A great example of revisionist and secularist influences on altering history involves George Washington. During his lifetime, no one seriously doubted he was a Christian. He was an Anglican, and he willingly said and affirmed the historic creeds of the church. On this tomb, his family inscribed Scripture about the resurrection. Washington died in 1799, and during the 1800s, no one seriously questioned his Christianity. It is commonly understood that at the beginning of the 1900s, George Washington was a Cian.
This article is based on the Robert J. Morgan podcast episode: George Washington: Deist or Christian? (Part 1). This version is edited for readability and is not a complete transcript. Listen to the Robert J. Morgan podcast for full context and subscribe with your favorite platform.
Exploring Washington’s Christian Roots
I believe it’s past time for us to celebrate the past – the biblical influences that helped create the United States of America. I’ve noticed that various other groups are pushing agendas to make sure that they include their contributions to American history and pass laws to that effect. Forces of secularism are teaching school children. At the same time, radical secularists are minimizing or erasing the contribution of Christians—the Biblical role in American history. American schools censor the Biblical message.
But no one can genuinely remove history and heritage, and trying to displace our national biblical history like trying to remove the pedestal from the Statue of Liberty. I’m convinced that had there been no Bible, there would be no America as we know it. The nation would not have been born as it was, if at all.
Not every founding father was a Christian, and not every Christian among them was perfect. None of them were. But the Word of God itself is perfect and infallible. It’s a mistake to minimize the foundational influence this Book of Books has had on the creation and sustaining of the new nation that was America.
The Life of George Washington
Now, to be perfectly candid, I genuinely do not know if George Washington was born again; if he was a genuinely saved man; if he had indeed placed his saving faith in God for salvation. Only God knows that. But in terms of his professed and demonstrated faith, he was Christian in his beliefs and convictions, and his Christian beliefs guided him in his character and conduct.
And yet in the 1930s, as humanism filtered more powerfully into the currents of American culture, historians and biographers determined George Washington be a Deist rather than a Christian.
Defining a Deist
What is a Deist? It’s someone who believes there must be a God who created the universe and the world and then abandoned it in all practical ways. There are different shades and degrees of Deism, but it is essentially a belief in an absent God – a remote and impersonal God.
The words Deist and Deism come from the Latin term Deus, for God. Deism says that God was the great First Cause of everything – that He created the universe – but that He does not interact directly with His created world. He is absent. There are no miracles. There is no divine revelation.
To me, it’s a bizarre and unreasonable position. The very nature of the word “God” would imply infinite perfection, love, purity, wisdom, communicative ability, and concern for His creation. In my opinion, George Washington was too reasonable and logical to hold such an unsustainable philosophy, but was he a Christian in his convictions?
An Oath of Office
I want to devote two podcasts to explore if George Washington was a Christian. And here is the biblical moment in American history with which I start my book. It occurred April 30, 1789, at one o’clock in the afternoon in New York City, on Wall Street. There at Federal Hall, General Washington, dressed in a modest, double-breasted brown suit, stood on the balcony beside a copy of the Holy Bible. It was bound in rich brown leather, hastily borrowed from the altar of the nearby St. John’s Lodge. It rested on a red cushion held by Samuel Otis, Secretary of the Senate. It lay open to Genesis 49, the passage containing the blessings of Jacob to his twelve sons, destined to become a great nation.
Washington laid his hand upon that Holy Bible and took office as the first president of the United States. Washington did not place his hand on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States, as hallowed as those documents are. Nor did he set his hand any other religious or secular book. It was the Bible that sanctified the moment. It was the Bible that provided the foundations needed for democracy. The God of the Bible who provided the authority for the human government. And after Washington took the oath of office, he did something else. He bent over and kissed the Bible.
That alone would indicate that he had reverence and love for the Word of God and its Divine Author. But in addition to that highly public, seminal American moment, let me give you 16 specific reasons for assuming George Washington was a Christian and not a Deist in his profession of faith.
Reflecting on Washington’s Faith
Like everyone who studies this subject, I’ve used several sources. There have been books about George Washington’s religious or Christian faith ever since he died in 1799. But all of us who are interested in this subject owes a debt of gratitude to the extensive research done by Peter A. Lillback in his bestselling book, George Washington’s Sacred Fire. I certainly recommend it.
But now – 16 reasons to believe George Washington was a Christian and not a Deist in his convictions and profession of faith.
