- "In the Hands of a Good Providence": Religion in the Life of George Washington
George Washington, Martha Washington, Anglicanism, Religion
One of the most enigmatic aspects of George Washington's life was religion. While there is little evidence to elucidate this puzzle, this paucity has not prevented scholarly discussion and speculation. Secularists and evangelicals have debated the issues in order to lay claim to the religious origins of America, or lack thereof. Mary Thompson's text provides an answer to this problem while also illuminating the private side of Washington's religion.
Thompson's thesis is that George Washington was a devout Anglican of the latitudinarian stripe (xiii). However, the question of belief is less straightforward than it might appear. As Thompson observes, assertions about the nature of the Washingtons' religious beliefs have often privileged "participatory" evangelical exercises rather than "the formality of the Washingtons' eighteenth-century Anglican faith" (96). Thompson does not focus solely on Washington's belief. Instead, she addresses Washington's religion through the criteria applicable to Anglicans, emphasizing church attendance, devotional exercises, and participation in church sacraments.
The book approaches aspects of the religious lives of George and Martha Washington through thematic chapters about particular facets of their religion. Chapter 2 introduces the Washingtons as inheritors of an Anglican legacy that stretched across the Atlantic. Both had Anglican [End Page 353] clergy in their ancestry, and both enjoyed a religious education in the home, a point Thompson explains at length. Subsequent chapters on the utility of Sundays as time for rest and reflection and on prayer and private devotions locate the home as the key place for private religious exercises centered around the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and additional devotional literature.
Still other chapters consider George Washington's relationship with the Anglican fellowship and with the local parish. In chapter 3, Thompson presents Washington as a churchman whose tenure on the vestry and as a church warden served both private and public ends. To Thompson, Washington appears as a devout member of his local parish, who invested much into the well being of the parishes and into the vestments of the churches themselves. He also parlayed that role of church leadership into his activities in the House of Burgesses. Washington's church membership was a desideratum for legislative responsibilities, and his administration in local congregations aided in his entry into special assignments like the Committee on Religion. However, there is no evidence that Washington was a confirmed member of either the colonial Anglican Church or the Protestant Episcopal Church formed after the Revolution. This fact did not bar him from taking communion, but there is also very little evidence that he participated in the sacrament. Recollections of close relatives attest to his having taken communion prior to his command of the Continental Army. But after the Revolution, Washington removed himself from the sanctuary during the rite and later declined to attend church on the days when the Eucharist was celebrated (77-79). Thompson's explanation for this change is threefold: Washington may have declined being in full communion with a church whose governance and relationship with the British crown were incompatible with the new republic; he refused to accept the Episcopal church as the established religion of the United States; or he objected to a church that condoned slavery. In sharp contrast to works such as David Holmes's The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford, UK, 2006) that suggest that Washington and other founders dissented from orthodox Trinitarian and Eucharistic theology, Thompson considers additional social and political contexts in which Washington lived.
In other chapters, Thompson shows how Washington's latitudinarian approach to Anglicanism influenced his social and political interactions. Chapter 8 depicts Washington as a man who contributed much to charities and who took a tolerant stance on the religious diversity within [End Page 354] America. His latitudinarianism and tolerance, Thompson stresses, were important to his advocacy for religious freedom. Nevertheless, she asserts, Washington was a...