home
RSS
A letter’s journey, from founding father to religious question
The battle over Washington's letter to a Newport, Rhode Island, congregation rages on.
September 30th, 2011
07:08 AM ET

A letter’s journey, from founding father to religious question

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – Standing over the letter, one would never know its unique story. Worth millions at auction, reading it unveils that it stands as a testament to religious freedom in America. But as it stares up, idly sitting there, the stories of “erotic” behavior, twisted ownership and historic encounters are lost on those lucky enough to see it.

The primary spirit of the letter is clear – the United States government will assure religious freedom, giving “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

George Washington wrote those words in a 1790 letter to the the congregation of a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. He was hoping to reassure the congregation that the budding government of the United States would allow free expression to all religions. Since then, Jews in America have flourished.

The letter is addressed “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” but it is kept from public view, which hurts and angers those who think private ownership defies the letter’s original sentiment.

George Washington

“The letter starts off to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” said Mordechai Eskovitz, rabbi of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. “It was meant for the congregation. It is addressed to the congregation.”

Eskovitz has been the rabbi of Touro for 16 years. He said the almost unanimous sentiment in his congregation is that the spirit of the letter, which he said was intended for the community and not one person, is being dishonored.

“Jews at that time were going through such turmoil and finally they found a safe haven in the United States,” said Eskovitz. “This letter, and its sentiment, is something too valuable for an individual. It is for everyone.”

Washington signed the letter on the back. His signature gives it monetary value, but his words give the letter even more value, experts say.

For the last nine years, people have been unable to see the letter. It sits in a sterile Maryland office park a few hundred feet from FedEx Field. It is in climate-controlled, protective storage. However, for those who make an appointment, it is presented on a mahogany table, devoid of protective casing.

From a hallway adorned with the storage facility's logo, workers can be seen at their computers, almost oblivious to the document in the small conference room. Though there are gadgets on desks that you wouldn’t see in most offices - a seismograph, for example - an unaware observer could mistake this place for another run of the mill office.

But this office holds documents behind lock and key that libraries and museums would love to display.

How did the letter travel from George Washington’s pen to this suburban Washington office building? The journey's twists and turns highlight a community's resolve to hold on to the letter's sentiment, if not the letter itself.

From Washington to Seixas

Moses Seixas, who was president of Touro Synagogue when Washington visited Newport after the Constitution was ratified, sparked Washington's letter. The oldest synagogue in the United States, Touro was built in 1763.

Mary Thompson, the research historian at Mount Vernon, said when Washington became president, he tried to visit every state. During his visit to Rhode Island, Washington came to Touro and was read a letter from Seixas. After he returned home, the president sent his reply.

The fact that Washington visited Rhode Island was a big deal in its own right. The fact that he visited Touro to this day astounds worshipers in Newport.

“It is a sign of how important the Jews were that they were able to meet the president,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor at Brandeis University and a pre-eminent scholar on Jewish-American history.

According to Sarna, the Jewish community in Newport was slowly dwindling at the time, losing residents to larger cities like New York and Boston. “Because the community was so small, apparently the letter (from Washington) was actually held in the Seixas family after the visit,” Sarna said.

The situation became so grim for Touro that in the early 19th century, the synagogue was forced to close. In an ironic twist, after losing people to bigger cities, Touro sent some of its scrolls and other valuables to its mother synagogue, Shearith Israel Synagogue in New York.

The letter, however, was not sent to Shearith Israel.

“You would have thought they got the letter,” Sarna said. “The letter was many times reprinted, people at the time knew it was a significant letter.”

The closure of Touro leaves a gap in the path of Washington’s letter. Touro reopened in the late 19th century, but the letter did not surface at the synagogue.

It wasn't until the early 20th century, when a squat Jewish philanthropist began publicizing his ownership of the letter, that the trail picked back up.

From Newport to New York

Howard Rubenstein had just opened a small PR office on Court Street in New York when he was invited to meet Morris Morgenstern. Morgenstern was a public person in need of a publicist and he hoped Rubenstein would fill the job.

“I went to his office and he was a diminutive person, probably 5-2 or 5-3, very short and very lively. Tremendous energy,” said Rubenstein.

At their first meeting, Morgenstern brought up a letter he had purchased, a letter signed by George Washington and addressed to the Hebrew congregation of Newport.

Rubenstein doesn't know how Morgenstern came upon the letter, but according to The Jewish Daily Forward and a 1951 New York Amsterdam News article, Morgenstern acquired the letter in 1949. From who and at what price is unknown.

