Monday, February 20, 2017

Did George Washington die a Catholic?

Traditional portrait of Washington
praying at Valley Forge.
With the celebration of Presidents' Day, and George Washington's birthday just a few days away (February 22), I often recall a passage from a book I had read to my children several years ago entitled: Saint Katharine Drexel: Friend of the Oppressed. The author of this historical novel, Elizabeth Tarry, includes a scene in which the child Kate Drexel dreams about far away lands and her heroes, Saint Francis and George Washington:
More than once, she went to sleep whispering: "Let perpetual light shine upon George Washington. May his soul rest in peace." It was a practice she was to continue for the rest of her life. 
While I'm not sure if this anecdote falls into the historical or the fiction part of Tarry's work, I was intrigued to discover that more connections exist between Washington and Catholicism than I realized, including a story that he experienced a death-bed conversion to the Catholic faith.

Here are some points in favor of Washington's supposed affinity toward Catholicism, as recorded in the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union Journal of March 15, 1884:
  1. He merited it by his virtues.
  2. He had a picture of the Blessed Virgin.
  3. He was acquainted with Catholics, had visited Catholic churches, and contributed to their erection.
  4. Juba, his servant, declared that Washington, "befo' he eat, do dis way (making the sign of the cross). I dunno what it means but he always do it."
  5. Painting of the Blessed Virgin at Mount Vernon.
  6. Rev Francis Neale was called from Piscataway across the Potomac and stayed with General Washington four hours before he died. 
This last claim is especially intriguing. More detail of this story may be drawn from The American Catholic Historical Researches, Volumes 16-17, 1900, in an article examining Washington's supposed conversion to Catholicism, written 101 years after his death:
It has often been the subject of regretful remark among the good people who appreciated the pure and exalted character of Washington that he seemed to make no mention of religion in his last moments and make no preparation for the step into the awful eternity beyond this life. In this connection the writer recently came across a curious legend current among the colored people living for the past few generations along the Maryland and Virginia shores of the Potomac adjoining Mount Vernon...that George Washington on his deathbed was baptized a Catholic.

"Massa George," they say, "was a good man but he done gone back on when he died," and the story they tell is as follows:

The night before Washington died, during a fierce storm, his colored body servant came riding down to the bank of the Potomac and after being ferried across said he had come in search of a Catholic priest. After some delay, one of the old Jesuit Fathers from the mission on the Maryland side was found, taken over the river to Mount Vernon, where he went at once to Mr. Washington's room and remained there with him three hours. When he left he seemed much gratified and said to those about him that there need be no more apprehension for Mr. Washington as the future of his soul was secure. He was then taken back to the Maryland shore and old darkeys tell with unvarying detail that their fathers believed Washington died a Catholic....

In addition the Jesuit record says that on the day after the visit to Mount Vernon the old Jesuit went to the Superior of the mission and relating the fact of his journey, handed the Superior a sealed packet saying I am not permitted to detail what transpired between Mr. Washington and myself in his room at Mount Vernon but I have written it out carefully here and after we both have passed away and occasion requires this can be opened and its contents made public. The Superior took the paper and placed it among the records of the mission where it remained until shortly after the death of the old Jesuit when it was boxed up still unopened with a lot of other papers, and sent to headquarters of the Order in Rome where it is still supposed to be awaiting the fortunate chance that will disclose it to the hand of some appreciative investigator who may throw some light on this very curious historical question.
The story was apparently repeated in a somewhat altered form by Rev. John Scully, SJ in a homily he gave on Sunday, May 13, 1900 at Old Saint Joseph's Church in Philadelphia. The information provided by Fr. Scully is as follows:
Miss Oliva Floyd, whose mother was a Semmes, was a Confederate spy during the War of the Rebellion. She is now a cripple of perhaps seventy years. She remembers often hearing her mother who lived to be eighty six years old, and who died about thirty years ago, speak of the large boat rowed by six or eight men which came from Mt. Vernon to St. Thomas Manor the night before George Washington died. They bore a message to Father Leonard Neale then Superior of the residence at St. Thomas from Washington between whom and the priest there had long existed an intimate friendship. 
The rowers found Father Neale walking up and down the beach reciting the divine office. He immediately went up to the rectory whence he returned in a few minutes probably having provided himself with the priestly stole, the ritual, and some blessed water. He accompanied the boatmen and was detained at Mt. Vernon the greater part of the next day. It was said by all in the neighborhood that General Washington had sent for his old friend, Father Neale, to receive conditional baptism make his confession and be received into the Catholic Church. 
Miss Floyd's mother certainly had means of knowing the truth if this were so as Dr. Crown, (?) Washington's physician, was an intimate friend of the Floyds and the Semmes and had a room which was always kept ready for him in the Floyd mansion, which is only fourteen or fifteen miles from Mt. Vernon, where he slept on his return from and on his way to Mount Vernon.
It should be noted, however, that this information was deemed far from conclusive. Later in the same article, the author, Martin I. J. Griffin, relays his doubts about the authenticity of these stories:
"The Researches thinks the alleged visit of Father Neale improbable. Nothing in Washington's life gives a basis for a belief in its probability....I do not believe he became a Catholic."
Furthermore, as Marian T. Horvat, PhD points out in her post, "Did George Washington Convert to Catholicism?" the first president was a devoted Free Mason and often appeared in Masonic regalia during his life and tenure in office.

