Defending the Faith of George Washington

As indicated in a recent Preview regarding the subject of George Washington’s faith, there is proof that the General of the American Revolution and first President of the United States was, indeed, Christian.

You ask, why is this so important, what does it matter at this point in history?

Evidence such as this helps determine the motives and intent of the independent United States’ most significant founder. It points to our original identity as a nation. And that is foundational to… everything since.

More, it defends the spirit and character of one of our greatest Patriots whose religion has been called into question over the years. One particular man of God with a public ministry has in recent years been saying George Washington was probably nothing more than a “Deist”. That is in short, someone who believes in an overall distant deity, but not Christ. 

But all it takes is a scan of Washington’s own writings to confirm that is simply not true. There are multiple volumes of his personal and professional works in my library and plenty of additional, credible materials on the internet. MountVernon.org is a good resource, for example, and one I reviewed at length on the subject of “George Washington and religion”.

Anyway, after studying multiple sources of research, allow me to first make some general observations. 

George Washington was a faithful church attender, and the places of worship he and Mrs. Washington called home were Christian: Christ Church (Washington helped fund the building, per the Mount Vernon website) and Pohick Church, both in Virginia. Also, he was known before becoming President for taking communion regularly. 

Certainly, after becoming the first President of the U.S., Washington’s practices changed somewhat to accommodate his duties, as one would expect. His church attendance was still fairly regular, perhaps averaging 1-2 times per month, as was common for the day given the distance most people had to drive to get there. 

During the Presidency, he attended many more services than just of his home church. There are records of him visiting several types of Christian and Catholic congregations. 

In some respects, his faith became even more private while in office. Word has it he ceased taking public communion, for reasons not to be seen as making a public display, and possibly due to his personal struggle over some of his difficult duties in war.

Now, let’s move on to specific examples of evidence or testimonial of his faith. For our purpose here, we will begin close to George Washington’s home, with his relationship to his children. Washington never had his own biological children, but he took Martha’s children as his own. 

Martha Dandridge Custis was a widow and her children, Martha Parke Custis and John Parke Custis, were only 2 and 4 when she married George Washington. After they married, he became their legal guardian.

In at least two circumstances relative to his step-son, John Parke Custis, we can see Washington’s commitment to Christian faith and Biblical training. When Mister Custis was a young teen, a Christian (Anglican) minister and friend of Washington, Rev. Jonathan Boucher, was chosen to tutor him. 

This, in itself, is revealing. Were Washington not Christian, would a devout Christian minister have been chosen to teach his child? Even more odd, Boucher was a loyalist to England’s Crown, so much so that in 1775 he would return to England to escape the growing revolutionary division in America. 

Surely, Washington and his minister friend had many an occasion to disagree on the course of America. Nevertheless, he was the choice to educate Washington’s stepson, reflecting perhaps an even more fervent commitment on Washington’s part to Christian principles over political ideologies.

In July, 1769, as part of meeting the educational needs of his stepson, Washington sent to Mount Vernon a request by letter for a list of goods to be sent to his plantations on York River. In particular, he sent a long and varied list of books to be returned for young Mr. Custis.

The list of books is eye-opening. Many were educational, math, history and more. But a large percentage were religious in nature. And not broadly religious, but distinctly Christian.

In fact, every single book requested for his stepson on the topic of faith was Christian. Here are a few titles from the list:

—Dawson’s Lexicon to the Greek New Testament

—Harwood’s Liberal Translation of the New Testament (“liberal” was indicative of freedom in using common vernacular – might be comparable to The Living Bible or the Expanded Bible as they relate to today’s versions)

—Blackwell’s Sacred Classics Defended; or, An Essay Proving the Purity, Propriety, and True Eloquence of the Writers of the New Testament

—Sharpes Arguments in Defense of Christianity

—Gerard’s Dissertations on the Evidence of Christianity

—Oswald’s Appeal to Common Sense in behalf of Religion

—Squire’s Indifference for Religion Inexcusable

—Harte’s The Amaranth, or Collection of Religious Poems (a collection of strictly Biblical concepts, to include scripture and meditations on New Testament subjects such as the parable of the sower and “Meditations on Christ’s Death and Passion”) 

[Above list excerpted from: Washington, George. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, Vol. 2 (Locations 9622-9720). Kindle Edition.]