Using the letter, Rubenstein devised a way for Morgenstern to increase his philanthropic giving. The duo turned viewing the letter into an honor given to prominent people who Morgenstern would get to meet. Morgenstern also would give the viewers of the letter $5,000, a large sum of money at the time, for the charity of the person's choice.

The plan worked.

Morgenstern and the letter were able to meet former President Herbert Hoover, former President Harry Truman and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, as well as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “The only thing I asked these people was when you greet Morris, indicate that you have read the letter and you were delighted to see it,” Rubenstein said.

Morris Morgenstern, center, showed a number of notable people his prized letter, including then-Sen. John F. Kennedy. Howard Rubenstein is at right.

According to Rubenstein, Harry Truman even hugged Morgenstern when they met and said, “I have heard all about your letter and am so excited to see it.”

After the duo stopped publicizing the letter, Rubenstein lost touch with Morgenstern. Rubenstein said he looks back on those days fondly.

“It was a very exciting time for Morris and for the country, because the publicity that it generated about a country opposed to bigotry was very important,” said Rubenstein. “I thought I was doing an important thing in those days.”

Morgenstern also believed the letter he owned was important. According to Rubenstein, Morgenstern cherished the letter so much, he would sleep with the framed letter under his bed at night and would take it almost anywhere he went. Rubenstein called the relationship “treasured.”

In 1957, Morgenstern loaned the letter to B’nai B’rith International, according to Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of the organization.

Why Morgenstern made the loan is unknown. He died in 1969.

New York to suburban Maryland

Mariaschin said former B’nai B’rith’s president Phillip Klutznick secured the loan for the organization's museum in Washington. Klutznick was a well-known Jewish leader and Jimmy Carter’s secretary of commerce. Mariaschin says it was that relationship that cemented the loan.

When CNN contacted the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, Paul Goodnough, the foundation's accountant, said he didn't think this “very private family” would like to talk about the letter.

“If they reach out to you, they want to talk. If they don’t, it is a no comment,” Goodnough said.

The Morgenstern Foundation did not contact CNN.

B’nai B’rith displayed the letter from 1957 to 2002 in its Washington museum, Mariaschin said. The organization downsized in 2002, moving to a smaller office on K Street, an office with no street level location for a museum. Though the organization maintains a reservations-only gallery in its current space, the letter’s unique storage needs were too much for an office environment, so B’nai B’rith contracted Artex, the warehouse in suburban Maryland, to store the letter.

“We are in active discussion now with several institutions about partnering in terms of the display of this very nice collection that the Klutznick museum has,” said Mariaschin.

Since the letter went into storage in 2002, a number of prominent libraries and museums have asked to display it for B’nai B’rith and the Morris Morgenstern Foundation.

Among them was the Library of Congress, which asked to display the letter during a 2004 exhibit celebrating the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. Jennifer Gavin, director of communications at the Library of Congress, said the letter was requested but not obtained.

“It’s not unusual for institutions like the library to reach out to owners of rare documents for such purposes and find that, for a variety of reasons, the loan can’t be accomplished,” said Gavin.

Sarna helped advise the Library of Congress’ celebration of Jewish life. He said the people he worked with were astonished by the rejection.

“Usually people would die just to be invited to display their property,” Sarna said. “If the Library of Congress wanted something of mine, they would have it the next day with insured mail.”

This part of the letter's history distresses Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward. The unwillingness to display the letter, she says, hides not only a critical piece of Jewish American history, but also of American history in general.

"We have flourished in America and it is largely because we have been allowed to," said Eisner. "That spirit of tolerances and acceptances was expressed so beautifully by Washington in that letter."

But where is the letter's rightful home?

Bernard Bell has become disillusioned with Touro Synagogue over the years. Twenty-five years ago, he began a scholarship program at Brown University in honor of the synagogue. Before that, he was a member.

Bell is outspoken, and without much prodding he will bluntly tell anyone who listens that he believes the Morris Morgenstern Foundation does not rightfully own the letter.

“The possession of the letter was in the hands of the congregation and I don’t believe at the time that it was sold that anyone had the right to sell it,” Bell said.

Bell said the majority of Newport Jews, especially those who have been around for quite awhile, agree with him. He said the problem is, “There is nobody in the congregation that I am aware of that has the guts to go after that letter.”

