The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents
by Franklin Steiner (1936)
George Washington in character and manner was reserved. He kept his own counsel, and few had his confidence. He expressed himself only when he thought it necessary to do so. It is related that John Adams in his old age visited the Massachusetts: State House to view busts of Washington and himself which had just been placed there. Pointing to the compressed lips on the face of Washington, he said, "There was a man who had sense enough to keep his mouth shut." Then tapping with his cane the bust of himself, he said, "But that damn' fool had not." Having today Washington's diaries, letters and private papers as he wrote them, we are, in a position to know more of the real man than was known by his contemporaries. To them he was an enigma.
Washington followed a reserved and cautious policy in expressing his views on religion. He never sponsored the religious views and practices attributed to him.
It has been vigorously asserted, for the greater part by those who have had an interest in doing so, that George Washington was a very religious man, and a devout member of the Protestant Episcopal Church, of which he was also vestryman. They say:
That he was one of the most regular of church attendants; that no contingency could arise which would keep him from the house of God on the Sabbath; that if he had company he would go regardless, and invite his visitors to accompany him.
That he would not omit the communion; that during the Revolution, when it was not convenient for him to commune in the Church of which he was a member, he wrote a letter to a Presbyterian minister asking the privilege of taking the sacrament in that Church, that he was a man of prayer, and was often found at his private devotions.
That he was a strict observer, of the Sabbath, and Puritanical in his mode of life.
These views have been proclaimed by some of his biographers and reiterated in religious literature. In the minds of many they have been established as incontrovertible facts. Yet Washington had not been dead a third of a century before all these Statements were as Strongly contested by some as they were affirmed by others. Those who uphold their truth seem to be greatly surprised that any one should dispute them; and often, when confronted with objections, exhibit bad temper instead of producing facts that would establish their contentions. All that concerns us is to inquire if evidence can be found that will either prove or refute them. Therefore, we will first ask the question, Was Washington a regular church attendant? The Rev. Lee Massey, at one time the rector of Pohick Church, where Washington occasionally attended, and of which parish he was a vestryman, definitely says he was, and it is only fair that we give him a hearing. Says Mr. Massey:
"I never knew so constant an attendant in church as Washington. And his behavior in the house of God was ever so deeply reverential that it produced the happiest effect on my congregation, and greatly assisted me in my pulpit labors. No company ever withheld him from church. I have often been at Mt. Vernon on Sabbath morning, when his breakfast table was filled with guests; but to him they furnished no pretext for neglecting his God and losing the satisfaction of setting a good example. For instead of staying at home, out of false complaisance to them, he used constantly to invite them to accompany him." (Quoted in The True George Washington, by Paul Leicester Ford, pp. 77-78.)
This would be quite convincing were it confirmed by Washington himself; but unfortunately in the four large volumes of his 'Diaries,' where he tells, "Where and How My Time Is Spent," he directly and positively contradicts it.
We will divide the Diary into four periods, using only such years as are complete. First, before the Revolution; second, after the Revolution; third, while he was President, and fourth, after his second term as ended. During the Revolution he discontinued the Diary. We find in 1768 that he went to church 15 times, in 1769, 10 times, in 1770, nine times, in 1771, six times, and the same number in 1772. In 1773, he went five times, while in 1774 he went 18 times, his banner year outside of the Presidency. During this year he was two months at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he was in church six times, three times to the Episcopal, once to Romish high mass, once to a Quaker meeting and once to a Presbyterian. In 1784, after the Revolution, he was in the West a long time looking after his land interests, so we will omit this year. In 1785 he attended church just once, but spent many of his Sundays in wholly "secular" pursuits. In 1786 he went once.
These last two year's he was so busy with the work on his farm and other business affairs that he seems to have forgotten the Church almost entirely. In 1787 he went three times. This was the year he was present at and presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. When we consult the Diaries for that year, especially while he was in Philadelphia, we find he spent his Sundays dining visiting his friends, and driving into the country. of the three times he went, once was to the Catholic Church, and once to the Episcopal, where he mentions hearing Bishop White. In 1788, he attended church once. The Diaries deal many hard blows to the mythical Washington, above all to the myth that he went regularly to church.
In 1789, he became President, during which time the Diary is incomplete, and it is impossible to account for all the Sundays. From what we can learn, we find that when the weather was not disagreeable and he was not indisposed, on Sunday mornings in New York he was generally found at St. Paul's Chapel or Trinity. In Philadelphia he attended either Christ Church, presided over by Bishop White, or St. Peter's, where the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie officiated. This was to be expected. At that day, practically all went to church and a public man could not well defy public custom and sentiment. Washington spent his Sunday afternoons while President writing private letters and attending to his own business affairs. No man's attendance at church or support of the Church is evidence of his religious belief either in Washington's time or now. Any honest minister will admit this. After Washington retired from the Presidency his own master, and free from criticism, he went to church as few times as possible, for in 1797 he attended four times, in 1798, once, and in 1799, the year of his death, twice. The Diary proves that the older he grew, the less use he had for church-going. And only twice in the Diary does he ever comment upon the sermon; once, when he called it "a lame discourse," and again when he said it was in German and he could not understand it. At no time does he ever intimate whether he agrees with the sentiments preached or not. This is significant.
That Washington was a vestryman has no special significance religiously. In Virginia, this office was also political. The vestry managed the civil affairs of the parish, among others, the assessment of taxes. Being the largest property holder in the parish, Washington could hardly afford not to be a vestryman, which office he would have to hold before he could become a member of the House of Burgesses. Thomas Jefferson, a pronounced unbeliever, was also a vestryman, and for the same reasons. General A.W. Greeley once said, in 'The Ladies Home Journal,' that in that day "it required no more religion to be a vestryman than it did to sail a ship." It is remarkable, after the civil functions of the vestry were abolished in Virginia, in 1780, how few times Washington attended church. He no longer had a business reason for going. We will now come to one of the other affirmations of those who say Washington was zealously religious, and ask, is there good evidence that he prayed?
