The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Was WASHINGTON A Christian ?

The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, Volume 13 by John Austin Stevens, Henry Phelps Johnston, and William Abbatt pp 596-9

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Author, etc.


Was WASHINGTON A Christian ?I picked up, recently, at an old book-stall in New York city, a volume of sermons by the distinguished Dr. James Abercrombie, of Philadelphia, who was in his day excelled perhaps by no other preacher of the Gospel. He evidently had the volume bound himself, for " Presented, June 6th, 1817, to Mrs. Mary J. Abercrombie, by her affectionate husband, Jas. Abercrombie," is written on the fly-leaf, and a number of blank sheets of writing-paper are bound in on which to jot down his thoughts from time to time. On these leaves we find in his own hand-writing, the following extract from a sermon by Dr. Wilson, of Albany, 27th October, 1831 :

" Washington was a man of valour and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man, but he was not a professing Christian, at least not till after he was President. When the Congress sat in Philadelphia, President Washington attended the Episcopal Church. The Rector, Dr. Abercrombie, has told me that when the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was to be administered, Washington's custom was to rise just before the ceremony commenced, and walk out of the church. This became a subject of remark in the congregation as setting a bad example. At length, the Doctor undertook to speak of it with a direct allusion to the President. Washington was heard afterwards to remark that this was the first time a clergyman had thus preached to him; and that he should, henceforth, neither trouble the Doctor nor his congregation ; and ever after that upon Communion days, he absented himself altogether from the church."" Report of Sermon in Weekly Free Press."

Then, as a commentary on the above, follows his own version of this anecdote of President Washington : " Copy of a letter from myself to Origen Bacheler of N. Y., Nov. 29th, 1831.

Sir: When your first address of 18th Inst, arrived, I was absent from the city, and did not receive it, till after I had perused yrs of 26th Inst. With respect to the enquiry you make, I can only state the following facts; that as the Pastor of the Episcopal Church (an humble assistant minister to its Rector, the Rt. Rev. Dr. White) observing that on Sacrament Sundays, Gen'l Washington, immediately after the Desk and Pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation, always leaving Mrs. Washington with the communicants, she invariably being one, I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President, and, as such, he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a Senator of the U. S., he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who, in the course of conversation at the table, said, that on the preceding Sunday, he had received a very just reproof from the pulpit, for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candour ; that he had never considered the influence of his example ; that he would never again give cause for the repetition of the reproof ; and that, as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he afterwards never came on the morning of Sacrament Sunday, tho', at other times, a constant attendant in the morning. Of the assertion made by Dr. Wilson in the conclusion of a paragraph of your letter, I cannot say I have not the least recollection of such a conversation, but had I made use of the expression stated, it could not have extended farther than the expression of private individual opinion. That Washington was a professing Christian is evident from his regular attendance in our church ; but, Sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace. This, Sir, is all that I think it proper to state on paper. In a conversation, more latitude being allowed, more light might, perhaps, be thrown upon it. I trust, however, Sir, you will not introduce my name in print.

I am, Sir,

Yrs.

James Abercrombie

The MS. pages of this volume contain, also, many other interesting historical items.

William L. Stone

Jersey City, May 5th, 1885

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