To Bell, the power of the letter is not just its historical significance, but also its monetary value.“It is the most valuable piece of work outside of the synagogue that we have. No one had the right to sell it and it shouldn't sit in the warehouse,” Bell said.

The letter has not been valued lately, but Dana Linett, a colonial documents expert, said the letter could be worth millions.

“I would think that the Touro is a million-dollar or better, it might bring multiple millions, depending on the condition and how it reads,” Linett said.

Linett said he has seen documents like the Washington letter have what he called a “runaway sale.” When a group so identifies with the document, the sale at auction could defy actual valuation, he said. The symbolic power of the letter could mean more than money. In cases like this, Linett said he has seen documents once valued at $1.5 million shoot up to $8 million in a matter of minutes at auction.

“It is a national treasure. That is what this letter is in its truest sense,” Linett said.

Linett is not alone in valuing the letter's sentiment. John L. Loeb Jr. has put his money behind that opinion.

Loeb spent about $12 million to found the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, which opened in 2009. Since first reading the letter, Loeb said, “I have been deeply interested that everyone gets to know it. It is one of the great letters about religious freedom that has ever been written and perhaps the earliest by a head of state.” The institute, near Touro in Newport, serves that purpose by displaying a copy of the letter.

Newport is home to the Touro Synagogue, the Loeb Touro Visitors Center and the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom.

Loeb speaks excitedly about the letter’s sentiment. However, Loeb, a former ambassador to Denmark who has committed most of his philanthropic life to the letter, seems reflective when he talks about displaying only a reproduction.

Loeb said though he would like to house the original letter, it is the sentiment that is more important. It is the sentiment, not the physical letter, that moved him to build the institute.

“To me, the uniqueness of America is the acceptance of everybody,” Loeb said. “That is what made America possible. And this letter symbolizes what America is all about.”

Read George Washington's letter.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Church and state • Judaism

soundoff (594 Responses)
  1. Barry G.

    f:
    What you said is undeniably true, and I admire your courage for saying this–especially given the climate of intolerance towards faith by so many people today.

    Well done.

    September 30, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • In Context

      Oh that Reply button.

      September 30, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • Gumby

      If you sense intolerance toward faith, maybe it is because people are starting to wake up and realize just how insidious, violent, repressive and hypocritical religion is. Thanks to the internet, people are not just automatically equating the word "Christian" with the word "good". Christianity is just another immoral religion used to control the masses, gain power and fleece money from the wallets of the gullible. It's the 21st century. Time for this ridiculous cartoonish mythological dogma to disappear.

      October 2, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • Da King

      Gumpy,
      It's very dark where you are. But, God loves you and hopes you get well.

      November 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  2. mytwocents

    I agree, we weren't founded as a Christian nation but all prejudice (against Christianity) aside, isn't Christian thought part and parcel of all Western thought – do unto others, judge not, love they neighbor – the concept of mercy, the intrinsic value of the individual etc. We shouldn't condemn the ideas because of the "followers" or "interpreters". I wonder if democracy could grow to maturity in a non-christian country? With the guiding principles pulling its weak followers always in the right direction?

    September 30, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • snow

      Oh you gotta be kidding me.. you think the "have mercy" "love your neighbor like yourself" were invented by the Christianity? You mean to say that before Christ gave it as an advice no one in the whole wide world had mercy for anyone? Are you really that close-minded or blind?

      September 30, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      It is interesting to note that there have been very few "Republics" in the history of mankind. Here are the ones I can think of off-hand: the Roman Republic which was destroyed/superseded by the Roman empire, the English Republic which was founded by Oliver Cromwell and his followers and served only Protestant interests, the Southern Confederacy(1861-1865) destoyed by the Lincoln administration, and finally, there is the United States of America. The Roman Repulic was the longest surviving republic I know of, the English republic lasted only two years, the Confederacy but four. That only leaves the USA. Our repuclic has survived for some 225 years. It HAS been a God-fearing Land and people. It was once very powerful. That was back when this Country loved and respected the God of Nations. We the (Christian) People have controlled this Nation for the length of it's existance. We have kept the Country stong, but now this Republic of, by and for the People is waning in it's brilliance. God is being pushed aside. It will be interesting to see how long a god-less America will survive. God bless America!

      September 30, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • snow

      Missing a few republics there Dave.. Republic of India, Republic of China pops to mind at the moment.. but your argument means to say those republics (one secular and the other communist) do not have recognition or are not great in their own rights?

