SAN JOSE, Calif., May 3, 2016 — Many young Americans would not suspect that George Washington was a religious man, nor would they imagine that he valued religion in any significant way. This seems to be because Washington is not someone young Americans study in any significant way in the public school system today.
Sadly, young people are not the only ones unclear about Washington’s religious views, as many Americans have lost touch with the nation’s religious heritage.
Certainly, America has changed since the days of Washington; yet, George Washington’s first inaugural address did much to indicate that he was more than a “deist,” as so many historians categorize him and other founders. Many of those who determine what young people learn about the faiths of the founding generation are themselves not religious people, and they intentionally de-emphasize the religious affiliations of the Founding Fathers. Additionally, there are atheists who have zero faith in God and who yearn to re-image America’s Founding Fathers as they relate U.S. history to Americans. Both groups of scholars often attempt to label many of the Founders as “deists,” reflecting the problem of writing about history from one’s cultural bias and one’s own time reference, as opposed to outright deceptiveness.
Nevertheless, George Washington’s personal faith is often relegated to this treatment. Such bias demonstrates incomplete or selective research and reveals intellectually inaccurate information. To relate history with an apparent lack of thoroughness that originates from one’s personal bias developed in a particular culture or time frame is not unusual. This type of bias frequently shows up in progressive-revisionist historians’ efforts, and it surely shows up in the work of those who use “history as a weapon.” Sincere references to a Creator or hint of faith are usually offset by progressive-revisionist historians who can safely depict the Founders as deists.
That view concludes that the leading founders did not have any personal relationship with God. However, many men of the founding generation held the view that it was not anyone’s business what kind of relationship one had with God.
Thomas Jefferson expressed it best when he explained his attitude of faith in a letter he wrote to Margaret Bayard Smith in August 1816:
I never told my own religion, not scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives… For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.
Definitely, when one applies this measuring stick to George Washington’s life, one uncovers a prime testimony of the faith of the Father of the Country. And Washington would likely have agreed. In a letter he wrote to William Gordon in May 1776, the commander of the Continental Army wrote, “No Man has a more perfect Reliance on the alwise, and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have, nor thinks his aid more necessary.”
This sincere expression from Washington of his recognition of a Creator who helped him personally is a bit foreign to progressive-revisionist historians who depict Washington as a deist. The general attempt to re-cast Washington as one who only intellectually perceives the possibility of a God reflects more the writer’s bias than a more accurate expression of the faith of George Washington.
As pointed out by Alf Mapp, Jr. in his book “The Faiths of Our Fathers,” other scholars credit the Father of the Country as a “warm Deist,” and hold that Washington likely saw the universe as governed by absolute law, yet had the belief that the Creator did intervene in the affairs of men. The mystery with respect to Washington’s religion somehow perplexes those who write of his life. Yet, even those like Mapp, who do more justice to George Washington’s personal faith, may be too careful to not agitate the gods of political correctness.
Casting Washington as a deist leads to a controversy regarding whether he prayed or believed, as most deists of his day believed, that prayer as a waste of time. Today, the images of the general praying at Valley Forge are controversial, and ideas that he prayed or did not, tend more to be a reflection of those who are his biographers or interpreters of his life. How could one know? It is something that is a very personal reality.
If a good student of history goes back to Washington’s contemporaries or his early biographers, not many questions arise regarding his devout faith.
In the first-ever compilation of “The Writings of George Washington,” published in the 1830s by a noted historian, Jared Sparks (1789-1866), the author devotes an entire chapter on George Washington’s religious character. Sparks included many letters of friends, associates and the family of Washington. The letters offered witness to his religious character, and Sparks explained:
To say that he [George Washington] was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty. Of all men in the world, Washington was certainly the last whom any one would charge with assimilation or indirectness; and if he was so scrupulous in avoiding even a shadow of these faults in every known act of his life, however unimportant, is it likely, is it credible, that in a matter of the highest and most serious importance [faith] he should practice through a long series of years a deliberate deception upon his friends and the public? It is neither credible nor possible.
Attempts to portray Washington as a deist are attempts to diminish Washington’s faith and to deny his personal relationship with God. However, most people of faith would simply read Washington’s own words, which should demonstrate his personal testimony. That Washington gave witness to America’s initial connectedness to God in his first inaugural address is important to understand in this regard.
President Washington, however, becomes an advocate for the value of religion to Americans of all faiths in his Farewell Address. The Farewell Address offers a memory of profound words that Washington shared with the country as he left public service. This address has been regarded as one of the “world’s most remarkable documents” because it served as a humble notification from a man who was turning control of the executive branch over to others, and it offered a set of values that Washington hoped would assure the survival of a fledgling America.
In the midst of this shared wisdom, President Washington highlighted his regard for religion as being crucial to the overall success of the nation.
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens? The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.
Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?
And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
These words are often the most referenced from his Farewell Address. President Washington viewed religion and morality as dual pillars of support for political stability and success and “props of the duties of men and citizens.” But of the two, he cautioned that based upon reason and experience, the nation’s morality could not survive without adherence to religious principle. This is a powerful statement and reflects how deeply Washington regarded religious values.
Much of what Washington shared in his Farewell Address seems prophetic, but Americans in 2016 seem out of touch with the advice of the Father of the Country. Since the days of the Great Depression, under the guise of separation of church and state, there have been more than a few that have made it into the hallowed halls of the federal government who would “labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.” It seems clear that the foundation of morality built upon secular and not religious values has propelled the country to where it is today. It is likely that the value of religion or religious freedom in the United States has never been more directly challenged than in the past decade.
Americans have come full circle in their history and are now confronted with once again reaffirming their adherence to the ideals of the Founders as expressed in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Americans either do believe in such truths as self-evident, or they do not. While Washington and those of his generation chose to fight and die for such ideals, America’s very future may depend on what course citizens of faith choose today.