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George Washington’s faith under scrutiny after sale of ‘God letter’

A 1788 letter from George Washington recently sold for $140,000. Washington photo courtesy of Creative Commons; letter photo courtesy of Raab Collection

(RNS) — The sale of a 230-year-old letter in which America’s first president speaks of “Providence” guiding the fledgling republic’s affairs has rekindled interest in how George Washington saw religion, a subject long debated among scholars, supporters and skeptics.

The letter, which came on the market Monday (Feb. 11), was sold at the asking price of $140,000 to an unnamed private collector by the Raab Collection, an antiquities dealer in Ardmore, Pa., near Philadelphia.

Written Sept. 7, 1788, to Richard Peters, at the time speaker of the Pennsylvania House, the letter captures Washington railing against the calling of a second Constitutional Convention by some states.

Washington wrote, “It would seem from the public Gazettes that the Minority in your State are preparing for another attack of the – now – adopted Government; how formidable it may be; I know not. But that Providence which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavors of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis.”

Only a week earlier, according to Raab Collection principal Nathan Raab, Washington had told his former aide Alexander Hamilton that he would accept a call to the presidency.

“Washington, who was the general in chief of the Continental Army during the war and president of the Constitutional Convention, makes a remarkable statement in this powerful letter,” said Raab. “His victory in battle and his stewardship over the convention that led to our Constitution came with the guiding influence of a higher power.”

Washington’s faith life has been studied intensely over the two-plus centuries since his death in 1799. Both deists and evangelical Christians have sought to claim Washington as one of their own.

George Washington in a 1795 portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art/Creative Commons

According to historian Spencer W. McBride, author of the 2017 book “Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America,” Washington was a “very complex figure and very private when it came to religion. We know he would leave church early. He knew attending it was important for civic order, but he did not necessarily believe any one church’s teaching or sacraments were essential or right.”

McBride said Washington “believed religion was important for maintaining the civic order. Exactly what his personal religious beliefs were remains a matter of debate. He had some skepticism about the Christian denominations of his time, but it did not keep him from going to church.”

Indeed, earlier in his life, Washington was a vestryman, or member of the church council, at Pohick Church in Virginia, and as president, Washington would attend services in New York City led by William White, an Episcopal bishop. But, as White later wrote, while first lady Martha Washington would regularly partake of Communion, Washington did not.

But that didn’t make Washington a deist, or an evangelical. In her 2008 book, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” Mary Thompson, a research historian at Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library, claims the first president was “a devout Anglican, of a Latitudinarian bent,” a term covering the kind of uncertainty McBride ascribed to Washington.

The Washington letter is the second item relating a major figure to religion sold in recent months. In December, Christie’s auction house in New York City sold a letter written by Albert Einstein, detailing the physicist’s issues with the concept of God, for $2.9 million.

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Mark A. Kellner

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  • “As “Founding Fathers” it is presumed that
    you mean those who framed the Constitution of the United States at the Federal
    Convention in Philadelphia, in the winter and spring of 1786-1787. Of the 55
    who did attend at some point (no more than 38 delegates showed up at one time)
    twelve owned or managed slave-operated plantations or large farms: Bassett,
    Blair, Blount, Butler, Carroll, Jenifer, Jefferson, Mason, Charles Pinckney,
    Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Rutledge, Spaight, and Washington. Madison also
    owned slaves, as did Franklin, who later freed his slaves and was a key founder
    of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Alexander Hamilton was opposed to
    slavery and, with John Jay and other anti-slavery advocates, helped to found
    the first African free school in New York City. Jay helped to found the New
    York Manumission Society and, when he was governor of New York in 1798, signed
    into law the state statute ending slavery as of 1821.

  • But that Providence which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavors of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis.”

    Notice that Washington did not say “Divine Providence,” although he did capitalize the word “Providence,” which displays a certain reverence. He also uses the impersonal pronoun “its” rather than the more typical “He” in reference to Providence. Sounds to me like he’s going out of his way NOT to reference a personal God but rather a more abstract concept similar to, say, “Lady Luck.”

  • Interestingly a church associated with Washington’s inauguration has a more modern story behind it as well.
    St. Paul’s Chapel
    https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/about/stpaulschapel/history

    Following his inauguration as the nation’s first president, in 1789, George Washington walked up Broadway to St. Paul’s for the service, attended by his wife, as well as both houses of Congress, attended services at Paul’s. The inauguration took place at Federal Hall, formerly New York’s City Hall, on Wall Street, a short walk from the chapel. Washington attended St. Paul’s for two years, while the newly created city of Washington DC was under construction and New York functioned as the nation’s capital. He sat in the specially designated Presidential Pew at St, Paul’s, as the main church had yet to be rebuilt after the Great Fire.

