George Washington

Scholarly analysis and quotes that demonstrate that our founding fathers were more likely Religious Deists than traditional Christians

“Franklin Steiner, in The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents”, without making a categorical distinction between those generally regarded as great and those considered mediocre, concluded one by one that virtually all of the great ones were freethinkers. As indubitably one of the greatest Presidents, Washington was portrayed as one of the most liberal of the freethinkers.” (Mapp, P. 67)

“Paul F. Boller, Jr., deserves credit for making a strong case in his George Washington and Religion that “Washington was no less firmly committed to religious liberty and freedom of conscience than were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.” (Mapp, P. 74)

“While Washington´s church attendance for most of his life was usually in some Protestant sanctuary, most of ten of his own Episcopal denomination, he sometimes worshipped with Catholic congregations.” (Mapp, P. 75) – In other words it didn’t matter where he worshiped or probably even the details of what was worshiped, just that they were worshiping God.

“Deists have a great example of toleration, perseverance, and integrity in the person of fellow Deist George Washington. Christian preachers who ardently wanted Washington to be portrayed as one of them have made up many stories of George Washington's strong Christian beliefs. One of the primary purveyors of these propaganda pieces was Mason Locke Weems, a Christian preacher who came up with the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. He also feverishly promoted the myth of George Washington and Christianity.” (Beacon, P. 1)

“On page 82 of the same book, Boller includes a quote from a Presbyterian minister, Arthur B. Bradford, who was an associate of Ashbel Green another Presbyterian minister who had known George Washington personally. Bradford wrote that Green “often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all of the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist.” (Beacon, P. 1)

“When the Continental Congress was meeting John Adams, George Washington and others attended afternoon mass at St. Mary´s Church, one of Philadelphia´s two Roman Catholic Churches.” (Holmes P. 2) He believed in the importance of religion and worshiping God and recognized Christianity’s unquestionable place in US society – including the growing Catholic population. Worshiping at a Catholic Church would help him pragmatically with his Catholic soldiers but not necessarily with his non-Catholic ones. During these religious times, it is clearly demonstrative of their toleration of other faiths and their disdain for the high and exclusive place that conservative Christians were trying to assign to state Protestant Churches of the time.

“But if a contemporaneous source – Washington´s diary – is used as an index, he attended church somewhat more than once a month while living in Mount Vernon, and sometimes less. In 1760, the diary indicates that Washington went to church four times during the first five months of the year. In 1768, it records that Washington attended divine services on 15 Sundays.” (Holmes P. 61) Part of this was probably because he lived rurally, part to weather, but part is indifference.

“Nevertheless, the diary indicates that Washington passed up church on many Sundays. Sometimes he visited relatives and friends, received visitors, traveled or went fox-hunting, but most frequently he remained at Mount Vernon “alone all day”. (Holmes P. 61)

“Many who have left descriptions of Washington at worship specifically note that he insisted on standing in his pew for prayers, instead of (as was usual for Anglicans) kneeling.” (Holmes P. 62)

“In the fashion of the Deists, however, Washington seems to have remained indifferent to two significant rites of his church. Like many of the founding fathers who were raised Anglican, he was never confirmed. Confirmation was available after the Episcopal Church secured bishops in the 1780s, and by going forward for confirmation Washington would have provided an example to other Episcopalians……Even more significant, Washington apparently avoided the sacrament of Holy Communion.” (Holmes P. 62)

“Writers continue to debate whether Washington received Holy Communion before or during the Revolutionary War, but the convergence of evidence seems to indicate that he did not receive it after the war.” (Holmes P. 62)

“Much of the evidence that Washington remained on such Sundays for the communion service consists of what a judge would term hearsay. That which is not second hand raises questions of credibility. Far more persuasive is the account of Nelly Curtis (Washington´s daughter) that she and Washington always left church at the end of the Desk and Pulpit service on Communion Sundays and then sent the carriage back from Mount Vernon to pick up Martha, who had remained” (Holmes P. 63)

