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George Washington

George Washington

George Washington was a Virginia Episcopalian and a country gentleman, and a man of immense talent. He was elected vestryman of Truro Parish in Virginia in 1762 and remained a practicing Episcopalian all of his life. A couple of disputes have occurred, though, about his precise views. Washington regarded religion as essentially a private matter and did not answer questions about his personal religion. As far as we know, he declined to kneel for worship and prayer which is an Episcopalian tradition. Some individuals have interpreted this as a belief that he wasn't really devout or practicing and that for some reason he refused to give his assent to the faith. Some others have interpreted it merely, however, as an example of a gentryman's pride. Also, there is no proof that he ever received Holy Communion in the Episcopal church. Several ministers who made note of his attendance at their services indicated that, even on Communion Sunday, Washington, along with many other congregants would leave before Communion. It should be remembered, though, that 18th century Anglicanism was very "low church." Communion was usually celebrated only four times a year whereas today it is celebrated every day in the Episcopal church. It may have been that Washington had just not taken any particular interest in sacramental theology and did not wish to partake of the sacraments. There is no indication that his reluctance to receive communion indicates disbelief, though many writers try to show this.

When Washington attended St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia, the rector there felt that Washington was a Deist rather than an orthodox Anglican. Deism was the dominant intellectual pattern of Colonial America. The Deists believed that God created the world, was somehow a ruler and judge of the Universe, but did not participate directly in the affairs of men. They were concerned with religion as a system of ethics and morality and were concerned with the way men lived and their relations to each other. Most Deists also rejected the divinity and deity of Jesus, rather regarding Him as a great prophet and teacher.

Some other aspects of Washington's religious thought need some consideration, however. He was the president who added the phrase, "so help me God," to the presidential oath of office. On the day of his Inauguration, April 30, 1780, Washington concluded, "so help me God," and bent down and kissed the Bible. On another occasion, Washington indicated his belief that religion and morality wore essential for democratic government. In his farewell address to Congress and the American people, he said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports... and let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion... reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government."

Washington was also a strong believer in religious liberty. Though he took no part in the move to disestablish the Church of England in Virginia, as did his colleagues Jefferson and Madison, he once wrote, "Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the deity according to the dictates of his own conscience," Furthermore, in a treaty with the Barbary States ending the war between the United States and that North African Muslim nation, Washington stipulated, "The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded upon the Christian religion," which means quite simply that America is a nation which treats all its citizens of whatever religious persuasion, as equals before the law. The government is in no way founded on any particular religion.

Finally, Washington was tolerant for his time. He had personal friends who were Catholics and Jews, one of the latter of whom, Haym Solomon, a Philadelphia financier, helped to finance the Revolution, Many Catholic generals, Lafayette, Rochambeau, Kosciusko, and Pulaski, came to support the American War of Independence, Washington forbade his troops from celebrating the anti-Catholic "Guy Fawkes Day" celebrations on November 5, This rather childish event was to celebrate an alleged Catholic attempt to blow up the British parliament and culminated in the burning of the Pope in effigy, Washington felt that such celebrations were an insult to his Catholic soldiers and generals. Parenthetically one might note that the only country in the world that still celebrates Guy Fawkes Day is - you guessed it - Northern Ireland, and they really mean it there? Washington is a man who regarded religion as one of the essential elements of society but he was not personally involved in religious controversy. As Fuller and Green wrote, "George Washington was Episcopalian by heritage and habit but was not a communicant within his church. He never defined his own religious views beyond affirmation of belief in God and the importance of religion in society. The term Deist applied to him by others appears to be accurate. There is no evidence of strong religious impulses or interests."

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Posted By: Ray Gurganus

Updated: 6-4-2016
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