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Examining the Religious Habits of the Washington Family

 What were the religious practices of George and Martha Washington, you might ask? Let's take a look and see if their Christian faith played an important part of their lives.

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. 

The website George Washington's Mount Vernon reports that "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…'" and goes on to say "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."

When George and Martha married, she had been widowed with two children. It is also recorded at the Mount Vernon website that "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].'" 

Religion, the Christian religion in particular, appears to have held a high honor in their household.

As far as attending religious services, we are told:

"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."

And we told how they observed the Lord's Day:

"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. ..."
(Source: https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/religion/religious-practices-of-the-washington-family/ )

These facts indicate a sincere Christian faith practiced by the Washingtons and we can be confident that our Founding Father and Mother of America left us a fine example of our Christian heritage. It should also be noted that they had a Biblical worldview - the Bible was regularly read and both George and Martha were raised and lived in a culture that expected church membership and regular attendance on the Lord's Day. Being of the Christian faith was the norm at that time in the history of our nation. 

Oh how far we have fallen! May God forgive our neglect of His Word and our lack of faithful attendance at church. May the Lord keep the memory of our Founding Father and Mother fresh in our minds as we benefit from the sacrifices they and others made so we could live in freedom and have religious liberty. Amen.


George and Martha Washington with grandchildren George Washington (Washy) Parke Custis and Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis. The Washington Family, 1798 by Edward Savage.

I strongly suspect the man on the right in the painting above is William "Billy" Lee, President Washington's personal valet who loyally followed him into battle and served him until his death. Billy Lee became a free man at President Washington's death, but continued to stay at Mount Vernon. All the Washington slaves were freed after Martha's death according to instructions left in President Washington's will. I believe this is another example of President Washington's commitment to living his life according to Biblical principles and to set an honorable example for future generations to follow.

You can read more about Billy Lee here: William "Billy" Lee | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org).


General Washington and William "Billy" Lee - The Metropolitan Museum of Art



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