Patterico's Pontifications

2/22/2023

George Washington Goes to Church

Filed under: General — JVW @ 8:48 pm



[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 thinks 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.

– JVW

28 Responses to “George Washington Goes to Church”

  1. I’ll have to admit, though, a painting of the Virgin Mary appearing at Valley Forge would be pretty groovy. To all readers, please alert me if you ever come across one.

    JVW (ea76c4)

  2. Thank you for a fine essay, JVW.

    Simon Jester (0d54cc)

  3. This:

    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.

    I look forward to these posts every year, JVW. Thank you for yet another interesting one. Oh, and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for such a painting. Maybe even one on black velvet!

    Dana (1225fc)

  4. …’the Indispensable American, George Washington.’

    George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, at Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, in the British colony of Virginia. So wouldn’t that make him a British citizen by birth in the eyes of the Crown— or worse an “illegal”… an… “insurrectionist” in the eyes of the Royalists?!? 😉 😉 😉

    As to his ‘religious affiliation’… he may be one of the earliest to embrace a familiar refrain; ‘In God We Trust– all others, strictly cash…” as the book below may show… 😉 😉 😉

    Strongly recommend the highly amusing book: “George Washington’s Expense Account”
    by Marvin Kitman [1970]

    ‘First published by the Treasury Department in June 1833, Washington’s expense account has long been neglected by serious students of American history. Now, at last, the priceless document is made available to every reader. Here, item by authenticated and padded item, is the General’s bill for the eight years he led the bedraggled Revolutionaries — starting with the deluxe carriage he bought in Philadelphia (at a price that would equal a dozen Cadillacs in today’s currency) en route to taking control of the troops, right up to the stylish spread he provided on the eve of victory at Yorktown. No mere wallet’s-eye view of the hostilities, the richly footnoted expense account evokes more than the rattle of sabers, the roar of muskets, and the smell of defective gunpowder foisted off on the army by privateers. It evokes, too, the aromas of good food steaming in the special dining hut the General orderd built for his wife’s visit to Valley Forge, the rustle of clean sheets in countless inns during eight years of enforced bachelorhood, and the romance and mystery of such far-off places as Perth Amboy, the Paris of New Jersey. – Back cover.’

    https://openlibrary.org/books/OL5076669M/George_Washington's_expense_account

    DCSCA (81e149)

  5. I like the second sentence too, Dana.

    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.

    But render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s!

    nk (e70658)

  6. As JVW no doubt knows, Lincoln, like Washington, practiced tolerance toward Catholics, at a time when the surge of Irish immigrants, and the rise of the “Know Nothing” party often made that harder for a practical politician.

    Supporters of the Know Nothing movement believed that an alleged “Romanist” conspiracy by Catholics to subvert civil and religious liberty in the United States was being hatched. Therefore, they sought to politically organize native-born Protestants in defense of their traditional religious and political values. The Know Nothing movement is remembered for this theme because Protestants feared that Catholic priests and bishops would control a large bloc of voters. In most places, the ideology and influence of the Know Nothing movement lasted only one or two years before it disintegrated due to weak and inexperienced local leaders, a lack of publicly proclaimed national leaders, and a deep split over the issue of slavery. In the South, the party did not emphasize anti-Catholicism as frequently as it emphasized it in the North and it stressed a neutral position on slavery,[3] but it became the main alternative to the dominant Democratic Party.

    (Links omitted.)

    But in those “one or two years”, the movement had remarkable successes.

    In modern terms, the movement could be described as both “progressive”, and, according to the Wikipedia article, “populist”.

    Jim Miller (f29931)

  7. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance

    You could almost forget this man enslaved over 200 people. That’s not to detract from his historic achievements, but it cannot be ignored either. Several of the Founders did the same, and they cannot be understood without understanding their cognitive dissonance.

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  8. Anti-Catholicism did not end with the demise of the American Party. The same period that saw the rise of Jim Crow also saw anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant policies rise in the GOP, particularly with James Blaine’s presidential candidacy in 1884. While he was unsuccessful, many states have anti-Catholic “Blaine amendments” banning public funds for private schools (meaning non-Protestant schools as all public schools were openly Protestant).

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  9. The Atlantic has an article about George Washington.

    He was not kind to the Indians, and his methods of war were inhumane – he may even have secretly conspired to burn down New York City!!

    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2023/03/george-washington-burn-new-york-great-fire-1776/672780

    New York’s double tragedy—first invaded, then incinerated—meant a stumbling start for the new republic. Yet Washington wasn’t wholly displeased. “Had I been left to the dictates of my own judgment,” he confided to his cousin, “New York should have been laid in Ashes before I quitted it.” Indeed, he’d sought permission to burn it. But Congress refused, which Washington regarded as a grievous error. Happily, he noted, God or “some good honest Fellow” had torched the city anyway, spoiling the redcoats’ valuable war prize.

