A friend invited me to see atheism evangelist Richard Dawkins speak at Aloha Tower recently. At some point while we were sitting there, I read the flier for the event, which falsely claimed America had a secular founding.
“This is amazing!” I thought to myself; “just last night at another presentation somebody was trying to convince me that our Founding Fathers were Illuminati devil-worshippers! How cool it is that # 1) we have tons of documentation of their self-understanding as Christians, # 2) the freemasonry that a small fraction of them were involved with was then simply a mens’ club, and had none of the sketchy features which crept into it later, and # 3) the Deism (a type of Theism where God doesn’t interact with His creation) that a few of them got into at other times was not something they believed during our founding!”
In the Q&A after his talk, I asked Dawkins if he still holds to the (now-discredited) cosmogenic theory of Lawrence Krauss, which Krauss proudly presented in his recent book A Universe From Nothing. I figured Dawkins might try to defend it, since he wrote a typically overconfident afterword for the book, in which he claims that “nothingness is unstable,” so naturally a universe will spontaneously pop out of it! Well, apparently somebody explained to him that Krauss had been dancing back-and-forth between several different definitions of “nothing” in his book (only one of which was truly nothing), because he began his answer with “Well, I am a Biologist, not a Physicist, but…”.
He followed that understatement-of-the-year with some unconvincing hemming and hawing, and capped it off with some floundering appeals to various other authorities. It was quite interesting that this man — who wants everyone to become a God-slandering militant atheist like him — not only declined to support his friend Lawrence Krauss’ central argument for atheism, but also abandoned his OWN argument from his book “The God Delusion”. I suppose the numerous public dismantlings of it have made him shy about it. I almost followed up with the question “why have you refused about 20 invitations to debate William Lane Craig?“, but I thought that would be a bit much, so I went and sat back down.
Nobody living in the real world who has done a bit of research doubts that most Americans at our founding were Christians. What is a bit trickier, however, is understanding their relationship to “The Enlightenment,” which is frequently associated with anti-Christian sentiment. What many don’t realize is that the “Enlightenment” which swept the West in and around the 1700’s had two strands: one non-Christian (Hume, Spinoza, Rousseau, etc; it flourished mostly in Europe) and one Christian (the reasonable faith of Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, etc).
Our Founders were into the latter, not the former. George Washington was a Freemason, which is troubling to some who are aware of Freemasonry’s later associations with The Illuminati and the occult, but American Freemasonry had not yet gone creepy (and wouldn’t until quite a bit later). At that point it was merely a gentlemen’s club for fraternity and socializing, and each clubhouse had Bibles in them. Here is a supportive quote on that from Wikipedia (no friend of Christianity):
“Washington was initiated into Freemasonry in 1752. He had a high regard for the Masonic Order and often praised it, but he seldom attended lodge meetings. He was attracted by the movement’s dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason and fraternalism; the American lodges did not share the anti-clerical perspective that made the European lodges so controversial.”
Conspiracy theorists have libeled and slandered Washington’s reputation with “guilt by association” for having been a Freemason, due to the fact that that later Freemasonry was associated with The Illuminati and the occult. When assessing historical data, however, we should be extremely careful not to take “shortcuts.” That means we ought to try to disprove our own hypotheses if we can, not “cherry-pick” data, look for explanations with the best explanatory power and explanatory scope (those which result in minimum unexplained “loose ends”), and use principles like Ockham’s Razor (going with the least extravagant explanation that meets necessity, unless otherwise warranted). As it turns out, The Illuminati wasn’t even formed until 1776 (in Europe), and there is no evidence of it influencing Freemasonry in America during Washington’s lifetime. When we examine Washington’s exemplary Christian life, morals and ethics, the idea that he would be involved in an occult or Illuminati-oriented club makes no sense in terms of explanatory power, scope, and Ockham’s Razor.
