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Was George Washington a Deist?
As a boy living in Alexandria, VA I would often look for the Washington Monument while riding in the car, especially as we approached a certain hill on Highway One. Sometimes visibility would not allow it, but often it was visible on that hill, even though we were over ten miles away.
At 555 feet high, the Washington Monument still stands as the tallest stone structure in the world. It’s hard not to be fixated on it when you’re near it. As you draw closer and look toward its top, you lose a sense of balance as you try to grasp its reach and the power it projects skyward.
Like that monument, George Washington, remains impressive even from a distance. There would likely have been no successful war for independence or the Constitution without him. As the colonial historian Forrest McDonald said, he was the “indispensible man.” The power of his presence changed his environment whether he was home at Mt. Vernon, on the battlefield at Yorktown, or sitting in at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia with other state delegates as they hammered out a new government for the ages.
While we get a grasp of Washington's accomplishments from a distance, the man, like his monument remains daunting up close. Unlike the Jefferson Memorial with its ornamentation and verbosity, the Washington Monument is mostly plain and silent. You know little more about the man after visiting his monument than you did before. And unlike Jefferson, Washington did not pen his mental ramblings on every topic. With our third president we know too much; with our first, too little.
This is especially true when it comes to Washington and his faith. Washington rarely mentions religion in his writings. However, from what he did say and the reputation he left, it had been assumed that Washington was a Christian. Despite a few dissenting voices, most people saw Washington as someone that attended church, was a generous contributor, spoke favorably of the Christian religion, was a godfather, and exemplified many of the Christian virtues.
However, in the twentieth century when American history took a jog toward progressivism, Washington’s actions were taken to be more secular. The actions emphasized by progressives were that Washington attended church, but rarely, and only attended as often as was expected in an era of established religion. And he was not a communicant, stood during prayer when others knelt, and rarely referred to God or Jesus in his writings. When he did mention God, he referred to Him as “Divine Providence” or “that Supreme Being,” phrases that reflect a more impersonal God. Furthermore, he was a member of the Masonic Lodge, supposedly a haunt for deists that, nonetheless, valued the “utility of religion.”
These collected facts and others led secular historians such as Paul Boller and Rupert Hughes to conclude that George Washington was a deist, a believer in a creator of the universe, but not the personal and knowable God of the Bible. Especially since Paul Boller’s book, George Washington and Religion, the assumption among many historians has been that Washington was a deist.
What is a Deist?
In his American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster defined “deism” as the belief that one God exists but denied any revelation from God, save possibly the revelation that might come through the “light of reason.(1)” If the deists of Washington’s time denied the possibility of revelation, then a deist could not be a Christian.
Recently, historical analysis on George Washington and religion has come full circle as interest in Washington’s religion has enjoyed a comeback. These studies and some others have looked more closely at George Washington and the role that religion played in his life:
- Washington’s God by Michael Novak & Jana Novak
- In the Hands of a Good Providence by Mary V. Thompson
- George Washington’s Sacred Fire by Peter Lillback
Each of these works has concluded that whatever might be made of Washington’s Christian faith, the claim that Washington was a deist is dubious. In this essay, I will take a similar tack, concluding that George Washington was not a deist.
Progressive historians have made several evaluations about Washington and deism. The following four claims appear to be the strongest arguments advanced by these historians:
- George Washington was called a Deist
- He was a Mason
- Like many of his day, he was a product of the Enlightenment
- He spoke rarely of God and even more rarely of Jesus Christ
Was George Washington a Deist?
Washington Was Called a Deist during His Lifetime
One obvious proof that George Washington was a deist according to proponents was that he was once called a deist. Speaking to another man, the Rev. James Abercrombie, the assistant rector at Christ Church in Philadelphia, said, “Sir, Washington was a deist. (2)” However, this appears to be a chastisement to Washington because he was not a communicant in Abercrombie’s church in Philadelphia because the same minister followed up this comment by saying that “I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion.(3)”
In Washington’s Anglican tradition, a communion service would follow the preaching service. After the preaching service, the—“liturgy of the word”—most would dismiss and a few would stay to receive the communion. While he was in Philadelphia, Washington would get up after the preaching service with most of the congregants and leave before the communion service.
