“To Set the Captives Free”: Christianity and Slavery in George Washington’s Youth

TOPICS: Barbados, George Washington, Religion, Slavery

by Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
March 11, 2016

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”1

"Sanctuary at Sea's Edge." St. Joseph's Parish Church, Barbados. Photo by Kaspar Coward, used with permission.
“Sanctuary at Sea’s Edge.” St. Joseph’s Parish Church, Barbados. Photo by Kaspar Coward, used with permission. Link to source.

Perhaps the two most controversial aspects of modern Washington scholarship are the question of his Christian faith and the undeniable fact of his ownership of human beings. The first has been the object of heated argument for a century (when it is not overlooked entirely or de-emphasized by modern studies), though historians of the 19th century rarely questioned its centrality in George Washington’s life.2 Slavery, on the other hand, is the skeleton in the closet: a matter of fact that is difficult to accept and understand.3 I would argue that these dilemmas are a double-edged sword, forged by the paradoxical relationship between the two institutions of religion and slavery (and specifically between Christian doctrine and the practice of 18th-century Anglicanism). Moreover, their foundation in the spiritual realm—the salvation and liberty of souls, not just of bodies—further marginalizes their dynamic relationship as a topic of academic scrutiny.

On the death of his father, George became a slave owner at the tender age of 11.4 During his formative years, the boy was also instructed in the principles of Christian faith and morality under the guidance of his mother.5 So begins what would become, for George in his final years, a crisis of conscience:6 throughout most of his life he would deny the freedom of his black servants, while professing to believe in a God who died for the freedom of all. This was the case throughout mid-Atlantic and southern colonial America, where a predominantly Christian society, more so than their brothers and sisters to the north, denied the basic human rights of African peoples. One detail both contributed to and resulted from this injustice: according to the established church of England, Anglicans were legally prohibited from spreading Christianity among the black population, fearing that slaves’ faith in a “liberating” God would undermine the institution of slavery on which the colonies depended economically.7

As we prepare a new edition of George Washington’s Barbados diary, this unsettling truth comes to light in fresh ways. Namely, on the island of Barbados, George witnessed a form of enforced labor that superseded Virginia’s in terms of brutality. He also observed a thriving Anglican church. Interestingly, the institutions are barely visible from his diary, but they are there, nonetheless. Guinea corn, for instance, was the predominant crop that fed Barbadian slaves: it “greatly supports their Negros,” George writes at the end of December 1751. He also comments on a level of creolization among the upper classes that disturbs him: “The Ladys Generally are very agreeable but by ill custom…affect the Negro Style.” Meanwhile, churchgoing similarly receives the passing reference. Arriving too late to town on Sunday, November 10, he remains for evening service and dines with this or that family in the very same breath. His entry a month later, noting his attendance at Christ Church, is much the same.8 Sunday worship, apparently, was part of his routine. In both sets of entries, his attention to social customs suggests that he was perhaps more interested in acting the proper English gentleman.9

Detail of the parish of Christ Church, Barbados, from Thomas Jefferys' map in Hughes, The Natural History of Barbados (1750). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library online map collection.
Detail of the parish of Christ Church, Barbados, from Thomas Jefferys’ map in Hughes, The Natural History of Barbados (1750). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

One thing George would have witnessed in Barbados, and already been accustomed to from home, was the color divide as soon as he crossed the church threshold. As mentioned above, law in both colonies prevented slaves from worshipping alongside white Christians. In fact, “Christian” and “white” were virtually synonymous. But the Anglican church’s respect of the institution of slavery does not mean this was universal among Christians. On the contrary, writing in the mid-17th century, Englishman Richard Ligon saw the proverbial fly in the ointment and wasn’t afraid to say so. Telling the story of his encounter with a slave on the then-wooded island (as it happens, cutting “Church wayes,” or roads for Sunday worship), Ligon learns of the man’s desire to become a Christian. The author reflects,

