Six Historic Americans
During the presidential campaign of 1880, the Christian Union made the startling admission that, of the nineteen men who, up to that time, had held the office of President of the United States, not one, with the Possible exception of Washington, had ever been a member of a Christian church.
Was Washington a church member? Was he in any sense a Christian? In early life he held a formal adherence to the church of England, serving, for a time, as a vestryman in the parish in which he resided. But this being merely a temporal office did not necessitate his being a communicant, nor even a believer in Christianity. In his maturer age he was connected with no church. Washington, the young Virginia planter, might, perhaps, with some degree of truthfulness, have been called a Christian; Washington, the Soldier, statesman and sage, was not a Christian, but a Deist.
This great man, like most men in public life, was reticent respecting his religious views. This rendered a general knowledge of his real belief impossible, and made it easy for zealous Christians to impose upon the public mind and claim him for their faith. Whatever evidence of his unbelief existed was, as far as possible, suppressed. Enough remains, however, to prompt me to attempt the task of proving the truth of the following propositions:
- That Washington was not a Christian communicant.
- That he was not a believer in the Christian religion.
Was Washington A Communicant?
Washington was not a communicant. This fact can be easily demonstrated. A century ago it was the custom of all classes, irrespective of their religious beliefs, to attend church. Washington, adhering to the custom, attended. But when the administration of the sacrament took place, instead of remaining and partaking of the Lord’s Supper as a communicant would have done, he invariably arose and retired from the church.
The closing years of his life, save the last two, were passed in Philadelphia, he being then President of the United States. In addition to his eight years’ incumbency of the presidency, he was, during the eight years of the Revolutionary war, and also during the six years that elapsed between the Revolution and the establishment of the Federal government, not only a frequent visitor in Philadelphia, but during a considerable portion of the time a resident of that city. While there he attended the Episcopal churches of which the Rev. William White and the Rev. James Abercromble were rectors. In regard to his being a communicant, no evidence can be so pertinent or so decisive as that of his pastors.
Bishop White, the father of the Protestant Episcopal church of America, is one of the most eminent names in church history. During a large portion of the period covering nearly a quarter of a century, Washington, with his wife, attended the churches in which Bishop White officiated. In a letter dated Fredericksburg, Aug. 13, 1835, Colonel Mercer sent Bishop White the following inquiry relative to this question:
“I have a desire, my dear Sir, to know whether Gen. Washington was a communicant of the Protestant Episcopal church, or whether he occasionally went to the communion only, or if ever he did so at all. … No authority can be so authentic and complete as yours on this point.”
To this inquiry Bishop White replied as follows:
“Philadelphia, Aug. 15, 1835.
“Dear Sir: In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say that Gen. Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister. Mrs. Washington was an habitual communicant.
… I have been written to by many on that point, and have been obliged to answer them as I now do you. I am respectfully.
“Your humble servant,
(Memoir of Bishop White, pp. 196, 197).
In a standard Christian authority, Sprague’s “Annals of the American Pulpit,” written and compiled by Rev. Wm. B. Sprague, D.D., is a sketch of the life of Rev. James Abercromble, D.D. In this biographical sketch is to be found some very important evidence from the pen of Washington’s other pastor, pertaining to the subject under consideration. I quote the following:
“One incident in Dr. Abercrombie’s experience as a clergyman, in connection with the Father of his Country, is especially worthy of record; and the following account of it was given by the Doctor himself, in a letter to a friend, in 1831 shortly after there had been some public allusion to it: ‘With respect to the inquiry you make I can only state the following facts; that, as pastor of the Episcopal church, observing that, on sacramental Sundays, Gen. Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation — always leaving Mrs. Washington with the other communicants — she invariably being one — I considered it my duty in a sermon on Public Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations who uniformly turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President; and as such he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a senator of the United States, he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who in the course of conversation at table said that on the preceding Sunday he had received a very just reproof from the pulpit for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candor; that he had never sufficiently considered the influence of his example, and that he would not again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal? arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he never afterwards came on the morning of sacramental Sunday, though at other times he was a constant attendant in the morning'” (Annals of the American Pulpit, Vol. v, p. 394).
Here we have a confirmation of the statement previously made that Washington absented himself from church on sacramental Sundays; undeniable proof that during the later years of his life he was not a communicant; and, above all, the assurance of Washington himself that “he had never been a communicant.”