Regardless of his reason for not communing, that he dismissed himself is hardly evidence of deism. As a deist, why would Washington participate in every ritual of the Anglican tradition, save communion? Why would a deist even feel the need to participate in a Christian service at any level whether it was the preaching service or the communion service? At most, the fact that George Washington did not commune might support the proposition that he was not a good Christian or not a Christian at all, but it would not support the claim that Washington was a deist.
In any event, it’s odd that some modern historians have given so much attention to Washington’s failure to commune, yet ignore his church attendance which had the reputation of being regular. In most Christian traditions, church attendance is considered more important than taking communion. In fact, the Bible has warnings against those that partake of communion “unworthily.”
Finally, the evidence supporting Washington’s failure to commune is not universal. Alexander Hamilton’s wife, for example, testified to her descendants that she saw Washington taking communion shortly around the time of his inauguration. Anyway, the question of why he did or did not commune is of interest if we are considering whether or not Washington was a Christian; it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not he was a deist.
George Washington was a Freemason
A second argument from progressives is that Washington was a deist because was a member of the Masonic Lodge. The fact that Washington was a Mason is undisputed. Washington joined the Fredericksburg Lodge in 1752 when he was twenty and was an active Lodge member until 1768. After then, he only attended the Lodge meetings once or twice according to his testimony. According to historian Paul Johnson, Washington received a Masonic apron from the Marquis de Lafayette when the Marquis visited him in 1784. (5) Furthermore, Washington was sworn into office with his hand on a Masonic Bible and received both an Episcopalian and Masonic funeral with the six pallbearers, all being Masons.
However, it’s a mistaken assumption that if one is a Mason, he's also a deist. Today, many professing Christians belong to the Lodge. Former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms (1921-2008) was a member of the Lodge. Helms was demonized by liberals as an “extreme right-wing conservative,” a pit bull for the Religious Right. No progressive ever accused him of being a deist
A further look at the Lodge of eighteenth-century America reveals some nuances about the Masonic Order that are not likely to be obvious in our day. For example, the teachings of the Lodge in Washington’s day were more likely to be influenced by Christianity, given that such a large part of the population was Christian. In fact, a Masonic Constitution that was employed by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania stated that the Mason “cannot tread in the irreligious paths of the unhappy Libertine, the Deist, nor stupid Atheist...(6)” This Masonic Constitution was written by Dr. William Smith, a Philadelphia clergyman. So Dr. Smith was a Mason and an Episcopalian, the same religion as George Washington.
The above quote is also informative in that it suggests that, during Washington’s time, being a Mason in the American colonies was incompatible with being a deist, a libertine or an atheist, but was compatible with being a Christian. In fact, Christian sermons were preached at the Masonic Lodges during Washington’s time, even sectarian ones. Washington had a sermon collection and one of the sermons in his collection was from Mason Rev. Smith in which the minister is giving a Mason’s message, a message that states “[speaking of judgment day] let us remember that it will be assuredly asked—were we in CHRIST JESUS? (7)”
As for the conspiratorial elements of the Masonic Order, they were not known to George Washington until much later. In the year prior to Washington’s death, 1798, Washington was given a book called the Proofs of a Conspiracy by John Robinson, in which the author claimed that the American Lodge had been infiltrated by an anti religious element called the Illuminati. In response to the book, Washington wrote Rev. G.W. Snyder (the man who originally sent him the book) and told him that he did not believe that such elements were a part of the American Lodge, saying that “I believe notwithstanding, that none of the Lodges of this Country are contaminated with the principles ascribed to the Society of the Illuminati.(8)” Furthermore, Washington informed Snyder that he had only attended Lodge meetings once or twice over the past thirty years (that would be going back to 1768, prior to the war). (9)
So, being a Mason does not make one a deist. Apparently in some quarters, the two were incompatible. Washington was a member of the Masons, a group during his time that was compatible with being a Christian. Washington’s involvement in the Lodge was mostly during his younger years (prior to 1768) and this roughly corresponds with the years that he served as a vestryman in the Anglican Church. Washington stated that he did not believe that the Illuminati was prevalent in American Lodges.
