Today, February 22, is George Washington’s real birthday. Although he was a lifelong attender of Anglican churches, his religious beliefs are much debated. His considerable library, with many religious books, catalogued at his death, offers clues.
In 1786 Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury, who had visited Mount Vernon in 1784, sent Washington two Methodist prayer books, which included one for Martha, plus a collection of sermons, likely John Wesley’s.
Washington is known to have owned nearly 1300 books and pamphlets, many of them gifts like Asbury’s. About 170 items were religious, including 5 sermon pamphlets from Wesley, perhaps originating with Asbury. One is about salvation by faith. Another is about original sin. A third is on the “almost Christian.” Washington also had a copy of Methodist Bishop Thomas Coke’s sermon at the famous 1784 Christmas Conference in Baltimore, at which Asbury was consecrated. And there’s a copy of The Arminian magazine, which the Methodists published.
The Washington religious library is eclectic. There are 4 sermons from famous Unitarian theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, an advocate of American independence and friend to Washington among other Founding Fathers. There’s a booklet from famed revivalist Jonathan Edwards, but about Indian tribal language. There’s also a sermon at Yale College from Edwards’ preacher grandson, Timothy Dwight, on “infidel philosophy.” There are 2 sermons from Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
One booklet contrasts French atheism with English Christianity. Another booklet refutes deism and Thomas Paine, while still another targets his Age of Reason’s “false reasoning.” Numerous sermons are devoted to presidentially proclaimed days of prayer and thanksgiving. A number are funeral sermons, including one at Princeton for John Witherspoon. A 1790 sermon addresses the duties of a Christian soldier. Another tract defends the pacifism of Quakers. Still another is on the Athanasian Creed. One explains the Church of England’s 39 Articles. Several sermons are to Masonic lodges on the special feast day they celebrated for St. John the Evangelist.
A particularly early sermon, from 1753, when Washington was only 21, and delivered to Virginia’s General Assembly, addresses the “nature and extent of Christ’s redemption.” One book covers prophecy in the Book of Revelation. Several are apologetics offering “evidences for the truth of the Gospel.” One, published in 1778, argues for frequently receiving the Holy Sacrament, which Washington is known to have mostly avoided after the war. There are 2 booklets by and about the hymn writer Isaac Watts.
At least one sermon is Roman Catholic. None of the Protestant Reformers are present except Theodore Beza. Almost all the publications are from the 1700s. Most seem to be Church of England or Episcopal. Presbyterian seems to be the second most common. Priestley is the nearly only noticeable advocate of Unitarianism. None are noticeably Deist, which some historians have claimed was Washington’s inclination.
Two Bibles are specifically listed, one with the Apocrypha. Washington left in his will one Bible to his Episcopal clergy friend Bryan Fairfax. As to the many sermons in his library, many of which he had bound, Washington was known regularly to have read sermons aloud to his family on Sundays.
The new library center at Mount Vernon is currently seeking to reassemble a full collection of Washington’s books, originals or duplicates.