In the fall of 1925 I was on a visit to New York City after an absence of some years. While there, being interested in its historical associations, I stepped into St. Paul's Chapel, located on the corner of Broadway and Vesey Street. I took a look at the pew in this old church, erected in 1776, in which it is said George Washington sat when he attended services while President of the United States, when the seat of government was located in New York City. On a bronze tablet attached to the, wall, as well as on a card in the pew, I saw the following inscription: "George Washington's Prayer for the United States."
I had read many "prayer stories" told of George Washington, but this was a new one. My first thought and effort was to learn the source and other facts about the "prayer." I wrote the vicar of St. Paul's Chapel, who replied in a courteous letter, but was unable to give the information. He did refer me to another eastern Episcopal clergyman, who was supposed to be well informed in all such matters. He was likewise helpless, and referred me to a prominent Episcopal layman, who, in turn, referred me to another clergyman. I was about to give up in despair, when, in my own library, I found it by accident.
In 1783, shortly before Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, a financial stringency, accompanied by anarchy and riots, swept the country. The soldiers demanded their pay, which Congress was unable to provide. Something had to be done to alleviate the distress and discontent. Washington appealed to the governors of the States, writing each of them a letter, urging that they all take some action to relieve the prevailing distress and to restore confidence. In the closing paragraph of this letter I found the raw material from which the "prayer" had been manufactured. I quote them here, capitalizing in the "prayer" those words the prayer-makers have interpolated, and in the original, the words they have omitted.
The Alleged Prayer
(added words in capital letters)
ALMIGHTY GOD, WE MAKE OUR EARNEST PRAYER THAT THOU WILT KEEP THESE UNITED STATES in THY holy protection, that THOU wilt 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 and for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, And finally that THOU wilt 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. GRANT OUR SUPPLICATION, WE BESEECH THEE, THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD. AMEN.
(Engraved on a bronze tablet in St. Paul's Chapel, Broadway and Vesey Streets, New York City.)
(omitted words in capital letters)
"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 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 examples in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.
"I HAVE THE HONOR TO BE, WITH MUCH ESTEEM AND RESPECT, SIR, YOUR EXCELLENCY'S MOST OBEDIENT AND MOST HUMBLE SERVANT. -- G. WASHINGTON."
(Found in Ford's 'Writings of Washington,' vol. x, p. 265.)
In making a prayer from this last paragraph of a letter to civil magistrates the prayer promoters have committed sins both of omission and commission:
Instead of "sir," with which Washington begins his letter to the governors, they have written, "Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer, etc." Washington in the original speaks in the first person, singular. He does not speak directly to God, but he makes an earnest prayer, or wish that God will do a certain thing. The prayer makers use the first person plural and speak to God directly. They have omitted "and the state over which you preside," and "for their brethren who have served in the field." Instead of Washington's closing, "I have the honor to be, sir, etc.," they have substituted, "Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
That they should add this last phrase, with which all the prayers in the Episcopal prayer book terminate, was unfortunate when we consider that nowhere in Washington's writings does he mention directly or by name Jesus Christ. When he was a boy of 13, he wrote in a copy book,
Assist me, Muse divine, to sing the morn,On which the Savior of mankind was born.(See Sparks's Washington, p. 519.)
The only other case is in this letter to the governors, where he speaks "of the Divine Author of our blessed religion." In Rupert Hughes' 'Washington,' vol. 3, p. 290, is a facsimile of the last page of the letter, proving that it is not in the handwriting of Washington, but in that of one of his secretaries. While there is no doubt that Washington wrote or dictated the original, the words in his own handwriting do not exist. He gave his ideas to his secretaries, who used their own embellishments. A legal definition of forgery reads, "Forgery consists not only in signing a false name to an instrument, but also in the alteration of an instrument that was otherwise genuine, the rule requiring that the alteration should be in a material part."
It must be conceded, that this "prayer" closely approaches the definition of forgery. As evidence of how fictions will circulate, and become more powerful as they go, 'The New York World Almanac,' for 1930, P. 906, says: "This prayer, it is said, was made by Washington at St. Paul's Church, following his inauguration in the old Federal Building on the North side of Wall Street, facing Broad Street." It was probably hoped that those not familiar with the history of the prayer, Which means the majority, would assume this to be an accepted fact.
Washington must have been "powerful in prayer" if we are to believe two other stories told of his attempts to reach the "throne of grace." Some 30 years ago it was proclaimed that in his youth he composed a prayer book for his own use, containing a prayer for five days, beginning with Sunday and ending with Thursday. The manuscript of this prayer book was said to have been found among the contents of an old trunk. It was printed and facsimiles published. Clergymen read it from the altar, one of them saying it contained so much "spirituality" that he had to stop, as he could not control his emotions while reading it.
Yet, while this prayer book was vociferously proclaimed to have been written by Washington, there was not an iota of evidence that he ever had anything to do with it, or that it even ever belonged to him. A little investigation soon pricked the bubble. Worthington C. Ford, who had handled more of Washington's manuscripts than any other man except Washington himself, declared that the penmanship was not that of Washington. Rupert Hughes (Washington, vol. 1, p. 658) gives facsimile specimens of the handwriting in the prayer book side by side with known specimens of Washington's penmanship at the time the prayer book was supposed to have been written. A glance proves that they are not by the same hand.
Then in the prayer book manuscript all of the words are spelled correctly, while Washington was a notoriously poor speller. But the greatest blow it received was when the Smithsonian Institute refused to accept it as a genuine Washington relic. That Washington did not compose it was proved by Dr. W.A. Croffutt, a newspaper correspondent of the Capital, who traced the source of some of the prayers to an old prayer brook in the Congressional Library printed, in the reign of James the First.
