Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Primary Sources on GW & Religion

Christian America apologist blogger "Hercules Mulligan" reproduces from google books key testimony on the debate regarding George Washington's religion. I linked to those same primary sources here. He reproduces the very long debates between freethinker Robert Dale Owen and conservative Christian Origen Bacheler. The information produced in these debates ended up playing a key role in establishing that Washington was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian but "something else." I entirely disagree with the blogger's analysis and won't reproduce all of it, but instead will reproduce the primary sources. Let me briefly respond to his analysis before I do. He notes Dr. Abercrombie's (George Washington's own minister) case against Washington's orthodox Christianity turns on the fact that GW systematically avoided communion, but points out that taking communion is not one of the essentials of "real Christianity." The blogger essentially states that communion is irrelevant to "Christ only" Protestant Christianity, which the blogger assumes arguendo is the only "real" form of "Christianity." As he writes:

Abercrombie gave the usual Anglican explanation: you can't have God's grace imparted to you without the communion, and since Washington was not a communicant, he didn't have God's grace. However, a biblical understanding of the matter does not support Abercrombie's (or the theological Anglican) opinion. The Bible says that grace comes only through faith in Jesus Christ (see, for instance, Paul's epistles). Therefore, I believe that Abercrombie's conclusion is inaccurate.

Therefore, since he sees no evidence that GW rejected Christianity in the "Christ only" sense, GW remains a "real Christian" in his eyes. What the blogger fails to address is that little if *any* evidence establishes GW as a "Christian" in the traditional orthodox sense apart from his being a devout Anglican/Episcopalian! (The syllogism is as follows: 1. Anglicans believe in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine; 2. GW was a devoted Anglican; therefore 3. GW was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.) Devout Anglicans, however, according to their doctrine, expressed their faith in the Atonement by engaging in communion. Those who systematically rejected communion in the Founding era usually did so because they rejected what communion symbolized: "Christ's Atonement." Therefore, GW's systematic avoidance of communion almost certainly signified either or both of the following: 1. that GW disbelieved in the Atonement; and/or 2. that GW was a nominal Anglican. If GW was a "nominal Anglican" who nonetheless believed in the fundamentals of "orthodox Christianity," the burden is on the blogger to so demonstrate entirely without any appeal to GW's affiliation with and consequently his belief in the doctrines of the Anglican/Episcopal Church! The problem is he can't because Washington never explicitly endorsed belief in doctrines like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible, etc. His supposed belief in such doctrines is invariably tied to his being a devout Anglican/Episcopalian. And his systematic avoidance of communion in said church belies his being a "devout" as opposed to "nominal" Anglican/Episcopalian.

Anyway the following is key testimony in the primary sources from Robert Dale Owen, Origen Bacheler, Rev. Dr. James Abercrombie, and James Renwick Willson (who is referred to as "Rev." or "Dr." "Wilson").

... The sentence from Weems' Life of Washington, produced by Mr. Owen is shown by its style to have been only designed as a sally of fancy. A wonderful reason this, for rejecting as false the grave, historical part of the account. As to Jefferson's testimony touching the skepticism of Washington, he has given none such: he did none pretend to be the author of it; nor did Morris pretend that Washington told him he did not believe in Christianity. And the statement of Jefferson, that Washington in his public documents spake favourably of Christianity but once, I have amply refuted, by extracts from the documents themselves. That the Rev. Mr. Jackson, more than thirty years after the death of Washington, has not chanced to find any of the few surviving scattered individuals who communed with him, (if indeed any are still living,) is about as strong evidence of his skepticism, as that he did not deliver a long Christian valedictory in his dying hour, when he could hardly articulate a syllable on account of his quincy. I have proved positively that he was a professor of religion; that he was a communicant; that he was in the habit of secret prayer, &c. &c.: and I have now only to add, that if he cannot be proved to have been a believer in Christianity, no man can.

