Martha Washington was a devout Christian, her granddaughter Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis noted that she “never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties…"

Religious Readings

Mrs. Washington regularly retired to her room between 9 and 10 o'clock in the morning "for an hour of meditation reading & prayer and that hour no one was ever allowed to interfere with." She and Nelly also prayed, read the Bible, and sang hymns in the evening, in preparation for bed. Among the books surviving in the collections at Mount Vernon is a book of common prayer, authorized by the Protestant Episcopal Church of America. It bears an inscription by Mrs. Washington's great-grandson, Lorenzo Lewis, and records that Mrs. Washington read from this particular book twice a day from the time it came into her possession until her death in 1802.

She also saw that other members of the family, not just those in her immediate household, were provided with similar devotional materials. In the fall of 1761, Washington ordered bibles and prayer books, "neatly bound in Turkey," with the young children's names "wrote in gilt Letters on the Inside of the cover" for his wife's eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Six years later, Martha Parke Custis, known to the family as Patsy, was given a music book containing "the New Version of Psalms and Hymns set for the Spinnet [sic]."

When Mrs. Washington’s son, John Parke Custis, was a teenager, a large order for books was placed with an English agent for the boy. Of the 47 titles ordered 11, or 23.4%, concern the subject of religion. Many years later, in the summer of 1794, a New Testament in Greek was purchased for Mrs. Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Granddaughter Nelly acquired the musical scores for songs with a decided religious flavor, such as "Angels ever bright & fair" and "Holy Holy Lord."2 Mrs. Washington also sent prayer books to her niece Fanny Bassett Washington, her husband's niece, Harriot Washington, and her two oldest granddaughters, Eliza and Patsy.3

Religious Services

Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, Detroit Photographic Co., c1902. (Library of Congress).

Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, Detroit Photographic Co., c1902. (Library of Congress).

Trinity Church, New York, John Forsyth, c1846 Jan. 26. (Library of Congress).

Trinity Church, New York, John Forsyth, c1846 Jan. 26. (Library of Congress).

Over the years they lived at Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington worshiped at Christ Church in Alexandria and Pohick Church, which Washington had taken a part in establishing, in Truro Parish. The Washington family maintained pews in both churches, however, attendance at either church required a roughly one and a half to two hour trip by horseback or coach, each way. A scholar who closely examined Washington's diaries for evidence of church-going found that he typically attended an average of one Sunday per month (a frequency dictated in Virginia society by both custom and the law) prior to the Revolution. Studies of church attendance of other individuals in colonial Virginia vary from indentured servant John Harrower's average rate of 14% to Colonel William Byrd II's mean of about 50%, while a 1724 survey by the Anglican Church showed an attendance rate of 22-77% in eleven Virginia parishes.4

During church services, Washington was described as "attentive" and "respectful." He generally stood "as was then the custom... during the devotional parts of the service," while his wife followed the training of her youth and knelt.

The Washingtons’ church-going habits were noticeably more regular during the presidency. Washington’s efforts to set an example as president were certainly a consideration. He admitted so in a letter written at the close of his presidency to the officials of the churches he attended in Philadelphia. Washington acknowledged that his attendance "on public worship" was "prompted by a high sense of duty" and his subsequent gratitude for "the liberal and interesting discourses which have been delivered." The Washington family’s more frequent church attendance might also be attributable to a more mundane reason, such as the better roads and shorter distance needed to travel to church in the cities of New York and Philadelphia. As president, Washington attended first Saint Paul's Church and later Trinity Church in New York, and both Saint Peter's Church and Christ Church in Philadelphia.

Sundays

George and Martha Washington with grandchildren George Washington (Washy) Parke Custis and Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis. The Washington Family, 1798 by Edward Savage. Gift of the Robert E. Wright Family, in memory of Dorothy Walton Wright and Robert Edward Wright, 2012, W-5298.

George and Martha Washington with grandchildren George Washington (Washy) Parke Custis and Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis. The Washington Family, 1798 by Edward Savage. Gift of the Robert E. Wright Family, in memory of Dorothy Walton Wright and Robert Edward Wright, 2012, W-5298.