While these doubts alone are not sufficient to dispel the conversion story completely, there isn't enough information available to prove the story either. That said, we should probably follow Mother Drexel's lead and pray for the salvation of President Washington's soul. As Archbishop Carroll said in a circular letter to his clergy on the occasion of Washington's death:
"Roman Catholics, in common with our fellow-citizens of the United States, have to deplore the irreparable loss our country has sustained by the death of that great man who contributed so essentially to the establishment and preservation of its peace and prosperity. We are, therefore, called upon by every consideration of respect to his memory and gratitude for his services to bear a public testimony of our high sense of his worth when living and our sincere sorrow for being deprived of that protection which the United States derived from his wisdom, his experience, his reputation, and the authority of his name....[Those wishing to eulogize the President] are advised not to form their discourses on the model of a funeral sermon, deduced from a text of Scripture, but rather to compose an oration, such as might be delivered in an Academy....If these discourses shall be delivered in churches, where the Holy Sacrament is usually kept, it will be proper to remove it previously with due honor, to some decent place." [Archbishop Carroll's circular letter to his clergy, dated Dec. 29, 1799]
In other words, as father of our country, Washington deserved the type of tribute offered by Catholics to virtuous non-Catholics upon their demise. That remains the case today.

Curiously, several Popes would find occasion to pay tribute to Washington. In 1852, during the construction of the Washington monument, Pope Pius IX sent a stone from the Temple of Concord in Rome to be incorporated into the monument. Unfortunately, this so-called "Pope's Stone" would be stolen by anti-Catholic Know-Nothings and dumped into the Potomac, though stories claim that it was dredged up some 40 years later.

In his encyclical to the Catholic bishops of America of 1895 entitled Longinqua, Pope Leo XIII praised Washington as follows:
Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Pacelli at Mount Vernon in 1936.
On October 22, 1936, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli visited Mount Vernon as part of a tour of the eastern United States. While there, he placed wreaths at the graves of George and Martha Washington. Later, after he became Pope Pius XII, he said the following in his encyclical, Sertum Laetitiae, written in 1939:
When Pope Pius VI gave you your first Bishop in the person of the American John Carroll and set him over the See of Baltimore, small and of slight importance was the Catholic population of your land. At that time, too, the condition of the United States was so perilous that its structure and its very political unity were threatened by grave crisis. Because of the long and exhausting war the public treasury was burdened with debt, industry languished and the citizenry wearied by misfortunes was split into contending parties. This ruinous and critical state of affairs was put aright by the celebrated George Washington, famed for his courage and keen intelligence. He was a close friend of the Bishop of Baltimore. Thus the Father of His Country and the pioneer pastor of the Church in that land so dear to Us, bound together by the ties of friendship and clasping, so to speak, each the other's hand, form a picture for their descendants, a lesson to all future generations, and a proof that reverence for the Faith of Christ is a holy and established principle of the American people, seeing that it is the foundation of morality and decency, consequently the source of prosperity and progress.
Again, of themselves, these tributes prove nothing regarding the religious status (or lack thereof) of President Washington at the time of his death. But it is amusing to consider the possibility that the Vatican knows a secret about him that the rest of the world does not.


Fr. SMC said...

When asked about the religious practice of the First President, the Anglican cleric, Rev. Abercrombie, who was Washington's pastor, stated that Washington was not a believer, but rather a Deist. In all the correspondence of Washington, the Holy Name of Jesus Christ never appears once. He never received "confirmation" nor communion at the Anglican Communion. He never knelt in prayer and any picture that depicts him doing so is part of the American Mythology. The attempt to catholicize Washington or to make him a believer is all a part of the Americanist movement which sees America as the shining city as opposed to the Church of Rome. The myth of the Jesuit capturing the soul of Washington before death is directly contradicted by the official records. He died a Freemason simply checking his pulse not making the Sign of the Cross. He was given full Masonic rites at his death.

