Bible

George Washington and the Bible

 By John Koopman III

 

Several people read the rough draft of my book, George Washington at War – 1776. Two had the same question. Did Washington quote the Bible (Scripture)? It is a fair question.  

In the my book, Washington gives an example from the Bible when he talks to Major John Trumbull about lying in Chapter 2. My purpose here was threefold. First, I wanted to communicate a sense of the loneliness of command. For national security purposes, Washington had to keep much to himself. Second, I wanted to show how a person of faith could justify lying without compromising their beliefs. Hence, lie to save lives. The incident with Rahab (The Bible, Joshua chapter 2) demonstrated that principle. Third, I wanted to point out that Washington was in fact well versed in Scripture. I will go to some length defending that premise because I believe it is important in understanding the character of this highly complex man. As the discussion below will show, Washington was not only well versed in the Scriptures but was also a man of deep faith. The discussion also shows that he was a theist and not a deist. 

Perhaps like many people, I had long thought that Washington was a deist. It was not until I started doing my own research that I discovered that he was in fact a theist. First, the definition of deism from a contemporary source: “The belief, claiming foundation solely upon the evidence of reason, in the existence of God as the creator of the universe who after setting it in motion abandoned it, assumed no control over life, exerted no influence on natural phenomena, and gave no supernatural revelation.” Second, the definition of theism: “Belief in the existence of a god or gods; especially, belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.” A dictionary published closer to the time in which Washington lived had very similar definitions.

As stated above, a deist would not waste time in prayer or church attendance. The creator set things in motion and then abandoned that creation. Also, since this departed creator left no supernatural revelation, there would be no point in studying the Bible. The scholars cited below are clearly not describing a deist when writing about Washington. The examples are based on eyewitness accounts.

Washington’s stepgrandson, George Washington Parke Custis, had very intimate knowledge of Washington’s habits:

  • “When without company, he frequently read to his family extracts from the new publications of the day, and, on Sunday, sermons and other sacred writings.”
  • “General Washington was always a strict and decorous observer of the Sabbath. He invariably attended divine service once a day, when within reach of a place of worship. His respect to the clergy, as a body, was shown by public entertainments to them, the same as to the Corps Legislative and Diplomatic, and among his bosom friends were the venerable Bishop of Pennsylvania, and the late excellent prelate and ardent friend of American liberty, Dr. Carroll, Archbishop of Baltimore.”
  • “On Sunday, no visitors were admitted to the President’s House, save the immediate relatives of the family, with only one exception: Mr. Speaker Trumbull, since Governor of Connecticut, and who had been confidential secretary to the Chief in the war of the Revolution, was in the habit of spending an hour with the President, on Sunday evenings.”

Historian Ron Chernow, author of Washington: A Life, gives several examples of the general’s faith: “Washington’s pastor at Pohick Church before the war confirmed that he ‘never knew so constant and attendant at church as Washington.’ ” An early biographer, Jared Sparks, recorded this comment from Washington’s nephew George W. Lewis: “Mr. Lewis said he had accidentally witnessed [Washington’s] private devotions in his library both morning and evening; that on those occasions he had seen him in a kneeling position with a Bible open before him and that he believed such to have been his daily practice.” General Robert Porterfield recalled that when he delivered an urgent message to Washington during the Revolutionary War, he “found him on his knees, engaged in his morning devotions.” When Porterfield mentioned this to Alexander Hamilton, one of Washington’s aides, the latter ““‘replied that such was his constant habit.” Washington’s adopted granddaughter saw his self-effacing religiosity as consistent with a hatred of pretention: “He was not one of those who act or pray That they may be seen of men.”

The average person in the 18th century would recognize the phrase “That they may be seen of men” came from the Bible, in the book of Matthew. 

Here is the complete verse: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, That they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” (Matthew 6:5)

Historian Bruce Chadwick, author of The General & Mrs. Washington, has more to add on the general’s faith: “The Washingtons were churchgoing Christians. They were both members of the Anglican Church, later the Protestant Episcopal Church, and attended services on Sunday as often as they could. They were members of the large, brick Pohick Church in the Truro Parish in Fairfax County, whose construction was supervised by George, and Christ Church in Alexandria. They also belonged to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg where, as substantial contributors, they had their own pew. George was a vestryman at Pohick Church. Throughout his life, George constantly referred to Providence in his letters and speeches, befriended ministers, urged his troops to go to church on Sunday, and espoused the values of Christianity.”

Providence, a name for God that was frequently used by Washington, will be covered later. 

There are cynics who hold that Washington attended church for social and political reasons only. This shows a complete misunderstanding of the man. His character and sense of honor meant everything to him. Washington would be horrified to be considered a hypocrite. A tour of Washington’s library at Mount Vernon reveals a very deep interest in theology. Mark Tooley, of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, posted an article on the web that lists theological books and pamphlets in the library at Mount Vernon:

Out of the entire library of books and pamphlets, “170 items were religious…”

 “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.”

