By Reed Benson
When the final tally was counted after the election of 1788, all electoral votes went to George Washington as the first President of the United States under the Constitution. It was a remarkable moment, both then and ever since, particularly in light of the fact that no man except George Washington has ever garnered a unanimity of votes in the electoral college. He was, as oft said, "the indispensable man," yet he served reluctantly, constantly pining for his home on the Potomac where he could oversee his crops and livestock.
If this election were held today, how would Washington fare? Based on the words that come from both the far right and the far left of America's political spectrum, it appears that not only would Washington not be elected unanimously, he may not even get a simple majority and would thus be considered unworthy for the high office of President. How could his reputation have fallen so far?
For well over a century after his death, Washington was considered a strong and sincere Christian patriot, a model for every American to emulate, both for his selfless love of his homeland and for his personal Christian virtue. But in the mid twentieth century a new generation of liberal scholars began to deconstruct the man, piece by piece, accusing him of crimes that violated the political sensibilities of more recent times. He was called a cruel slave owner, a hypocrite regarding freedom. His military record was slandered, suggesting that his strategies as a commander in the War of Independence were poor and that it was mere luck and the efforts of others that brought him the appearance of success. In his private life, he was recast as a deist, only pretending to be a Christian for the sake of public advancement.
All are false accusations, but it is only the latter criticism that this article will address. The culmination of the attacks on Washington's status as a Christian came in 1963, when Paul F. Boller , Jr. published George Washington & Religion. Since that time it has passed into the mainstream of public discourse that Washington was a deist and he is usually portrayed as such. Sadly, more recent attacks from the political right have joined Boller, arguing that Washington's association with the Freemasons made him a secret agent of a sinister conspiracy to undermine America's Christian foundation from its very beginning. Typical of this line of attack include Thomas Horn, Christian Pinto, and Texe Marrs who argue that the founders of our American republic were willing participants in a plot to create a deistic, masonic, neo-pagan, Luciferian new world order of global government designed to eventually enslave every person on the planet under the dark leadership of a future anticipated anti-Christ. As a willing member of this evil cabal, George Washington was a man whose memory we should at least distrust if not outright despise.
The evidence they present is exceptionally poor research with few primary resources. It is filled with ad-hoc arguments that take advantage of uninformed readers. Fortunately, the plain facts of documented history will show Washington to be a genuine believer in the Bible and traditional Christian doctrines. That being said, George Washington was not an evangelist, nor was he a professor of theology, or a trained minister. He was a surveyor, a farmer, a soldier, and later a statesman; his writings reflect his practical Christianity and not fine points of doctrine. Yet, enough clear information exists to prove that he was a truly honorable Christian in accord to the expectations of the eighteenth century.
To help demonstrate that Washington was not a deist, we need a working concept of this philosophy. Although deists acknowledged a Creator, they denied the Bible as divine revelation, viewing it of little value, and they denied the divine nature of Jesus Christ as the answer for human sin. Taken as a standard against which we can evaluate George Washington's worldview, he cannot be a deist, for he certainly believed in both of these pillars that all true Christians uphold.
The Historic Context of Washington's Religious World
Our first President was raised an Anglican, or as they came to be known in America, an Episcopalian. The thirteen American colonies on the eve of the Revolution were not the same in their religious traditions. All were founded as Christian colonies and their charters reflect this, but considerable variety existed. New England was still Puritan in belief and congregationalist in church government. Pennsylvania was dominated by Quakers, but many Lutherans and Moravians lived there also. Maryland still held many Catholics. Baptists and Presbyterians were found throughout the southern colonies. Virginia was staunchly Anglican and exercised a strict hierarchy in church government. The notion of religious toleration was relatively new and many colonies had churches that were financially supported by the colonial governments.
Among the Anglicans in America, there were two schools of thought. One, known as the High Church, wanted to eliminate all other Christian sects. The other, known as the Low Church, the Broad Church, or Latitudinarians, recognized other Christian denominations and wanted religious toleration for Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, etc. George Washington was of the Broad Church opinion. Nearly all the men who are considered founders of the American Republic believed in religious toleration of this type. Indeed, it was practically a political necessity to hold such a view, whatever your own denominational background, as a prerequisite to political unity among the thirteen colonies. The codification of religious freedom in the First Amendment was a reflection of the thinking among the founders that already existed as they pursued political union. The notion that the founders meant the First Amendment to include religions outside the bounds of traditional European faiths, such as Islam or Buddhism, is pure poppycock. Later it became evident that the First Amendment did indeed open the door to heathen faiths, but that was not the intent and the founders never foresaw such a risk. It is crass and unjust of us look backward in time and judge them harshly for not being able to predict the future. What they were truly afraid of was a quite real danger that was all too familiar: intense religious strife within the bounds of Christianity. Such hostility, even to the point of warring factions, was recent history in the eighteenth century and many of the founder's minds were filled with stories from their own grandfathers who had fought in European religious wars and had emigrated to North America to escape further distress.
