The Real George Washington?

Article excerpt


Even before he died in December 1799, a battle began over the nature and significance of George Washington's faith. Was the father of our country a deist, a Unitarian, a lukewarm Christian, or a fervent evangelical?

Popular paintings depict Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War and ascending to heaven after his death. Few of the varied aspects of the Virginian's life have caused as much contention as his religious beliefs and habits. Moreover, no other president has had his religious life so distorted by folklore.

Given Washington's immense contributions to the American republic, semi-divine status, and importance to American civil religion, this intense debate is not surprising. Moreover, Washington is an important figure in a second heated dispute over whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

After his death, Washington was elevated to sainthood and portrayed as God's instrument. In life and death, he has been seen as "the deliverer of America," the American Moses, and even a demigod. In their funeral sermons, Federalist clergy effusively praised Washington as a devout Christian who liberated God's chosen people from British oppression. A spate of books published in the 19th century to promote Washington's piety feature stories of him arranging Communion services before battles, retreating into the woods during military encampments to pray, and inspiring country churches by his zealous worship.

Three new books have recently joined this debate. In "Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers," Brooke Allen concludes Washington was probably a deist. She argues that in his extensive correspondence Washington rarely mentioned Christianity and never mentioned "a Savior or Redeemer." Unlike Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Washington did not even refer to Jesus as a great moral teacher.

Although Washington offered substantial advice to his stepchildren and nephews on moral subjects, he said nothing about religion. Moreover, Washington expressed no hope of eternal life, and on his deathbed did not call for a minister or pray.

Despite the Allen claims, Peter Lillbach fills the 1,169 pages of "George Washington's Sacred Fire" with quotations from Washington about religious matters and detailed analysis of his beliefs and practices. Following in the footsteps of other evangelicals, Mr. Lillbach calls the first president "an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ" who believed in Christ's atonement for sinners and bodily resurrection. To refute "modern skeptics" who "have read into Washington their own unbelief," Mr. Lillbach emphasizes his "exemplary prayer life," extensive knowledge of Scripture, work as an Anglican vestryman, and repeated calls for public and private piety.

Similarly, Michael and Jana Novak contend in "Washington's God" that Washington "was a serious Christian, perceived to be so by many close to him." They add that "Washington easily met the standards for being considered an Anglican in good standing" "baptism, acceptance of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds" and somewhat regular church attendance. …