Nature’s God And The Founding Fathers

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From his pulpit in Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Dr. James Abercrombie looked out at a congregation that included the first President of the United States. He had good reason to feel some nervousness on this particular Sunday morning, for he was about to perform an act of ecclesiastical daring. He was about to scold George Washington, in public, for his religious behavior.

Dr. Abercrombie mentioned no names as he pitched into a sermon on the grave responsibility of “those in elevated stations” to set good examples for lesser folk, but only the children in his pews that day could have missed the point. He focussed on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; and everyone knew that President Washington habitually joined those who walked out of church, on communion Sundays, just before the sacrament was to be administered. The rector’s target was embarrassingly dear.

No doubt Dr. Abercrombie hoped to achieve the pious triumph of persuading the President to take holy communion at his altar. But, although his message had not passed the presidential ears unheeded, the outcome was disconcerting. Washington never again left the church just before the Lord’s Supper— from that time forward he did not come at all on communion Sundays.

The minister swallowed his disappointment as best he could. Writing, years later, to someone who had inquired about Washington’s religion, he said that according to one of the President s acquaintances—he could not remember precisely whom—the great man preferred to stay away rather than become a communicant because, “were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal.” This was a relatively consoling explanation, but there are signs that it failed to convince Dr. Abercrombie himself. “That Washington was a professing Christian,” he added to his correspondent, “is evident from his regular attendance in our church, but sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion.…”

What were Washington’s reasons for refusing to partake in the Lord’s Supper? Exact answers are lost to history, concealed behind the reticence he steadily maintained where his private beliefs were concerned. In terms of reasonable inference, however, it is possible to offer an explanation. He had long been exposed to the ideas of the European Enlightenment, and his behavior suggests that his religious views were considerably shaped thereby. It was an intellectual atmosphere not favorable to symbolic rites, among other things. In his exposure to it, Washington was of course far from unique among the Founding Fathers of the American republic. Inevitably, all of his educated contemporaries were to some extent children of the Age of Reason (as Tom Paine called it); and among them several of the acknowledged political leaders were certainly its eminent sons.

Still, there was no great uniformity of opinion among the Founding Fathers on specific religious or philosophical questions. Whether one considers the signers of the Declaration of Independence or the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, or both, it is easy to find a diversity of sects and creeds. But the broad spectrum of denominations is itself a reminder that a prime characteristic of the Enlightenment was respect for dissenting opinions. The famous remark attributed to Voltaire, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” catches the spirit of the era. While full freedom of belief was not legally protected in any of the colonies at the start of the Revolution, and most of them had an established church supported by the government, minority groups and nonconforming individuals were in fact granted considerable leeway. Catholics were strong in Maryland; Quakers, in Pennsylvania. In New England, the evolution of Congregational doctrine had moved toward freedom of conscience for more than a century, so that there was a kind of paradox in the legal establishment of a church so nearly democratic in its organization. The supremacy of the Anglicans in the South, moreover, was weakened by the fact that theirs was the official church of England in a period when independence from the mother country was about to become the paramount fact of current history. For, whatever their doctrinal differences in religion, all of the Founding Fathers were political revolutionaries, determined to enact a new formulation of the idea of government by consent of the governed.

Even Washington’s most ardent admirers have never claimed that he was, philosophically, a deep thinker. Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, was as philosophically inclined, and gifted with as keen an analytical mind, as any American of his time. His interest in religion and its proper relationship to government was intense, and it persisted throughout his long life. During his second term as President (1805–1809) he sought relief from the tremendous pressures of his office by composing, for his own satisfaction, a version of the New Testament which he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” It would have interested Washington, for among many other significant omissions it pointedly left out the story of the Last Supper. This was as good a clue as any to Jefferson’s idea in undertaking the work, which was, in his own sharp language, to rescue from “the speculations of crazy theologists” the moral teachings of Jesus, “abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried.”