In “Washington’s God,” Michael and Jana Novak attempt to overturn the conventional wisdom that Washington was a deist. Rather, they argue, he was a Christian. They succeed in the former attempt, but not in the latter.
They fall prey to a common but flawed method of trying to understand the Founders’ religious beliefs – ask- ing the question: were they Christians or were they deists? In fact, their religious beliefs fit neatly into neither box, strict deism or orthodox Christianity.
While there were many orthodox Christians among them (such as Patrick Henry, Elias Boudinot, John Jay, Samuel Adams, and John Witherspoon), and a few strict deists (such as Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen), the key Founders, the ones who played the most important roles in declaring independence, constructing the Constitution, and then leading the newly-formed country (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and a few others), were somewhere between the two camps.
By analyzing Washington’s words line by line, the Novaks effectively show that he wasn’t a strict deist. A deist, after all, is supposed to believe in a cold, impersonal watchmaker God who doesn’t intervene in man’s affairs. And Washington’s words indisputably show that he believed in a warm, intervening Providence. Yet the authors fail to consider seriously how Washington’s beliefs may, like strict deism, conflict with the tenets of orthodox Christianity. Little if anything that Washington said about God, publicly or privately, could not also have been said by Franklin or Jefferson. But wait … weren’t they deists? No. Or at least, like Washington, not in the strict sense of the term. They too, like Washington, believed in an active, personal God.
Consider the words of Franklin, at the Constitutional Convention: “The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of man.” Or Jefferson, in his “Notes on the State of Virginia”:
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever …
Thus, the Novaks are entirely off track when they write:
[Jefferson’s] providence was usually consistent with the deist idea of god – simply a governor of all things, like the designer of the spring and the wheels of a watch. Washington’s idea is much closer to that of the Greeks and Romans, but enlarged by the biblical sense of creation and history, whereas Jefferson’s seems closer to the mechanics of the European Enlightenment.
The Novaks do none of the line-by-line analysis of Jefferson’s statements on God that they do of Washington’s. Had they done so, they would have seen that both men commonly invoked a warm, intervening Providence, and made allusions to biblical narratives. Yet, both men almost always spoke of God in a generic sense, eschewing the specific language of orthodox trinitarian Christianity.
Attempting to prove that Washington’s God was the biblical God, the authors constantly refer to his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah, where he stated:
May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.
Out of this, the Novaks conclude that the proper name for Washington’s God is “Jehovah.” Yet we see Jefferson, in his Second Inaugural Address, say- ing something remarkably similar: “I
Washington’s behavior in church showed he wasn/t an orthodox believer: he consistently refused to take Communion.
shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life … ”
The Novaks also fail to appreciate the context of the letter to the Hebrew Congregation. Washington was not indicating that he believed exclusively in the “biblical” or “Judeo-Christian” God. Rather, when Washington, Jefferson, and the other key Founders addressed a particular community, they customarily referred to God in terms used by the addressees. The only time Washington ever referred to God as “Jehovah” was in his address to the Hebrew Congregation. When he addressed his fellow Freemasons, he referred to God as “The Great Architect of the Universe.” When addressing the Cherokees, he referred to God as “the Great Spirit,” as they did. In fact, he crossed out the word “God” in one of his speeches prepared for Indians and substituted “the Great Spirit.” When Madison and Jefferson addressed American Indians, they too consistently referred to God as “the Great Spirit.”
This practice sheds light on one of the Founders’ heterodox religious tenets: they believed, contra orthodox Christianity, that most if not all religions were valid ways to God. Their concept of God was universalistic, and though it encompassed the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, it extended beyond such systems. Here, perhaps, we see the influence of Freemasonry, which is also universalistic. In the words of Thomas Paine, Freemasonry “transcends the bounds of Christian and Western civilization; it includes the Moslem, the Hin- doo, the Buddhist, and the Jew.” Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, believes there is just one way to God.
The Novaks have a chapter entitled “A Christian Pro and Con,” in which, after reviewing both sides of the argument, they conclude that a preponderance of the evidence points to Washing- ton’s belief in orthodox Christianity. A fair review of the evidence, however, unmistakably indicates that he believed in the same system as Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, which is neither
strict deism nor orthodox Christianity. Scholars disagree on what to call this belief system. It is a form of theological unitarianism, which Gregg Fraz- er, in a comprehensive study of the key Founders’ religious beliefs (“The Political Theology of the American Founding,” doctoral dissertation), has dubbed
The only time Washington ever referred to God as “Jehovah” was in his address to the Hebrew Congregation.
