Pursuit of Religious Freedom Film
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George Washington went past mere religious toleration and established religious freedom for citizens.
He reassured people that the federal government would not prevent citizens from practicing the religion of their choice, or any at all.
Before the age of revolution, religious wars plagued Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa for centuries. Governments were tied to a state-supported religion, and those who did not follow it were persecuted. In some cases, Protestants killed Catholics and in others, Catholics killed Protestants. Jews were expelled from a number of countries. While persecution varied by time and location, it was often merciless. Thousands upon thousands were killed. People of persecuted faiths often had to practice in secret or flee.1
As John Winthrop put it, America became a religious “refuge”.2 Wave after wave of religious groups sought sanctuary in North America. In 1620, a group of Puritans arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Roman Catholics founded Maryland in 1634, and twenty years later Jews arrived in New York City.3 However, many did not find the peace they had hoped and prayed for.
At first, these communities in colonial North America looked very similar to the religious states of the Old World.4 Each religious settlement was founded around the community’s beliefs. Laws were established and expectations set based upon religious ideals. Puritans in New England based laws on the Bible, and only full church members were permitted to vote. Magistrates, considered “public ministers of God,” were expected to use the state to uphold the church’s agenda.5
Catholicism thrived in Maryland in the 1630s, but by the 1640s, Protestants took control and deported many Catholics. By 1649, however, Catholics controlled the Maryland Assembly. A Toleration Act—one of the very first of its kind—passed, which allowed both religions, but in 1654, the Protestants regained control. They repealed the act and outlawed the Roman Catholic religion.6
Tensions were not just between Protestants and Catholics. Discrimination occurred throughout the colonies. The Quakers were expelled from Massachusetts.7 Presbyterians and Baptists were banished from New England.8 In Virginia, Puritans and Quakers were barred.9 However, during the Great Awakening in the 1740s, there was a growing tolerance of minority religions in some regions of the colonies.
After the Revolutionary War, many played a role in shaping the new government to ensure all religions had the right to practice, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams. However, it was under the leadership of George Washington that freedom of religion was established, writing while president:
Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception.10
George Washington was a devout 18th-century Anglican. He regularly attended church and served as both a vestryman and churchwarden.11 Washington was also tolerant of other religions, writing while president:
I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society.12
There is also evidence that, in addition to Christianity, Washington’s enslaved community at Mount Vernon practiced Islam and other traditional African religions.13Explore Washington's Beliefs
In the 1750s, Washington had to prove to the British government that he was not Catholic and supported the Anglican Church. In Europe, it was common to require a religious oath to hold a rank in the military or government. As an Anglican nation, the British government wanted to ensure that all those in positions of power were Anglican.
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.”14 By signing this oath, Washington was assuring the Anglican government that he was not Catholic.
General Washington took command of the Continental Army in June 1775. Unlike in the British Army, a religious oath was not required. However, Washington believed religion was key to both a disciplined army and maintaining morale, so he arranged for chaplains to be provided to American units.15 These men represented many denominations, including Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Anglican, German Reformed, Lutheran, French Reformed, Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Universalist.16
Washington encouraged his soldiers to attend worship services. In a general order, he:
required and expects, of all Officers, and Soldiers, not engaged on actual duty, a punctual attendance on divine Service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defence.17
Washington did not have his own chaplain; instead, he attended a variety of services.18
The Revolutionary War exposed Washington to new ideas. Before the war, Washington’s religious experiences were largely limited to Virginia, where the Anglican Church played a large role in political decisions. During the war, Washington traveled to colonies with different religious laws than Virginia. He also served with men whose religious beliefs and practices differed from his own.19
The impact of this experience can be seen in a letter Washington wrote soon after the war. He was seeking paid skilled workers for his estate and prioritized skill over religion.
Learn More about the War
If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be [Muslims], Jews, or Christian of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.20
After the Revolutionary War, there was a question of how the Anglican Church fit within the new nation. Since the British monarchy was the head of the Anglican Church, would it follow American or British law?21 For many, there was a clear connection between the ideas of political and religious freedom, and citizens called for changes to religious establishments. After joining together to fight the British, they would not tolerate religious discrimination. For example, a group of Virginia Presbyterians wrote to the Virginia General Assembly:
Political equality is the undoubted Privilege of every Christian in the Federal Union.22
By 1787, it was clear; the Articles of Confederation did not provide the federal government with enough power. It could not tax or enforce laws or the peace treaty with Britain. Congress called a Constitutional Convention, and 55 men attended, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington. While authorized only to suggest amendments to the Articles of Confederation, the delegates decided instead to construct an entirely new document, the Constitution of the United States.
