George Washington’s forgotten legacy: Defense of religious freedom
NEW YORK — As Americans prepare to celebrate President’s Day on Monday and the importance of the country’s highest elected office, it’s worth noting that the day was originally set aside to honor just George Washington, the very first president of the United States. Established in 1885 in recognition of Washington, the holiday morphed over the decades and eventually became known as “Presidents Day” when it was moved to the third Monday of February, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971, aimed at creating more three-day weekends for workers.
Many know the importance Washington had to the founding of the United States. A decorated general who commanded the colonies against Great Britain during the American Revolution, he went on to serve as the republic’s first president. Washington also took part in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established a new American government. For those reasons, he is widely referred to as the “Father of His Country.”
What has largely been forgotten over the course of the last two centuries is Washington’s faith and dedication to religious freedom before that became a political buzzword and a fight in the courts between conservatives and liberals. Although he was a member of the Anglican church (Episcopalian following the Revolutionary War), Washington recognized America’s pluralism and the constitutional role of religion in public life, historians said.
Indeed, Washington’s willingness to protect religious minorities is one of the many legacies this great man has left behind.
“Washington supported freedom of conscience and religious practice for both ideological and practical reasons,” said Dr. Gary Smith, a former chair and professor of history at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “[Washington] wrote that ‘the mind is so formed in different persons as to contemplate the same objects in different points of view,’ leading to differences ‘on questions of the greatest import, human and divine.’ Religion had historically fostered division, discord, and even war. Therefore, he argued, as the most denominationally diverse and ethnically eclectic nation in world history, the United States could flourish only if… citizens enjoyed a religious freedom that helped produce social harmony.”
After being inaugurated at Federal Hall — where the Bill of Rights was first proposed — in lower Manhattan in 1789 and walking a few blocks north to St. Paul’s Chapel for services (he would go on to become a regular in those pews during his time as president), Washington received many notes of congratulations from local officials and civic groups in the weeks and months that followed. Among some of the most important missives Washington received came from religious communities — small churches and congregations across many faiths — expressing support. Washington, in his correspondence to them, offers to us a view of his mindset over two centuries later.
“Many of the exchanges between Washington and denominational leaders who wrote to congratulate him on becoming president directly discuss religious liberty, especially their hope that he would protect the freedom of religious minorities,” said Smith, who has authored several books including Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush. “In his replies, Washington insisted that freedom of conscience was a right, not a privilege. The chief executive rejoiced ‘to see Christians of different denominations dwell together in more charity, and conduct themselves in respect to each other with a more Christian-like spirit than ever they have done… in any other nation.’”
In an August 1789 letter to the Episcopal Church, Washington wrote: “It affords edifying prospects indeed to see Christians of different denominations dwell together in more charity, and conduct themselves in respect to each other with a more christian-like spirit than ever they have done in any former age, or in any other nation.”
In the ensuing months, Washington wrote letters reassuring Methodists and Presbyterians of their role and freedom, along with quelling fears felt by Baptists, Quakers and Roman Catholics scattered throughout the 13 original states. Among this group of religious minorities of the time, Catholics had been on the receiving end of much discrimination. Washington responded to their concerns, saying all Americans are “equally entitled to the protection of civil government.”
Washington has received the most attention for a 1790 letter he penned to the community of Jews at Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island. This is the letter where Washington famously described the uniquely American perspective of religious liberty (over the notion of tolerance) and those freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment — including of the press and peaceable assembly — enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
On August 17, 1790, the day Washington visited Newport, the synagogue’s warden, Moses Seixas, wrote to Washington. The synagogue’s construction had been completed in 1763, although the Jewish community in that area dated back to 1658 when 15 Spanish and Portuguese families settled there. The Orthodox synagogue remains active to this day. In his letter, Seixas expressed his community’s support and best wishes for Washington’s administration. In response, Washington sent them a letter back just four days later.
In it, Washington wrote: “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Washington’s own faith has been long debated by historians and arguably the most misunderstood part of his life. From a believing Christian to a Deist, Washington’s writings shed some light on his faith.
Dr. George Tsakiridis, a historian at South Dakota State University, observed, “Overall, Washington's religious life is an area of great debate and much in line with his contemporaries. His religious life is complex and should be approached as such, without trite labels and descriptions.”
Smith said that among American presidents, only Abraham Lincoln’s “religious convictions and practices have been so painstakingly examined as those of Washington.”
“Of all the varied aspects of the Virginian’s life, few have caused as much contention as his religious beliefs and habits… Many of the hundreds of books, articles, sermons, and essays published about his faith since 1800 have advanced ideological agendas and told pious fables about Washington that have little basis in historical fact,” he added. “Other authors have been so preoccupied with refuting these myths that they have paid scant attention to his actual religious beliefs and practices. The fact that Washington, unlike some other founders, never expounded his convictions in a systematic way makes unearthing and analyzing his religious perspective very challenging.”
In his private writings, Washington often referred to God or “Providence” — but never Jesus . The only mentions of Christ are in public papers — and even those references are scarce. Some historians say Washington's lack of usage, however, may be due to the accepted practice of his day that Jesus was typically not referenced by Anglicans. Others have categorized him a marginal Christian.
As a result, some have labeled Washington — as well as fellow Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — as Deists since they they believed in providence and prayer. Debate on that point continues to this day among historians. Like other wealthy and powerful men of his time, Washington owned slaves. Many slaves, including the ones who worked at his Virginia home at Mount Vernon, were Christians.
“In regard to personal spirituality, Washington was generally private about his religious life. Washington is reported to have had regular private prayer sessions, and personal prayer was a large part of his life,” Tsakiridis said. “One well-known report stated that Washington's nephew witnessed him doing personal devotions with an open Bible while kneeling, in both the morning and evening. It is clear that when it came to religion, Washington was a private man, more so than with other aspects of his life.”
Whatever Washington’s personal faith, in public and through his many letters, the country’s first commander-in-chief vigorously defended other religions. It was that defense of religious minorities — at a time when monarchs across Europe persecuted people for their faith — that truly defines Washington’s legacy and America’s promise.
“Because of his exceptional character and extraordinary contributions, he has been deemed indispensable to the success of the patriot cause and the new republic,” Smith said. “Risking his reputation, wealth, and life, he commanded an undermanned and poorly supplied army to an improbable victory over the world’s leading economic and military power. He presided over the convention that produced the United States’ venerable Constitution.”