Michael and Jana Novak, father and daughter, are authors of Washington’s God, to be released early next month. Take a President’s Day preview of the book here.
Q: Who is Washington’s God?
AThe Great God Jehovah who led the people of Israel long ago, the same benevolent Providence that led the way through many dark times to the independence of the United States. That is the God Washington described in his letter to the Synagogue in Savannah, after the war.
Washington was an active vestryman in his local Anglican parish; he came from a long line of Anglican worshipers and even ministers; and his children by marriage continued the tradition. He cherished the Book of Psalms and read from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Yet like many in the Anglican tradition, Washington leaned towards philosophical names for God, rather than confessional names. He almost always used names such as the “Supreme Author of all Good”; the “all wise disposer of Events”; a “Bountiful Providence” that watches over us, and “interposes” his actions in our favor. Almost never: “Savior” or “Redeemer,” or “Holy Trinity.”
Q: How does your account most differ from other biographers or general historians?
AReligion is not a prominent theme in most of the biographies of the past hundred years. Three points about Washington’s religion are usually made: Washington was at best a lukewarm Anglican. Two, on balance, he was a Deist, not a Christian. Three, though he spoke often of Providence, he seemed to mean something like the Greek or Roman fortune or fate, not the biblical God.
We found that a careful study of the evidence overturns all of these conventions. Some, more thoroughly than others.
Q: Was Washington a Deist, or not?
A Washington’s names for God sometimes sounded deist, but the actions his prayers asked God to perform belong to the biblical God, not the god of the philosophers. Washington believed that God favored the cause of liberty, and should be beseeched to “interpose” his actions on behalf of the Americans- and he often called for public thanksgiving for the many ways in which Americans “experienced” God’s hand in events. He believed God could inspire thoughts and courage in human hearts, and give men fortitude to persevere in extreme difficulties. He held that praying for favors imposed duties on him who prayed.
Washington’s reflections on the workings of Providence were deep, and hardened by the crucible of experience. On these matters, he was a Christian, not a deist.
Q: Weren’t many people at that time both Deists and Christians at the same time?
A: Yes. In Washington’s time, many bishops, priests, and serious lay people had a Deist sensibility–they preferred philosophical language in religion. Actually, such a preference went back many centuries.
Deism in practice was not exactly a creed, with defined propositions you either accepted or rejected. It was more like a “movement” of feeling, a tendency, a style. The deist style reached across confessional lines, and seemed to link up to new discoveries in science. Partly, too, it had ancient precedents, in the tradition of “natural theology.” The books Washington’s mother gave him illustrated an Anglican version of this sensibility.
There is, though, a dividing line between Deist and Christian. Strict Deists cannot accept that God intervenes in history on one side or the other. Their God is more remote and impersonal than that. By contrast, Washington acted as though God can intervene. In this spirit Washington and his men implored God’s aid, often experienced it, and thanked Him for it again and again. He acted as a Christian, not a Deist.
Q: All in all, then, would you count Washington a Christian?
A:Not a Deist, certainly. Not a showy, belief-on-his-sleeves Christian, either. Yet he was in fact a pretty serious Christian, going a lot more to church than many of his contemporaries, and being seriously engaged with his time, money, and private devotions. Still, on many occasions, when asked directly, he avoided saying publicly that he was a Christian, or of which confession–perhaps determined not to let his private life become a political weapon. So the evidence on how specifically Christian he was is easy to find in his actions, but hard to find in his words.
One contrast may clarify: Jefferson refused to act as godfather to children, that is, watchful over their religious education, lest that give a false impression. Yet Washington, who was far more careful than Jefferson about such matters, agreed on at least eight occasions to become a godfather to new children of family or friends. He later followed up with gifts of prayer books, and the like.
Was he a Christian? On balance, the evidence says so. But not with verbal proof as solid as a scholar would like.
Q: But wasn’t Washington a Freemason? Incompatible with being a Christian, isn’t it?
A: In Europe Catholics found the two incompatible. In America, unlike Europe, virtually all Freemasons were also Christians. Many bishops, priests, and devout lay persons belonged to the Freemasons. Freemasonry was practiced as a benevolent association, almost like the charitable, community-serving arm of the Protestant churches. The Freemasons also gave vent to the philosophical impulse in human nature.
Washington did join the Freemasons as a young man, and was proud of his belonging, as a work of service to his fellow man, and part of a movement of human improvement.
Some years after Washington’s death, at a masonic ceremony in New York City marking the fiftieth anniversary of Washington’s entrance into the order, the opening prayer concluded with the words, “In the Name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.” It was conducted virtually like a meeting of the Catholic Knights of Columbus, and many Irish names appeared among those attending.
Q: Was there anything specifically Christian about Washington’s habits of living?
