Was George Washington a Christian? Some people deny this, saying he was a Deist. They add that if he often went to church on Sundays, this was not because of any genuine Christian belief. Rather, it was because he was a shrewd politician who understood that the American people, almost all of whom were Protestants, would be reluctant to accept non-Christian political leadership.
They also point out that his attendance at Sunday services was spotty at best, at least when he was at home. But it must be kept in mind that the back and forth ride from Mount Vernon to his church in Alexandria would take two or three hours, often over muddy roads.
People who are skeptical about Washington’s Christianity are usually those who wish to downplay the role Christianity played in the creation of the American republic. So their doubts should be swallowed with at least a grain of salt.
There is, however, this much truth in the claim that Washington was a Deist, that his church (the Church of England) was in the 18th century strongly tainted by Deistic rationalism; it tilted in an almost Unitarian direction. This rationalism explains the emergence and phenomenal growth of the Methodist movement in that century, both in England and in America. Methodism provided people with a religion of feeling that was lacking in conventional Anglicanism. Methodism was a Christianity of the “heart,” not a Christianity of the “head.” While Washington may not have been a Deist, he was certainly not a Methodist. His religion was more of the head than of the heart.
His thought was decidedly non-Deistic in at least one respect: he believed, as did many of his compatriots, that the American victory in the Revolutionary War was due to miraculous interventions by Providence. A true Deist did not believe in miracles; for to believe in miracles – many Deists thought – is to believe that God had made mistakes when he created the world and later had to correct these mistakes with miraculous adjustments. The idea that Washington prayed for divine assistance during the war, then, is probably correct – though he may not have done so while kneeling in the Valley Forge snow. (By the way: my wife, when young, was for a time a private duty nurse for a very old woman who said her great-grandfather had been a soldier at Valley Forge. The old man told her that conditions at Valley Forge were not as bad as legend has it.)
The popular legend (popular at least in the days prior to the Civil War) that Washington was a very pious Christian is no doubt an exaggeration, but it’s an exaggeration of a truth, the truth that he was, indeed, a Christian, that he shared the Protestantism of the vast majority of his countrymen. Some Catholics improved on this legend by holding that Washington, like Charles II, converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. What better refutation of the slander that a Catholic could not be a good American?
More than anything else, Washington seems to have been, not a Deist and not a Christian, but an ancient Roman – an ideal Roman who had returned to the world 2,000 years after we had thought that these men had all vanished. Perhaps no actual Roman ever conformed to the ideal so fully as did Washington: an aristocratic farmer, a wealthy man, a man of great personal rectitude, and above all a patriot.
Lincoln was a more loveable man than Washington, for Lincoln reminds us not of Cincinnatus but of Jesus Christ. Lincoln was eloquent; he was a man of sorrows; he died in atonement, we might say, for our great national sin of slavery; and he was assassinated on Good Friday. But Washington was the greater patriot. On at least five separate occasions he saved his country and its new republic.
1. When he led the new nation to victory in the War of Independence (1775-83).
2. When at the end of the war (1783) he chose, unlike Cromwell before him and Napoleon after, not to become a military dictator.
3. When he presided at the Constitutional Convention (1787).
4. When he served as the first President of the United States (1789-97).
5. When he voluntarily gave up his presidential power (1797).
He truly was, as one of his biographers (James Flexner) has said, “the indispensable man.” In retrospect, he seems to have been a miracle: one of the greatest humans ever to have lived, and – such good luck! – he was available to the Americans at precisely the moment we needed him.
It was once the fashion among Americans (including historians: see George Bancroft) to believe that Americans are God’s second “chosen people.” God intended the USA to be a light to the nations of the world, and to guide them to this destiny God gives Americans special breaks that he doesn’t give anybody else. And so God has provided Americans with a vast and fruitful territory and with extraordinary leaders (e.g., Washington and Lincoln) at moments of great crisis.
Of course, the other side of this “chosen people” theory is that if the USA, like ancient Israel, fails to honor God and his commandments, God will visit us with terrible afflictions; for example, the Civil War. (See Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, so brief and yet so rich.)
I realize that I’m hopelessly out of date in this regard, but I still hold that old belief: that we Americans are a chosen people, that God intends us to be a light to the nations, and that he will punish us if we push his patience too far. I further believe that his patience may be running out.
We are worshiping false gods – or rather, we are pursuing a national morality that false gods would recommend. I fear the worst. Let us remember: “The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”
*Image: George Washington (the “Lansdowne” portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, 1796 [National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.]