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"In the Hands of a Good Providence"

Religion in the Life of George Washington

Mary V. Thompson

Publication Year: 2008

Attempts by evangelical Christians to claim Washington and other founders as their own, and scholars' ongoing attempts to contradict these claims, are nothing new. Particularly after Washington was no longer around to refute them, legends of his Baptist baptism or secret conversion to Catholicism began to proliferate. Mount Vernon researcher Mary Thompson endeavors to get beyond the current preoccupation with whether Washington and other founders were or were not evangelical Christians to ask what place religion had in their lives. Thompson follows Washington and his family over several generations, situating her inquiry in the context of new work on the place of religion in colonial and postrevolutionary Virginia and the Chesapeake.

Thompson considers Washington's active participation as a vestryman and church warden as well as a generous donor to his parish prior to the Revolution, and how his attendance declined after the war. He would attend special ceremonies, and stood as godparent to the children of family and friends, but he stopped taking communion and resigned his church office. Something had changed, but was it Washington, the church, or both? Thompson concludes that he was a devout Anglican, of a Latitudinarian bent, rather than either an evangelical Christian or a Deist. The meaning of this description, Thompson allows, when applied to eighteenth-century Virginia gentlemen, is far from self-evident, leaving ample room for speculation.

Published by: University of Virginia Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5

Dedication Page

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pp. 6-7

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

Mount Vernon has attracted visitors in large numbers, beginning in George Washington’s lifetime with those who were curious to see this famous man who had been something of an international celebrity since the age of twenty- two. In the nineteenth century, the estate itself developed almost religious connotations as a pilgrimage site or shrine. In the...

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pp. xvii-xxii

There are quite a few people to whom I owe a debt of thanks for their help and support on this project. Foremost among them are the members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, those “pioneers in preservation” who are still making waves 150 years aft er their founding. Singled out for special remembrance are the current regent, Gay Hart Gaines, who has...

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1: Controversy: A Man of Many Questions

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pp. 1-10

Two hundred years aft er the deaths of the men and women who founded the United States, the question of their religious faith still elicits strong opinions.1 The issue has become quite heated and sometimes even strident. Particularly in the last few decades, what the Founding Fathers believed has been a bone of contention between the...

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2: Foundations: Early Influences

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pp. 11-29

Both George and Martha Washington could claim Anglican ministers among their ancestors. George Washington’s great-great-grandfather, the Reverend Lawrence Washington, was something of a scholar, who studied at Oxford University’s Brasenose College between 1619 and 1623, earning a bachelor’s degree and then becoming a...

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3: Church Affiliation: A Lifelong Anglican

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pp. 30-49

Throughout his life, George Washington remained a member of the Anglican Church and, aft er the Revolution, of its American successor, the Episcopal Church. The offi ciating ministers at both his wedding and his funeral, two signifi cant events separated by forty years, were Anglican / Episcopal clergymen.1 He was married on January...

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4: Sundays: Public Worship and Time for Reflection

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pp. 50-74

Sunday services in Anglican churches in eighteenth- century Virginia typically began about eleven o’clock in the morning. Once the congregation had entered the building and gotten settled, the minister and / or his clerk began reading the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. The “solemn, penitential mood” of the service continued as...

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5: Confirmation and Communion: Questions about a Rite and Sacrament of the Church

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pp. 75-90

While Holy Communion is a prominent feature of modern Anglican / Episcopal church services, this was not the case during George Washington’s lifetime. Typically, communion was offered only three or four times a year. Communicants would come forward to receive the elements of bread or wine at the altar rail and usually knelt, but those who had scruples against taking that posture (for fear that...

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6: Prayer: Private Devotions

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pp. 91-100

There are a number of highly romanticized—and highly suspect— stories about George Washington praying, most, if not all, of which probably date to the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. The earliest version of a typical example dates to 1808 and the publication of the sixth edition of Parson Weems’s biography of Washington, which told the story...

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7: Evidence of Belief: Contemporary Statements

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pp. 101-123

It is possible to learn something about the religious beliefs behind the practices previously discussed, although it is clear from his statements on the subject that the reticent George Washington was a military man, not a theologian or philosopher. There was an assurance and a practical bent to his faith, rather than continued questioning or a need...

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8: Outward Actions: Charity and Toleration

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pp. 124-138

There is abundant evidence that both George and Martha Washington took concrete steps to care for those less fortunate than themselves by giving money and food to the poor. Such charities, which to a certain extent were probably expected from members of their social class, may also have been a way of expressing religious beliefs through...

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9: Church and State: Washington's Vision for America

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pp. 139-168

Two themes run through George Washington’s vision of the role of religion in American life: the need to reduce the divisions caused by religious differences and the need to encourage the unifying aspects of religion.1 Especially in his last quarter century, as he struggled to unite thirteen oft en provincial and fractious colonies into one united...

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10: Conclusions: Washington's and Others'

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pp. 169-186

George and Martha Washington died within two and a half years of one another, he on the evening of December 14, 1799, aft er suffering a short, but virulent illness, and she on the afternoon of May 22, 1802, following a more than two- week- long ordeal. The main description of George Washington’s last hours comes from the pen...


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pp. 187-228


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pp. 229-242


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pp. 243-251

E-ISBN-13: 9780813930329
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813927633

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2008