      September 30, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Gumby

      The Golden Rule and the other concepts you speak of are not original to Christianity. Your religion did not invent morality, nor does it get to claim morality for itself. Actually, when you stop just skimming the surface and look just a bit deeper into Christianity, it is quite easy to see just how shockingly immoral the Christian religion actually is.

      October 2, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • FruitsOfReasonNotReligiousNuts

      "I wonder if democracy could grow to maturity in a non-christian country? With the guiding principles pulling its weak followers always in the right direction?"

      Uh....how about the Athenian democracy that existed roughly 500 years before Jesus?

      October 4, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Logic Fail

      We were not founded as a Christian nation. And no matter how many times your pastor says it won’t change that fact. This is not a matter of opinion but fact. Feel free to educate yourself. In fact many of the founding fathers were actually Deist.

      October 21, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  3. Kevin

    I understand the inherent conflicts with the man, notably his ownership of slaves, but the greatness of George Washington is reinforced at least a couple of times a year for me when I learn something like this about the man, often from his own words. What I would give for a leader like him today.

    September 30, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  4. f

    Very cool that these Jewish people still have this letter and protect it and keep it. Very cool that GW wrote it and gave it to them to specifically ease their concerns over Christian dominance and possible intolerance of the Jews in the new America. I think they should keep it. I think they should make &/or sell copies of it for the public to hold and especially for other Jewish temples/synagoges. (Sorry, I'm, not Jewish.)

    September 30, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  5. Barry G.

    RightTurnClyde:

    Well said.

    I was waiting for someone to have the courage and good sense to write what you did.

    Well done.

    September 30, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Ben

      Now if only Barry G. would pray to his god to teach him how to use the reply button...

      September 30, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  6. Hasa Diga Eebowai

    "Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law" -Thomas Jefferson

    September 30, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Bobbie Stump

      "Anyone can say anything on the internet today and attribute it to anyone." – Abraham Lincoln

      September 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Here you go, Bobbie. Since you're too lazy to google, here's site with the quote, listing it's source. There's a lot of quotes there, from many of the founding fathers, letting you know just exactly how christian the men who created our nation were.

      http://freethought.mbdojo.com/foundingfathers.html

      September 30, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  7. sandy agan

    Someone commented that John Stuary Mill influenced the founding fathers of the United States. I find that fascinating, given that Mill was born in 1806

    September 30, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Barry G.

      Very astute, Sandy.

      Well done.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Real Deal

      sandy, Good catch. I did that one (*blush*), taken from another list.

      Actually, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) –
      his writing was not an influence on the Const.itution, but he expounded on some of the important concepts presented in the Bill of Rights.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  8. Real Deal

    It seems like too many people confuse the "Founding Fathers" with the early settlers (Pilgrims, Puritans, etc.) who came from Europe to escape religious intolerance (many came for other reasons, however).

    The early settlers started arriving in 1620. The U.S. Consti.tution was written in the 1780s - 160 years, and many generations later. These 1780 people were not the highly religion-oriented folks of times past. Perhaps they were educated in Christianity and many were believers, but as has been noted by several here, Christianity does not have the corner on the market of beneficial values.

    September 30, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • zarec

      The Puritans were intolerant of those with beliefs that differed from their own.....

      October 25, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  9. WVLady63

    The letter belongs to the Hewbrew Congregation of Rhode Island to whom Washington wrote it.

    September 30, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Barry G.

      You made a good point, and I concur.

      It would be nice, however, to have the letter somewhere where it can be read by many. Perhaps it could be put on view at the Jewish Museum of History in Philadelphia.

      This would be fitting. It would give honor to both the recipients (the Hebrew congregation) and the author (George Washington).

      September 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • jim

      The letter belongs to whoever holds it.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • mb2010a

      The courts have ruled many, many times that possession is 99% of the law... The letter belongs to whoever has possession of it unless it is on loan to them as in this case.

      September 30, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  10. right leaning independent

    The letter was sent to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. It belongs to them, unless their authorized representative took actions that transferred ownership to another party in some way. This article does not present enough evidence to establish whether that happened or not, or if it did whether it was legal. We probably won't ever know. Bottom line is this - the public's desire to have the letter displayed is insignificant when compared to the owners right to refuse. This was a private letter which implies private ownership. I would love to see it displayed, but no government or museum or anyone else should we able to force that to happen without the consent of the letter's legal owner.

    September 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • ryderX

      @RealDeal Excellent list, and exactly correct!

