The True George Washington: Education: Religious Beliefs

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Religious Beliefs

One factor in Washington's education which must not go unnoticed was his religious belief. When only two months old he was baptized, presumably by the Rev. Lawrence De Butts, the clergyman of Washington parish. The removal from that locality prevented any further religious influence from this clergyman, and it probably first came from the Rev. Charles Green, of Truro parish, who had received his appointment through the friendship of Washington's father, and who later was on such friendly terms with Washington that he doctored Mrs. Washington in an attack of the measles, and caught and returned two of his parishioner's runaway slaves. As early as 1724 the clergyman of the parish in which Mount Vernon was situated reported that he catechised the youth of his congregation "in Lent and a great part of the Summer," and George, as the son of one of his vestrymen, undoubtedly received a due amount of questioning.

From 1748 till 1759 there was little church-going for the young surveyor or soldier, but after his marriage and settling at Mount Vernon he was elected vestryman in the two parishes of Truro and Fairfax, and from that election he was quite active in church affairs. It may be worth noting that in the elections of 1765 the new vestryman stood third in popularity in the Truro church and fifth in that of Fairfax. He drew the plans for a new church in Truro, and subscribed to its building, intending "to lay the foundation of a family pew," but by a vote of the vestry it was decided that there should be no private pews, and this breach of contract angered Washington so greatly that he withdrew from the church in 1773. Sparks quotes Madison to the effect that "there was a tradition that, when he [Washington] belonged to the vestry of a church in his neighborhood, and several little difficulties grew out of some division of the society, he sometimes spoke with great force, animation, and eloquence on the topics that came before them." After this withdrawal he bought a pew in Christ Church in Alexandria (Fairfax parish), paying 36.10, which was the largest price paid by any parishioner. To this church he was quite liberal, subscribing several times towards repairs, etc.

The Rev. Lee Massey, who was rector at Pohick (Truro) Church before the Revolution, is quoted by Bishop Meade as saying that

"I never knew so constant an attendant in church as Washington. And his behavior in the house of God was ever so deeply reverential that it produced the happiest effect on my congregation, and greatly assisted me in my pulpit labors. No company ever withheld him from church. I have often been at Mount Vernon on Sabbath morning, when his breakfast table was filled with guests; but to him they furnished no pretext for neglecting his God and losing the satisfaction of setting a good example. For instead of staying at home, out of false complaisance to them, he used constantly to invite them to accompany him."

This seems to have been written more with an eye to its influence on others than to its strict accuracy. During the time Washington attended at Pohick Church he was by no means a regular church-goer. His daily "where and how my time is spent" enables us to know exactly how often he attended church, and in the year 1760 he went just sixteen times, and in 1768 he went fourteen, these years being fairly typical of the period 1760-1773. During the Presidency a sense of duty made him attend St Paul's and Christ churches while in New York and Philadelphia, but at Mount Vernon, when the public eye was not upon him, he was no more regular than he had always been, and in the last year of his life he wrote, "Six days do I labor, or, in other words, take exercise and devote my time to various occupations in Husbandry, and about my mansion. On the seventh, now called the first day, for want of a place of Worship (within less than nine miles) such letters as do not require immediate acknowledgment I give answers to.... But it hath so happened, that on the two last Sundays?call them the first or the seventh as you please, I have been unable to perform the latter duty on account of visits from Strangers, with whom I could not use the freedom to leave alone, or recommend to the care of each other, for their amusement."

