstruct the beliefs of some of the most important men in history. Unfortunately, many of the Founding Fathers were rather private individuals when it came to their religious beliefs and did not leave a clear record of what tenets they held to in life. That does not mean, however, that scholars have been unable to piece together a rough estimate of what some of the Founding Fathers believed.
George Washington&rsquos religious beliefs are unclear to those living today. Many sources paint him as a believing Christian, but others support the theory that Washington was a Deist. Washington was born to an Anglican family and baptized as such. He was a devoted member of his church and became a vestryman in Truro Parish. Washington later served as churchwarden for three terms and helped care for the poor.
Washington was generally private about his religious beliefs, and his personal writings reflect that stance. He referred to God, Providence and a Creator many times in his writings, but it is unclear if he was speaking of God as Christians know Him or as the Deist Creator. George Washington&rsquos nephew witnessed him kneeling to do personal devotions with an open Bible in the morning and evening, but Washington was also said to leave church early in order to skip Holy Communion.
Despite being one of the greatest proponents of religious freedom, there is little evidence that describes James Madison&rsquos personal beliefs. He was educated by Presbyterian clergymen but also read numerous Deist texts. Some scholars maintain that Madison was a Deist, but others claim he was a Christian man. There is little proof one way or another, but it is quite possible that Madison held to beliefs that were a sort of middle ground between Deism and Christianity like many of the other Founding Fathers.
Though their religious views would be of great interest later, many of the Founding Fathers did not leave behind clear indicators of what precisely their religious beliefs were during their lives. The exception, of course, is Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps it is unsurprising that a man known for his clever wit would decide to give the world one more clever comment since he knew God would eventually get the last word.
George Washington’s Christianity
It was a critical point of the Constitutional Convention. With the windows closed, for secrecy, the delegates were enduring a sweltering Philadelphia summer in 1787. The question of how members of the proposed Congress would be chosen — by population, with larger states getting more representation, or by an equal vote of all states, regardless of size — appeared to be so intractable it threatened the survival of the convention.
Then, 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin asked to speak, proposing that each session open with prayer. Recalling that they had done so during the late war for independence, Franklin said, “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
What was particularly striking about these comments was not so much the sentiments — God governs in the affairs of men — but who said them. Franklin was perhaps the most worldly of the founding fathers, and his call was certainly not that of a deist — a person who believes God does not govern in the affairs of men.
Sitting a few feet away from Franklin, in the chair presiding over the convention, was George Washington of Virginia. There is absolutely no indication whatsoever that Washington would have disagreed with Franklin’s assertion — God governs in the affairs of men — and yet it is common to hear today by supposedly learned scholars that not only was Franklin a deist, the father of our country — George Washington — was a deist, as well.
The historical record indicates that Washington was a firm believer in Jesus Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity, and that Jesus had died for Washington’s sins, and rose from the dead three days later. A deist does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
At Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon, a Bible verse graces the wall. Taken from the Gospel of John, it is a quotation of Jesus, when He sought to reassure Martha, the sister of Jesus’ dead friend Lazarus: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
Speaking less than one month following Washington’s death, Jonathan Mitchell Sewall told an audience in New Hampshire, “Let the deist reflect on this, and remember that Washington, the savior of his country, did not disdain to acknowledge and adore a great Savior, whom deists and infidels affect to slight and despise.”
John Marshall, the noted chief justice of the Supreme Court and a close friend of Washington’s, wrote a biography of Washington, in which he described him as a “sincere believer in the Christian faith.”
Washington clearly believed that God had given victory to the United States, believing the perseverance of his army was a “miracle.” In 1778, Washington said, “I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs, than those in the United States.”
Historian Jared Sparks published The Writings of George Washington in the 1830s, and wrote to Nelly Custis-Lewis, Washington’s granddaughter, inquiring as to the exact nature of Washington’s religious views. Nelly told Sparks that her grandmother, Martha Washington, herself a very devout Christian, had expressed shortly after his death the assurance that her late husband was now experiencing “happiness in Heaven.”
To those who would question her grandfather’s Christianity, she added, “Is it necessary that anyone should certify George Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity? As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country.”
Despite this powerful evidence that Washington was a Christian, there are skeptics. They argue that Washington would sometimes leave church before the communion. While this is true, it is also true that Washington did take communion, many times. One can only speculate as to why Washington did not always take communion. Perhaps he took the admonition of Paul, found in the first letter to the church at Corinth, in which the great apostle said that any person who ate the bread and drank the cup, unworthily, was guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. This was a fairly common view at the time, leading some Christians to skip communion, if they felt themselves “unworthy.”
So why do some insist that Washington was a deist, in the face of such overwhelming contrary evidence? Many, of course, just repeat what they have heard, and ignorance is their only excuse. But why are such falsehoods perpetrated by those who should really know better? Some simply want to tear down the “great man” of American history, and bring him down to their own level. After all, they reason, if the great Washington rejected biblical Christianity, it reinforces their inclination to follow suit.
