George Washington’s faith is a controversial topic that is clouded with agenda. Some evangelicals place a lot of weight on whether or not Washington was truly a Christian. Consider the observation from John Fea, “The argument goes something like this: ‘If Washington was a Christian, then America must be too’; or, ‘if Washington was not a Christian, then he must have desired the United States to be a secular nation.’” (See chapter eleven in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?) Both of these arguments are flawed in their conclusions and the historical evidence should not be interpreted through either one of these lenses. Washington himself would not have wanted us to think in such logic.
Unfortunately history does not give us large amounts of information on Washington’s personal religious life. Washington did not write much about his religion publically and his personal letters were destroyed by Martha Washington after his death. When Washington mentioned religion in public or on paper, it was almost always in vague terms coupled with general statements. His favorite term to describe God was “Providence” and fully believed God was active in the created world. “He used the term “Providence” 270 times in his writings, usually employing it as a synonym for the Judeo-Christian God. And on occasion, he described ‘Providence’ using the pronouns ‘who’ or ‘it.’” (Fea, 175) We can deduct from Washington’s view of providence that he was not a deist in the true sense. Deism teaches that God is not active in the daily life of his creatures. The god of Deism is distant and hands off. It is clear that Washington leaned more towards the Christian version of God, but his terminology of God is vague.
Washington and the Lord’s Supper
One interesting aspect of Washington’s religious life relates to the Lord’s Supper. There are mixed accounts about how regularly Washington partook of communion but it is clear that after the Revolutionary War he no longer received communion. “…Washington always left church at the end of the Desk and Pulpit service on Communion Sundays and then sent the carriage back from Mount Vernon to pick up Martha, who had remained.” (See chapter six in Faith of Our Founding Fathers by Holmes) Historians have wondered why Washington did not want to take communion but no sufficient reason can be given. He may have felt too guilty after the war, he may have rejected the divinity of Christ, or he may have been protesting against the Anglican Church. This evidence points to Washington as an uncommitted Christian but this does not render a final verdict.
The way Washington died was not the typical Christian death. “Yet as he lay on his deathbed at Mount Vernon, Washington did not ask for a minister. He did not ask to pray. He did not talk about heaven, God, or Jesus Christ. Joseph Ellis has suggested that he ‘died as a Roman stoic rather than a Christian saint.’”(Fea, 181) This manner of death should be contrasted with his wife Martha who died later. “Martha called her children to her deathbed. She then talked to them at length about the Christian faith and its responsibilities.” (Holmes, Loc 1710-1711) The final moments of a person’s life show a significant amount about one’s relationship with Jesus.
Lessons from Washington
George Washington was truly a man to be admired in many ways. I am truly thankful God raised him up to lead our country. There are countless stories to be told about his life and many facets of his character that we should strive to emulate. Yet, his faith is not one of them. The historical evidence appears to show that Washington was simply a theist with some Christian tendencies or at best a nominal Christian.
The way Washington spoke of God should cause us to pause. Clarity is imperative for the Christian because Jesus declared himself the only way to God. Whether we are pastors, politicians or plumbers, we must talk about God in specifics. God cannot be a catch-all phrase for undefined spirituality. Christ is God who touched the earth for sinful man.
A believer is also required to participate in the ordinances of the local church. Jesus has graciously given us baptism and communion to draw us closer to God. Baptism by immersion is the first act of obedience for the believer and communion is to be a constant reminder of the cleansing blood of Jesus. These two ordinances are for the church to enjoy and be refreshed.
Finally, the Christian is able to die with joy and steady trust in Christ. The final hours of our lives are a golden opportunity to display the gospel to those around us. Let us pray that Jesus will find us faithful unto death and we will not waste our last moments on earth. (Revelation 2:10-11)