George Washington Quotes on Religion and Church/State Separation

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Cline, Austin. "George Washington Quotes on Religion and Church/State Separation." ThoughtCo, Mar. 17, 2016, thoughtco.com/george-washington-quotes-on-religion-4003783. Cline, Austin. (2016, March 17). George Washington Quotes on Religion and Church/State Separation. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/george-washington-quotes-on-religion-4003783 Cline, Austin. "George Washington Quotes on Religion and Church/State Separation." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/george-washington-quotes-on-religion-4003783 (accessed October 21, 2017).
George Washington
George Washington. SuperStock/Getty

The first President of the United States and a leader of the American Revolution, George Washington's personal religious beliefs have been hotly debated ever since his death. He seems to have considered it a personal matter, not for public consumption, and it's likely that his beliefs evolved over time.

All evidence suggests that for most of his adult life he was a Christian Deist or a theistic rationalist.

He believed in some of the doctrines of traditional Christianity, but not all. He more or less rejected revelation and miracles, believing instead in a god that was generally removed from human affairs. This sort of viewpoint would have been normal and unremarkable among intellectuals of his time.

He was certainly a strong supporter of religious tolerance, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state.

 

Criticism of Religion

Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.


[George Washington, letter to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 726]

The blessed Religion revealed in the word of will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances, be made subservient to the vilest of purposes.


[From an unused draft of Washington’s First Inaugural address]

Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.
[George Washington, letter to Sir Edward Newenham, June 22, 1792]

 

Praise of Reason

There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.
[George Washington, address to Congress, 8 January, 1790]

To give opinions unsupported by reasons might appear dogmatical.
[George Washington, to Alexander Spotswood, November 22, 1798, from The Washington papers, edited by Saul Padover]

 

Praise of Church/State Separation & Religious Tolerance

...the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.
[George Washington, 1789, responding to clergy complaints that the Constitution lacked mention of Jesus Christ, from The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore W.W. Norton and Company 101-102]

If they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa or Europe; they may be Mahometans, Jews, Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists....


[George Washington, to Tench Tilghman, March 24, 1784, when asked what type of workman to get for Mount Vernon, from The Washington papers, edited by Saul Padover]

...I beg you be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.
[George Washington, to United Baptists Churches of Virginia, May, 1789 from The Washington papers, edited by Saul Padover]

As the contempt of the religion of a country by ridiculing any of its ceremonies, or affronting its ministers or votaries, has ever been deeply resented, you are to be particularly careful to restrain every officer from such imprudence and folly, and to punish every instance of it. On the other hand, as far as lies in your power, you are to protect and support the free exercise of religion of the country, and the undisturbed enjoyment of the rights of conscience in religious matters, with your utmost influence and authority.


[George Washington, to Benedict Arnold, September 14, 1775 from The Washington papers, edited by Saul Padover]

 

Quotes About George Washington

In 1793 Washington thus summarized the religious philosophy he was evolving during his Mount Vernon years. How happenings would "terminate is known only to the great ruler of events; and confiding in his wisdom and goodness, we may safely trust the issue to him, without perplexing ourselves to seek for that which is beyond human ken, only taking care to perform the parts assigned to us in a way that reason and our own conscience approve of." George Washington was, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, a deist.
[The Forge of Experience, Volume One of James Thomas Flexner's four volume biography of Washington; Little, Brown & Company; pps 244-245]    

George Washington's conduct convinced most Americans that he was a good Christian, but those possessing first-hand knowledge of his religious convictions had reasons for doubt.
[Barry Schwartz, George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol, New York: The Free Press, 1987, p. 170]

Washington subscribed to the religious faith of the Enlightenment: Like Franklin and Jefferson, he was a .
[Flexner, James Thomas Flexner, Washington The Indispensable Man. New York, 1974: New American Library, 1974. p. 216]

...That he was not just striking a popular attitude as a politician is revealed by the absence of of the usual Christian terms: he did not mention Christ or even use the word "God." Following the phraseology of the philosophical Deism he professed, he referred to "the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men," to "the benign parent of the human race."
[James Thomas Flexner, on Washington's first inaugural speech in April 1789, in George Washington and the New Nation [1783-1793], Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970, p. 184.]

George Washington thought he belonged to the Episcopal church, never mentioned Christ in any of his writings and he was a deist.
[Richard Shenkman I love Paul Revere, whether He Rode or Not.

New York: Harpercollins, 1991.]