Even the Rev. W. Herbert Burk, rector of the Episcopal Church of Valley Forge, although a firm believer in Washington's religiosity, thus speaks of these prayers: "At present, the question is an open one, and its settlement will depend on the discovery of the originals, or upon the demonstration that they are the work of Washington."
While the "Washington Prayer Book" was thoroughly discredited, there is another prayer yarn told of him that will not die so easily. United States histories, Sunday School papers and religious tracts have sustained its life. The United States government has emblazoned it in bronze on the front of the Subtreasury building in New York City. In 1928, the Postmaster-General issued $2,000,000. in postage stamps to commemorate it. When he was informed that it was a fiction and the real facts presented to him, he replied that he was too busy to correct the mistakes of history. As a romance it is always worth telling. The scene was laid in Valley Forge, in the winter of 1777-78, while Washington's army was in winter quarters, suffering from hunger, nakedness and cold, when many had abandoned all hope of success. There, Isaac Potts, a Quaker, at whose house Washington is said to have had his headquarters, when walking in the woods on a cold winter day, saw Washington on his knees in the snow engaged in prayer, his hat off and his horse tied to a sapling.
This story was first told by our old acquaintance, Weems, the great protagonist of Washington mythology, He does not give his authority for telling it, but others have added to the account. We can clear Isaac Potts of all complicity in foisting it upon the world, as he never told it or certified to its truth. The nearest we can approach him is that some old person said he had told it. The Rev. E.C. M'Guire, in a book entitled 'The Religious Opinions and Character of Washington,' published in 1836, quotes a man 80 years old, one Devault Beaver, who claims he received the story from Potts and his family.
We sometimes speak of incredible stories as "old wives' tales," not thinking that similar stories told by old men are in the same category. This payer story is told with variations. According to Weems, Potts accidentally finds Washington at prayer. Being attracted by a sound in "a venerable grove," he looks into it and finds him pouring forth his soul to God, his countenance being of "angelic serenity," these two expressions being added to give a dramatic and romantic effect. Weems makes Potts a patriot, who, after watching Washington's struggle with the Almighty, rushes into his house with great glee, and shouts to his wife, "Sarah! My dear Sarah! all's well! all's well! George Washington will yet prevail!" telling her what he had seen. According to the story as told by the Rev. Mr. M'Guire, Potts was a Tory, as most Quakers were, and he makes him say to his wife, not calling her by any Christian name, "Our cause is lost." He seemed to think the revolutionary conflict would be settled by Washington's prayer. Instead of Potts's coming upon Washington suddenly, hearing a sound in the grove, and upon investigating finding the Commander-in-Chief at his orisons, as told by Weems, M'Guire makes him follow the General for some time to see where he was going and what he was going to do, when, lo, he saw him get down on his knees in the snow and pray. According to the Snowden account, Potts's wife's name was not Sarah, but Betty. He represents him as now willing to support the cause of America, does not tell what his views were previously. The prayer causing the Quaker to change from a Tory to a patriot was no doubt the work of some later artist who wished the fable to be more effective.
The Rev. M.J. Savage says:
"The pictures that represent him on his knees in the winter forest at Valley Forge are even silly caricatures. Washington was at least not sentimental, and he had nothing about him of the Pharisee that displays his religion at street corners or out in the woods in the sight of observers, of observers, or where his portrait could be taken by 'our special artist!'"
Benson J. Lossing, in his 'Field Book of the Revolution' (vol. 2, p. 336), also gives an account of this historical prayer, but does not mention the source from which he obtained it. Like Weems, he tells that Potts was attracted by a noise in the grove, but while none of the other chroniclers say anything about Washington's having a horse, Lossing speaks of "his horse tied to a sapling," and instead of the General's face being a "countenance of angelic serenity," he says it was "suffused with tears." A reasonable question to ask is, "Can there be found any evidence that Washington was a 'praying man?"
Bishop White, whose church he attended on and off for 25 years in Philadelphia, says he never saw him on his knees in church. This ought to settle the question. If he did not kneel in church, who will believe that he did so on the ground, covered with snow, with his hat off, when the thermometer, was probably below zero?
As further proof that the story is fictitious, there is reason to believe that Isaac Potts did not live in Valley Forge at the time Washington's army was there, in the winter of 1777-1778. Mr. Myers of the Valley Forge Park Commission, recently admitted this.
That Potts did not own the house at the time is established by Washington's account book, where it is proved that the rent for headquarters was paid to Mrs. Deborah Hawes, and the receipts were made out in her name. Potts bought the house when the war was over.
Thwarted in their attempts to find evidence that Washington was publicly a pious man, those interested have tried to prove that he was privately devout, and prayed clandestinely. If any were in a position to know of this it would be his own family. His adopted daughter, and step-granddaughter, Nellie Custis, wrote Mr. Sparks in 1833, when Washington's alleged piety was called into question and it was necessary to find evidence to prove it, "I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them." (See Sparks's Washington, p. 522.) She professes to think he was a believer, and mentions persons having told her they had seen him pray years ago, but all of the evidence is of this character -- always second hand. It will be necessary to show what interest Washington had in making the public think he was not religious, when in fact he was in private. In this he would be as much of a deceiver as those who are religious in public and not in private. And a really religious man believes in "letting his light shine." If, like Washington, he is not a religious man, and at the same time honest, not wishing to offend his friends who are religious, he will take a non-committal attitude. The more we know of the real character of George Washington, the more we find him to have been a man who refrained from subterfuge.
George Washington Parke Custis, a step-grandson and adopted son of Washington, wrote, from time to time, a series of articles for newspapers. giving his recollections of his adopted father. He was but 18 when Washington died, in 1799, and his own death occurred in 1857. His articles were, after his death, collected and edited by B.J. Lossing and published in book form. His, statements vary greatly when compares with those of others who knew Washington. In fact, he, as a mythologist, is assigned next place to Weems. He says that Washington, standing, was in the habit of asking the blessing at the table. Of the hundreds who had dined with Washington, no one confirms this. But it is interesting to read the statement of one who did dine with him and thought he was asking the blessing but found for it no confirmation.