      October 4, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  11. J.W

    I do not think that anyone really believe that this nation was founded upon Christianity.

    September 30, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Howard

      I agree America was not founded on Christianity. However, if you believe no one believes that, then you just haven't been paying attention to the news in the past few years.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      You think wrong oh wise one. The Mayflower had the Congregationalist church on it. They fled England because they did not agree with the Anglican church and were branded for being Congregationalist. The Jamestown Settlement was built around a Christian church and the King James Bible. Little CHRISTIAN Churches were used for school houses because literacy and Bible reading are elementary to the Reformation. Little Christian churches dotted the countryside and had barn-building-bees (parties to build barns and homes) that included preachers reading the gospels, praying, singing hymns, building barns and clearing stumps. Neighbor helped neighbor. Little Christian churches were where the military gathered and mustered and drilled. Little Christian churches were where the graveyards were and in 1911 the rural town where Sergeant Alvin York hailed from was very much like the ones that arose 400 years earlier on the James River and in Plymouth. It was not a lot different in the 1940 in Pennsylvania (I remember) and the Midwest and the mid-South. In fact these same towns were like that as late as the 1970's (and I was there and remember it well - as an adult). All across our nation. There were few Synagogues outside of major metropolitan area and no mosques. (there were Mormon LDS churches). I was raised in a Jewish town so I liked Jews (first girlfriend was Jewish).. nice girls. Ladies (gentlewomen).

      September 30, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Nocordoba

      Uh then you need to look a bit harder than average atheistic education.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      In the 1940's public school assemblies and events began with a reading of the 23rd Psalm (The Lord is my Shepherd). Everyone liked that. And then a Pledge of Allegiance (we were at war) and a prayer to Almighty Father to protect our sons and our men from harm and to make the war be over ASAP. All of the Civic Clubs began that way (Lions, Rotary, Elks, Moose) and all of the Boy Scouts (Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts Explorers, Girl Scouts, Brownies). Most of us went to a church on Sunday (Catholic or Protestant). Every movie in a public movie theater began with a Pledge of Allegiance, Lord's Prayer, National anthem and then the "Eyes and Ears of the World" news about the war. A Christian invocation of public meetings continued WELL into the 1950's and 1960's. SO now you can believe that because I swear to you as an eyewitness that is true and correct.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Chuckles

      @RTC

      I fail to see why you believe that all of these things somehow were great and we should go back to it? It's nice that you got to be white in 1940 and so didn't have to worry about discrimination for being a woman, gay, black, jewish or any number of things, but as a society moving forward, the last thing we want to do is look back at the 1940's or before and think to ourselves that we should go back to that.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Patrick

      Of course it was founded on the basics of Christianity, by Christians, by Christina-Jewish Law and morals. Are you people totally ignorant of American history or do you wish to rewrite that history to your own benefit. Get a life.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Chuckles

      @Patrick

      No need to rewrite what is actually going on here. I think you probably need to go back and read a book or two and realize the "christian principals" you're talking about are actually western, enlightened values. The other truely christian values (you know, like the jesus thing, and god thing), yeah those were written out of the consti.tution purposefully.

      Yadigg?

      September 30, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Your country was founded on another basic judeo-christian tenet – slavery.
      Oh for the good old days when being a white, christian, land owning male still meant that one was the only voice that could be heard.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Patrick

      Of course it was founded on the basics of Christianity, by Christians, by Christin-Jewish Law and morals. Are you people totally ignorant of American history or do you wish to rewrite that history to your own benefit. Get a life.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Uh oh, someone shake Patrick, he's caught on a loop. One good smack should do it.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Real Deal

      Patrick,

      Here is a partial list of political philosophers who heavily influenced the ideas of the founders of the U.S.

      # Thomas Hobbes
      # James Harrington
      # John Locke
      # Charles de Montesquieu
      # Thomas Paine
      # John Stuart Mill

      Please look them up and become more educated.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Hasa Diga Eebowai

      Its sad but you are very wrong

      September 30, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • J.W

      Everyone who says the US was founded on Christianity is just kidding.

      September 30, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Gumby

      Unfortunately JW, you're wrong. Every godbotting blithering Xian fundamentalist thinks this country was founded by Christians, for Christians. We have a ways to go before this country emerges from under the slimy rock of Christianity. But it is starting to happen, and that is good news.

      October 2, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • FruitsOfReasonNotReligiousNuts

      "The Mayflower had the Congregationalist church on it. "

      The country wasn't founded for almost another 160 years after this.

