George Washington and Religious Freedom (Part Three):
Some scholars have proposed theories that George Washington may not have been a Christian, but a Deist. Deists believed that the existence of God was determined by reason and not divine revelation. In other words, both Jesus and the Bible did not prove the existence of a supreme being. Rather that belief was determined by reason and study of the natural world. During Washington’s lifetime, Deism was a popular religious thought.
Deists would use words like “providence” to both explain the existence of God and the reason for events that occurred. Washington, himself frequently used the word providence, leading many scholars to believe Washington was a deist.
Part of the confusion about Washington’s religious belief was in his very private nature about expressing them. Washington’s usual demeanor wasn’t to express his views without first hearing other points of view. He also expressed his religious views not from what he believed but by making sure others felt comfortable expressing their views. This was especially true after he became president. Also adding to this confusion is Washington’s later-life practice of not taking communion.
However, we can find evidence that Washington’s Christian beliefs are determined by circumstantial evidence. During both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, Washington ensured there were military chaplains for those under his command. In fact, during the French and Indian War, when chaplains were few, he would lead services on Sundays himself.
The issue of Washington not taking communion in his later life, which led many scholars to believe that he was a Deist, provides other clues. As president, he would often attend church on Sunday but would leave just before communion was taken. This act drew criticism from pastors. But based on what we know about the prevailing spirit of communion at the time of his presidency, it actually isn’t that odd. At that time, many believed that you should only take communion when you were in the right state of mind. Washington’s days were filled with the responsibility of being president. Like all things Washington did, he wanted them to be done right. This might lead one to a conclusion that he never felt like he was in the right state of mind.
Another theory is that, as a former military leader, he had a difficult time reconciling the acts of war he led with personal piety. Later in his life, he struggled with thoughts of slavery. Was it moral and right to hold people against their will? A final thought was that as president of a new republic, he didn’t want to show bias to any form of worship, and perhaps giving up communion was his compromise.
In the period before the American Revolution Washington frequently went to church. At times he was the leading member of the laity and was responsible for running the church and its affairs. Going to church while he was at Mount Vernon was difficult. Mount Vernon was very large and located in two Anglican parishes. He attended both churches on different Sundays. Neither were close, and it often took up to two hours by buggy to arrive at church. He still went.
Washington bought Bibles for people, especially for his wife Martha, who herself was a very devout Christian who took communion. Washington strongly believed in the value of the church and would often say it was the pillar of society.
We must also remember that Washington took being the first president very seriously. He knew what was at stake and the direction he wanted to country to go—to be a true republic not dominated by royalty or aristocratic elite. In this spirit, he rebuffed the many who wanted to make him king or serve as president for life. He also knew about the persecution by some to those of different faiths. He had a strong desire to allow religion to be free for all people. But, He also knew he was model for the citizenry and strongly desired to show no partiality. With this mind, it is easy to understand why, during the period of his presidency, he was extraordinarily careful about expressing his religious views or acting in a way that might show favoritism.
Washington strongly believed that the health of any country or society was based on morality. He saw that morality coming from religious thought and expression. He acted to ensure all people could practice religion freely. From that, the new republic experienced a tremendous surge in spiritual growth. At the time of the Revolution, there was a church for every four hundred citizens, yet only eighty attended church—a mere 20 percent. In the following decades that would rise to as much as 80 percent. Today it stands at 65 percent.
While scholars can say Washington wasn’t a Christian, what was accomplished under his leadership brought religious freedoms to all people, which catapulted religious expression from a minority to a majority of Americans.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
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