“theistic rationalism.” This system has certain basic tenets that distinguish it: 1) that there is a warm, intervening Providence whom men ought to worship and invoke; 2) that Jesus was not God, but rather a great moral teacher; 3) that most, perhaps all, religions contain the same basic truth as Christianity and are thus valid ways to God; 4) that salvation is universal, that good people go to Heaven when they die, and bad people are punished temporarily; 5)
Washington’s death was entirely stoic. He asked for no ministers and said no prayers.
that although some revelation is legitimate, some is not; in other words, that the Bible is errant; and 6) that man’s reason supersedes biblical revelation and determines what revelation is legitimately from God.
While this religion is not strict deism, the orthodox Christians of the day still dubbed it “heresy” or “infidelity.” And Washington likely believed in this system of ideas, not orthodox Christianity. Here is why. His church membership was no indicator of orthodoxy, as many church members, such as Jefferson and Madison, disbelieved the official creeds. Washington was a vestryman in the Episcopal church, but so was Jefferson. Even some ministers of orthodox Christian churches adhered to principles of “infidelity.” In Massachu- setts, many Congregational churches were taken over by unitarian ministers and thus transformed from Puritan to Unitarian congregations. This had happened to John Adams’ church by 1750. Madison followed an Anglican minister named Samuel Clarke who was nearly defrocked for promulgating his unitarian beliefs. Thus, a prominent founding- era bishop, discussing Madison’s religious beliefs, noted that “[h]is political associations with those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet subjected him to a general suspicion of it.”
Because “infidels” were so common among the elite Virginia Anglican Whigs, anyone who ran in such circles might be accused of being a deist or a unitarian. Patrick Henry was so accused, although he explicitly denied his infidelity and asserted his belief in traditional Christianity. A group of ministers likewise tried to corner Washing- ton into admitting his orthodoxy. But he, unlike Henry, refused to affirm his personal belief in Christianity. Here is Jefferson, recounting the incident:
Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Gen. Washington on his departure from the govt, 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.
Jefferson then gives Gouverneur Morris’ apparent opinion of Washington’s orthodoxy:
I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Geni. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.
Indeed, in over 20,000 pages of Washington’s known writings, he rarely if ever uses the words “Jesus Christ” and never otherwise professes his personal belief in the Christian faith. When speaking about “Christians” he invariably refers to them in the third person. The following is typical: “I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception.”
While generous, in this way, to others, Washington was more than just “reticent” to discuss his personal faith. As Paul F. Boller has noted, “When it came to religion, GW was, if anything, more reserved than he was about anything else pertaining to his life.” While he had nothing to lose by publicly professing Christian beliefs, if he denied them he would have damaged his reputation with many of his fellow citizens. Few “infidels” wore their beliefs on their sleeves. Paine did so and was publicly ruined. Jefferson was almost ruined for things he wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” which were tamer than what we see in his private correspondence. Most of Jefferson’s and Adams’ bitterest ridicules of orthodox Christian doctrines were written in their private correspondence. In a letter to a prominent orthodox Christian, Franklin politely notes that he doubts the doctrine of the Trinit~and at the end of the letter asks that its contents remain a secret. In short, having religious secrets during the founding era was a telltale sign that one privately held to “infidel” principles.
Washington’s death was entirely stoic. He asked for no ministers and said no prayers. His final words were “’tis well.” The Rev. Samuel Miller, a founding era figure, asked: “How was it possible … for a true Christian, in the full exercise of his mental faculties, to die without one expression of distinctive belief, or Christian hope?” One answer can be found in Washington’s history of church attendance. Though he attended regularly (about once a month), his behavior in church showed he wasn’t an orthodox believer. He consistently refused to take Communion.
As the Novaks observe, he wasn’t alone in this regard; the behavior was quite common. It was the kind of behavior, I would add, that one would expect from deists and unitarians in the church.
Washington’s own Episcopal priests didn’t consider him a “real Christian,” but rather a deist or a unitarian. Here is one of them, Dr. James Abercrombie: “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.”
In 1963, Boller comprehensively reviewed Washington’s religious beliefs in a book (“George Washington and Religion”) that is still the authoritative work of scholarship on the matter. The Novaks uncover nothing to refute Bollers’ summation of Washington’s orthodoxy:
£ to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense.
If not orthodox Christianity, then what was Washington’s creed? Clear- 1)’, he believed in a warm, intervening Providence; he was thus not a “deist.” He was silent on the rest of the details. Yet his words and deeds were entirely consistent with those of his fellow Whig Founders – Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin – who were not so silent in their private writings. The preponderance of the evidence thus demonstrates that Washington privately believed in the same “infidel principles” that they did.