The Faith of George Washington
George Washington, the first President of the United States, is our nation’s greatest and most beloved leader of all time. His faith has been the subject of debate for many generations. Some have tried to portray him as a Deist, while others maintain that he was a devoted Christ-follower until the end of his life.
So was George Washington a Christian, a Deist, or an agnostic? The best way to answer that question is to examine his actions, his words, and the testimony of people who knew him.
By his actions, Washington proved himself to be a committed Christian and churchgoer. He served for many years as a vestryman, a non-clergy member of his church’s leading body. Records from Truro Parish, an Episcopal Church, indicate that he was actively involved in helping oversee church business and was financially generous to his church.1
For more than fifteen years, he served in various voluntary leadership roles in his church. While he was President and toured the nation, he attended church services in every city he visited, sometimes as often as three times a day.2
In His Own Words
George Washington often made reference to God’s involvement and guidance in his life and in the affairs of the nation. We don’t have the luxury of video, but history has preserved many of his writings, which give us an insight into his heart for God and the role faith played in his life.
In a circular letter he sent to all the governors of the thirteen states between June 8 and 21, 1783, George Washington concluded the letter with this prayer:
“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 do Justice, to love Mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, Humility, and Pacific temper of mind which were the Characteristicks 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.”3
In his resignation address to the Continental Congress on December 23, 1783, Washington wrote: “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commanding the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.”4
On September 19, 1796, Washington delivered a farewell address to the American people in which he expressed, among other things, his feelings about the importance of religion and morality. Washington argued that without religion, morality is impossible to maintain. Today, secularists are promoting the concept of morality without religion, the very thing our first President condemned because without religion, morality quickly erodes.
“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.”5
In a speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779, Washington encouraged them to learn the religion of Jesus Christ. “My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.”6
On October 3, 1789, Washington wrote this Thanksgiving Proclamation, setting aside a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God: “Whereas 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– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”7
In his General Orders on July 9, 1776, Washington encouraged every solider to live and act like a Christian solider. “The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”8
In his General Orders on May 2, 1778, Washington ordered church services to be performed every Sunday at 11 am. He stated that he expected every officer to attend church in order to be a good example, and that the highest glory of every patriot was to have Christian character.
“The Commander in Chief directs that divine Service be performed every Sunday at 11 o’clock in those Brigades to which there are Chaplains; those which have none to attend the places of worship nearest to them. It is expected that Officers of all Ranks will by their attendence set an Example to their men. While we are zealously performing the duties of good Citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of Religion. To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian.”9
In the Words of Those who Knew Him
From the eyewitness accounts of many people who knew Washington personally, he was a man of prayer who rarely, if ever, missed his morning devotions. Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, George Washington’s adopted daughter and step-granddaughter, wrote a letter on February 26, 1833 in response to Jared Sparks’ request for information about Washington for his biography.
“General Washington had a pew in Pohick Church, and one in Christ Church at Alexandria. He was very instrumental in establishing Pohick Church, and I believe subscribed largely. His pew was near the pulpit. I have a perfect recollection of being there, before his election to the presidency, with him and my grandmother. It was a beautiful church, and had a large, respectable, and wealthy congregation, who were regular attendants.”
“He attended the church at Alexandria, when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles. In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition. … No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect.”
“I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, ‘that they may be seen of men.’ He communed with his God in secret.”10
Jared Sparks also recorded that George W. Lewis, Washington’s nephew, shared this eyewitness account with him: “Mr. Lewis said he had accidentally witnessed [Washington's] private devotions in his library both morning and evening; that on those occasions he had seen him in a kneeling position with a Bible open before him and that he believed such to have been his daily practice.”11
According to the testimony of a French citizen who knew Washington personally during the war and afterward as President, “Every day of the year, he rises at five in the morning; as soon as he is up, he dresses, then prays reverently to God.”12
During the Revolutionary war, General Robert Porterfield recounted how he found Washington “on his knees, engaged in his morning’s devotions.” Alexander Hamilton confirmed this account, commenting that “such was his most constant habit.”13
Upon Washington’s death, Congress asked Henry Lee, a close associate of Washington and former Continental army officer, to deliver the eulogy at his memorial on December 26, 1799. His words are forever engraved in our nation’s memory:
“First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere—uniform, dignified and commanding—his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting…Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues…Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.”14
Historical evidence overwhelmingly depicts George Washington as a man of prayer who was deeply committed to the Christian faith. He never referred to himself as a Deist in any of his writings. The fact is that both his words and his actions denote a deep Christian conviction that fueled his love of country.
He constantly gave thanks to Almighty God in his public prayers and proclamations. He humbly served God as an active member and leader in Christian churches his whole life. His daily habits of praying and reading the Bible clearly show a dependence on God for the grave decisions he made on a daily basis to shape the nation he led.
As an American and devoted Christ-follower, I am proud to call George Washington our founding father and a shining example of what a Christian leader must be. We live in a different America today—one that shies away from even the mention of Jesus’ name in public places and touts a more secular worldview in which God seems to have no place.
George Washington’s example of faith in leadership reminds us of what will make America great once again. It is easy to criticize and denigrate others who may not see the value of faith and morality to our nation’s future. But what is needed today is more men and women who would live like Washington lived—humbly submitted to God and fearlessly devoted to the welfare of our nation.
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Alarid. All rights reserved.
1 Library of Congress. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Online. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel06.html [19 March 2012].
2 Novak, Michael and Jana Novak, Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty and the Father of Our Country, p. 39, Basic Books, 2007
3 The Papers of George Washington. George Washington to John Hancock (Circular) 11 June 1783. Online. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/constitution/1784/hancock.html [18 March 2012].
4 The Papers of George Washington. George Washington’s Resignation Address to the Continental Congress. Online. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/revolution/resignation.html [19 March 2012].
5 Bartleby.com. Washington’s Farewell Address. Online. http://www.bartleby.com/43/24.html [18 March 2012].
6 John C. Fitzpatrick’s Writings of George Washington. Writings of Washington, Vol. 15: Speech to the Delaware Chiefs. Online. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/ot2www-washington?specfile=/texts/english/washington/fitzpatrick/search/gw.o2w&act=surround&offset=18502415&tag=Writings+of+Washington,+Vol.+15:+SPEECH+TO+THE+DELAWARE+CHIEFS&query=the+religion+of+jesus&id=gw150049 [19 March 2012].
7 George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. Thanksgiving Proclamation. Online. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/GW/gw004.html [19 March 2012].
8 John C. Fitzpatrick’s Writings of George Washington. Writings of Washington, Vol. 5: General Orders Head Quarters, New York, July 9, 1776. Online. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/ot2www-washington?specfile=/texts/english/washington/fitzpatrick/search/gw.o2w&act=surround&offset=5975853&tag=Writings+of+Washington,+Vol.+5:+GENERAL+ORDERS+Head+Quarters,+New+York,+July+9,+1776.+&query=as+becomes+a+christian&id=gw050226 [19 March 2012].
9 Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia. Washington, George, 1732-1799. The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources: Volume 11. Online.
10 Historic Valley Forge. Proof that Washington was a Christian? Online. http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/youasked/060.htm [19 March 2012].
11 Sparks, Jared, Life of George Washington, 522-23
12 Chinard, Gilbert, ed. and trans. George Washington as the French Knew Him: A Collection of Texts, 119
13 Meade, Bishop [William], Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia, 2:491-92
14 The Papers of George Washington. Immediate Response. Online. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/project/exhibit/mourning/response.html [19 March 2012].