Thursday, June 12, 2008

What religion did George Washington practice?

The Deists have had the biggest claim to his religious life for the last few decades. I suppose this is the natural path that would be taken by 20th and 21st century thinkers who latch on to his proclivity to use the words “Divine Providence” when referring to the creator.

What we are not doing when we make this leap is taking onto account the terminology used in 18th Century America, especially as it relates to religious content.

Many of the written prayers suggested for the Anglican Church in two books of Homilies, which were created to teach Church doctrine to those who did not have regular Anglican Priests in their service, used the words Divine Providence. No one who reads those texts will come away with the impression that any of the authors, including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was a Deist or a Unitarian or a unitarian. Why then do we try to pin those labels on the Father of our Country?

George Washington was definitely a very private man when it came to his personal religious convictions but he was not one, when he did speak about it, to make careless statements for political or personal gain. The facts are that he was a member of the Anglican Church. One may argue that he did or did not take Communion but that would not preclude his own dedication to the Church. An earlier post on this blog referenced the oath that he took as a vestryman in the Church. George Washington was not a man to take an oath lightly (whether or not he punctuated it with “so help me God” ... which, by the way in this instance it actually was called for!)

Here is the source and the text itself.

This is what was reported as to the oath George Washington swore when he became a Vestryman

From the Records of the County Court of Fairfax, February 16th, 1763: "George Washington Esqr. took the oaths according to Law repeated and subscribed the Test and subscribed to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England in order to qualify him to act as a Vestryman of Truro Parish " in Pohick. The vestryman oath was as follows:

I, AB, as I do acknowledge myself a true son of the Church of England, so do I believe the articles of faith therein professed, and do oblige myself to be conformable to the doctrine and discipline therein taught and established; and that, as Vestryman of this Parish, I will well and truly perform my duty therein, being directed by the laws and customs of this country, and the canons of the Church of England, so far as they will suit our present capacity; and this I shall sincerely do, according to the best of my knowledge, skill, cunning, without fear, favor, or partiality; so help me God.

George Washington signed the vestryman oath for Fairfax Parish in Alexandria on August 19, 1765 according to PICTORIAL FIELD BOOK OF THE REVOLUTION. VOLUME II, by BENSON J. LOSSING, 1850, Chapter 8, Footnote 30.

There are a lot of arguments about the religious foundation of America. I will reiterate until it becomes a sort of mantra …wait, mantras are from the Transcendental tradition right ;&). America is not a Christian nation, but that is a very different proposition than concluding that Christian values did not have a lot to do with the formation of the United States.. So did Presbyterians, Puritans, Unitarians, unitarians, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and even the Jewish religion ... and yes Deists! We could list them all here and when we were done we would find that the majority of those religious traditions would have called themselves “Christian”. Again, remember,

America is not a Christian nation, but that is a very different proposition than concluding that Christian values did not have a lot to do with the formation of the United States.

It is unthinkable that we should rewrite history and try to explain away the most popular and widespread religious beliefs of the day and pretend that they were not a large part of the foundation of this nation. We must not be afraid that by admitting this we somehow have become religious right wing nuts who want some kind of Christian Theocracy to prevail in our government. The founders went a long way to make sure that did not happen but that doesn’t mean that we have to distance George Washington from his religious beliefs to make this nation safe from some vast right wing religious conspiracy.

George Washington believed the doctrine of the Anglican Church. He may not have taken Communion but that was not some kind of way for him to cross his fingers and pretend that he didn’t really support and believe all of it. AND … it also does not mean that he was, or is ever going to be, the poster boy for a Fundamentalist American Theocracy. Everyone just calm down and step away from the religious furor. Look at the facts as they present themselves and, even more importantly, from the perspective of that historical time period.

It is very easy to pick apart the poor scholarship (and it should be picked apart!) of people who really are trying to advance an agenda. It is easy to ridicule things like George Washington’s Valley Forge Prayer or Vision (and they should be scrutinized) but it is very difficult to argue with facts. As one Unitarian/unitarian/Congregationalist/Puritan founding father once said,

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” – John Adams

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a few facts from The Thanksgiving Proclamation given by George Washington on 3 October 1789.

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor--and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be--That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions--to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness onto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

So from the words of The Founding Father, himself, wouldn’t it be OK, as long as it does not destroy “good government, peace and concord -- To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us”?

It is pretty obvious that George Washington was not physically, intellectually, spiritually or even governmentally afraid of religion as long as it was not being used by government for its own ends or as long as good government did not dictate religious beliefs to any individual, including George Washington!

8 comments:

Brad Hart said...

Roger writes:

America is not a Christian nation but that is different from concluding that Christian values had a lot to do with the formation of the United States. So did Presbyterians, Puritans, Unitarians, unitarians, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and even the Jewish religion ... and yes Deists!

I agree with you when you make the claim that a potpourri of religious philosophies played a role in influencing the formation of the American republic. How could they not? After all, the men who forged this nation brought with them their individual life experiences, education, training, and yes even religion.

Roger also writes:
George Washington believed the doctrine of the Anglican Church. He may not have taken Communion but that was not some kind of way for him to cross his fingers and pretend that he didn’t really support and believe all of it. AND … it also does not mean that he was, or is ever going to be, the poster boy for a Fundamentalist American Theocracy. Everyone just calm down and step away from the religious furor. Look at the facts as they present themselves and, even more importantly, from the perspective of that historical time period.

