This is based on extensive research (with new material added presently) that I undertook in 1985, when I was an evangelical campus missionary. It’s one of the last major “projects” from my evangelical days (prior to October 1990) that needed to be uploaded to my blog.
As there remains a lot of mythology on this topic: both from those who maintain the pretense that most of these men were all or mostly good evangelical “born-again Christians” to atheists and secularists who try to pass them off as mere cold deists, the topic is as timely and worthwhile as ever! As always, the truth is more interesting and unusual than the common myths that get bandied about on both the right and the left of the political and religious spectrum.
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Washington expressed very little about the particulars of his faith; hence conclusions about him remain somewhat uncertain. The Founding Fathers (while not always orthodox by any stretch, even within a somewhat nebulous Protestant framework) nevertheless continued to hold to a broad Christian worldview. The question of the proper definition of deism largely depends on the matter of Divine Providence and whether it is consistent with deist belief. Some deists think it is, but the majority position seems to be that it isn’t. The Catholic Encyclopedia (“Deism”) explains:
[D]eism not only distinguishes the world and God as effect and cause; it emphasizes the transcendence of the Deity at the sacrifice of His indwelling and His providence. He is apart from the creation which He brought into being, and unconcerned as to the details of its working. Having made Nature, He allows it to run its own course without interference on His part. In this point the doctrine of deism differs clearly from that of theism.
Michael and Jana Novak concur:
Deism is not exactly a creed with clear tenets; it is more like a tendency of the mind; a movement like rationalism or romanticism; and, in the view of some historians of ideas, a half-way marker slowly moving from Jewish or Christian orthodoxy toward early modern science. The general drift of deism is that the originating and governing force of the universe is the god of modern rationalists (Newton, Spinoza, et al.), not at all like the Great God Jehovah of the Hebrew Bible. Deists prefer the god of reason to the God of revelation. The latter has a special love and care for particular peoples and persons, unlike the deist god, who is impersonal and indifferent to the world he sets in motion. The God of revelation intervenes and interposes in historical events and personal lives, and hears and answers prayers; the god of reason does no such things.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, in an article on deism, classifies our subjects (I think a bit too strongly) as follows:
George Washington (“religious liberal leaning toward deism”)
[Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry are classified as “generally orthodox Christians opposed to deism”; John Witherspoon as a “definitely orthodox believer”. Most researchers also classify John Jay in this more “orthodox” category. James Madison is a “religious liberal leaning toward deism”]
Benjamin Franklin (“deist”)
John Adams (“liberal Christian strongly influenced by deism”)
Thomas Jefferson (“deist”)
Dulles stated about Jefferson: “He made a careful study of the philosophical writings of Viscount Henry Bolingbroke, a strict deist whose God was remote and unconcerned with human affairs.”
Norman Cousins wrote a book on the religious views of ten of the Founding Fathers. In his introduction, he wrote:
Though most of them resisted the literal Biblical view of creation, they maintained respect for the Bible as the source of Judaeo-Christian belief . . . It is significant that most of the Founding Fathers grew up in a strong religious atmosphere; many had Calvinist family backgrounds . . . Most certainly they did not turn against God or lose their respect for religious belief . . . Not all the founders acknowledged a formal faith, but it was significant that their view of man had a deeply religious foundation. Rights were “God-given”; man was “endowed by his Creator”; there were “natural laws”; freedom was related to the “sacredness” of man . . . each of these men had highly developed spiritual beliefs.
(In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, New York: Harper & Bros., 1958, 8-10, 14)
Likewise, Ralph Ketcham, author of a 753-page biography of James Madison, makes a statement that well applies to the Founding Fathers as a group:
Certain elements of Christian thought had almost universal acceptance in colonial America . . . Madison’s Christian education gave him an extremely important overview of man and society . . . To them all, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the 12th chapter of Romans were canonical . . . From the Christian tradition, he inherited . . . an understanding of human dignity as well as depravity, and a conviction that vital religion could contribute importantly to the general welfare.
