**See "Facts About George Washington's Inauguration" over at The American Revolution & Founding Era blog.
After taking the oath, Washington delivered a speech, a custom each President has since followed -- a speech that we know as the Inaugural Address. A portion of Washington's First Inaugural could accurately be described as a "sermon."
That portion of the speech follows:
"Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence."
Dictionary.com defines as Sermon as follows:
1.a discourse for the purpose of religious instruction or exhortation, esp. one based on a text of Scripture and delivered by a member of the clergy as part of a religious service.
2.any serious speech, discourse, or exhortation, esp. on a moral issue.
3.a long, tedious speech.
I have to chuckle at #3. Hopefully, my congregation wouldn't describe MY sermons that way. :-) And whether one wishes to think of Washington's first inaugural as "long" or "tedius" is for another discussion.
While the overall purpose of the inaugural address wasn't "religious instruction or exhortation," the portion provided above was definitely included for that reason. Washington clearly wanted to weigh in on a "moral issue" (see description #2 of Sermon) and was very much interested in providing some "religious instruction" (see #1).
The religious portion of Washington's Inaugural was not overtly Christian. In fact, it was broad enough to appeal to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian, Deist, and even some Freethinking audiences. But it would NOT have appealed to atheists, what few there were at the time. And its content certainly doesn't resonate with atheists or agnostics today, try as they might to ignore this part of Washington's speech.
George Washington clearly and unmistakably staked out monotheistic tenets in his Inaugural Address. He unequivocally embraced the existence of God, humbled himself before God, emphasized the crucial importance of prayer, and declared that the American people were "bound to acknowledge and adore" God.
These words were no mere rhetorical flourish. They reflect similar themes echoed in other speeches and writings, including his Thanksgiving Proclamation (which he would issue later that same year). What's more, Washington's sentiments were agreeable to the overwhelming majority of the American people and the vast majority of its leaders. The American people of the eighteenth century had no objection to and little discomfort in expressing their belief in, love for and dependence on God. That some do today is not, in the opinion of this author, a sign of progress.
**See "Dependence on God: An American Tradition" (a previous post here on American Creation).
Other than perhaps Thomas Paine, no American Founding Father would've even considered opposing the religious content of Washington's First Inaugural. In fact, some Founders such as John Jay (Washington's first appointee to the Supreme Court) would go even further.
Washington's Inaugural Address is clear evidence of what the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once said: "We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."