Commissary-General Claude Blanchard dined with Washington, and gives in his Journal the following account:
"There was a clergyman at this dinner who blessed the food and said grace after they had done eating and had brought in the wine. I was told that General Washington said grace when there was no clergyman at the table, as fathers of a family do in America. The first time that I dined with him there was no clergyman and I did not perceive that he made this prayer, yet I remember that, on taking his place at the table, he made a gesture and said a ward, which I took for a piece of politeness, and which was perhaps a religious action.
In this case his prayer must have been short; the clergyman made use of more forms. We remained a very long time at the table. They drank 12 or 15 healths with Madeira wine, In the course of the meal beer was served and grum, rum mixed with water."
This, rather than proving that Washington prayed at the dinner, rather proves that they all liberally celebrated the sacrament.
Was Washington a Communicant? Here we must also enter the realm of myth before looking at homely facts. While the Episcopal Church has nursed the myths of Washington's praying, in the Presbyterian Church are embalmed those asserting that he took communion. Strange to say, the Episcopal Church, while claiming him as a member and believer, seldom claims him as a communicant. The evidence of clergymen who knew Washington and whose churches he attended is very destructive to this myth.
In the Philadelphia Presbyterian Hospital is a large painting of Washington taking the communion at an out-door service, supposed have been held under the apple trees in Morristown, N.J. Those who hold that this picture represents an historical incident are agreed as to the place, but they differ as to the date. One says it happened in 1777, while another says 1780. As the story is generally told, Washington addressed a letter to a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Dr. Johnes, asking him if he would admit to the communion a member of another Church. The clergyman replied, "Certainly. this is not a Presbyterian table, but the Lord's table," as Jared Sparks relates it in the chapter in his 'Life of Washington' which is devoted to the first President's religious opinions and habits. Accordingly, we are told, Washington attended the meeting and partook of the sacrament. sparks gives as his authority Dr. Hosacks' 'life of De Witt Clinton.' Dr. Hosack's authority was the Rev. Samuel H. Cox, who tells us he had it "from unquestionable authority ... a venerable clergyman, who had it from Dr. Johnes himself." But he thinks that "to all Christians, and to all Americans, it cannot fail to be acceptable." (Sparks's 'Washington,' pp. 523, 524.) As in other cases, a link in the chain of evidence is missing, and we are asked to accept the story on our faith as Christians and our patriotism as Americans. But in 1836, Asa C. Colton could find no evidence that it was a fact. He found a son of the Rev. Dr. Johne:s, who had no recollection of the alleged event, and could give no testimony. His wife was more accommodating, but all she could say was that it was "an unquestioned family tradition," which it might have been, though "tradition" is always suspicious. A report was then circulated that the Rev. Dr. Richards, of the Auburn Theological Seminary, had in his possession the letter of Washington to Dr. Johnes. When appealed to, he denied that he had it or had ever seen it, though he said the story was "universally current," and "never contradicted," which is about as weak as evidence can be made.
Fortunately for the truth of history, we are not obliged to rely upon the word of unnamed "venerable clergymen," or "universally current traditions" to prove that George Washington was not a communicant. We can produce well known men of character and truthfulness, ministers of the gospel whose churches he attended for years and who had his personal confidence, who not only say he did not take the sacraments, but they had no evidence that he was a believing Christian. If he did not accept the communion in the churches he regularly attended, is it probable that he, would beg that privilege of another minister in another church? This is not in accordance with common sense, and therefore not good argument. Moreover, these clergymen who are in a position to know whereof they speak, have left us written statements, recorded in reliable histories.
One of the most honored clergymen of the Episcopal Church in the latter part of the 18th Century and the early part of the 19th, was the Rev. Dr. James Abercrombie, rector of St. Peter's Church, in Philadelphia. Here Washington sometimes attended while he was President. Dr. Abercrombie was a scholar and at one time a correspondent of Samuel Johnson. Sprague's 'Annals of the American Pulpit,' vol. 5, p. 394, says: "One incident in Dr. Abercrombie's experience as a clergyman, In connection with the father of his country, is especially worthy of record: and the following account of it was given by the doctor himself in a letter to a friend, in 1833, shortly after there had been some public allusion to it." Then follows Dr. Abercrombie's letter:
"With respect to the inquiry you make, I can only state the following facts: that as pastor of the Episcopal Church, observing that, on sacramental Sundays George Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation -- always leaving Mrs. Washington with the other communicants -- she invariably being one -- I considered it my duty, in a sermon on public worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who uniformly-turned their backs on the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President; and as such he received it. A few days after, in conversation, I believe, with a Senator of the United States, he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who, in the course of conversation at the table, said that, on the previous Sunday, he had received a very just rebuke from the pulpit for always leaving the church before the administration of the sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candor; that he had never sufficiently considered the influence of his example, and that he would not again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal, arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he never afterwards came an the morning of sacrament Sunday, though at other times he was a constant attendant in the morning."
Here is honest, straightforward talk, both on the part of Washington and the clergyman. 'What is more, it is confirmed by others. The Rev. Dr. Wilson, the biographer of Bishop White, in his sermon on the "Religion of the Presidents," says:
"When Congress sat in Philadelphia, President Washington attended the Episcopal Church, The rector, Dr. Abercrombie, told me that on the days when the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was to he administered, Washington's custom was to arise just before the ceremony commenced, and walk out of the church. This became a subject of remark in the congregation, as setting a bad example. At length the Doctor undertook to speak of it, with a direct allusion to the President. Washington was heard afterwards to remark that this was the first time a clergyman had thus preached to him, and he should henceforth neither trouble the Doctor or his congregation on such occasions; and ever after that, upon communion days, 'he absented himself altogether from church.'"
