Michael Novak: Washington's Faith and the Birth of America

Roundup: Talking About History

Almost everything about George Washington was hard-earned, and his faith was no exception. Although he ended up owning a library of nearly 1,000 books, some 40 or so concerning religious questions, his preferred teacher was experience. In his father’s line there was at least one Anglican cleric, and his mother was unusually devout and quite attentive to the religious life of her children. But Washington’s faith mostly grew out of his diligent efforts at self-improvement.

Washington studied the thinking of British generals and European monarchs, the manners of Indian chiefs, the habits of fur trappers of the frontier, good farmers and bad, and trustworthy and untrustworthy merchants. He pondered the ways of Congress and the surges of public sentiment. He watched closely the inner passions of his own fighting men.

He learned how all sorts of humans reason, what they fear, what attracts them, and what moves them to action. Washington was nearly a genius in getting the best out of his own hotly rivalrous cabinet. He had enormous common sense and a wordless instinct for how things actually work in the real world. He understood the dramatics of gesture, raiment, and dress; he understood the role of imagination as well as reason in life, of passion as well as logic. His was not a highly verbal nor academic mind. But his practical judgments were sure.

Washington knew that the tasks he undertook were too big for him, that he was too unlearned and lacked some of the necessary gifts, that the odds he faced were steep. He truly, genuinely, feared failure.

He got nearly his fill of excruciating disappointment on many occasions. At Monongahela, on Long Island, at Valley Forge, on the icy Delaware, at the Newburgh meeting, he could taste failure, it came so close. His was not a fake humility. He knew he had many limitations, and that given the immense tasks handed to him, he might embarrass all who depended on his success.

So how did George Washington persevere? As he acknowledged many times, he trusted “Providence.” George Washington had a silent ally to whom he regularly gave thanks, publicly and privately.

A world of good and evil

Washington had been born into a Virginia family of moderate wealth (roughly the equivalent of today’s upper middle class). The family, although not demonstrative, was faithful: lessons in religion, regular prayers, reverence for the Almighty, observant attendance at Sunday services at least once a month. Washington’s mother had a daily ritual of retiring with a book of religious readings to a secluded spot a short way from the house, where she would spend time in reflection. We have records from her grandchildren of her perched on her favorite rock, with its view of the river below. She had her share of tribulations. Her husband died when her oldest son—George—was only 11. That made George the titular head of the household.

By the time he was a teenager, Washington had already assumed serious responsibilities. He was in the western lands of Virginia operating as a professional surveyor at age 17. By the age of 20, he won a commission as a major in the Virginia militia, shortly before being sent to the wilderness of the Monongahela valley on a military/diplomatic mission to resist French and Indian encroachment on British America’s western fringe. His dangerous adventures in these wild lands were to have a profound impact on his life, and become the stuff of legend. He learned lessons of incalculable value about the military, Indians, and the British, and the very different peoples of America (Marylanders, Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers). Most important, he began to understand the character of men, and of Providence. The vivid experience of an intervening force sparing his life brought him quiet knowledge that was to sustain him through the rest of his days.

Calming his own inner furies was an arduous task for Washington. As a young man, he was prone to outbursts of anger, so he well understood the contest between good and ill that takes place within all men. His portraitist Gilbert Stuart later commented that: “All his features were indicative of the strongest passions.... Had he been born in the forests…he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes.” His sense of the gentleness of the “Author of our religion” helped Washington solve this struggle in himself.

For Washington, both the Bible and the writings of the ancients (especially military heroes) were storehouses of wisdom, and he studied each. When he ordered busts and portraits for the ornamentation of his parlors at Mount Vernon, he chose exemplars of the use of power from across the centuries: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charles XII of Sweden, Frederick II of Prussia. He also hung prominently on the wall of his large dining room, the most public room at Mount Vernon, two key portraits: the Virgin Mary and St. John. He kept clearly in mind—and exemplified in his own speech and behavior—the dual message of the Bible: that men are capable of both brutishness and nobility.

Washington’s Christianity

Some historians seem to fear religious interpretations of Washington. More recent biographers often suggest Washington was at best a lukewarm Anglican, that he was more a deist than a Christian, and that his concept of “Providence” was closer to the Greek or Roman “Fate” or “Fortuna” than to the Biblical God. Yet Washington’s own stepgranddaughter, “Nelly” Custis, thought his words and actions were so plain and obvious that she could not understand how anybody failed to see that he had always lived as a serious Christian. As she wrote to one of Washington’s early biographers:

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o’clock, where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun, and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions, I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray “that they may be seen of men.” He communed with his God in secret.

At times Washington spoke boldly, once urging the Delaware chiefs, “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all the religion of Jesus Christ.” For the most part, however, Washington kept his religious beliefs and sentiments private. Such undemonstrativeness was common among Anglicans of his time and station, as was resistance to “enthusiasm,” and a preference for decorum and formality. (Nonetheless, some Virginian Anglicans, like Washington’s best friend Bryan Fairfax and Virginia governor Patrick Henry, did write movingly of their spiritual struggles as Anglicans, at least in private letters and diaries.) The fact that Washington sometimes spent a whole day in prayer and fasting, and that he was unusually attentive to his duties as church vestryman, may have said enough in Washington’s own mind about his seriousness in matters religious.

Washington was neither prude nor hermit, but a lively man of the world who was at the same time always aware of his duties and obligations. One of those duties entailed living as a good Christian ought to live, especially in private, where, he knew, God was quite capable of seeing. About the core questions of the Jewish and Christian religions—the sovereignty of God over all of history, the commandments to love both God and neighbor, the recognition of human weakness in humbleness, and the obligation to be thankful for the blessings of the Almighty—Washington was secure in his own beliefs. Nor is there any evidence that he ever denied the tenets of the Nicene Creed recited from time to time in Anglican services.

Indeed, George Washington was sufficiently secure in his faith as to feel little need to say much about it. One need only look at what he did....

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