I do not perceive the irrationality of the question proposed by Ethan Allen's daughter to her father. She very naturally concluded that if he would give his real opinion at such a time, and if that opinion was, that infidelity would not do to die by, it would be a reason why it should not be confided in at all, and would likewise show that the reasons which her father had urged in its behalf were unsound even in his own estimation. It was therefore the highest rationality, to put this question precisely under the circumstances that she did.

Jefferson might construe that into skepticism which perhaps another would not. As John Adams was a member of a congregational church, he was either a believer in Christianity or a hypocrite. Should Mr. Owen therefore succeed in proving him to have been a skeptic, he will in so doing likewise prove him to have been a hypocrite; in which case, he would be perfectly welcome to him. Considering, however, the mistakes to which Jefferson was liable, and the testimony furnished in Rev. Mr. Whitney's letter, I rest very easy on this point.

Franklin's case will do very well without further defence, while his epitaph remains, and his condemnation of his youthful skepticism retains a place in his memoirs.

My opponent has made a rather slim work, in his attempt to substantiate his assertion, that three quarters in our revolutionary struggle were sceptics. Ethan Allen was not a leader, unless there were a great many leaders; for he was only a colonel. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Patrick Henry, three of the most conspicuous leaders, were decided friends of Christianity. This will not be disputed. Washington and John Adams were communicants in churches. Franklin shows himself to have been a believer in the Bible. And there were many other distinguished leaders, such as Laurens, Gates, Greene, Putnam, Montgomery, Warren, &c., &c., none of whom has my opponent even attempted to prove have been sceptics. What then becomes of his assertion? ... ORIGEN BACHELER.

... R. D. O.

Albany, November 12, 1831.

P.S. I am now enabled to furnish two further documents relative to the private opinions of distinguished republicans. One is, an extract from a sermon delivered on the 23rd October last by Rev. Dr. Wilson, a clergyman of Albany, and reputed to be a man of as much zeal and learning as any in the city; a sermon, I may incidentally remark, in which Dr. W. says, in speaking of the framing of the Constitution of the United States, that "the proceedings as published by Thompson, the secretary, show, that the question was gravely debated in Congress whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it;" that "the men whose arguments swayed to vote God out of the Constitution, to declare that there should be no religious test, and that Congress should make no law to establish religion, were atheists in principle; that among our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than unitarianism;* that among all of the governors of Pennsylvania and New-York only two of the former and one of the latter were professors of religion. &c." In this sermon, as reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city (of the 29th October last) occurs the following paragraph:

"Washington was a man of valour and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man, but he was not a professor of religion, at least not till after he was president. When the Congress sat in Philadelphia, President Washington attended the episcopal church. the rector, Dr. Abercrombie, has told me, that on the days when the sacrament of the Lord's supper was to be administered, Washington's custom was to rise, just before the ceremony commenced, and to walk out of the church. This became a subject of remark among the congregation, as setting a bad example. At length the doctor undertook to speak of it, with a direct allusion to the president. Washington was heard afterwards to remark, that this was the first time a clergyman had thus preached to him, and that he would henceforth neither trouble the doctor nor his congregation on such occasions. And ever after that, upon communion days, he absented himself altogether from the church."

As this important paragraph, being only from a newspaper report of a sermon, could hardly be considered authentic, I myself called, accompanied by a gentleman of this city, on Dr. Wilson, this afternoon. After giving my name, and stating the object of my visit, I read to the doctor, at his request, the above paragraph. When I had completed, he said: "I endorse every word of that." He further added: "As I conceive that truth is truth, whether it makes for or against us, I will not conceal from you any information on this subject, even such as I have not yet given to the public. At the close of our conversation on the subject, Dr. Abercrombie's emphatic expression was, for I well remember the very words, 'Sir, Washington was a deist!'" "Now," continued Dr. Wilson, "I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he pledges himself as a professor of Christianity. I think any man who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a deist, and nothing more. I do not take upon myself to say positively that he was, but that is my opinion."