“Original intent” refers to the ONLY valid means of interpreting texts: discerning what the writer meant AT THE TIME (it’s irrelevant if they changed their mind later). But the quotes cherry-picked by the likes of Dawkins from a few founders who later “backslid” are not from the founding period (Declaration: 1776; Constitution/Bill of Rights ratified in 1791). If the preponderance of the quotes we find from the founders support a Christian understanding, a smaller number of contrary quotes can’t overrule that. It turns out that in light of this, there is virtually no support for the “secular founding” hypothesis.
In a court of law, the plain meaning of primary testimony is presumed to be true unless there is adequate reason to doubt it, and rightfully so. If our grandmother told us numerous times she was a Christian, we wouldn’t think it was fair for someone to libel or slander her based on secondhand info, or because she innocently had a symbol that (unbeknownst to her) had been co-opted by nefarious groups. Likewise, we should begin with the words of our founding fathers in determining what they were, rather than assume that the Freemasonry symbol always had the same meaning it has today.
In light of that, the following is just a sample of primarily-sourced quotes from George Washington either from the relevant time-frame or reflecting back on it (BTW, “Providence” cannot mean the god of Deism, as the god of Deism has no plans for, protections for, or interactions with mankind). Emphases are mine:
“You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it. ”
To Delaware Indian Chiefs, May 12, 1779.
“While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian.”
General Orders of May 2, 1778.
“The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger. The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.”
July 9, 1776 Order.
“I now make it my earnest prayer that God would… most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of the mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion”.
Address to Governors, June 14, 1783.
“It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of Providential agency.”
Inaugural Address 1789.
“The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.”
Inaugural Address 1789.
“Mankind, when left to themselves [as in Deism], are unfit for their own government.”
To Henry Lee, Oct. 31, 1786.
“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 labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens. The mere Politican, equally with the pious man ought to respect & to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private & 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 & experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. ‘Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of Free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric.”
Reading of Washington’s Farewell Address — Senate – February 22, 2000.
“I was riding with Mr. Potts near to the Valley Forge where the army lay during the war of ye Revolution, when Mr. Potts said, ‘Do you see that woods & that plain? There laid the army of Washington. It was a most distressing time of ye war, and all were for giving up the Ship but that great and good man. In that woods (pointing to a close in view) I heard a plaintive sound as of a man at prayer…. To my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world. Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. “
From Diary and Remembrances, by Rev. Nathaniel Randolph Snowden (1770-1851), who received it from an eyewitness to the scene, Valley Forge resident Isaac Potts.
Washington’s own contemporaries did not question his Christianity but were thoroughly convinced of his devout faith — a fact made evident in the first-ever compilation of The Writings of George Washington, published in the 1830s.
That compilation of Washington’s writings was prepared and published by Jared Sparks (1789-1866), a noted writer and historian. Sparks’ herculean historical productions included not only the writings of George Washington (12 volumes) but also Benjamin Franklin (10 volumes) and Constitution signer Gouverneur Morris (3 volumes). Additionally, Sparks compiled the Library of American Biography (25 volumes), The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (12 volumes), and the Correspondence of the American Revolution (4 volumes). In all, Sparks was responsible for some 100 historical volumes. Additionally, Sparks was America’s first professor of history–other than ecclesiastical history–to teach at the college level in the United States, and he was later chosen president of Harvard.
Jared Sparks’ decision to compile George Washington’s works is described by The Dictionary of American Biography. It details that Sparks began “. . . what was destined to be his greatest life work, the publication of the writings of George Washington. [Supreme Court] Justice Bushrod Washington, [the nephew of George Washington, the executor of the Washington estate, and] the owner of the Washington manuscripts, was won over by an offer to share the profits, through the friendly mediation of Chief Justice [of the Supreme Court, John] Marshall [who from 1804-1807 had written a popular five volume biography of George Washington], who also consented to take an equal share, twenty-five per cent, with the owner. In January 1827, Sparks found himself alone at Mount Vernon with the manuscripts. An examination of them extending over three months showed that years would be required for the undertaking; and with the owner’s consent, Sparks carried off the entire collection, eight large boxes, picking up on the way to Boston a box of diplomatic correspondence from the Department of State, and the [General Horatio] Gates manuscripts from the New York Historical Society. Not content with these, he searched or caused to be searched public and private archives for material, questioned survivors of the Revolution, visited and mapped historic sites. In 1830, for instance, he followed [Benedict] Arnold’s  route to Quebec. The first of the twelve volumes of The Writings of George Washington to be published (vol. II) appeared in 1834 and the last (vol. I, containing the biography) in 1837.
