July-August 2020 Church & State Magazine | Featured

President George Washington’s 1790 letter to Touro Synagogue stands as an inspiring statement of his broad vision of religious freedom. But behind it lurks an interesting question: to what extent was it informed by our first president’s own religious views?

A figure like Washington, who looms so large in American history, has inevitably become the subject of a certain amount of often hagiographic mythologizing – much of it at the hands of Christian nationalists. Over the years, religious conservatives have sought to claim Washington as one of their own and have portrayed him as a devout, Bible- ­be­lieving Christian in buckle shoes and a powdered wig.

The truth is a good deal more intriguing. While nominally a member of the Anglican Church, Washington, when he spoke of religion, simply did not employ traditional Christian language. His preferred terms were Deistic – “Divine Providence” being a favorite.

While in private life, Washington attended church services about once a month. As president, he attended more often, and while he undoubtedly believed in faith as an important component of public virtue, nothing in his personal behavior indicates a high degree of attachment to conservative Christian dogma. He had a habit of leaving services before communion, a practice that angered some pastors.

Nor was Washington one to spend Sundays in quiet prayer and contemplation. Accounts of enslaved people from Mount Vernon plantation speak of frivolity on Sunday, with drinking and card playing being the norm.

Claude Blanchard, a French military officer who dined with Washington, later wrote in his journal that he was surprised there was no formal grace. Blanchard noted, “We remained a very long time at the table. They drank 12 or 15 healths with Madeira wine. In the course of the meal beer was served and grum, rum mixed with water.”

When Washington died in December 1799, he broke with custom of the day and did not call for a minister to be present at his bedside. Historian Joseph Ellis observed, “He died as a Roman Stoic rather than a Christian saint.”

Pastors who were most familiar with Washington doubted his commitment to Christianity. Bishop Wil­liam White, who served a Phila­delphia church that Washington attended, wrote that while Washington was always attentive during services, “I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to 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.”

How do we account for the numerous stories of George Washington’s piety that circulate in American culture? Most were made up out of whole cloth and can be traced to a single source: Mason Locke Weems, who penned a popular biography of Washington a year after the president’s death.

The Rev. Bird Wilson, an Episcopal minister in Albany, N.Y., was even blunter, asserting that Washington “was not a professing Christian.” The Rev. James Abercrombie, who tended to an Episcopal church in Philadelphia that Washington sometimes attended, was equally clear, once writing to a correspondent, “Sir, Wash­ing­ton was a Deist.”

Years after Washington’s death, some writers attempted to determine what his religious beliefs had been. In her 2006 book Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, author Brooke Allen notes that these investigations give little comfort to Christian nationalists. One writer, A.W. Greely, investigated Washington’s writings and found that “in several thousand letters the name of Jesus Christ never appears, and it is notably absent from his last will.”

Other scholars noted that Washington, unlike his contemporary Thomas Jefferson, didn’t even write about Jesus Christ as a secular, though notable, moral teacher. Washington simply didn’t write or talk about Christ at all. When Congress pressed Washington to pass religious proclamations on a few occasions, he edited them to remove references to Jesus and Christianity.

Given this history, how do we account for the numerous stories of Washington’s piety that circulate in American culture? Most were made up out of whole cloth and can be traced to a single source: Mason Locke Weems, who penned a popular biography of Washington a year after the president’s death.

Weems cared little for accuracy; he wanted to sell books and promote Washington as a role model for youth. He also knew that in a nation where people were becoming more pious as the Second Great Awakening swept over the population, portraying Washington as a towering figure of Christian faith would boost sales.

Weems is responsible for the tale, now widely rejected, of the young George Washington ’fessing up to his father that he did indeed chop down a cherry tree because he couldn’t tell a lie.

That Weems story is fairly innocuous; others are less so. A Weems claim that Washington knelt in the snow at Valley Forge and prayed for divine guidance before battle during the Revolutionary War is so ingrained in the popular imagination that prints that depict it are popular and it has appeared on postage stamps. But there’s no evidence it ever happened.

In 1918, a band of religious conservatives approached the Valley Forge Park Commission with a proposal to build a memorial on the spot where Washington supposedly had prayed. While some tour guides were apparently taking visitors to this spot, that was all based on fanciful conjecture. Scholars at the Library of Congress investigated the matter, checked multiple sources and reported that they could find no evidence that backed up the story. Weems had struck again.

The commission subsequently wrote, “In none of these were found a single paragraph that will substantiate the tradition of the ‘Prayer at Valley Forge.’”

Weems even sketched out a frankly absurd tale of Washington on his deathbed. As Weems tells it, the dying Washington prayed to God to receive his soul. The heavens opened up, and angels with golden harps stood by to welcome Washington. (For good measure, Weems added Ben­jamin Frank­lin and some other old Washington allies to the heavenly array.)

The type of “history” proffered by Weems certainly sold books, but it did little to increase our understanding of the nation’s first president. By the 20th century, historians had discarded the Weems book, with one calling him a purveyor of “pernicious drivel” and the author of “a mass of absurdities and deliberate false inventions.”

Three other Washington stories deserve a mention. One is the claim that as a young man, Washington wrote a prayer book. The document known as “Washington’s Prayer Journal” is the product of wishful thinking. It is an old journal found by a descendant of Washington’s in 1890. There’s no reason to believe it ever belonged to Washington; indeed, scholars say it’s not in his handwriting. The oft-repeated claim that Washington added the words “So help me, God” to the presidential oath of office also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There are no contemporary accounts of Washington doing this, and the story did not start to circulate until many years after his death. Most historians today discount it.

Finally, Washington’s 1796 fare­well address is also often cited as evidence of his Christian piety. In the speech, Washington highlighted religion as the source of morality and proclaimed its role in protecting public virtue. Nothing about this is surprising: Washington was not an atheist. Like most people of his day, he couldn’t conceive of a vision of morality divorced from religion. But it’s worth noting that in this speech – which, by the way, was written for the outgoing first president by Alex­ander Hamilton – although Washington did endorse the importance of having a religion, nowhere did he say that this faith must be Christianity.

Efforts by Christian nationalists to baptize Washington retroactively as one of their own simply don’t hold up. And that’s a good thing: The real story of what he did believe is much more compelling.