Dr. Abercrombie, the associate of Bishop White in the pastoral care of Christ's Church in Philadelphia, is now alive, to corroborate the statement of his brother clergyman. So much for WASHINGTON, of whom you say, if he cannot be proved a Christian, no human being can.


The admissions of opponents are, as you once reminded me, "so much pure gold." I therefore the more willingly adduce so unquestionable authority. R. D. O.

*John Adams and his son, he thinks, were unitarians; in inquired himself, he said, of Madison what were his opinions on religion, and Madison "evaded any expression whatever of his religious faith;" of Monroe's opinions, he says, he knows little, except that he never heard of any religious profession from him; and Jackson, he believes, though not a regular professor either, is the most religious president we have ever had.

O. B. ...

"With regard to the Postscript of Mr. Owen from Albany, I have to observe, that I have dispatch three letters to the Rev. Dr. Wilson, requesting him to give the names of those atheists whose arguments swayed the Convention that formed the Constitution of the United States to vote the name of God out of it; but no answer have I succeeded in getting from him. This assertion of the doctor must therefore pass for an unsustained one. Indeed, in the very next breath, in the sermon under consideration, he contradicts it by saying, that some of the men were deists. So much for his testimony on that point. Besides, the fact that a religious test is excluded from the Constitution, is no proof that its framers were not even Christians. I have received a letter from Rev. Dr. Abercrombie; but as he wishes not to appear before the public in print, I shall not insert it. I will only say, that he denies all recollection of having told Rev. Dr. Wilson that Washington was a deist, and says it was evidence he was a professing Christian, though he did not commune in his church. The following additional testimony relative to the religious character of Washington I have received from Rev. Mr. Jackson of Alexandria:

Alexandria, Nov. 22, 1831

'I have heard my grandfather, the Rev. Lee Massey, who was a rector of Pohick Church, near Mount Vernon, say, that General Washington was a communicant in his church. The above information was given in answer to a question after returning from Pohick Church, where I occupied the general's pew. The substance of the grandfather's reply was, that he (the general) was a communicant, and that a better Christian never lived or died. MARGARET M. GREER


Your letter found me in the bustle of changing my residence. I have however given it my attention. The above certificate is the best information I can at present obtain, and ought to be sufficient. Mrs. Greer is a very respectable lady, and may be depended upon. A daughter of the Rev. Mr. Massey is expected in town, from whome I have the hope of obtaining some of General Washington's letters.

The parish of Pohick has not had a rector, I believe, since the general's death. He afterwards attended in Alexandria. This accounts for the church not giving the evidence which you desire.

I beg you will make use of me again, should the case require.

Yours very respectfully,


[To] Mr. Origen Bacheler, New-York.

Alexandria, Dec. 7, 1831.


I am sorry, after so long a delay in replying to your last, that it is not in my power to communicate something decisive in reference to General Washington's church membership. The branch of the family from whom I hoped to obtain information, are yet absent from Mount Vernon on account of sickness, and I now begin to think it doubtful whether they will be there this winter. Nor can I find any old person who ever communed with him, though not one expresses any doubt on the subject. It may seem strange that none can certify the fact; but it is not difficult to account for, when we remember, that the parish to which he belonged has not had a rector for, perhaps, thirty years; that the number of the communicants in the episcopal churches after the revolution was very small, and those probably, in general, persons advanced in years; and further, that none of the church records can be found. All these circumstances render it exceedingly difficult to obtain such testimony as is desirable. Universal tradition in the families of those whose parents or friends were acquainted with the general, is, that he was a regular communicant.

I may say again, that all his relations in this part of the country are decidedly of opinion that he was a professed and real Christian, and in full standing as a member of the protestant episcopal church. I regret that the pains I have taken to gain satisfactory evidence have not been more successful, though I think it ought and will be deemed sufficient by all but such as are determined to believe, that they have the sanction of his great name on the side of infidelity.

Wishing you may be more successful in some other quarter,

With respect yours,


[To] Mr. Origen Bacheler, New-York.