The Rev. E.D. Neill, in the Episcopal Recorder, the organ of the church of which it is claimed Washington was a communicant, says:
“As I read, a few days ago, of the death of the Rev. Richard M. Abercrombie, rector of St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal church in Jersey City, memories of my boyhood arose. He was born not far from my father’s house in Philadelphia and was the son of the Rev. James Abercrombie, a fine scholar and preacher, who had in early life corresponded with the great lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and in later years was the assistant minister of Christ’s and St. Peter’s churches, in Philadelphia, where my maternal ancestors had worshiped for more than one generation. One day, after the father had reached four score years, the lately deceased son took me into the study of the aged man, and showed me a letter which President George Washington had written to his father, thanking him for the loan of one of his manuscript sermons. Washington and his wife were regular attendants upon his ministry while residing in Philadelphia. The President was not a communicant, notwithstanding all the pretty stories to the contrary, and after the close of the sermon on sacramental Sundays, had fallen into the habit of retiring from the church while his wife remained and communed.”
Referring to Dr. Abercrombie’s reproof of Washington, Mr. Neill says:
“Upon one occasion Dr. Abercromble alluded to the unhappy tendency of the example of those dignified by age and position turning their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The discourse arrested the attention of Washington, and after that he never came to church with his wife on Communion Sunday.”
The Rev. Dr. Wilson, in his famous sermon on the Religion of the Presidents, also alludes to this subject. He says:
“When the Congress sat in Philadelphia, President Washington attended the Episcopal church. The rector, Dr. Abercrombie, told me that on the days when the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was to be administered, Washington’s custom was to rise just before the ceremony commenced, and walk out of church. This became a subject of remark in the congregation, as setting a bad example. At length the Doctor undertook to speak of it, with a direct allusion to the President. Washington was heard afterwards to remark that this was the first time a clergyman had thus preached to him, and he should henceforth neither trouble the Doctor nor his congregation on such occasions; and ever after that, upon communion days, he ‘absented himself altogether from the church.’
The Rev. Bird Wilson, D.D., author of the “Memoir of Bishop White,” says:
“Though the General attended the churches in which Dr. White officiated, whenever he was in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary war, and afterwards while President of the United States, he never was a communicant in them” (Memoir of Bishop White, p. 188).
The Rev. Beverly Tucker, D.D., of the Episcopal church, has attempted to prove that Washington was a churchman. But while professing to believe that he was a communicant before the Revolution he is compelled to admit that there is a doubt about his communing after the Revolution. He says:
“The doubt has been raised partly on the strength of a letter written by Bishop White in 1832. He says that Washington attended St. Peter’s church one winter, during the session of the Continental Congress, and that during his Presidency he had a pew in Christ church, ‘which was habitually occupied by himself, by Mrs. Washington, who was regularly a communicant, and by his secretaries. This language is taken to mean, and probably correctly, that Washington did not commune.”
Dr. Tucker is evidently not acquainted with Bishop White’s letter to Col. Mercer in 1835. There is no question as to the meaning of that letter. Continuing, Dr. Tucker says:
“The doubt rests again on the recollection of Mrs. Fielding Lewis, Nelly Custis, Gen. Washington’s step- granddaughter, written in 1833, who states that after the Mount Vernon family removed from Pohick church to Christ church, Alexandria, the General was accustomed, on Communion Sundays, to leave the church with her, sending the carriage back for Mrs. Washington.”
Washington’s biographer, the Rev. Jared Sparks, who seems to have entertained the popular notion that Washington was in early life a communicant, admits that at a latter period he ceased to commune. He says:
“The circumstance of his withdrawing himself from the communion service at a certain period of his life has been remarked as singular. This may be admitted and regretted, both on account of his example and the value of his opinions as to the importance and practical tendency of this rite” (Life of Washington, Vol. ii, p. 361).
Origen Bacherer, in his debate with Robert Dale Owen in 1831, made an effort to prove that Washington was a Christian communicant. He appealed for help to the Rev. Wm. Jackson, rector of the Episcopal church of Alexandria, the church which Washington had attended. Mr. Jackson was only too willing to aid him. He instituted an exhaustive investigation for the purpose of discovering if possible some evidence of Washington having been a communicant. Letters of inquiry were addressed to his relatives and friends. But his efforts were unsuccessful. While he professed to believe that Washington was a Christian, he was compelled to say:
“I find no one who ever communed with him” (Bacheler-Owen Debate, Vol. ii, p. 262).
This, as might be supposed, did not satisfy Mr. Bacherer, and he entreated the rector to make another attempt. The second attempt was as fruitless as the first.’ He writes:
“I am sorry after so long a delay in replying to your last, that it is not in my power to communicate something decisive in reference to General Washington’s church membership” (Ibid., ii, p. 370.)
