By Stephen Yoch
The short answer: Yes . . . and No.
On paper, George Washington was a member of the Anglican Church. It would be a stretch to call him a deeply religious man. George and Martha went to church, but George often left early and his attendance was increasingly spotty as the years went on. Indeed, there is evidence that he rarely took communion.
From his earliest days growing up on the farm, Washington’s religious teaching focused on actions rather than faith. Washington’s troubled relationship with his mother could have resulted in him choosing behaviors that differed from his mother’s examples. Thus, to some extent, his mother’s apparent religious zeal may have made him less demonstrative in later life.
Washington never mentioned “Jesus” in his personal correspondence, and referred to “Christ” rarely in public papers. George considered God to be a distant and impersonal participant in his life. He believed more in the hand of God in the form of “providence” guiding the larger destiny of people. If mentioning a deity at all, it was rarely “God,” but instead the Masonic invocation of the Almighty, the Ruler of the Universe, Providence, and the Supreme Being.
This is not to say that Washington did not believe in God. In fact, family members recount him praying on his knees and consulting the Bible. However, his relationship with God did not require a priest or pastor as spiritual guides.
In contrast, Martha was deeply religious and prayed for at least an hour each morning. It was Martha, and not George, that maintained the close relationship with the local clergy and kept the Washingtons in good stead in the religious community.
Finally, and most importantly, Washington was intensely tolerant of other’s religious views. Indeed, during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, shortly after being elected as the Convention’s president, Washington chose to attend services at the only Catholic Church then existing in Philadelphia. His goal was to reassure everyone that despite the confidential nature of the Convention, religious tolerance would play a central role in the new government. Later, as President, Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island, emphasizing that there was no place for bigotry in the new United States.
Washington was an intensely personal man and resisted biographical inquiries during his lifetime. His personal religious views remain largely hidden – as he intended – but his belief in providence and religious tolerance were at the core of his faith.
Stephen Yoch’s book Becoming George Washington, traces the early and largely unknown life of America’s leading founding father through the French & Indian War. This meticulously researched historical fiction follows Washington’s rise from a fatherless insecure boy to the Revolution’s indispensible man.