" ... In view of the foregoing, the reader will see what dependence is to be placed on the pretensions and assertions of sceptics with regard to the religious opinions of our other distinguished men. Could the inquiry be made, we have now fair grounds for concluding, that it would result in their cases as it has resulted in those now under consideration. I have but to add by way of conclusion, that it appears by the Evangelist, that Rev. Dr. Wilson is an opposer of revivals in religion. This circumstance will have its proper weight with the public, whenever they think of his concessions to Mr. Owen.


The blogger did edit with ellipses: "...". However, his edits were on point. The final primary source to reproduce is Dr. Abercrombie's (Washington's minister!) letter where he states because GW avoided communion, he wasn't a "real Christian." The original can be found here.

[O]n Sacrament Sundays, Gen'l Washington, immediately after the Desk and Pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation, always leaving Mrs. Washington with the communicants, she invariably being one, I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to sate the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President, and, as such, he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a Senator of the U. S., he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who, in the course of conversation at the table, said, that on the preceding Sunday, he had received a very just reproof from the public, for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candour; that he had never considered the influence of his example; that he would never again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never become a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he afterwards never came on the morning of Sacrament Sundays, tho', at other times, constant attending in the morning.

Of the assertion made by Dr. Wilson in the conclusion of a paragraph of your letter, I cannot say I have not the least recollection of such a conversation, but had I made use of the expression stated, it could not have extended father than the expression of private individual opinion. That Washington was a professing Christian is evident from his regular attendance in our church; but, Sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace. This, Sir, is all that I think it proper to state on paper. In a conversation, more latitude being allowed, more light might, perhaps, be thrown upon it. I trust, however, Sir, you will not introduce my name in print.

I am, Sir,


James Abercrombie

If I can comment on the overall tone of the exchange: Many of the folks who want to claim Washington as a "Christian" express their hope to do so because they don't want him to be categorized as an "infidel." This illustrates the social prejudice of the early 19th Century: America's key Founders were secret unitarians and that doctrine, according to Founding era cultural prejudice, was viewed as a softer form of "infidelity." However, as has been shown, many of these "Christian" key Founders did indeed believe in softer, "unitarian" infidel principles. For instance, the conservative Christian in the debate, Origin Bacheler, notes "John Adams and his son, he thinks, were unitarians," and "[a]s John Adams was a member of a congregational church, he was either a believer in Christianity or a hypocrite. Should Mr. Owen therefore succeed in proving him to have been a skeptic, he will in so doing likewise prove him to have been a hypocrite." But we know that the "Christian" John Adams was, like Jefferson, a self-defined "unitarian" who rejected original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible, and eternal damnation. If this means Adams was a "skeptic" and not a "Christian" then Owen was right on Adams. According to this standard which deems hypocrisy as being affiliated with a church in whose doctrines one doesn't believe, if Washington didn't believe in the Anglican's doctrine on communion, as Hercules Mulligan intimates, then Washington was a "hypocrite" as well.

But, in any respect, the evidence that Washington was an "orthodox Trinitarian Christian" is utterly lacking, and Washington's words and deeds, rather strongly point in the direction of his belief in a different system.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Exactly! This constitutes my own frustration with discussing the "communion issue." It proves nothing aye or nay; but those who belief Washington was an unbeliever have very little else to work with, so it seems they keep regurgitating this one. Sigh.

I think that Mr. Mulligan's frustration is misplaced. If GW had been a secret true Christian believing the communion service to be heretical then why would he be silent with his wife's soul facing eternal damnation?

Is there anything in the record to suggest that he would be silent on such a weighty matter of conscience with Christian salvation in the balance? If so, how would that reflect upon the nature his alleged Christianity? If so, how would that reflect upon his courage and forthrightness?

I think that the unfounded assertion that Washington did not take communion because it was heretical while remaining silent as his loved ones practiced heresy is absurd and would be more damning to his character than considering him irreligious altogether.

Speaking of having little to work with.....