As to the central question of this essay, was George Washington a Christian or deist, we are fortunate that we do not need to speculate. The wealth of primary documents, much of it written in Washington's own hand, leaves little doubt that he believed the Bible to be true and that the basic doctrines of traditional Christianity were valid.
Washington, a Man of the Bible
What follows is a partial list of phrases Washington lifted from Scripture that pepper his writings. The location in the Bible is shown to aid the reader. These are some of what was compiled by Peter Lillback in his book Sacred Fire, a an exhaustive 1100 page tome that proves beyond reasonable doubt, the true Christian character of George Washington. (Both Horn and Pinto glibly dismiss Lillback's work, but do not offer the slightest rebuttal.) See appendix 2 of Sacred Fire to verify these and many more biblical phrases that Washington utilized.
"replenish the earth" Genesis 1:28
"sweat of the brow" Genesis 3:19
"Six days do I labor" Exodus 20:9
"Thou shalt not covet" Exodus 20:14
"Spy out the land" Numbers 13:17
"An outstretched arm to help" Deuteronomy 26:8
"Lord of Hosts" 1 Samuel 1:3
"God of Armies" 1 Samuel 17:45
"At such time as this" Esther 4:14
"Goodness and mercy" Psalm 23:6
"People who God is Jehovah" Psalm 33:12
"Beware of surety-ship" Proverbs 11:15
"Righteousness exalteth a nation" Proverbs 14:34
"vanity and vexation of spirit" Ecclesiastes 1:4
"learn war no more" Isaiah 2:4
"Crying, peace, peace" Jeremiah 6:14
"Do justice, love mercy" Micah 6:8
"he that run may readeth" Habbakuk 2:2
"the will of God" Matthew 6:10
"daily bread" Matthew 6:11
"deliver us from evil" Matthew 6:13
"narrow path" Matthew 7:13
"the wheat and the tares" Matthew 13:24-25
"powers of hell" Matthew 16:18
"duties to God and man" Matthew 22:36-40
"wars and rumors of wars" Matthew 24:6
"take up thy bed and walk" Mark 2:9
"the widow's mite" Mark 12:42
"millstone around one's neck" Luke 17:1-2
"repent and be forgiven" Luke 17:3
"way of life" John 14:6
"pour out His Holy Spirit" John 15:26
"cup of blessing" 1 Corinthians 10:16
"God of all mercies" 2 Corinthians 1:3
"yoke of bondage" Galatians 5:1
"worse than an infidel" 1 Timothy 5:18
"Throne of grace" Hebrews 4:16
"Father of lights" James 1:17
"pure religion" James 1:27
"heirs of his eternal life" 1 Peter 3:7
"untimely figs" Revelation 6:13
Bollinger claimed that Washington never referred to the Bible except "for whimsy." It can be seen that Bollinger was dishonest. Plainly, Washington was a man who knew his Bible and was not averse to scriptural phraseology.
Washington, a Defender of the Name and Divine Mission of Jesus Christ
Critics have attempted to persuade the public that George Washington scrupulously avoided the name of Jesus Christ in his speaking and writing because he did not believe in the divine redemptive power of Christ to forgive sin. This is false.
First, Washington made enough written references to Jesus Christ in His divine capacity to demonstrate he was undoubtedly a true believer. One clear example was in 1779 when the Delaware Indians, caught between the jaws of the two warring groups of English-speaking armies, approached General Washington in an attempt to make peace with one of them. Embedded in Washington's advice to this Indian tribe was this nugget of counsel: "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." Boller tries to dismiss Washington's advocacy of Jesus Christ by claiming an aide wrote it for him, but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest this to be true. Other references to the redemptive nature of Jesus Christ are found among Washington's writings. Examples include: "our gracious Redeemer," "the Lord and Giver of all victory, to pardon our manifold sins," "Giver of Life," "raise the dead to life again," "true repentance," "sorrow and repentance."
