George Washington on attending church, 1762
A Spotlight on a Primary Source by George Washington
In 1762, Virginia planter and future president George Washington, just thirty years old, had reason for optimism. He had inherited Mount Vernon a decade earlier, and it had prospered under his management; plus he had married Martha Dandridge Custis, widely regarded as the wealthiest marriageable woman in Virginia, some three years earlier.
This August 1762 letter from Washington to his brother-in-law Burwell Bassett (who had married Martha’s youngest sister, Betty Dandridge) reveals the young Washington as a lively and convivial correspondent—remarkable for a man who would come to be known as extremely remote and unbendingly formal, evincing little lightheartedness even with close associates. In his letter, Washington facetiously chastises Bassett for writing when he “ought to have been at Church, praying as becomes every good Christian Man who has as much to answer for as you have.” Washington also alludes to his own church attendance—which we know to have been infrequent: “could you but behold with what religious zeal I hye me to Church on every Lord’s day, it wo[ul]d do your heart good, and fill it I hope with e[qual] fervency.”
Burwell Bassett, the recipient of this letter, was one of Washington’s closest friends—one of very few. Perhaps the intimate friendship between Bassett and Washington helps explain the future president’s light, jocular tone in this letter. Washington and Bassett’s other extant correspondence conveys a sense of easy familiarity rarely encountered in Washington’s letters, but the bantering levity of this August 1762 letter is completely unparalleled. Though Washington would be remembered for his gravity and his accomplishments, this letter offers us a glimpse of another side of the man who would become president.
A full transcript is available.
I was favoured with your Epistle wrote on a certain 25th. of July when you ought to have been at Church, praying as becomes every good Christian Man who has as much to answer for as you have – strange it is that you will be so blind to truth that the enlightening sounds of the Gospel cannot reach your Ear, nor no Examples awaken you to a sense of Goodness – could you but behold with what religious zeal I hye me to church on every Lords day, it [text loss] do your heart good, and fill it I hope with [text loss] fervency.