In the same letter Mr. Jackson says:
“Nor can I find any old person who ever communed with him.”
The “People’s Library of Information” contains the following:
“The question has been raised as to whether any one of our Presidents was a communicant in a Christian church. There is a tradition that Washington asked permission of a Presbyterian mister in New Jersey to unite in communion. But it is only a tradition. Washington was a vestryman in the Episcopal church. But that office required no more piety than it would to be mate of a ship. There is no account of his communing in Boston, or in New York, or Philadelphia, or elsewhere, during the Revolutionary struggle.”
The tradition of Washington’s wishing to unite with a Presbyterian minister in communion, like many other so-called traditions of the same character, has been industriously circulated. And yet it is scarcely possible to conceive of a more improbable story. Refusing to commune with the members of the church in which he was raised, and the church he was in the habit of attending, and going to the priest of another church — a stranger — and asking to commune with him! Had Washington been some intemperate vagabond, the story might have been believed. But Washington was not an inebriate, and was never so pressed for a drink as to beg a sup of sacramental wine from a Calvinistic clergyman.
Gen. A.W. Greely, U.S.A., in an article on “Washington’s Domestic and Religious Life” which was published in the Ladies’ Home Journal for April, 1896, says:
“But even if he was ever confirmed in its [the Episcopal] faith there is no reliable evidence that he ever took communion with it or with any other church.”
Some years ago, I met at Paris, Texas, an old gentlemen, Mr. F.W. Miner, who was born and who lived for a considerable time near Mt. Vernon. He told me that when a boy he was once in company with a party of old men, neighbors in early life of Washington, who were discussing the question of his religious belief. He says that it was admitted by all of them that he was not a church member, and by the most of them that he was not a Christian.
Mr. George Wilson of Lexington, Mo., whose ancestors owned the Custis estate, and founded Alexandria, where Washington attended church, writes as follows: “My great-grandmother was Mary Alexander, daughter of ‘John the younger,’ who founded Alexandria. The Alexander pew in Christ church was next to Washington’s, and an old lady, a kinswoman of mine, born near Alexandria and named Alexander, told me that the tradition in the Alexander family was that Washington NEVER took communion.”
In regard to Washington being a vestryman, Mr. Wilson says: “At that time the vestry was the county court, and in order to have a hand in managing the affairs of the county, in which his large property lay, regulating the levy of taxes, etc., Washington had to be a vestryman.”
The St. Louis Globe contained the following in regard to the church membership of Washington:
“It is a singular fact that much as has been written about Washington, particularly with regard to his superior personal virtue, there is nothing to show that he was ever a member of the church. He attended divine service, and lived an honorable and exemplary life, but as to his being a communicant, the record is surprisingly doubtful.”
In an article conceding that Washington was not a communicant, the Western Christian Advocate says:
“This is evident and convincing from the Life of Bishop White, bishop of the Episcopal church in America from 1787 to 1836. Of this evidence it has been well said: ‘There does not appear to be any such undoubtable evidence existing. The more scrutinously the church membership of Washington is examined, the more doubtful it appears. Bishop White seems to have had more intimate relations with Washington than any clergyman of his time. His testimony outweighs any amount of influential argumentation on the question.’
The following is a recapitulation of the salient points in the preceding testimony, given in the words of the witnesses. It is in itself an overwhelming refutation of the claim that Washington was a communicant:
“Gen. Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister.” — Bishop White.
“On sacramental Sundays, Gen. Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the Congregation.” — Rev. Dr. Abercromble.
“After that, [Dr. Abercrombie’s reproof,] upon communion days, he absented himself altogether from the church.” — Rev. Dr. Wilson.
“The General was accustomed, on communion Sundays, to leave the church with her [Nelly Custis], sending the carriage back for Mrs. Washington. ” — Rev. Dr. Beverly Tucker.
“He never was a communicant in them [Dr. White’s churches].” — Rev. Dr. Bird Wilson.
“I find no one who ever communed with him.” — Rev. William Jackson.
“The President was not a communicant.” — Rev. E.D. Neill.
“This [his ceasing to commune] may be admitted and regretted.” — Rev. Jared Sparks.
“There is no reliable evidence that he ever took communion.” — Gen. A.W. Greely.
“There is nothing to show that he was ever a member of the church.” — St. Louis Globe.
“I have never been a communicant.” — Washington, quoted by Dr. Abercrombie.