“Also instructive is the testimony of the gentlemanly William White, Washington´s bishop and pastor when the seat of government was in Philadelphia…..Late in his life, he answered an inquiry about Washington´s attendance at communion services with the following discreet words: “Truth requires me to say that General Washington never received the communion, in the churches of which I am parochial minister. Mrs. Washington was an habitual communicant.“ (Holmes P. 63)

“The Reverend James Abercrombie, the assistant at Christ Church, objected so much to the practice of the president of the US (and others) walking out of church prior to communion that he preached a sermon on public worship. In it he spoke of the “unhappy tendency of….those in elevated stations who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord´s Supper.” Although the sermon named no one, Washington correctly assumed that the message was “a very just reproof directed especially at him. Realizing that he was setting a bad example, he never again attended Christ Church on Sacrament Sundays.” (Holmes P. 63-64) – rather than modify his behavior……

“Repetitive patterns tell their own story. Washington did not receive communion in Philadelphia or Virginia. For a practicing Christian to refrain from Holy Communion is so surprising that writers continue to propose explanations. “One wonders why”, a contemporary historian muses, “Whatever the reason, it must have been a matter of conscience. A less scrupulous political leader would have taken refuge in conformity to have presented an appealing image to his constituents.” (Holmes P. 64)

“Thus the explanation presupposes that thousands of Anglicans or Episcopalians must have felt themselves unworthy to receive the sacrament (of Holy Communion)……If this explanation were true, the conscience-stricken would include not only Washington but also three other early presidents of the US and many members of the Continental and US congresses.” (Holmes P. 64-65)

“With only a few exceptions, Washington´s speeches…..Washington´s speeches, orders, official letters, and other public communication on religion give a more or less uniform picture. They seem clearly to display the outlook of a Deist. Their references to religion lack emotion. They omit such words as “Father”, “Lord”, “Redeemer”, and “Savior”. In their place, they uses such Deistic terms as “Providence”, “Heaven”, “the Deity”, “the Supreme Being, “the Grand Architect”, “the Author of all Good”, and “the Great Ruler of Events.” They refer infrequently to Christianity and rarely to Jesus Christ.” (Holmes P. 65)

“When Washington answers a letter from a German Reformed congregation in 1783, for example, he uses the terms “Supreme Ruler of the Universe” and “Heaven” in his reply. In 1789, when he writes to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia, he uses “Heaven”, “the Deity”, and “God” twice. Writing to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1789, he speaks of “the Deity”, “Almighty God”, and “Heaven” twice. A letter to a society of Quakers in 1789 uses “Divine Providence”, “Almighty God”, and “Maker”. In subsequent letters to religious bodies, the largely Deistic language continues. Writing in 1790 to the Roman Catholics of America, Washington speaks of “Divine providence”. His 1793 letter to a congregation of the Church of the New Jerusalem employs “an over-ruling Providence” once and “God” twice. To the Convention of the Universalist Church in 1790, he uses “an intelligent and accountable Being”. When he writes to six Hebrew congregations on the East Coast, he uses “Heaven”, “the Deity”, the “Wonder-working Deity”, “father of all mercies”, and “The Power and Goodness of the Almighty”. Finally in a 1793 letter to the Philadelphia Protestant Clergy, he refers to “the Divine Author of life and felicity. An approximate count shows that at least half of these terms are clearly Deistic and that another five represent the kind of term that either a Deist or an orthodox Jew or Christian would employ. The remaining terms – mostly consisting of the word “God” – are those employed by orthodox believers” (Holmes P. 65-66)

“Even to Trinitarian congregations and clergy, Washington significantly makes no mention of Jesus Christ.” (Holmes P. 66)

“Like Deists, Washington was more concerned with morality and ethics than with adhering to the doctrines of a particular church.” (Holmes P. 66)

“While on his deathbed – with Martha sitting close by, his personal servant standing near, his physician James Cralk staring helplessly into the fire, his other physicians waiting downstairs, and a group of his house servants standing anxiously by the bedroom door – Washington never asked for an Episcopal clergyman. After uttering his last words of “Tis well” and taking his own pulse, he died peacefully on the night of December 14, 1799. Four days later, he was buried after Episcopal and Masonic funeral services. All of this is in keeping with an interpretation of Washington as a Deistic Episcopalian.” (Holmes P. 68)

