Will the Real George Washington Please Stand Up?

Even before he died in December 1799, a battle began over the nature and significance of George Washington’s faith. Was the father of our country a deist, a Unitarian, a lukewarm Christian, or a fervent evangelical? Popular paintings depict Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge  during the Revolutionary War and ascending to heaven after his death. Few of the varied aspects of the Virginian’s life have caused as much contention as his religious beliefs and habits. Moreover, no other president has had his religious life so distorted by folklore.Given Washington’s immense contributions to the American republic, semi-divine status, and importance to American civil religion, this intense debate is not surprising. Moreover, Washington is an important figure in a second heated dispute over whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

After his death, Washington was elevated to sainthood and portrayed as God’s instrument. In life and death, he has been seen as “the deliverer of America,” the American Moses, and even a demigod. In their funeral sermons, Federalist clergy effusively praised Washington as a devout Christian who liberated God’s chosen people from British oppression. A spate of books published in the nineteenth century to promote Washington’s piety feature stories of him arranging communion services before battles, retreating into the woods during military encampments to pray, and inspiring parishioners in country churches by his zealous worship.

Three new books have recently joined this debate. In Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, Brooke Allen concludes that Washington was probably a deist. She argues that in his extensive correspondence Washington rarely mentioned Christianity and never mentioned “a savior or redeemer.”  Unlike Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Washington did not even refer to Jesus as a great moral teacher. Although Washington offered substantial advice to his stepchildren and nephews on moral subjects, he said nothing about religion. Moreover, Washington expressed no hope of eternal life, and on his deathbed did not call for a minister or pray.

Despite Allen’s claims, Peter Lillbach fills the 1169 pages of George Washington’s Sacred Fire with quotations from Washington about religious matters and detailed analysis of his beliefs and practices. Following in the footsteps of other evangelicals, Lillbach calls the first president “an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ” who believed in Christ’s atonement for sinners and bodily resurrection. To refute “modern skeptics” who “have read into Washington their own unbelief,” Lillbach emphasizes his “exemplary prayer life,” extensive knowledge of Scripture, work as an Anglican vestryman, and repeated calls for public and private piety.

Similarly, Michael and Jana Novak contend in Washington’s God that Washington “was a serious Christian, perceived to be so by many close to him.”  They add that “Washington easily met the standards for being considered an Anglican in good standing”—“baptism, acceptance of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds” and somewhat regular church attendance. The Novaks stress that Washington served as a godfather for eight children, faithfully attended vestry meetings, often led projects to improve the church, and swore his oath of office as president on the Bible even though he was not required to do so.

They also rebut the major objections to Washington being a Christian: he never took communion after the Revolutionary War began; he stood rather than knelt during prayers; “he refused to declare his specific beliefs” publicly; he very rarely mentioned Jesus in public or in private correspondence or the Christian names for God; “his death seemed more Stoic than Christian”; and “his view of Providence” seemed similar to the Greek or Roman view of fate.

After examining the relevant sources on Washington’s religious views and practices for my book Faith and the Presidency, several factors convince me, that judged by the standards of his day, Washington was fairly religious. As a commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he recruited chaplains for his troops, required his soldiers to attend Sunday worship, and held thanksgiving services after victories. Arguably no president has stressed the role of divine providence in American history more than Washington. Throughout his life, he appealed to “an all-powerful Providence” to protect and guide him and the nation. Washington maintained that God was all-powerful, infinitely wise, just, all-good, and inscrutable. He frequently professed belief in the power of prayer, and while president, he attended church almost every Sunday. He did not, however, ever clearly state what he believed about Jesus’ deity.

I conclude therefore that Washington’s faith is better explained by the label “theistic rationalism” than by deism, Unitarianism, or Christianity. This theoretical construct combines elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism predominating. It holds that God is unitary and active in the world and asserts that revelation complements reason. Since he directs human affairs, prayer is effectual. Because deists deny God’s active involvement in the world, the value of prayer, and the Bible as God’s revelation, the concept of theistic rationalism better describes Washington’s views than does the term deist, Unitarian, or Christian.

Scholars and ordinary Americans will undoubtedly continue to debate the precise nature of Washington’s faith, and its eclectic character does not help resolve the debate over America’s Christian origins. Clearly, however, his faith became deeper as a result of his trying and sometimes traumatic experiences as commander-in-chief and as the nation’s first president, and it significantly affected his understanding of life and his duties in both roles.