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I came across this article written back in 2008 by Dr. Robert Duffett, president of Dakota Wesleyan University at the time, and now president of Eastern University for just over a year.

Duffett offers a perspective on the faith of our “founding father” that sobers popular notions of Washington being a church-going evangelical–not to mention our country founded from the get-go on distinctly Christian principles.

As Duffett puts it,

Washington’s religious views fit his temperament. Like his emotions, he kept his religious views largely to himself.  And, all who try to conscript his personal faith for their theological or political ends, whether evangelical religious right or American Civil Liberties Union, will be sorely disappointed!

Duffett also notes that Washington (quoting from the article)

  • rarely partook of Holy Communion, a central ordinance of Anglican/ Episcopalian worship
  • spoke of God in abstract rather than personal terms
  • left almost no record about his personal faith
  • was not interested in the theological particulars of the Christian faith
  • Clergymen who knew him were widely contradictory in their assessment of his religious commitment. Some said he was a committed Christian, others said he was barely committed, and some said he was not a Christian at all. 
  • At a time when Protestants dominated American society, Washington, a Protestant himself, rejected and banned anti-Catholic bashing. His General Order of November 9, 1775, virtually ended the American tradition of “Pope’s Day;” a Halloween-like festival of anti-Catholic revelry featuring the burning of the pope in effigy.
  • Washington appointed and later refused to fire Rhode Island chaplain, John Murray. Evangelical chaplains sought his ouster on theological grounds.  As a Universalist, Murray did not believe in hell.

And so I suppose Washington never chopped down the cherry tree and may actually have told a lie now and then? I’m shocked.

I still like those paintings of him crossing the Delaware River, and of him on the dollar bill.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.