What he said here was more or less typical of his whole life. Sunday was always the day on which he wrote his private letters,?even prepared his invoices,?and he wrote to one of his overseers that his letters should be mailed so as to reach him Saturday, as by so doing they could be answered the following day. Nor did he limit himself to this, for he entertained company, closed land purchases, sold wheat, and, while a Virginia planter, went foxhunting, on Sunday. It is to be noted, however, that he considered the scruples of others as to the day. When he went among his western tenants, rent-collecting, he entered in his diary that, it "being Sunday and the People living on my Land apparently very religious, it was thought best to postpone going among them till to-morrow," and in his journey through New England, because it was "contrary to the law and disagreeable to the People of this State (Connecticut) to travel on the Sabbath day?and my horses, after passing through such intolerable roads, wanting rest, I stayed at Perkins' tavern (which, by the bye, is not a good one) all day?and a meetinghouse being within a few rods of the door, I attended the morning and evening services, and heard very lame discourses from a Mr. Pond." It is of this experience that tradition says the President started to travel, but was promptly arrested by a Connecticut tithing-man. The story, however, lacks authentication.

There can be no doubt that religious intolerance was not a part of Washington's character. In 1775, when the New England troops intended to celebrate Guy Fawkes day, as usual, the General Orders declared that "as the Commander in chief has been apprised of a design, formed for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the Pope, he cannot help expressing his surprise, that there should be officers and soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step." When trying to secure some servants, too, he wrote that "if they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists." When the bill taxing all the people of Virginia to support the Episcopal Church (his own) was under discussion, he threw his weight against it, as far as concerned the taxing of other sectaries, but adding:

"Although no man's sentiments are more opposed to any kind of restraint upon religious principles than mine are, yet I must confess, that I am not amongst the number of those, who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination, of Christians, or to declare themselves Jews, Mahometans, or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief. As the matter now stands, I wish an assessment had never been agitated, and as it has gone so far, that the bill could die an easy death; because I think it will be productive of more quiet to the State, than by enacting it into a law, which in my opinion would be impolitic, admitting there is a decided majority for it, to the disquiet of a respectable minority. In the former case, the matter will soon subside; in the latter, it will rankle and perhaps convulse the State."

Again in a letter he says,?

"Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes, that the lightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society."

And to Lafayette, alluding to the proceedings of the Assembly of Notables, he wrote,?

"I am not less ardent in my wish, that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church with that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception."

What Washington believed has been a source of much dispute. Jefferson states "that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets, and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did," and Morris, it is scarcely necessary to state, was an atheist. The same authority quotes Rush, to the effect that "when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation, that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address, as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not They did so. But, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice."

Whatever his belief, in all public ways Washington threw his influence in favor of religion, and kept what he really believed a secret, and in only one thing did he disclose his real thoughts. It is asserted that before the Revolution he partook of the sacrament, but this is only affirmed by hearsay, and better evidence contradicts it. After that war he did not, it is certain. Nelly Custis states that on "communion Sundays he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother." And the assistant minister of Christ Church in Philadelphia states that?

"Observing that on Sacrament Sundays, Gen'l Washington, immediately after the Desk and Pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation, always leaving Mrs. Washington with the communicants, she invariably being one, I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President, as such, he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a Senator of the U.S. he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who in the course of the conversation at the table, said, that on the preceding Sunday, he had received a very just reproof from the pulpit, for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candour; that he had never considered the influence of his example; that he would never again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly he afterwards never came on the morning of Sacrament Sunday, tho' at other times, a constant attendant in the morning."

Nelly Custis, too, tells us that Washington always "stood during the devotional part of the service," and Bishop White states that "his behavior was always serious and attentive; but, as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to declare, that I never saw him in the said attitude." Probably his true position is described by Madison, who is quoted as saying that he did "not suppose that Washington had ever attended to the arguments for Christianity, and for the different systems of religion, or in fact that he had formed definite opinions on the subject. But he took these things as he found them existing, and was constant in his observances of worship according to the received forms of the Episcopal Church, in which he was brought up."

If there was proof needed that it is mind and not education which pushes a man to the front, it is to be found in the case of Washington. Despite his want of education, he had, so Bell states, "an excellent understanding." Patrick Henry is quoted as saying of the members of the Congress of 1774? the body of which Adams claimed that "every man in it is a great man, an orator, a critic, a statesman"?that "if you speak of solid information and sound judgment Colonel Washington is unquestionably the greatest man on the floor;" while Jefferson asserted that "his mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion."

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