Why Have Scholars Underplayed George Washington’s Faith?


Historian Peter A. Lillback, Ph.D., is president of The Providence Forum, president of Westminster Theological Seminary, and senior pastor at Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the bestseller George Washington’s Sacred Fire (2006, Providence Forum Press).

The faith of our founding father, George Washington, has been the source of debate among scholars throughout the 20th, and now into the 21st century. Prior to that, it was generally the case that very few questioned the strength or validity of the claim that George Washington was a Christian. It was not until around the time of the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, in 1932, that the consensus began to shift to the view that Washington was a Deist, that is, one who is generally non-religious, believing merely in a very remote and impersonal God.

The definitive change in scholarly attitude seems to have occurred in 1963 when Professor Paul Boller wrote his book entitled George Washington and Religion. Professor Boller wrote, “Broadly speaking, of course, Washington can be classified as a Deist.” Most recent scholars have accepted Boller’s thesis and have developed this perspective. Thus recent works on Washington’s faith describe our Founding Father as: “A lukewarm Episcopalian,” “a warm Deist,” “not a deeply religious man,” “not particularly ardent in his faith,” “one who avoided, as was the Deist custom, the word ‘God.’” If these evaluations of Washington’s faith are accurate, then it would seem appropriate to minimize the role of faith in Washington’s life.

The question is, however, why so many scholars have uncritically followed Boller’s viewpoint on the question of Washington’s faith. It is tricky business to assign motives to scholars, although the maxim that the living can make the dead do any tricks they find necessary comes to mind. Obviously no scholar can divine the reasons for the selection and weighing of evidence by another historian, so my remarks here must be viewed merely as suggestive.

The reasons for the scholarly minimizing of Washington’s faith seem to be due to factors related to three reasons: the uniqueness of Washington himself, the perspectives of recent historians, and the nature and availability of the relevant evidence.

The uniqueness of George Washington as well as his historical milieu make the task of discovering Washington’s personal faith a challenge. He was an inward man who prided himself on non-self-disclosure. Indeed, his motto was “deeds not words.” His public and political life sought to unite a very diverse group of colonial soldiers in the military and competitive bodies of citizens in early federal America. This process of unification was facilitated by seeking the largest common denominator. This meant that personal religious concerns were normally subordinated in his public life. Moreover, his more private life as a Virginian gentleman in a distinctively Anglican historical context did not require him as a non-theologian to be overtly expressive of his faith. The evangelical fires of the Great Awakening with its open evangelistic zeal had not impacted Virginian culture as much as they had other colonies. Washington’s evangelism was far more expressive when it touched the need for Native Americans to be reached through missionary outreach. His outreach to his fellow Americans, however, was typically through example and providing leadership and contributions. His Christian “deeds” included the provision of ministers, chaplains, church buildings and sacramental items, as well as liturgical involvement for the spiritual growth of his family, neighbors and soldiers.

The perspectives of recent historians also help to account for why they have underdeveloped the importance for faith in Washington’s life. Simply put, Washington has been caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars. If the recent zeitgeist has been a conscious move toward secularism in the academy and in the courts, then it stands to reason that Washington would begin to take on a more compatible secular image in the hands of such authors who so significantly shape our American culture. If the separation of Church and State is a fundamental tenet of our view of American culture, then the scholarly shaping of Washington’s life to fit this view is an inexorable result. After all, everyone would like to have Washington on their side!

Moreover, historians on all sides of this debate over Washington’s true faith would agree that the sheer greatness of Washington makes him liable to hagiography and exaggeration. The unsubstantiated legends of a previous era had to be subjected to the rigorous canons of critical historiography. While some of the testimony for Washington’s faith falls in the arena of unsupportable legend, there is a temptation simply to dismiss all evidence of his faith by assuming that there is only hagiographical and apocryphal testimony to support it. So self-evident did Washington’s Christian faith seem to prior generations, that they only slightly felt the need to establish a scholarly case. Thus when this earlier case for Washington’s Christian faith was examined under the microscope of serious scholarship, it was unable to withstand the assault.

However, that did not mean there was no evidence for the claim of a strong faith life in Washington. Rather, it meant that the case had to be built by a careful return to original sources and historically sound arguments. Thus there has been a significant need to reassess this whole debate by an in depth analysis of the relevant data. That, of course, is what I have sought to do in George Washington’s Sacred Fire. It has simply been too easy for all parties in this debate to rely on secondary sources. Ultimately, Washington’s own words and his own actions in his own context establish the truth about his own faith.

