George Washington’s Attitude Towards Religion
(Paul M. Bessel draft September 2, 1996)
Some say that George Washington was a religious man and others say he was just the opposite. It appears that while Washington believed in a higher power than human beings, he was not an overly religious man as most people today would define that term.
Since this is a subject that can arouse emotions, in the following paragraphs and pages, the effort is primarily to quote from those who have researched and evaluated this subject.
Use of Washington’s Alleged Attitudes Toward Religion
A recent book on George Washington sets the stage for a discussion about Washington’s attitude toward religion:
“No aspect of his [George Washington’s] life has been more distorted than his religion….
“For two centuries, Washington has been a screen on which Americans have projected their religious wishes and aversions. For the first hundred years after his death, it was fashionable to make him pious. The most famous legend of his devotion is the story of him praying in the snow at Valley Forge, but there are many others, some quite arcane…. old soldier who testified that the Commander’s prayers at Valley Forge had been answered by an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
“For the last hundred years, the fashion, among scholars at least, has run the other way….
But he had a warm and lively belief, repeatedly expressed in private and in public, in Providence…. Providence could also do enormous good and deserved thanks when He, or It, did [good]….(1)
Another writer helps us understand the references to Washington’s belief in “Providence”:
“Washington’s religious belief was that of the enlightenment: deism. He practically never used the word ‘God,’ preferring the more impersonal word ‘Providence.’ How little he visualized Providence in personal form is shown by the fact that he interchangeably applied to that force all three possible pronouns: he, she, and it. Providence rules the universe and, since Washington was dedicated to the conceptions both of virtue and progress, he could not but believe that virtue would in the deepest sense be rewarded, that although the means Providence pursued were often past the comprehension of humanity, everything would eventually prove for the best.”(2)
Washington’s Religious Beliefs
Then we have the following, concerning Washington’s attitude toward religion when he was young:
“Another lack [of Washington’s] was that of the inspiration of … a strong religious belief…. Religion, as distinguishing belief from moral principles, meant little at this period of the younger Washington’s life…. In no surviving letter of his youth is the name of Jesus used; ‘Providence’ appears more frequently than ‘God.’ The young man never had a positive religious experience, other than flashes of gratitude that an Unseen Hand had stayed the blows of an adversary.
“Although there was no compelling faith in God, principles of right conduct prevailed….”(3)
Another author provides a more detailed explanation of Washington’s attitude toward religion later in his life:
“….Cincinnatus [the Roman general who went back to farming when his wars were completed] was an icon meant by the Enlightenment to replace churchly saints with a resolutely secular ideal. Here, too, Washington was fully in accord with the moral demands made on him. By inclination and principle, he shied from demonstrations of piety. Even Parson Weems had to supply a fictitious scene of prayer, because there was so little real display to dwell on. This was, in fact, so marked a deficiency in the eyes of the godly that Timothy Dwight felt a need to excuse his hero’s lack of religious enthusiasm ….
“It is true that Washington referred to the political importance of religion in his Farewell Address; but this utilitarian recommendation was enough, in itself, to separate him from the piety of his critics. He lists religion with education and public credit as so many props of ‘public felicity.’ Nor was this just a matter of accepting his ghostwriter’s words. Flexner (4.300) shows how Washington softened Hamilton’s original language on the importance of religion. When, in messages less thoroughly worked over by Washington himself, religious expressions crop up, they sometimes reflect the ardor of his New England ghostwriters. During the war, two ‘Connecticut Wits’ in arms — Jonathan Trumbull and David Humphreys — made their commander speak with a religiosity that did not come naturally to the Virginian (Freeman 5.493).
“Washington’s presidential invocations of Providence do not outrun anything that Jefferson would be comfortable with when he reached the White House. And the first President’s churchgoing was as dutiful as the third President’s. As soon as he retired from his second term, Washington gave up the vestryman’s duties expected of a man in his position, and manifested what Freeman called an ‘unwillingness to attend church’ (6.3). His attitude emerges from this incident: ‘After the minister, annoyed that when Martha took communion the President waited in his pew, preached a sermon in Washington’s presence concerning the duty of great men to set a good example, Washington never attended church again’ (Flexner 4.490).