Dr. Wilson's sermon was published in the Albany 'Daily Advertiser,' in 1831. Mr. Robert Dale Owen, then a young man, was attracted by it, and went to Albany to interview Dr. Wilson, and gives the substance of the interview in a letter, written on November 13, 1831, which was published in New York two weeks later:
"I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been grievously at fault, I met an honest man and a sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor's residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently 50 year's of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the 'Daily Advertiser' of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not. I then read to him from a copy of the 'Daily Advertiser' the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, 'Washington was a man" etc., and ending 'absented himself altogether from church.' 'I endorse,' said Dr. Wilson with emphasis, 'every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr . Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was -- for I well remember the very words -- "Sir, Washington was a Deist."
Dr. Wilson further said in this same interview:
"I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he pledges Himself as a believer in Christianity. I think anyone who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more."
Our next witness will be "a venerable clergyman," but not unknown and unnamed -- the Rt. Rev. William White, the first bishop of Sylvania, one of the most distinguished men in the history of the American episcopacy, a man of intellect, high character and honor. He was one of the few Anglican ministers who did not take the side of England during the Revolution. Washington attended his church, Christ's, in Philadelphia, for about 25 years when he happened to be in that city. The two men, the prelate and the soldier and statesman, were personal friends. I recently visited this church, and the verger told me that Bishop White is yet the biggest part of the church. His episcopal chair still stands by the side of the altar, while his body rests beneath it. On August 13, 1835, Colonel Mercer, of Fredericksburg, Va., wrote Bishop White this letter:
"I have a desire, my dear sir, to know whether General Washington was a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church, or whether he occasionally went to the communion only, or if he ever did so at all. No authority can be so authentic and complete as yours on this point."
Bishop White replied:
"Philadelphia, Aug. 15, 1835.
"In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say that General Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister. Mrs. Washington was an habitual communicant. I have been written to by many on that point, and have been obliged to answer them as I now do you,. I am respectfully,
"Your humble servant,"William White"
(Memoir of Bishop White, pp. 196, 197.)
In a letter to the Rev. B.C.C. Parker, dated November 28, 1832, in reply to some inquiries about Washington's religion, Bishop White said:
"His behavior in church was always serious and attentive, but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to declare that I never saw him in the said attitude. ... Although I was often in the company of this great man, and had the honor of often dining at his table, I never heard anything from him which could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion. ... Within a few days of his leaving the Presidential chair our vestry waited on him with an address prepared and delivered by me. In his answer he was pleased to express himself gratified by what he had heard from our pulpit; but there was nothing that committed him relatively to religious theory." (Memoir of Bishop White, pp, 189-191.)
In another letter to the Rev. Mr. Parker, dated December 31, 1832, the Bishop says even more distinctly:
"I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance upon Christian worship, in connection with the general reserve of his character." (Memoir of Bishop White, p. 193.)
Ward's 'Life of Bishop White,' p. 72, says, "Washington was not himself a communicant of the church."
In 1831, Mr. Robert Dale Owen, afterwards a member of Congress where he introduced the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institute, and who later was Minister to Naples, held a newspaper debate with the Rev. Origen Bacherer, which was afterwards published in book form and had a large circulation. Mr. Bacheler insisted that Washington was a communicant and appealed to the Rev. William Jackson, rector of Alexandria, Va., for evidence. Mr. Jackson eagerly sought it, but failed to find it and wrote Mr. Bacheler, "I find no one who ever communed with him." (Bacheler- Owen Debate, vol. 2, p. 262.)
Still Mr. Bacheler, was not satisfied, and begged Mr. Jackson to seek further. After trying again, be wrote, "I am sorry, after so long a delay in replying to your last, that it is not in my power to communicate something definite in reference to General Washington's church membership," and in the same letter he says, "Nor can I find and old person who ever communed with him." (Bacheler-Owen Debate, quoted in John E. Remsburg's Six Historic Americans, pp. 110-111.)
To say Washington was a Christian in the orthodox sense and never partook of it -- and so far as we know this is true -- cannot be a compliment to him.
On January 20, 1833, Mr. Sparks wrote to Nellie Custis, then Mrs. Lewis, for evidence that her step-grandfather communed. She answered, on February 20, 1833, as follows: "On communion Sundays, he left the Church with me after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back after my grandmother." (Sparks's 'Washington,' p. 521.) Sparks himself, on p. 523, expresses his regrets at this in these words:
"The circumstance of his withdrawing himself from the communion service, at a certain period of his life, has been remarked as singular. This may be admitted and regretted, both on account of his example, and the value of his opinion as to the importance and practical tendency of the rite."
The probability was that he thought the rite had no "practical tendency," and unlike many others then and now he was not hypocrite enough to go through a form which he considered meaningless. But to undertake to say, as Sparks afterwards does, that this is no reflection upon Washington as a Christian is begging the question. It is true that Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned from the ministry because he refused to celebrate the Lord's Supper, but no one knew better than Mr. Sparks that Emerson's religion was of a far different type than that he tries to prove Washington had.
The well-known historian, Henry C. Lea, in an address upon "The Ethical Values of History," published in the 'American Historical Review,' for January, 1904, said:
"History is not to be written as a Sunday-school tale for children of a larger growth. It is, or should be, a serious attempt to ascertain the severest truth as to the past and to set it forth without fear or favor. It may, and it generally will, convey a moral, but that moral should educe itself from facts."
I think this applies to the fables told of Washington, and those who tell them sometimes say they should not be controverted because of the "moral" they teach. But what type of a moral is taught when you tell about a man that which is absurdly untrue, and what kind of morality is that built upon such a foundation. We are not required to go beyond the truth in the life of George Washington to find him to have been one of the greatest of men. To what purport is it to say that, he went regularly to church when we know he did not, prayed in the woods though he never prayed in church; wrote a prayer book at that period of his life when his chief thoughts were of war and the girls; asked a Presbyterian minister's permission to take communion in his church, when he declined to take it in the church he regularly attended?
