Monday, February 24, 2014

Washington's step-granddaughter writes of his religious practice

Following up on my recent post on Washington's religious library, here's a link to a letter written by Nelly Parke Custis-Lewis, Washington's step-grandaughter, in 1833. The letter is notable because it contains several bits of information about Washington's public support for the Anglican church, as well as his own practices in regard to church attendance and sacrament reception. The letter is based in part on Custis-Lewis' own personal observations of Washington's religious habits.   

Here's the text of the letter:
I received your favor of the 20th instant last evening, and hasten to give you the information, which you desire. 
Truro Parish is the one in which Mount Vernon, Pohick Church, and Woodlawn are situated. Fairfax Parish is now Alexandria. Before the Federal District was ceded to Congress, Alexandria was in Fairfax County. General Washington had a pew in Pohick Church, and one in Christ Church at Alexandria. He was very instrumental in establishing Pohick Church, and I believe subscribed largely. His pew was near the pulpit. I have a perfect recollection of being there, before his election to the presidency, with him and my grandmother. It was a beautiful church, and had a large, respectable, and wealthy congregation, who were regular attendants. 
He attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles. In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition. The afternoon was spent in his own room at home; the evening with his family, and without company. Sometimes an old and intimate friend called to see us for an hour or two; but visiting and visitors were prohibited for that day. No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother. 
It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o'clock where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men." He communed with his God in secret. 
My mother resided two years at Mount Vernon after her marriage with John Parke Custis, the only son of Mrs. Washington. I have heard her say that General Washington always received the sacrament with my grandmother before the revolution. When my aunt, Miss Custis [Martha "Patsy"] died suddenly at Mount Vernon, before they could realize the event, he knelt by her and prayed most fervently, most affectingly, for her recovery. Of this I was assured by Judge Washington's mother and other witnesses. 
He was a silent, thoughtful man. He spoke little generally; never of himself. I never heard him relate a single act of his life during the war. I have often seen him perfectly abstracted, his lips moving, but no sound was perceptible. I have sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits. I was, probably, one of the last persons on earth to whom he would have addressed serious conversation, particularly when he knew that I had the most perfect model of female excellence ever with me as my monitress, who acted the part of a tender and devoted parent, loving me as only a mother can love, and never extenuating or approving in me what she disapproved of others. She never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties; and she and her husband were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian. She had no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity. Is it necessary that any one should certify, "General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity?" As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, "Deeds, not Words"; and, "For God and my Country." 
With sentiments of esteem, 
I am, Nelly Custis-Lewis


Tom Van Dyke said...

Nelly Custis-Lewis is a liar, some say.

Many say. Thus the controversy continues.

Mark DeForrest said...

Perhaps, although she is one of the few people to leave first hand, detailed accounts of Washington's religious practice, and her accounts gibe with what is known about Washington's practices from other sources. Like any source, she needs to be taken with a grain of salt -- particularly since her letter is written in 1833, long after Washington had passed. That said, it is one piece of evidence -- no more, no less -- some of which is first hand, some of which is second hand.

Mark DeForrest said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

Even if we take her at face value, as Mark noted the facts that she disclosed are consistent with Washington's unconventional religious practices: 1. that he avoided communion; 2. that he didn't kneel when praying; and 3. that he didn't seem to profess the "explicits" of traditional Christianity (which is why she needs to say the "deeds not words" line). These are three practices that distinguish him from Martha's practices of her faith. So no, she's not lying; rather she's giving evidence to the "GW wasn't a 'Christian' in the same sense that Martha was" thesis.

She's also saying that she didn't witness or inquire about GW's religious specifics.

In terms of her opinion as to how to understand and categorize his faith, that's just it, her opinion. A weighty one, yes.

JMS said...

The controversy Tom mentions stems from the unfortunate “cherry-picking or “ammunition-seeking” by culture warriors attempting to portray GW as an orthodox or unorthodox (i.e., somewhat deistic) Christian. You can support either interpretation by selecting snippets from Nelly Custis-Lewis’ letter that support one side by conveniently ignoring contradictory testimony.

But I don’t understand how anyone could call her a “liar.” Other than his wife Martha, who would know more about GW than his grand-daughter/adopted daughter, who lived in the same home with them for twenty years (1779-1799 – when she married and GW died)? As Mark and Jon observed correctly, her letter cannot be dismissed as hearsay because it is based mostly on her first-hand testimony (with one second-hand observation from her mother). I don’t see any credibility issue, other than possibly the 34 year gap and her memory (she was 54, but lived another 19 years).

As Jon stated so well in his three points, Custis-Lewis confirmed some of GW’s unorthodox practices as noted by others (e.g., Phila. bishop William White’s confirmation that GW did receive communion, but Martha did). She did not mention that although GW was raised Anglican, he was never confirmed.

What I find most credible is her mild retort or rebuke of Sparks and others, “Is it necessary that any one should certify, ‘General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity?’”

I know Tom abhors “dueling historians,” but the best concise rendering of GW, Martha and Nelly’s religion is in David L. Holmes’ book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. It is one of the few overviews that examines seriously the faiths of the wives and daughters of the founding fathers.

JMS said...

I obviously left out the word not in my above comment. I meant to reiterate that GW was observed to have not taken holy communion at Anglican services, while his wife Martha did partake of the sacrament. Mea culpa.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I know Tom abhors “dueling historians,” but the best concise rendering of GW, Martha and Nelly’s religion is in David L. Holmes’ book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. It is one of the few overviews that examines seriously the faiths of the wives and daughters of the founding fathers.

FTR, my only problem is when someone argues a historian's opinion as fact, as the end of discussion, not the beginning of one.

Brian Tubbs said...

We can debate the significance of Washington's not taking Communion as Martha did or try to speculate on the other differences/distinctions between GW's practices and his wife's, but the evidence is pretty strong (not simply with Nelly Custis-Lee's letter) that Washington's family (including his wife, granddaughter, etc.) believed he was a sincere Christian. That should be good enough for us.