(James Madison: A Biography, New York: Macmillan, 1971, 46-50)
George Washington constantly referred to God’s direct intervention, or Providence, especially with respect to the American Revolution:
The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.
(James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man, Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1974, 125; comment of 20 August 1778, with reference to the Battle of Monmouth: 28 June, 1778)
On the day after Yorktown (the ending battle of the war), he spoke of the:
. . . reiterated and astonishing interpositions of Providence.
(Jared Sparks, editor, The Writings of George Washington, Boston: American Stationer’s Co., 1837, 12 volumes; Vol. XII: 402; comment of 20 October 1781)
Ten years later, he was still repeating these sentiments:
I am sure there never was a people, who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs; than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe, that they have forgotten that agency, which was so often manifested during our revolution, or that they failed ton consider the omnipotence of that God, who is alone able to protect them.
(Sparks, ibid., XII, 403; letter to General Armstrong, 11 March 1792; the editor adds: “examples of this kind might be multiplied indefinitely”)
Washington’s official correspondence and speeches are filled with the utmost piety:
Above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation [has] had a meliorating influence on mankind, and increased the blessings of society . . . I now make my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the state over which you preside, in his holy protection . . . that he would be most graciously pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation.
(Sparks, ibid., XII, 403-404; circular letter to the Governors on the disbanding of the army: 8 June 1783)
The commander-in-chief of the American army strongly urged worship among his soldiers:
As a chaplain is allowed to each regiment, see that the men regularly attend divine worship.
(Ibid., XII, 402; instructions to the Brigadier Generals, 26 May 1777)
Washington even exhibited a tolerance towards Catholicism: a highly unusual thing in America at that time:
Prudence, Policy, and a true Christian Spirit, will lead us to look with Compassion upon their Errors without insulting them. While we are contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men, and to him only in this case, they are answerable.
(James Morton Smith, editor, George Washington: A Profile, New York: Hill & Wang, 1969: chapter: “George Washington and Religious Liberty,” by Paul F. Boller, Jr., p. 169; letter to Benedict Arnold, concerning Catholicism in Canada: 14 September, 1775)
I regret exceedingly that the disputes between the Protestants and Roman Catholics should be carried to the serious alarming height mentioned in your letters . . . I was not without hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy of the present age would have put an effectual stop to contentions of this kind.
(Cousins, ibid., 67; letter to Sir Edward Newenham of Ireland, 22 June 1792)
His presidential speeches abound in reverence towards God as well. For example, here are excerpts from his inaugural address of 30 April 1789:
It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being, who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of the nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a government instituted by themselves . . . homage to the great Author of every public and private good . . . No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency . . . and the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained . . . I shall take my present leave, but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the human race, in humble supplication . . . so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views . . . on which the success of this government must depend.
(Sparks, ibid., XII, 1-6)
Washington even mentioned God in messages to the hallowed US Congress (imagine that!):
Thus supported by a firm trust in the great Arbiter of the universe . . .
(Ibid., 6; reply to the answer of the Senate)
I humbly implore that Being, on whose will the fate of nations depends, to crown with success our mutual endeavors.
(Ibid., 36; speech to Congress: 3 December 1793)
Let us unite, therefore, in imploring the Supreme Ruler of nations to spread his holy protection over these United States.
(Ibid., 54; speech to Congress: 19 November 1794)
The Thanksgiving Proclamations are sterling examples of Washington’s warm piety:
It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . . both Houses of Congress have . . . requested me “to recommend . . . a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God” . . . Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted . . . to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks . . . And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and ruler of Nations, and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.
(Ibid., 119-120; 3 October 1789)
It is in an especial manner our duty as a people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God . . . Deeply penetrated with this sentiment, I, George Washington, do recommend . . . to set apart and observe . . . a day of public thanksgiving and prayer . . . to the Great Ruler of nations.
