Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Christian Faith of George Washington

Mary Ball Washington was a devout Christian who taught her son George the importance of prayer and the reading of the Scriptures by the personal example of the manner in which she lived.

Washington's public and private papers contain more than a hundred written prayers. His personal aides may have been the authors of a number of public prayers attributed to him. Those prayers were explicitly Christian in nature. He would never have signed or uttered a prayer without agreeing with the sentiment of the document.

He often added personal prayers which were drawn up by his aides. Washington affixed his signature to a letter composed by Alexander Hamilton to Comte de Rochambeau on February 26, 1781. The letter declared: “This repetition of advices justifies a confidence in their truth” to which General Washington adds “which I pray God may be confirmed in its greatest extent.”

General Lewis of Augusta County, Virginia provides a reliable testimony to General Washington's personal prayer life in a letter dated December 14th 1855. General Lewis testifies of a conversation between General Washington and Continental Army General Robert Porterfield which occurred shortly before General Washington's death. Porterfield's duties as brigade inspector resulted in frequent interaction with General Washington. Porterfield recounted his personal experiences at Valley Forge and the New Jersey campaign. Porterfield went to Washington's private quarters in an emergency and found the Commander-in-chief on his knees in prayer. After confiding with Alexander Hamilton concerning the occasion, Hamilton replied to General Porterfield: “such was his constant habit.”

George Washington acquired the habit for times of personal prayer and supplication early in life. Washington's biographer, E.C. M'Guire noted that sources were still alive when he wrote his biography.
Colonel B. Temple was an aide to General Washington whom M'Guire quotes concerning recollections of events during the French and Indian Wars.

Washington would read the Bible to his troops and lead them in prayer when a chaplain wasn't available. Temple declared to M'Guire that:

“...on sudden and unexpected visits into his [General Washington's] marquee, he has, more than once, found him on his knees at his devotions.”

Washington frequently used Biblical phrases having had an extensive knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures. This is not an inconsequential fact but strong evidence of his Christianity. General Washington had a strong tender affection for Marquis de Lafayette whom he loved as if his actual son. The General made seven separate references to passages from the Bible in a personal letter to Lafayette. No aide was the author of this correspondence.

Washington used nine Biblical allusions when composing a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. His personal correspondence contains over 200 phrases from the Holy Scriptures and allusions to passages found in the Bible.

Among his favorite passages of Scripture is Micah 4:4 which he often quoted:

“But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken.”

In April 1789, Washington declared: 

“The blessed Religion revealed in the Word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity.” 

He spoke of the infallible Bible as the Word of God as only a Christian would proclaim.

Deists do not believe the doctrines of depravity of humankind, the revelation of God through the Holy Scriptures, nor effectual personal prayer to Divinity.

At the end of the American War for Independence, General Washington sent a “Circular to the States” which contained a protracted list of blessings upon the fledgling nation. The letter ends: “and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation.”

“Revelation,” in the era in which Washington lived meant only one thing: The Holy Bible! Furthermore, it specifically meant the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.

As stated before, deists do not believe that the Bible is the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, a deist would never utilize a capital R when using the word revelation.

Critics of George Washington's Christian faith present the matter of his church attendance. Prior to the American War for Independence, Washington and his family may have attended church perhaps once a month. A round trip to and from the Anglican Pohick Church of which Washington was a member required a three hour journey. The rural parish church was about nine miles from his home. An available Anglican minister would hold divine services about once a month.

George Washington had close personal relationships with various clergymen before, after, and throughout the American War for Independence. Washington would correspond with and graciously open his home for visitation to more than a hundred ministers.

Washington was always keen to faithfully observe the sabbath and refused to perform work except for writing personal letters to friends. Furthermore, he gave his personal staff and servants the day off to attend church services. Whenever he and his family did not attend church; Washington chose to assemble the members of his family and read a sermon aloud while leading them in devotions.

Throughout the war, the General insisted that officers and men under his command attend Divine services. Upon receiving command of the Continental Army, Washington issued his first General Order on July 4, 1775.

“The General most earnestly requires, and expects, a due observance of those articles of war, established for the Government of the army, which forbid profane cursing, swearing and drunkenness [the first of a number of orders he would issue concerning these vices]; and in like manner requires and expects , of all officers, and soldiers, not engaged on actual duty, a punctual attendance on divine Service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.”

Washington made the effort to attend church himself but was not always able to do so when no service was in camp. Biographer E. C. M'Guire declared that:

“one of his secretaries, Judge Harrison, has often been heard to say, that 'whenever the General could be spared from camp, on the Sabbath, he never failed riding out to some neighboring church, to join those who were publicly worshiping the Creator.'”
Throughout his presidency, George Washington was accompanied by his wife Martha who worshiped with him on Sunday mornings. President Washington's secretary, Tobias Lear declared:

“While President, Washington followed an invariable routine on Sundays. The day was passed very quietly, no company being invited to the house. After breakfast, the President read aloud a chapter from the Bible, then the whole family attended church together.”