    For more than 15 years, the historian Benjamin L. Carp of Brooklyn College has wondered who that “honest fellow” might have been. Now, in The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, he cogently lays out his findings. Revolutionaries almost certainly set New York aflame intentionally, Carp argues, and they quite possibly acted on instructions. Sifting through the evidence, he asks a disturbing question: Did George Washington order New York to be burned to the ground?

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  10. That’s a provocative idea, Sammy. But when you look at the Sons of Liberty in Boston dumping tea into the Harbor or other pro-Independence organizations tarring and feathering British agents and Loyalists, it’s not too hard to imagine New York revolutionaries taking the initiative all on their own to burn down New York City.

    JVW (66fbee)

  11. You could almost forget this man enslaved over 200 people. That’s not to detract from his historic achievements, but it cannot be ignored either. Several of the Founders did the same, and they cannot be understood without understanding their cognitive dissonance.

    Kevin M (1ea396) — 2/23/2023 @ 3:13 pm

    Yes. That is the incongruity of the Founding.

    Great men have blind spots and erroneous thinking, but thank God for what they got right.

    Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    It would have been wrong to demand that southern states renounce slavery as a pre-condition of forming a union with the northern states.

    Similarly, I think it is misguided to demand that Republican candidates renounce Trump and his election claims as a pre-condition to voting for them. The real world just doesn’t work that way. People don’t like to have their faces rubbed into the sh!tty decisions they have made. They have to be brought along slowly.

    I understand if people like DeSantis and Haley equivocate on the issue, and try to thread the needle. Waiting until all the Republican voters are “purified” just isn’t practical. It may feel good, but it’s rather self-defeating.

    norcal (7345e5)

  12. > I think it is misguided to demand that Republican candidates renounce Trump and his election claims as a pre-condition to voting for them. The real world just doesn’t work that way.

    On the other hand, why should I — or anyone else who thinks the election claims are rank nonsense whose likely outcome is undermining the legitimacy of the entire system — trust anyone who *won’t* renounce them to not similarly sacrifice the national interest for personal benefit, and why should we be willing to trust any position of power to someone we can’t trust not to sacrifice the national interest for personal benefit?

    aphrael (e95b2c)

  13. aphrael @12

    I think it’s similar to how people who were worried about Supreme Court packing trusted Biden not to do it, even though he refused to rule it out.

    Biden couldn’t renounce court-packing, for fear of angering the leftist base.

    People on the right make similar calculations.

    Don’t get me wrong. I too think Trump’s election claims are complete bunk.

    norcal (7345e5)

  14. …I think it is misguided to demand that Republican candidates renounce Trump and his election claims as a pre-condition to voting for them. The real world just doesn’t work that way. People don’t like to have their faces rubbed into the sh!tty decisions they have made. They have to be brought along slowly.

    To me, it absolutely does matter whether a candidate (especially for the presidency) went along with Trump’s election lies and has continued supporting him as he peddles them years later. Doing so means usually one of two things: the individual actually *believed* the lie (true believer), demonstrating a serious lack of discretion and understanding of how elections work and ignoring the lack of evidence supporting such claims. This speaks to an immense gullibility making them dangerously unprepared to hold the position. The other, and the frankly most prevalent reason was that they didn’t believe the lies but supported Trump and espoused his election lies anyway because it was the surest path to power since he was the one in control of the Party. Thus, they made a conscious decision to protect their political future, which demonstrates a lack of character and that their priority was self-preservation and keeping their base happy, even though they knew it was wrong. None of these reasons makes one a good candidate to hold the most powerful position in the world. A denouncement of Trump and his election lies is so much more than just rubbing their noses in their “sh!tty” decisions. It is a way, as much as possible, to provide voters with reassurance that they won’t be doing the same thing that Trump did if they lose their election, and won’t be dragging the country through a painful election aftermath that threatens Democracy. So yes, it definitely matters to me if someone running for office – especially the presidency – supported Trump and his election lies and whether they have since denounced their previous misguided and frankly, dangerous behavior.

    Dana (1225fc)

  15. Similarly, I think it is misguided to demand that Republican candidates renounce Trump and his election claims as a pre-condition to voting for them.

    Well, they should at least stop promoting that crap. But it’s a wedge issue that the Democrats exploit and which the GOP needs to resolve. At the very least the GOP needs to move past and transcend Trump, just as the Democrats once moved past and transcended (the much worse) Jim Crow.

