George Washington: A Christian?

What did Washington pray when he went to these churches? They included Christian prayers from the Book of Common Prayer that he prayed aloud with the entire congregation.

–Peter Lillback, George Washington’s Sacred Fire

Introduction

In our day it is thought that this country, the United States, has been founded upon some generic form of deism which is no greater than atheism concerning the eternal state of men. This is largely an illusion set forth by postmodern thought as will be demonstrated below, using our chief founding father, George Washington, as a prime example.

Recently, Dr. Peter Lillback has published a book called George Washington’s Sacred Fire.

This particular work seeks to expose the buried fact that George Washington was a Christian. And, by extension of this fact, that our nation was founded on no other principles besides those which are distinctly Christian.

It should be noted that the effort to paint our founding fathers, especially George Washington, as a figure adhering to a less controversial religion, such as deism, largely began in the 1930’s with the widespread propagation of postmodern thought. Sadly, it has become the goal of many to bear false witness concerning our first President as well as the founding principles of this nation.

Washington’s church attendance

It is indicated both in his diary, as well as by external sources, that Washington was a regular attender of the Anglican church in Virginia, and not only this, but he would go to great lengths to ensure his attendance, even during his tenure as General and later as Commander in Chief. Lillback writes:

Later in his life, he was very active in worship. The records show that he went to church on Sundays while he served in the office of presidency. When he retired, he continued to worship in the church. For much of his life, Pohick Church in Lorton, Virginia, was his main church; after the War, Christ Church in Alexandria was his place of worship.

He goes on:

What did Washington pray when he went to these churches? They included Christian prayers from the Book of Common Prayer that he prayed aloud with the entire congregation.

The prayers contained in this prayer book, as Lillback notes, are very orthodox prayers containing language of sin, repentance, asking Jesus Christ, by name, for mercy and forgiveness. This is significant, especially for someone who wants to maintain that Washington was a deist. At this point, if we go by a minimal facts observation of evidence, we can see that Washington was professing Christ Jesus by virtue of reciting the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer along with the congregation.

A political move?

However, couldn’t this just have been a political scheme? Something which would have placed the early population in the US, largely consisting of Christians, at ease concerning the character of their Commander in Chief? While this argument has been used to diminish the notion that Washington was a Christian, it’s not a tenable one. It even seems to reek of an appeal to conspiracy.

Consider that Washington ordered a family Bible for their home in Virginia, or that he ordered his wife, kids, and himself the Book of Common Prayer. His prayer book had been customized to fit in his pocket so he could carry it everywhere with him. Why would he need to do this if it was just a big political scheme?

Also, when we look at Washington’s public rhetoric, he used pious language, but not the type of language a person would expect from someone pandering the Christian religion for political gain. In other words, he didn’t come off as overly Christian, trying to make a show out of his religion. He would pray to God, using language as was common amongst clergy of that day, but he wouldn’t do as the Pharisees did, “praying on street corners to be seen.” He wasn’t a showman, he wasn’t using Christianity.

His commitment to worship didn’t end after his political career. He was well involved until his death. No one pandering Christianity for political gain remains committed past the point of which they need to, nor do they go to great lengths to make sure they’re in a pew every Sunday, up to their death.

Washington’s confession

In the Anglican church, during Washington’s day, members would corporately read from what was called the “reredos” during Sunday service. This was a large three-fold plaque which was hung behind the altar. It contained painted words. What were these words? On one panel the Apostle’s Creed; on another, the Lord’s Prayer; and on the last, the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20).

Not only was Washington professing Christ by way of prayer, corporately and privately, but he was confessing, along with the congregation, some of the most important truths within Christianity.

The beliefs of a deist

Washington has been painted as what is called a soft deist. This is a person who believes that God is not directly involved with the created order. By extension, Scripture is therefore not inspired by God, nor is Christ divine. But, Washington didn’t believe either of these things. He thought that God providentially ruled created events, and that He (God) was committed to His creation.

Deists do not believe this. Therefore, to conclude that Washington was a deist is nothing more than a non-sequitur. Following from the evidence, it simply does not follow that Washington believed in such a thing.

Furthermore, Washington is not seen, even amongst historical scholars, as a hard deist, but always as a soft deist; yet, there is an inconsistent habit to compare Washington with Thomas Paine, who was a hard deist. However, this is not only a category error, but this comparison doesn’t consider the history of Washington and Paine’s relationship. These two men parted ways greatly, on the basis of their distinct religious disagreements. Washington writes in an open rebuttal to Paine:

As to you sir, treacherous in private friendship (for so you have been to me, and that in the day of danger) and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.

This tail end of Washington’s rebuttal to Paine came after Paine had openly criticized Washington. This is Washington’s response which was published here in the US, as well as in Dublin and London, overseas. We see then that, not only was Washington not a hard deist, but he wasn’t a deist at all.

Washington’s Freemasonry

Was Washington a Freemason? Yes. There is no denying that Washington was indeed involved in the Masonic Order. But, what was Freemasonry to the 18th century person? Records indicate that Masons of that day, if Christian, would be sure to mention themselves as “Christian Masons” as to eliminate any misconceptions. This is because Masonry was, at the time, comprised of both deists and Christians. Today, Freemasonry invites all three Abrahamic religions to partake in membership.

Moreover, Washington had grown up around Freemasonry as a boy and so it would seem natural, if so popular, that Washington would have joined the order. Does Masonry require that a person depart from their Christian faith in any way? Does it indicate, at all, that Washington was not a Christian?

To answer the first, Freemasonry does require an oath to be made, much like an oath for the US Military today. I would regard this as something which is non-Christian concerning the organization in and of itself. But, what does that say about Washington’s Christianity? It really doesn’t say a whole lot concerning his faith. At worst it would mean that Washington was a sinner like all of us. Furthermore, Masonry doesn’t require a person to renounce their faith, nor did the Masonry of Washington’s day work toward anything suspect like it does now, post-Albert Pike.

Does this mean that Washington was not a Christian? It would be another non-sequitur to conclude Masonic membership indicates that Washington was not a Christian. There can be true believers who ignorantly yoke themselves to something they believe is harmless, but is not. Furthermore, the Masonry of Washington’s day was in much less conflict with the Christian religion than it is today.

What does this mean?

This means that this nation was not founded on some impersonal idea of a god. This nation’s foundation is so blatantly influenced by distinctly Christian principles that it is impossible to miss when looking back the historical record. Even if we were to grant that all of the founding fathers were deists, and they are not as seen above, we would find that our founding documents are so influenced by Scripture, and even by theological works, such as John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, that it wouldn’t matter if they were.

There is simply no way to get away from the fact that our nation was founded on Christian principles. Was it founded on a perfect theology? Of course not, but this nation was founded by men who desired to honor God in their governmental politic.

It was built by Christians, not by deists.

Additional Links:

George Washington’s Sacred Fire, by Peter A. Lillback

 

Contact the Author:

sommerjosh@live.com

Co-founder, editor, and contributor of The Reformed Collective. He is a member and pastoral intern at Word of Life Baptist Church, Kansas City, MO. He has co-coordinated the evangelism ministry at Grace Bible Church in San Diego, CA. At present he is pursuing a B.A. in Biblical Studies as well as an M. Div. He currently resides in Overland Park, KS with his wife, Christina.

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