The claim that Washington was a Christian communicant must be abandoned; the claim that he was a believer in Christianity, I shall endeavor to showy is equally untenable.
Was Washington A Christian?
In the political documents, correspondence, and other writings of Washington, few references to the prevailing religion of his day are found. In no instance has he expressed a disbelief in the Christian religion, neither can there be found in all his writings a single sentence that can with propriety be construed into an acknowledgment of its claims. Once or twice he refers to it in complimentary terms, but in these compliments there is nothing inconsistent with the conduct of a conscientious Deist. Religions, like their adherents, possess both good and bad qualities, and Christianity is no exception. While there is much in it deserving the strongest condemnation, there is also much that commands the respect and even challenges the admiration of Infidels. Occupying the position that Washington did, enjoying as he did the confidence and support of Christians, it was not unnatural that he should indulge in a few friendly allusions to their religious faith.
In his “Farewell Address,” the last and best political paper he gave to the Christian religion is not once named. In this work he manifests the fondest solicitude for the future of his country. His sentences are crowded with words of warning and fatherly advice. But he does not seem to be impressed with the idea that the safety of the government or the happiness of the people depends upon Christianity. He recommends a cultivation of the religious sentiment, but evinces no partiality for the popular faith.
In the absence of any recorded statements from Washington himself concerning his religious belief, the most conclusive evidence that can be presented is the admissions of his clerical acquaintances. Among these there has been preserved the testimony of his pastors, Bishop White and Dr. Abercromble.
In a letter to Rev. B.C.C. Parker of Massachusetts, dated Nov. 28, 1832, in answer to some inquiries respecting Washington’s religion, Bishop White says:
“His behavior [in church] was always serious and attentive, but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to declare that I never saw him in the said attitude. … Although I was often in company with this great man, and had the honor of dining often at his table, I never heard anything from him which could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion. … Within a few days of his leaving the presidential chair, our vestry waited on him with an address prepared and delivered by me. In his answer he was pleased to express himself gratified by what he had heard from our pulpit; but there was nothing that committed him relatively to religious theory” (“Memoir of Bishop White,” pp. 189-191; Sparks’ “Life of Washington,” Vol. ii., p. 359).
The Rev. Parker, to whom Bishop White’s letter is addressed, was, it seems, anxious to obtain some evidence that Washington was a believer in Christianity, and, not satisfied with the bishop’s answer, begged him, it would appear, to tax his mind for some fact that would tend to show that Washington was a believer. In a letter dated Dec. 21, 1832, the bishop writes as follows:
“I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance upon Christian worship, in connection with the general reserve of his character” (“Memoir of Bishop White,” p. 193).
Bishop White’s testimony does not afford positive proof of Washington’s unbelief, but it certainly furnishes strong presumptive evidence of its truth. It is hardly possible to suppose that he could have been a believer and have let his most intimate Christian associates remain in total ignorance of the fact. Bishop White indulges a faint hope that he may have been, but this hope is simply based on his “constant attendance” at church, and when we consider how large a proportion of those who attend church are unbelievers, that many of our most radical Freethinkers are regular church-goers, there are very small grounds, I think, upon which to indulge even a hope. But even this “constant attendance” on the part of Washington cannot be accepted without some qualification; for, while it is true that he often attended church, he was by no means a constant attendant. Not only did he uniformly absent himself on communion days, but the entries in his diary show that he remained away for several Sundays in succession, spending his time at home reading and writing, riding out into the country, or in visiting his friends.
But if Bishop White cherished a faint hope that Washington had some faith in the religion of Christ, Dr. Abercrombie did not. Long after Washington’s death, in reply to Dr. Wilson, who had interrogated him as to his illustrious auditor’s religious views, Dr. Abercrombie’s brief but emphatic answer was:
“Sir, Washington was a Deist.”
Washington rarely attended, as we have seen, any church but the Episcopal, hence, if any denomination of Christians could claim him as an adherent, it was this one. Yet here we have two of its most distinguished representatives, pastors of the churches which he attended, the one not knowing what his belief was, the other disclaiming him and asserting that he was a Deist.
The Rev. Dr. Wilson, who was almost a contemporary of our earlier statesmen and presidents, and who thoroughly investigated the subject of their religious beliefs, in his sermon already mentioned affirmed that the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson — not one had professed a belief in Christianity. From this sermon I quote the following:
“When the war was over and the victory over our enemies won, and the blessings and happiness of liberty and peace were secured, the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and, after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it. … There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God’s laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public profession of Christianity. … Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian.”
