(My review of Washington’s God, by Michael & Jana Novak, appeared in the May 2006 American Spectator, and is republished here in honor of Washington’s Birthday and of Michael Novak, who died Friday, February 17, 2017.)
The Founding Believer
Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country
by Michael and Jana Novak
(Basic Books, 256 pages, $26)
Reviewed by Mark D. Tooley
AT A CANDLELIGHT DINNER on the portico of Mount Vernon, Roman Catholic ethicist Michael Novak was reluctantly persuaded by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association to write a book about George Washington’s religious beliefs. Among the over one million visitors each year to Washington’s exquisitely preserved estate, the request for such a book is common but largely unrequited, Novak was told.
George Washington’s modern biographers are almost uniform in dismissing or minimizing his religious faith. James Flexner, in his famous three-volume work of the 1970s, wrote: “Washington subscribed to the religious faith of the Enlightenment; like Franklin and Jefferson he was a deist… not believing in the doctrines of the churches.”
Willard Randall’s more recent George Washington: A Life similarly asserts, “He was not a deeply religious man. Once he left his Bible thumping mother’s household he may never have taken any Anglican communion again, yet he went to church frequently…” Joe Ellis’s highly acclaimed His Excellency of last year echoed this theme: “Never a deeply religious man, at least in the traditional Christian sense of the term, Washington thought of God as a distant impersonal force…”
This insistence on a religiously ambivalent Washington stretches back over many decades. Even Douglas Southall Freeman’s magisterial seven-volume biography dared not assert that its subject was overly devout. A serious Baptist and conservative Richmond newspaper editor, Freeman presumably did not share the secular biases of more recent biographers but nonetheless was cryptic and cautious about Washington’s religion.
Henry Cabot Lodge, well over a century ago, was probably the last major biographer to insist that Washington was unequivocally a Christian, based on a single reference to Jesus Christ as “the Divine Author of our religion.” Either Washington actually believed this or he was a “liar,” Lodge wrote.
The assumption of the last century’s scholarship that Washington was irreligious is partly his fault. Reserved and emotionally reticent, he left no extant theological treatises on his personal religious beliefs. The clues must be extracted from Washington’s ecclesial habits, his family life, his character, and the numerous references to the Almighty in his public writings and personal letters.
WASHINGTON’S GOD by Michael and Jana Novak attempts to clarify the record about the great man’s religion. Such clarification is long overdue. The Novaks (who are father and daughter) remind us that for a century after Washington’s death, historians, starting with his first biographer John Marshall, described the first president as a devout Christian.
The enormously successful hagiographer Parson Mason Locke Weems is routinely credited for generating pious myths about Washington. But the Novaks assert that Weems, who briefly pastored the Pohick Anglican Church that the Washingtons attended, was only disseminating what was already widely believed to be true.
Most of Washington’s family, friends, and associates assumed he had at least conventional if not necessarily expressive Christian faith. “He took these things [religion] as he found them existing, and was constant in his observance of worship according to the received forms of the Episcopal Church in which he was brought up,” James Madison matter-of-factly observed of his fellow Virginian.
The Novaks describe 18th-century Tidewater Virginia Anglican culture, in which gentlemen were expected to be church-going but reticent about their faith. “Lukewarm Anglican” then as now was a redundancy, they affirm. Prizing refinement over enthusiasm, even devout Anglicans were and largely still are expected to be tight-lipped and even inarticulate about religion.
Washington was indeed tight-lipped about the specifics of his theology. But he was surprisingly frequent is his references to the Deity. His God was not remote or impersonal. Washington’s God, as he described Him in his public declarations and personal letters, was quite active and quite personal. This deity saved the young Washington several times from French and Indian bullets, saved Washington’s army from near destruction by the far larger British army, and saved the young republic from chaos and division.
Helpfully in their appendix, the Novaks list the more than 100 ways that Washington described God, from “Almighty and Merciful Sovereign of the Universe” to “Wonder-working Deity.” Some of them are quite creative. None are at odds with the Jewish and Christian understanding of a personal God. They include references to the divine as “Father” and “Jehovah.”
Washington’s few specific references to Jesus Christ and his lack of Trinitarian language helped fuel the assumption that he was a deist. The Novaks devote a whole chapter to deism, which they explain as a rationalization of Christianity. The deist God is a creator whose world is governed by natural laws and who desires moral living by humanity, whose conduct will be judged in the afterlife.