George Washington & Deism
Washington was Influenced by the Enlightenment
Third, progressive historians emphasize Washington’s Enlightenment beliefs, claiming that these better explain Washington’s beliefs than does Christianity. Certainly, Washington appears to have been influenced by Enlightenment ideals. Washington speaks much of the spread of knowledge and overcoming superstition and bigotry. In a circular letter Washington wrote in 1783 to the state governors, he said that “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition…(10)” However, in the same letter, Washington also said, “....the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.” So from Washington’s frame of mind “Ignorance and Superstition” are not the same as the “benign light of Revelation.” For a deist, they would be. No deist considers Revelation as a “benign light.” As was mentioned earlier, deists reject revelation. For the deist, “Revelation” is “Ignorance and Superstition.”
It needs to be remembered that while we often associate the Enlightenment with unbelief, there were some Enlightenment figures that came down on the side of belief and were trying to ground Christianity in reason. One such man was the English philosopher, John Locke. Locke’s ideas were some of the most influential of the founding generation. This is obvious from reading the Declaration of Independence and then reading Locke’s The Two Treatises on Government. Locke was a figure of the Enlightenment but he was also a Christian who wrote an apologetic called the Reasonableness of Christianity in which he pursued belief in God along rational lines. And while Washington praised Thomas Paine for his publication of Common Sense, which spoke respectfully of God, Washington appears to have rejected Thomas Paine about the time he was writing the more deistic Age of Reason. Even Ben Franklin, who is thought to be even closer to the deist sentiments than Washington, was critical of Paine’s contempt for religion. Franklin, after having read Paine’s Age of Reason, wrote him a letter July 3, 1786 in which he told Paine “if men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it (11)”?
Washington’s Scarce Mention of God and Jesus
Finally, proponents of the “Washington was a Deist” thesis say that Washington rarely made references to God or Jesus Christ. The rationale is that Washington did not believe in a personal God. Rather, being a product of the Enlightenment, Washington used more impersonal names for God like “providence” (one of his favorites) or the “Author of our blessed Religion.”
It might help to know what Washington meant when he spoke of “providence.” Washington believed in a providence that was a superintending agent in the affairs of man. This is apparent in Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation (1789), in which he connects providence with a God that provides “benefits,” possesses a “will,” and is a Being that we should “implore” and “beseech.” Furthermore, Washington acknowledges the national problem of unrighteousness by suggesting that we should seek His forgiveness for our national sins.(12)
Further evidence that Washington believes in a “superintending agent” comes from an undated letter that Washington sent to a Hebrew congregation in Savannah, GA in which he identified “providence” as none other than that being which delivered the Hebrew children from their taskmasters and that he was the same being that had been obvious in the creation of the republic. As Michael Novak notes, the god that George Washington prays to is the Hebrew God and if Novak is correct, then Washington’s providential God is not the God of deism (13). A deist would believe in an unintending agent.
If expressions like “divine providence” are reasonable proxies for the biblical God, then we can add to Washington’s repertoire many more references to God and Jesus. For example, he referred to Jesus as “our gracious Redeemer,” and “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations.(14)” Washington also made generous references to the Christian faith and referred to the teachings of Jesus often such as the wheat and the tares, the will of God, the “narrow path,” “good and faithful servant” among others. The many references to the teachings of Jesus suggest that Washington was biblically literate. The biblical concepts are found throughout his written conversations.
Finally, it's a myth that Washington’s fanciful expressions for the Deity were deistic in character. When Washington referred to “divine providence,” this was not a deistic euphemism for “God.” Thomas Paine, for example, did not employ these elaborate titles for God. In the Age of Reason, Paine limited himself to the expressions “God,” “Creator, and “Almighty. (15)” As for Washington, he had over a hundred such titles for God.
