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George Washington and Deism
Deists have a great example of toleration, perseverance, and integrity in the person of fellow Deist George Washington.
Christian preachers who ardently wanted Washington to be portrayed as one of them have made up many stories of George Washington's strong Christian beliefs. One of the primary purveyors of these propaganda pieces was Mason Locke Weems, a Christian preacher who came up with the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. He also feverishly promoted the myth of George Washington and Christianity.
Washington, like many people in colonial America, belonged to the Anglican church and was a vestryman in it. But in early America, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, you had to belong to the dominant church if you wanted to have influence in society, as is illustrated by the following taken from Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, by Bishop William Meade, I, p 191. "Even Mr. Jefferson, and George Wythe, who did not conceal their disbelief in Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the other at Albermarle; for they wished to be men of influence."
In the book Washington and Religion by Paul F. Boller, Jr., we read on page 92, "Washington was no infidel, if by infidel is meant unbeliever. Washington had an unquestioning faith in Providence and, as we have seen, he voiced this faith publicly on numerous occasions. That this was no mere rhetorical flourish on his part, designed for public consumption, is apparent from his constant allusions to Providence in his personal letters. There is every reason to believe, from a careful analysis of religious references in his private correspondence, that Washington’s reliance upon a Grand Designer along Deist lines was as deep-seated and meaningful for his life as, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s serene confidence in a Universal Spirit permeating the ever shifting appearances of the everyday world."
On page 82 of the same book, Boller includes a quote from a Presbyterian minister, Arthur B. Bradford, who was an associate of Ashbel Green another Presbyterian minister who had known George Washington personally. Bradford wrote that Green, "often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist."
Like truly intelligent people in all times and places, Washington realized how very little we know about life and the workings of the universe. He wrote that the ways of Providence were "inscrutable." Yet he DID the very best he could in all aspects of his life. When things were dark and it looked like the Revolution would be lost, he never gave up. Even when people in his own ranks were turning on him and trying to sink him he persevered because of his deep heartfelt Deistic belief in Providence.
George Washington coupled his genuine belief in Providence with action. After the American defeat at Germantown in 1777 he said, "We must endeavor to deserve better of Providence, and, I am persuaded, she will smile on us." He also wrote that we should take care to do our very best in everything we do so that our, "reason and our own conscience approve."
Washington's toleration for differing religions was made evident by his order to the Continental Army to halt the observance of Pope's Day. Pope's Day was the American equivalent of Guy Fawkes' Day in England. A key part of Pope's Day was the burning of the effigy of the Pope. In his order, Washington described the tradition as, "ridiculous and childish" and that there was no room for this type of behavior in the Continental Army.
The altruism and integrity that Washington possessed is made evident by his restraint in his personal gains. At the successful conclusion of the American Revolution he could have made himself dictator for life. Or he could have allowed others to make him king. Yet, like the Roman General Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus before him, Washington refused to do either.
Preacher Weems has written that on Washington's death bed, "Washington folded his arms decently on his breast, then breathing out 'Father of mercies, take me to thyself,' - he fell asleep." Like almost all of what the Christian fundamentalists have written about Washington, this is not true.
Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary, was with him when he died. The following is his account of Washington's death.
"About ten o'clk he made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said, -'I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.' I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again and said, 'Do you understand me?' I replied, 'Yes.' 'Tis well,' said he.
"About ten minutes before he expired (which was between ten and eleven o'clk) his breathing became easier; he lay quietly; - he withdrew his hand from mine, and felt his own pulse. I saw his countenance change. I spoke to Dr. Craik who sat by the fire; - he came to the bed side. The General's hand fell from his wrist - I took it in mine and put it into my bosom. Dr. Craik put his hands over his eyes and he expired without a struggle or a sigh!"
Like other Deists such as Paine, Jefferson, Voltaire, Franklin, and Allen, Washington did not fear death but looked at it as just another part of nature. Though he didn't speculate much on an after-life, he was comfortable to look at his own death as part of God's design.
George Washington offers us a tremendous example of altruism and positive action. His actions tell us stronger than any words could possibly do to persevere in the face of all obstacles. To never give up and to always combine our sincerely held beliefs with action.
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