John Paul Jones said...

It is unforgivable that the above poster attempts to distort the history of our Country by maligning the Faith of our first President, in an undoubted attempt to further the claims our country is not a Christian one. You are a divider sent by hell, return to it.

(1) George Washingtons personal Prayer Journal~

O most glorious God, in Jesus Christ my merciful and loving Father, . . . remember that I am but dust, and remit my transgressions, negligences, & ignorances, and cover them all with the absolute obedience of thy dear Son, that those sacrifices which I have offered may be accepted by thee, in and for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered upon the cross for me; for his sake, ease the burden of my sins, and give me grace that by the call of the Gospel I may rise from the slumber of sin into the newness of life. . . . These weak petitions I humbly implore thee to hear accept and ans. [sic] for the sake of thy Dear Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

W. Herbert Burk, Washington’s Prayers, p. 13 (1907). On April 21-–23, 1891, several descendant relatives of George Washington sold a remarkable collection of Washington’s personal belongings in a Philadelphia auction. Among them was a manuscript book written in Washington’s handwriting entitled “Daily Sacrifice.” One of the prayers Washington had recorded in that book is the above prayer.

(2)In an order to his soldiers, Washington wrote: “The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.”

The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931), Vol. 5, p. 244-245, July 9, 1776 Order.

(3)In a letter to Colonel Benedict Arnold on September 14, 1775, Washington wrote: “Prudence, policy, and a true Christian spirit will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors without insulting them.”

Jared Sparks, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. III, p. 86 (1834-1837)

John Paul Jones said...

George Washington’s adopted daughter, having spent twenty years of her life in his presence, declared that one might as well question Washington’s patriotism as question his Christianity. Certainly, no one questions his patriotism; so is it not rather ridiculous to question his Christianity?

John Paul Jones said...

((Part 1)

Woodlawn, 26 February, 1833.


I received your favor of the 20th instant last evening, and hasten to give you the information, which you desire.

Truro [Episcopal] Parish is the one in which Mount Vernon, Pohick Church [the church where George Washington served as a vestryman], and Woodlawn [the home of Nelly and Lawrence Lewis] are situated. Fairfax Parish is now Alexandria. Before the Federal District was ceded to Congress, Alexandria was in Fairfax County. General Washington had a pew in Pohick Church, and one in Christ Church at Alexandria. He was very instrumental in establishing Pohick Church, and I believe subscribed [supported and contributed to] largely. His pew was near the pulpit. I have a perfect recollection of being there, before his election to the presidency, with him and my grandmother. It was a beautiful church, and had a large, respectable, and wealthy congregation, who were regular attendants.

He attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles [a one-way journey of 2-3 hours by horse or carriage]. In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition [sickness]. The afternoon was spent in his own room at home; the evening with his family, and without company. Sometimes an old and intimate friend called to see us for an hour or two; but visiting and visitors were prohibited for that day [Sunday]. No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother.

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o’clock where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, “that they may be seen of men” [Matthew 6:5]. He communed with his God in secret [Matthew 6:6].

My mother [Eleanor Calvert-Lewis] resided two years at Mount Vernon after her marriage [in 1774] with John Parke Custis, the only son of Mrs. Washington. I have heard her say that General Washington always received the sacrament with my grandmother before the revolution. When my aunt, Miss Custis [Martha’s daughter] died suddenly at Mount Vernon, before they could realize the event [before they understood she was dead], he [General Washington] knelt by her and prayed most fervently, most affectingly, for her recovery. Of this I was assured by Judge [Bushrod] Washington’s mother and other witnesses.

John Paul Jones said...

(Part 2)

He was a silent, thoughtful man. He spoke little generally; never of himself. I never heard him relate a single act of his life during the war. I have often seen him perfectly abstracted, his lips moving, but no sound was perceptible. I have sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits. I was, probably, one of the last persons on earth to whom he would have addressed serious conversation, particularly when he knew that I had the most perfect model of female excellence [Martha Washington] ever with me as my monitress, who acted the part of a tender and devoted parent, loving me as only a mother can love, and never extenuating [tolerating] or approving in me what she disapproved of others. She never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties; and she and her husband were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian. She had no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity [happiness in Heaven]. Is it necessary that any one should certify, “General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity?” As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, “Deeds, not Words”; and, “For God and my Country.”

With sentiments of esteem,

I am, Nelly Custis-Lewis

Fr. SMC said...

