|This is a question often asked today, and
it arises from the efforts of those who seek to impeach Washington's character by
portraying him as irreligious. Interestingly, Washington's own contemporaries did not
question his Christianity but were thoroughly convinced of his devout faith--a fact made
evident in the first-ever compilation of the The Writings of George Washington, published
in the 1830s.
That compilation of Washington's writings was prepared and published by
Jared Sparks (1789-1866), a noted writer and historian. Sparks' herculean historical
productions included not only the writing of George Washington (12 volumes) but also
Benjamin Franklin (10 volumes) and Constitution signer Gouverneur Morris (3 volumes).
Additionally, Sparks compiled the Library of American Biography (25 volumes), The
Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (12 volumes), and the Correspondence
of the American Revolution (4 volumes). In all, Sparks was responsible for some 100
historical volumes. Additionally, Sparks was America's first professor of history--other
than ecclesiastical history--to teach at the college level in the United States, and he
was later chosen president of Harvard.
Jared Sparks' decision to compile George Washington's works is described by The
Dictionary of American Biography. It details that Sparks began . . .
. . . what was destined to be his greatest life work, the publication of the writings
of George Washington. [Supreme Court] Justice Bushrod Washington, [the nephew of George
Washington, the executor of the Washington estate, and] the owner of the Washington
manuscripts, was won over by an offer to share the profits, through the friendly mediation
of Chief Justice [of the Supreme Court, John] Marshall [who from 1804-1807 had written a
popular five volume biography of George Washington], who also consented to take an equal
share, twenty-five per cent, with the owner. In January 1827, Sparks found himself alone
at Mount Vernon with the manuscripts. An examination of them extending over three months
showed that years would be required for the undertaking; and with the owner's consent,
Sparks carried off the entire collection, eight large boxes, picking up on the way to
Boston a box of diplomatic correspondence from the Department of State, and the [General
Horatio] Gates manuscripts from the New York Historical Society. Not content with these,
he searched or caused to be searched public and private archives for material, questioned
survivors of the Revolution, visited and mapped historic sites. In 1830, for instance, he
followed [Benedict] Arnold's  route to Quebec. The first of the twelve volumes of
The Writings of George Washington to be published (vol. II) appeared in 1834 and the last
(vol. I, containing the biography) in 1837.
In Volume XII of these writings, Jared Sparks delved into the religious character of
George Washington, and included numerous letters written by the friends, associates, and
family of Washington which testified of his religious character. Based on that extensive
evidence, Sparks concluded:
To say that he [George Washington] was not a Christian would be to impeach his
sincerity and honesty. Of all men in the world, Washington was certainly the last whom any
one would charge with dissimulation or indirectness [hypocrisies and evasiveness]; and if
he was so scrupulous in avoiding even a shadow of these faults in every known act of his
life, [regardless of] however unimportant, is it likely, is it credible, that in a matter
of the highest and most serious importance [his religious faith, that] he should practice
through a long series of years a deliberate deception upon his friends and the public? It
is neither credible nor possible.
One of the letters Sparks used to arrive at his conclusion was from Nelly Custis-Lewis.
While Nelly technically was the granddaughter of the Washingtons, in reality she was much
When Martha [Custis] married George, she was a widow and brought two young children
(John and Martha--also called Patsy) from her first marriage into her marriage with
George. The two were carefully raised by George and Martha, later married, and each had
children of their own. Unfortunately, tragedy struck, and both John and Patsy died early
(by 1781). John left behind his widow and four young children ranging in age from infancy
to six years old.
At the time, Washington was still deeply involved in guiding the American Revolution
and tried unsuccessfully to convince Martha's brother to raise the children. The young
widow of John was unable to raise all four, so George and Martha adopted the two younger
children: Nelly Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, both of whom already were
living at Mount Vernon.
Nelly lived with the Washingtons for twenty years, from the time of her birth in 1779
until 1799, the year of her marriage and of George Washington's untimely death. She called
George and Martha her "beloved parents whom I loved with so much devotion, to whose
unceasing tenderness I was indebted for every good I possessed."
Nelly was ten years old when Washington was called to the Presidency, and she grew to
maturity during his two terms. During that time, she traveled with Washington and walked
amidst the great foreign and domestic names of the day. On Washington's retirement, she
returned with the family to Mount Vernon. Nelly was energetic, spry, and lively, and was
the joy of George Washington's life. She served as a gracious hostess and entertained the
frequent guests to Mount Vernon who visited the former President.
On Washington's birthday in 1799, Nelly married Washington's private secretary,
Lawrence Lewis. They spent several months on an extended honeymoon, visiting friends and
family across the country. On their return to Mount Vernon, she was pregnant and late that
year gave birth to a daughter. A short few weeks later, on December 14, General Washington
was taken seriously ill and died.
