This review appears in
the May 2006 issue of The American
Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our
by Michael Novak and Jana Novak
(Basic Books, 256 pages, $26)
At a candlelight dinner on the portico of Mount Vernon, Roman
Catholic ethicist Michael Novak was reluctantly persuaded by the
Mount Vernon Ladies Association to write a book about George
Washington's religious beliefs. Among the over one million
visitors each year to Washington's exquisitely preserved estate,
the request for such a book is common but largely unrequited,
Novak was told.
George Washington's modern biographers are almost uniform in
dismissing or minimizing his religious faith. James Flexner, in
his famous three-volume work of the 1970s, wrote: "Washington
subscribed to the religious faith of the Enlightenment; like
Franklin and Jefferson he was a deist... not believing in the
doctrines of the churches." Willard Randall's more recent
Washington: A Life similarly asserts, "He was not a deeply
religious man. Once he left his Bible thumping mother's
household he may never have taken any Anglican communion again,
yet he went to church frequently..." Joe Ellis's highly
acclaimed His Excellency of last year echoed this theme: "Never
a deeply religious man, at least in the traditional Christian
sense of the term, Washington thought of God as a distant
This insistence on a religiously ambivalent Washington stretches
back over many decades. Even Douglas Southall Freeman's
magisterial seven-volume biography dared not assert that its
subject was overly devout. A serious Baptist and conservative
Richmond newspaper editor, Freeman presumably did not share the
secular biases of more recent biographers but nonetheless was
cryptic and cautious about Washington's religion.
Henry Cabot Lodge, well over a century ago, was probably the
last major biographer to insist that Washington was
unequivocally a Christian, based on a single reference to Jesus
Christ as "the Divine Author of our religion." Either Washington
actually believed this or he was a "liar," Lodge wrote.
The assumption of the last century's scholarship that Washington
was irreligious is partly his fault. Reserved and emotionally
reticent, he left no extant theological treatises on his
personal religious beliefs. The clues must be extracted from
Washington's ecclesial habits, his family life, his character,
and the numerous references to the Almighty in his public
writings and personal letters.
WASHINGTON'S GOD BY MICHAEL AND JANA NOVAK attempts to
clarify the record about the great man's religion. Such
clarification is long overdue. The Novaks (who are father and
daughter) remind us that for a century after Washington's death,
historians, starting with his first biographer John Marshall,
described the first president as a devout Christian.
The enormously successful hagiographer Parson Mason Locke Weems
is routinely credited for generating pious myths about
Washington. But the Novaks assert that Weems, who briefly
pastored the Pohick Anglican Church that the Washingtons
attended, was only disseminating what was already widely
believed to be true.
Church is still much alive, founded in part by GW, who was, as I
recall a vestryman. They still have the old square pews.
And pockmarks in the bricks record both the Wars for
Independence and Between the States. It was sadly drifting
in a pseudo-liberal direction (as of 2003 when I was attending
Most of Washington's family, friends, and associates assumed he
had at least conventional if not necessarily expressive
Christian faith. "He took these things [religion] as he found
them existing, and was constant in his observance of worship
according to the received forms of the Episcopal Church in which
he was brought up," James Madison matter-of-factly observed of
his fellow Virginian.
The Novaks describe 18th-century Tidewater Virginia Anglican
culture, in which gentlemen were expected to be church-going but
reticent about their faith. "Lukewarm Anglican" then as now was
a redundancy, they affirm. Prizing refinement over enthusiasm,
even devout Anglicans were and largely still are expected to be
tight-lipped and even inarticulate about religion.
Washington was indeed tight-lipped about the specifics of his
theology. But he was surprisingly frequent is his references to
the Deity. His God was not remote or impersonal. Washington's
God, as he described Him in his public declarations and personal
letters, was quite active and quite personal. This deity saved
the young Washington several times from French and Indian
bullets, saved Washington's army from near destruction by the
far larger British army, and saved the young republic from chaos
Helpfully in their appendix, the Novaks list the more than 100
ways that Washington described God, from "Almighty and Merciful
Sovereign of the Universe" to "Wonder-working Deity." Some of
them are quite creative. None are at odds with the Jewish and
Christian understanding of a personal God. They include
references to the divine as "Father" and "Jehovah."
Washington's few specific references to Jesus Christ and his
lack of Trinitarian language helped fuel the assumption that he
was a deist. The Novaks devote a whole chapter to deism, which
they explain as a rationalization of Christianity. The deist God
is a creator whose world is governed by natural laws and who
desires moral living by humanity, whose conduct will be judged
in the afterlife.
Much of early Protestantism initially rejected Catholicism's use
of human reason, choosing instead to focus on faith alone.