Completed after months of debating, there were seven articles in this new Constitution, and only one included religion. The last line of Article VI read,
no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.23
While this did not grant citizens religious freedom, it prevented oaths like the British required Washington sign and opened public office to citizens regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof.24Learn more about the creation of the Constitution
Since the Constitution did not ensure religious communities the right to practice, many were fearful of persecution. Some communities and their leaders wrote of this concern to now President Washington. Between 1789 and 1793, at least 18 different religious groups wrote Washington. Most of his responses appeared in newspapers across the nation.
Washington often emphasized that religious liberty was not just a blessing, but a right.25 He wrote to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia in May of 1789,
Explore Washington's letters to religious communities
...no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution—For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.26
Washington did not just reassure Christian denominations. He recognized that, within the nation, there were believers of other religions, and Washington felt that religious freedom applied to them as well. In the fall of 1785, Washington wrote to George Mason about those who lived in Virginia and had to pay taxes to support the Anglican Church despite it no longer being the state church.
Altho, no man’s sentiments are more opposed to any kind of restraint upon religious principles than mine are; yet I must confess, that I am not amongst the number of those who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination of Christians; or declare themselves Jews, [Muslims] or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief.27
Washington also reassured a number of Jewish congregations of their freedom to practice. Writing in 1790 to Hebrew congregations in Philadelphia,
The liberal sentiment towards each other which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this country stands unrivalled in the history of nations.28
Only a month later, in a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, Washington wrote,
For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.29
Washington wanted the Jewish community to know the federal government would not discriminate against citizens based on their religion. He believed religious freedom was a natural right of all citizens.Learn more about the Touro Synagogue
While Washington assured citizens, Congress worked to create a document that enshrined these rights into law. The Bill of Rights, first drafted by James Madison, was ratified on December 15, 1791. The Bill of Rights included the First Amendment, protecting American citizens’ right to religious freedom.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.30
This amendment granted citizens the right to practice their religion. However, it was Washington’s constant reassurance to religious communities before and after it was ratified that helped citizens feel safe practicing their religion.Learn more about the Father of the Constitution
Even as he left office in 1796, Washington reminded the people of the importance of religion and morality within society, writing that not even education could replace religion:
Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.31
While Washington did not feel it was the government’s role to tell people what to believe or how to practice their faith, he believed that religion created a more moral society, something he considered necessary if this new form of government was to succeed.Explore Washington's Farewell Address
Many religious communities reached out to President Washington to ensure their right to practice.Explore his responses
1. James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, (Library of Congress: Washington, DC, 1998), 2.
2. Hutson, 3.
3. Hutson, xiv.
4. Hutson, 7.
5. Hutson, 7.
6. Hutson, 15.
7. Hutson, xiv.
8. Hutson, 7.
9. Hutson, 18.
10. GW to the Marquis de Lafayette, August 15, 1787, GW Writings, 29:259.
11. Mary Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence”: Religion in the Life of George Washington, (University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2008), xiii.
12. GW to Sir Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792, GW Writings, 32:190.
13. Mary Thompson, “Islam at Mount Vernon,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/islam-at-mount-vernon/.
14. Seth Kaller, “George Washington’s Rare Anti-Catholic Test Oath,” Seth Kaller, Inc Historical Documents and Legacy Collections, https://www.sethkaller.com/item/1366-23200-George-Washington%E2%80%99s-Rare-Anti-Catholic-Test-Oath,-Taken-before-being-Appointed-Colonel-and-Commander-in-Chief-of-all-Virginia-Forces.
15. GW, general orders, July 9, 1776, GW Papers, Revolutionary War Series, 5:245-247.
16. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 82.
17. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 148 and GW, general orders, July 4, 1775, GW Writings, 3:309.
18. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 180.
19. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 82.
20. GW to Tench Tilghman, March 24, 1784, GW Writings, 27:367.
21. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 81.
22. Hutson, 65 and Rockingham County, petition, December 1, 1784, to Virginia General Assembly.
23. Constitution of the United States of America, Article VI Debts, Supremacy, Oaths, Religious Tests, https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/articles/article-vi.
24. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 158 and Worlds Almanac and Book of Facts, 1995, 459.
25. GW to the Society of Quakers, October 1789, GW Papers, Presidential Series, 4:265-269.
26. GW to The United Baptist Churches of Virginia, May 1789, GW Papers, Presidential Series, 2:423-425.
27. GW to George Mason, October 3, 1785, GW Papers, Confederation Series, 3:292-293.
28. GW to the Hebrew congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, December 1790, GW Writings, 31:185.
29. GW to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790, GW Papers, Presidential Series, 6:284-286.
30. Bill of Rights, National Archives and Records Administration https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights-transcript#toc-amendment-i.
31. GW, Farewell Address, September 9, 1796, GW Writings, 25:229-30.