Sampler made by Martha Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s second granddaughter) in 1784 at age seven. Her rendering of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments can be seen as lessons in sewing, reading, writing, and also as instruction in the Christian faith. Purchased with funds donated by Mrs. Stanley N. Gaines, Vice Regent for Florida and Mr. Gaines, 2008, H-4824.

Sampler made by Martha Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s second granddaughter) in 1784 at age seven. Her rendering of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments can be seen as lessons in sewing, reading, writing, and also as instruction in the Christian faith. Purchased with funds donated by Mrs. Stanley N. Gaines, Vice Regent for Florida and Mr. Gaines, 2008, H-4824.

According to two of Mrs. Washington’s grandchildren, who were raised by the Washingtons, making visits and receiving visitors were generally prohibited by the family on Sundays during Washington's presidency. Washington would often read aloud sermons "and other sacred writings" to his family on that day. Among the books acquired by Mrs. Washington over the years were at least two collections of sermons, purchased during Washington's presidency, quite likely the very ones the grandchildren remembered. By the time of Washington's death in 1799, the family library included approximately 35 titles relating to religion, a bit less than 7% of the total.

Mealtime Prayers

Surviving descriptions by guests of the Washingtons indicate that sometimes prayers were offered at mealtimes while other times they were not. It was not unusual at this period for people to say prayers at the beginning and end of a meal. One guest at Mount Vernon, Amariah Frost, made a point of mentioning that no prayers were offered at dinner on the day he ate with the Washington family. Another guest, however, the Reverend John Latta, recorded that Washington asked him to "officiate in [his] clerical character" at both the beginning and end of the meal.

Whether this was done out of deference to, or affection for, a guest is impossible to say. However, according to another minister's recollection of the executive mansion during Washington's administration, Washington himself generally stood and said grace before Congressional dinners, unless there was a clergyman present, who could be asked to say prayers before and after the meal. A letter to Mrs. Washington from her son, who was away at college, assuring her that he offered thanks to God at the end of his breakfast, certainly suggests that such prayers were important to Mrs. Washington.

Churchwarden and Vestryman

Washington served as a vestryman for both Fairfax Parish in Alexandria and at Truro Parish.

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Notes

  1. Nelly Custis Lewis to Jared Sparks, 2/26/1833, quoted in Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington (Boston: Published by Ferdinand Andrews, 1839), 522. According to one Mount Vernon visitor, Mrs. Washington was successful in her efforts to raise Nelly up in her own image. Joshua Brookes recorded in his journal that of all the people he met at Mount Vernon, "... Mrs. Washington and Miss Custis pleased me the most, especially the former. Her affability, free manner and mild, placid countenance brought vividly to my mind my dear mother and I thought I saw in both resignation to God with the pure spirit of religion, humility, meekness, etc." (R.W.G. Vail, "A Dinner at Mount Vernon: From the Unpublished Journal of Joshua Brookes (1773-1859)," 75.)
  2. "Invoice of Sundry's to be Ship [sic] by Robert Cary Esq. & Co.,..." 10/12/1761; "Invoice of Goods to be Shipd by Robert Cary & Co.,...“ 7/20/1767; "Catalogue of Books for Master Custis Referred to on the Otherside [sic]," George Washington to Capel and Osgood Hanbury, 7/25/ 1769; Philadelphia Household Account Book, 7/24/1794; Nelly Custis to Elizabeth Bordley, 7/2/1797.
  3. Clayton Torrence, editor, "Arlington and Mount Vernon 1856 As Described in a Letter of Augusta Blanche Berard," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1949, 162; Elswyth Thane, Mount Vernon Family, 74. Mount Vernon Library Collection, object# W-409. Decatur, Private Affairs of Washington, 50 & 313. Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, July 1789, quoted in "Worthy Partner," 217.
    Patricia U. Bonomi and Peter R. Eisenstadt, "Church Adherence in the Eighteenth-Century British American Colonies," The William and Mary Quarterly, April 1982, 254n & 258n-259n.
    Nelly Custis Lewis to Jared Sparks, 2/26/1833, quoted in Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington, 521-522.
  4. Decatur, Private Affairs of Washington, 90, 231-232; George Washington to The Rector, Church Wardens, and Vestrymen of the United Episcopal Churches of Christ Church and St. Peter's, [3/2/1797).

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