The character of the extant historical evidence also in part explains why scholars have missed the importance of faith in Washington’s life. So much of what is essential for this debate is not available for study. For example, very few ecclesiastical records remain from the early years of Washington’s life. The war years were a period when many records were inevitably lost or never kept. With the passing of over two centuries since Washington’s death, the likelihood that such records will come to light is very small.

The sheer magnitude of Washington’s writings and correspondence makes it difficult to get a handle on his faith given that it was not the central point of his daily work. Only recently has this question been made easier to address. The digital revolution now makes searching Washington’s vast corpus possible from the comfort of one’s personal computer simply by accessing the sources through the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress. Similarly, the letters to which Washington was responding have only recently been published or been put online, finally making them readily accessible to scholarly research. These letters are important for this debate in particular since they give added depth and insight to Washington’s words as he expresses his faith and religious concerns.

Even the physical location of the relevant data enters into this question. For example Washington’s library is difficult to access since it is in a limited access archive at the Boston Athenaeum. Yet Washington’s personally bound collections of now mostly out of print sermons as well as his correspondence to the clergymen who wrote them provide a treasure trove for understanding his religious thinking.

Within this vast collection of Washington’s own words and writings, we now have a remarkable ability to uncover what earlier scholars were unable to access. And when we let Washington’s own words and deeds speak for his faith we get quite a different perspective than that of most recent modern historians. Washington referred to himself frequently using the words “ardent,” “fervent,” “pious,” and “devout.” There are over one hundred different prayers composed and written by Washington in his own hand, with his own words, in his writings. He described himself as one of the deepest men of faith of his day when he confessed to a clergyman, “No Man has a more perfect Reliance on the alwise, and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have nor thinks his aid more necessary.”

Rather than avoid the word “God,” on the very first national Thanksgiving under the U.S. Constitution, he said, “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” Although he never once used the word “Deist” in his voluminous writings, he often mentioned religion, Christianity, and the Gospel. He spoke of Christ as “the divine Author of our blessed religion.” He encouraged missionaries who were seeking to “Christianize” the “aboriginals.” He took an oath in a private letter, “on my honor and the faith of a Christian.” He wrote of “the blessed religion revealed in the Word of God.” He encouraged seekers to learn “the religion of Jesus Christ.” He even said to his soldiers, “To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian.” Not bad for a “lukewarm” Episcopalian!

Historians ought no longer be permitted to do the legerdemain of turning Washington into a Deist even if they found it necessary and acceptable to do so in the past. Simply put, it is time to let the words and writings of Washington’s faith speak for themselves.

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James Renwick Manship - 10/18/2007

Dr. Lillback has done a marvelous job with his massive study on the Christian faith of the 'father of His country', George Washington. In February a.d. 2007, I had the pleasure of receiving from Dr. Lillback an autographed copy of his book at Christ Church in Alexandria, where George Washington attended church after the War for Independence.

Back in the Year of Our Lord (Jesus) 1919, William J. Johnson of Macalester College in Minnesota wrote a wonderful small book "George Washington the Christian", one of three, the others being "Robert E. Lee the Christian" and even "Abraham Lincoln the Christian".

Dr. Lillback does a nice job setting the timeline of the clouding of the understanding of the Christian faith of George Washington.

Fortunately, Dr. Lillback and others are doing GW (Good Work) "resurrecting" the real GW - George Washington. Thank you Dr. Lillback.

William L Ramsey - 2/20/2007

"Historians ought no longer be permitted"

Comments? Anyone? Anyone at all?

Lawrence Milton Fafarman - 2/19/2007

Widespread support for originalism, the notion that our constitutional interpretations should be governed by the beliefs and intents of the Founders, has made it impossible to be objective about the religious beliefs of the Founders.

The Founders would have been unhappy living under all of our principles, so why should we be happy living under all of theirs?

Originalists ought to go all the way and live like the Founders, e.g., no plumbing, no electricity, and no motor-driven transportation. That's how the Amish live, isn't it?

William L Ramsey - 2/16/2007

"Pious Christians are never going to kill us in our beds, anyway,"

Of course not, but perhaps we should remind ourselves that some "Christian Reconstructionists" suggest this is indeed the proper approach to homosexuality, disrespecting one's parents, and other breaches of "Biblical Law." And this reminder is, of course, only for academic purposes, since this Dr. Lillback cannot be the same Dr. Lillback who stood up alongside Christian Reconstructionists such as George Grant, Douglas Wilson, and League of the South co-founder Steve Wilkins at the 2006 "Secular Jihad" conference in northern Idaho.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/15/2007

Christian faith should always remain a special topic for historians and students of American history, as Mr. Jordan remarks above. This was a very Christian nation for a very long time both before and after the Revolution. All politicians were required to say they were believers--and probably were believers--until well into the 20th century. It is important to know that George Washington was a man of deep faith, though hard to believe a man of his distinction could have fooled his contempories if he was not. Adams was a strong Christian, too, and Hamilton, etc. Jefferson was cute about it, but aside from him and Franklin, and of course Paine, most of the Founders were probably devout believers.