Second, Washington never made any statement that denies the divinity of Jesus. Deists did so routinely as a mark of their intellectual pride, thus one would expect to find these remarks scattered among the prolific writings of Washington if he held to that worldview. But nowhere does Washington deny, denigrate, or distance himself from the statements of faith he routinely recited in the Order of Morning Prayer, a service used weekly in the Anglican Church that is replete with references to the divine and redemptive character of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, never does Washington ever use the words deist or deism.
Third, Washington issued a notable order as Commander of the Continental Army that forbade swearing and profanity, and in particular, taking God's name in vain. Consider the text of General Orders of July 29, 1779: "The Name of that Being, from whose bountiful goodness we are permitted to exist and enjoy the comforts of life is incessantly imprecated and prophaned [sic] in a manner as wanton as it is shocking. For the sake therefore of religion, decency, and order, the General [Washington] hopes and trusts that officers of every rank will use their influence and authority to check a vice, which is as unprofitable as it is wicked and shameful." No deist would be so offended as to issue such a general order to protect God's name from being profaned in a "wicked and shameful" manner. But a true Christian gentleman would. Such a man was George Washington.
Washington, A Man Who Called for Public Prayer
At the beginning of the War of Independence Washington issued a General Order on July 16, 1775 in Cambridge, Massachusetts: "The Continental Congress having earnestly recommended, that 'Thursday next the 20th, Instant, be observed by the Inhabitants of all the english [sic] Colonies upon this Continent, as a Day of public Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer, that they may with united Hearts, and Voice unfeignedly confess their Sins before God, and supplicate the all wise and merciful disposer of events, to avert the Desolation and Calamities of an unnatural war.' The General orders, that Day to be religiously observed by the Forces under his Command, exactly in the manner directed by the proclamation of the Continental Congress. It is therefore strictly enjoin'd on all Officers and Soldiers, (not upon duty) to attend Divine Service, at the accustomed place of worship, as well as in the Lines, as the Encampments and Quarters . . . ." Would a deist produce such an order, commanding the entire army to fast, pray, attend services, and confess their sins? No.
The order issued above was not the only of its genre. On multiple occasions throughout the war Washington called upon his army to fast, pray, and seek pardon for their sins. Normally given at the beginning of campaign season, the Commander in Chief plainly considered such spiritual preparation appropriate and desirable. These orders were given on May 15, 1776, February 4, 1777, April 12, 1778, April 12, 1779, April 6, 1780, and April 27, 1781.
Deists do not pray, for it is axiomatic to them that the Creator is uninvolved and disinterested in the affairs of man. It is clear that Washington's pubic profile as a leader in was not consistent with the precepts of deism. Why? Because he was a Christian.
Washington, A Man of Private Prayer
Some critics of Washington's Christianity suggest that his public calls for prayer were only brought forth to appease the Christians that were round about and expected such statements. While this argument concedes that the culture of Revolutionary America must have been Christian in general (otherwise why would such expectations exist?) it is also false, because documented evidence exists of Washington's private letters making references to prayer. In these cases, no public expectation was upon him. Surely any honest person will concede that private prayers are evidence that the supplicant believes in a God that can intervene on the behalf of man. Consider the following examples:
While on service in the French and Indian War, Washington wrote to his betrothed finance, Martha, on July 20, 1758: "Since that happy hour when we made our pledges to each other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as another Self. That an all-powerful Providence may keep us both in safety is the prayer of your ever faithful and affectionate friend."
During the War of Independence, Washington wrote to his brother, John Augustine Washington, April 29, 1776: "I am very sorry to hear that my Sister was Indisposed with a sore Breast when you last wrote. I hope she is now recover'd of it, and that all your Family are well; that they may continue so, and that our once happy Country may escape the depredations and Calamities attending War, is the fervent prayer of, dear Sir, your most affectionate brother."
To fellow plantation owner and Virginian, Edmund Pendleton, Washington wrote from his army headquarters in Morristown, April 12, 1777: "That the God of the Armies may enable me to bring the present contest to a speedy and happy conclusion, thereby gratifying me in a retirement to the calm and sweet enjoyment of domestick [sic] happiness, is the fervent prayer, and ardent wish of my Soul."
As the final campaign of the Revolutionary War was being planned, Washington wrote on February 26, 1781 to Comte de Rochambeau, the French general in America: "I have an increase of happiness from the subsequent intelligence you do me the favor to communicate respecting Count D'Estaings success. this repetition of advices [sic] justifies a confidence in their truth (which I pray God may be confirmed in its greatest extent)."
