Monday, January 2, 2012

The Christian Faith of George Washington IV (and final)

George Washington wearing his Masonic Apron
while laying the cornerstone of the United States
Well back to the Christian faith—or lack thereof—of George Washington, the most important of our Founding Fathers. Washington was, as we have said, an Anglican (before the American Revolution) Episcopalian (after American independence when the Episcopal Church in America separated from the Church of England.)  He attended church with a respectable regularity (though far from every week) and even served as vestryman and warden of his parish for about twelve years before the American Revolution.  There is debate as to whether or not Washington participated in The Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church but it seems as though he did not.  Given his undisputed integrity in public and private life, this abstinence from the Lord’s Table might be an important indication of how he understood Christian faith. 
      In addition to Washington’s being an active member of the Episcopal Church he was also a Freemason.   He was initiated in Freemason Lodge no.4 at Fredericksburg in 1752 at age 20.  Freemasonry was not simply a social activity for Washington.  With the same or even greater regularity as Washington attended church, he attended Lodge Meetings both while at Mount Vernon and while away, including the years spent away commanding the American forces during the Revolution.  Many of the senior officers in Washington’s command were also Freemasons, including his favorites, the Marquis de Lafayette and Henry Knox.  When Washington was sworn in as President in 1789 he took the oath of office on the Bible belonging to Saint John’s Lodge in New York City,  and when he laid the cornerstone of the United States Capitol in 1793 he wore his masonic apron, a sign of his membership and status in the Freemasons.      
       Today many devout Protestants are members of the Masons—and even, despite Church Law, Catholics.  Traditionally, however Lutherans and Catholics, the two most doctrinally minded Churches in the spectrum of Christian denominations, have refrained from affiliating to the Masons because historically Masons have offered a questionable (from an orthodox point of view) theology that differs substantially from Christian faith.  Classic freemasonry does not embrace the Father-God revealed in the Christian scriptures whose personal oversight extends into the lives of each of his children but rather offers the rationalist deity who is the Master Mason of the universe, the great designer of the laws of nature and embodiment of a rational justice whose moral laws are written on the human heart not by divine revelation but by absolute reason.  Such religion has a positivist understanding of the human person as guided by reason, not by grace, to goodness and sees sin not as the violation of Divine Command but a failure of reasonable judgment on the part of the individual.  Such “sin” does not need atonement and Christ is no longer Savior of the World but moral guide whose teachings are founded in reason rather than in revelation.  Such a savior has no need of being divinity incarnate but an enlightened human person whose godliness is a measure of his reason and not a divine nature.  As we saw in previous postings this allows the thinker to move from Christianity to Deism, from faith in Jesus to an admiration of Jesus, from Trinitarianism to Unitarianism or Deism (or Agnosticism) and from a personal God whose immanence is apprehended by faith to a Supreme Being whose Transcendence renders the believer significant only to the extent of his reasonable choices in life.  Now, I am not saying that all Masons, and in particular contemporary Masons, have moved this far from orthodox Christianity but it was typical of the Masons of the late seventeenth and of the eighteenth centuries.  Did Washington embrace such a rationalist “faith” rather than Christian orthodoxy?  We cannot say for sure but it is interesting that when Washington wrote of God he used such terms as “Providence,” “The Great Architect of the Universe,” "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be"and “The Blessings of Heaven.”  When he wrote about Jesus it was as a moral teacher, not as a Redeemer.   All in all, one would have to say that viewed from today’s perspective Washington was more the Mason than the Episcopalian; more the Deist than the Christian.   Yet, unlike Jefferson or Franklin, I don’t think one could say about Washington that he wasn’t a Christian, at least of some sort.  In religion, as in politics, Washington was not a theoretician but a doer.  I suspect that for him Christianity was not about affirming doctrinal faith in Jesus Christ but living according to one’s best ability to follow the practical ethics found in the New Testament.  Even here, however, I think modern Christians would find Washington wanting.  Most seriously he maintained slaves.  He supported the American rebellion against constituted legitimate authority and he did so, in great part, because it was to his personal economic advantage.  But again when it came to morality, I think Washington was a man of practical judgments not abstract theory.  He did provide in his will that his slaves (not Martha’s) should be freed upon Martha’s death.  Even though Anglicans, like most Christians (including Catholics) other than Quakers did not object to slavery, Washington’s own moral compass told him that slavery was morally unsupportable but he knew that he could not maintain his public responsibilities without the benefits of a slave economy, nor was he willing to leave his widow without the practical support she needed to maintain their standard of livelihood once he was dead.  (And actually the majority of slaves on their estates were Martha’s, not George's.  He had no right in law, of course, to free her slaves.) I think for Washington public responsibilities took moral precedence over the freedom of one’s slaves.  This is a curious perspective, indeed troubling to the modern mind, but where would our Republic be had he chosen otherwise?  Similarly, Washington had no qualms about violating the oaths of loyalty to the King he had taken as a member of the militia, as a member of his church vestry, and as a member of the House of Burgesses.  I think Thomas Jefferson made it clear in the Declaration of Independence that the King’s failure to maintain the welfare of his American subjects justified the colonists in turning away from his “protection,” but it must be noted that severing the political subordination to Great Britain was of immense financial benefit to Washington and other Virginia Planters.  All of this is a way to say that Washington seems to have been guided not by Christian moral teaching but practical ethics symptomatic of Deist thought.  On the other hand, I think it is noteworthy that Washington has never been accused of marital infidelity with either a slave nor a social peer, despite his well-known love for Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend and neighbor.  This is only one example of Washington being a person of exceptional ethical fiber. For Washington it would seem that moral integrity was more a matter of personal honesty rather than what we would call today “social justice.”  I don’t think that was atypical, however, of eighteenth-century men of his social position whether or not religious. 
     Finally, let us note that when Washington was dying no clergy were summoned to attend him.  His funeral at Mount Vernon comprised both the traditional Episcopalian (formerly Anglican) Prayerbook rite and Masonic rituals. 
     All in all, I think Washington might be categorized with the oxymoron of a “Christian Deist.”  Unlike Jefferson or Franklin, Washington’s practical mind permitted him a dual allegiance to a vague Christianity and the religious indifferentism of Enlightenment Freemasonry. Unlike the more militant (and mostly European) masons, Washington was not hostile to religion and he never tried to exclude it from public life.  In addition to Sunday Worship he attended various services organized for the Continental Congress.  He was not only a generous financial supporter of the Episcopal Churches to which he belonged, but local legend maintains that through the agency of his friend and former aide, Colonel John Fitzgerald, Washington was one of the first contributors to the building of Saint Mary’s Church, Alexandria, the first Catholic Church in Virginia.  On the other hand, religious principles cannot be said to have guided his public or private life.  One would have to lump him with Jefferson, Franklin, and John Adams in embracing a public life guided not by Christian principles but by what we might today call humanist ethics.       


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