Presidents: Bible-Cutters, Mystics, Masons

As Presidents' Day of 2003 arrives, many in the United States are either pleased or upset that President Bush continues to lean heavily on religious symbolism in speaking about the anti-terror war and many other matters.

But if George Washington or Abraham Lincoln were alive today — or Thomas Jefferson, for that matter — their spiritual beliefs would be far more controversial than Bush's, and not just because times change.

‘The Hand of Providence’

What did these great former presidents believe? Let's start with the first president.

When Washington ran for president, a few opponents tried to sully him as irreligious because he rarely attended services — though he was a vestryman in an Episcopal church in Alexandria, Va.

Supporters answered that the Alexandria church was a two-hour horse ride each way from the general's beloved Mount Vernon, and therefore Washington usually held private vespers at home.

That Washington was a believer can be found in statements such as this, from a 1778 letter about the revolution: "The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith."

Imagine the reaction if any contemporary president declared that anyone who lacks faith is "worse than an infidel," especially since as used by Washington, infidel meant Muslim.

Convinced "the Hand of providence" was guiding the establishment of the United States, Washington joined many of the founders in believing God was forming the new country partly so that people could realize a genuine, freely chosen worship of Jesus, impossible in the entrenched denominational wars of Europe.

To Washington, like many of the founders, civilization and Christianity were the same; it was just that in the Old World, the faith had become corrupted by politics. Without "our blessed religion," Washington said in his farewell address, "we can never hope to be a happy nation."

When Washington negotiated with Indians regarding bringing their children into school systems — one of his pet causes — he did so partly owing to his belief that Christianity was essential to full humanity.

"You do well to wish to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ," Washington once told a gathering of Delaware elders. "These will make you a greater and happier people."

Imagine an American president today who advised minority group members that they must embrace Christ to become "greater and happier."


Yet though Washington's assumption of America as a Christian nation would seem right-wing by today's standard, much of his theology would seem left-wing. Though historians dispute the details, Washington was probably a "deist" — a believer that nature, not revelation or church doctrine, was the proof of God.

Deism was the intellectual theology of Washington's day, best expressed in Thomas Paine's 1794 book, The Age of Reason, which argued that clerics were spewing mumbo-jumbo, and no one can be sure if the Bible is historically accurate, but we can be absolutely certain nature is so grand and intricate it must be the work of a Creator.

A favorite volume of many founders, The Age of Reason was seen by the Anglican, Catholic, Congregational and Episcopal hierarchies of the day as a direct attack, since the book asserted that the rational person could ignore organized religion and come to his or her own conclusions about God. It would be as if, today, an American president were to declare that priests, rabbis, and ministers were mainly bureaucrats, scripture was a muddle, and each individual should arrive at his or her own spiritual beliefs through private meditation.

This is more or less what George Washington thought, and a reason he preferred vespers in rustic Mount Vernon to that Alexandria pew.

Washington and the Freemasons

And what of Washington's membership in the Masons? Today, Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that mainly raises money for charity, but then it had a hushed, secretive connotation. The goofy, internal lingo of Masonic temples, such as "the Supreme Councils of the Scottish Rite" or the "Grand Encampment of Knights Templar," was whispered about as evidence of conspiracy.

Masonry, which originated in Anglican England, was during Washington's time often anti-Catholic (In the 19th century, Masonry sometimes was anti-Semitic, which would not stop the Nazis of the 1930s from denouncing many German Jews as secret servants of the Freemasons).

The Masons are not a religion — their only spiritual requirement is that members accept the existence of a supreme being — but at various points in history have been viewed as attempting to usurp or circumvent established faiths.

Even today, people don't know what to make of Washington's Masonic ties. The largest privately built monument in the nation's Capitol area — the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, a huge pseudo-Egyptian spire that dominates the skyline for airplanes approaching Reagan National Airport — is routinely absent from tourist agendas, as if it were something about the father of our country better left unmentioned.

It's fun to consider the delightful negative ads a modern political consultant might be able to generate off candidate Washington's Masonic ties. Secret society! Clandestine rites! What really goes on in that Supreme Council?

Minister Mocking

Now to Lincoln. When he first ran for Congress in 1840, Lincoln was derided by opponents for not belonging to a church. Indeed, Abe was not a member of any church, and was sufficiently skeptical of organized religion that on his drinking nights, he entertained friends by doing a stand-up parody routine about a pompous, hypercritical minister.