Shortly after his long awaited retirement to Mount Vernon after two terms as President, Washington wrote to the Earl of Radnor in 1797, former member of the English Parliament, regarding the ongoing conflict between England and France: "I reciprocate with great cordiality the good wishes you have been pleased to bestow upon me; and pray devoutly, that we may both witness, and that shortly, the return of Peace."
Further Evidence of George Washington's Christianity
In 1763, at the age of thirty-one, a married man and certainly old enough to have a settled opinion regarding his own religious convictions, Washington was sworn in as a vestryman for Truro Parish in Fairfax County, Virginia. As a vestryman he was to oversee the care of the church building, to pay the clergy, to disburse funds to the poor, to collect tithes and church taxes, and to discipline moral violations. His office corresponded with what is often termed a deacon. He served in this capacity for eleven years, attending twenty-three of the thirty-one meetings held and was only absent from the other eight because he was twice ill and on the six other occasions was in attendance at the Virginia legislative assembly, of which he was an elected member. Note the terms of the oath he took upon his acceptance of this duty, as recorded at the Fairfax County Courthouse on February 15, 1763: "George Washington, Esq. took the oath according to Law, repeated and subscribed the Test and subscribed to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England in order to qualify him to act as a Vestryman of Truro Parish." Washington had to swear that he believed in the doctrines of the Anglican Church, which included the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and other teachings that attest to the divine nature of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible as the true Word of God. His diary records many meetings he attended as a vestryman and many church services he attended at Pohick, Falls Church, and Alexandria at which he would have recited the Apostles Creed as a part of the Morning Prayer Service of the Anglican Church.
Near the opening campaigns of the Revolutionary War, Washington wrote on September 14, 1775, to Benedict Arnold (at that moment still a Patriot), advising him not to abuse the Catholic French population of Canada during his upcoming invasion: "I also give it in charge to you to avoid all disrespect of religion of the country, and its ceremonies. Prudence, policy, and a true Christian spirit will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors without insulting them. While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience of others, ever considering that God alone is he Judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case they are answerable."
On May 2, 1778, Washington issued this order to his army then encamped at Valley Forge: "The Commander-in-Chief directs that Divine service be performed every Sunday at 11 o'clock, in each brigade which has a chaplain . . . 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 laud the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal instances of Providential goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labors with complete success demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of gratitude and piety to the Supreme Author of all good."
Washington and the Freemasons
Some of the harshest criticisms come from those who focus on Washington's association with the Freemasons. It cannot be denied that he was a Mason and participated in some of the functions of this society, including the laying of the Capitol building cornerstone and his own burial according to the Masonic rite.
But what those who only casually investigate Masonry do not understand is that eighteenth century Masons held a different worldview than many members of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The precepts and writings of Albert Pike came a full century after George Washington. In the Revolutionary War era there was no conflict between being a Christian and being a Mason. Many founders were indeed Masons, but so were many Christian clergy, whose dedication to the God and Scripture are unimpeachable, including Reverend Samuel Miller, Dr. William Smith and the famed Parson Weems. Regarding the lack of conflict between Christianity and eighteenth century Freemasonry, Miller stated on June 24, 1795, "the principles of Masonry so far as they go, coincide with the Christian religion." On December 28, 1779, Dr. William Smith preached what is known as his "Masonic Sermon," in which he stated: "Looking far beyond the little distinctions of sect or party . . . we should labor to know the great Creator . . . Such conduct becomes those who profess to believe that when our Master Christ shall come again to reward his faithful workmen and servants; he will not ask whether we were of Luther or of Calvin. Where we prayed to him in white, black, or grey; in purple or in rags, in fine linen or in sackcloth; in a woolen frock, or peradventrue in a Leather-Apron [the Masonic garment] . . . let us remember it will be assuredly asked--were we of Christ Jesus? Did we pray to him with the Spirit and with understanding? Had we the true marks of his Gospel in our lives? Were we meek and lowly of heart? Did we nail our rebellious affections to his Cross?" From these statements it is safe to conclude that being a Christian and a Mason simultaneously was not a problem in the eighteenth century.
Critics like Horn, Pinto, and Marrs argue that the Freemasons in eighteenth century America were part of an evil Illuminati plot to undermine Christianity and honest government. Washington himself refuted this. In 1798, responding to a letter accompanying a book that was sent to him in which this was charged, Washington wrote: "I have heard much of the nefarious, and dangerous plan, and doctrines of the Illuminati, but never saw the book until you were pleased to send it to me . . . And which allows me to add little more now, than thanks for your kind wishes and favorable sentiments, except to correct an error you have run into, of my Presiding over the English Lodges in this Country. The fact is, I preside over none, nor have I been in one more than once or twice, within the last thirty years. I believe, notwithstanding, that none of the Lodges in this Country are contaminated with the principles ascribed to the Society of the Illuminati." From this we can clearly observe two important facts. First, Washington believed that eighteenth century American Masons were not connected to the Illuminati, and, secondly, Washington's own commitment to Masonry was of a limited nature.