(Ibid., 132-134; 1 January 1795)
His farewell address of 17 September 1796 offers similar thoughts:
Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion . . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle . . . Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its Virtue? . . . I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend.(Ibid., 214-235)
He expressed one of the key elements of this speech again in the following year, in speaking to clergy:
Believing, as I do, that religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society . . .
(Ibid., 245; address to the clergy of Philadelphia, March 1797)
Washington thought soldiers should be given Bibles:
[I]t is now too late to make the Attempt. It would have pleased me, if Congress should have made such an important present.
(Cousins, ibid., 56; reply to Presbyterian pastor John Rodgers, on 11 June 1783)
In 1789 the first Congress appropriated funds for the support of Christian missionaries among the Indians, which was approved by President Washington:
The object . . . would be the happiness of Indians, teaching them the great duties of religion and morality, and to inculcate a friendship and an attachment to the United States.
(This Nation Under God, Joseph F. Costanzo, S. J., New York: Herder and Herder, 1964, 147-148)
Ten years earlier he had addressed the Delaware chiefs in similar fashion:
You do well to wish to learn our arts and way of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.
(Cousins, ibid., 55; speech of 21 May 1779)
God’s Providence is without question the leading theme in his references to God and Christianity:
While we are zealously performing the duties of good Citizens and Soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of Religion. To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal Instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labours with complete success, demand frm us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of Gratitude and Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.
(Cousins, ibid., 51; General Orders at Valley Forge: 2 May 1778)
Providence has heretofore saved us in a remarkable manner, and on this we must principally rely.
(Cousins, ibid., 52; letter to John Parke Custis, 22 January 1777)
The determinations of Providence are all ways wise; often inscrutable, and though its decrees appear to bear hard upon us at times is nevertheless meant for gracious purposes . . .
(Cousins, ibid., 53; letter to Bryan Fairfax, 1 March 1778)
I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.
(Cousins, ibid., 56; address to Congress, 23 December 1783)
Disposed, at every suitable opportunity to acknowledge publicly our infinite obligations to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for rescuing our Country from the brink of destruction; I cannot fail at this time to ascribe all the honour of our late successes to the same glorious Being.
(Cousins, ibid., 57; to the ministers, elders, deacons, and members of the reformed German congregation of New York, 27 November 1783)
The power and goodness of the Almighty were strongly manifested in the events of our late glorious revolution, and his kind interposition on our behalf has been no less visible in the establishment of our present equal government.
(Cousins, ibid., 62; message to the Hebrew congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, December 1790)
It [is] not for man to scan the wisdom of Providence. The best he can do is to submit to its decrees.
(Cousins, ibid., 64; letter to Henry Knox, 2 March 1797)
On this, as upon all other occasions, I hope the best. It has always been my belief that Providence has not led us so far in the path of Independence of one Nation, to throw us into the Arms of another.
(Cousins, ibid., letter to Henry Knox, 27 March, 1798)
At disappointments and losses which are the effects of Providential acts, I never repine; because I am sure that the alwise disposer of events knows better than we do, what is best for us, or what we deserve.
(Cousins, ibid., 68; letter to William Pearce, 25 May 1794)
[A]s these are the effects of Providential dispensations resignation is our duty.
(Cousins, ibid., 68; letter to William Pearce, 14 September 1794)
These being acts of Providence and not within our control, I never repine at them . . .
(Cousins, ibid., 68; letter to William Pearce, 27 March 1796; this letter and the previous two had to do with crop failures)
Or at least we may, with a kind of grateful and pious exultation, trace the finger of Providence through these dark and mysterious events, which first induced the states to appoint a general convention . . . we had but too much reason to fear that confusion and misery were coming rapidly upon us. That the same good Providence may still continue to protect us . . . is the earnest prayer of, my dear sir, your faithful friend, etc.