”When these pious stories began to appear shortly after Washington´s death, many of the general´s contemporaries – including Jefferson, Madison, and Bishop White – disputed the depictions. “Sir, he was a Deist”, one of Washington´s pastors declared in a discussion of the question. Since then, disagreements over Washington´s religious beliefs have periodically broken into public print. Early in the 20th century, letters arguing for and against Washington´s belief in the divinity of Christ occupied pages of a leading New York newspaper. Senator Hendry Cabot Lodge was among those who argued for Washington´s orthodoxy. Unlike Washington´s pastor or contemporaries, of course, none of the writers had known Washington or observed his religious practices.” (Holmes P. 69)

“In such disputes, evangelical and patriotic authors tend to find orthodoxy and zeal in Washington´s religion. Professional historians, however, find the chain of evidence supporting the stories of Washington´s exemplary "Christian" piety weak. One author, for example, said that “Rev. DD Fiedl told her that a Mrs. Watkins told him that when she was a girl, Washington….” Such hearsay evidence is not valid historical proof. Similarly, Parson Weems became famous for his story of young George Washington and the cherry tree, which he added to the fifth edition of his biography in 1806. Weems declared that he had heard the story from an old woman who was a cousin of Washington and who had grown up with him. In 1817, in the 17th edition of his biography, Weems added another story that has become a standard part of Washington lore. In it Washington is discovered kneeling and praying aloud in a snowy wood at Valley Forge by a pacifist Quaker and local inhabitant named Isaac Potts. Moved by what he sees, Potts converts to the Revolutionary cause. He goes home and tells his wife, Sarah, that Washington is a “man of God”, who , with the aid of God, “will work out a great salvation for America.” The analysis of Franke E. Grizzard, Jr., the most recent writer on Washington´s religion, calls this story into serious question. Although Isaac Potts owned the house in which Washington headquartered, he did not then live in Valley Forge. Instead, his home was rented to an ironmaster named William Dewees. Potts also did not marry Sarah until 1803 – long after the supposed episode at Valley Forge. In addition, as Grizzard notes, “clergymen who knew Washington testified that he never knelt during service or at prayer.” Grizzard also points out that the Rev. Nathaniel Randolph Snowden´s Diary and Remembrances, written after Weems´s version was published, not only names Isaac Potts´s brother John as the witness to Washington´s prayer, but also claims to have received the account directly from him. Grizzard speaks of “Weems´s proclivity to make up stories out of whole cloth.” Weems billed himself as “Rector of Mount Vernon Parish” – a nonexistent parish – and had a low standing as a historian and truth-teller even among his fellow Episcopal clergy in Virginia.” (Holmes P. 69-70)

“But most historians today believe that the stories of Parson Weems and of other writers who depicted Washington as a model of Christian orthodoxy have no more basis in fact than the story of the cherry tree.” (Holmes P. 70)

“More accurate perhaps is the summation given by President James Madison to a biographer of Washington in 1830: “Mr. Madison does not suppose that Washington had ever attended to the arguments of Christianity, and for the different systems of religion, or in fact that he had formed definite opinions on the subject.” (Holmes P. 70-71)

“George Washington, for example, lived in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia during the period when these states had Episcopal bishops, but he was never confirmed. James Madison of Montpelier never arranged for confirmation, though his cousin and namesake James Madison of William & Mary held the office of bishop of Virginia during 22 years of President Madison´s life… If confirmation had been available when Madison returned to Montpelier from Princeton in 1772, he might have sought it, for he was then a believing Christian. But by the 1790s, when the future president´s cousin was available to confirm Virginians, Madison had been aligned with the Deists for 20 years. It was too late for him to express beliefs that he did not hold.” (Holmes P. 136)

