Again and again this question is asked. Ridiculous answers, pro and contra, are often given, commonly snapshot, occasionally with elaborate attempt to rationalize the spontaneous feeling. After thirty-five years of occasional research a summary statement is possible, as a student sees it. Nobody knows for certain nor is it likely that nay one ever will know, even though, as yet, less than one-half of Washington's own writings are in print. What, then are the probabilities? There is a strong, unbroken tradition on one hand. On the other hand there is no end of guesswork. The guessing is perfectly natural to those having little acquaintance with the tradition and still less with closely accessory background.
Washington said that many things about his life could be known only by tradition. He took costly pains for the preservation of his personal writings, leaving us "over 400" manuscript volumes. Fitzpatrick, "Writings of Washington", Volume I, p. 41. Yet he said to a correspondent: "Notwithstanding that most of the papers, which perhaps may be deemed official, are preserved; yet the knowledge of innumerable things of a more delicate and secret nature is confined to the perishable remembrance of some few of the present generation." (Letter to Noah Worcester.) One who wishes to judge fairly tradition about Washington should read that statement of his more than once, weighing every word.
Some three or four of the then "present generations", two of them officers in Washington's army, told their children that Chaplain Gano granted a request of the general for baptism by voluntary immersion and resurrection as a manhood symbol of fellowship with the Lord of life, who "went down into the water" and "came up out", infant "christening" being without that symbolism and without any choice of his own. General and chaplain, both Masons, thoroughly appreciated the value of symbolism. The sincerity of the tradition is indubitable. At my request, grand-children of the chaplain put the certainty of their childhood teaching fate into affidavits. "The John Gano Evidence of George Washington's Religion" (pp. 5-7.) Myth-making might have furnished details, but the tradition gives no time and place. It disarms suspicion further by repeated expressions of uncertainty as to incidents. It is evident only that it was during the Revolutionary War and was not an ecclesiastical but a purely private, personal transaction, such an event is beyond the range of possible belief for either debunkers or sacramentarians. It must be dubious to many strung along between these extremes of dogmatic pre-judgment.
An illustrious pastor of a liberal body, the First Baptist church in America (Providence, R. I.), for thirty-six years, was Dr. Stephen Gano. He was educated for medicine by an uncle and served on the medical staff, but for the notable church ministry by his father, Chaplain John Gano. Dr. Stephen Gano was counted the pink of propriety in his denomination and remarkable in one particular: He was constantly given to baptizing any sure-enough Christian who asked, without publicity or church action and without any changing of their denominational relations. His daughter married David Benedict, the well-known church historian. That is one of the highly qualified lines through which the Washington baptism tradition comes. A daughter of David Benedict wrote me that she did not doubt it. Jacob Creath made written declaration (Palmyra, Mo., 1874) that he remembered well a visit of many days by Benedict in his parents' home in Virginia and telling them about the baptism of Washington.
Two other lines of transmission are as direct as channels of tradition could be. The oldest son of the chaplain was Daniel Gano, a captain of artillery. One of my affiliates, Rev. R. M. Gano (a Confederate general in the sixties) talked with Captain Daniel Gano, who told with perfect assurance about the chaplain's baptizing Washington. The most explicit line of transmission is thorough the oldest daughter of Chaplain Gano, Margaret. Margaret Gano Hubbell repeatedly taught different members of the next generation (my affiants = "those who make affidavits") that her father baptized Washington and that he "told her" so. Such statements put into writing a generation earlier would be historical records. As it is, we have tradition, "the perishable remembrance of some few of the present generation.", one of the "innumerable things of a more delicate and secret nature" transmissible only in that way. It is a triple tradition in the Gano family and more too. We have heard the Creath family quoting Benedict. General and Rev. R. M. Gano affirmed in 1891 that the tradition was held by "many other families with whom I have conversed both in Kentucky and in Virginia". He was a man grown before he knew that any one questioned the fact. It was widely accepted in the part of the country where Chaplain Gano spent his last years. But neither he nor his children felt at liberty to put it into writing. (For a later recension of the same account, see the "Souvenir of the First Baptist Church in the City of New York" last page). Chaplain Gano was its founder and twenty-six years pastor, through the revolution.
