When you think of DC Talk, a few descriptors come to mind—’90s Christian rap sensations, Dove and Grammy Award winners, the trio behind hits like Jesus Freak and What If I Stumble—but “historians” is probably not one of them. Believe it or not, though, they dabbled. Sort of.
In 2004, TobyMac and Michael Tait (apparently Kevin Max Smith didn’t want in on this project), working in conjunction with the Christian media company WallBuilders, wrote a book entitled Under God that presents a thoroughly Christianized view of American history. If you weren’t aware, that’s kind of WallBuilders’ thing. They’re all about “historical reclamation”—that is, promoting the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation (and should remain so). DC Talk’s book has a similar aim. According to its introduction, the goal of Under God is to tell the stories of great Americans who found “true freedom through their faith in Jesus.” One of these individuals is George Washington.
In the book, they tell the story of young Lieutenant General George Washington, fighting against the French and Indian forces in the summer of 1755. It was a brutal day, and the British and American forces suffered a devastating defeat, losing over 700 soldiers. Yet somehow, miraculously, Washington survived. Later, surveying the battlefield, fiddling with his coat, Washington noticed something astonishing: his coat was riddled with bullet holes. But he wasn’t wounded. And he never would be.
TobyMac and Michael Tait go on to compare Washington’s miraculous survival with God’s protection of Paul and his shipmates in Acts 27. God protected both of them, they write, because “each was on his way to doing what God had called him to do: Paul was to testify of Christ Jesus before Caesar, and Washington to lead the colonial army to freedom from the British and be the first president of the United States of America.”
The implication there is pretty unambiguous: in the same way that God used Paul to proselytize throughout the Mediterranean, He also used Washington to bring about the founding of America. Both embarked on equally God-inspired endeavors. Both were great Christian leaders.
It’s a compelling vision, certainly. But is it accurate?
The bullet hole story is actually true. In a letter to his brother, dated July 18, 1755, Washington describes the event and states, “I…appear in the land of the living by the miraculous care of Providence.” Clearly, Washington also attributed spiritual significance to the experience. But notice: he didn’t say “Jesus” or “my Savior” or “my Lord.” He said “Providence.”
Washington frequently used expansive language like that to describe God— “Author,” “Lord and Ruler of Nations,” “Creator”—which many scholars point to as evidence that he was, like so many of his contemporaries, a Deist. In the wake of the Enlightenment movement, intellectuals throughout Europe began applying scientific rationality to religion. What emerged was Deism: a belief system stripped of miracle and myth, based in a distant, benign creator who worked to further humankind’s happiness. Many of the founders were unabashed Deists: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and James Madison. They used terms like “Providence” and “the Deity.” Jefferson went so far as to create his own Bible, cutting out all the supernatural elements of the Christ story. Honestly, it’s not worth arguing that every single one of the founders were Christian. Some were vocally, unapologetically Deists.
Washington, however, was a little harder to read. Sure, he spoke of the “author of the universe,” and sure, in none of his writings or speeches did he ever mention the name of Jesus Christ, and sure, he spent time drafting the Constitution with a bunch of known Deists. But he did use the word “God” frequently. He was baptized in the Church of England, and he served on the elder board of his local church for 15 years. The pastor of his local parish once remarked that he “never knew so constant an attendant in church as Washington.” There are also many eyewitnesses who attest to seeing Washington going about his daily devotions. Washington’s own adopted daughter, Nelly Custis-Lewis, when discussing the question of his faith, pointed to his motto, “Deeds, not words,” arguing that “his life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian.”
Perhaps. But what do we do with the fact, according to multiple sources, Washington often left church before partaking in communion? Or consider that, by his own admission, he rarely attended church while home at Mount Vernon. Or mull on this: on his deathbed, Washington did not call for a minister or priest to perform last rites.
If Washington was vocal about anything regarding faith, it was religious tolerance. He discouraged anti-Catholic sentiments amongst his soldiers; he publicly supported a Universalist chaplain; and as President, he wrote in a letter to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia that “every man…ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.” Washington wrote a similar letter to a Hebrew Congregation in Rhode Island: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants.”
If there is a story that can give us the best picture of George Washington’s faith, it’s not the bullet holes story. It’s this one.
One Sunday at a church in Philadelphia, George Washington left the service before taking communion. The minister, Pastor James Abercrombie, was upset by this, and later said in a sermon that he was disappointed to see powerful people not setting an example by taking communion. Washington rightly assumed this was directed at him, and soon stopped attending. But he later confided in a friend that he respected the pastor’s moral courage. And the reason he didn’t take communion? Washington worried that doing so would be taken as “an ostentatious display of religious zeal.” Basically, he didn’t want to make a big deal about it.
So why do we? Why do Christians so badly want Washington to be a great man of faith, an American apostle?
Washington’s faith, like all of American history, can be unsatisfying to those who want it to be their way. And guess what? His faith has always been perplexing, even to Christians in his own time! It’s frustrating, too, for those who argue that America’s first president was entirely godless. Washington clearly believed in God and practiced Christianity. But what that looked like, how he was a product of his time, is more than a little messy. And perhaps that’s the lesson, for those of us looking for a grand narrative of a Christian nation and its first Christian president: George Washington’s faith isn’t for us. It was his. And by trying to “reclaim” his faith, we actually obscure it, instead of letting it be what it is—contradictory, authentic and human.