No historical subject is more debated today than the role of faith in the American founding. These debates often focus on the faith of the founding fathers: Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, and George Washington. The debate certainly spurred me toward writing my forthcoming religious biography of Ben Franklin. But the nature of these major founders’ personal faiths is rarely straightforward, and Washington’s own faith remains an enigma.
In Ron Chernow’s extraordinary 2010 biography of Washington, we see that while Washington remained remarkably silent about his own faith, he cultivated an aura of providential favor about his own person and the founding of the American nation. Becoming the father of a new nation—in addition to surviving a war despite having a number of horses shot out from under you, your clothes riddled with bullet holes, and narrowly escaping cannonball blasts—turns one’s thoughts, it seems, to the providence of God.
For his own part, Washington’s Anglican faith was moderate and utterly reserved. That is how we should account for Washington’s irregular church attendance and his failure to take communion, Chernow explains. He never liked to make a public show of his own faith. This is also the reason why Chernow doubts that Washington was ever seen praying as depicted in the popular painting “George Washington in Prayer at Valley Forge.”
“The reason to doubt the story’s veracity is not Washington’s lack of faith,” Chernow writes, “but the typically private nature of his devotions.” Chernow’s portrayal of Washington’s near-secretive faith seems quite plausible, although it would still not account for Washington’s strange decision hardly ever to utter or write the name of Jesus Christ in his thousands of surviving letters and public statements.
If Washington’s personal faith remains shadowy, his public employment of religious rhetoric was constant and heartfelt. As the war’s tide turned toward the Americans, despite all the bungling and hardships of the Continental Army, the general became more convinced that God had chosen him as the man to lead America, Moses-like, out of British captivity.
Some might see Washington’s providentialist rhetoric as manipulative, but in Chernow’s biography it seems genuine. The exhausted Washington, presenting his military resignation before Congress at the end of the war, brought the chamber to tears as the insisted that only “a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the union, and the patronage of heaven” sustained him and the army through the hellish war. His voice breaking with emotion, he commended “our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God.”
Washington was no perfect man, either publicly or privately. Most historians understand that General Washington made a number of major errors in judgment as the war proceeded. And privately, his foibles were exposed nowhere better than his foolish but flagrant flirtations with the married woman Sally Fairfax, prior to Washington’s own marriage. Chernow judiciously focuses on this dalliance to remind us that however wise and courageous Washington became in adulthood, he began as a young man who could do some boneheaded things.
By the end of the Revolution, Washington had already begun to take on the cast of a man under a special blessing. With stunning persistence and sheer luck (or divine favor?), Washington had led the Continental Army to victory over the fearsome British. Henry Laurens, on behalf of Congress, wrote that Americans should thank God for “the preservation of Your Excellency’s person, necessarily exposed for the salvation of America” during the war’s most awful battles.
As the retiring general passed through Philadelphia, one admirer gushed that he had seen “the greatest man who has ever appeared on the surface of the earth.” (It is not clear whether this fan deliberately meant to set Washington above Jesus.)
With Washington’s death in 1799, the hosannas grew louder. One admirer wrote that in the dark days of 1776, when it appeared that all might be lost, the “God of Liberty” declared, “I have found a patriot worthy to rule a nation of freemen. A flood of glory burst from heaven, and encircled Washington. At the boldness of his achievements the ministers of Britain stood appalled, their monarch trembled upon his throne, and despotism himself, blinded by the blaze of his fame, threw down his chains.” (That quote inspired the title of my book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.)
Popular prints of the “Apotheosis of Washington” showed him ascending to heaven, as does the painted ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Europeans noticed that Americans put up likenesses of Washington in their homes. “Just as we have images of God’s saints,” one wrote.
Many Americans still exalt Washington (along with Abraham Lincoln) to an almost-sacred level, and in Chernow’s biography we learn that Washington helped to make himself a civil saint. Washington publicly marveled at the fact that he not die sometime during the Seven Years’ War or the American Revolution, and that he survived to become the president of the improbable new nation. In the mentality typical of that divinely suffused age, he could not but help see the hand of God at work in his life, and in the nation’s.
Even contemporary critics thought Americans might adore their leader too much, with one asserting that “the people of America have been guilty of idolatry in making a man their God.” But surely we can admire the man without bending the knee to worship. Achieving that balance may be the greatest success of Chernow’s biography.
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A version of this post originally appeared at History News Network.