    In 2001, it was left unscathed from the WTC attacks despite its very close proximity to the towers. The chapel acted as a rest station for the 1st responders and relief station for its survivors.

    For many years it was the closest thing NY had to a semi official 9/11 memorial

  • Did you read the recent article in The NY Times which mentioned Trinity, Wall Street’s real estate holdings? (They’re the parish which owns St. Paul’s Chapel) $6 Billion! Making them surely the richest parish church in the entire world.

  • If you ever see where it stands, you would know why it is so valuable. It is in a prime location and near a major transit hub.

    But it is the only colonial era church still standing in NYC. NYC’s Landmarks laws means it could never be sold (the land probably never borrowed against either).

  • I’ve heard that Trinity owns property all over the city, including the property on which Columbia University sits. I guess they’re still paying rent to Trinity after all these years.

  • In those days people often capitalised nouns. People and Country were also capitalised in the short passage you quoted. So People and Country were accorded the same amount of respect as Providence.

  • Except as a matter of curiosity, it does not matter what Washington or any others from the founding era thought about God or about religion. Their 18th Century opinions do not construct or destroy what YOU can think about religion and government TODAY after YOU have benefit of 200+ years of subsequent history to make YOU more experienced in these matters than they were. If you call yourself American, resist so-called originalism based on claims of what founders supposedly thought. Remember, they did not even know that tobacco was an antisocial idea for “economic development”.

  • Yeah, if you call yourself an American; ignore the originalist intent of the founders…
    That was a stupid statement.
    Yes, let’s ignore the brilliance that founded the greatest country in the history of humankind….
    Oh, but that’s just it; you hate America and what it stands for.

  • And following up with this recommendation:

    The
    Apostles’ Creed 2019 (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of
    historians and theologians of the past 200 years) (

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

    (references used are available upon request)

  • I’m for anything said in history about Jesus which causes individual people to become more honest, kind, gentile, generous, forgiving, altruistic, broad-minded, compassionate, empathetic and conscientious than they otherwise would be in their (our) own raw human natures.

    The quotes from Jesus and the stories about him in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the best Religion there is, all the rest of it being much more dark, destructive and negative in impact. So, please understand that I don’t abandon or knock the best. All I want is for people to celebrate the best instead of insisting on the worst parts—-as many churches have now decided to do. Genesis and Revelation, for instance are a total mess when people want those imaginary claims more than they want a softened heart and an outreaching Spirit.

    It does not matter to me whether Jesus was factually born of a virgin, or factually walked on water. It does matter to me whether someone asking Him for forgiveness and change can be flipped from hard and bada$$ to sweet and compassionate. I don’t trust churches as institutions AT ALL. I do trust Jesus on an individual level.

  • Washington attended church because his wife demanded it. He didn’t take communion because he didn’t believe in the deity of Jesus and said it would be a lie if he did. He never spoke of Jesus, never prayed outside of the church, and that story of him praying in the woods never happened. After his death there were people who wanted to make him look christian, and wrote false stories about him to that end.

    God was voted out of the constitutional convention. They could have made us a christian nation with the stroke of a pen but did not. Franklin once suggested they pray to get past an impasse, but only 4 men thought that was a good idea, none of the names we recognize. They never prayed in the state house where the constitution was written, they went across the street to the church instead, to keep church and state separate. None of our first 6 presidents believed in the deity of Jesus.

  • I don’t know if Washington was a Christian, but he definitely wasn’t a Deist—his clear belief in a God that took an active part in guiding and watching over humanity rules Deism out.

  • Jesus like many was in the right place at the right time. There was a lot of
    economic-driven assistance and “necessary accessories” without which
    Jesus would have been just another forgotten Jewish radical.

    To wit:

    Paul of Taurus was first of the “necessary accessories”. He recognized early on the great wealth of Roman and Greek Gentiles so he wrote his epistles raising Jesus and his embellished life from the dead and the Gentiles “ate it up”. His promise of the imminent second coming was shear brilliance in gathering muchsilver and gold (the prime necessary accessory). The Romans got jealous ending the life of the first necessay accessory.

    Pilate, although not the founder of Christianity, was another “necessary accessory i.e. he could have easily sent Jesus to the salt mines.

    Constantine and his swords finished the “necessary accessory” scenario.

