I was asked to investigate an event that involved something you don't hear about every day: George Washington's communion practices. The query referenced a debate in 1831 between two men over whether George Washington was religious, and a clergyman named Rev. William Jackson was asked to help resolve the question.
The question incorrectly placed Rev. Jackson as the rector of Historic Christ Church, when, in fact he was rector of St. Paul's Alexandria at the time, which is how the request found its way to me. So with that out of the way, let's take a look at who's who.
Robert Dale Owen (1771-1858) was a Scottish-born social reformer and freethinker who immigrated to America in 1825. Owen and his father established a socialist utopian community in New Harmony, Ind. Owen published pamphlets, speeches, books, and articles on many subjects, including his belief in spiritualism. Owen and fellow reformer Fanny Wright edited the New Harmony Gazette in Indiana in the late 1820s and the Free Enquirer in New York City in the 1830s. Both publications specialized in controversy, advocating radical views on a variety of subjects, including abolition of slavery, support for women's rights and birth control, and religion.
After he became a U.S. citizen, he was active in the Democratic party, and served in the Indiana House of Representatives (1835–39 and 1851–53) and US House of Representatives (1843– 47). As a member of Congress, Owen introduced and helped pass the bill that founded the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. He was a member of its first Board of Regents and served on the Building Committee.
Origen Bacheler (1800-1848) was a conservative Christian and there isn’t a lot of biographical information about him, which may be a result of the spelling variations of his surname. He was the owner and editor of a religious newspaper, The Anti-Universalist, and he wrote several polemical publications, e.g., "Mormonism Exposed: Internally and Externally" (despite having no real contact with Mormons), and “Restoration and Conversion of the Jews.”
While there is no clear evidence that Bacheler was an ordained clergyman, one genealogy notes: “He was a devout Christian and very tenacious; was of the Orthodox faith. He was often engaged in controversy with the enemies of Christianity in this country and in Europe. He was the author of several pamphlets in which with earnestness and ability he gave his religious views.”
Rev. William Jackson (1793-1844) was the second rector of St. Paul's in 1827, after the previous rector, Rev. William Wilmer, left to become the president of the College of William and Mary. Rev. Jackson remained until 1832, when he became rector of St. Stephen's, New York, then of Christ Church, Louisville, Ky., in 1837. He was the first rector of St. Paul's Louisville until his death.
The period between the American Revolution and the Civil War gave rise to a tension between religious skepticism and faith, including the role of religion in politics. The freethinkers believed that truth could be discerned through logic, reason, and empiricism, as opposed to doctrine, tradition, and dogma. In short, freethinkers didn't believe anything based on insufficient evidence.
The debate was not an in-person event but a discussion that took place in the pages of The Free Enquirer over 10 months. (Some debates between freethinkers and clergymen were held publicly, with audiences being asked to decide the winner.) In an exchange of lengthy letters, Bacheler and Owen debated the existence of God and the authenticity of the Bible. They did not limit themselves to God and the Bible, however; they made use of every philosopher, historical reference, and esoteric citations they could. The discussion was later repackaged as a book; it is not light reading.
Owen gets the ball rolling by pointing out that if skeptics were prominent in the French Revolution, they were as well in the American Revolution:
What were the leaders in the American revolution? What was Jefferson, the penner of the immortal Declaration? What was John Adams, whose eloquence probably decided the birth-date of our republic. What Franklin, that most practical of revolutionary philosophers? What Ethan Allen, the hero of Vermont? Nay, is not Washington’s orthodoxy far more questionable? If the French revolution was “infidel throughout,” far more the American. If scepticism [sic] is to be abused for the ultimate failure of the one, let her at least have credit for the glorious success of the other.”
Bacheler took umbrage at the idea:
“Washington a sceptic! Americans, sir, will treat this libel with merited indignation.”
So what is known about Washington's religious nature?
- Washington's family had a long association with Pohick Church, an Episcopalian church in Fairfax County, Virginia. Washington's father, Augustine, sponsored the first rector in 1736.
- Before and after the war, Washington was a dedicated parishioner, according to Rev. Lee Massey, Pohick's second rector and a close friend of the Washingtons.
- Even though Washington regarded Pohick as his home church, he attended services at Christ Church when he stayed overnight in Alexandria. Washington also attended Christ Church in Philadelphia, during the Continental Congress.