 “Another booklet refutes deism and Thomas Paine…” 

 “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.” 

Some of the sermons:

“5 sermon pamphlets from (John) Wesley…One is about salvation by faith. Another is about original sin. A third is on the ‘Almost Christian.’ ”

 “…Methodist Bishop Thomas Coke’s sermon at the famous 1784 Christmas Conference in Baltimore.”

“A number are funeral sermons, including one at Princeton for John Witherspoon.”

“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.’ ”

Tooley’s article shows that Washington had much more than a passing interest in theology. George Washington was well read in sermons, pamphlets, and books on the Bible. 

It is important to note that you will not find references to specific passages of the Bible (e.g., Matthew 6:5) in Washington’s letters. However, numerous quotations and allusions in his letters (e.g., “That they may be seen of men”) clearly show that he used the Bible as the source material. The following is a small sample of the many examples that show the depth of Washington’s knowledge of the scriptures. In his book George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Dr. Peter Lillback has listed several hundred instances in which Washington paraphrased, alluded to, or directly quoted the Bible.  In the section below, I list samples from Washington’s writings followed by the corresponding Bible verse. Here is part of a rough draft of the first inaugural address: 

“If the blessings of Heaven showered thick around us should be spilled on the ground or converted to curses, through the fault of those for whom they were intended, it would not be the first instance of folly or perverseness in short-sighted mortals. The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest of purposes.”

Here we see the deep respect Washington had for the Bible, the word of God. Below is the corresponding verse:

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

George Washington to Thomas Nelson Jr., August 20, 1778 

“It is not a little pleasing, nor less wonderful to contemplate, that after two years Maneuvering and undergoing the strangest vicissitudes that perhaps ever attended any one contest since the creation both Armies are brought back to the very point they set out from and, that that, which was the offending party in the beginning is now reduced to the use of the spade and pick axe for defense. The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations, but, it will be time enough for me to turn preacher, when my present appointment ceases; and therefore, I shall add no more on the Doctrine of Providence; but make a tender of my best respects to your good Lady; the Secretary and other friends and assure you that with the most perfect regard I am etc.”

Corresponding Bible verse 

“But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (1 Timothy 5:8)

George Washington, April 18, 1783, General Orders 

“The Commander in Chief orders the Cessation of Hostilities between the United States of America and the King of Great Britain to be publickly proclaimed tomorrow at 12 o’clock at the New building, and that the Proclamation which will be communicated herewith, be read tomorrow evening at the head of every regiment and corps of the army. After which the Chaplains with the several Brigades will render thanks to almighty God for all his mercies, particularly for his over ruling the wrath of man to his own glory, and causing the rage of war to cease amongst the nations.”

Corresponding Bible verse 

“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.” (Genesis 17:1)

Another corresponding Bible verse

“He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.” (Psalm 46:9)

George Washington, Circular to the States, January 31, 1782

“…unless we strenuously exert ourselves to profit by these successes, we shall not only lose all the solid advantages that might be derived from them, but we shall become contemptible in our own eyes, in the eyes of our Enemy, in the opinion of Posterity, and even in the estimation of the whole World; which will consider us as a nation unworthy of Prosperity, because we know not how to make a right use of it; that, altho’ we cannot, by the best concerted plans, absolutely command success, altho’, the race is not always to the swift, or the Battle to the strong, yet without presumptuously waiting for Miracles to be wrought in our favour, it is our indispensible Duty,with the deepest gratitude to Heaven for the past, and humble confidence in its smiles on our future operations…”

Corresponding Bible verse

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

George Washington to Francois Jean, Comte de Chastellux, April 25, 1788 

“Your young military men, who want to reap the harvest of laurels, don’t care (I suppose) how many seeds of war are sown; but for the sake of humanity it is devoutly to be wished, that the manly employment of agriculture and the humanizing benefits of commerce, would supersede the waste of war and the rage of conquest; that the swords might be turned into plough-shares, the spears into pruning hooks, and, as the Scripture expresses it, “the nations learn war no more.

Corresponding Bible verse 

“And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

George Washington to Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, June 18, 1788 

“When the people shall find themselves secure under an energetic government, when foreign nations shall be disposed to give us equal advantages in commerce from dread of retaliation, when the burdens of war shall be in a manner done away by the sale of western lands, when the seeds of happiness which are sown here shall begin to expand themselves, and when every one (under his own vine and fig-tree) shall begin to taste the fruits of freedom, then all these blessings (for all these blessings will come) will be referred to the fostering influence of the new government. Whereas many causes will have conspired to produce them. You see I am not less enthusiastic than ever I have been, if a belief that peculiar scenes of felicity are reserved for this country, is to be denominated enthusiasm. Indeed, I do not believe, that Providence has done so much for nothing.”