Dr. Wilson’s sermon was published in the Albany Daily Advertiser in 1831, and attracted the attention of Robert Dale Owen, then a young man, who called to see its author in regard to his statement concerning Washington’s belief. The result of his visit is given in a letter to Amos Gilbert. The letter is dated Albany, November 13, 1831., and was published in New York a fortnight later. He says:
“I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been rievously at fault, I met an honest man and sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor’s residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently approaching fifty years of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken a part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not. … I then read to him from a copy of the Daily Advertiser the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, ‘Washington was a man,’ etc., and ending, ‘absented himself altogether from the church.’ ‘I indorse,’ said Dr. Wilson, with emphasis, ‘every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr. Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was — for I well remember the very words — ‘Sir, Washington was a Deist.'”
In concluding the interview, Dr. Wilson said: “I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he pledges himself as a believer in Christianity. I think anyone who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more.),
In February, 1800, a few weeks after. Washington’s death, Jefferson made the following entry in his journal:
“Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice” (Jefferson’s Works, Vol. iv., p. 572).
Jefferson further says: “I know that Gouverneur Morris, who claimed to be in his secrets, and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in that system [Christianity] than he did” (Ibid).
Gouverneur Morris was the principal drafter of the Constitution of the United States; he was a member of the Continental Congress, a United States senator from New York, and minister to France. He accepted, to a considerable extent, the skeptical views of French Freethinkers.
The “Asa” Green mentioned by Jefferson was undoubtedly the Rev. Ashbel Green, chaplain to Congress during Washington’s administration. In an article on Washington’s religion, contributed to the Chicago Tribune, B.F. Underwood says:
“If there were an Asa Green in Washington’s time he was a man of no prominence, and it is probable the person referred to by Jefferson was the Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green, who served as chaplain to the Congress during the eight years that body sat in Philadelphia, was afterwards president of Princeton College, and the only clerical member of Congress that signed the Declaration of Independence. His name shines illustriously in the annals of the Presbyterian church in the United States.”
Some years ago I received a letter from Hon. A.B. Bradford of Pennsylvania, relative to Washington’s belief. Mr. Bradford was for a long time a prominent clergyman in the Presbyterian church, and was appointed a consul to China by President Lincoln. His statements help to corroborate the statements of Dr. Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Mr. Underwood. He says:
“I knew Dr. Wilson personally, and have entertained him at my house, on which occasion he said in my hearing what my relative, the Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green of Philadelphia, frequently told me in his study, viz., that during the time that Congress sat in that city the clergy, suspecting from good evidence that Washington was not a believer in the Bible as a revelation from heaven, laid a plan to extort from him a confession, either pro or con, but that the plan failed. Dr. Green was chaplain to Congress during all the time of its sitting in Philadelphia; dined with the President on special invitation nearly every week; was well acquainted with him, and after he had been dead and gone many years, often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist.”
Mr. Underwood’s article contained the following from the pen of Mr. Bradford:
“It was during his [Dr. Green’s] long residence in Philadelphia that I became intimately acquainted with him as a relative, student of theology at Princeton, and a member of the same Presbytery to which he belonged. Many an hour during my student and clergyman days did I spend with him in his study at No. 150 Pine street, Philadelphia, listening to his interesting and instructive conversation on Revolutionary times and incidents. I recollect well that during one of these interviews in his study I inquired of him what were the real opinions Washington entertained on the subject of religion. He promptly answered pretty nearly in the language which Jefferson says Dr. Rush used. He explained more at length the plan laid by the clergy of Philadelphia at the close of Washington’s administration as President to get his views of religion for the sake of the good influence they supposed they would have in counteracting the Infidelity of Paine and the rest of the Revolutionary patriots, military and civil. But I well remember the smile on his face and the twinkle of his black eye when he said: ‘The old fox was too cunning for Us.’ He affirmed, in concluding his narrative, that from his long and intimate acquaintance with Washington he knew it to be the case that while he respectfully conformed to the religious customs of society by generally going to church on Sundays, he had no belief at all in the divine origin of the Bible, or the Jewish-Christian religion.”
The testimony of General Greely, whose thorough investigation of Washington’s religious belief makes him an authority on the subject, is among the most important yet adduced. From his article on “Washington’s Domestic and Religions Life” I quote the following paragraphs:
“The effort to depict Washington as very devout from his childhood, as a strict Sabbatarian, and as in intimate spiritual communication with the church is practically contradicted by his own letters.”