A: One of the virtues highly recommended in a book his mother bequeathed him was humility, presented as the virtue of having a realistic view of one’s own gifts, and not least one’s own weaknesses. Washington’s public listing of his own deficiencies on accepting public service seem to flow from a habit of such reflection. It was evident that he did not wish to lord it over people, but to treat them humbly, kindly, and with courtesy. A great obstacle in his way was his torrential temper. He was famous as a young officer for his explosions of rage at fear, cowardice, or even poor order. Manfully, he tried to control these outbursts, and gradually gained control, until he became known for his equanimity and even temper. Once in his public remarks, he commended the humble and kindly example of “the Holy Author of our religion.”
Washington was by no means over-scrupulous in observing the Sabbath, sometimes visiting friends for dinner or catching up on correspondence. But visitors to Mount Vernon observed a markedly more subdued round of activities, quieter manners at dinner, and earlier bedtime. Some find his observance deficient, but by historical standards it seems well above average.
Q: What sources did you find useful in uncovering his views on God?
A: Although his most personal letters back and forth with Martha were in the end burned by Martha at his request. Other family lore is available both at Mount Vernon and the Boston Athenaeum, which purchased Washington’s personal library (numbering nearly a thousand books).
We are above all grateful to Mary Thompson, historian at the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, for the use of her extraordinary manuscript, “In the Hands of a Good Providence”: Religion in the Family of George Washington (publication forthcoming), and in addition her files upon files of Washington on religion.
Several massive collections of the Papers, Diaries, Writings, and other documents of Washington’s life have been published by the University of Virginia, and made available online. We found especially fruitful the 39 volumes of the Writings of George Washington edited by John Fitzpatrick, whose format allowed us to search Washington’s correspondence, notes, and speeches. Most of our best material was found there.
For instance, and just to give a sample, in a public proclamation, Washington spoke of the “beneficent Author of all good,” to whom we owe “sincere and humble thanks” for the “favorable interpositions of his providence.” And in a letter to a friend he wrote, “Philosophy and our Religion hold out to us such hopes as will, upon proper reflection, enable us to bear with fortitude the most calamitous incidents of life.” And to another: “As far as the strength of our reason and religion can carry us, a cheerful acquiescence to the Divine Will, is what we are to aim [at].” Even during a life-threatening illness in the early days of the presidency, Washington assured his physician that he was “in the hands of a good Providence.”
Q: It is far too easy to see Washington as nothing more than the product of legend–the unapproachable “Father of our Country.” So, what draws ordinary people to love and respect him, even today?
A Everyone can see that Washington was sometimes in over his head. He had to learn by doing. He was flawed, he made mistakes, he overreacted. He was known through the army for his temper, which he constantly struggled to keep under control. His military tactics have been analyzed and, in some cases, mocked by modern strategists. After all, he had no advance training for maneuvering thousands of men across many miles of battlefield. He could be indecisive; he could be impulsive and reckless, such as the time he took off alone pursuing the retreating British at the Battle of Princeton, yelling “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!”
Yet, he was reserved, a family man, a farmer, who for many dark months and long years kept an ill-paid army in the field, held them together, and contrived to win a few victories with them in desperate times.
Washington was indeed a great man, but he was, ultimately, just a man.
Q: What is one of your favorite anecdotes about Washington?
Jana At the end of the war, when the country seemed coming apart, some in the military command, disgusted with indecision in Congress, decided that America should have a strong ruler–a king. Who better than Washington? When Washington received the letter from one of his colonels, he was deeply ashamed, writing back, “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.” He worried what he might have done to have given anyone the impression that he could possibly consider that offer.
Of course, down through history it was all too normal for victorious generals to seize power which makes his response all the more shocking.
After working in politics nearly a decade, I am especially struck by his self-restraint and longing for a quiet life. In the interest of his country, he resisted power.
Michael: Professor Morgan tells this probably apocryphal story: One evening during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington’s friends were commenting on the reserved and remote manner Washington maintained, even among his closest friends. Gouverneur Morris countered that he could be as familiar with Washington as with any one else. Alexander Hamilton offered to provide a dinner if Morris would simply walk up to Washington, slap him on the back and greet him jovially. So, a few evenings later, Morris approached Washington, bowed, and placed his left hand on Washington’s shoulder and said, “My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well.” Immediately, Washington reached up, removed Morris’s hand, stared icily at him, and stepped back in silence until Morris retreated into the crowd.
I like this story, even if it is an invention, because it risks making Washington look petulant, even pretentious. Still, it dramatizes the sense of mystery the general wove round himself, the distance, the formality that he cultivated. In his post, he did not want to be “one of the guys.” He wanted the office of commander-in-chief of the Continental Army to be taken as serious business, and the person of the American leader to be treated with deference. He had studied victorious generals and national leaders to learn how they generated the mystique people felt in their presence. I love this story because it walks us up to the thin line between growing in respect for Washington’s method, and feeling dismay at its human cost. It helps us to understand the line in Morris’s famous eulogy: “None was great in his presence.”