On this point I have to disagree. There is no concrete evidence that Washington "believed the doctrine of the Anglican Church." There is also no concrete evidence that he did NOT. But if Washington really did support the Anglican Church as passionately as you claim, then why was he never confirmed? I'm not trying to suggest that those in favor of Washington as a Deist have a stronger claim than you (in reality, I think their claim is weaker), but I do believe that you are grasping at VERY circumstantial evidence here.

As far as Washington being a vestryman, and that this somehow proves his orthodoxy is also very questionable. After all, wasn't Jefferson a vestryman in the Anglican Church as well?

Again, when it comes to Washington I believe that those in favor of him as a strict Deist or a strict Christian are overstepping the evidence. Don't get me wrong though. I believe that you are right to suggest that Washington was deeply influenced by Christianity. To what level, however, will probably remain a mystery forever.

By the way, it is great to have somebody that presents an argument that is contrary to what we usually see on this blog! Very refreshing. Keep them coming and well done!

Jonathan said...

Something else about those vestryman oaths to think about: If you read all of those articles of the Church of England, they are essentially an oath to high church Anglicanism and demand obedience to the King of England. The act of rebelling itself -- indeed leading the rebellion! -- could be viewed as violating those oaths. And those oaths command Anglicans to take communion.

Roger Saunders said...

I think GW would have thought very differently about an oath he took about his belief in God and an oath taken to unquestionably support a king who had clearly forfeited his "right" to receive the fealty of the oath when he became a tyrant. I don't think Washington would have taken any oath, even one based on religious beliefs, lightly. On the other hand, Jefferson was always vocal about his dissent with the beliefs of the Anglican Church and would not have likely taken it nearly as seriously or if he did, he felt he had given it the same consideration as his oath to the king and therefore did not feel bound by it. George Washington's character was such that if he had decided his oath to his beliefs as a Vestryman was no longer enforceable, I believe he would have justified it even at the risk of exposing himself. It was the way he fought every battle in his life! It is also highly unlikely that Washington never took Communion. It is in his character to be very circumspect about it as the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 11:27-31 is pretty tough on making sure that your life is right every time you take Communion. George Washington would have remembered these admonitions and probably would have been extra hard on himself as he was in every other area of his life. We may never really know for sure about his commitment to the Anglican Church but i think it is safe to say that when we read ALL of his writings and the credible reports of his life that he did not believe that God was a hands off God!

Jonathan said...

"...An oath taken to unquestionably support a king who had clearly forfeited his 'right' to receive the fealty of the oath when he became a tyrant."

I'm working on a post right now that deals with this. But, in reading those vestryman oaths I most certainly do NOT see this loophole -- that a king forfeits his right to receive the fealty of an oath when he becomes a tyrant -- in those vestryman oaths. Those oaths are more than just orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, but a pledge to the entire Toryish system of high Church Anglicanism. And indeed many devout Anglican colonialists remained Tory loyalists precisely because they believed their Anglican Christian religion commanded them to.

Roger Saunders said...

You are absolutely right. There is NO such loophole in that oath. It was that old corset maker Tom Paine that gave Americans as a whole, although GW obviously agreed with him at least in spirit a couple of years earlier, permission to break their allegiance to the King. This is all I meant by my comment. I did not in any way, mean to infer that the oath itself left an out anywhere! I do believe though that taking an oath was very serious business for GW and he would not have thrown out all he believed because of the failure of the king. I think when it comes to religion this is where a disconnect comes in. In Christianity, at least in the serious discipline of following the teachings of Christ, these followers tend to key more on their relationship to God and realize the weaknesses of corporate religion. It seems that faith in God has a personal dimension that does not necessarily see the failures of a religious system with a failure on God's part. What I am trying to say is that GW's faith would not have been dependent on his commitment to the Anglican Church. Instead, his faith would have been fixed on the creator. So his oath when it comes to belief would have been based on faith and if he had had a fundamental change in his belief system that invalidated his oath (as it did in his estimation for fealty to the King) he would have been intellectually and characteristically honest enough to express those changes.

Brad Hart said...

What about Matthew 5: 34-37, which states:

34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:

35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.

36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.


While the vestryman oath you site never mentions swearing by God, heaven, etc., it is, nonetheless, an oath. I've often wondered what kind of a role this admonition played when different religions established oaths.

Brad Hart said...

That part, "Swear not at all" sticks out to me.

Roger Saunders said...

For a look at what the Anglican Church thought of them, see the homily on Swearing and Perjury by Archbishop Cranmer in the Anglican Book of Homilies. Here is my "interpretation" of a part of that sermon from the Old English of the 16th century. It is from a project I have been working on to "update" these documents into modern language. I am not an Anglican but I have had a lot of input from Anglican clergy including a retired Bishop and an Archdeacon as to the accuracy of the "interpretation".

"First, the kind of oaths that God hates do not include when a Judge requires us to take an oath to tell the truth in a court of law or in some other cause of justice. Calling witness to the Name of God to make a true promise or to keep a covenant is also acceptable to God but it is not to be taken lightly. Other situations where it is acceptable is when someone calls witness to the Name of God to keep covenants, honest promises, statutes laws and treaties. An example is when a government official might swear to uphold promises made at the conclusion of a peace negotiation. Private people may take solemn oaths in the Name of God to promise faithfulness in a marriage ceremony. Citizens may swear to uphold civil law or to be loyal to the Monarch of their country. Kings, Prime Ministers, or Presidents, Judges, and Policemen may swear to serve their offices faithfully. Ministers of the Gospel will swear to affirm the truths held in God’s word to their congregations publicly and to their parishioners privately when providing counsel for the health of their soul."