“In his letters, even those of consolation, there appears almost nothing to indicate his spiritual frame of mind. A particularly careful study of the man’s letters convinces me that while the spirit of Christianity, as exemplified in love of God and love of man [Theophilauthropy or Deism], was the controlling factor of his nature, yet he never formulated his religious faith.”
“It is, however, somewhat striking that in several thousand letters the name of Jesus Christ never appears, and it is notably absent from his last will.”
“His services as a vestryman had no special significance from a religious standpoint. The political affairs of a Virginia county were then directed by the vestry, which, having the power to elect its own members, was an important instrument of the oligarchy of Virginia.”
“He was not regular in attendance at church save possibly at home. While present at the First Provencal Congress in Philadelphia he went once to the Roman Catholic and once to the Episcopal church. He spent four mouths in the Constitutional Convention, going six times to church, once each to the Romish high mass, to the Friends’, to the Presbyterian, and thrice to the Episcopal service.”
“From his childhood he traveled on Sunday whenever occasion required. He considered it proper for his negroes to fish, and on that day made at least one contract. During his official busy life Sunday was largely given to his home correspondence, being, as he says, the most convenient day in which to spare time from his public burdens to look after his impaired fortune and estates.”
Dr. Moncure D. Conway, who made a study of Washington’s life and character, who had access to his private papers, and who was employed to edit a volume of his letters, has written a monograph on “The Religion of Washington,” from which I take the following:
“In editing a volume of Washington’s private letters for the Long Island Historical Society, I have been much impressed by indications that this great historic personality represented the Liberal religious tendency of his tune. That tendency was to respect religious organizations as part of the social order, which required some minister to visit the sick, bury the dead, and perform marriages. It was considered in nowise inconsistent with disbelief of the clergyman’s doctrines to contribute to his support, or even to be a vestryman in his church.”
“In his many letters to his adopted nephew and young relatives, he admonishes them about their manners and morals, but in no case have I been able to discover any suggestion that they should read the Bible, keep the Sabbath, go to church, or any warning against Infidelity.”
“Washington had in his library the writings of Paine, Priestley, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and other heretical works.”
Conway says that “Washington was glad to have Volney as his guest at Mount Vernon,” and cited a letter of introduction which Washington gave him to the citizens of the United States during his travels in this country.
In a contribution to the New York Times Dr. Conway says:
“Augustine Washington, like most scholarly Virginians of his time, was a Deist. … Contemporary evidence shows that in mature life Washington was a Deist, and did not commune, which is quite consistent with his being a vestryman. In England, where vestries have secular functions, it is not unusual for Unitarians to be vestrymen, there being no doctrinal subscription required for that office. Washington’s letters during the Revolution occasionally indicate his recognition of the hand of Providence in notable public events, but in the thousands of his letters I have never been able to find the name of Christ or any reference to him.”
There is no evidence to show that Washington, even in early life, was a believer in Christianity. The contrary is rather to be presumed. His father, as Dr. Conway states, was a Deist; while his mother was not excessively religious, His brother, Lawrence Washington, was, it is claimed, the first advocate of religious liberty in Virginia, and evidently an unbeliever, so that instead of being surrounded at home by the stifling atmosphere of superstition, he was permitted to breathe the pure air of religious freedom.
It is certain that at no time during his life did he take any special interest in church affairs. Gen. Greely says that “He was not regular in church attendance save possibly at home.” At home he was the least regular in his attendance. His diary shows that he attended about twelve times a year. During the week he Superintended the affairs of his farm; on Sunday he usually attended to his correspondence. Sunday visitors at his house were numerous. If he ever objected to them it was not because they kept him from his devotions, but because they kept him from his work. In his diary he writes:
“It hath so happened, that on the last Sundays — call them the first or seventh [days] as you please, I have been unable to perform the latter duty on account of visits from strangers, with whom I could not use the freedom to leave alone, or recommend to the care of each other, for their amusement.”
When he visited his distant tenants to collect his rent, their piety, and not his, prevented him from doing the business on Sunday, as the following entry in his diary shows:
“Being Sunday, and the people living on my land very religious, it was thought best to postpone going among them till to-morrow.”
His diary also shows that he “closed land purchases, sold wheat, and, while a Virginia planter, went fox hunting on Sunday.”
He did not, like most pious churchmen, believe that Christian servants are better than others. When on one occasion he needed servants, he wrote:
“If they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mahomedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.”
These extracts contain no explicit declarations of disbelief in Christianity, but between the lines we can easily read, “I am not a Christian.”