(Cousins, ibid., 70; letter to Jonathan Trumbull, 20 July 1788)
Other expressions of Christian piety abound in his writings and utterances, too:
[L]et me not arrogate the merit to human imbecility, but rather ascribe whatever glory may result from our successful struggle to a higher and more efficient Cause . . . it is our common duty to pay the tribute of gratitude to the greatest and best of Beings.
(Cousins, ibid., 58; reply to an address from the clergy, gentlemen of the law, and physicians of Philadelphia, 13 December 1783)
[N]o man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.
(Cousins, ibid., 59; reply to an address from the general assembly of Presbyterian churches in the United States, sent on 26 May 1789; Washington’s reply is undated)
I readily join with you that “while just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion affords to government its surest support.”
(Cousins, ibid., 60; reply to an address from the synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in North America, sent on 9 October 1789; Washington’s reply is undated)
I am not less ardent in my wish that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, 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.
(Cousins, ibid., 71; letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, 15 august 1787)
Washington biographers fill in additional details of his religious beliefs and practices:
The church was a social affair in Virginia in George Washington’s day. It is doubtful if he ever subscribed in his heart to the Episcopal creed . . . In one of his thousands of letters does the name Jesus Christ appear, nor St. Paul — seldom, indeed, even the word “God.” For all three he almost invariably used the word “Providence” — except in public addresses — and left all questions of theology to what he called “the professors of religion.” He believed thoroughly, from observation and practical experience, in the value of the religious institution to society — government could not do without it — but where his personal belief was concerned he remained silent . . .
(Francis Rufus Bellamy, The Private Life of George Washington, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1951, 149, 359)
Jared Sparks, editor of the 12-volume collection of Washington’s writings, observed:
After a long and minute examination of the writings of Washington, public and private . . . I can affirm, that I have never seen a single hint, or expression, from which it could be inferred, that he had any doubt of the Christian revelation . . . whenever he alludes in any manner to religion, it is done with seriousness and reverence . . . How far he examined the grounds of his faith is uncertain . . . He was educated in the Episcopal Church, to which he always adhered; and myu conviction is that he believed the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as usually taught in that Church . . . but without a particle of intolerance, or disrespect for the faith and modes of worship adopted by Christians of other denominations.
(Sparks, ibid., XII, 411, 403)
What we did prove, and quite conclusively, is that Washington cannot be called a Deist — at least, not in a sense that excludes his being Christian. Although he did most often address God in the proper names a Deist might use — such as “Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” and “Disposer of all human events” — the actions that Washington expected God to perform, as expressed both in his official public prayers (whether as general or as president) and in his private prayers as recorded, are the sorts of actions only the God of the Bible performs: interposing his actions in human events, forgiving sins, enlightening minds, bringing good harvests, intervening on behalf of one party in a struggle between good and evil (in this case, between liberty and the deprivation of liberty), etc. Many persons at the end of the 18th century were both Christians and Deists. But it cannot be said, in the simpleminded sense in which historians have become accustomed to putting it, that Washington was merely a Deist, or even that the God to whom he prayed was expected to behave like a Deist God at all.
(Michael Novak, Washington’s Sun God, National Review Online, 14 March 2006)
See related articles:George Washington: Christian or Deist? (Hercules Mulligan)Was Washington Really a Deist? (Michael and Jana Novak)Washington’s Sun God (Michael Novak)George Washington and Religion (Wikipedia)
George Washington: Christian or Deist? (William Connery)
George Washington and Religion (Peter Henriques)
* * * * *
Founding Fathers, David L. Holmes (Encyclopedia Britannica)
The Deist Minimum, Avery Cardinal Dulles (First Things, January 2005)
The Religion of the Founding Fathers (American Revolution Blog)
The Founding Fathers and Deism (David Barton)
Faiths of the Founding Fathers — A Review (Bob Cornwall)
“One Nation Under Generic Supreme Being” (James Watkins)
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