“America’s great leaders in the separation of church and state were the Virginians Madison and Jefferson. It is not often remarked that Washington shared their attitude. In fact, he exerted himself to prevent the formation of an official religion as early as 1777, when he opposed a congressional plan to appoint chaplains at the brigade level, overriding the local-preference pattern that had grown up informally in the appointment of chaplains. Washington wrote to John Hancock, the president of Congress:
“I shall take occasion to mention, that I communicated the Resolution, appointing a Brigade Chaplain in the place of all others, to the several Brigadiers; they are all of the opinion, that it will be impossible for them to discharge the duty; that many inconveniences and much dissatisfaction will be the result, and that no Establishment appears so good in this instance as the Old One. Among many other weighty objections to the Measure, it has been suggested, that it has a tendency to introduce religious disputes into the Army, which above all things should be avoided, and in many instances would compel men to a mode of Worship which they do not profess. The old Establishment gives every regiment and Opportunity of having a Chaplain of their own religious Sentiments, it is founded on a more generous toleration …
“Virginians in general supported religious tolerance and the secular state — partly, no doubt, because of the poor quality of clergymen sent to Virginia by the Anglican Church. It was Edmund Randolph who blocked Franklin’s proposal to bring in a clergyman for prayer during one of the crises of the convention that drafted the 1787 Constitution. As Commander in Chief, Washington outlawed that favorite New England festivity ‘Pope’s Day,’ since its ‘guying’ of Fawkes-like victims was offensive to his Catholic soldiers. It was important to the success of the world’s first truly secular state that its principle hero was glorified in Roman, not Christian, terms….”(4)
Washington’s Attitude Toward Kneeling in Prayer
On the specific question about Washington’s attitude toward attending church and kneeling while praying, we have the following:
“The faith that persisted below his pessimism was religious faith, but not of the churches. He did feel it his duty as President to appear at divine worship…. However, he did not feel that his duty extended to kneeling when the rest of the congregation kneeled. After the minister, annoyed that when Martha took communion the President waited in his pew, preached a sermon in Washington’s presence concerning the duty of great men to set a good example, Washington never attended that church again.”(5)
Martha Washington’s granddaughter wrote a letter specifically about the kneeling practices of George and Martha:
“My grandmother [Martha Washington], who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service.”(6)
The editor of the book in which this letter appears added the following comment of his own:
“It seems proper to subjoin to this letter what was told to me by Mr. Robert Lewis, at Fredericksburg, in the year 1827. Being a nephew of Washington, and his private secretary during the first part of his presidency, Mr. Lewis lived with him on terms of intimacy, and has the best opportunity for observing his private devotions in his library both morning and evening; that on those occasions he had seen him in a kneeling posture with a Bible open before him, and that he believed such to have been his daily practice.”(7)
Unfortunately, this comment is hearsay. There is no evidence given in that or other books to support it, such as any letter from Washington’s nephew who was being quoted, and it therefore is probably another example of someone fashioning a story about Washington to support what some people wished to believe.
In the same book, the following letter from a clergyman whose church Washington attended gives more direct testimony about Washington’s actions in a religious atmosphere:
“The Father of our country, as well during the revolutionary war, as in his presidency, attended divine service in Christ Church in this city [Philadelphia]…. His behaviour 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….
“Although I was often in company with this great man, and had the honor of dining often at his table, I never heard any thing from him, which could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion….”(8)
Question About Washington Kneeling
In a book that deals directly with this subject, there are many stories about Washington’s supposed religious activities. The source for many of them was “Parson” Mason Locke Weems, the Anglican minister who wrote such fictional stories about Washington as the one about him chopping down the cherry tree and admitting it to his father because “he could not tell a lie.” Weems wrote a story that supposedly took place at Valley Forge, when a Quaker named Potts was walking through the woods near Washington’s headquarters and, as he told his wife, he saw “the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees in prayer!” Potts told her that this proved that Washington was a man of God and that God would therefore save America.(9)
“The Potts story has been the most cherished of all the anecdotes about Washington at prayer, though, interestingly, it was never alluded to by Quaker writers on Washington, no even by those of a ‘Free Quaker’ of nonpacifist persuasion. It has been repeated with countless variations since Weems first put it forward; scores of witnesses attesting to the event (many years later) have been dug up by champions of the story; and many details have been added by later writes to Weems’s original account….
“The Valley Forge story is, of course, utterly without foundation in fact. There was indeed a Quaker farmer named Isaac Potts who came into possession of a house in Valley Forge toward the end of the Revolutionary War; but he was nowhere near Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 when Washington was supposed to have been praying in the snow. Nevertheless, Washington’s ‘Gethsemene,’ as the Valley Forge episode has been called, was eventually fixed in bronze on the Sub-Treasury Building in New York City and Potts’s house itself was made into a shrine….
“In June, 1903, moreover, the cornerstone of the million-dollar Washington Memorial Chapel, commemorating the event, was laid at Valley Forge; in 1928 the United States government issued a batch of two-cent stamps showing Washington praying at Valley Force; and in 1955 a private chapel for the use of United States Congressmen was opened in the Capitol containing, as its chief feature, a stained-glass window above an oak altar depicting the kneeling figure of Washington at Valley Forge. Even Weems, one guesses, would have been somewhat thunderstruck by the solemn literalness with which many of his readers interpreted his exuberant narrative of The Life of George Washington; with Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen.(10)
“It is clear that the popular legends about Washington — the Valley Forge and the Morristown stories and innumerable talks of Washington at prayer — must be dismissed as totally lacking in any kind of evidence that would hold up in a court of law. All of them, as Rev. Frank L. Humphreys somewhat reluctantly acknowledged in a sermon delivered in 1932, are of ‘doubtful hearsay quality.'”(11)
On the other hand, another author says:
“Another debatable aspect is whether George Washington knelt in prayer. The better indications are that he did not kneel in church but did kneel in private. At that period of time, it was not customary for males to kneel in church … However, at the first Continental Congress, the Reverend Jacob Duche, an Episcopalian, opened the session on September 7, 1774 with a prayer. John Adams described the scene in a letter dated that same day and addressed to his wife. Adams wrote, ‘Washington was kneeling, and Henry, and Randolph and Rutledge, and Lee and Jay….’