- In 1788 when a former aide-de-camp and close friend, Col. John Fitzgerald, held a dinner to raise funds for the construction of a Catholic church (what is now the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria), Washington made the first donation.
- As president, Washington wrote the clergy of Newport, Rhode Island, standing in favor of religious liberty.
- Washington was also a Freemason, which required every member to profess a belief in a Supreme Being.
After Washington's death, there were many anecdotes from religious groups claiming some connection with Washington, for example:
- The Presbyterians claimed that one Sunday during the Revolution, Washington asked and received permission to attend a communion service at a church in Morristown, NJ.
- The Baptists claimed that a chaplain in the Revolutionary army baptized Washington into the faith in a private ceremony.
- The Catholics claimed that Washington became a Catholic either shortly before his death or was considering it before he died.
Many such stories were included in books and footnotes, or were simply oral tradition. Efforts to authenticate them were largely unsuccessful because it was impossible to find any written documentation or living witnesses, and those people still living who might have known had unreliable elderly memories.
And this is what happened to the Owen-Bacheler discussion: Both men drew on apocryphal stories and third-hand information as proof or disproof of Washington's religiosity.
In his final letter, Bacheler offered what he regarded as conclusive evidence: A letter “from the rector of a church in Alexandria, in answer to one written by my request by Rev. Dr. Milnor of this city, ought to set the question for ever at rest...."
Bacheler does not say why the letter was addressed to Rev. Jackson and not to Rev. Charles Mann, who was rector of Christ Church Alexandria at the time. Rev. Milner had a connection to George Washington through his father, a prominent merchant who did business with Washington before and during the Revolution, and was a frequent visitor to Mount Vernon. Bacheler might have known about this and about Rev. Milner’s acquaintances with clergy in Alexandria to ask such a favor.
Owens countered with the following anecdote as a rebuttal:
While he was in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress, on Communion Sunday, Washington's custom was to leave the church with other congregants just before the Lord's Supper, leaving Mrs. Washington behind. The rector, unhappy at the example Washington set, gave a sermon on public worship mentioning, in particular, prominent individuals (ahem, ahem) who were setting a bad example for the others. Washington got the message and never attended services on Sacrament Sunday after that.
Owen only knew about the sermon from a newspaper article, however there appears to be some truth to it: The rector was Dr. James Abercrombie who recounted what happened in a letter to a friend in 1831. The story was considered important enough to include in Dr. Abercrombie's profile in "Annals of the American Pulpit."
Bacheler received two subsequent letters from Rev. Jackson, which he submitted as evidence:
- November 22, 1831: Rev. Jackson forwarded a testimonial from the granddaughter of Rev. Massey who confirmed Washington was a member of his church. Rev. Jackson vouched for her, saying it was the best he could do and ought to be sufficient.
- December 7, 1831: Rev. Jackson's final letter said he was unable to acquire any other decisive information but according to his relations, Washington was a professed Christian.
The discussion came to an end and neither man was moved by the other's argument. Clearly, we can't arrive at a definite conclusion about Washington and his religious beliefs, however I believe he that deliberately. Washington was an extremely modest person who believed that religion and morality were essential to a civil society. Although he had many positive interactions with various clergymen, he strongly believed in the separation of church and state. When a group of Presbyterian ministers expressed their disappointment to Washington that the Constitution did not explicitly mention "the one true God and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent," Washington replied
"...the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political attention. To this consideration, we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation respecting religion from the Magna Charta [sic] of this country."
Clearly, Washington was well aware of the influence he carried both as president and private citizen, therefore he took great pains to emphasize religious toleration in writing and through his behavior.
This entry is far longer than I intended--this is a subject that has engaged many historians over the centuries so it was easy to get into the weeds of the topic. If you made it this far, thanks for reading!
Bacheler, Origen, and Owen, Robert Dale. Discussion of the Existence of God, and the Authenticity of the Bible, between Origen Bacheler and Robert Dale Owen. (London: J. Watson, 1840)
Boller, Paul F. "George Washington And The Presbyterians." Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1943-1961) 39, no. 3 (1961): 129-46. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23325410, 29 June 2018.
Leopold, Richard William. Robert Dale Owen, A Biography. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940)
Washington, Anne Madison. History of the George Washington Bicentennial Celebration, Volume I. (Washington, DC: United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1932)