Today, Washington's faith has become a minor battlefield in America's ongoing culture wars. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister and the co-author of the best-selling "Left Behind" novels, has called Washington "a devout believer in Jesus Christ" who, in good evangelical fashion, "had accepted Him as His Lord and Savior."
In contrast, Joseph Ellis, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing about the American founders, has described Washington as a "lukewarm Episcopalian." Writer Brooke Allen recently concluded that "there are very real doubts as to whether Washington was a Christian or even whether he was a believer at all."
Who is right? Or, more important, what is at stake in deciding who is right?
In recent years, Washington's faith has become heavily politicized. It is often used to promote a particular political platform in the present. The argument goes something like this: "If George Washington was a Christian, then America must be too" or "If Washington was not a Christian, then he must have desired the United States to be a secular nation."
Most historians agree that Washington was quiet about his faith. Unlike John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, he did not leave behind definitive statements about what he believed. Neither was he particularly curious about theology or other religious matters. His religious reading was confined largely to sermons purchased by his devout wife, Martha.
We do know that Washington was a firm believer in what he called "Providence." He used this term 270 times in his writings, usually employing it as a synonym for the Judeo-Christian God. This was an omniscient, omnipotent and loving God who created and ordered the universe but whose purposes remained mysterious. Washington's God was active in the lives of human beings. He could perform miracles, answer prayer and intervene in history to carry out his will.
Washington often referred to God with descriptive labels such as the "Governor of the Universe," "Providence" or the "Great Ruler of Events," but he never used the name "Jesus Christ" in his public or private writings. We know from eyewitness accounts that he was a man of prayer, but he rarely wrote about his inner devotional life.
Perhaps the most discussed aspect of Washington's religious behavior is his Communion habits. The Lord's Supper is a sacrament in which the partaker identifies personally and publicly with the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Washington's step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, reported that Washington would often leave church after the minister's blessing and travel home with her, sending the carriage back for his wife, Martha, who stayed to receive the sacrament.
Much of the evidence suggests that Washington had no real interest in Communion. While his lack of interest was actually quite normal by 18th-century standards (the number of churchgoers who did receive Communion was very low), it also raises serious questions about the quality of his faith.
We are on much firmer evidentiary ground when we discuss Washington's views on the relationship between religion and public life. Washington believed that Christianity was needed to help sustain a moral republic. In his famous Farewell Address of 1796, he wrote, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." There is substantial evidence to suggest that Washington was willing to support any and all religious groups that he believed could contribute to the public good.
In the end, when it comes to the religious beliefs of George Washington, historians, as well as Christians, should tread cautiously.
There is a lot to celebrate about George Washington: his leadership, his courage, his civility, his morality. But we must show due prudence in celebrating him as a Christian. His religious life is just too ambiguous.
John Fea chairs the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and is the author of the forthcoming "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction" (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). Fea is also a columnist at Patheos.
UPDATE: Several of the comments on my article have challenged my assertion that Washington did not mention Jesus Christ in his personal and public writings. These commentators appeal to the multiple references that they say Washington made to Jesus Christ in a "Prayer Journal" from 1752. Unfortunately, most reputable scholars, including Frank Grizzard Jr., a former senior editor of the George Washington Papers, believe that this journal was not written by George Washington. I would ask readers to consult Grizzard's book "The Ways of Providence: Religion and George Washington."
In that book, Grizzard writes (p. 51): "On April 21, 22, 23, 1891, there was sold at the auction rooms of Thomas Birch's sons, 1110 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, a collection of Washington relics owned by Washington descendants Lawrence Washington, Bushrod C. Washington, Thomas B. Washington, and J.R.C. Lewis. Included in the sale was 'The Daily Sacrifice,' a twenty-four page manuscript document written in a pocket memorandum book and subsequently circulated as 'Washington's Prayers,' 'Washington's Prayer Book,' or 'Washington's Prayer Journal.' The catalog of the sale was prepared by Philadelphia auctioneer Stan V. Henkels, who asserted that the manuscript was not only in Washington's own handwriting, written when the future Father of His Country was about twenty years of age, but that Washington even composed the prayers himself. Both claims are patently false. The prayer book had been among a group of papers already rejected by the Smithsonian Institute as having no value, and at the time of the sale others continued to challenge its authenticity. Tens of thousands of genuine Washington manuscripts have survived to the present, including many from the youthful Washington, and even a cursory comparison of the prayer book with a genuine Washington manuscript reveals that they are not the same handwriting. Nevertheless, the prayers continue to be disseminated under Washington's name, thanks to their publication in the early twentieth century by William Herbert Burk (1867-1933) as 'Washington's Prayers' (Norristown, PA, 1907) and later republication by William Jackson Johnston in 'George Washington: The Christian'."