Was Washington a Sabbath Keeper and a Puritan? Some who have endeavored to prove that George Washington was sound in his theological views and in the practices pertaining to them have also declared that he was sound in his personal conduct, from the Puritan standpoint. I say Puritan standpoint advisedly, lest I inadvertently cast a reflection upon Washington; knowing that all good men do not endorse this standpoint.
We are told that he was a strict observer of the Sabbath, and we are sometimes referred to an incident in Connecticut, when he would not travel on Sunday. The entry in his Diary telling of this is dated Sunday, November 8, 1789, and reads as follows: "It being contrary to law and disagreeable to the people of this State (Connecticut) to travel on the Sabbath day -- and my horses, after passing through such intolerable roads, wanting rest, I stayed at Perkins' tavern (which, by the bye, is not a good one) -- all day -- and a meeting house being a few rods from the door, I attended morning and evening services, and heard a lame discourse from a Mr. Pond." (Diaries, vol. 4, p. 50.)
Yet when we read Washington's own account of his later trip through the southern States. We find he continually traveled on Sunday, and seldom attended church. On Sunday, September 19, he was on a trip inspecting his lands. He did not call upon his tenants for their rent, because he says they were "APPARENTLY very religious," and "it was thought best to postpone going among them until tomorrow." The italics (capitals) are Washington's own. In both of these cases he was aiming not to offend other persons' conscientious scruples, not carrying out his own.
It has been said Washington did not receive visitors on Sunday. So far as his home in Mt. Vernon was concerned, a glance at the 'Diaries' will prove this to be untrue. When he had no guests there on the first day of the week, he made it a subject of special comment. While he was President he did not receive visitors on Sunday for the very good and practical reason that he wanted the day to himself to attend to his own private business. Let us look at a few instances, typical of many:
Sunday. July 11, 1790. "At home all day -- despatching some business relative to my own private concerns." (Diaries, vol. 4, p. 142.)
Sunday. February 14, 1790. "At home all day writing letters to Virginia." (Ibid, P. 87.)
Sunday. October 11, 1789. "At home all day writing private letters." (ibid, p. 19.)
Sunday June 27. 1790. "Went to Trinity church in the morning -- employed myself in writing business in the afternoon." (Ibid. p. 130.)
Sunday. May 2, 1790. "Went to Trinity church in the forenoon -- writing letters on private business in the afternoon." (Ibid, 'D. 126.)
Sunday, April 18, 1790. "At borne all day -- the weather being stormy and bad, wrote private letters." (Ibid, T). 116.)
Sunday, March 21. 1790. "Went to St. Paul's chapel in the forenoon -- wrote private letters in the afternoon. Received Mr. Jefferson, Minister of State, about one o'clock," (ibid, p. 106,)
It would be useless to quote further, as this is practically the fact about all of his Sundays, so far as the 'Diaries' are complete, while he was President. Paul Leicester Ford says, in speaking of his attending to his own private business on Sunday: "It was more or less typical of his whole life." (The True George Washington, p. 78.)
We find that he was engaged in many "secular" pursuits on Sunday. Mr. Ford adds: "He entertained company, closed land purchases, sold wheat, and, while a Virginia planter, went fox- hunting on Sunday." (Ibid, p. 79.) A few specific, instances of this will be given. on Sunday, March 31, 1771, he was engaged "on the arbitration between Dr. Ross and Company and Mr. Semple." (Diaries, vol. 2, p. 12.) Sunday, October 13, 1771, he spent his time "plotting and measuring the surveys which Capt. Crawford made for the officers and soldiers." On Sunday, December 25, of the same year, he "agreed to raise Christopher Shadels wages to 2,0, pounds per annum." one week prior to this, December 18, he "went to Doeg Run and carried the dogs with me, who found and run a deer to the, water." (Diaries, vol. 2, pp. 45 and 46.) On Sunday, October 25, 1772, he was "assisting Crawford with his surveys" (ibid, p. 840), while on Sunday, November 4, be "set off for the Annapolis rases." (Ibid, p. 82.)
The Public Attitude of Washington toward the Church and Religion. The public attitude of Washington toward the Church as an institution, and religion in general, is interesting, but it has no bearing on his private opinions, which he never expressed. To "Lafayette, on August 15, 1787, he wrote:
"I am not less ardent in my wish that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church that road to heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest and least liable to exception." To Sir Edward Newenham, he wrote on October 20, 1792:
"Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiment in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy which has marked the present age would at least have reconciled Christians of every denotation, so far that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society."
After Washington was inaugurated as the first chief magistrate, representatives of the different religious bodies waited upon him and presented him with addresses, to which he replied. From these replies I select the following excerpts:
"While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences, it is rational to be expected from them in return, that they will all be emulous of evincing the sanctity of their professions by the innocence of their' lives and the beneficence of their actions; for no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society." (To the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, May, 1789.)
"If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any religious society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and, if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be administered as to render liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution." (To the General Committee Representing the United Baptist Churches of Virginia.)
"The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreeably to their conscience, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights. While men perform their social duties faithfully, they do all that society or the state can with propriety demand or expect; and remain responsible to their Maker for the religion or modes of faith which they may prefer or express." (To the Quakers, 1789.)
"As mankind becomes more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community, are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. I rejoice that a spirit of liberality and philanthropy is much more prevalent among the enlightened nations of the earth, and that your brethren will benefit thereby in proportion as it shall become still more extensive." (To the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah, May, 1790.)
"On this occasion, it would ill become me to conceal the joy I have felt in perceiving the fraternal affection, which appears to increase every day among the friends of genuine religion. It affords edifying prospects, indeed, to see Christians of different denominations dwell together in more charity, and conduct themselves in respect to each other with, a more Christian-like spirit than ever they have done in any former age, or in any other nation." (To the Episcopalians, August 19, 1789.)
