While George Washington was an Anglican, he had a cordial relationship with the Catholic Church and its members for many years
He attended a Catholic service, donated money toward the construction of a Catholic church, and corresponded with the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States. Perhaps most importantly, Washington’s statements regarding Catholicism and freedom of religion set precedents for the future of a new nation.
In the 1750s, Washington had to prove to the British government he was not Catholic and supported the Anglican Church. In both England and its American Colonies, it was common to require a religious oath to hold a rank in the military or government. The oath Washington signed stated, “I…do declare that there is no Transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lords supper or in the Elements of Bread and wine at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.” By signing this oath, Washington was assuring the Anglican government that he was not Catholic.
Supporting the Catholic Church
Washington socialized with prominent Catholics both at Mount Vernon and during his presidency. He attended a service at St. Mary’s Catholic Church while he was in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. Washington also donated money toward the construction of a Catholic church in Baltimore.
Discussing Freedom of Religion
Washington corresponded with John Carroll, who on November 14, 1789, was selected as the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States. In March of 1790, Carroll wrote an address to Washington on behalf of the Roman Catholics in American. It was one of Carroll’s first official acts as bishop.
Roman Catholics in America to George Washington, March 15, 1790
We have been long impatient to testify our joy and unbounded confidence, on your being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station of a country, in which that unanimity could not have been obtained without the previous merit of unexampled services, of eminent wisdom, and unblemished virtue.… By example as well as by vigilance, you extend the influence of laws on the manners of our fellow citizens you encourage respect for religion, and inculcate, by words and actions, that principle, on which the welfare of nations so much depends, that a superintending Providence governs the events of the world, and watches over the conduct of men. Your exalted maxims and unwearied attention to the moral and physical improvement of our country have produced already the happiest effects.
George Washington to Roman Catholics in America, March 1790
…all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community are equally entitled to the protection of civil Government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their Government: or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.
Read the entire letter