It is particularly abominable when modern historians fail to emphasize the role of religious persecution in the early settlement of the colonies. You can't understand these people without knowing about their religons. The Pilgrams were more than "guys with funny hats whom the Indians taught to plant corn," as is now preached in all our kindergarten classes. Why did they get on that rickey little boat? What drove them to live in rude huts and starve the first year? (50% did starve the first year at Plymouth)... What about the schism that created Rhode Island? And the Quakers and Dutch Reformed, and Catholics and all the rest? To this day large numbers come to America to enjoy religious freedom, (though they would be well-advised not to settle near Waco,Texas, where the importance of religious tolerance was sadly forgotten). The questions of what happened and why, and what did these people believe, are very legitimate. The question of what do we think of their beliefs now is highly inappropriate. We should give our small fry the truth, however badly that makes our ancestors looks to us, and stop worrying about it. Pious Christians are never going to kill us in our beds, anyway, because their credo is "Love thy neighbor." And that portion of the world settled by Christians has been infinitely more progressive, humane and prosperous than any other part.

John Charles Crocker - 2/14/2007

Religious people of any type do not need to deny their faith, but neither should they let their religious views determine their policy decisions.
Policy decisions need to be driven by a logical determination of what is best for the country and its citizens in this world, not the next if such exists.
Whether someone is a Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Wiccan should play no real role in whether or not they can be elected, nor should it drive their decisions once in office.

Rob Willis - 2/14/2007

I have said it before, and will say it again: How can any honest human being deny their deepest belief in anything they do? What the real question is, for those who knee-jerk at the mention of Christ, what is the core belief that drives YOU?


John Charles Crocker - 2/12/2007

It seems to me that most of the discussion of his religious views is trivia. Perhaps interesting to some but trivia nonetheless.
What was important in my view was that, Deist or Christian, "personal religious concerns were normally subordinated in his public life." Would that our current politicians of all stripes follow that simple and fine example.

D M Jordan - 2/12/2007

Mr. Bland, above, rather casually dismisses the role of religion in society, and in the lives of individuals, so that he might more easily add another "devil-in-drag" rant about how Bush will destroy the country. Mr. Bland, if I might courteously direct your attention back to the article, it is not about Bush, nor makes any reference or analogy to the current George W or his religion.
You simply dismiss the relgious as incurious and ignorant. Regardless of your own personal theology (or lack thereof), it should continue to be a topic of special interest to historians and social scientists. You do not have to agree with Washington's religion to respect the manner in which it influenced his life and decisions. To acknowledge that Washington was more than a Deist, should not make you less of an atheist just as a Bears fan acknowledging that the Colts played a much better game in the Super Bowl should not diminish the support they would have for their own team.
Now to avoid one of my own pet peeves, that of bypassing any actual discussion of the article. I am impressed that historians aren't ignoring the religious aspect of the lives of famous Americans. And, according to this article and its author, this work gives us exactly what we come to expect from first rate historiography: first-person narration in words, letters, and actions rather than reliance solely on the past analyses or guesses of others lacking the current pool of evidence. As current trends in early American history indicate, the life of an individual, with both the celebrated and the flawed, is of great interest. And, as we continue to look for meaning in our founding documents and for interpretation into law, custom, and constitutional matters passed on to us, knowing as complete a personal story of the men who played a part, gives us an idea of what they intended. Let us not ignore that just because some are prejudiced against religion.

John W Bland - 2/12/2007

Personally I revere Washington on the basis of his life and deeds—and do not give a damn about his religion or lack thereof. Capsulate "religion" is ignorance. Sometimes "belief in that which is not seen and evidence of that which is hoped for" includes "good principles" (let's leave it at that) and sometimes not. In the long run, as the bible notes, "By their actions you shall know them."

This is the Age of Incurious . . . celebrating ignorance and ripe for the pied poopers of devil-in-drag religion. God, if there be such, help us.

I believe that if Bush and his junta are not stopped and replace with mentally sound and wise leaders that I will actually live to see the death of my country, that I love in spite of itself and in spite of my quite advances age. Worst? I am more inclines to believe that he may be the LAST democratically elected "decider."