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, 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. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government."' (From the Farewell Address.)
Every public man, every office holder and politician realizes that organized religion, socially, politically and economically, is a factor to be recognized and dealt with. Washington, not only as Commander-in-Chief, but more so as President, was obliged to have the united support of all the people, regardless of his individual views. He was careful to warn all these Churches against the great vice of the world, religious bigotry, intolerance and persecution. Because a motive is inspired by religion, it may not always be right, but religion is a powerful motive, right or wrong. Washington, in all these addresses, had in mind that religious controversy and dissension breed discord. At the same time, he realized that to secure independence and erect the new government, the cooperation of the Churches and the ministers was essential. He wanted their support, and to have their enmity would have been unfortunate.
He is careful to refer to religion in general, not to any particular belief or Church. He says nice things to them all, but commits himself to none. His use of the word "Christian" at times means nothing definite. Christianity might mean Roman Catholicism or Unitarianism, or "mere morality," just as its user prefers. Of course every man must give special homage to the religion of the country in which he lives. In the "Farewell Address," he often refers to "religion morality." This might mean any religion, and the, other excerpts confirm us in thinking that he meant all religions and none in particular.
Thousands of men today hold that religious institutions should be upheld because of the prop they give to morality. They support Church for that reason, while they are indifferent to its theological teaching. They believe, as did Draper: "The tranquility of society depends so much on the stability of its religious convictions, that no one can be justified in wantonly disturbing them." They think religion is necessary for other people, while not needed by themselves. It will also be noticed that Washington, while he sometimes couples morality and religion, stresses the former, and ends by saying that "virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government."
Among the addresses sent to Washington when he became President was one from the First Presbytery of the Eastward, which objected to the new Constitution because it did not recognize God and the Christian religion, in these words: "We should not have been alone in rejoicing to have seen some explicit acknowledgement of the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent, inserted somewhere in the Magna Charta of our country." To this, Washington replied:
"The path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. ... In the progress of morality and science, to which our government will give every furtherance, we may confidently expect the advancement of true religion and the completion of our happiness."
Here, as on similar occasions he is too canny to say what "true piety" is. His statement that "true piety" will be advanced through the "progress of morality and science," would place him at the present day in the ranks of Rationalism.
Washington knew, at the same time, as did Madison, that religion, legally united with the state, is no aid either to "virtue or morality." For that reason he said, in the treaty with Tripoli, made in 1796, and, ratified by the Senate in 1797: "The Government of the United states of America is not, in any sense, founded upon the Christian religion." He was too shrewd to oppose the orthodoxy of his time, and equally shrewd in not committing himself to its teachings. Socially, he conformed to the religious customs of his day, just enough to maintain the good will of religious people.
What Was Washington's Belief? It is said that some one asked of Lord Beaconsfield his religion. He replied, "The religion of wise men." Thereupon, his interlocutor again ask, "What religion is that," and my Lord answered, Wise men never tell." Washington was a wise man and never told.
Washington never made a statement of his belief, while his actions rather prove that if he was not a positive unbeliever, he was at best an indifferentist. We have seen that he was not a regular attendant at church services -- rather an irregular one. I have examined 14 years of his complete Dairies, 13 of them when he was at home, with two Episcopal churches within eight or 10, miles. One of these years, 1774, was his banner year for church attendance, when he went 18 times. Yet we find, in these 14 years, his average attendance to have been about six times a year -- not a very good record.
That Washington did not commune is established beyond all doubt by reputable witnesses. The evidence of Bishop White, the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie and the Rev. Dr. Wilson certainly outweighs the very shady assertion that he once took communion in a Presbyterian church, which rests upon questionable and anonymous evidence, to say nothing of its utter improbability.
Bishop White says Washington did not kneel in prayer. Nellie Custis says he stood during the devotional service. She also admits that she never saw him pray, but that someone long dead had told her that he had seen him praying many years before. The Valley Forge prayer is a myth of even a weaker type, than the Presbyterian communion story. The "Prayer for the United, States" is a demonstrated fabrication. These fictions would not be necessary were there true evidence that Washington was religious. During the Revolution, forged letters were published in London attacking his personal moral character. It has been said that letters written by Washington were in existence that cast reflections upon him, but no one has ever been able to produce them. Between the fictions, forgeries and falsehoods told to make Washington either a plaster saint or a rake, it is difficult to say which would have disgusted him the more.
Jared Sparks says:
"After a long and minute examination of the writings of Washington, Public and private, in print and in manuscript, I can affirm, that I have never seen a single hint, or expression, from which it could be inferred, that he had any doubt of the Christian revelation, or that he thought with indifference or unconcern of that subject. On the contrary, wherever he approaches it, and indeed wherever he alludes in any manner to religion, it is done with seriousness and reverence." (Life of 'Washington,' p. 525.)
If Dr. Sparks found from Washington's writings that he never had a "doubt of the Christian revelation," neither could he find among them anything proven, his belief in the same. He may have thought about it and it is likely that he did, but as to expressing his views, he surely was indifferent and unconcerned. The truth is that the majority of unbelievers, especially men of prominence in political or social life, make no statement of their unbelief. True, when Washington spoke of religion, he spoke with "seriousness and reverence," but he so spoke of all religions and not of any particular one. That an unbeliever is necessarily flippant, it is the prerogative of Mr. Sparks to assert. Scholarly Freethinkers consider religion an important subject, even though they reject its orthodox interpretation. While not necessarily reverent in their attitude, they discuss it seriously from the standpoint of science logic and history
Most important of all, there stands out the fact that while in Washington's writings there is nothing affirming or denying the truth of Christian revelation, there is also nothing inconsistent with Deism. Deists of the time believed in God and his Providence. They accepted all of moral value in the Christian Bible and in all other sacred books, holding it to be a part of natural religion. They held in high esteem the moral teachings and character of Jesus. Even the orthodox never tire of quoting complimentary things said about him by Paine and Rousseau. Many Deists prayed and believed in prayer.