A further observation is that Christian ministers also used creative titles for the Almighty. In 1793 Reverend Samuel Miller preached a sermon entitled “A Sermon on the Anniversary of the Independence of America” in which he uses such expressions as “the grand Source,” “the supreme Arbiter of nations,” and “the Governor of the universe” to refer to God. (16) Rev. James Abercrombie, the same minister that called Washington a “deist,” called God “the divine Author of our holy religion.” (17) Political scientist Mark David Hall points out that even the 1788 American revised Westminster Standards refers to God as the "Supreme Judge" and the "first cause," making the point that American Calvinists would have embraced these descriptors as legitimate references to their God. (18)
So, unless we're going to consign gospel ministers to the deist camp, it's not likely that this flourish used by colonials is any serious evidence of deism.
Today, it's a popular indoor sport of progressive historians to attack evangelicals such as the late D. James Kennedy and David Barton because they would presume that George Washington was a Christian. The argument is that evangelical Christians have read their own faith into George Washington and see what they wanted to see. There is some evidence that this is true. However, it appears equally true that secular historians have done the same by reading their own unbelief into their analysis of George Washington. Given their general lack of interest in religion, unless it’s something “fanatical” like the Great Awakening or burning witches in Salem, it's likely that secularists would easily overlook the nuances of Washington’s own words on religious matters. Rather, they've looked for a president who headed a secular republic and expounded a civil religion. And I believe that they found what they were looking for and have portrayed Washington in such a light for decades.
While I did not tackle the issue of whether or not George Washington was a Christian, I have provided refutation of four common arguments that George Washington was a deist. From my investigation it's a reasonable conclusion that George Washington was not a deist.
(1) Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,deism
(2) John Remsburg, Six Historic Americans: George Washington. http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/john_remsburg/six_historic_americans/chapter_3.html
(3) Paul F. Boller, Jr. 1963. George Washington and Religion. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 90. Abercrombie’s accusation is dubious regardless of the clarification of his comment. In 1793 Abercrombie had been passed over for a government position in the Washington Administration. It is possible that the remark was a slight from a disgruntled jobseeker.
(4) Peter Lillback. 2006. George Washington’s Sacred Fire. Bryn Mawr, PA: Providence Forum Press. Lillback offers several historical reports of Washington being a communicant. See pp. 405-436.
(5) Paul Johnson. 2005. George Washington: Eminent Lives Series. New York: Harper Collins, 11.
(6) Dr. William Smith, quoted in Lillback, 505.
(7) Dr. William Smith, quoted in Lillback, 506.
(8) George Washington to G.W. Snyder, September 25, 1798.
(9) Lillback, 507-508.
(10) The Papers of George Washington. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/
(11) Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Lillback, 553.
(12) “Rediscovering George Washington.
(13) Michael Novak and Jana Novak. 2006. Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of our Country. New York: Basic Books, 125.
(14) Lillback, 57.
(15) Lillback, 40.
(16) Samuel Miller. 1793. “A Sermon on the Anniversary of the Independence of America,” quoted in Lillback, 41.
(17) James Abercrombie, quoted in Lillback, 410.
(18) Mark David Hall, "Did America Have a Christian Founding." Heritage Lectures #1186, Published June 7, 2011, 7. http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2011/pdf/hl1186.pdf, accessed 8/12/16.
Which of the following closest reflects what you believe is true about George Washington and religion?
George Washington & Religion
- George Washington and Religion - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia
- George Washington and Religion - Probe Ministries
Probe's Kerby Anderson demonstrates that contrary to what many believe, George Washington was a Christian, not a deist.
- Washington: Devout or Deist?
In 2007, Dr. Peter Lillback, Dr. Peter Henriques, and Jana Novak, discuss Washington and religion. Moderated by John DiIulio.
- "Washington and His God" from Colonial Williamburg Magazine (Spring 2009)
Noted historians are quoted on their views about Washington and his religion.
© 2009 William R Bowen Jr