I wrote this in 2008
. It's not bad. Though, I think I could have written a stronger piece. The point I take from intensely studying George Washington's personal and political theology is that, aside from certain minimal points on which we all should agree, Washington leaves a bit of mystery because of his silence on the matter.
The minimal points are as follows: 1. devout belief in a warm Providence; 2. the importance of "religion" (generally defined) in helping to promote the morality of a virtuous citizenry on which republics depend; and 3. because "Christianity" is a "religion," a general endorsement of "Christianity" without necessarily endorsing orthodox Christianity's narrow claims.
I do NOT see Washington as a Trinity and Incarnation believing "orthodox Christian," but rather something else. But I would agree that there are ambiguities in the record (and, to me, they seem purposeful on Washington's part).
But it's in trying to "fill in" these gaps -- the "detective work" -- that leads to a temptation: To incorporate the words of other people and institutions and put them in Washington's mouth or at least into his personal convictions. So, Washington was an Anglican; and Anglicanism has spilled a lot of words on what it stands for. Let us then assume that this is what Washington believed. OR, Washington was a collector of sermons; let us then assume he believed in all the content of the sermons he collected. OR, Washington corresponded with various religious figures and organizations of his day and said nice things to them; let us then assume he agreed with them on all of their doctrinal points.
All of those assumptions I described above are problematic.
As I noted in my above mentioned 2008 post
, one of the theologians that was the subject of Washington's brief correspondence was the legendary British Arian Richard Price. Price gave an "address" -- perhaps it could be classified as a "sermon" because Price was among other things, a minister -- entitled "Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution
Price was a theologically liberal, rationalistic Arian. I use the terms "liberal" and "rationalistic" because Price actually uses those terms to describe his creed in this address:
It is indeed only a rational and liberal religion, a religion founded on just notions of the Deity as a being who regards equally every sincere worshipper, and by whom all are alike favoured as far as they act up to the light they enjoy, a religion which consists in the imitation of the moral perfections of an almighty but benevolent governor of nature, who directs for the best all events, in confidence in the care of his providence, in resignation to his will, and in the faithful discharge of every duty of piety and morality from a regard to his authority and the apprehension of a future righteous retribution. It is only this religion (the inspiring principle of every thing fair and worthy and joyful and which in truth is nothing but the love of God and man and virtue warming the heart and directing the conduct) — it is only this kind of religion that can bless the world or be an advantage to society. This is the religion that every enlightened friend to mankind will be zealous to promote. But it is a religion that the powers of the world know little of and which will always be best promoted by being left free and open.
I cannot help adding here that such in particular is the Christian religion. ...
Now, Price's personal "Christian" convictions were, as noted above, Arian (the belief that Jesus, the Son of God, is NOT God the Son, but rather a created being who is higher than the highest angel, but not fully God Himself). Though, Price's address doesn't stress the Arianism (as I initially first thought when reading it).
Price does say the following:
Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.
Again, Price was an Arian; the Athanasian Creed was a Trinitarian one that has "clauses" that "damn" people (like Price himself) for not believing in the Trinitarianism expressed there. However, other Trinitarian creeds, most notably the Nicene, were more central. Theologically unitarian Founding Fathers and their influences like Price often did use the term "Athanasian" as a shorthand for "Trinitarianism" (mainly because of St. Athanasius' role in defending the Trinity during the Council of Nicaea).
But in rereading Price's address, it seems more of an attack on that particular part of the Athanasian creed than promotion of theological unitarianism. Though, Price does describe the "latitudinarian" landscape of the Church of England at his time and how unitarians and other dissenters like himself "fit in" there:
The Church Establishment in England is one of the mildest and best sort. But even here what a snare has it been to integrity? And what a check to free enquiry? What dispositions favourable to despotism has it fostered? What a turn to pride and narrowness and domination has it given the clerical character? What struggles has it produced in its members to accommodate their opinions to the subscriptions and tests which it imposes? What a perversion of learning has it occasioned to defend obsolete creeds and absurdities? What a burthen is it on the consciences of some of its best clergy who, in consequence of being bound down to a system they do not approve, and having no support except that which they derive from conforming to it, find themselves under the hard necessity of either prevaricating or starving? No one doubts but that the English clergy in general could with more truth declare that they do not, than that they do, given their unfeigned assent to all and everything contained in the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common-Prayer; and yet, with a solemn declaration to this purpose, are they obliged to enter upon an office which above all offices requires those who exercise it to be examples of simplicity and sincerity. Who can help execrating the cause of such an evil?
Bold face is mine.
"Latitudinarianism" means "doctrinal latitude." Not all latitudinarians were unitarian; but as I understand the record, some/many were. People part of the Church of England in Richard Price's day -- including ministers -- didn't necessarily buy into everything the Church "officially" taught.
Well, what does this have to do with George Washington?
For one, Washington endorsed Price's address. As he wrote to BENJAMIN VAUGHAN, February 5, 1785:
Sir: I pray you to accept my acknowledgment of your polite letter of the 31st. of October, and thanks for the flattering expressions of it. These are also due in a very particular manner to Doctr. Price, for the honble mention he has made of the American General in his excellent observations on the importance of the American revolution addressed, "To the free and United States of America," which I have seen and read with much pleasure.
Now, I agree it's a bridge too far to treat this like a "smoking gun" that proves Washington agreed with every word of this address.
But this is generally how Washington corresponded with various religious figures of his day who sent him items for his perusal. He gave polite, perfunctory "thank yous" and imprimaturs. But the different individuals and groups who sought his approval, which he most often gave, taught contradictory things on "doctrinal" matters and the like.
So, it's also a mistake to cherry pick from the polite correspondence Washington had with more orthodox theologians and groups and assume that Washington personally shared their beliefs. Likewise, because Washington was affiliated with the Anglican Church, it's a mistake to assume he believed in all of their doctrines. If Washington were an Anglican fundamentalist, he'd be a Tory. And as we've seen above from Price's testimony, plenty of Anglicans, including ministers from that area "dissented" from or otherwise rejected "official" doctrine like that found in the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common-Prayer.
As I look at the "big picture" I see Washington's personal creed as closer to Price's than that of the more traditional orthodox types of his day; however, even there, we have uncertainty. Washington could have been even further from conventional Christianity than Price was. He could have been more Socinian and Deistic (though, as noted above Washington clearly believed in a warm Providence).