06 February 2012
The Religiosity of George
For this next print, I'm focusing on the front of the dollar bill rather than the back and doing an enlargement of the most recognizable portion of the bill: the portrait of George Washington.
George Washington has been mythologized through the centuries, and in fact was the stuff of legends even during his lifetime. That story about George admitting to chopping down his father's cherry tree, saying "I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet"? It's fiction, promulgated in a book by Parson Weems called The Life of Washington that was published just one year after Washington's death. In the same book Weems also invented a story about an eyewitness who discovered Washington deep in prayer in a bower at Valley Forge. Although Christians today like to hold Washington up as a devout and fervent evangelical, using his Christianity to support the idea that America is a "Christian nation," the truth is a bit more complicated.
In the book Founding Faith, author Steven Waldman's research on the religious habits of Washington tells us that Washington was a practicing Anglican who, according to his diaries, attended church an average of once a month. He never knelt and he rarely if ever took communion, instead leaving the service before the sacrament began and later avoiding services altogether on communion Sundays. In his writings Washington rarely referred to Jesus Christ or Christianity, although he did write of God or Providence or "the Great Architect" and he spoke of God's protection for the new nation of the United States of America. During his lifetime he was pressured by various clergy to set an example by speaking up for the Christian faith, but in fact he was more apt to praise toleration and spiritual pluralism.
George Washington was also a Mason. Although Freemasonry was not a religion per se, it was based on the principle that men should worship according to their own conscience and welcomed anyone from any religion as long as they believed in a Supreme Being. When the cornerstone was laid for the US capitol Washington performed a ceremony that included Masonic rituals, he was sworn in as president on a Bible borrowed from a NY Masonic temple, and he was buried with full Masonic rites.
Washington was not an atheist or even a deist, but he was certainly not an evangelical Christian of the kind we know in 21st century America.
This week I'll be printing the carved block shown above.