J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

George Washington's faith in Providence

At Positive Liberty, Jonathan Rowe takes a hard look at evidence that politically active minister D. James Kennedy recently used to argue that George Washington was a prayerful Christian. As Rowe points out, Kennedy's conclusion relied on two shaky anecdotes and a manuscript that evangelists have tried to attribute to Washington but isn't even in his handwriting. On his website, Paul M. Bessell has assembled the judgments of several historians on Washington's religious habits.

I think it's also useful to look at Washington's own words and deeds. He was a vestryman in his local Anglican church, yet on 15 August 1787 he wrote to his close friend Lafayette that he didn't feel any form of faith to be superior:

I am not less ardent in my wish that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception.
[This quotation, and all others unless I mention another source, comes from the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress website.]

Washington did believe in a deity, and often referred to this God's workings as "Providence," "the Divine Will," or "fate." Biographer Douglas Southall Freeman pointed out that Washington could speak of this force as "He," "she," or "it," depending on his antecedent. When friends went through difficult experiences, he advised them to submit to Providence, as in this 1773 letter to a friend whose niece had died:
The ways of Providence being inscrutable, and the justice of it not to be scanned by the shallow eye of humanity, not to be counteracted by the utmost efforts of human power and wisdom, resignation, and, as far as the strength of our reason and religion can carry us, a cheerful acquiescence to the Divine Will is what we are to aim.
[That quotation comes from James Thomas Flexner's biography, 1:244.]

Washington didn't counsel people to pray to God for intervention or comfort. Instead, he advised them to accept what Providence would supply. That philosophy is textbook deism. The distinction between faith in the existence of God and praying to God seems to be lost on many writers today, such as Thomas Fleming in his brief discussion of religion in Washington's Secret War.

Washington didn't seek divine intervention in political matters. On 23 March 1793, in the middle of his presidency, he wrote to former aide David Humphreys:
If it can be esteemed a happiness to live in an age productive of great and interesting events, we of the present age are very highly favored. The rapidity of national revolutions appear no less astonishing, than their magnitude. In what they will terminate, is known only to the great ruler of events; and confiding in his wisdom and goodness, we may safely trust the issue to him, without perplexing ourselves to seek for that, which is beyond human ken; only taking care to perform the parts assigned us, in a way that reason and our own consciences approve of.
The surest moral guidance Washington saw was "reason and our own consciences."

D. James Kennedy might be gratified to read this letter of 28 August 1762, to Martha Washington's brother-in-law Burwell Bassett [Flexner, 1:237]:
I was favored with your epistle wrote on a certain 25th of July when you ought to have been at church, praying as becomes every good Christian man who has as much to answer for as you have. Strange it is that you will be so blind to truth that the enlightening sounds of the Gospel cannot reach your ear, nor examples awaken you to a sense of goodness. Could you but behold with what religious zeal I hie me to church every Lord's day, it would do your heart good, and fill it, I hope, with equal fluency.
But if we look at what Washington actually did on Sundays, it becomes clear that in this letter he's just joking with a genteel friend about their mutual lack of churchgoing. No daily diary for 1762 survives, but Washington's other diaries from the decade show that when he was home at Mount Vernon he didn't "hie me to church every Lord's day," but spent more Sundays riding and writing letters. Of the four Sundays in February 1768, Washington noted in his diary that he was at home for three of them and on the fourth "went up to Mr. Robt. Alexanders in order to meet Mr. B. Fairfax & others a fox Huntg." In the whole year he went to church fifteen times, mostly when he was traveling.

That brings me to an aspect of Washington's religious practice which might trouble both sides of today's cultural debate: those who want to see him as a prayerful Christian like themselves and those who want to seem him as a shining example of deism. Even as Washington showed little interest in churchgoing and prayer, he treated those outward, visible aspects of religion as important to his public image. When he was on the road or living in the capital as President, he often went to a local church—i.e., he made sure that people saw him paying respect to religion. Concern for his public image was so deeply ingrained in Washington's sense of self that, really, how people viewed him was his sense of self.

As a military officer, Washington also urged his soldiers to follow religious rituals. In the French & Indian War, he sought a chaplain for his Virginia unit, writing, "we may at least have the show if we are said to want the substance of godliness." [Flexner, 1:154-5] Later, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he often ordered his men to attend church services. For example, on 12 April 1777 his general orders read:
All the troops in Morristown, except the Guards, are to attend divine worship to morrow morning at the second Bell; the officers commanding Corps, are to take especial care, that their men appear clean, and decent, and that they are to march in proper order to the place of worship.
Again, Washington seems more concerned with outward appearance—cleanliness and marching—than with the men's spiritual condition. I can't help but wonder if Washington thought religious rituals and rules were important in helping common men maintain their morals, but that he as a gentleman could be guided by his reason and conscience.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Excellent post.

Thanks for the link.

Ed Darrell said...

Jonathan's right -- excellent post.

A few other observations:

1. Yes, Washington was a member of the vestry of his local Anglican church. A vestry is, technically, the little room where the preacher puts on his robes. Idiomatically, being a "member of the vestry" meant one was officially on the rolls of that parish. This was important, because being a member of the vestry was a pre-requisite for holding office or participating in county government in Virginia. Consequently, one may easily read into being a member a religiosity that did not exist in the person described (Jefferson was also a member of the vestry in his parish, but I have yet to find any evidence he continued after 1776).

2. Washington's faith may be best studied if one realizes he was a rather "devout" Mason. Masonic ties were critical to Washington, as well as to his French compadre, LaFayette. Washington wore a Masonic apron to lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building -- an apron sewn and embroidered by LaFayette's wife. You may want to check with the Alexandria, Virginia, Masonic Lodge, Washington's home lodge, for details from their museum and monument; you may also get some interesting history from the Society of the Cincinnati, located in Washington, D.C.

3. Among other things, Washington generally avoided using the name "Jesus" -- for what reasons we can't be too sure. Whenever anyond proposed to him a proclamation -- say for a day of thanksgiving -- he'd reword it to eliminate references to Jesus or other references that would specify Christianity.

4. Washington avoided taking Christian communion his entire life. This got to be a problem when he was president. Clergy in Philadelphia were concerned about this, since others started to follow Washington's lead. The church muck-a-mucks visited the president and asked that he change his ways. So he took to leaving the meeting when communion was served, and of course, others followed. When the church leaders again appealed to him, he stopped attending services.

5. Originally a supporter of Patrick Henry's proposal to re-establish religion partly in Virginia, by paying clergy from state funds, Washington eventually endorsed Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom, because, while Washington thought it the duty of every person to support their own church, he did not care for the strife likely under Henry's proposal. So Washington endorsed separation of church and state when it counted.