There has been considerable debate here at American Creation over whether George Washington was a genuine, authentic Christian -- a debate that is of course not limited to this site. Many claim Washington was a Deist. Some, while acknowledging "Deist" is a bit extreme, say Washington was only nominally a Christian, and that, in all likelihood, he never really embraced the deity of Jesus Christ or the orthodox tenets of the Christian faith.
One thing is certain, though: The tomb which currently contains the remains of George and Martha Washington is very Christian.
The Washington Family Tomb
When George Washington died in 1799, his remains were placed temporarily in a family burial vault that was in a state of disrepair. In his will, Washington directed that a new tomb be constructed "at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Inclosure."
The project was delayed for several years, but in 1831, the remains of George and Martha Washington were finally moved to their new resting place. Work on the tomb, particularly its majestic brick enclosure, were concluded in 1835. Today, twenty-five Washington family members are at rest in the tomb.
The Washington Tomb's Christian Message
Visitors to Mount Vernon have the opportunity to look into the tomb containing the remains of George and Martha Washington, along with those of several other members of the Washington family. Standing just a few feet away from the actual remains of our nation's First Couple is something that's quite impressive to any true history buff.
And those who carefully study the back wall of the open vault will find an inscription that quotes some of Jesus' most famous words: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."
This quote is taken from John 11:25-26, where Jesus tries to assure Lazarus' family that his earthly death is not the end.
The inclusion of John 11:25-26 unmistakably associates the Washington family, including George and Martha, with the promise of the resurrection of the dead, the central claim of Christianity.
Christianity's Resurrection Claim
Since this blog is read by people from many different faiths, it's not my intention to preach. And since it's more about the study of early American history, I won't provide any kind of detailed explanation of the Christian belief in resurrection. Nevertheless, in order to understand the rationale behind the inscription on the Washington tomb, some explanation is in order.
In I Corinthians 15, Paul emphasizes the promise of life after death, tying its credibility to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What's more, Paul makes clear that he's not offering some kind of poetic platitude designed to make people feel good. He truly believes in the reality of the Christian faith and elevates Christianity above any exercise in wishful thinking.
**See "Paul And The Deity of Jesus" over at Suite101 Protestantism
The fifteenth chapter of Paul's first letter to Corinth declares the resurrection of Jesus to be an actual event and claims that over five hundred people (many of whom still alive at the time of his writing) saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. In between the lines, he is essentially daring those who are skeptical to seek out those eyewitnesses.
It's because of this resurrection, Paul writes, that Christians can believe in the "resurrection of the dead." And, says Paul, if somehow the resurrection didn't happen (if it was a hoax), then "our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (I Corinthians 15:12-14).
In his letter to Rome, Paul similarly writes that belief that "God raised [Jesus] from the dead" is essential to one's salvation (Romans 10:9-10).
It is this resurrection that Christians celebrate every Easter, and it's this resurreciton that gives Christians everywhere the assurance of their faith and validates the promises of eternity with God (John 3:16; Romans 3:22-26).
Washington's Christian Faith
Was the decision of Washington's family to put John 11:25-26 above his and Martha's remains reflective of the general's faith? Did George Washington believe in the "resurrection of the dead"? Did Washington believe in Jesus' resurrection?
Joseph Ellis, in his Washington biography His Excellency, concludes that based on the lack of clergy present and/or any recorded overt declarations of faith in Jesus, George Washington "died as a Roman Stoic rather than a Christian saint."
Of course, as Michael and Jana Novak point out in Washington's God, there is "not really a contradiction between being a Stoic and a Christian...regarding key virtues of daily living." Nevertheless, Ellis joins the ranks of many scholars and everyday Americans who argue that George Washington was not really a Christian.
It should also be noted that, one month after his husband's passing, Martha Washington wrote Jonathan Trumbull: "When the mind is deeply afflicted by those irreparable losses which are incident to humanity, the good Christian will submit without repining to the dispensations of divine Providence, and look for consolation to that Being who alone can pour balm into the bleeding heart, and who has promised to be the widow's God."
Martha's note reflects a biblical knowledge of God's promises regarding grief, widows, and sovereignty. She clearly casts herself as a Christian, striving to be a "good" one. Given Martha's use of the word "Providence" (her husband's favorite word for God) and the closeness of their marriage, is it too much to conclude that George and Martha Washington had more in common in their understanding of God and Christianity than not?
Nelly Custis-Lewis wrote that George and Martha Washington "were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian" and that Martha "had no doubts, no fears for him" as she "resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity." Ms. Custis-Lee should know. She was Martha's granddaughter and adoptive daughter to both George and Martha, upon her father's untimely death. It should also be noted that Nelly was the wife of Lawrence Lewis, the Washington nephew who oversaw construction of the tomb.
It is true that George Washington made few public statements, verbally or in writing, in which he mentioned the name of Jesus Christ. This isn't to say that Washington never mentioned Jesus (as some who challenge Washington's Christian faith allege), but it's true that Washington kept public pronouncements about Jesus to a minimum. It's also true that Washington so frequently refused to partake of Communion that many biographers have concluded he rarely (if ever) took Communion.
John Marshall, a Washington friend and future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, argued that this shouldn't be used as evidence against Washington's Christian beliefs. Marshall explained: "Without making ostentatious professions of religion, [George Washington] was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man."
Nineteenth century histian Jared Sparks bluntly declared: "To say that [George Washington] was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty."
Whatever the degree of George Washington's personal belief in Jesus Christ, the Washington tomb, completed in 1831, points to the central promise of Christianity - the one that hundreds of millions of people around the world celebrate each and every Easter, including this one:
"I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."