Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
In August of 1790 George Washington issued a public letter thanking the Roman Catholic Church for the “patriotic part which [it] took in the accomplishment of the [Revolutionary War].” In his letter the nation’s first president also acknowledged that America existed “under the smiles of a Divine Providence…[requiring] the cultivation of manners, morals and piety…”
Washington’s letter was in response to one written him by John Carroll, America’s first bishop and archbishop (and founder of Georgetown University), and four prominent members of the Catholic laity (Bishop Carroll’s brothers Charles and Daniel, Thomas Fitzsimmons and Dominick Lynch). Their letter was written to congratulate him on becoming America’s first president.
Bishop Carroll’s brothers were wealthy Maryland plantation owners and businessmen who had financially and intellectually supported the war effort—Charles was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Fitzsimmons was a revolutionary soldier and financially supported Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s war needs. Lynch, who immigrated from Ireland after the war, was a prominent Rome, New York property developer who became a friend of President Washington.
Washington’s Religious Convictions and Religious Liberty
Historians and theologians have long argued about Washington’s religious convictions and beliefs. Although he was born and baptized in the Anglican Church, during the war he left that church because of its requirement that members maintain allegiance to the British monarch, The Anglican Church in the United States became the Protestant Episcopal Church, essentially an Anglican Church without a loyalty oath.
As an Anglican, Washington served as a vestryman and a churchwarden helping the poor, according to Professor George Tsakiridis. Tsakiridis also relates that Washington’s nephew “witnessed him doing personal devotions with an open bible while kneeling, in both the morning and the evening.” During and after the Revolutionary War Washington attended numerous religious services of denominations which would seem to be representative of his belief in religious freedom and tolerance.
Colonial Anti-Catholicism and Religious Freedom in the Constitution
Washington’s religious belief is intertwined with the origins of Constitutional provisions ensuring religious liberty. The First Amendment specifically denies Congress the ability to enact any law dealing with religious establishments on the federal level. Religious freedom was further enhanced in 1868 with the adoption of the fourteenth amendment which prohibits religious discrimination by the states.
Few realize nowadays that during Washington’s lifetime some states (and/or colonies) enforced state religions. For example, Virginia before the War of Independence established the official state religion as the Anglican Church and taxed its citizens (regardless of religious belief or denomination) to financially support that church. (This practice followed that in England.)
Ten of the thirteen colonies held that “Catholics were the subject of penal measures of one kind or another during the colonial period,” according to Marian T. Horvat, Ph. D. These laws denied citizens the right to seek elected office if they weren’t a member of the state-sponsored church. For example, Maryland prohibited the Catholic Carrolls from seeking elective colonial office. In Rhode Island Jews were prohibited from voting.
This pattern of religious monopoly and discrimination within the colonies’ and states was representative of the practice then prevalent worldwide. For example, Great Britain discriminated against non-Anglican Churches practicing within its borders—and, although the execution of Catholics carried out in Elizabethan times was not carried out under the Hanoverians, it was still a legal option.
Washington and Madison: Advocates of Religious Freedom
James Madison, a future President, was the primary advocate for religious freedom in the early US. In fact he was a zealot in his advocacy for the First Amendment. His support for religious freedom stemmed from an incident in Virginia in which six Baptist ministers were jailed for advocating separation of church and state. As the story goes, Madison was infuriated when he found out several prominent Anglicans urinated on them while incarcerated in the Culpepper County jail.
t is within this general historical context that one can appreciate George Washington’s letter to the Roman Catholics of his day. He believed in and espoused religious freedom. Not only did he believe in religious freedom and separation of church and state but also believed in Divine Providence.
A year earlier he wrote a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island. (Newport has the oldest Jewish Synagogue.) In it he applauds America for having
...given to mankind …an enlarged and liberal policy [of religious toleration]...the Government of the United States …gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,…[and] requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support …[Let] the Father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths and make us all…useful here, and in His own due time and way everlasting happiness.
Mary V. Thompson, author of “In the Hands of Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington” relates he once wrote:
I have often expressed my sentiments that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.
He was a strong believer in religious institutions. In his 1796 farewell address he expressed his belief that morality could not be maintained “without religion” and notwithstanding the “influence of refined education…without religious principle…national morality [cannot] prevail.”