Background is indispensable to perspective. A correct judgment of the tradition is impossible to one who knows little of the personal religious atmosphere of that hour. Did space allow, fifty facts of record, many not before collated, could make the tradition, if not probable, at least quite free from strangeness. For example, when Washington brought his military headquarters to New York City in the spring of 1776, patriotic mobs were tearing down the statue of the King of England and other royal emblems. The general requested the authorities of Trinity church and its chapel, St. Paul's, to discontinue the customary prayers for the government of England, whose battleships were then gathering in the harbor to crush the "rebellion". The rector refused to do it. But the noble general frequented his pew at St. Paul's, silently praying for this country, while the priest in the high pulpit prayed for the success of the enemies of the country. In plain sight on "Gold Hill", only two or three squares away, stood the ever-crowded meeting-house where Pastor John Gano, with his eloquent voice and heart, was preaching and praying in behalf of the colonial government and its chosen commander. Like a good soldier, Washington stood by his own church, but watched with keen interest and overflowing gratitude every sanely patriotic popular current in the town. Before the memorable year ended Gano was an army chaplain and at the battle of White Plains, instead of staying at the rear with the surgeons, rushed into the firing line to enhearten our wavering raw recruits and stood by the guns to the last. The officers at headquarters were aglow with admiration. At a later battle in the southern Highlands he maintained his reputation as a "fighting chaplain". When headquarters were located in the northern Highlands a great assembly building of logs was reared as he said for the worship of God, in which he and other chaplains preached. At last peace with England was announced and the entire encampment was mustered there on "Temple Hill", as still it is called, for the celebration of victory. The chaplain chosen to offer the public prayer of thanksgiving was John Gano.
In the long seven years between Chatterton Hill, White Plains, and the peace jubilee on Temple Hill, Windsor, there were extended seasons for military activity allowing ample opportunity for private conferences and events. Gano lost no chance to press the claims of the Almighty on high and low. One morning, hearing an officer use profanity he said to him: "You pray early today." "I beg your pardon, chaplain," said the officer. "Oh, I cannot pardon you; take your case to God." Three seasons headquarters were at Morristown N. J., where Gano had once been pastor, owned a farm and marked the way to good baptismal pools.
Washington's own church, with splendid exceptions, was overwhelmingly "Tory". The liberty-loving group to which Gano belonged was almost to a man with the colonial cause. Washington wrote of that fact with warm appreciation. His relations with them individually and collectively are matters of ample record. See, for instance, Guild's "Hezekiah Smith". Unavoidably the root principle of such a group had great weight with a man like Washington - personal responsibility in religion rather sponsorship by others. See "George Washington and Freedom of Conscience" in the quarterly "Journal of Religion", October, 1932. "Soul-liberty" had been a slogan with some of the Colonials for a hundred and forty years. Washington's ledger shows that he bought books advocating that. The minutes of the Virginia House of Burgesses show that when it was flooded with petitions by the advocates of "soul-liberty" Washington was put on a committee to bring it to pass. So he went to the First Continental Congress, at the doors of which Gano appeared with a strong delegation, President Manning and others from northern colonies, sent by a meeting in New England over which Gano had presided, on purpose to insist on soul-liberty as the cornerstone of American liberties. Washington was always an Episcopalian, born, bred and buried within "The Church". No one has ever supposed that he joined any Baptist church. We have seen the Gano custom of baptizing others. Washington's friend, his own rector for twenty years in mid-career, Bishop William White, advocated immersion as the primitive and correct form, the one preferred in the rubrics of every Prayer-Book. ("Lectures on the Catechism," pp. 125 and 263.) But the good Bishop left it to others to practice what he preached. He admitted that his great parishioner was exceedingly reticent about his personal opinions on religious questions, also that he was ritually as out-and-out nonconformist. But whosoever reads the writings of Washington already in print, to say nothing of the twenty more volumes now on the way, will be sure of one religious conviction about which he was not at all reticent, but frequently very expressive, his belief in the benign providence and sovereign rulership of the living God. He and Gano were of one heart.
Turning from the narrow way of well-authorized tradition and documented history into the unfenced fields of guesswork, let guessing run wild according to its nature. It will be determined mainly by prepossessions of one kind and another. But if one has guessed away from the tradition it factual historicity, its chief value remains. During the lifetime of George Washington he was a man of such obvious open mind and at the same time exacting conscience that honest, intelligent men, who knew him at closer range than we do, could easily think of him as walking down into an emblematic grave and being raised out of it, in order to follow with precision the example and word of the Commander-in-Chief of Christian men.
[By Lemuel Call Barnes in The Religious Herald, March 23, 1933; via SBTS Archives, Louisville, KY. Document provided by Adam Winters. Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on John Gano
Baptist History Homepage