Deism, the Novaks suggest, allowed Protestants to incorporate
the language of reason during the Enlightenment. Some deists
remained Christians, while others would follow the European
model of strict rationalism. Washington, as he related the many
interventions of his God, clearly believed in a continuously
active deity who was more than the detached "clockmaker" of
The language of Enlightenment, 18th-century Christianity,
especially as employed by refined Tidewater Anglicans, was
considerably less flamboyant than what would replace it. During
Washington's final years, the established Anglican and
Congregationalist churches of the East Coast were losing market
share to revivalist evangelicals. Methodists, and Baptists, with
their emphasis on conversion and transformation, would dominate
19th-century America. Their christo-centric language was far
more explicit about salvation, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit,
and the demand for repentance.
Early fans of Washington, in the wake of his death at the
18th-century's close, sought to explain the first president's
Christian faith in the language of the new evangelical era.
Washington's own words frequently could not match these demands.
So the hagiographers focused on Washington's self-denial, his
courtesy, his reliable church-going, his prayer life, and his
ardent sense of duty and providential destiny. Exaggeration of
Washington's faith and character throughout the 19th century was
But the 20th-century backlash by increasingly secular historians
also went too far. Modern biographers portray Washington as a
Roman stoic who performed his religious duties perfunctorily to
satisfy the public. The Novaks emphasize that whatever the
specifics of the man's personal faith, he said the same things
about God in private as he did in public. He contrasts with
Jefferson and Franklin and even Adams, who privately expressed
doubts about orthodox understandings of Christ's deity and the
Trinity, even as they attended churches and affirmed
NONE OF WASHINGTON'S WRITINGS express any doubts about orthodox
Christianity. If he had them, he left them unrecorded or
confined to his correspondence with his wife, who burned nearly
all their letters on his instructions. Martha was herself
indisputably devout in her Christian faith, though she too left
few written theological thoughts, in typical Anglican style of
The Washingtons usually attended Pohick Church near Mount Vernon
and sometimes Christ Church in Alexandria. Either trip by
carriage involved a couple hours of travel round trip.
Washington financially supported both churches and gave
considerable personal time over the decades to his work on the
church vestry. Throughout his presidency he regularly attended
churches in New York and Philadelphia.
A few clergy over the years expressed concern that Washington
rarely if ever took communion, even though Martha usually did.
The Novaks write that this was not unusual for the time, and
that the Eucharist was infrequently celebrated in churches of
the era, even Roman Catholic ones. Although not noted by the
Novaks, 19th-century biographers often disputed claims that
Washington never took the Eucharist. Ostensibly, the nearly
100-year-old widow of Alexander Hamilton testified to her clear
recollection of kneeling at the communion rail with the
Washington's spiritual life within his family appears to have
been conventionally orthodox. He prayed before meals, read
sermons out loud to Martha, and bought devotional material for
his stepchildren. When stepdaughter Patsy was dying, he prayed
audibly while on his knees at her bedside.
Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who sometimes declined to serve as a
godparent because of his theological doubts, Washington
frequently agreed to the spiritual responsibilities of
godparenting for the children of relatives and friends.
Interestingly, Jefferson referred to Jesus as the "blessed
author of our religion." As noted above, Washington
contrastingly called Jesus the "Divine Author of our religion."
Washington's death, as described by secretary Tobias Lear,
occurred relatively quickly, painfully, and touchingly for the
servants, doctors, and family who tearfully looked on. The
absence of clergy during those final hours, and the fact that
Lear never ascribed any specific statements of faith to
Washington, have reinforced the notion of him as a deist/stoic.
The death at Mount Vernon contrasted with Alexander Hamilton's
several years later. Shot in a duel, the flamboyant former aid
to Washington dramatically requested the presence of an Anglican
bishop and demanded the Eucharist while professing his faith in
Washington was a different character, and he died as he lived,
with understatement and composure. Martha prayed with her Bible
at the bedside while Washington uttered his final words: "Tis
well." Martha responded with the same phrase. "It was a noble
death and quite Christian in its entire content," the Novaks
The Novaks also observe that Washington's taciturnity about
religious specifics throughout his life, as on many other
issues, allowed him to serve as the indispensable man in whom
people of all faiths placed their trust. Washington's public
utterances about God were unifying rather than divisive and were
admired by Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians,
Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and even Jews.
He carefully wrote to their congregations, visited their places
of worship, and received their delegations, commending their
faith and urging their loyalty to the new republic and its
promise of religious liberty to all.
In religion, as in statecraft, Washington set the example that
all other presidents would follow in some form. The Novaks
insist, not without logic, that a Washington without serious
faith could not have managed this so equitably and successfully.
They are almost certainly correct.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at
the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. This
review appears in the May 2006 issue of The American
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