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Why Have Scholars Underplayed George Washington’s Faith?

The faith of our founding father, George Washington, has been the source of debate among scholars throughout the 20th, and now into the 21st century. Prior to that, it was generally the case that very few questioned the strength or validity of the claim that George Washington was a Christian. It was not until around the time of the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, in 1932, that the consensus began to shift to the view that Washington was a Deist, that is, one who is generally non-religious, believing merely in a very remote and impersonal God.

The definitive change in scholarly attitude seems to have occurred in 1963 when Professor Paul Boller wrote his book entitled George Washington and Religion. Professor Boller wrote, “Broadly speaking, of course, Washington can be classified as a Deist.” Most recent scholars have accepted Boller’s thesis and have developed this perspective. Thus recent works on Washington’s faith describe our Founding Father as: “A lukewarm Episcopalian,” “a warm Deist,” “not a deeply religious man,” “not particularly ardent in his faith,” “one who avoided, as was the Deist custom, the word ‘God.’” If these evaluations of Washington’s faith are accurate, then it would seem appropriate to minimize the role of faith in Washington’s life.

The question is, however, why so many scholars have uncritically followed Boller’s viewpoint on the question of Washington’s faith. It is tricky business to assign motives to scholars, although the maxim that the living can make the dead do any tricks they find necessary comes to mind. Obviously no scholar can divine the reasons for the selection and weighing of evidence by another historian, so my remarks here must be viewed merely as suggestive.

The reasons for the scholarly minimizing of Washington’s faith seem to be due to factors related to three reasons: the uniqueness of Washington himself, the perspectives of recent historians, and the nature and availability of the relevant evidence.

The uniqueness of George Washington as well as his historical milieu make the task of discovering Washington’s personal faith a challenge. He was an inward man who prided himself on non-self-disclosure. Indeed, his motto was “deeds not words.” His public and political life sought to unite a very diverse group of colonial soldiers in the military and competitive bodies of citizens in early federal America. This process of unification was facilitated by seeking the largest common denominator. This meant that personal religious concerns were normally subordinated in his public life. Moreover, his more private life as a Virginian gentleman in a distinctively Anglican historical context did not require him as a non-theologian to be overtly expressive of his faith. The evangelical fires of the Great Awakening with its open evangelistic zeal had not impacted Virginian culture as much as they had other colonies. Washington’s evangelism was far more expressive when it touched the need for Native Americans to be reached through missionary outreach. His outreach to his fellow Americans, however, was typically through example and providing leadership and contributions. His Christian “deeds” included the provision of ministers, chaplains, church buildings and sacramental items, as well as liturgical involvement for the spiritual growth of his family, neighbors and soldiers.

The perspectives of recent historians also help to account for why they have underdeveloped the importance for faith in Washington’s life. Simply put, Washington has been caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars. If the recent zeitgeist has been a conscious move toward secularism in the academy and in the courts, then it stands to reason that Washington would begin to take on a more compatible secular image in the hands of such authors who so significantly shape our American culture. If the separation of Church and State is a fundamental tenet of our view of American culture, then the scholarly shaping of Washington’s life to fit this view is an inexorable result. After all, everyone would like to have Washington on their side!

Moreover, historians on all sides of this debate over Washington’s true faith would agree that the sheer greatness of Washington makes him liable to hagiography and exaggeration. The unsubstantiated legends of a previous era had to be subjected to the rigorous canons of critical historiography. While some of the testimony for Washington’s faith falls in the arena of unsupportable legend, there is a temptation simply to dismiss all evidence of his faith by assuming that there is only hagiographical and apocryphal testimony to support it. So self-evident did Washington’s Christian faith seem to prior generations, that they only slightly felt the need to establish a scholarly case. Thus when this earlier case for Washington’s Christian faith was examined under the microscope of serious scholarship, it was unable to withstand the assault.

However, that did not mean there was no evidence for the claim of a strong faith life in Washington. Rather, it meant that the case had to be built by a careful return to original sources and historically sound arguments. Thus there has been a significant need to reassess this whole debate by an in depth analysis of the relevant data. That, of course, is what I have sought to do in George Washington’s Sacred Fire. It has simply been too easy for all parties in this debate to rely on secondary sources. Ultimately, Washington’s own words and his own actions in his own context establish the truth about his own faith.

The character of the extant historical evidence also in part explains why scholars have missed the importance of faith in Washington’s life. So much of what is essential for this debate is not available for study. For example, very few ecclesiastical records remain from the early years of Washington’s life. The war years were a period when many records were inevitably lost or never kept. With the passing of over two centuries since Washington’s death, the likelihood that such records will come to light is very small.

The sheer magnitude of Washington’s writings and correspondence makes it difficult to get a handle on his faith given that it was not the central point of his daily work. Only recently has this question been made easier to address. The digital revolution now makes searching Washington’s vast corpus possible from the comfort of one’s personal computer simply by accessing the sources through the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress. Similarly, the letters to which Washington was responding have only recently been published or been put online, finally making them readily accessible to scholarly research. These letters are important for this debate in particular since they give added depth and insight to Washington’s words as he expresses his faith and religious concerns.

Even the physical location of the relevant data enters into this question. For example Washington’s library is difficult to access since it is in a limited access archive at the Boston Athenaeum. Yet Washington’s personally bound collections of now mostly out of print sermons as well as his correspondence to the clergymen who wrote them provide a treasure trove for understanding his religious thinking.

Within this vast collection of Washington’s own words and writings, we now have a remarkable ability to uncover what earlier scholars were unable to access. And when we let Washington’s own words and deeds speak for his faith we get quite a different perspective than that of most recent modern historians. Washington referred to himself frequently using the words “ardent,” “fervent,” “pious,” and “devout.” There are over one hundred different prayers composed and written by Washington in his own hand, with his own words, in his writings. He described himself as one of the deepest men of faith of his day when he confessed to a clergyman, “No Man has a more perfect Reliance on the alwise, and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have nor thinks his aid more necessary.”

Rather than avoid the word “God,” on the very first national Thanksgiving under the U.S. Constitution, he said, “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” Although he never once used the word “Deist” in his voluminous writings, he often mentioned religion, Christianity, and the Gospel. He spoke of Christ as “the divine Author of our blessed religion.” He encouraged missionaries who were seeking to “Christianize” the “aboriginals.” He took an oath in a private letter, “on my honor and the faith of a Christian.” He wrote of “the blessed religion revealed in the Word of God.” He encouraged seekers to learn “the religion of Jesus Christ.” He even said to his soldiers, “To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian.” Not bad for a “lukewarm” Episcopalian!

Historians ought no longer be permitted to do the legerdemain of turning Washington into a Deist even if they found it necessary and acceptable to do so in the past. Simply put, it is time to let the words and writings of Washington’s faith speak for themselves.