In 1858, Lincoln began using scripture language in public speaking — especially his popular "House Divided" speech, which extensively quoted Matthew. Northern abolitionists so embraced the "House Divided" speech that they began calling Lincoln the "new John the Baptist," playing on the fact that both shared an eccentric appearance and intense speaking style.

But being called the new John the Baptist did not seem to bring Lincoln to faith. Even after his election as president in 1860, he told friends he remained an agnostic, quoting scripture mainly because it was so powerful. His initial view of the Civil War was not religious, either. Though many northern churches from the outset called the war God's vengeance against slavery, Lincoln would tell Horace Greeley early on, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union," not abolish slavery.

All this changed in winter of 1862, when Lincoln's adored little son Willie died of typhoid fever in the White House, father weeping uncontrollably in the next room. Mary Lincoln was driven to mysticism by the loss; soon she would be consulting mediums, trying to communicate with Willie on the other side.

Lincoln turned to the Rev. Phineas Gurley of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, located a few blocks from the White House. Gurley and the president began going on long walks.

During one of the walks, Lincoln converted to Christianity, accepting Jesus as his personal savior. Though he never formally joined any denomination, Lincoln started attending Gurley's church twice a week and studying scripture avidly.

Bible’s ‘Reason and … Faith’

When Joshua Speed, the Springfield store proprietor who was Lincoln's best friend during his carefree days, expressed surprise in 1864 to encounter Abe reading the Bible, Lincoln counseled him somberly, "Take all that you can of this book upon reason and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man."

While this was happening, the course of the Civil War turned horrific. Lincoln was stunned by the bloodshed at Antietam in September 1862, where twice as many men died on a single day as had died in the entire War of 1812. Worse, Antietam was inconclusive, ensuring the carnage would go on.

Lincoln began to adopt the radical religious view that the conflict was not meant to end quickly because the Civil War was God's retribution against the United States for holding slaves. That is, God actually wanted huge numbers of Americans to die, paying for the nation's sins.

Imagine President Bush saying that he believed the divine wanted Americans to die in terrorism attacks as retribution for times when Americans deliberately killed the innocent, such as the bombing of Dresden. Yet Lincoln said as much: "In the present Civil War it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party. God wills the contest and wills that it shall not end yet."

In 1863, Lincoln declared a National Fast Day, saying, "We know that, by divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world." The war, he went on, was "a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins."

Lincoln's increasingly fatalistic view was summed in his second inaugural address, in words that now line the Lincoln Memorial in Washington: that God wills the Civil War to continue "until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword."

As his views became more religious, increasingly Lincoln focused on the centrality of ending slavery, which today is seen as a civil rights issue but then was seen by most abolitionists first as a spiritual issue, because slave-holding was an abomination before God.

The mainly faith-affiliated abolition movement rallied to Lincoln intensively in the 1864 election, which many initially believed Lincoln would lose to Democratic candidate George McClellan, who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's reelection was based on nearly unanimous religious support. As Lincoln biographer David Donald has written, "The support the President received [in 1864] from religious groups was overwhelming. There probably never was an election in all our history into which the religion element entered so largely, and nearly all on one side."

When Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, many ministers preached sermons comparing him to Jesus, and many newspaper editorials said the same. Surely, he was the only American president ever spoken of in such terms.

Bible Cutting and Pasting

And since the topic is Presidents' Day, why not throw in Jefferson? He also was a deist, his famous declaration, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," meaning that the principles of freedom could be proclaimed from nature, not from either human or divine law. And though Jefferson revered Jesus, saying Christ's teachings were "the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught," he rejected the miracle accounts of the gospels.

Jefferson wrote a short book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, that anticipated modern revisionism by presenting Christ as a beautiful mortal sage about whom supernatural talk was invented mythology. The normally daring Virginian declined to publish this work during his lifetime, showing it to friends but leaving instructions that the volume not be printed until after his death.

Suffice it to say, an American president today might not venture to write a book rejecting the divinity of Jesus.

In fact, Jefferson did most of his work on The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (which remains in press under the title The Jefferson Bible) while sitting in the old White House. Late into the night, he sat pouring over the gospels with a razor and glue pot, physically splicing out miracle references and pasting together a non-supernatural account of Christ.

If, today, a president sat up late at night cutting passages out of the Bible, the right would go ballistic, claiming sacrilege, while the left would be disgusted that a president would take religion so seriously as to be tormented by a thirst to find a version of faith he could believe.

Compared with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, Bush's religious beliefs seem quite conventional.