George Washington Was An Anglican!

The Prayer at Valley Forge ,  Arnold Friberg  (1975)

The Prayer at Valley Forge, Arnold Friberg (1975)

The great-grandson of an Anglican minister, George Washington was raised an Anglican and practiced his faith his whole life. He kept a daily time of prayer and Bible reading (even in the midst of the revolutionary war), often appealed to the providence of God, and served as a Vestryman of a number of Anglican churches in Virginia, including The Falls Church Anglican and Truro Anglican Church. One of the most famous depictions of Washington is Friberg’s painting of Washington at prayer at Valley Forge, the winter encampment of the Revolutionary Army, in the darkest days of the war. Friberg painted the scene for America’s bicentennial, from a description by Isaac Potts, recorded by the Rev’d Nathaniel Snowden in his Diary and Remembrances:

In that woods pointing to a close in view, I heard a plaintive sound as, of a man at prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling & went quietly into the woods & to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world.

'Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying.

The religious beliefs of the American founders is a topic of continual debate. On the one hand, the vast majority of the founders were baptized Christians, who had been brought up in church and regularly attended Sunday worship in a variety of denominations throughout the colonies. On the other hand, if we study the writings of the founders, we find significant doubts in some of the founders concerning the core claims of Christian faith. Most notably, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were avowed deists, who believed in a Creator God but denied the divinity of Christ. Famously, Jefferson created his own version of the Gospels by cutting out all the miracles. Even John Adams, though a great proponent of religion in public life, seems at times to express doubt concerning the core claims of Christianity.

We need to distinguish, however, between the doubts of some of the founders, and the growing secularism that we find today. The major difference is that the founders had an educated and appreciative skepticism, while contemporary skepticism is mostly founded in ignorance or antipathy. The late 1700s marked the high tide of rationalism in western culture, a philosophical and theological movement that contributed to the American Revolution (and the much less successful French Revolution). Grounded in the scientific advances of of the preceding century, especially the discoveries of Isaac Newton, rationalism imagined the world as a place of rigid scientific laws. Rationalism fit well with the idea of God as a Creator, but not as well with miracles or the doctrine of the Resurrection. The result was a wave of highly educated skeptics, who were highly interested in religious ideas, but found it difficult to believe in the truth of the Bible.

Thus, the skeptics of the founding era tended nevertheless to be highly supportive of religion, provided that its particular form was not established by the state. They understood and even relied upon the solid foundation that came from the historic faith, desiring only the freedom to pursue their own rationalist ideas. It should not surprise us, then, that on the day after the first House of Representatives passed the 1st Amendment, which prohibited the establishment of religion, it passed a resolution calling for a day of national prayer and thanksgiving. This became the first celebration of Thanksgiving under the new constitution. Today, the combination of these legislative acts might seem to be a contradiction. To the founders, the encouragement of religiosity, without prescribing its form, was exactly the meaning of the freedom of religion.

What’s more, nearly all the founders, including those of more deistic persuasion, were convinced that it would only be by God’s providence that America could gain her independence. Shortly after adopting the Declaration of Independence, Franklin proposed that the Continental Congress adopt as its official motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God,” and though his proposal was not accepted, Jefferson stole the phrase for his personal seal! And on the day that he signed the Declaration, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that the occasion “will be celebrated by succeeding generations as a great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as a day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God almighty.”

Let us therefore heed Adams’ admonition, and commemorate this day of national independence with reverent thanks to Almighty God, our Creator, who sent his Son to free us from sin and death, and by whose gracious providence we live in a free land, free to do what we were made to do, to praise God, to glorify him, and to enjoy him forever.

Peter Johnston