Clearly, Nelly was someone who knew the private and public life of her
"father" very well. Therefore, Jared Sparks, in searching for information on
Washington's religious habits, dispatched a letter to Nelly, asking if she knew for sure
whether George Washington indeed was a Christian. Within a week, she had replied to
Sparks, and Sparks included her letter in Volume XII of Washington's writings in the
lengthy section on Washington's religious habits. Of that specific letter, Jared Sparks
I shall here insert a letter on this subject, written to me by a lady who lived twenty
years in Washington's family and who was his adopted daughter, and the granddaughter of
Mrs. Washington. The testimony it affords, and the hints it contains respecting the
domestic habits of Washington, are interesting and valuable."
Woodlawn, 26 February, 1833.
I received your favor of the 20th instant last evening, and hasten to give you the
information, which you desire.
Truro [Episcopal] Parish is the one in which Mount Vernon, Pohick Church [the church
where George Washington served as a vestryman], and Woodlawn [the home of Nelly and
Lawrence Lewis] are situated. Fairfax Parish is now Alexandria. Before the Federal
District was ceded to Congress, Alexandria was in Fairfax County. General Washington had a
pew in Pohick Church, and one in Christ Church at Alexandria. He was very instrumental in
establishing Pohick Church, and I believe subscribed [supported and contributed to]
largely. His pew was near the pulpit. I have a perfect recollection of being there, before
his election to the presidency, with him and my grandmother. It was a beautiful church,
and had a large, respectable, and wealthy congregation, who were regular attendants.
He attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten
miles [a one-way journey of 2-3 hours by horse or carriage]. In New York and Philadelphia
he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition
[sickness]. The afternoon was spent in his own room at home; the evening with his family,
and without company. Sometimes an old and intimate friend called to see us for an hour or
two; but visiting and visitors were prohibited for that day [Sunday]. No one in church
attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently
pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then
the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he
left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage
back for my grandmother.
It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o'clock where he remained an
hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his
library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never
inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief
in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of
those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men" [Matthew 6:5]. He communed
with his God in secret [Matthew 6:6].
My mother [Eleanor Calvert-Lewis] resided two years at Mount Vernon after her marriage
[in 1774] with John Parke Custis, the only son of Mrs. Washington. I have heard her say
that General Washington always received the sacrament with my grandmother before the
revolution. When my aunt, Miss Custis [Martha's daughter] died suddenly at Mount Vernon,
before they could realize the event [before they understood she was dead], he [General
Washington] knelt by her and prayed most fervently, most affectingly, for her recovery. Of
this I was assured by Judge [Bushrod] Washington's mother and other witnesses.
He was a silent, thoughtful man. He spoke little generally; never of himself. I never
heard him relate a single act of his life during the war. I have often seen him perfectly
abstracted, his lips moving, but no sound was perceptible. I have sometimes made him laugh
most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits. I was, probably, one
of the last persons on earth to whom he would have addressed serious conversation,
particularly when he knew that I had the most perfect model of female excellence [Martha
Washington] ever with me as my monitress, who acted the part of a tender and devoted
parent, loving me as only a mother can love, and never extenuating [tolerating] or
approving in me what she disapproved of others. She never omitted her private devotions,
or her public duties; and she and her husband were so perfectly united and happy that he
must have been a Christian. She had no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of
devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she resigned him without a murmur into the
arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity [happiness
in Heaven]. Is it necessary that any one should certify, "General Washington avowed
himself to me a believer in Christianity?" As well may we question his patriotism,
his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, "Deeds, not
Words"; and, "For God and my Country."
With sentiments of esteem,
I am, Nelly Custis-Lewis
George Washington's adopted daughter, having spent twenty years of her life in his
presence, declared that one might as well question Washington's patriotism as question his
Christianity. Certainly, no one questions his patriotism; so is it not rather ridiculous
to question his Christianity? George Washington was a devout Episcopalian; and although as
an Episcopalian he would not be classified as an outspoken and extrovert
"evangelical" Founder as were Founding Fathers like Benjamin Rush, Roger
Sherman, and Thomas McKean, nevertheless, being an Episcopalian makes George Washington no
less of a Christian. Yet for the current revisionists who have made it their goal to
assert that America was founded as a secular nation by secular individuals and that the
only hope for America's longevity rests in her continued secularism, George Washington's
faith must be sacrificed on the altar of their secularist agenda.
For much more on George Washington and the evidences of his strong faith, examine the
- George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, Jared Sparks, editor
(Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, Publisher, 1838), Vol. XII, pp. 399-411.
- George Washington, The Religious Opinions of Washington, E. C. M'Guire, editor
(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836).
- William Johnson, George Washington The Christian (1917).
- William Jackson Johnstone, How Washington Prayed (New York: The Abingdon Press,
- The Messages and Papers of the Presidents, James D. Richardson, editor (Published by
the Authority of Congress, 1899), Vol. I, pp. 51-57 (1789), 64 (1789), 213-224 (1796),
- George Washington, Address of George Washington, President of the United States, Late
Commander in Chief of the American Army, to the People of the United States, Preparatory
to his Declination (Baltimore: George & Henry S. Keatinge, 1796), pp. 22-23.
- George Washington, The Maxims of Washington (New York: D. Appleton and Co.,