Oh boy...another one who has drank the Kook Aide of the "Christian" foundations of the United States. Our Sacred Scripture, the Constitution, doesn't even use the name of God or the Savior's Holy Name, Jesus Christ, outside of the dating of it at the very bottom. The Catholic Faith is the Christian Faith and It is the only Faith that saves. Yet our founders hated the Church of Rome and the pope. One of the very reasons why the American Revolution was fought was due to the tolerance act in Quebec where Britain allowed the exercise of Catholicism. The colonists were infuriated that the Romanish and Papist religion would be practiced freely so close to their boarders. Washington was not a believer:

Chris Whittle said...

Yes, George Washington was a deathbed convert to Catholicism. He is an uncanonized saint.

jim.carroll said...

I believe George Washington was a Christian. The claim that many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were in fact Deists, I believe, comes from the reticence that most of them (Washington included) had in discussing or proclaiming their faith and beliefs.

One of the notable absences from the original Constitution was a declaration of faith. The question wasn't "Is the new country going to be Christian?", it was "What brand of Christianity would the country follow?" I believe the reasoning goes: Since they could not agree on a common faith, they must have been Deists, as a lowest common denominator.

It was believed that without a government declaration of belief the citizens would wander away from Christianity or indeed any religion. It was why every colony (and later every state) originally had a state-sponsored religion, where such ministers were supported by tax revenues, and each of them included some provision that no public office shall be held by or (in some cases) the right to vote shall be granted to "Jews, Papists, Mohammedans, or infidels (atheists)." (source: "The Right to be Wrong", by Kevin Seamus Hasson) The framers of the Constitution could not agree on which religion would predominate: Anglican, Methodist, or ? (The only religion not considered was Catholicism. Maryland was a Catholic enclave until the Protestants became the majority, after which the above provisions were enacted, disenfranchising Catholics.)

This is why the very first amendment proposed to the Constitution of all the amendments that became the Bill of Rights stated, "Congress shall make no law respecting an -- establishment-- of religion,..." This did not prevent individual states from establishing their own state-sponsored faith, although such state-sponsorship fell out of favor as expansion continued westward, as did the limits on who could hold office, etc.

(Notice also, the order the freedoms in that amendment are listed -- first religion, which the state cannot intrude into; then speech, so sermons could not be censored; then press, so religious texts could be printed; and then peaceable assembly, so people could gather in worship.)

Eric Bruno Borgman said...

I believe it is possible and even very likely that George Washington converted to Catholicism. The stories weren't just circulated by the slaves. People who lived in the area also talked about it, and it was even passed down in the families of relations. One woman a Mrs Darling told her priest that her grandmother, who was a cousin to Washington and alive during his lifetime, told her that Washington had converted at the time of his death. It is understandable that it was not publicized at the time. His widow and his family would be put in an uncomfortable situation and of course the Freemasons would not have been happy about it and would not have publicized it either. The Jesuits, also, had a tradition that the conversion took place. It was believed by many clergy in the 19th Century as fact. Despite not having written records all of these traditions from separate groups of people gives the story much more credence then legends.

Unknown said...

Yet there is absolutely no direct or contemporary evidence of any of this, it only comes 100 years later. In history, we call that a red herring, and on that basis we normally reject later account unless there is some corroborating evidence, of which there is NONE in this case. It is not likely or even plausible that Washington, having a clear life of irreligiosity that proclaims itself in his diary. Diary's are very valuable because the writer records his thoughts as events are happening, and not at some later point in their life. Washington's diary reveals a deist that does not believe in Christianity. I challenge anyone to find one entry in Washington's diary proving his belief in anything.
His Anglican vicar was clear about Washington's irreligion; he only went to Church at all not to get tagged as an atheist and because that is how you got things done.
Similar can be said about Thomas Payne who through Christians out of his house that came to convert him, as they were disturbed by his agnosticism.
There are no sources from this until at least 100 years after his death, and no written account from contemporaries. No historical claim would ever be allowed to stand on such evidence.

Borgman said...

It is not true that the stories of Washington's conversion came about "100 years later." It was reported in print in the 1800s. If anything has been overblown it is the whole Founding Fathers deist business. But, hey, deists can convert to Catholicism too.

Eric Bruno Borgman said...

The story credited as coming from The American Catholic Historical Researches and being written 101 years after Washington's death actually comes from an older Baltimore newspaper published sometime before 1894 when it was reprinted in The Woodstock Letters.

Unknown said...

In his “Address to the Delaware Nation” on May 12th, 1779, George Washington stated:

“You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life and above all — the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast — that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.”