For over one hundred and fifty years, Americans never questioned the Christianity of the men who founded our great nation. Then, in 1932, opinion began to change. However, it was yet another thirty-one years before Professor Paul Boller wrote, “Broadly speaking, of course, Washington can be classified as a deist.” Broadly speaking. Hmm.
After which a second scholar weighed in. Maybe more of a Christian deist…or a theistic rationalist expounded yet another. Now I’m really confused. And dismayed. These eminent men were delving into church records for attendance—those that still existed—and letters describing times when General Washington left before taking Communion. Gosh, they kept track of that?
A deist believes that there is a God who created the earth and all the universe, but then basically left it to run on it’s own, wanting nothing more to do with it. Christ, well, he was just another human being and the Bible is nothing more than another book.
So as a deist, Washington would not take Communion. Then why was he at church at all? There is no reason to worship a God who doesn’t care if we believe in him or not.
Obviously he’s a Christian deist…or something like that. But he’s not a Christian. According to the scholars.
And then there are the words Washington used. Words like Great Architect of the Universe, blessings of Heaven, and, his favorite, Providence. He rarely speaks of God or Jesus directly. Again, the deist point to this as evidence for their side. However, they are terms also used by another group that Washington belonged to, the Free Masons. I can’t help thinking about how often I call him Father. What would the scholars make of that?
Life was very different then. Religion was different. We can’t judge a man’s beliefs by our present day way of thinking. Or by his church attendance. Or by his use of words to describe God. Many factors were at play.
Washington was first a general responsible for a diverse group of men, and then the president of a fledgling country. It was early days for our nation. The courting period of our relationship. Were we going to make it or not? He may have felt that his personal beliefs had to be downplayed in order to bring people together.
I do know this. General Washington saw God’s intervention in his life. That’s not a deistic concept.
“The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”
I do know that President Washington believed in the will of God.
“It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”
A Christian deist does not believe in the will of God. And, if God wants nothing to do with us, why pray for his protection and favor?
As for religion and politics, Washington had this to say.
“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports… Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”
We have survived the courtship period, the honeymoon period, and the seven-year itch. The country George Washington worked so hard to keep together has made it over two hundred and thirty years.
And when I read the story of how we began—when I read the words written by the men who dared to go up against the most powerful nation in the world in order to carve out a place where all men can live in freedom, I thank God for them. Because no matter what they believed, I know that God had a plan for us. And they were a part of that plan.
So, what do I believe? I believe that George Washington was a Christian in the ways and customs of the day and his particular belief system. It may not fit perfectly into the parameters set by scholars today, but then again, I’m not a scholar. I’m Debbie Sprinkle, just an ordinary woman who follows an extraordinary God.
- George Washington and Religion, 1963, Professor Paul Boller
- George Washington’s letter of August 20, 1778 to Brig. General Thomas Nelson, in John C. Fitzpatrick, editor, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. XII (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), p. 343.
- Thanksgiving Address, 1789
- George Washington, “Farewell Address, 19 September 1796,” in The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, 37 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-1940), 35:229