Thursday, January 24, 2013

No, George Washington did not convert to Catholicism, but he defended the liberty of Catholics in America

A friend of mine recently sent me an e-mail repeating claims that George Washington converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Here's a standard account of the conversion story so the reader can get an idea of the basic claims about Washington's conversion: George Washington Died a Catholic. A thoughtful and thorough debunking of the idea that Washington converted to Catholicism is posted by Marian T.  Horvat over at Tradition in Action, a Catholic activist website:  Did George Washington Convert to Catholicism? As Horvat recounts, not only are accounts of Washington's alleged conversion suspect, the facts of his life, including his devotion to Masonry, make a formal conversion to the Catholic faith highly suspect.

Horvat's article does a very good job of demonstrating that it is overwhelmingly likely that Washington did not convert to the Catholic faith on his deathbed, but the characterization of some of Washington's religious beliefs is not accurate. Washington believed in a personal God who acted in history through the agency of divine Providence. The Father of Our Country did not believe in a vague, impersonal deity.

While Washington, unfortunately in my view, did not convert to Catholicism (what a great story that would make!), he was a great advocate for the religious liberty of Catholics in the new Republic. As this post over at The American Catholic points out, Washington not only counted Catholics among his personal friends, but sought to protect the rights of Catholics to worship and participate in the life of the new nation: George Washington and Catholics.

Washington may not have become a Catholic, but Catholics in the United States owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for preserving and defending their freedom to worship freely and live as full citizens of the United States of America.

Related item:  here's a copy of the text of a letter George Washington sent to eminent Catholics in the young American Republic, upon his elevation of the office of the presidency:
While I now receive with much satisfaction your congratulations on my being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station in my country; I cannot but duly notice your politeness in offering an apology for the unavoidable delay. As that delay has given you an opportunity of realizing, instead of anticipating, the benefits of the general government, you will do me the justice to believe, that your testimony of the increase of the public prosperity, enhances the pleasure which I should otherwise have experienced from your affectionate address.  
I feel that my conduct, in war and in peace, has met with more general approbation than could reasonably have been expected and I find myself disposed to consider that fortunate circumstance, in a great degree, resulting from the able support and extraordinary candour of my fellow-citizens of all denominations.  
The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its freedom and independence. America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.  
As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.  
I thank you, gentlemen, for your kind concern for me. While my life and my health shall continue, in whatever situation I may be, it shall be my constant endeavour to justify the favourable sentiments which you are pleased to express of my conduct. And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.  
G. Washington


Tom Van Dyke said...

I have no idea.

Slaves Held Washington, Died Baptized Catholic!

From The Denver Register, February 24, 1957

New York----It was a long tradition among both the Maryland Province Jesuit Fathers and the Negro slaves of the Washington plantation and those of the surrounding area that the first President died a Catholic. These and other facts about George Washington are reported in the Paulist INFORMATION magazine by Doran Hurley.

The story is that Father Leonard Neale, S.J., was called to Mount Vernon from St. Mary's Mission across the Piscatawney River four hours before Washington's death. Tradition also holds that shortly after Washington's death Father Neale sent a heavily sealed packet to Rome. If this be true, it may yet turn up in the Vatican archives, or it may have been lost during the Jesuits' hidden years.

Washington's body servant Juba is authority for the fact that the General made the Sign of the Cross at meals. He may have learned this from his Catholic lieutenants, Stephen Moylan or John Fitzgerald. At Valley Forge, Washington forbade the burning in effigy of the Pontiff on "Pope's Day." Several times as President he is reported to have slipped into a Catholic church to hear Sunday Mass.