“I promised to do my best endeavour; and when I came home, spoke to the Master of the Plantation, and told him, that poor Sambo desired much to be a Christian. But his answer was, That the people of that Island were governed by the Lawes of England, and by those Lawes, we could not make a Christian a Slave. I told him, my request was far different from that, for I desired him to make a Slave a Christian. His answer was, That it was true, there was a great difference in that: But, being once a Christian, he could no more account him a Slave, and so lose the hold they had of them as Slaves, by making them Christians; and by that means should open such a gap, as all the Planters would curse him. So I was struck mute, and poor Sambo kept out of the Church; as ingenious, as honest, and as good a natur’d poor soul, as ever wore black, or eat green.”10

Here, Ligon reveals the subtle irony of the Church’s support of slavery, revealing the former’s powerful key to undoing the latter: “being once a Christian, he could no more account him a Slave.” Liberty of conscience, the basis of the Christian faith, was slavery’s antithesis—and its archenemy.

Detail of a map of Barbados, from Ligon's True and Exact History of Barbadoes (1657). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library online map collection.
Detail of a map of Barbados, from Ligon’s True and Exact History of Barbadoes (1657). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

It was the arrival of the Quakers on Barbados in the second half of the 17th century that began to lead toward a more inclusive Christianity for enslaved believers. Unsurprisingly, Quakerism met with its own barriers on the island. But by the early 1700s, the Codrington experiment specifically sought to bring the Christian faith to black slaves on Barbados, while across the West Indies, namely on St. Thomas, a young black missionary known as “Rebecca” was attempting to spread Christianity among her people.11 In 1750, the Reverend Griffith Hughes, whom Washington himself read, wrote that he was hopeful of slaves’ acceptance of the Christian faith, “not presum[ing] to determine how defensible this Custom [slavery] may be under a Christian Dispensation,” though he confessed, “for Reasons too tedious to be mentioned, that the Difficulties attending it are, and I am afraid ever will be, unsurmountable.”12 Throughout the first half of the 18th century, attempts by the Anglican church to evangelize slaves often conflicted with missionaries’ own personal connections with slavery.13

It was Christmas as George sailed away from Barbados after a stay of several weeks. He left his half-brother Lawrence Washington, who sought healing in the island’s tropical climate, behind; Lawrence’s respiratory problems were not improved, and he would try the air of Bermuda first before venturing home to Mount Vernon to die within six months. The 25th of December dawned fair on the Industry, Captain Saunders. A specially prepared Irish goose was on the menu, and a round of toasts was said for absent friends.14 In the meantime, the brig, stocked heavily with rum and molasses, may have carried African slaves—alas, we have no record of the Industry‘s lading, but the possibility remains. The potential scene, of holiday festivities aboard a ship with human cargo, encapsulates the uneasy tension between Christianity and slavery. Yet, I would claim, the former would ultimately provide the remedy for the latter. A radical acceptance of the God-given equality and freedom of all mankind, which would characterize the Second Great Awakening and the ensuing push for abolition, would fuel the civil rights movements of the next 200 years.

Selection from George Washington's 1745 copy of "On Christmas Day," which first appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine for February 1743.
Selection from George Washington’s 1745 copy of “On Christmas Day,” which first appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine for February 1743. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. PD-US

Mount Vernon historian and research scholar Mary V. Thompson suggests that “Slavery was the primary issue leading to inner conflict in the last decades of Washington’s life.”15 From the evidence she reveals, I would agree with her. His exposure, during the Revolution, to Christians of other denominations “led Washington to a broader definition of what it meant to be Christian, taking him outside the prevailing Anglican model.”16 In 1785, the Quaker abolitionist Robert Pleasants urged George to free his slaves and, in so doing, “finally transmit to future ages a Character, equally famous for thy Christian Virtues, as thy worldly achievements.”17 The former general and first U.S. president did so in 1799, in his will. Such manumission, he held, “could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.”18