“A vestryman in both Anglican and Episcopal parishes, George Washington attended Church with some regularity, held organized religion in high regard, and was known to pray privately. But he was never confirmed, and apparently avoided Holy Communion for most or all of his adult life. Although Washington´s most common term for God was “Providence”, he also used such terms as “Heaven”, “the Grand Architect”, “the Deity”, and “the Great Ruler of Events”. Both his official and his private correspondence, however, omitted such words as “Lord”, “Savior”, and “Redeemer”, and he rarely referred to Jesus Christ. On the spectrum of early American religion, he would clearly be classified as a Deistic Christian.” (Holmes P. 140-141)

“In his sermon delivered in Albany, New York, in October of that year, Wilson attacked the current stories that were circulating about the admirable religious piety of such founding fathers as George Washington. Washington, he said in the sermon, had not been an orthodox Christian; in reality he had really been an 18th century Deist. Wilson cited support on this point from clergy who had known Washington and whom he himself knew. Then – in significant words – he went on to state that “among all our presidents downward, not one was a professor or religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism.” (Holmes P. 162)

“14 months later, an Episcopal cleric wrote to Bishop White to inquire about the religious beliefs of George Washington. A new generation of biographers had begun to depict Washington as an orthodox Christian, thus fueling a debate about the 1st president´s beliefs. Wilson´s sermon articulates his disgust with these books. The Episcopal cleric wrote to the most reliable source of information he knew – the man who had been chaplain of the Continental Congress and Washington´s pastor when the national capital was in Philadelphia. On December 1, 1832, White replied in words as significant as those of Wilson: “I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.” (Holmes P. 162-163)

“Diligent researchers have found no evidence of Washington´s ever having taken communion, and there are reports of his having declined. His abstention was particularly noticeable when he was accompanied by his wife, because she is reported to have participated invariably.“

“Washington´s statement to Mrs. Stockton about his belief in “immortality of the soul” may seem akin to Blaise Pascal´s famous “wager”. The great 17th century thinker argued that, as eternal happiness is possible if God exists and one accepts that premise and lives accordingly, whereas nothing is lost under the same assumption if God does not exist.” (Mapp, P. 69)

“While Washington´s church attendance for most of his life was usually in some Protestant sanctuary, most often of his own Episcopal denomination, he sometimes worshipped with Catholic congregations.” (Mapp, P. 75) – Didn´t matter = worship God; do good, go to heaven; what did he actually believe = Deism.

“Washington, like many people in colonial America, belonged to the Anglican Church and was a vestryman in it. But in early America, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, you had to belong to the dominant church if you wanted to have influence in society, as is illustrated by the following taken from Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, by Bishop William Meade, I, P 191. “Even Mr. Jefferson …….who did not conceal his disbelief in Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the other at Albermarle; for they wished to be men of influence.” (Beacon, P. 1)

In his final message as President: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” (Mapp, P. 72) However, he does not say Christianity.

“Favoring freedom of conscience for all Christians, Jews, Deists, and freethinkers, he helped establish religious liberty and toleration as central principles in the new American government.“ (Holmes P. 66) Not consistent with evangelical Christians at that time – nor probably today – especially when reviewed in the context of everything else in this chapter.

"He also believed that organized religion played a useful role in society by promoting morality, order and stability." (Holmes P. 66-68) However, he does not say Christianity.

“Thus Washington required Revolutionary military forces to have chaplains, insisted that his soldiers attend Sunday services, and ordered Thanksgiving services after victories.” (Holmes P. 68) But he did not care what kind of service or probably if they were Christian or not.

"In the book Washington and Religion by Paul F. Boller, Jr., we read on page 92: “Washington was no infidel, if by infidel is meant unbeliever. Washington had an unquestioning faith in Providence and, as we have seen, he voiced this faith publicly on numerous occasions. That this was no more rhetorical flourish on his part, designed for public consumption, is apparent from his constant allusions to Providence in his personal letters. There is every reason to believe, from a careful analysis of religious references in his private correspondence, that Washington´s reliance upon a Grand Designer along Deist lines was… deep seated and meaningful." (Beacon, P. 1)