Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The George Washington/Ashbel Green Affair

Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they tho[ugh]t they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice.


I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.

That is what Thomas Jefferson wrote in his diary February 1, 1800, six weeks after GW's death. The "Asa Green" was Ashbel Green, Presbyterian minister, and eighth president of Princeton 1812-1822. Because this quote is oft-used by more skeptical scholars to debunk GW's "Christianity," (indeed I used it in an article) I am going to produce much of the additional scholarly record that surrounds said event (with minimal commentary).

First, Ashbel Green furiously denied Jefferson's analysis of the event, with vitriol. The incident did happen (we will see the letters as we read on) and I have no doubt that Jefferson honestly heard those things from Benjamin Rush and Gouverneur Morris. Whether their assessment (Jefferson's, Rush's, & Morris') is accurate remains debatable (on a personal note, I tend to think it is insofar as GW was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian; I think he was a theist, who might have been a "Christian" in some broader non-orthodox Trinitarian sense; see also Forrest Church's summary of the controversy).

But let's see some of Rev. Green's reaction to Jefferson's note. You can read the whole long thing here; I am going to reproduce snippets.

In the " consultations of the clergy" on this occasion, it is our belief that not a single syllable was uttered importing that the President had "never on any occasion said a word to the publick which showed a belief in the Christian religion." Any such allegation, as we have shown above, would have been palpably false, if it had been made; and by the writer, as already intimated, it was known then, as well as now, that on leaving the command of the army, the General had used the language which we have quoted from his letter to the governors of the several states. We have, with a view to what we now write, conversed with the venerable Bishop White, whose name is the first on the list, and who was one of the committee, and he has assured us, that he has no trace of recollection that any thing was said in the two meetings of the clergy, relative to the neglect of the President to declare his belief on the subject of divine revelation: And the address shows, beyond controversy, that nothing was said "to force him at length to declare publickly, whether he was a Christian or not."


We do wish he had gone farther; we give it as our decided opinion, that every Christian man, whatever be his station or his circumstances, ought so frequently and explicitly to recognise his Christian faith and character, as not to leave to the enemies of his Saviour, any plausible opening for their false surmises and suggestions. But because we so think and speak, are we to be represented as saying, or insinuating, that every man, or any man, who thinks otherwise and above all, that President Washington, because he differed from us in this opinion, must be set down as an unbeliever in divine revelation? The absurdity and injustice of such a representation is too monstrous to need further exposure.


The Christian can neither resign it, nor modify it, from a regard to a political party or a patriotic favorite: and after the publication of these papers, the Christians of our land...will never hear the name of Jefferson, without such an association of it with his hatred of Christianity, as will sink him immeasurably in their estimation. In the close of a letter to Mr. Madison (vol. iv. p. 420) he says—"To myself you have been a pillar of support through life. Take care of me when dead." We verily think Mr. J. has left a hard and impracticable task to his friend. Not all the talents of Mr. Madison, great as we admit them to be; nor all the learning and eloquence of Unitarians, imposing as they certainly are; nor all the lauding and birth day celebrations of party politicians, however eminent in station, will be able to form "a pillar of support," which will durably sustain the reputation of the reviler of Christ and his cause -- "The memory of the just is blessed; but the name of the wicked shall rot."

But, there is eyewitness testimony that corroborates Jefferson's claim. Arthur Bradford was a contemporary of Ashbel Green:

"I knew Dr. Wilson personally, and have entertained him at my house, on which occasion he said in my hearing what my relative, the Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green of Philadelphia, frequently told me in his study, viz., that during the time that Congress sat in that city the clergy, suspecting from good evidence that Washington was not a believer in the Bible as a revelation from heaven, laid a plan to extort from him a confession, either pro or con, but that the plan failed. Dr. Green was chaplain to Congress during all the time of its sitting in Philadelphia; dined with the President on special invitation nearly every week; was well acquainted with him, and after he had been dead and gone many years, often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist."


"It was during his [Dr. Green's] long residence in Philadelphia that I became intimately acquainted with him as a relative, student of theology at Princeton, and a member of the same Presbytery to which he belonged. Many an hour during my student and clergyman days did I spend with him in his study at No. 150 Pine street, Philadelphia, listening to his interesting and instructive conversation on Revolutionary times and incidents. I recollect well that during one of these interviews in his study I inquired of him what were the real opinions Washington entertained on the subject of religion. He promptly answered pretty nearly in the language which Jefferson says Dr. Rush used. He explained more at length the plan laid by the clergy of Philadelphia at the close of Washington's administration as President to get his views of religion for the sake of the good influence they supposed they would have in counteracting the Infidelity of Paine and the rest of the Revolutionary patriots, military and civil. But I well remember the smile on his face and the twinkle of his black eye when he said: 'The old fox was too cunning for Us.' He affirmed, in concluding his narrative, that from his long and intimate acquaintance with Washington he knew it to be the case that while he respectfully conformed to the religious customs of society by generally going to church on Sundays, he had no belief at all in the divine origin of the Bible, or the Jewish-Christian religion."

As this link indicates, apparently Bradford's words come from an 19th Century Chicago Tribune article on Washington's religion written by BF Underwood.

So, let's read the text of the letter that may have been an attempt of the "orthodox" to set a trap for GW and GW's response where he played the part of "cunning fox."