Much of early Protestantism initially rejected Catholicism’s use of human reason, choosing instead to focus on faith alone. Deism, the Novaks suggest, allowed Protestants to incorporate the language of reason during the Enlightenment. Some deists remained Christians, while others would follow the European model of strict rationalism. Washington, as he related the many interventions of his God, clearly believed in a continuously active deity who was more than the detached “clockmaker” of strict deism.
The language of Enlightenment, 18th-century Christianity, especially as employed by refined Tidewater Anglicans, was considerably less flamboyant than what would replace it. During Washington’s final years, the established Anglican and Congregationalist churches of the East Coast were losing market share to revivalist evangelicals. Methodists, and Baptists, with their emphasis on conversion and transformation, would dominate 19th-century America. Their christo-centric language was far more explicit about salvation, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the demand for repentance.
Early fans of Washington, in the wake of his death at the 18th-century’s close, sought to explain the first president’s Christian faith in the language of the new evangelical era. Washington’s own words frequently could not match these demands. So the hagiographers focused on Washington’s self-denial, his courtesy, his reliable church-going, his prayer life, and his ardent sense of duty and providential destiny. Exaggeration of Washington’s faith and character throughout the 19th century was inevitable.
But the 20th-century backlash by increasingly secular historians also went too far. Modern biographers portray Washington as a Roman stoic who performed his religious duties perfunctorily to satisfy the public. The Novaks emphasize that whatever the specifics of the man’s personal faith, he said the same things about God in private as he did in public. He contrasts with Jefferson and Franklin and even Adams, who privately expressed doubts about orthodox understandings of Christ’s deity and the Trinity, even as they attended churches and affirmed Christianity.
NONE OF WASHINGTON’S WRITINGS express any doubts about orthodox Christianity. If he had them, he left them unrecorded or confined to his correspondence with his wife, who burned nearly all their letters on his instructions. Martha was herself indisputably devout in her Christian faith, though she too left few written theological thoughts, in typical Anglican style of the time.
The Washingtons usually attended Pohick Church near Mount Vernon and sometimes Christ Church in Alexandria. Either trip by carriage involved a couple hours of travel round trip. Washington financially supported both churches and gave considerable personal time over the decades to his work on the church vestry. Throughout his presidency he regularly attended churches in New York and Philadelphia.
A few clergy over the years expressed concern that Washington rarely if ever took communion, even though Martha usually did. The Novaks write that this was not unusual for the time, and that the Eucharist was infrequently celebrated in churches of the era, even Roman Catholic ones. Although not noted by the Novaks, 19th-century biographers often disputed claims that Washington never took the Eucharist. Ostensibly, the nearly 100-year-old widow of Alexander Hamilton testified to her clear recollection of kneeling at the communion rail with the president.
Washington’s spiritual life within his family appears to have been conventionally orthodox. He prayed before meals, read sermons out loud to Martha, and bought devotional material for his stepchildren. When stepdaughter Patsy was dying, he prayed audibly while on his knees at her bedside.
Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who sometimes declined to serve as a godparent because of his theological doubts, Washington frequently agreed to the spiritual responsibilities of godparenting for the children of relatives and friends. Interestingly, Jefferson referred to Jesus as the “blessed author of our religion.” As noted above, Washington contrastingly called Jesus the “Divine Author of our religion.”
Washington’s death, as described by secretary Tobias Lear, occurred relatively quickly, painfully, and touchingly for the servants, doctors, and family who tearfully looked on. The absence of clergy during those final hours, and the fact that Lear never ascribed any specific statements of faith to Washington, have reinforced the notion of him as a deist/stoic.
The death at Mount Vernon contrasted with Alexander Hamilton’s several years later. Shot in a duel, the flamboyant former aid to Washington dramatically requested the presence of an Anglican bishop and demanded the Eucharist while professing his faith in Christ.
Washington was a different character, and he died as he lived, with understatement and composure. Martha prayed with her Bible at the bedside while Washington uttered his final words: “Tis well.” Martha responded with the same phrase. “It was a noble death and quite Christian in its entire content,” the Novaks write.
The Novaks also observe that Washington’s taciturnity about religious specifics throughout his life, as on many other issues, allowed him to serve as the indispensable man in whom people of all faiths placed their trust. Washington’s public utterances about God were unifying rather than divisive and were admired by Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and even Jews. He carefully wrote to their congregations, visited their places of worship, and received their delegations, commending their faith and urging their loyalty to the new republic and its promise of religious liberty to all.
In religion, as in statecraft, Washington set the example that all other presidents would follow in some form. The Novaks insist, not without logic, that a Washington without serious faith could not have managed this so equitably and successfully. They are almost certainly correct.