George Washington Goes to Church
[guest post by JVW]
Today of course marks the 291 anniversary of the Indispensable American, George Washington. It is also Ash Wednesday in Western Christendom, the beginning of the 40-day Lenten season. In keeping with my tradition (abandoned but one year of the last eight) I am combining the annual Washington post with a topic befitting of the confluence of holidays. As a reminder, here are my past Washington’s Birthday posts:
2015 – George Washington’s Birthday
2016 – George Washington Quiets the Rebellion
2017 – George Washington Fears for His Country’s Future
2018 – George Washington Agrees to Serve Another Term
2019 – George Washington Goes Back to His Farm
2020 – George Washington Rallies the Troops
2021 – damn you, COVID
2022 – George Washington Takes Stock of the Senate
There is some degree of debate over George Washington’s religious affiliation. During his time, as the Founding Father of the new nation, it was popular to depict him as a pious Christian, a servant of the Only True King to whom he would ever bend the knee. One things of the popular painting of Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge, painted for America’s Bicentennial based upon the supposed remembrances of a Quaker Loyalist who happened to see the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army make this humble supplication to the Lord at some point during that harrowing winter of 1777-78, and was so moved by the General’s piety that he immediately took up the American cause. This story, however, is quite likely yet another fable spun by Parson Mason Locke Weems, the man who gave us the tale of young George refusing to lie to his father about chopping down a cherry tree. Because of the prevalence of these sorts of saccharine myths, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the latter half of the 20th Century saw a revisionist history in which the first President was recast as a Deist who was indifferent towards, or perhaps even somewhat hostile to, the practice of organized religion — “a spiritual person but not a religious one” as seems to be today’s popular self-description among those who wouldn’t deign to darken a church, temple, or mosque door yet don’t want to be accused of outright atheism.
What we do know, however, is that the Washingtons were regular attendants at services, first at Anglican churches in pre-Revolution days and then after Independence as members of the reconstituted Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Indeed, upon taking the oath of office as the first President of the United States of America in 1789, George and Martha Washington led a delegation to St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway in New York City for services, and other Episcopalian churches in Philadelphia and Boston claim visits by one or both Washingtons. On the other hand, unlike his wife Mr. Washington was not known to take communion.
But where the first President distinguished himself as an ideal godly man was in his acceptance and tolerance of other faiths. While his own speeches and writings rarely mentioned Jesus Christ and instead invoked “the Almighty” or more often “Providence,” the Founding Father was decidedly not hostile to the organized practice of faith, as he made clear in his Farewell Address of 1796:
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 to 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.
George Washington famously put this trust in religion as a stabilizing effect on men in his response to a letter presented to him by the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in August 1790, in which the local Jewish citizens celebrated the outcome of the Revolution and subtly implored the new chief executive to make good on the promise of religious freedom, which then as now has eluded Jews throughout the Old World. Replying in writing the very next day, the first President laid out his belief that the new nation should welcome men and women of all (Abrahamic) faiths:
[. . .] The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy. [. . .]
The American Cincinnatus was equally solicitous towards America’s burgeoning Catholic community, and as Richard Brookhiser relates, for years many ardent Catholic magazines repaid the favor by rehashing a story of General Washington’s prayers leading to an apparition of the Virgin Mary at Valley Forge, a tale even less believable than Parson Weems’ story of the Quaker Loyalist turned Patriot.
The great man honored and welcomed all faiths, and as such he became the representative figure of the new republic which many Founding Fathers considered to be the New Jerusalem, and two hundred years later would be memorably evoked as “the shining city on a hill.”
Here’s wishing everyone a happy George Washington’s Birthday and a peaceful Lenten season, even if you don’t observe either.