“In contrast to the public kneeling question, there is considerable documentation from eyewitnesses to show that George Washington did pray on his knees in private. His stepgrandson and stepgranddaughter and other relatives reported seeing Washington on his knees in prayer in the library at Mount Vernon. His aides-de-camp recalled discovering him on his knees in prayer in his office in military headquarters buildings during the war years. His presidential personal secretaries told of coming upon Washington ‘lost in reverent prayer’ before he had to make a major policy decision. Isaac Potts, a Quaker, told his wife — and later many others — of seeing Commander in Chief George Washington in a solitary, reverent, kneeling prayer in the snow at Valley Forge. Potts thought Washington was ‘upon his knees praying for his army.'”(12) [Note that while this author’s information appears to present evidence of Washington kneeling, he does not supply citations to sources that can be checked, other than John Adams’ letter to his wife in 1774, and his inclusion of the Potts story, which Wills points out in Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, was impossible and was invented by Parson Weems, the author of the fictional story about Washington chopping down the cherry tree, casts all of Nordham’s writing on this subject in doubt.]
Summary of Washington’s Religious Beliefs
Washington believed in “Providence,” rather than a traditional concept of “God,” that watched over him and the new country, but he did not have an emotional feeling about religion. He did not call for a clergyman when he was dying, nor talk about religion or the afterlife. Throughout his life Washington said his religious beliefs were few and simple: there was an all powerful Providence, wise and benign although inscrutable, and helpful only to those who pursued the course of justice. He refused to try to acquire popularity by assuming religious postures in public, such as kneeling, that he did not feel privately, and there is no solid evidence that Washington ever knelt in prayer.(13)
There is no need to invent stories to try to build up George Washington’s reputation. He was a great man in all senses of that word, as he was one of the few figures in history who changed the world in significant ways.
George Washington believed in “Providence,” different from what most people would think of as “God.” It appears that he did not kneel for prayer (although the reference to John Adams’ letter should be checked), despite paintings and statues that show him in that posture, and it also appears that he was not religious in any emotional way.
Those who want Americans to be more openly religious, and those who have the opposite goal, sometimes try to twist the facts about the religious attitudes and habits of heros from the past such as George Washington. It is better if we calmly search for the truth, accept Washington as he was, and deal with the subject of religion without trying to force Washington to be what he was not.
George Washington and Religion, by Paul F. Boller, Jr., published by Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas, 1963.
George Washington’s Religious Faith (paperback), by George Washington Nordham, published by Adams Press, Chicago, 1986.
Cincinnatus: George Washington & The Enlightenment, by Garry Wills, published by Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1984.
Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, by Richard Brookhiser, published by The Free Press, New York, 1996.
George Washington: Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799), by James Thomas Flexner, published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1972.
The Writings of George Washington, by Jared Sparks, published by American Stationers’ Company, Boston, 1837.
George Washington: A Biography, by Douglas Southall Freeman, 7 volumes, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1948-1957.
Life of Washington; with Curious Anecdotes Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to his Young Countrymen, by M.L. Weems, published by J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1857; also published by Joseph Allen, Philadelphia 1837; also published by Mathew Carey, Philadelphia, 1814.
1. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, pages 144 and 146.
2. George Washington: Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799), pages 489-490.
3. George Washington: A Biography, volume 2, pages 387-388.
4. Cincinnatus: George Washington & the Enlightenment, pages 23-25.
5. George Washington: Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799), pages 489-490.
6. The Writings of George Washington, volume 12, page 406, letter of Eleanor Parke Lewis, 26 February, 1833.
7. The Writings of George Washington, volume 12, page 407, comment by the author.
8. The Writings of George Washington, volume 12, page 408, letter by Bishop William White, Philadelphia, 28 November, 1832, to Reverend B.C.C. Parker, rector of Trinity Church in Lenox, Massachusetts.
9. George Washington and Religion, pages 8-9; and The Life of Washington, by M.L. Weems, 1857 edition, pages 198-199; and 1837 edition, pages 183-184; and 1814 edition, pages 183-184..
10. George Washington and Religion, pages 9-11.
11. George Washington and Religion, pages 22-23.
12. George Washington’s Religious Faith, pages 34-35.