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CW Journal : Spring 09 : Washington

George Washington and his God

It’s a simple question with complex answers: Was George Washington a deist? A sampling of opinions:

Brooke Allen, author of Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers: “If Washington mentioned the Almighty in a public address . . . he was careful to refer to Him not as ‘God’ but with some nondenominational moniker like ‘Great Author’ or ‘Almighty Being.’ . . . The Father of our Country spoke no words of a religious nature on his deathbed . . . and did not ask for a man of God to be present.”

Richard Brookhiser, author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington: “Washington’s God was no watchmaker, who wound the world up and retired, but an active agent and force. . . . Providence could . . . do enormous good and deserved thanks when He, or It, did.”

Jon Butler, author of Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People: “You would be very hard pressed to find any deep, personal involvement with religion” in Washington. “He thought that society needed religion. But he was not a pious man himself. That is, he wasn’t someone who was given to daily Bible reading. He wasn’t someone who was evangelical. He simply was a believer.”

David L. Holmes, author of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers: Washington “viewed himself as a Christian, and so did those who knew him up close. . . . He’s probably closer to the orthodox Christian camp” than other founders.

Michael Novak, co-author of Washington’s God: “Washington’s names for God sometimes sounded Deist, but the action his prayers asked God to perform belong to the biblical God. . . . He was a Christian, not a Deist.”

Gary Scott Smith, author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush: “Deists believe that God created the world and then left it alone to run by natural laws. Thus, deists do not believe in prayer, providence, or divine intervention.” Washington “prayed and repeatedly emphasized God’s providential direction of American affairs.” He is “best labeled” a “theistic rationalist.”

Gordon Wood, author of Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different: “Washington certainly was not a conventional deist, that is, he did not believe that God was simply a clockmaker, and he certainly believed that God had the power to control the overall flow of events, and that’s what he meant by Providence.”

—James Breig