    Adding this to God not knowing the future, eliminates any God involvement in the foundation of Christianity.

    Conclusion:

    Christianity and the other contemporary religions are the result of human evolution away from the “dark side”.

  • Washington attended church in part because Virginia under British rule required citizens to attend at least once a month. The reason for enforced attendance was not religiosity, it was because that’s where and when the British collected taxes.

  • he also attended when the capital was in NY and philly after the revolution. my point was he wasn’t a christian.

    Moral Minority, our skeptical founding fathers by Brooke Allen
    Nature’s God, the heretical origins of the American Republic by Mathew Stewart
    No Establishment of Religion by T Jeremy Gunn and John Witte
    Jefferson and Madison on separation of church and state edited by Lenni Brenner
    Church, State, and Original Intent by Donald L. Drakeman
    Six Historic Americans; Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Grant, the Fathers and Saviors or our Republic, Freethinkers by John E. Remsburg

  • I’m not addressing the issue of his faith, I am explaining one reason why he was spotted at church various. Going to church to pay taxes is not evidence of religiosity, one way or the other.

  • he didn’t believe in the deity of Jesus, that’s why he never took communion, he thought it would be a lie.

    Moral Minority, our skeptical founding fathers by Brooke Allen
    Nature’s God, the heretical origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart
    No Establishment of Religion by T Jeremy Gunn and John Witte
    Jefferson and Madison on separation of church and state edited by Lenni Brenner
    Church, State, and Original Intent by Donald L. Drakeman
    Six Historic Americans; Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Grant, the Fathers and Saviors or our Republic, Freethinkers by John E. Remsburg

  • no and it was also the largest venue in any community, so it was used for political and civic events too.

  • I really enjoy how Christianists these days have portrayed the Founding Fathers as devout fundagelicals like themselves. I mean, it exposes their illogic and ignorance in multiple ways: 

    1. Fundamentalist Christianity didn’t exist until the middle 19th century at the earliest. It’s chronologically impossible for any of the FFs to have believed in Christianity in the way they do. That’s the primary intellectual failure of their campaign, and is the product of their own raging ignorance. 

    2. They engage in a lot of cherry-picking to reach conclusions they desire. For instance, in this letter Washington mentioned “Providence,” which they now use to claim he helped create the US on their God’s orders. That’s a real stretch, however, and is illogical. 

    3. The implication behind this effort is that, since the FFs were (in Christianists’ eyes) devout fundagelicals like themselves, this means the US is a fundagelical Christian nation and every American is obligated to convert to their fundagelicalism. This is yet another fallacy, an appeal to authority. Even if all the FFs were fundagelicals like themselves, that still would not grant their beliefs veracity, and wouldn’t obligate Americans to believe as they do. 

  • I’m not unaware of the historical aspects and arguments of which you speak. Neither am I a denier of (small r) rational conclusions. But if there is a peace that surpasses understanding, I would want you to have it. If there is Heaven, I would want you to be in it. If there is anything kind and valuable that I could say to you for any kind of comfort, I would want to say it. Why? I believe Jesus helps me think that way. I like it better than saying “Hey, I don’t know you. Who cares?”

    Gotta go elsewhere today. We can talk more later if you want.

  • Washington was Episcopalian Latitudinarian only in that he accepted Episcopal services that involved traditional liturgy, such as Communion. But he certainly seemed to be Low Church rather than Latitudiniarian in rejecting the Sacraments. In his speeches he mentioned Providence (a term encompassing Jews, skeptics and Muslims) over 1700 tines and Jesus Christ less than 10. After the US independence the Episcopal church, in a fervor for republicanism, almost voted to abolish the office of bishop. Only the intervention of the bishop of London (in effect the head of the Anglican/Episcopal church in America) stopped this move. The Bishop of London was traditionally a Low Church person, meaning Evangelical or leaning to Deism.

  • True, it owns much property. But it also dinated much property for public goods such as a university. Similarly Fordham University, a Catholic Jesuit institution founded in 1841, donated all the land for the Bronx Zoo, and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

  • Not that it makes one iota of difference to anything other than as historic trivia but you said, “never prayed outside of the church”…..and you know this how?

  • Farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

  • They interviewed people who knew him first hand in the years after he died. They said he never brought up religion, never talked about it, and as a deist he didn’t believe god acted in the lives of people, so why would he pray.
    ref:
    Six Historic Americans; Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Grant, the Fathers and Saviors or our Republic, Freethinkers by John E. Remsburg

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