Deists have a great example of toleration, perseverance, and integrity in the person of fellow Deist George Washington.
Christian preachers who ardently wanted Washington to be portrayed as one of them have made up many stories of George Washington's strong Christian beliefs. One of the primary purveyors of these propaganda pieces was Mason Locke Weems, a Christian preacher who came up with the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. He also feverishly promoted the myth of George Washington and Christianity.
Washington, like many people in colonial America, belonged to the Anglican church and was a vestryman in it. But in early America, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, you had to belong to the dominant church if you wanted to have influence in society, as is illustrated by the following taken from Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, by Bishop William Meade, I, p 191. "Even Mr. Jefferson, and George Wythe, who did not conceal their disbelief in Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the other at Albermarle; for they wished to be men of influence."
In the informative and well-documented book Washington and Religion by Paul F. Boller, Jr., we read on page 92, "Washington was no infidel, if by infidel is meant unbeliever. Washington had an unquestioning faith in Providence and, as we have seen, he voiced this faith publicly on numerous occasions. That this was no mere rhetorical flourish on his part, designed for public consumption, is apparent from his constant allusions to Providence in his personal letters. There is every reason to believe, from a careful analysis of religious references in his private correspondence, that Washington’s reliance upon a Grand Designer along Deist lines was as deep-seated and meaningful for his life as, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s serene confidence in a Universal Spirit permeating the ever shifting appearances of the everyday world."
On page 82 of the same book, Boller includes a quote from a Presbyterian minister, Arthur B. Bradford, who was an associate of Ashbel Green another Presbyterian minister who had known George Washington personally. Bradford wrote that Green, "often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist."
Like truly intelligent people in all times and places, Washington realized how very little we know about life and the workings of the universe. He wrote that the ways of Providence were "inscrutable." Yet he DID the very best he could in all aspects of his life. When things were dark and it looked like the Revolution would be lost, he never gave up. Even when people in his own ranks were turning on him and trying to sink him he persevered because of his deep heartfelt Deistic belief in Providence.
George Washington coupled his genuine belief in Providence with action. After the American defeat at Germantown in 1777 he said, "We must endeavor to deserve better of Providence, and, I am persuaded, she will smile on us." He also wrote that we should take care to do our very best in everything we do so that our, "reason and our own conscience approve."
Washington's toleration for differing religions was made evident by his order to the Continental Army to halt the observance of Pope's Day. Pope's Day was the American equivalent of Guy Fawkes' Day in England. A key part of Pope's Day was the burning of the effigy of the Pope. In his order, Washington described the tradition as, "ridiculous and childish" and that there was no room for this type of behavior in the Continental Army.
The altruism and integrity that Washington possessed is made evident by his restraint in his personal gains. At the successful conclusion of the American Revolution he could have made himself dictator for life. Or he could have allowed others to make him king. Yet, like the Roman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus before him, Washington refused to do either.
Preacher Weems has written that on Washington's death bed, "Washington folded his arms decently on his breast, then breathing out 'Father of mercies, take me to thyself,' - he fell asleep." Like almost all of what the Christian fundamentalists have written about Washington, this is not true.
Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary, was with him when he died. The following is his account of Washington's death.
About ten o'clock he made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said, -'I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.' I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again and said, 'Do you understand me?' I replied, 'Yes.' 'Tis well,' said he. About ten minutes before he expired (which was between ten and eleven o'clk) his breathing became easier; he lay quietly; - he withdrew his hand from mine, and felt his own pulse. I saw his countenance change. I spoke to Dr. Craik who sat by the fire; - he came to the bed side. The General's hand fell from his wrist - I took it in mine and put it into my bosom. Dr. Craik put his hands over his eyes and he expired without a struggle or a sigh!
Like other Deists such as Paine, Jefferson, Voltaire, Franklin, and Allen, Washington did not fear death but looked at it as just another part of Nature, one of the Designer's designs. Though he didn't speculate much on an after-life, he was comfortable to look at his own death as part of God's design.
George Washington offers us a tremendous example of altruism and positive action. His actions tell us, stronger than any words could possibly do, to persevere in the face of all obstacles. To never give up and to always combine our sincerely held reason-based
beliefs with action.
Here are some important quotes from George Washington:
"...reason is of no use to us if the freedom of Speech may be taken away — and, dumb & silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter."
"Truth will ultimately prevail where pains are taken to bring it to light."
"If Men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind; reason is of no use to us — the freedom of Speech may be taken away — and, dumb & silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter."
"Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause; and I was not without hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy of the present age would have put an effectual stop to contentions of this kind."
"...a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation." (The relationship US politicians from both parties have created with the Jewish state of Israel strongly violates this warning from George Washington.)
"I die hard but am not afraid to go. I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it — my breath cannot last long." (George Washington said this on his deathbed prior to saying the above quote that Tobias Lear reported, which were Washington's last words.)