1. Washington never declared himself to be a Deist. Nowhere in all his writings does he claim to be a Deist, nor does he provide any endorsement or recommendation for Deism. When his dear friend, Thomas Paine, who had written Common Sense, which helped define and shape the revolution, later wrote a book decrying the Christian faith and the Bible – that book was The Age of Reason – Washington broke off friendship with him. The two men became alienated by Paine’s secular attack on Christianity. The Age of Reason was not in Washington’s library, and after its publication, Thomas Paine was no longer on his correspondence list.
2. Washington did declare himself to be a Christian. On October 25, 1762, he took the oath to be a vestryman of his local church, and he affirmed his belief in the historic doctrine of the church and the Bible. He spoke the creeds and made vows to the church and its principles.
The official Mount Vernon website has a page devoted to Washington’s religion. It says, “Much has been written about George Washington and his religious or Christian beliefs. Some go so far as to suggest he did not believe in God, while others believe he was a Deist. While rather private about his religious or Christian beliefs, George Washington was an Anglican. The Washingtons attended services about once a month at two churches near Mount Vernon. During the Revolutionary War, Washington regularly attended services held by military chaplains and local civilian congregations. Often when he was traveling, Washington would stop for services at whatever church was nearby, regardless of its denomination.”
Speaking on George Washington’s Christian Faith
3. Washington came from a family of devout Christians. His father was active in the Anglican church, and his mother. Mary Ball Washington was godly and strong-willed and an enthusiastic teacher of Scripture to her son. George Washington’s wife, Martha, was a Christian and devout believer in Christ. No one doubts the vitality of her Christian faith and experience. Furthermore, Washington bought his children, who were his step-children, explicitly Christian textbooks, and also prayer books and Bibles with their names gilded upon them.
Washington’s Christian Words
4. More Christian evidence: George Washington spoke of his faith. Like many leaders, He was private about his religious or Christian practices and worked hard to be non-sectarian in his statements. Yet, sometimes he simply couldn’t help himself, and he spoke explicitly about Christianity.
- Consider what he told the Delaware Indian Chiefs when they asked for his advice about teaching their children. He said to them they would do well to “learn our way of life and arts, but above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. This will make you a greater and happier person than you are.”
- On October 19, 1777, he wrote a letter to General Israel Putman, whose wife had died. Washington said: “I am extremely sorry to hear of the death of Mrs. Putnam and sympathize with you upon the occasion. Remember that all must die and that she had lived to an honorable age; I hope you will bear the misfortune with that fortitude and complacency of mind that become a man and a Christian.”
George Washington: Character of Christian
- On May 2, 1778, Washington issued these orders to His army: “The Commander in Chief directs that divine service be performed every Sunday at 11 o’clock in those Brigades to which there are Chaplains—those who have none (should) attend the places of worship nearest to them. It is expected that Officers of all Ranks will, by their attendance, set an example to their men. While we are zealously performing the duties of good Citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian.”
- On June 8, 1783, after the war was over and Washington was disbanding the army, he wrote to a letter to the governors of the 13 states, and he ended his circular letter. This letter is one of the most amazing documents that came from Washington’s hand. He concluded by giving them a prayer he had composed and was offering for the people in the new states of America. His prayer was they would all become more like Jesus Christ, for without that influence, we can never hope to be a happy country. Let me quote it precisely to you: “I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you and the State over which you preside in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose of us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without a humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.
A Knowledge of Scripture: Washington’s Christian Studies
Who is the divine Author of our blessed religion? That was Washington’s respectful and diplomatic way of referring to Jesus Christ, without a humble imitation of whom we can never hope to be a happy nation.
5. Washington displayed a broad knowledge of Scripture. He was undoubtedly an avid reader of Scripture. His favorite verse—or at least the one he seems to have quoted more than any other—was Micah 4:4, “But they shall sit every man under his vine and his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it.” Washington’s view of what he wanted in his life and what he wanted for all Americans—a little place where everyone could sit under their vine and fig trees with security and reverence.”
6. Washington loved, listened to, collected, and read sermons. On Sundays, when he was home, Washington went to church, and in the evening, he and Martha read Christian sermons that he collected.
Washington had a personal secretary who served him from 1784 until the President died in 1799. The man was named Tobias Lear. He wrote: “While President, Washington followed an invariable routine on Sundays. The day was passed very quietly, with no company being invited to the house. After breakfast, the President read aloud a chapter from the Bible, and then the whole family attended church together.”