After reading numerous letters Washington wrote to various person over the course of his life, the historian Jared Sparks concluded, “To say that he was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty. Of all men in the world, Washington was certainly the last whom any one would charge with dissimulation or indirectness and if he was so scrupulous in avoiding even a shadow of these faults in every known act of his life, however unimportant, is it likely, is it credible, that in a matter of the highest and most serious importance he should practice through a long series of years a deliberate deception upon his friends and the public? It is neither credible nor possible.”
William Johnson, in his book George Washington, The Christian, notes that a book of prayers by Washington, in his own handwriting, was sold at auction in 1891. It is not known whether Washington composed the prayers himself, or simply copied them, but in one prayer, Washington asks God to pardon him of his sins, and “remove them from thy presence, as far as the east is from the west, and accept me for the merits of thy son, Jesus Christ, that when I come into thy temple and compass thine altar, my prayers may come before thee as incense.”
Perhaps the family of Washington felt comfortable in adding the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life” to the great man’s tomb, when one can read Washington’s own prayer wherein he speaks of Jesus Christ as one “who lay down in the grave and arose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
Indeed, while only God Himself knows the heart of every man, George Washington’s life gave every indication that he was a firm believer in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
This only adds to the greatness of the man, of whom it was said that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Steve Byas is a professor of history at Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma, His book, History’s Greatest Libels, is a challenge to what he considers some of the greatest libels of history against such personalities as Christopher Columbus, Marie Antoinette, and Joseph McCarthy.
Did George Washington Believe in God?
Only when discussing the argument if the U.S. was founded as a Xtian nation. There was as many deists as outright Xtian followers when our nation was declaring its independence.
I think it is clear that he supported freedom - both the freedom to believe and the freedom not to believe. He wanted us to come together and be a nation - something I wish our current president understood.
I think it is clear that he supported freedom
Whether Washington believed or not is irrelevant. What matters is that the United States were founded with the ideal of religious freedom, a far cry from many other societies of the time.
Washington was an officer in the Freemasons, an organization which, at the time Washington lived, required that its members "will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine", which meant that they should believe in God, regardless of other religious convictions or affiliations.
This strong American adherence to Biblical religion impressed the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville who traveled throughout America in the early 1830s and wrote a marvelous book about his observations. He wrote:
It is hard for us to believe that thirty years later this Christian nation would be torn asunder and plunged into a civil war that took a half million American lives. Men prayed to the same God on both sides of the conflict. In his second inaugural address after the defeat of the Confederacy, Lincoln said:
And then Lincoln concluded with these famous words:
Indeed, only Christian charity could restore the United States as one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
America's Christian heritage is so rich, so powerful, so sustaining, that even President Clinton felt compelled to end his second inaugural address, stating:
How sincere was the President, we have no way to know. We know his faults, we know is immorality. Yet, even the profoundly sinful must face the consequences of his sins. Obviously, President Clinton, born in the Southern Bible belt, must reflect his Baptist roots if he is to maintain a modicum of credibility among his fellow Southerners.
Our secular education system, of course, makes the teaching of Biblical religion to American children impossible, but nothing prevents our educators from inculcating the moral principles of humanism which emphatically teach that there is no connection between religion and morality. Moral relativism, situational ethics, sexual freedom, and multiculturalism, which teaches that all value systems are equally valid, are now the order of the day.
Chuck Colson, the former special counsel to President Nixon who went to prison for his role in the Watergate cover-up, underwent a religious conversion that changed his life. In 1993, he lectured on the subject, "Can We Be Good Without God?" He said: "What we fail to realize is that rejecting transcendental truth is tantamount of committing national suicide. A secular state cannot cultivate virtue. Wee are taking away the spiritual element and abandoning morality based on religious truth, counting instead on our heads and our subjective felling to make us do what is right."
And that is exactly what our educators are doing when they talk about universal values, basic values, and common values as in 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian values are totally irrelevant or never existed.
At the age of 15, George Washington copied in his own handwriting 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversations." Rule 108 stated:
How about distributing that book among American school children! Abigail Adams wrote to her son Quincy Adams in 1780:
Thus was the American character formed in the early days of the republic. Which means that as long as we continue to maintain a secular government education system, we shall be plagued with all of the social problems that are the natural results of secular morality.
How long will it take for Americans to abandon our godless education system? It won't happen until Christian leaders exhort Christian parents to leave these schools. When will this happen? Perhaps never. The average Christian "leader" is anything but a leader. Meanwhile, parents are slowly but surely making their own decisions about their children's education without help of politically correct Christian leadership. And that is why the homeschool and Christian school movement continues to grow exponentially. It's the only proper decision for Christian parents to make in New Age America.
Samuel L. Blumenfeld
Samuel L. Blumenfeld (1927–2015), a former Chalcedon staffer, authored a number of books on education, including NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education, How to Tutor, Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers, and Homeschooling: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children.
George Washington’s Covenant with God
The debate was over. The arguments had been presented. The federalists supported this new document because they believed it was necessary for this young nation to prosper. On the other hand, the anti-federalists feared that the new constitution gave to much power to the federal government. Would states lose their autonomy once this new document was ratified? After four grueling months of debate the new constitution was ratified and the states had to decide who would be their first president.