Nor can Dr. Sparks find anything in the writings of Washington tending to prove that he believed in Jesus as the Christ and the son of God. Nor will he find anything which will prove that a future existence had any firm place in his calculations, though Deists, as a rule, hope for "happiness beyond this life." During Washington's sickness and death religion was not mentioned. No minister was called in, though three doctors were present.
Dr. Moncure D. Conway says:
"When the end was near, Washington said to a physician present -- an ancestor of the writer of these notes -- 'I am not afraid to go.' With his right fingers on his left wrist, he counted his own pulses, which beat his funeral march to the grave. 'He bore his distress with astonishing fortitude, and conscious as he declared, several hours before his death, of his approaching dissolution, he resigned his breath with the greatest composure, having the full possession of his reason to the last moment,' so next day wrote one present. Mrs. Washington knelt beside his bed, but no word passed on religious matters. With the sublime taciturnity which marked his life he passed out of existence, leaving no word or act which can be turned to the service of superstition, cant or bigotry."
He died like an ancient pagan Greek or Roman. This has puzzled many who have tried to fit Washington with orthodox garments.
In his letters to young people, particularly to his adopted children, he urges upon them truth, character, honesty, but in no case does he advise going to church, reading the Bible, belief in Christ, or any other item of religious faith or practice. Once he wanted mechanics for his estate. He did not demand that they be Christians, but he wrote to his agent, "If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."
Except the legal phrase, "In the name of God, Amen," there are no religious references in Washington's will, something unusual in wills made at that time. While he liberally recognizes his relatives he leaves nothing to churches or for other religious purposes, but he does remember the cause of education.
We have already quoted Bishop White to the effect that when the vestry of Christ Church waited upon Washington with an address, he expressed gratification at some things he had heard from their pulpit, but said not a word that would indicate his own religious views. Just before he left the Presidency, all the ministers of Philadelphia waited upon him, also bearing an address. We will let Thomas Jefferson tell the story, as he wrote it in his Diary, for February 1, 1800, just six weeks after Washington's death:
"Feb. 1. Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the Government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article in their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory address to the governors of the States when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.
"I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in the system (Christianity) than he did." (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, p. 284.)
Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of the ablest physicians of his time and a patriot of the Revolution. The Asa Green spoken of was one of the most noted Presbyterian ministers of the day, and was the chaplain of congress while the seat of the government was located in Philadelphia. The object of these ministers was to find, if possible, what Washington's religious views were, and to draw from him some sentiment they could use to combat the infidelity of Thomas Paine. The result was that orthodoxy received no more comfort than heterodoxy.
A glance at an entry in Washington's Diary for October 10, 1785, throws great light upon his attitude toward the Church and religion. It will speak for itself: "A Mr. John Lowe on his way to Bishop Seabury for ordination, called and dined here -- could not give him more than a general certificate founded on information, respecting his character -- having no acquaintance with him, nor any desire to open a correspondence with the new ordained bishop."
Washington for social and matrimonial reasons could attend church as little as possible -- an average of six times a year at home. He could be a vestryman because that was a political office from whence he went to the 'House of Burgesses and from whence his taxes were assessed. This was in his interest. He could meet and dine with clergymen and treat them with courtesy. When they addressed him he could say some nice things in reply, just enough to keep them from barking at his heels. But to be involved in a correspondence with a bishop over an ordination or to be mixed up in any of the church imbroglios of the time was more than he could stand and here he drew the line. He has been well called "the sly old fox," and nowhere did he demonstrate this quality better than when he was obliged to deal with the Church, the clergy and religion.
Theodore Parker says:
"He had much of the principle, little of the sentiment of religion. He was more moral than pious, in early life a certain respect for ecclesiastical forms made him vestryman in two churches. This respect for outward forms with ministers and reporters for newspapers very often passes for the substance of religion. It does not appear that Washington took a deep and spontaneous delight in religious emotions more than in poetry, in works of art, or in the beauties of Nature ... Silence is a figure of speech, and in the latter years of his life I suppose his theological opinions were those of John Adams, Dr. Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, only he was not a speculative man, and did not care to publish them to the world." (Six Historic Americans.)
The Rev. Dr. Abercrombie said, "Washington was a Deist." The Rev. Dr. Wilson said, "I think any one who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more." Gouverneur Morris said he no more believed in the system of Christianity than Morris did himself. His intimate friend, Bishop White, who perhaps was the best qualified to judge, denies that Washington ever took communion to his knowledge , though he attended Dr. White's church more often than any other while he was President. He also admits that he never heard Washington utter a word which would indicate him to have been a believer; and what is more, he says he never saw him on his knees during prayer, an attitude all Episcopalians assume when performing that function of religion. The positive evidence, I admit, is meager, but combined with the facts and circumstances to which I have called the reader's attention, it is strong. That he was an evangelical Christian has never been proved and is improbable. That he was a Deist is not inconsistent with any known fact.
A recent writer, W.E. Woodward, speaks of Washingtons religious opinions without hesitation in these words:
"He seemed, according to the evidence, to have had no instinct or feeling for religion." "The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned even once in the vast collection of Washington's published letter's. He refers to Providence in numerous letters, but he used the term in such a way as to indicate that he considered Providence as a synonym for destiny or fate," (p. 142.) "Bishop White, who knew him well for many years, wrote after Washington's death that he never heard him express an opinion on any religious subject." "He had no religious feeling himself, but thought religion was a good thing for other people -- especially for the common people. Any one who understands American life will recognize the modern captain-of-industry attitude in this point of view." "He considered religion a matter of policy, of that we might have been sure -- knowing as we do his type of mind." "He said nothing about religion -- nothing very definite -- and was willing to let people think whatever they pleased." (P. 143.)