Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Christian Faith of George Washington III

Pohick Church, one of the churches that Washington
attended regularly.  This picture is taken from the
website.  Notice the centrality of the pulpit and how
the commuion table is placed in a more subordinate
position.  This arrangement was not unusual in 
Episcopalian Churches before the Oxford Movement
of the nineteenth century 
  So what about George Washington and his religious beliefs?  Was he a Christian?  Did he believe that this new Republic which he was so instrumental in creating was to be a Christian nation?  Remember we are looking at this in the context of the controversy of atheist displays on the Courthouse lawn at beautiful Virginia Horse Country Leesburg (the Home Town of Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum) Virginia and the claims of Loudon County Maven Barbara Curtis whose Blog Mommy Life is filled with information (and misinformation) of all sorts.  In the debate over the Leesburg Courthouse lawn Ms. Curtis asserted that “There is also the fact that our nation is indeed a Judeo-Christian nation - there's no disputing that.”  Is there no disputing that?  I am not so sure.  We have been looking at American History, first in the colonial period and then in the time of the creation of the American Republic, to see whether or not the United States was meant to be a Christian, or a Judeo-Christian, nation.  Massachusetts history would support Ms. Curtis’ claim, but the Founding Fathers of the Republic are not so univocal.  We have looked at the religious opinions of Jefferson, Franklin, and the Adams cousins and it would appear that the three responsible for the Declaration of Independence would not support the claim that we should be “A Christian Nation,” at least not as that claim is put forth by modern political “conservatives.”  (I put “conservatives” in quotation marks because I think they deviate from our American political heritage in any number of matters.)  Sam Adams who was somewhat of what we might call today an “evangelical” may have supported the Christian Nation idea.  So now we have moved on to George Washington—the single most significant—though not the most influential—of the Founding Fathers.  I make that distinction because Washington was extremely proactive in the practical matters of establishing the new nation  but not in shaping the political theory behind it.  He was a member of the Continental Congress and an advocate for Independence.  He was given command of the American forces fighting for Independence.  I chaired the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  And he served as the First President under the Constitution.  Yet other than being an advocate for Independence in the Continental Congress and an advocate for a (relatively) strong Federal Government in the Constitutional Convention he was not given to participating in the debates that shaped the new nation.  Washington was never much of a talker but more of a doer.  And it is precisely for that reason that the religious opinions of George Washington comprise a tricky subject.  Our last two entries painted a picture of eighteenth century Anglicanism (and its American expression, The Episcopal Church), the denomination to which Washington was formally affiliated. We have seen that Episcopalianism in the eighteenth century was not easily or narrowly defined and that an Episcopalian might be anything from an agnostic to an evangelical.  So what about George?  
      Well, in the first place George was an Anglican/Episcopalian not just in name but in practice.  He was affiliated to several Episcopalian parishes relatively near to Mount Vernon, most especially Pohick Church and Christ Church, Alexandria.  He worshipped at each of these Churches though with some irregularity.  Washington kept a meticulous journal of his daily activities and they indicate that he went to church about one Sunday in four while at Mount Vernon.  This is not a bad record for eighteenth-century Virginia gentry; after all it was not easy going to Church in eighteenth-century Virginia plantation society.  New England townsfolk could be religious without much inconvenience.  Pohick Church was about seven miles distant and would have been about an hour and a half by horseback or two hours by carriage each way from Mount Vernon. Given that George invariably went to Church in Martha’s company he probably went by carriage but, usually leaving church after first service (Morning Prayer) while Martha remained for Holy Communion at the second service, he may have returned by horseback.  Such a schedule probably meant leaving Mount Vernon before six a.m. and returning between eleven and noon.  Christ Church was three miles further from Mount Vernon than Pohick Church and in another direction, making the round trip perhaps an hour longer each way.  Weather would be one deterrent to Church attendance with rain making the roads difficult and snow making them impassable. However, Washington’s diary mentions Sundays where he went Fox-hunting rather than to Church so it was not always a weather related skip.  Sometimes too he stayed home to catch up on correspondence or to meet with his farm manager. 
