George Washington's Christian (?) Faith

02/18/2013 07:37 am ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

George Washington's birthday seems like an appropriate time to think about his religious beliefs and life, especially since the National Prayer Breakfast was held earlier this month, giving President Obama his fifth opportunity in that venue to assert his Christian identity. Gary S. Smith, of the Center for Vision and Values, has already written about the double-standard by which the faiths of both Washington and Obama are interpreted, and Smith, like other scholars, states that the exact nature of Washington's faith is unknowable and much less clear than Obama's.

Washington did believe in "Providence," that there was a divinity intervening in worldly affairs, and this divinity seemed to be on the side of the new republic. We know that Washington wrote many times of the value of Christianity as a guiding influence on the new republic's citizens; however, he was equally clear that the character-building nature of religious institutions was not exclusive to Christianity, extending at least to Judaism, if not to other religions. Washington was at least a cultural Christian, but we have no evidence that he was what we would call today a "born again" Christian.

If being a Christian means that one goes to a Christian Church fairly regularly, supports that church monetarily, believes in an Old Testament deity that acts in the world but whose relationship is far from personal, then Washington was a Christian. He was reared in the Church of England (later the Episcopal Church), attended services regularly, and there is no shortage of Washington's statements regarding the role of religion in civil life, in the destiny of America, and in the affairs of the world. But many of today's Christians would argue that a Christian is one who "accepts Jesus as a personal savior," and for that there is absolutely no evidence in Washington's life. In fact, there are few instances of Washington's having said the name "Jesus" in any of his public or private writings or speeches.

For almost two thousand years most Christian sects have held that participating in certain sacraments is central to the Christian life, and among those sacraments taking Holy Communion (or being a "communicant") is the most sacred. But we know that Washington made a point of not taking communion in his adult life. His bishop states that Washington was not a communicant, and his granddaughter also writes that the general always left the service on communion Sundays immediately following the sermon, before communion was taken.

There are many apocryphal stories regarding Washington's faith and religion, but the truth of one story confirmed by those closest to him and by participants in the events is difficult to deny. One of Washington's priests, James Abercrombie, writes that he once delivered a sermon directed to Washington urging respected congregants to take part in communion, to be good examples. As usual, Washington left without taking communion. Abercrombie then states he heard from a US Senator that Washington had told him about the incident (Washington agreeing that his example was influential) and of Washington's choice not to attend church any longer on communion Sundays.

What we do not know is why Washington found it so important not to take communion, this essential of the Christian Faith. As Paul F. Boller, respected Presidential historian, wrote in 1963, "It cannot be said that Washington ever experienced any feeling of personal intimacy or communion with his God"; it makes sense, then, that honest Washington, unsure of the personal nature of the divine, chose to step away from a public display of devotion. While this may demonstrate that Washington was not likely to be a "born again" Christian, it also suggests that he had a great deal of integrity, perhaps even more valuable in a president.

One current web site that attempts to Christianize founding fathers states that Washington's "contemporaries were convinced of his devout faith," but that clearly depends on which part of the record one chooses. For instance, a noted contemporary of Washington's, James Madison, states that he did "not suppose that Washington had ever attended to the arguments for Christianity, and for the different systems of religion, or in fact that he had formed definite opinions on the subject." While Madison's statement alone does not mean Washington was not a Christian, Madison's assertion (along with much more evidence) cannot mean that Washington was anything akin to today's American Evangelical Christians.

What does this ultimately say about Washington and his faith? From the distance of two-hundred years, clouded by evangelical revivals, Watergate, the religiosity of contemporary candidates, and so much more, all we know is that Washington said that he believed in Providence, and that we have little knowledge of what he thought regarding Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or even the New Testament, for that matter. A Christian in culture and some practice, yes, but hardly an American religious icon.