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  16. Taking that a bit further, for the GOP to run Trump again would be like the Democrats running George Wallace in 1968. A fatal mistake.

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  17. Not only does the individual candidate need to renounce their espousal of Trump and his election lies, but the Party needs to sever the ties with Trump/MAGA if it wants to once again be a vibrant and viable Party.

    Dana (1225fc)

  18. I’m going to add this: If a candidate for the presidency does not publicly acknowledge they were wrong to support Trump and his election lies, and if there is no remorse about espousing his lies, no acknowledgment of the havoc wreaked on our nation and the subsequent threat to Democracy, how would voters know that the candidate in question wouldn’t simply continue this bad behavior after the election? Why should they trust them? At least a public acknowledgment of regret and a denouncement, or even an apology, would give some reassurance of the individual’s character.

    Dana (1225fc)

  19. Let me know when presidential candidate Darling Nikki makes a full-throated speech condemning Trump and his election lies.

    I won’t hold my breath.

    Rip Murdock (d353df)

  20. Dana (1225fc) — 2/25/2023 @ 8:27 am

    when do the struggle sessions start?

    JF (4e1e5a)

  21. I won’t hold my breath.

    I guess you’re going to have to support Kasich again.

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  22. The Golden rule, people.

    Trigger-alert! Finger-wagging ahead.

    First, I will remind everyone that I am an Independent. I was born into a Democrat family and became a Republican after starting my first business. I was no longer a Republican when the party left me as they moved ever left-ward in response to the Left moving the Overton window further to the left. I see people like Bill Maher coming to the same realization as he experiences criticism for expressing his views.

    -Begin finger-wagging-

    I approve of the skeptical reception all the authorities/media get from a crest-fallen people. It is profoundly unhelpful to question the integrity of those who express distrust in a national/local government/fourth estate that has failed them – whatever political stripe to which they may belong.

    It is in everyone’s interest to re-establish trust. We must ask ourselves, “would I appreciate the characterizations I apply to others – applied to me?”

    -end finger-wagging-

    felipe (77b190)

  23. Not only does the individual candidate need to renounce their espousal of Trump and his election lies, but the Party needs to sever the ties with Trump/MAGA if it wants to once again be a vibrant and viable Party.

    It does not need to do that explicitly. It just has to move on. MAGA is about a third of their votes; explicitly othering them is not the way forward. What you suggest is that the GOP play the “let’s you and him fight” game that the Democrats want to see.

    Or maybe you think that Liz Cheney has a chance?

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  24. Or maybe you think that Liz Cheney has a chance?
    Kevin M (1ea396) — 2/25/2023 @ 9:25 am

    Liz has a chance, running as an independent, of denying a republican victory.

    for some, that’s a win, though they won’t say it out loud

    JF (4e1e5a)

  25. She won’t do that due to “sore loser” laws. But she will run in the GOP primaries so she can sit on stage and call Trump a effing traitor.

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  26. I wouldn’t trust Trumpies to tell me it was daytime outside, let alone that they have renounced Trump. They can all just f-f-fade away.

    nk (8f058b)

  27. To me, it absolutely does matter whether a candidate (especially for the presidency) went along with Trump’s election lies and has continued supporting him as he peddles them years later.

    Dana (1225fc) — 2/25/2023 @ 8:11 am

    Dana, any candidate who echoed Trump’s stolen election claims will not get my support, either. I’m talking about people who said nothing. I just don’t think it’s wise to ask candidates who did not echo those claims to now renounce Trump.

    Renouncing him will just ensure that the still large Trump following will not support the renouncer, and the left will win until Trump supporters die off or otherwise dwindle to miniscule numbers.

    I think it’s best to just ignore him, like Kevin said.

    What about my point regarding the Founding, and whether a renunciation of slavery should have been a condition of southern states joining the union? 

    Also, should Democratic candidates have to promise not to pack the court?

    norcal (7345e5)

  28. I’m talking about people who said nothing. I just don’t think it’s wise to ask candidates who did not echo those claims to now renounce Trump.

    norcal, because I believe that Trump’s actions and lies were so egregious and dangerous, and because the GOP is still influenced by him/MAGA, I think would need indeed need to hear a renouncement of sorts from the candidate. At the very least, I would want to know where they currently stand on the matter. Ignoring him would be best, however, because he continues to be a loud voice of influence to the MAGA crowd and members of Congress still seek his approval, I think ignoring him is naive.

    Renouncing him will just ensure that the still large Trump following will not support the renouncer, and the left will win until Trump supporters die off or otherwise dwindle to miniscule numbers.

    And maybe that’s just the price we have to pay.

    Dana (1225fc)


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