The above titles taken from the list of books requested by Washington are a solid example how he approved his stepson be educated. Washington had chosen Rev. Boucher to ensure his stepson was well-grounded in Christian faith and apologetics. 

To believe that a non-Christian, or a “Deist” would determine his child was trained in the New Testament, “Defense of Christianity, “Evidence of Christianity”, and “Meditations on Christ’s Death and Passion” is surely preposterous.

Providing further family evidence, Washington’s step-granddaughter, Nelly, wrote later in her life:

“I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those, who act or pray, ‘That they may be seen of men’.” [Nelly Custis Lewis to Jared Sparks, 2/26/1833, quoted in Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington (Boston: Published by Ferdinand Andrews, 1839), 522.]

Perhaps that private nature, true of both George and Martha Washington, is the reason some felt it their duty to call into question his sincerity. But that more private expression of faith was common to Anglican practice in the time he lived. 

But there is more. The Bible is the text quoted most frequently in Washington’s writings. While such knowledge and use of Biblical references was not uncommon in 18th Century America, Washington’s abundant usage of scripture demonstrated both his knowledge and value of Biblical precepts.

The following Biblical references were routine vocabulary for Washington:

  1. “separating wheat from the tares” (Matt. 13:24-30)
  2. “a millstone hung to your neck” (Matt. 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2)
  3. “wars and rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:6; Mark 13:7)
  4. “good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21, 23)
  5. “take up my bed and walk” (Mark 2:9; John 5:8-12)
  6. “engraved on every man’s heart” (see Jer. 17:1; Rom. 2:15)
  7. “like sheep to the Slaughter” (Psalm 44:22; Acts 8:32; Rom. 8:36)
  8. “forbidden fruit” (Gen. 2:17)
  9. “fat of the land” (Gen. 45:18)
  10. “seven times seven years” (Lev. 25:8)
  11. “thorn in our side” (Num. 33:55; Judges 2:3)
  12. “first fruit” (Deut. 26:2)
  13. “sleep with my Fathers” (Deut. 31:16; 2 Sam. 7:12; 1 Kings 1:21)
  14. “neither sleep nor slumber” (Psalm 121:4; Isaiah 5:27)

Additional Biblical references are found in Washington’s writings:

15. “widow’s mite” (Mark 12:42-44; Luke 21:2-4), 16. “the scales are ready to drop from the eyes” (Acts 9:18), and 17. “Throne of Grace” (Heb. 4:16).

The passage used most frequently in Washington’s papers is, 18. ancient Hebrew blessing and vision of the New Jerusalem in which every man sits safely “under his vine and under his fig tree” (Micah 4:4; 1 Kings 4:25; Zech. 3:10). Washington referred to this Biblical saying nearly four dozen times in the last half of his life.*

In addition to Washington’s easy and familiar usage of Scripture, many of his private or professional letters reveal his spirit.

In 1763, Washington had the occasion to write a Mr. Robert Stewart. Apparently, he had reason to give account of balances in his name in England. Allow me to share a brief excerpt from this letter, and I believe you will hear his honesty and spiritual testimony.

“… I enclose you a copy of Mr. Cary’s last account current against me, which, upon my honor and the faith of a Christian, is a true one…” [To Robert Stewart from George Washington. (April, 1763). The Writings of George Washington (1748-1776) Locations 15025-15059. Kindle Edition.]

Some years later, in 1775, Washington wrote a Colonel at Camp Cambridge, giving him direction as to how to handle a particular mission with troops marching through Canada. Listen in, and hear his heart and faith:

“…consider yourselves as marching not through the country of an enemy, but of our friends… (avoid) every attempt to plunder or insult the inhabitants of Canada (Canadian and native Indian)… I also give it in charge to you to avoid all disrespect of the religion of the country… 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 in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to him only in this case they are answerable.” [Excerpts from George Washington to Colonel Arnold. Camp AtCambridge, 14 September, 1775. The Writings of George Washington (1748-1776) Locations 23470-23496. Kindle Edition.]

Just as we heard in his granddaughter’s testimony, just as we observed in the care he took over his stepson’s Christian faith education, we can again see from these letters Washington’s clear declaration of his own Christian faith! 