In Volume XII of these writings, Jared Sparks delved into the religious character of George Washington, and included numerous letters written by the friends, associates, and family of Washington which testified of his religious character. Based on that extensive evidence, Sparks concluded:
To say that he [George Washington] was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty. Of all men in the world, Washington was certainly the last whom any one would charge with dissimulation or indirectness [hypocrisies and evasiveness]; and if he was so scrupulous in avoiding even a shadow of these faults in every known act of his life, [regardless of] however unimportant, is it likely, is it credible, that in a matter of the highest and most serious importance [his religious faith, that] he should practice through a long series of years a deliberate deception upon his friends and the public? It is neither credible nor possible.
One of the letters Sparks used to arrive at his conclusion was from Nelly Custis-Lewis. While Nelly technically was the granddaughter of the Washingtons, in reality she was much more. When Martha [Custis] married George, she was a widow and brought two young children (John and Martha–also called Patsy) from her first marriage into her marriage with George. The two were carefully raised by George and Martha, later married, and each had children of their own.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck, and both John and Patsy died early (by 1781). John left behind his widow and four young children ranging in age from infancy to six years old.
At the time, Washington was still deeply involved in guiding the American Revolution and tried unsuccessfully to convince Martha’s brother to raise the children. The young widow of John was unable to raise all four, so George and Martha adopted the two younger children: Nelly Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, both of whom already were living at Mount Vernon.
Nelly lived with the Washingtons for twenty years, from the time of her birth in 1779 until 1799, the year of her marriage and of George Washington’s untimely death. She called George and Martha her “beloved parents whom I loved with so much devotion, to whose unceasing tenderness I was indebted for every good I possessed.”
Nelly was ten years old when Washington was called to the Presidency, and she grew to maturity during his two terms. During that time, she traveled with Washington and walked amidst the great foreign and domestic names of the day. On Washington’s retirement, she returned with the family to Mount Vernon. Nelly was energetic, spry, and lively, and was the joy of George Washington’s life. She served as a gracious hostess and entertained the frequent guests to Mount Vernon who visited the former President.
On Washington’s birthday in 1799, Nelly married Washington’s private secretary, Lawrence Lewis. They spent several months on an extended honeymoon, visiting friends and family across the country. On their return to Mount Vernon, she was pregnant and late that year gave birth to a daughter. A short few weeks later, on December 14, General Washington was taken seriously ill and died.
Clearly, Nelly was someone who knew the private and public life of her “father” very well. Therefore, Jared Sparks, in searching for information on Washington’s religious habits, dispatched a letter to Nelly, asking if she knew for sure whether George Washington indeed was a Christian. Within a week, she had replied to Sparks, and Sparks included her letter in Volume XII of Washington’s writings in the lengthy section on Washington’s religious habits. Of that specific letter, Jared Sparks explained:
“I shall here insert a letter on this subject, written to me by a lady who lived twenty years in Washington’s family and who was his adopted daughter, and the granddaughter of Mrs. Washington. The testimony it affords, and the hints it contains respecting the domestic habits of Washington, are interesting and valuable.”
Woodlawn, 26 February, 1833.
I received your favor of the 20th instant last evening, and hasten to give you the information, which you desire.
