Was George Washington a Christian?
By John Fea
[Last Monday we once again celebrated] George Washington's birthday. (He was actually born on February 22, 1732.) Over the course of the last year I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Washington for my book on Christianity and the founding of the American republic. In a chapter entitled "Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?" I explore his religious beliefs and wonder whether or not we can truly call him a Christian. Washington's faith is not easy to pin down.
I am not the only one who has wondered whether or not Washington was a Christian. His contemporaries also wondered. Reverend Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and one of the leaders of the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening, felt confident that Washington was a Christian, but he was also aware that "doubt may and will exist" about the substance of his faith.
Today, Washington's faith has become a minor battlefield in America's ongoing culture wars. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister and the coauthor of the best-selling Left Behind novels, has called Washington "a devout believer in Jesus Christ" who, in good evangelical fashion, "had accepted Him as His Lord and Savior." Peter Lillback, the current president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has written over 1,100 pages in an attempt to prove that Washington was "an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ . . ." In contrast, Joseph Ellis, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing about the American founders, has described Washington as a "lukewarm Episcopalian." Writer Brooke Allen recently concluded that "there are very real doubts as to whether Washington was a Christian or even whether he was a believer at all."
Who is right? Or, more importantly, what is at stake in deciding who is right? In recent years Washington's faith has become heavily politicized. It is often used to promote a particular political platform in the present. The argument goes something like this: "If George Washington was a Christian, then America must be too" or "If Washington was not a Christian, then he must have desired the United States to be a secular nation."
Most historians agree that Washington was quiet about his faith. Unlike John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin, he did not leave behind definitive statements about what he believed. Neither was he particularly curious about theology or other religious matters. His religious reading was confined largely to sermons purchased by his devout wife, Martha.
We do know that Washington was a firm believer in what he called "Providence." He used this term 270 times in his writings, usually employing it as a synonym for the Judeo-Christian God. This was an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God who created and ordered the universe, but whose purposes remained mysterious. Washington's God was active in the lives of human beings. He could perform miracles, answer prayer, and intervene in history to carry out his will. Yet Washington never tried to predict what God was doing in history. Instead, he acted in history—often with great valor and determination—and let God's purpose be done…
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