A study of his life and writings reveals a human who certainly made mistakes in his lifetime. For one, it is apparent he struggled with the concept of slavery, common in his day, so much so that he made efforts to free slaves on his own estate during his life and again in finality upon his death. But research also reveals a man who grew over time in faith and integrity, a man with the distinct and unmistakable spirit of one devoted to Christ and the Bible.

To close, perhaps the best conclusion is this one made by Mount Vernon’s long-time director, Charles Cecil Wall:

”… Most students who have approached the question objectively have concluded that George Washington was a true Christian who attached no great significance to form and ritual.” [Charles C. Wall to Major Louis Osborne, 8/5/1954.]

Thank God for our Christian founder, George Washington, and the legacy he forged for our great nation. I pray his example encourages and inspires all who contemplate his life and faith.

*Notes from Biblical references in George Washington’s vocabulary:
1. “George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 31 May 1776,” The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, 37 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-1940), 5:92 [hereafter TWOGW].

2. “GW to George Washington Parke Custis, 28 November 1796,” TWOGW, 35:295-296. 

3. “GW to Catherine Macaulay Graham, 19 July 1791,” TWOGW, 31:317; GW to Marquis de la Luzerne, 29 April 1790, TWOGW, 31:40; GW to Marquis de Chastellux, 25 April [-1 May] 1788, TWOGW, 29:485. 

4. “GW to Tobias Lear, 15 June 1791,” TWOGW, 31:297; “GW to the Clergy of Different Denominations Residing in and near the City of Philadelphia, [3 March 1797],” TWOGW, 35:416-417. 

5. “GW to The Secretary of War, 25 March 1799,” TWOGW, 37:159; “GW to the Marquis De Lafayette, 4 July 1779,” TWOGW, 15:370. 

6. “GW to Earl of Buchan, 26 May 1794,” TWOGW, 33:382. 

7. “GW to the Officers of the Army, 15 March 1783,” TWOGW, 26:225. 

8. “GW to Mrs. Annis Boudinot Stockton, 2 September 1783,” TWOGW, 27:128.
9. “GW to Robert Dinwiddie, 22 April 1756,” TWOGW, 1:326. 

10. “GW to Mrs. Martha Washington, 18 June 1775,” TWOGW, 3:294. 

11. “GW to Samuel Purviance, 10 March 1786,” TWOGW, 28:393; “GW to James Madison, 31 March 1787,” TWOGW, 29:192. 

12. “GW to Brigadier General Thomas Nelson, Junior, 8 February 1778,” TWOGW, 10:433; “GW to Daniel Bowers, 28 May 1779,” TWOGW, 15:176; “GW to Barbe Marbois, 9 July 1783,” TWOGW, 27:56; “GW to Richard Sprigg, 28 June 1786,” TWOGW, 28:471. 

13. “GW to Marquis de Lafayette, 1 February 1784,” TWOGW, 27:317318. 

14. “GW to John Augustine Washington, 6 June [-6 July] 1799,” TWOGW, 19:136; “GW to Henry Knox, 26 December 1786,” TWOGW, 29:124; “GW to John Sullivan, 4 February 1781,” TWOGW, 21:181; “GW to Benjamin Harrison, 5-7 May 1779,” TWOGW, 15:6; “GW to John Augustine Washington, 12 May 1779,” TWOGW, 15:59; “GW to James Warren, 31 March 1779,” TWOGW, 14:313; “GW to Benjamin Harrison, 18[-30] December 1778,” TWOGW, 13:466. 

15. “GW to Bushrod Washington, 15 January 1783,” TWOGW, 26:40; “GW to George Washington Parke Custis, 15 November 1796,” TWOGW, 35:283. 

16. “GW to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, 28 June 1788,” TWOGW, 30:10. 

17. “GW to the German Lutherans of Philadelphia, April 1789,” The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, ed. W.W. Abbot et al. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 2:180. 

18. Daniel L. Dreisbach, “‘The ‘Vine and Fig Tree’, George Washington’s Letters: Reflections on a Biblical Motif in the Literature of the American Founding Era,” Anglican and Episcopal History 76, No. 3 (September 2007): 299-326.

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