Lear recounts what happened after returning from church. In the afternoon Washington was inclined to write his personal correspondence:

“...while Mrs. Washington frequently went to church again, often taking the children with her. In the evening, Washington read aloud to the family some sermon or extracts from a book of religious nature and everyone went to bed at an early hour.”

There was a year in which the Washington's did not attend Divine Services after the President retired to Mount Vernon. Apparently, the Washington's switched their attendance to Christ Church in Alexandria which began having weekly worship services. George Washington's adopted daughter Nelly Custis testified:

“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.”

The controversy concerning Washington's Christian beliefs arouse after his death. Accusations were made that he never partook of the Lord's Supper.

It was the custom in colonial Virginia to offer the Holy Sacrament of Communion only at Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide (Pentecost Sunday). It was not uncommon for many Anglicans to receive communion only once a year.

Furthermore, Bishop William Meade explained: 

“...there was a mistaken notion, too prevalent both in England and America, that it was not so necessary in the professors 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.”

Nellie Custis granddaughter of Washington wrote of her childhood at Mount Vernon. 

“On Communion Sundays he [Washington] left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother [Martha].”

 Throughout the Colonial era, Communion services were as long as the worship service which Washington attended. It was not unusual for two thirds of a congregation to leave an Anglican church before the Communion Service commenced.

In a letter dated December 14, 1855, General S. H. Lewis of Augusta County, Virginia quoted General Porterfield declaring: 

“...he had known General Washington personally for many years ...I saw him myself on his knees receive the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.”

Dr. James Richards followed Reverend Timothy Johnes as pastor when General Washington was in Morristown, New Jersey during the winter encampment of 1778-79. Dr. Richards recounts:

“...the report that Washington did actually receive the Communion from the hands of Dr. Johnes was universally current during that period, and so far as I know, never contradicted. I have often heard it from the members of Dr. Johnes family, while they added that a note was addressed by Washington to their father, requesting the privilege.” 

Consequently, Washington was a communicant in the Presbyterian Church while the Continental Army was encamped in Morristown.

Reverend Alexander Hamilton, great-grandson of General Washington's aide tells of events which occurred during the Hamilton family reunion. Reverend Hamilton wrote of the reunion which occurred in New York City in 1854. Continental Army General Phillip Schyler's daughter was Alexander Hamilton's ninety-six year old widow. Mrs. Hamilton made it a special endeavor to accompany her seven year old great-grandson to visit St. Paul's Church in New York City. She has something special to tell the child and other members of her family. She wanted the boy to remember her recollections concerning her experience while receiving Holy Communion in 1789. After arriving at St. Paul's she told the boy that she had been present in the church on the inauguration day of the first president of the United States. She was present in St. Paul's when President Washington received communion. She clearly impressed upon the child's mind that she personally witnessed President Washington receive Holy Communion so that he would be able to tell others.

Reverend Alexander Hamilton remembered her own words:

 “If anyone ever tells you that George Washington was not a communicant of the Church, you say that your great grandmother told you to say that she had knelt at this chancel rail at his side and received with him Holy Communion.”

There are at least 270 recorded times when George Washington used the word Providence. He utilized the term Providence referring indirectly to Almighty God. It is perfectly clear from his correspondence and records that Washington did not speak of a vague ethereal impersonal deity. His personal world view concerning deity was consistent with the God of the Bible. The Deity which George Washington worshiped intervened personally on behalf of the soldiers of the Continental Army and the American cause of independence. He viewed God as the God of ancient Israel as recorded in the Old Testament.

Washington wrote to a Hebrew congregation of Savannah, Georgia:

“May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land – whose Providential Agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent Nation – still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.”

On October 19, 1777, Washington wrote a letter to Major-General Israel Putnam soon after the victory of Saratoga:

“Should Providence be pleased to crown our arms in the course of the campaign with one more fortunate stroke...I trust all will be well in His good time.”

Mary Thompson is a research specialist at Mount Vernon. Peter Lillback quotes Mary Thompson in his book Sacred Fire concerning George Washington's spirituality.

“I would think that God and Providence are synonymous in Washington's mind. When you look at a number of the letters, it becomes obvious that he feels involved in what happens in the world...When I found [in researching Washington's religious beliefs] ...was that this was a man who believed that God took an active interest in people's lives...and that's not the belief of a Deist.”

George Washington's practice and religious views were influenced by the Anglican culture of colonial Virginia. It is crystal clear that George Washington was a devout believer in Orthodox Christianity.

This essay is edited and condensed from Peter Marshall's book The Light and the Glory, Appendix Two "The Christian Faith of George Washington" 

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