From The Denver Register, May 11, 1952


Washington (Special)---A picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary and one of St. John were among the effects found in an inventory of the articles at Mount Vernon at the death of George Washington, first president of the U.S.A. The Rev. W. C. Repetti, S.J., archivist at Georgetown University, reports he has discovered this information in an appendix to a biography of Washington. The book is a LIFE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Edward Everett, published by Sheldon & Co. in New York in 1860. Appendix No. 2, pages 286-7, lists an official "inventory of articles at Mt. Vernon with appraised values annexed. Taken by sworn appraisers after the decease of General Washington," the list includes:

1 Likeness of St. John 15.00
1 Likeness of Virgin Mary 15.00

"The fact that he had a picture of the Blessed Virgin is rather unexpected, and, to the best of my knowledge, has not been brought out," says Father Repetti.

The long report among slaves of Mount Vernon as to Washington's deathbed conversion would be odd unless based on truth. These were not Catholic Negroes; it is part of the tradition that weeping and wailing occurred in the quarters that Massa Washington had been snared by the Scarlet Woman of Rome, whom they had been taught to fear and hate. Supposedly, Father Neale was rowed across the Piscatawney by Negro oarsmen; and men often talked freely when slaves were nearby, confidently ignoring their presence.

Mark D. said...

I don't think that those stories are new to the mix, Tom. The question is, is there any evidence to support the allegations, given what we know about Washington and about the accounts of his passing that were made soon after his death?

Anything in life is possible -- but here it appears highly unlikely to me that there is sufficient evidence to say that Washington converted to Catholicism. I would very much like to believe that he did, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I know, Mark. But one must also avoid absolute cementheadedness in the absence of certainty as well---if Oscar Wilde could convert to Catholicism on his deathbed, anything is possible!

Mark D. said...

True enough -- did you know that Wilde is the one who coined the phrase "every saint has a past and every sinner has a future"?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good one. My favorite was that he looked at the dreadful wallpaper above his deathbed and said, oh well, one of us had to go.

JMS said...

Mark – what makes George Washington’s “liberal” policies towards Catholics even more praiseworthy is the fact that Catholics – then as now (as noted by Tom Van Dyke) – were divided politically in their affiliations and loyalties.

In his book, From Its European Antecedents to 1791 - The United States Army Chaplaincy, Parker C. Thompson claims that there were about 3200 churches divided among eighteen denominations at the time of the outbreak of the War (p. 84), and estimates that there were 56 Roman Catholic churches in the thirteen colonies/states.

In an article by James E. Newell* entitled, “A Brief Account of Religion and the Revolutionary War Chaplaincy,” he writes the following:

“The Catholics were also split in their loyalties with many siding with the Revolution despite the anti-Catholic sentiment. Ironically, although the Protestants feared that the King was too pro-Catholic, the Maryland Catholics feared that he was too anti-Catholic. When the French entered the war, they brought with them eleven Roman Catholic chaplains for the land troops and one hundred more on board ships (ibid.). Some American soldiers of the Catholic faith attended their first Mass in years in the nearby French camps (Williams, 87). There were two Continental Regiments known collectively as "Congress' Own" made up primarily of French Canadian Catholics supplemented by Catholics from Pennsylvania. Father Eustache Lotbiniere, also from Canada, was appointed by Benedict Arnold as Chaplain to the 1st Regiment on January 26th, 1776. He continued in the pay of the Congress for most of the war although he probably did not celebrate Mass since he had been cut off by Bishop Briand of Quebec, a staunch loyalist to the English. The Bishop also excommunicated all the Canadians who fought on the American side (Griffin, 45-46).”

Williams, Eugene Franklin, Soldiers of God - The Chaplains of the Revolutionary War, (New York, Carlton Press, Inc., 1975).

Griffin, Martin I.J., Catholics and the American Revolution, (Ridley Park, PA, Martin Griffin, 1907).

*Newell's article can be found at

Anonymous said...

Hey fellas, I looked at your home
page, could it be your bias?

Where is the Catholic in your
group? Did I miss her/him?

Remember now, well for the future,
if you could come to believe in Our
Lord's presence in the most Holy
Eucharist, your misuderstandings about the faith will fall away.

It is supernatural, "spirit and
life" as Jesus said, God can do

God bless you,