AEI Book Forum¯March 6, 2006
Who Was Washington’s God?
The need for this book stems from the lack of interest in religion on the part of most biographers of Washington, especially since World War II.
The occasion for this book was a magnificent outdoor candlelight dinner on the veranda at Mount Vernon three years ago, at which the executive director James Rees asked me if I would write a book on Washington’s religion. More than a million visitors come to Mount Vernon each year, he said, and at the bookstore, the book they most request is a book on Washington’s religion¯which they do not have.
I had a theory that Washington was more religious than most people thought, but I was basing this only on his public, official statements as General and President. I would not have been surprised if more research showed that he was actually not much more religious than Thomas Jefferson, probably the least religious of the founders.
Since a large percentage of Washington’s writings are now available online, research is infinitely easier than it used to be. Moreover, immense generosity was shown us by the Mount Vernon historical researcher Mary Thompson, who has been working on her own marvelous book on the religion of the Washington family. Washington’s personal library of some 900-plus volumes was also made available to us, both by second copies collected at Mount Vernon, and by the originals, owned and beautifully maintained by the Athenaeum in Boston.
And Washington’s God? There is no doubt that Washington was a lifelong Anglican as his ancestors had been, and as his progeny (through Martha’s children) were to be. Because of a clergy shortage, Washington’s local parish church had services on average twice a month; he attended a little more than once a month¯much more often in later years than in earlier. He was an active vestryman, and church warden, giving the parish both his time and his financial help. His pastor cherished him as an unusually helpful parishioner.
My daughter Jana and I were able to find only a very few clear confessional statements in which Washington openly declared his faith as a Christian. The example of his life is clearer than his words. From his twenties on, as a Major in the Virginia militia, he was a leader of men of diverse religious beliefs, and he made it his practice to use a general religious language that excluded as few as possible. He preferred to speak of "the Governor of the universe," "the great disposer of human events," the "Beneficent Author of all good that was, that is, or that will be," and especially "a kind Providence," "a gracious Providence." We never found him saying "Redeemer," "Savior," or other such more confessional language, although he did commend the figure of Jesus Christ to the Delaware Chiefs, and urged his men to conduct themselves as "Christian soldiers" worthy of the favors they asked of divine Providence.
Washington’s favorite word about Providence was "inscrutable." He knew that Providence brings evil and suffering as well as victory and success. He knew the trials of a "Pilgrim’s Progress," the depths and the Slough of Despond. But in his view, Providence was not bound by Fate or any other necessity, but Sovereign, and Disposer of all events. Although he thought God acted chiefly through the contingencies and "concatenations of causes" in natural events, in the timing and placement of "acts of nature," he also spoke occasionally of what seemed to him truly miraculous. Jana has already described several events of both kinds¯both happy arrangements of natural events and, on the other side, events so improbable as to appear to be miraculous. (Washington, in one instance, used the word "miraculous" himself¯when every other officer on horseback fell, and Washington’s own coat took four bullet holes, and he lost two horses, yet kept remounting, and stayed throughout the battle unhurt.)
Washington saw the "interpositions" of Divine Providence in small events and in large¯in the timely discovery of Benedict Arnold’s plot to turn over to the British the forts on the upper Hudson¯at daybreak over the East River in the Battle of Brooklyn, when only half of Washington’s army had escaped by boat, a sudden fog fell thick, murky, and yellow over the River for another six hours, until the whole army got across. He saw Providence in the almost impossible unanimity of the constitutional convention, which completed its work in 53 days. He saw Providence in good harvests, and in prosperity. He saw it in the fortitude of his ragtag, wounded, and sickness-ridden amateur army during the darkest days of defeat in 1776 and 1777.
It was Washington who in his written General Orders of July, 1776, twice told his men that they, "under God," were the only supports of American Independence, for the sake of millions yet unborn¯the very words that Lincoln read there, and then made immortal in his Gettysburg Address, the very words that are repeated by Americans today when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Washington had a layman’s (but also a sophisticated) grasp of what he himself called "the Doctrine of Providence," and this doctrine shaped the prayers he advised his army, and later the whole country, to address to God for His "favorable interpositions" in the American cause. Washington knew that both the British and the Americans prayed to the same Providence. But he also believed that (in Jefferson’s phrase) "the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time." And with William Penn, Washington believed that the reason God created humans was so that they might walk in friendship with Him¯but freely. No freedom, no friendship.
Therefore, Washington held that to be faithful to His own promises, God was bound to favor those who fought for their liberties against those who tried to deprive them of those liberties. Washington’s God is the God of liberty.
Often Washington reminded Americans of how many times they had experienced the "interpositions" of a "kind Providence" on their behalf, and told them that they must be "worse than infidels" and even "wicked" not to give thanks to that Providence on every occasion.
Recently, a new story has come to light. One of the great figures in American Lutheranism, Henry Muhlenberg, wrote in his diary of a report he had just heard from Valley Forge (probably from his son General Peter Muhlenberg, who was an officer on duty in Valley Forge, not far from the Muhlenberg home). This is what the older Muhlenberg wrote:
I heard a fine example today, namely, that His Excellency General Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each and every one to fear God, to put away the wickedness that has set in and become so general, and to practice the Christian virtues. From all appearances this gentleman does not belong to the so-called world of society, for he respects God’s Word, believes in the atonement through Christ, and bears himself in humility and gentleness. Therefore the Lord God has also singularly, yea, marvelously, preserved him from harm in the midst of countless perils, ambuscades, fatigues, etc., and has hitherto graciously held him in his hand as a chosen vessel.
A chosen vessel? On one occasion, in the dark, two units of Washington’s army were firing on one another, killing and wounding in ignorance¯and Washington, on seeing the carnage, spurred his horse right through the center of the fire shouting and knocking rifles upwards with his sword right and left. It was a reckless thing to do.
On another occasion, rallying his troops in flight, he turned them around into a vigorous counterattack against the British units coming up, who themselves then took flight. Getting well ahead of his troops, sword flailing, Washington called out "It is a fine fox chase, my boys!" His men finally stopped him, lest a marksman take down the General they loved.
No wonder his people saw this man as "under the protection of a kind Providence." No wonder he persuaded them that so was their country.
(Click here to email the author about this item. Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, and is a member of the editorial board of F IRST T HINGS .)