To George Washington, President of the United States.


On a day which becomes important in the annals of America, as marking the close of a splendid public life, devoted for near half a century to the service of your country, we the undersigned, clergy of different denominations in and near the city of Philadelphia, beg leave to join the voice of our fellow-citizens in expressing our deep sense of your public services in every department of trust and authority committed to you. But, in our special characters as ministers of the gospel of Christ, we are more immediately bound to acknowledge the countenance which you have universally given to his holy religion.

In your public character we have beheld the edifying example of a civil ruler always acknowledging the superintendence of Divine Providence in the affairs of men, and confirming that example by the powerful recommendation of religion and morality as the firmest basis of social happiness,—more particularly in the following language of your affectionate parting address to your fellow-citizens:—

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness,—the firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles."

Should the importance of these just and pious sentiments be duly appreciated and regarded, we confidently trust that the prayers you have offered for the prosperity of our common country will be answered. In these prayers we most fervently unite, and with equal fervor in those which the numerous public bodies that represent the citizens of these States are offering for their beloved chief. We most devoutly implore the Divine blessing to attend you in your retirement, to render it in all respects comfortable to you, to satisfy you with length of days, and finally to receive you into happiness and glory infinitely greater than this world can bestow.

-- Philadelphia, March 3, 1797.

And here is GW's response:

Gentlemen: Not to acknowledge with gratitude and sensibility the affectionate addresses and benevolent wishes of my fellow Citizens on my retiring from public life, would prove that I have been unworthy of the Confidence which they have been pleased to repose in me.

And, among those public testimonies of attachment and approbation, none can be more grateful than that of so respectable a body as yours.

Believing, as I do, that Religion and Morality are the essential pillars of Civil society, I view, with unspeakable pleasure, that harmony and brotherly love which characterizes the Clergy of different denominations, as well in this, as in other parts of the United States; exhibiting to the world a new and interesting spectacle, at once the pride of our Country and the surest basis of universal Harmony.

That your labours for the good of Mankind may be crowned with success; that your temporal enjoyments may be commensurate with your merits; and that the future reward of good and faithful Servants may be your's, I shall not cease to supplicate the Divine Author of life and felicity.

-- March 3, 1797.


Mark D. said...

I think that debates around Washington's religion are infinately fascinating yet also next to impossible to resolve in that he himself was not ever clear on his specific religious convictions. When he spoke and wrote about religion, he spoke and wrote in theistic terms -- he believed in a God who intervened in human affairs via divine Providence, etc. He was a member of the Episcopal Church, and would have publically receited the trinitarian Creed on Sundays as part of the Anglican liturgy according to the Book of Common Prayer. So, we have his statements (which indicate theism but not necessarily trinitarian Christianity) and his practice (which was conventionally Episcopalian and thus trinitarian).

I don't think that we should look only at Washington's words -- we should also look at his practices. In my own life, I have known people of deep faith -- very orthodox, trinitarian faith -- who really never express that faith in words apart from the words they repeat during worship on Sunday.

Adding to this, Washington wasn't a theologian or a scholar. He was a businessman, a solider, and a politican. And in all of these occupations, he was playing a part. His public statements on religion have to read in light of that simple fact.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think you are more or less right. GW could be like Zelig when communicating to various religious groups; he always seemed to speak in their terms, though without getting too specific about what he really believed. And the only "religions" he seemed to no like were the ones who taught submission to England was a divine duty or otherwise that didn't recognize God's Hand in winning the American Revolution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Jonathan. I didn't know that Rev. Green disputed what Jefferson attributed to him. You remain an honest man and a credible source.

Live long and prosper.

Phil Johnson said...

Keep up the good work, Jonathon.

Tony Green said...

As Dr. Ashbel Green's direct descendant, I find this a fascinating discussion. I'm not quite sure how family lore really works, but my namesake is known within the family as a highly religious to the point of courting unpopularity. it is interesting in as much as none of his descendants have ever shown so much zeal -- for better or for worse.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Glad you checked it.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jonathan, I enjoyed reading this article. I personally don't agree with all your conclusions, but your postings (like this one) are almost always a treat to read. I enjoy the research and work you put into them.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks Brian!

Nap Warrior said...

I think it should be known that Dr James Abercrombie, another clergyman and good friend of Washington also came to the same conclusion, related to an interviewer of the same Reverend Dr Wilson mentioned in your piece, I believe. Said Dr. Wilson made a study of all the presidents of that time, up to and including Jackson, interviewing those that knew them, their clergy, etc. and found that none of them believed in the Christian faith. He called them infidels, all. I noticed up the comments here another of the main misconceptions people make about the times, that attending and being members of a church made you a Christian. It did not. What we have to remember is that at the time, leading up to, during and for some time after, the churches that held power in a certain area were capable, through that power, of making or breaking a man. All those with any ambition at all went to and belonged to a church, no matter their faith. In example, Benjamin Franklin, an avowed deist in his own words, in his memoirs, purchased and held a reserved pew in all of the major churches in his locale. There was not freedom of religion, far from it, and to succeed, you had to present the illusion, at least, of piety. That means nothing in determining the religious bent of any founder, therefor. From his records, upon leaving the presidency, and public eye, it appears that Washington went to church about three times, in three years.