“You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.” – George Washington
While our country was certainly founded upon religious principles, it is not exactly certain which religion(s)1 that may have been. In addition to Christianity, a belief known as deism competed for a great many of our influential founders. Often told is the story of Thomas Jefferson pouring over his Bible by candlelight—scissors in hand—excising anything that hinted of the supernatural.2 Besides Jefferson, mention is made to Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and James Madison as proponents of this divergent belief. It has long been alleged that George Washington assumed the same deism as these fellow founding fathers. But is this assumption accurate?
In order to answer that question, it might first be helpful to understand deism.
What is deism?
Deism is the exaggeration of the truth of God’s transcendence.3
Deism was religion stripped of revelation. It was “enlightened” religion.
The Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries gave birth to great confidence in the authority of reason and man’s ability to arrive at truth unaided by anything other than his own mind. Rationality reigned.
Deism simply took the tenets of the Enlightenment project and applied it to the domain of religious conviction. Utter reliance upon reason led to the devaluation and ultimate denial of special revelation (particularly the Scriptures and the Son). Reason replaced revelation as the final authority for all religion.
The analogy that is typically used to describe the tenets of deism is that of a cosmic clockmaker. God simply created the universe, wound up its natural laws, and retreated to allow it to run its course. He is utterly and only transcendent. There is no recognition of immanence. There is no confession of God’s personal workings with the universe. God becomes a depersonalized entity. He is an “absentee landlord.”
Jonathan Edwards, a contemporary of Washington’s (though 29 years his elder), wrote this of the deists of his time: They own the being of God; but deny that Christ was the son of God, and say he was a mere cheat; and so they say all the prophets and apostles were: and they deny the whole Scripture. They deny that any of it is the word of God. They deny any revealed religion, or any word of God at all; and say that God has given mankind no other light to walk by but their own reason.
What about Washington?
Mary V. Thompson, a researcher for the Mount Vernon estate, typically responded to e-mails and letters to the estate regarding the identity of Washington’s religious beliefs with history’s assumption of deism. However, tiring of rehearsed answers to such queries, Thompson set out to search through the primary and secondary evidences herself. Such research was compiled in her somewhat recent book, “In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington.”4
In attempting to frame her conclusions, the author draws upon personal and public statements that Washington made, his charitable donations, his church attendance as understood within certain contextual factors, statements by family and friends as to his beliefs, his thoughts on slavery and other social and moral issues, and the overall religious culture in which Washington lived. Her conclusion is that our first president, though perhaps not as explicit or emotional as we tend to approve of today, was nonetheless fairly well representative of the Christian faith as it was expressed within his particular environment.
Was Washington a Christian? Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, framed the issue well:
The evidence concerning it must of course arise from an induction of particulars. Some will induce more of these particulars, and others fewer; some will rest on one class, or collection, others on another; and some will give more, and others less, weight to those which are induced; according to several modes and standards of judging. The question in this, and all other cases, must be finally determined before another tribunal, than that of human judgment; and to that tribunal it must ultimately be left. For my own part, I have considered his numerous and uniform public and most solemn declarations to his high veneration for religion, his exemplary and edifying attention to public worship, and his constancy in secret devotion, as proofs sufficient to satisfy every person, willing to be satisfied. I shall only add, that if he was not a Christian, he was more like one than any man of same description, whose life has been hitherto recorded.5
The reality of all religion will finally be exposed at a future time and at a future throne by the Founder of the true faith, Jesus Christ. To Him alone belongs all ultimate authority to make such judgments. Until then, for those interested in insight into the culture and context of the early years of this country and one of its most celebrated commanders, I certainly recommend “In the Hands of Providence.”
Update: Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary, comes to the same conclusion regarding Washington’s faith in his book, “George Washington’s Sacred Fire” which recently went number one on Amazon.
1 It is important to note that the term “religion” as used within the 18th century in particular carried a different connotation than it does today. It is anachronistic to judge that period’s use of the term by today’s standards in which “religion” and “Christianity” are often contrasted. For many in the 18th century, religion was simply a synonym for the historic orthodox faith. See in particular Jonathan Edwards’ consistent use of the term. As with all words, context must determine how the intended use.
2 To this day, you can still purchase a copy of Jefferson’s edited “Bible” which consists of mostly of sayings of Christ and is devoid of such “extravagances” as the incarnation and resurrection.
3 Strong, A. H. (2004). Systematic theology (414). Bellingham, Wa.: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
4 Mary V. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington,” (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008).
5 Thompson, 181.