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"In the Hands of a Good Providence"

"In the Hands of a Good Providence": Religion in the Life of George Washington

Mary V. Thompson
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zwddw
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  • Book Info
    "In the Hands of a Good Providence"
    Book Description:

    Attempts by evangelical Christians to claim Washington and other founders as their own, and scholars' ongoing attempts to contradict these claims, are nothing new. Particularly after Washington was no longer around to refute them, legends of his Baptist baptism or secret conversion to Catholicism began to proliferate. Mount Vernon researcher Mary Thompson endeavors to get beyond the current preoccupation with whether Washington and other founders were or were not evangelical Christians to ask what place religion had in their lives. Thompson follows Washington and his family over several generations, situating her inquiry in the context of new work on the place of religion in colonial and postrevolutionary Virginia and the Chesapeake.

    Thompson considers Washington's active participation as a vestryman and church warden as well as a generous donor to his parish prior to the Revolution, and how his attendance declined after the war. He would attend special ceremonies, and stood as godparent to the children of family and friends, but he stopped taking communion and resigned his church office. Something had changed, but was it Washington, the church, or both? Thompson concludes that he was a devout Anglican, of a Latitudinarian bent, rather than either an evangelical Christian or a Deist. The meaning of this description, Thompson allows, when applied to eighteenth-century Virginia gentlemen, is far from self-evident, leaving ample room for speculation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3032-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  5. 1 CONTROVERSY A Man of Many Questions
    (pp. 1-10)

    Two hundred years after the deaths of the men and women who founded the United States, the question of their religious faith still elicits strong opinions.¹ The issue has become quite heated and sometimes even strident. Particularly in the last few decades, what the Founding Fathers believed has been a bone of contention between the political left and right. What would otherwise have been just a matter for those interested in history has broader implications when applied to things like the interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court. At least in the case of George Washington, however, this speculation...

  6. 2 FOUNDATIONS Early Influences
    (pp. 11-29)

    Both george and martha Washington could claim Anglican ministers among their ancestors. George Washington’s great-great-grandfather, the Reverend Lawrence Washington, was something of a scholar, who studied at Oxford University’s Brasenose College between 1619 and 1623, earning a bachelor’s degree and then becoming a fellow at the same school, where he received a master’s degree in 1626. The following year, he was made lector of Brasenose College, a position described by one historian as “the chief disciplinarian of undergraduates,” and in 1631 he became a proctor for the University of Oxford. The proctorship came as a result of a political move...

  7. 3 CHURCH AFFILIATION A Lifelong Anglican
    (pp. 30-49)

    Throughout his life, George Washington remained a member of the Anglican Church and, after the Revolution, of its American successor, the Episcopal Church. The officiating ministers at both his wedding and his funeral, two significant events separated by forty years, were Anglican/Episcopal clergymen.¹ He was married on January 6, 1759, by the Reverend David Mossom, in New Kent County, Virginia, at a plantation called White House. This was the home of Washington’s bride, twenty-seven-year-old Martha Dandridge Custis, whose first husband had died eighteen months earlier, leaving her with two very young children.

    Reverend Mossom had been born in England and...

  8. 4 SUNDAYS Public Worship and Time for Reflection
    (pp. 50-74)

    Sunday services in Anglican churches in eighteenth-century Virginia typically began about eleven o’clock in the morning. Once the congregation had entered the building and gotten settled, the minister and/or his clerk began reading the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. The “solemn, penitential mood” of the service continued as the congregation corporately confessed its sins and received absolution by the pastor. (This would not be given on days when the pastor was not present.) Psalms were recited or sung, lessons were read from both the Old and New Testaments, and there were responsive readings and additional prayers. The part...

  9. 5 CONFIRMATION AND COMMUNION Questions about a Rite and Sacrament of the Church
    (pp. 75-90)

    While holy communion is a prominent feature of modern Anglican/Episcopal church services, this was not the case during George Washington’s lifetime. Typically, communion was offered only three or four times a year. Communicants would come forward to receive the elements of bread or wine at the altar rail and usually knelt, but those who had scruples against taking that posture (for fear that they would appear to be worshipping either the elements themselves, the altar, or the act of consecration) were allowed to stand. Unlike their Roman Catholic brethren, Anglicans did not believe in transubstantiation, the idea that the bread...

  10. 6 PRAYER Private Devotions
    (pp. 91-100)

    There are a number of highly romanticized—and highly suspect—stories about George Washington praying, most, if not all, of which probably date to the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. The earliest version of a typical example dates to 1808 and the publication of the sixth edition of Parson Weems’s biography of Washington, which told the story of a Quaker farmer named Potts, who came across Washington praying on his knees in the woods near his Valley Forge headquarters.¹

    By 1860 the story had been changed a bit, the farmer had become anonymous, and the location for the incident had been...

  11. 7 EVIDENCE OF BELIEF Contemporary Statements
    (pp. 101-123)

    It is possible to learn something about the religious beliefs behind the practices previously discussed, although it is clear from his statements on the subject that the reticent George Washington was a military man, not a theologian or philosopher. There was an assurance and a practical bent to his faith, rather than continued questioning or a need to search deeper for answers. While some of this might be the reflection of a mind satisfied with the religious answers it got from the established church at a fairly young age, it might also be a result of Washington’s early frontier experiences,...

  12. 8 OUTWARD ACTIONS Charity and Toleration
    (pp. 124-138)

    There is abundant evidence that both George and Martha Washington took concrete steps to care for those less fortunate than themselves by giving money and food to the poor. Such charities, which to a certain extent were probably expected from members of their social class, may also have been a way of expressing religious beliefs through action. During the Revolution, when he was away from home and his wife spent many months each year at his headquarters, George Washington instructed his farm manager:

    Let the Hospitality of the House, with respect to the poor, be kept up; Let no one...

  13. 9 CHURCH AND STATE Washington’s Vision for America
    (pp. 139-168)

    Two themes run through George Washington’s vision of the role of religion in American life: the need to reduce the divisions caused by religious differences and the need to encourage the unifying aspects of religion.¹ Especially in his last quarter century, as he struggled to unite thirteen often provincial and fractious colonies into one united whole, toleration of differing religious traditions, both privately by individuals and publicly by the government, was something he idealistically saw, and heartily approved of, as a unique and basic quality of the new United States. It can also be seen as an extension of the...

  14. 10 CONCLUSIONS Washington’s and Others’
    (pp. 169-186)

    George and martha Washington died within two and a half years of one another, he on the evening of December 14, 1799, after suffering a short, but virulent illness, and she on the afternoon of May 22, 1802, following a more than two-week-long ordeal. The main description of George Washington’s last hours comes from the pen of his longtime secretary and friend, Tobias Lear, who recorded not one mention of any conversations or acts relating to religion in his seemingly blow-by-blow account.¹ The problem is that Lear’s account, while very full, may well not tell everything that went on that...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 187-228)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 229-242)
  17. Index
    (pp. 243-251)