George Washington and Religion

Today was the first day of student presentations in my Religion and American Founding seminar. The panel today was entitled “Reflections on George Washington and Religion.” Our presenters were Matthew Wicks and Melinda Maslin. (See Melinda’s latest post on providential history). Both Matt and Melinda are working on how Washington was remembered in the 19th century as a man of Christian conviction.

Matt talked about how some of Washington’s earliest biographers treated his religious faith. First, he discussed Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington. Weems attempted to paint Washington as an evangelical who had God-like qualities. He compared, for example, Weems’s description of Washington coming into Trenton before his inauguration to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He then moved on to Washington Irving’s more humane presentation of Washington as a man of great character and concluded with David Ramsay’s Washington–a man of great virtue and morality.

Melinda studied funeral sermons preached and published after Washington’s death. These sermons focused predominantly on Washington as a Christian, as a believer in divine providence, as a “man of God,” and as a man comparable to biblical heroes. In the end, Melinda concluded that the generation following his death clearly believed that Washington was a Christian.

We ended the class with a conversation about how to judge Washington’s religion. I suggested that we judge him in the context of the 18th-century Anglican Church to which he belonged. Based on such an approach, Washington was clearly an Anglican Christian, but he probably should not be considered a particularly “good” Anglican based upon his scanty record of church attendance and his failure to partake of communion.

5 thoughts on “George Washington and Religion

  1. John and Jonathan,

    Thanks for the votes of confidence; I hope you find the book repays your efforts. About a fourth of it is devoted to GW’s use of religious language in his political rhetoric. (I also have a chapter on GW and religion in RELIGION AND THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, ed. Gaston Espinosa [Columbia University Press, 2009] that makes some of the same points, but obviously focuses on his presidency.)

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  2. Dr. Fea is surely correct to admonish us to take Washington in his context, which was that of a nominal 18th-cent. Anglican. That said, it may be more difficult to argue that GW was clearly a Christian, if trinitarian belief is a necessary condition for being a Christian. As I’ve suggested in my POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), the evidence for his orthodoxy is ambiguous. Perhaps not conclusive either way, but ambiguous. –Jeffry Morrison

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  3. Dr. Fea:

    Just wanted to let you know that I mentioned this post over at American Creation. We’ve had a decent little discussion on it, though nothing like the whole David Barton fiasco!

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