A Collection of Sermons
Washington’s step-son, George Washington Parke Curtis, who was known as “Wash” and raised at Mt. Vernon, said, “General Washington was always a strict and decorous observer of the Sabbath (or Sunday). He invariably attended divine service once and day, when within reach of a place of worship—his respect for the clergy as a body as shown by public entertainments to them. On Sunday, no visitors were admitted to the President’s house, with only one exception: Mr. Speaker Trumbull. On Sundays, unless the weather was uncommonly severe, the President and Mrs. Washington attended divine services at Christ Church; and in the evenings, the President read to Mrs. Washington, in her chamber, a sermon, or some portion from the sacred writings.”
Washington collected sermons and had them bound for his library. For example, Rev. Isaac Lewis preached a sermon entitled, “The Divine Mission of Jesus Christ Evident from His life and the Nature and Tendency of His Doctrines.” Today we try to come up with catchier titles to our sermons, but such was the custom.
Washington’s Thoughts on Sermons
In his sermon, Isaac Lewis said: “Either Jesus Christ was what he professed to be, the (One) Sent (by) God and the Savior of the Word; or he was a deluded enthusiast, who thought himself the subject of a divine mission and divine revelation when in fact he was not; or he was the grossest and most designing impostor who ever lived. One of the other of these must have been the truth.
If then his life and doctrines were such, as it is impossible to suppose they should have been having he has acted the part either of an enthusiast or a deceiver, it must follow that he was the person he calmed be and that the religion he taught is of God. And if Christ received his mission from God, Christianity is established on an immovable basis. The nations may rage, and the people imagine a vain thing, but the counsel of God shall stand, and He will do all His pleasure. The church rests on an unshakable foundation, and the gates of hell shall never finally prevail against it.”
What did Washington think of that sermon?
The Practice of Communion: George Washington’s Christian Faith
He wrote a letter back to Isaac Lewis, and he said, “For the Sermons, you had the goodness to send me, I pray you to accept my thanks. The doctrine in them is sound and does credit to its Author.”
I wish I could get the President of the United States to endorse one of my sermons or books like that!
These are the kind of sermons Washington collected and read to his family.
7. Washington was faithful in attending church, but critics have pointed out that he went for a long time without taking the Lord Supper. They say that proves he had turned away from his Christian upbringing. But there were perhaps reasons Washington did not partake of communion for some time in his life.
Well, he was an Anglican, which was the state church of England. Washington observed communion up to the time of the Revolutionary War. Still, during the war, he was leading a rebellion against the man who, in British thought, was the head of the Anglican Church. So it was complicated. There are credible reports that Washington received communion from other denominations, and that after the war he again received communion from his church. But it’s also true that communion was not practiced very often in those days – only two or three times a year, and communion services held after church, not during the actual service. It’s a mistake to try to define Washington as a non-believer simply because we don’t know how often he attended communion.
Terms of Reverence
8. Looking more into Christian faith, in their extensive analysis of George Washington’s writings, letters, statements, proclamations, and speeches, Jerry Newcombe and Peter Lillback. They found that Washington used about a hundred titles for God. And he used the word “God” over a hundred times, and the word “heaven” over a hundred times. He called God
- The Great Author of the Universe
- The Great Disposer of Human Events
- The All-Powerful Guide
- The Almighty God
- Architect of the Universe
- Giver of Life
- God of Armies
- Great Director of Events
- The Greatest and Highest of Beings
- Lord of Hosts
- Rulers of Nations
- Ruler of the Universe
Washington also used a variety of terms of reverence and respect to describe the Lord Jesus Christ.
- As we’ve seen – Divine Author of our Blessed Religion
- Our gracious Redeemer
- The Great Lord and Ruler of Nations
- The Judge of the Hearts of Men
- Giver of Life
Some people say, why didn’t he just use the name “Jesus” more. But part of the answer has to do with the culture of preaching in those days. One discovers the same phrases when one reads the sermons from the pulpits of the period around the Revolutionary War. In the Old Testament, the Jews did not want to say the name Jehovah or Yahweh, because it was so sacred. And there seems to have been something of that attitude in Colonial history. Preachers would talk about our gracious Redeemer, the Divine Author of our Blessed Religion, and so forth. They were referring to Jesus Christ, but they tended to use honorific terms. They tended toward elegant language, and, as a political leader of all Americans, this language well-suited Washington’s purposes.