A common and false impression about America’s Founding Fathers is that they were deists — that is, they believed in a "watchmaker" God who set the universe in motion and then stepped aside to let it run itself. The deist god lacks the interest, or the power, to intervene in human affairs.
Michael Novak, a celebrated theologian and author, convincingly rebutted this misconception in his book, "On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding." In "Washington’s God," Novak and his daughter Jana turn their attention to the religious beliefs of America’s first and greatest President. The Novaks’ book, undertaken at the request of the resident director of the Mount Vernon Estate, is unquestionably the most thorough and systematic examination of Washington’s religious views written to date.
Most biographies of Washington have devoted little time or study to Washington’s religious beliefs, accepting without question the prevailing view that Washington was a deist. But the god of the deists, as the Novaks note, is an impersonal god who does not intervene in history. This is manifestly not the God in whom Washington believed. On the contrary, Washington’s private correspondence and public statements are replete with his pleas to seek God’s help and protection and his assertions that God has provided such assistance.
Washington’s thought was infused with God, a fact made plain by the fact that he used more than 80 terms to refer to the Deity, among them "Almighty God," "Creator," "Divine Goodness," "Father of all mercies," "Jehovah," "Lord of Hosts," "Maker" and "God of Armies."
The most common term he employed was "Providence," which some historians have interpreted as indicating an impersonal deity. The Novaks provide extensive contextual information on the times, however, demonstrating that the philosophical language of the enlightenment was widely used by people with orthodox religious beliefs.
They provide example after example to prove conclusively that the "Divine Providence" whom George Washington invoked was an active agent in human events. Here, for instance, is one of Gen. Washington’s orders to his troops during the Revolution:
"The General commands all officers, and soldiers, to pay strict obedience to the orders of the Continental Congress and by their unfeigned and pious observances of their religious duties, incline the Lord and Giver of victory to prosper our arms."
Or this, from Washington’s Second Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1795:
"… The happy course of our public affairs in general, the unexampled prosperity of all classes of our citizens, are circumstances which peculiarly mark our situations with indications of the Divine beneficence toward us; In such state of things it is an especial manner of duty as a people with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God and to implore him to continue and confirm the blessings we experience."
As the authors point out, one does not approach the impersonal god of deism with requests for favor and protection because no such requests would be heard or answered.
An Active God
Washington’s God, on the other hand, is active in history, working through mankind to achieve his purposes — some of which, Washington knew, are beyond our ken at the present time. One purpose he quite clearly discerned, however, was "the lot that providence has assigned us … as the actors on a most conspicuous theater, which seems peculiarly designed by providence for the display of human greatness and felicity."
As the authors note, Washington saw the American Revolution as more than a mere struggle for independence. He saw that "there was a chance here to create a new experiment in liberty for the benefit of the entire human race."
In sum, the Novaks make an overwhelmingly persuasive case that Washington was not a deist — that his god was the God of the Bible, Jehovah. This was a god who continued to intervene in history on behalf of the fledgling American nation, in a sense the new "chosen people," as he did for the chosen people of old — the Israelites.
As to the question of whether Washington was a Christian, the answer is less clear. Yet here, too, the evidence the authors adduce is persuasive that he was.
They note that Washington was born into the Anglican faith (as were many of the founders). Unlike Thomas Jefferson, he never rejected that faith but, instead, was a life-long churchgoer — frequently making the seven-mile trip to worship at Pohick Church or, less frequently, the nine-mile trip to Christ Church in Alexandria.
Moreover, Washington served for more than 15 years as a warden and vestryman in the church, a position that requires a substantial amount of time, labor and money, and assent to the doctrine of the Anglican faith.
The Anglican services were centered on the Book of Common Prayer which required the regular recitation by the congregation of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which Washington — never accused even by his enemies of hypocrisy — did regularly and willingly his whole life.
Washington also agreed to be a godparent for at least eight children, a far from casual commitment in that it required the godparents to agree to help insure that the child was raised in the Christian faith. Thomas Jefferson declined the honor of godfather on numerous occasions precisely because he thought he could not in good conscience agree to this Christian responsibility. Washington had no such qualms and indeed presented his godsons and goddaughters with Bibles and prayer books.
Again, Washington lived his whole life as a practicing Anglican (as a member of the Church of England before the Revolution and as an Episcopalian after independence).
Washington was reluctant to discuss his personal Christian faith publicly, but as the authors show, there are cases in which he did.
In a general order to the troops dated May 2, 1778, for instance, he wrote:
"To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian."
A year later in a speech to the Delaware chiefs he said, "You do well to wish to learn out arts and ways of life and above all the religion of Jesus Christ."
In a letter to Benedict Arnold dated Sept. 14, 1775, he wrote, "Prudence, policy and a true Christian spirit will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors [those of the Canadians] without insulting them."
Similarly, in a letter written to Gen. George Putnam on Oct. 19, 1777, Washington expresses sympathy for the loss of the general’s wife:
"Remembring [sic] that all must die and that she had lived to an honorable age, I hope you will bear the misfortune with that fortitude and complacency of mind that becomes a man and a Christian."
And finally, in a circular to the states written on June 8, 1783, at the end of the war, a document that has become famous as "Washington’s Prayer," the General prayed:
"I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the state over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation."
Other reasons to support the conclusion that Washington was a Christian include:
- He hung paintings of the Virgin Mary and Saint John in places of honor in his dining room at Mount Vernon.
- He rigorously observed the Sabbath as a day of rest and frequently attended church services on that day.
- He is reported by numerous associates to have reserved time for private prayer.
- He saved many of the dozens of sermons sent to him by clergymen, and he read some of them aloud to Martha.
- Washington, unlike Jefferson, was never subjected to attacks by the press or by opponents of not being a Christian.
- The chaplains who served under him during the long years of the Revolution, believed him to be a Christian.
The Novaks argue that Washington sought assiduously a religious vocabulary that would seem inclusive to all of the many Christian denominations and sects as well as to Jews — all of whom he esteemed as equal citizens of the new nation — a conclusion buttressed by the many letters he wrote to those groups.
To those who knew him best, however, there were few doubts about Washington’s own religious beliefs. Many testified that he was, both in his beliefs and the way he lived his life, the very model of a Christian gentleman.