This quote is of particular interest because Washington put parentheses around the Biblical quotes. This use of parentheses is as close as he came to identifying a Bible passage as we do today. Here are the corresponding passages:

“And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.” (1 Kings 4:25) 

“And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORDthy God.” (Deuteronomy 28:2)

The allusion to the fig tree was one of Washington’s favorites; it appears no less than 29 times in the Washington Papers. 

George Washington to Joseph Reed, December 12, 1778 

“It gives me very sincere pleasure to find that there is likely to be a coalition of the Whigs in your State (a few only excepted) and that the assembly of it, are so well disposed to second your endeavours in bringing those murderers of our cause (the monopolizers, forestallers, and engrossers) to condign punishment. It is much to be lamented that each State long ere this has not hunted them down as the pests of society, and the greatest Enemys we have to the happiness of America. I would to God that one of the most attrocious of each State was hung in Gibbets upon a gallows five times as high as the one prepared by Haman. No punishment in my opinion is too great for the Man who can build his greatness upon his Country’s ruin.”

For those not familiar with the story, Haman was an ancient Hitler. He sought to eradicate the Jewish people. Here is a brief rundown of the Bible account; Mordecai and Ester were the Jewish heroes of the story, these are the related scriptures:

“And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence, then was Haman full of wrath. And he thought scorn to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had shewed him the people of Mordecai: wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.” (Esther 3:5,6) 

And Harbonah, one of the chamberlains, said before the king, Behold also, the gallows fifty cubits high, which Haman had made for Mordecai, who spoken good for the king, standeth in the house of Haman. Then the king said, Hang him thereon.10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then was the king’s wrath pacified.” (Esther 7:9, 10) 

This also shows Washington’s hatred of religious persecution. Many historians argue what precisely was Washington’s faith, but none can argue that he was tolerant and a defender of all religions to a fault. 

Ron Chernow states: “One thing that hasn’t aroused dispute is the exemplary nature of Washington’s religious tolerance. He shuddered at the notion of exploiting religion for partisan purposes or showing favoritism for certain denominations. As president, when writing to Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, and other congregations-he officially saluted twenty-two major religious groups-he issued eloquent statements on religious tolerance.” 

Although he was a member of the Anglican Church, which went onto become the Episcopal Church, Washington would attend church services of other denominations. 

Chernow also notes that: “He took pleasure in dropping by Sunday services of other denominations. In Bishop White’s words, ‘If there was no Episcopal Church in the town in which he happened to be, he would attend the services of any other denomination with equal cheerfulness.’” 

To those who claim he never referred to himself as a Christian, there is this quote from Washington, “upon my honr and the faith of a Christian…” 

Another assertion by those who hold that Washington was a deist is based on the names he used for God. It cannot be missed by any serious student of the Washington Papers that the man went out of his way to use a different name for God each time God was referred to in a letter. Examples include All Wise Disposer of Events, Grand Architect of the Universe, Great Director of Events — the list goes on and on. Supporters of the deist theory hold that his use of these expressions proves that he was a deist. The term Washington used most often was “Providence.” This is cited as further proof of his belief in deism.

There is a problem with the Providence argument. Thomas Paine ridiculed the use of the term, and no historian doubts that Thomas Paine was a deist. Paine made it quite clear. Here, he openly mocks others’ use of the term: “It seems as if parents of the Christian profession were ashamed to tell their children anything about the principles of their religion. They sometimes instruct them in morals, and talk to them of the goodness of what they call Providence, for the Christian mythology has five deities — there is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, the God Providence, and the Goddess Nature.”

As stated earlier, the only pamphlet on deism in Washington’s library was a refutation of it. In particular, it refutes the deism of Thomas Paine. 

The term “Providence” comes from the expression “Jehovahjireh,” meaning Jehovah will provide. Here is the reference to it in the Bible: “And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen” (Genesis 22:14).

There is a very simple response to the question of why Washington used so many different names for God: it is how the pastors of the day referred to God in their sermons. Preaching styles change; this approach is for the most part not used today. Washington, an avid churchgoer, was merely reflecting the practice of the times. It is very easy to demonstrate.

As described earlier in this article, Washington was a great collector of sermons. He would have them bound into books. We know from his papers that he specifically requested a copy of a sermon he had heard Reverend Samuel Miller deliver:

George Washington to Reverend Samuel Miller, Philadelphia, August 29, 1793 

“Sir: It is but a few days since that I had the pleasure to receive your polite letter of the 4 instant, which accompanied the Sermon delivered by you on the 4 of July, and I beg you will accept my best thanks for the attention shewn in forwarding the same to me. I am etc.” 