George’s changing perceptions of Christianity at the end of his life may have played a role in his changing views on slavery. One wonders if, half a century before, on the remote island of Barbados, a seed of change had been planted. But, as I have observed, a seed cannot take root unless the soil is first prepared. As many Americans across the country prepare to celebrate Easter, I conclude with a poem that George copied out in 1745, six years before he ever set sail,

“For when the important Æra first drew near
In which the great Messiah Should appear;
And to Accomplish his redeeming Love,
Resign a while his glorious Throne above;
Beneath our Form should every Woe Sustain,
And by triumphant Suffering fix his Reign,
Should for lost Man in Tortures yield his Breath
Dying to Save us from eternal Death!
Oh mystick Union!—Salutary Grace!
Incarnate God our Nature Should embrace!
That Deity Should stoop to our Disguise!
That man recover’d should regain the Skies!
Dejected adam! from thy grave ascend,
And view the Serpants Deadly Malice end;
Adorning bless th’ Almighty’s boundless Grace
That gave his son a Ransome for thy Race!”19


1. Isa. 61:1, KJV.
2. Joseph Buffington remarked on this “overlooked side” of GW at the bicentennial of his birth: An Overlooked Side of George Washington: Being the Bi-Centennial Address Made on Washington’s Birthday 1932 at Valley Forge Washington Memorial Chapel (Philadelphia: International Printing Company, [1932]). After over a century of scholarship attesting to GW’s devoutly Christian beliefs, Peter F. Boller, Jr.,’s George Washington & Religion (1963) became the widely accepted text claiming GW as a deist; others have asserted a closer tie to Stoic philosophy than to the God of the Old and New Testaments. Paul Longmore recently stressed GW’s religious indifference, claiming outright that “Washington was neither religiously fervent nor theologically learned,” though, I would claim, even Longmore offers evidence to the contrary: The Invention of George Washington (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1999), 169. Current studies are making compelling arguments for GW’s Christian faith, though exactly where he fits in the denominational spectrum is debated. See especially Peter A. Lillback and Jerry Newcombe, George Washington’s Sacred Fire (Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Providence Forum Press, 2006); Mary V. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence”: Religion in the Life of George Washington (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2008).
3. In January my colleague Kathryn Gehred, writing for the Washington Papers blog, demonstrated this point well: https://washingtonpapers.org/i-am-determined-to-lower-her-spirit-or-skin-her-back/.
4. According to Augustine Washington’s Will of 11 April 1743 (DLC:GW). See Papers, Colonial Series, 7:173n.
5. Buffington, An Overlooked Side of George Washington, 5–8.
6. See the discussion of Thompson, below.
7. See, for instance, Herbert S. Klein, “Anglicanism, Catholicism and the Negro Slave,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 8:3 (April 1966): 295–327. Restrictions, however, did not keep some enslaved Africans from converting to Christianity.
8. GW’s Barbados Diary, entries of [10 Nov.], 15 [Dec.], and [on or after 22 Dec. 1751].
9. For a discussion of GW’s interaction with Barbados’ social elite, see my colleague Lynn Price’s recent blog post, https://washingtonpapers.org/beef-liberty-and-all-things-barbados/.
10. Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657; rep., London: Printed for Peter Parker and Thomas Guy, 1673), 49–50.
11. Ronald Tree, A History of Barbados (1972; 2nd rev. ed., London, New York, and Sydney: Granada Publishing Limited, 1977; rep., 1981), 87–88; Travis Glasson, Mastering Christianity: Missionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 51; Frank J. Klingberg, ed., Codrington Chronicle: An Experiment in Anglican Altruism on a Barbados Plantation, 1710–1834 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1949); Jon F. Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2005), 3, 6–7.
12. Griffith Hughes, The Natural History of Barbados (London: Printed for the author, 1750), 17.
13. Glasson, Mastering Christianity, 110.
14. GW’s Barbados Diary, entry of 25 [Dec. 1751].
15. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 90.
16. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 84.
17. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 86–87.
18. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” 88.
19. DLC:GW. See Papers, Colonial Series, 1:1–3.

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