Some claim that the Washington Monument in our capital city and the Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria show a profound link between our first President and neo-pagan, Masonic conspiracies (if such cabals even exist). These structures do nothing of the kind. They were built long after his death and are much more a reflection of the builders than they are of George Washington. Indeed, as a famously modest man, it is unlikely he would have ever approved of their construction in his honor. Many people have sought to appropriate Washington's name to add luster to their own movement. Nineteenth and twentieth century Freemasons are guilty of exaggerating George Washington's zeal and commitment to their organization to attract both new members and financial donations.
Boller suggests that Washington avoided the use of the word "God" in preference to honorific titles such as "the Supreme Being, the Almighty, the Ruler of the Universe, and Providence," these being terms used by deists and Masons. This in nonsense for several reasons. As has been shown, most eighteenth century American Masons were not deists, but Christians. Additionally, these were the appellations often used by orthodox Christian ministers of that period when speaking of God. When Washington used them, he was merely mimicking many ministers. Finally, he did not really avoid the use of "God," for as Lillback shows, it appears in his extant writings 140 times.
Washington and Communion
Other critics of George Washington's Christianity argue that he never took Holy Communion. This is not true, for his diary records instances in which he did partake of this sacred rite. It is accurate that he did not take it at all times it was offered, although there are plausible explanations, even for a vestryman. It was the custom in colonial Virginia was to only offer the Sacrament at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday, so many Anglicans only received it once or twice a year. In regards to this, Bishop William Meade stated, “there was a mistaken notion, too prevalent both in England and America, that it was not so necessary in the professors of religion to communicate (receive Communion) at all times, but that in this respect persons might be regulated by their feelings . . . Into this error of opinion and practice General Washington may have fallen . . . .”
Nelly Custis, Washington's adopted granddaughter, a girl that lived with him for twenty years, from 1779 to1799, knew him as well as any daughter. Regarding communion she wrote: “On Communion Sundays he [Washington] left the church with me, after the blessing [the benediction ending the first service], and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother” [Martha Washington]. In colonial Virginia, communion services in the Anglican Church were actually a second service immediately following the first service of the day. Since they were just as lengthy as the service everyone had just attended, it was not unusual for two-thirds of the congregation to leave at the conclusion of the first service, before the Communion service began. George Washington’s practice was thus not uncommon. As Nelly Custis pointed out, it was the habit of the Washington household for George to attend the first service and Martha the second communion service.
What Others Who Knew Washington Well Said About His Christianity
James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, a fellow member of the Virginian Assembly, and fellow delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Virginia said this: "Washington was constant in the observance of worship, according to the received forms of the Episcopal Church."
Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, pastor of the Lutheran Church near Valley Forge and whose son, Peter Muhlenberg, was an officer in the Continental Army, made this observation about George Washington: "I heard a fine example today, namely, His Excellency General Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each and every one to fear God, to put away the wickedness that has set in and become so general, and to practice the Christian virtues. From all appearances, this gentleman does not belong to the so-called world of society, for he respects God's Word, believes in the atonement through Christ, and bears himself in humility and gentleness. Therefore, the Lord God has also singularly, yea, marvelously, preserved him from harm in the midst of countless perils, ambuscades, fatigues, etc., and has hitherto graciously held him in His hand as a chosen vessel."
Again quoting Nelly Custis, we can perceive that Washington attended church services regularly in the last years of his life, and by all normal standards can be presumed to be a genuine Christian: “He [Washington] attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles. In New York and Philadelphia [when he was President] he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition . . . No one in church attended to the service with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service.”
Let us close with a final statement from Nelly Custis, the girl who was truly like a daughter, raised in George Washington's shadow in the halls of power at New York, Philadelphia, and in his retirement at Mount Vernon. She sums up his Christian sentiment in a letter written years later in 1833: "I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was 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 . . . Is it necessary that anyone should certify 'General Washington avowed himself to me to be a believer in Christianity?' As well we may question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, 'Deed, not Words'; and, "for God and Country.'"
For those who wish further information on George Washington and the founders of the American Republic, please consider reading the excellent research of William Federer, John Eidsmoe, David Barton, and Peter Lillback. Some of their work is available online.