In Reverend Samuel Miller’s sermon, many different names for God can be found. Here is a list of some of those names from the sermon that can be found in Washington’s writings: The Supreme Arbiter, The Deity, The Sovereign Dispenser, Governor of the Universe, Infinite Wisdom, Great Author, and Benign Light. 

Please find below the corresponding names found in Washington’s writings:

Washington’s reply to the General Assembly of Georgia

“I am naturally led to reflect on the unlimited gratitude which we owe, as a nation, to the supreme Arbiter of human events, for his interposition in our favor…”

George Washington to Caleb Gibbs, May 26, 1789

“While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences…”

George Washington to Germantown, Pennsylvania, School Trustees, November 6, 1793

“…we can but offer up our prayers to the Sovereign Dispenser of life and health…”

George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, June 29, 1788

“The great Governor of the Universe has led us too long and too far on the road to happiness and glory…”

George Washington to Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives, August 10, 1783

“If, depending on the Guidance of the same Allwise Providence, I have performed my part in this great Revolution, to the acceptance of my fellow Citizens, It is a source of high satisfaction to me; and forms an additional Motive of Praise to that Infinite Wisdom, which directs the Minds of Men.”

George Washington to Samuel Langdon, September 28, 1789

“The man must be bad indeed who can look upon the events of the American Revolution without feeling the warmest gratitude towards the great Author of the Universe whose divine interposition was so frequently manifested in our behalf.”

George Washington to Meshech Weare, et al, June 8, 1783, Circular Letter of Farewell to Army

“…and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had ameliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.”

As these examples demonstrate, Washington used these many names for God throughout his life. It was not a one-off but a systematic application to his letters. As an avid churchgoer who often requested sermons for his library, these names for God were a part of his vocabulary, and he used them without any second thought. They flowed naturally into his letters.

There is another category of Washington’s names for God. The God of Armies, the Great Power, and the Father of Lights were terms he used that could be misconstrued as deist. But these terms come straight form the Bible:

George Washington to Landon Carter Morristown in New Jersey, April 15, 1777

“Your friendly and affectionate wishes for my health and success has a claim to my most grateful acknowledgements. That the God of Armies may Incline the Hearts of my American Brethren to support, and bestow sufficient abilities on me to bring the present contest to a speedy and happy conclusion, thereby enabling me to sink into sweet retirement, and the full enjoyment of that Peace and happiness which will accompany a domestick Life, is the first wish, and most fervent prayer of my Soul.”

Corresponding Bible verse 

“Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.” (1 Samuel 17:45)

George Washington to Henry Knox, September 20, 1795 

“If any power on earth could, or the great power above would, erect the standard of infallibility in political opinions, there is no being that inhabits this terrestrial globe that would resort to it with more eagerness than myself…”

Corresponding Bible verse

Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.” (Nehemiah 1:10)

George Washington to the leaders of the Presbyterian Church 

“The tribute of thanksgiving which you offer to “the gracious Father of lights” for his inspiration of our public-councils with wisdom and firmness to complete the national constitution, is worthy of men, who, devoted to the pious purposes of religion, desire their accomplishment by such means as advance the temporal happiness of their fellow-men—and, here, I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.”

Corresponding Bible verse 

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (James 1:17)

On other occasions Washington also used names more familiar to us today, as in “Almighty God.”

George Washington, April 18, 1783, General Orders

“The Commander in Chief orders the Cessation of Hostilities between the United States of America and the King of Great Britain to be publickly proclaimed tomorrow at 12 o’clock at the New building, and that the Proclamation which will be communicated herewith, be read tomorrow evening at the head of every regiment and corps of the army. After which the Chaplains with the several Brigades will render thanks to almighty God for all his mercies, particularly for his over ruling the wrath of man to his own glory, and causing the rage of war to cease amongst the nations.”

Corresponding Bible verse 

“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.” (Genesis 17:1)

 

***

In summation, a more careful study of Washington shows him to be a theist, not a deist. He was not only a regular church attendee but a member of his local parish, and he even supervised the construction of a church. He was observed by eye witnesses in daily personal devotions reading from the Bible. He held members of the clergy in high regard. He collected sermons throughout his life and had them bound into books. Washington read sermons to family. As commander-in-chief during the Revolution, he not only encouraged but actually ordered his soldiers to attend divine services. His personal letters reveal a man who was well-versed in Scripture. He not only used Bible verses, but named God in different ways many times in his writings. With all of this evidence, it is very hard to understand why people insist he was a deist. People may confuse the fact that he was not more overt in his expression of faith with a lack of interest. Part of the confusion stems from his staunch observance of religious tolerance and his humility. As commander-in-chief during the Revolution and as president, he felt compelled to protect all religions and denominations and to show no favoritism. But in the end, it was his humility that explains it best. His stepgranddaughter captured the truth: “He was not one of those who act or pray That they may be seen of men.”