Pohick Church where Washington most frequently attended was the seat of Truro Parish which had been divided from Hamilton Parish by the Virginia General Assembly in 1732.  Pohick Church itself, originally known as the Occoquan Church (because of a local creek), had been founded in 1695 when it still was part of Hamilton Parish.   Washington served on the vestry of Truro parish from 1762 until 1774 and several times was one of the two Wardens.  It was during his time on the Truro Vestry that the Falls Church was built and Washington briefly served on the vestry at the Falls Church as well.  However as it was contrary to law for one to sit on two vestries simultaneously he did not stay with the Falls Church. (Before the Revolution when the Church of England was the Established Church, civil law governed matters spiritual as well as civic.)   Given the distance from Mount Vernon to the Falls Church it is unlikely that he attended services there with any regularity.  Modern day The Falls Church and also Truro Church have separated themselves from the Episcopal Church while Pohick Church is still Episcopalian.  We might talk about that in some upcoming blogs. 
     Before the American Revolution public office in Virginia was restricted to members of the Established Church, i.e. the Anglican Church and Washington’s dedication to public life would have required of him membership in the Established Church. He could not have served either in  the militia or held any public office unless he were a member of the Anglican Church.   
Ironically Washington’s church attendance was better when he was away from Mount Vernon than when he was there.  Stories that he only attended divine service when Martha was with him seem not to bear out the facts and all those Sundays at Mount Vernon when he skipped church indicate that Martha probably played little influence on his worship patterns.  During the periods of time that he lived in Philadelphia and New York attendance at church services was much more convenient as the churches were right in town—a walk from where he lived.  In Philadelphia he worshipped at Saint Peter’s Church; in New York at Saint Paul’s Chapel.  During his time in Philadelphia he also attended a Quaker service and, on one occasion, a service (I believe it was a Te Deum, not a Mass) at Saint Joseph’s, the Jesuit Church, which is Pennsylvania’s oldest Catholic Church.   
      While George was a Church-goer there is a dispute about whether or not Washington received Holy Communion at Anglican or Episcopal services.  This would be a significant indication as to what his faith—and the Christian religion—meant to him.  In Washington’s time, as mentioned in the previous blog, Anglican theology held for a Calvinistic approach to the Eucharist that Christ was truly present but in a spiritual (as opposed to physical) manner.  Some Anglicans/Episcopalians would have emphasized the idea that Christ was Truly present and considered the difference between spiritual and physical presence to be inconsequential.  Others would have gone for a more Zwinglian understanding that Christ’s presence was purely by “remembrance”—a sort of “present in my heart” approach.  The Anglican liturgy itself was (and to some extent still is) ambiguous so as to be as inclusive as possible.  Washington never commented on Eucharistic theology so we do not know what he believed.  Various family remembrances, primarily from a generation or two after Washington’s death, claim that he frequently attended Holy Communion.  Several of the rectors of the Episcopal Churches which Washington attended claimed, however, that he never took the Sacrament and one of them, the Reverend Doctor James Abercrombie of Saint Peter’s—the Philadelphia Church Washington attended during the Continental Congress—explicitly said that Washington was a Deist.   Abercrombie had, in a Sunday Sermon, criticized Washington and other public figures who refrained from receiving communion for setting a bad example by not remaining in church for the Sacrament.  Historians generally concur that the clergy records are more reliable than the family stories in this matter and take it that Washington attended Morning Prayer—a service  of psalms, prayers, and a sermon, but not Holy Communion. 
Washington’s devotional practices reflect his moral integrity.  If there is one thing one can say about Washington is that, despite Parson Weems’ story of the cherry tree being a fabrication, he was a man of superior integrity.  He was certainly a gentleman and respectful of the opinions of others but he was extremely discreet regarding his own religious beliefs.  Martha, his wife, was a very devout Episcopalian who received the Sacrament often.  Washington normally accompanied her to church, both attending the Morning Prayer.   George would usually then leave while Martha remained for the second service of Holy Communion.  Washington never said why, but obviously the Holy Communion was not important to him.  Or perhaps it was too important to him to participate in a rite whose basic significance differed from his personal “faith.”  Perhaps when we look at the various other rituals which Washington did practice we can understand his rather unique Christianity. 

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