Truro [Episcopal] Parish is the one in which Mount Vernon, Pohick Church [the church where George Washington served as a vestryman], and Woodlawn [the home of Nelly and Lawrence Lewis] are situated. Fairfax Parish is now Alexandria. Before the Federal District was ceded to Congress, Alexandria was in Fairfax County. General Washington had a pew in Pohick Church, and one in Christ Church at Alexandria. He was very instrumental in establishing Pohick Church, and I believe subscribed [supported and contributed to] largely. His pew was near the pulpit. I have a perfect recollection of being there, before his election to the presidency, with him and my grandmother. It was a beautiful church, and had a large, respectable, and wealthy congregation, who were regular attendants.
He attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles [a one-way journey of 2-3 hours by horse or carriage]. In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition [sickness]. The afternoon was spent in his own room at home; the evening with his family, and without company. Sometimes an old and intimate friend called to see us for an hour or two; but visiting and visitors were prohibited for that day [Sunday]. No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother.
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” [Matthew 6:5]. He communed with his God in secret [Matthew 6:6].
My mother [Eleanor Calvert-Lewis] resided two years at Mount Vernon after her marriage [in 1774] with John Parke Custis, the only son of Mrs. Washington. I have heard her say that General Washington always received the sacrament with my grandmother before the revolution. When my aunt, Miss Custis [Martha’s daughter] died suddenly at Mount Vernon, before they could realize the event [before they understood she was dead], he [General Washington] knelt by her and prayed most fervently, most affectingly, for her recovery. Of this I was assured by Judge [Bushrod] Washington’s mother and other witnesses.
He was a silent, thoughtful man. He spoke little generally; never of himself. I never heard him relate a single act of his life during the war. I have often seen him perfectly abstracted, his lips moving, but no sound was perceptible. I have sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits. I was, probably, one of the last persons on earth to whom he would have addressed serious conversation, particularly when he knew that I had the most perfect model of female excellence [Martha Washington] ever with me as my monitress, who acted the part of a tender and devoted parent, loving me as only a mother can love, and never extenuating [tolerating] or approving in me what she disapproved of others. She never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties; and she and her husband were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian. She had no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity [happiness in Heaven]. Is it necessary that any one should certify, “General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity?” As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, “Deeds, not Words”; and, “For God and my Country.”
With sentiments of esteem,
I am, Nelly Custis-Lewis
George Washington’s adopted daughter, having spent twenty years of her life in his presence, declared that one might as well question Washington’s patriotism as question his Christianity. Certainly, no one questions his patriotism; so is it not rather ridiculous to question his Christianity? George Washington was a devout Episcopalian; and although as an Episcopalian he would not be classified as an outspoken and extrovert “evangelical” Founder as were Founding Fathers like Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Thomas McKean, nevertheless, being an Episcopalian makes George Washington no less of a Christian. Yet for the current revisionists who have made it their goal to assert that America was founded as a secular nation by secular individuals and that the only hope for America’s longevity rests in her continued secularism, George Washington’s faith must be sacrificed on the altar of their secularist agenda.
My thanks to Wallbuilders and The Library of Congress for some of the material above.
For much more on George Washington and the evidences of his strong faith, examine the following sources:
• George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, Publisher, 1838), Vol. XII, pp. 399-411. • George Washington, The Religious Opinions of Washington, E. C. M’Guire, editor (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836). • William Johnson, George Washington The Christian (1917). • William Jackson Johnstone, How Washington Prayed (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1932). • The Messages and Papers of the Presidents, James D. Richardson, editor (Published by the Authority of Congress, 1899), Vol. I, pp. 51-57 (1789), 64 (1789), 213-224 (1796), etc. • George Washington, Address of George Washington, President of the United States, Late Commander in Chief of the American Army, to the People of the United States, Preparatory to his Declination (Baltimore: George & Henry S. Keatinge, 1796), pp. 22-23. • George Washington, The Maxims of Washington (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1855).
About the Author
Steve Williams is the author of What Your Atheist Professor Doesn’t know (But Should), and a Reasonable Faith chapter director in Hawaii.