(Photo of Washington’s carriage in which he traveled to church [Jerry Newcombe, Mount Vernon])
It used to be a joke to see signs in historic places boasting “George Washington slept here.” But I think in a very real sense, a handful of churches could legitimately have a sign proclaiming, “George Washington worshiped here.” His active Christianity reflects a key aspect of our nation’s founding—the importance of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
George Washington was a committed churchgoer all his life, even when it was difficult to attend. His main church as a young man was Pohick in Lorton, Virginia, and as an older man, it was Christ Church in Alexandria. And there were others in between in other states.
At these churches, you can see the reredos—a wall or altar decoration with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, and the Ten Commandments, so the worshipers could recite them aloud.
I personally have visited many of these churches. Some people today claim that George Washington was not a Christian but a Deist. But the facts don’t support that view.
With Dr. Peter Lillback, I co-wrote a 1200 page book on our founding father’s faith, George Washington’s Sacred Fire. The book documents beyond reasonable doubt that our first president was indeed an active Christian all his life. His adoptive daughter said that if you question his Christianity, you might as well question his patriotism.
But sadly people do question his faith. One man sent me an email disputing my comments about the Christian faith of some of our founders including Washington.
He wrote me: “George Washington stopped going to church when he was admonished by the vicar for not taking communion. That is very different than your story that he got out of the habit, but continued to attend church. He stopped attending church, period.”
But he’s wrong.
You can visit Mount Vernon today and see the red “chariot” (buggy) in which he rode to and from church. You can also visit the church itself, which he attended regularly the last years of his life. The building is still standing and in use. It’s Christ Church in Alexandria, an Episcopal church. That’s where his funeral was held. You can see and even sit in his box-pew, which he paid for, by subscription.
As noted, Pohick Church in Lorton, Virginia was Washington’s main church home as a young man. He served the church as a vestryman—like an elder and a deacon rolled into one person. To become a vestryman you had to swear allegiance to the doctrines of the Anglican Church.
Washington even chose the exact location for that church building as a surveyor. His recommendation beat out that of fellow church member and founding father, George Mason.
Other churches you can visit where Washington worshiped and see his own box-pew and the reredos include:
*Bruton Parish in Colonial Williamsburg, where he worshiped along with Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson when they served in the Virginia House of Burgesses;
*Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport, Rhode Island;
*Christ Church in Philadelphia, where he worshiped during the summer he presided over the Constitutional Convention; and
*St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City, near Wall Street.
After his inauguration in 1789, Washington led everyone over to St. Paul’s Chapel, where they participated in a two-hour Christian service—dedicating the new nation to the Lord. This service included Holy Communion. Eyewitnesses, such as Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, said Washington communed.
That leads me to the question of why did he not always attend communion? The answer is simple. He did at first. But during the war, as Dr. Lillback points out, Washington was leading the troops in a rebellion against the human head of the Church of England, i.e., King George III, and so he could not celebrate common faith with the king in good conscience.
During the war, he worshiped at the Presbyterian church in Morristown New Jersey. To this day, they have a stained glass window showing him participating in the Lord’s Supper there.
Washington indeed got out of the habit and did not attend the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis during the few times a year they had it back then—but he did so on occasion. Washington confessed his faith in Jesus Christ and His atonement throughout his life not only as a worshiper and communicant but also at various public times when he served as a vestryman, church warden, and sponsor in several baptisms.
Why does this matter? I think there is a battle over history. I think it’s important to recognize what made this nation great in the first place, and I believe if you dig a little deeper, you see the positive impact of the Christian faith in what is best in the creation of America and its freedoms.
To paraphrase President Woodrow Wilson: If we don’t know what we were in the past, we don’t know what we are in the present, and where we are going in the future.