Skip to site content

Washington Held Deist Beliefs

Like many public figures of the day, Washington was reticent about sharing his views on religion, but his letters, diaries and speeches reveal that many of the stories about his religious views had no factual basis.

Washington’s words seem to indicate that he was a man of faith, a man looking for God’s guidance and help, but what do we know about his personal faith and his commitment to the Christian community?

In the early 20th century, stories circulated about Washington’s deep faith commitment, his regular church attendance, his commitment to prayer and observing the Lord’s Supper, and his dedication to private devotions. One popular story was that during the winter of 1777-78, Washington knelt in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge.

Like many public figures of the day, Washington was reticent about sharing his views on religion, but his letters, diaries and speeches reveal that many of the stories about his religious views had no factual basis.

As a child and teenager, Washington attended the Church of England, the established state church in the Virginia colony, and he was baptized and married according to the traditions of the Anglican faith. Washington’s older half-brother, Lawrence, who served as a father figure and role model for the future president, was also an Anglican, but Lawrence was deeply committed neither to his faith nor to church attendance. His example most likely contributed to the fact that his younger brother attended foxhunts more often than he did church services.

After the Revolutionary War, the Anglican Church in America separated from England and took on the name Protestant Episcopal Church, and this was the church with which Washington publicly affiliated throughout the remainder of his life. He most frequently attended St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, which was led by the Rev. James Abercrombie. Washington also had a relationship with Rev. William White, the Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania.

Some of Abercrombie and White’s letters deal with Washington’s religious commitment. Both Episcopalian leaders wrote that Washington was not a frequent churchgoer, nor was he in the habit of participating in communion.

In fact, Abercrombie wrote to a friend in 1831 that on “sacramental” Sundays, Washington left the church building after the sermon and thus avoided communion. Mrs. Washington, however, stayed and participated. Bishop White’s correspondence supports this fact, and White further stated that Washington refused to kneel during the prayer times and that he never spoke of a personal belief in Christ.

Abercrombie and White later described Washington’s religious views as aligning with the beliefs of Deism, and most modern scholars conclude that Washington’s beliefs place him within the Deist camp.

Most American Deists regarded God as an impersonal Creator who did not communicate directly with humans, but who did play a part in human affairs in the form of fate, destiny or providence. These terms, especially providence, appeared frequently in Washington’s writings and speeches.

Furthermore, most Deists believed in God, affirmed the existence of a life after death, and respected Jesus as a great teacher and the Bible as a source of moral teachings. But Deists either rejected or doubted the deity of Jesus and refused to acknowledge the Bible as authoritative for believers.

Washington’s speeches and writings reveal that he held a firm belief in Almighty God and in providence. In his speeches, Washington frequently used the language of faith, but it was not of any easily identifiable faith. His allusions to God were many, but they came in unusual forms. Washington wrote and spoke of the “Grand Architect,” the “Governor of the Universe,” the “Higher Cause,” the “Great Ruler of Events” and the “Supreme Dispenser of all Good.”

In his book George Washington and Religion, Paul Boller contends that “Washington was no infidel, if by infidel is meant unbeliever. Washington had an unquestioning faith in Providence and … he voiced this faith publicly on numerous occasions. That this was no mere rhetorical flourish on his part, designed for public consumption, is apparent from his constant allusions to Providence in his personal letters. There is every reason to believe, from a careful analysis of religious references in his private correspondence, that Washington’s reliance upon a Grand Designer along Deist lines was … deep-seated and meaningful for his life.”

Thus, we can conclude that while Washington’s faith may not be easily recognized by today’s evangelical Christians, he was a man of faith.

Pam Durso serves as assistant professor of church history and Baptist heritage at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.

Also read:
Lincoln’s Faith Eludes Definition,” by Pam Durso

“George Washington and the Foundation of American Civil Religion,” in Civil Religion and the Presidency, by Richard V. Pierard and Robert D. Linder
George Washington and Religion, by Paul F. Boller