Thursday, November 18, 2010

George Washington's Religion: Christian or Pagan?

If George Washington’s religion could be reduced to a single word, that word would be “Providence.” He seldom used the term “God” in his public pronouncements, preferring other epithets for his divinity like the Beneficent Being, the Almighty, the Grand Architect of the Universe and All-Wise Disposer of Events. But when referring to the divine, his favorite term was “Providence.” It recurs again and again, in varied disguises. Sometimes Washington’s “Providence” seem to be a guiding presence in history, at times a personal protector against harm, at other times simply a synonym for Fate or Fortune.

But where did his usage originate? Surprisingly, the word “providence” occurs only once in the King James Bible (the translation that would have been most familiar to Washington from church services), and then not in a very flattering context. It appears in Chapter 24, Verse 2 of the Book of Acts, where a prosecutor named Tertullus praises the “providence” and wise administration of a Roman-appointed governor, who is presiding over the trial of the apostle Paul. Naturally, Washington owned a copy of the Bible, although probate records list his personal volume as an edition of Brown’s Bible, an illustrated study Bible produced by the Scottish divine John Brown in 1778 which included various marginal references comparing scripture passages and offering details of geography and other lore of the Holy Land. Surely this is an unlikely source to inspire Washington’s peculiar passion for a “providential”deity.

On the other hand, probate records also show that Washington’s library included a volume of Seneca’s Morals, which opens with a full essay titled “On Providence.” There the philosopher reflects that “Fate guides us, and it was settled at the first hour of birth what length of time remains for each. Cause is linked with cause, and all public and private issues are directed.” The good man will not resist what cannot be prevented, Seneca advises, finding consolation in the observation that “together with the universe we are swept along; whatever it is that has ordained us so to live, so to die, by the same necessity it binds also the gods. One unchangeable course bears along the affairs of men and gods alike,” a force that governs not only human affairs but also the “swift revolution of the heavens, being ruled by eternal law.” This sounds very much like the later Washington, who wrote to Sally Fairfax that “There is a Destiny, which has the Sovereign control of our Action, not to be resisted through the strongest efforts of Human Nature.”

Like Washington, who was a disinherited son and outsider in English colonial society, Seneca was a Spanish colonist living under Roman rule, a patriot who was tried and found guilty of conspiring against the tyrant Nero, a role model for young George. In the face of hardship and overwhelming odds, and in keeping with his Stoic outlook, Seneca counseled patience, inner fortitude and self-possession: life lessons that would guide the American throughout his own rise to greatness.

On the face of the evidence, Washington’s “Providence” owed less to Biblical or explicitly Christian sources than to Stoic philosophy. Indeed, Washington never employed Christological terms like “Savior” or “Redeemer” as names for the divine. His Providence was a noble but primariily pagan deity.

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