George Washington was chosen unanimously as the new nation’s first president without a single dissenting vote. Now once again, after wishing to end his life of service to his country and retire back to his farm, Washington again answer’s the call to serve his country. For George Washington was truly a man who did not seek power. In fact, he detested power. He sought personal honor. But he never sought accolades. He believed in service to his country.
It was time for George Washington to go to the new nation’s capital, which was in New York, and accept another responsibility and trust that was bestowed upon him. For George Washington was truly a man whom was trusted by the people of the United States. For the thirteen states would have never accepted the new constitution if Washington had not given it his seal of approval.
The young nation feared a strong central government. They feared the new Constitution would create a government that would trample on their rights. They feared another monarchy. For what good was the revolution if a new monarchy at home would replace the old monarchy abroad?
The thirteen states were apprehensive at first in ratifying this new Constitution. And there was only one man whom could put their minds at ease. That man was George Washington. The only man whom they would entrust with this new power.
Washington gave the very first presidential oath and the very first inaugural address. On that cool, April Day in New York City Washington also followed in the footsteps of the Biblical heroes of old making a covenant with God. David. Solomon. Josiah.
God honors covenants. He would always keep His end of the bargain. George Washington knew that. The question is would the United States of America keep hers?
Robert Livingston administered the very first presidential oath of office of this new nation. He was New York’s state Chancellor.
Washington opened the Bible at random to Genesis 49. Washington placed his left hand upon the open Bible. Washington raised his right hand. Washington then proceeded to take the following oath:
“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.”
Washington then bent over and in an act of reverence for His God whom saved him so many times before, he kissed the Bible.
Chancellor Livingston proclaimed, “It is done!” Livingston then turned to those who were assembled as eyewitnesses to history and shouted, “Long live George Washington – the first President of the United States!”
George Washington then went inside Federal Hall to the Senate Chamber and delivered the first ever Inaugural Address. Washington opened his address with prayer:
“It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes.”
“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. And in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their United Government, the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resulted, cannot be compared with the means by which most Governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me I trust in thinking, that there are none under the influence of which, the proceedings of a new and free Government can more auspiciously commence.”
Then Washington made a covenant with the God of the universe saying:
“Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
In his address Washington made it clear that no nation can expect to be blessed by God (propitious smiles of Heaven) if they turn away from Him. (disregards the eternal rules of order and right) If a nation forgets God she will lose the blessing that God has given her.
Representing the nation, Washington made a promise that the United States of America would follow God. If she ever broke her promise then she would lose God’s blessing and protection. God would keep His promise. He always kept His promises. Only one question remained: Would the United States of America keep hers?
2 Times George Washington Was Protected by God
We already know that George Washington was a moral man and an inspiring leader, but perhaps he knew more than we realized about his divine role in establishing the United States as a promised land where the Restoration could unfold. Evidence suggests that not only was Washington protected and guided by the Lord, but he was aware that God had a greater purpose for America.
In 1770, at the request of the governor of Virginia, George Washington led a small party in the Ohio wilderness to survey lands. While they camped in the woods near the Kanawha River, a small group of peaceful Indians entered their camp. Though surprised, Washington stood and greeted them politely. It became clear to Washington that the leader was an elderly man—the Grand Sachem, as he was called. And it soon became clear that the Grand Sachem, after hearing that Washington was in the territory, had traveled quite a distance to lay eyes on him.
At this time in history, Washington was not the man of fame he would one day become. Indeed, the Revolution and his role in it were still years away. But as the chief began to speak, Washington realized why he had come looking for him.
The Bulletproof Soldier
“I have traveled a long and weary path that I might see the young warrior of the great battle.” The chief signaled to Washington, and Washington understood instantly. Though only 23 years old when this great battle took place during the French and Indian War, Washington had fought bravely and had even been commissioned as a colonel.
The Grand Sachem recounted, “By the waters of the Monongahela, we met the soldiers of the King beyond the Seas, who came to drive from the land my French Brothers. . . . Like a blind wolf they walked into our trap. . . . It was a day when the white man’s blood mixed with the streams of our forests, and ’twas then I first beheld this Chief.”
After pointing to Washington, the old man continued, “I, who can bring the leaping squirrel from the top of the highest tree with a single shot, fired at this warrior more times than I have fingers. Our bullets killed his horse, knocked the war bonnet from his head, pierced his clothes, but ’twas in vain a Power mightier far than we shielded him from harm.”
After a brief pause, the old Indian opened his mouth again to make his concluding remarks, or, better said, his concluding prophecy:
“The Great Spirit protects that man and guides his destinies. He will become the chief of many nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire. I am come to pay homage to the man who is the particular favorite of heaven and who can never die in battle.”
After this same battle, Washington had put his own thoughts on paper. “By the miraculous care of Providence,” he wrote, “I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation for I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot under me and yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me.”
Indeed, the Lord was preserving Washington for a specific purpose—to ensure the establishment of a nation where the restored gospel could come forth and flourish. And heaven would not let him fail.