      October 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  12. RightTurnClyde

    The military's of the world need to get young boys to kill others so they learned it is easier if you dehumanize the opponent into a G-o-o-k, s-l-o-p-e, kr-au-t, h-u-n, G.I., G.o.m.e.r ... dehumanizing words create dehumanized perceptions and inhuman behaviors. It is not tough but it is callous. Any of those racial or ethnic or religious slurs are forms of dehumanization. Eastern Europe is full of mass graves .. from Peloponesia (Greece) to Bosnia to Katyn to Siberia. And yes the U.S. government had concentration camps as late as WWI (Manzanar) and indigenous "reservations" were barren prisons.. genocidal. Any form of dehumanization leads to inhuman behavior. SO PLEASE STOP IT.

    September 30, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Lee

      I agree that we should stop dehumanizing behavior, but I'm a little unclear of who you are telling to stop it.

      September 30, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  13. RightTurnClyde

    But now it is "open season" on Christians. Those who received egalitarian treatment refuse to give it. They prove to be the most bigoted and the most hate charged in their INTOLERANCE of Christians (particularly Caucasian Christians)

    September 30, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Lee

      White Christian Male – the most persecuted demographic of all time. /sarcasm

      September 30, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      So basically you believe you have license to hate. But not conversely.

      September 30, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Lee

      I don't exactly know how you derived "You have the license to hate, but not conversely" out of "White Christian Male – the most persecuted demographic of all time. /sarcasm"

      I was just pointing that it is ironic for a white Christian male to scream persecution when, in fact, they are the LEAST persecuted segment of the population who historically has done the vast majority of the persecuting.

      September 30, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • TransHuman1

      I agree! Why, it's a sin that we haven't had a white, Christian president yet. Or, say, 42 of them. We need more white men on our currency. And, it's horrid how few white male broadcasters, senators, quarterbacks, or coaches we have. And don't get me started on all the non-christina, now-white, non-male generals. You think they'd have at least one white christian male – at least symbolically – in the rank of general....

      September 30, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • emdub

      That Christians can point to the rejection of their ongoing willful ignorance and bigotry hidden behind a veil called religion proves they are not persecuted. Educated people who believe in freedom may support the right to choose this dangerous and belligerent lifestyle choice but they have no intention of living it.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Gumby

      Christians are the hateful bigots, not us – it's just that we're starting to call you idiots out on your bigotry and prejudice, and you can't stand it. Ha ha. Get used to it.

      October 2, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  14. AGuest9

    The irony here is that several letters written earlier by Washington pertained to orders of genocide of the entire Six Nations of New York by Maj. Gen John Sullivan's forces in 1779. Washington didn't seem to care much for THEIR beliefs.

    September 30, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      It is a tragic story of the 18th and 17th century treatment of indigenous Americans. Clearly at some point there was an active genocidal program (Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, starvation). The indigenous were most often generous and friendly to the settlers. Daniel Wright would have died in what is now Riverwoods IL (the winter) but the Indians helped him. Indians both helped and massacred the settlers at Martins Hundred. Comanches traded as well as raided in the Comancheria. Lewis and Clark were greeted with hospitality by Shoshone and Nez Pierce (albeit a murder plot was headed off by a sqaw). It is a very human story because both good and bad were experienced .. Mandan. Sioux, Blackfoot, Shoshone, Nex Pierce. The situation was pitiful by 1890 when Germonimo surrendered (and by 1940 the Navaho were American heros) .. It is a story that has not been well told. (too politicized)

      September 30, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Barry G.

      I think it's fair to say that Washington was a great leader, who played an extremely important role in the birth of this nation, and yet we realize that he was human and was not immune from the limitations of his day–but then again, who is?

      September 30, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • captain america

      What foreign enemy power are you a"guest" from?1779 George Washington was in the midst of a life and death struggle that would become the United States of America!The "six" nations were traditional allies of England and as such a fifth column aimed at the very heart of the new republic.Beliefs got nothing to do with it.War creates difficult choices, and all is well that ends well.The five nations later six still thrive on there ancestral homelands.Do you even know who the six nations are without looking them up?

      September 30, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Gee, captain america. You need to read up on your history. Try the Writings of George Washington. I don't have the volume numbers in front of me, but letters immediately after his return to Virginia from Fort Necessity and letters from July, 1778 after the attacks on villages in Pennsylvania and New York should do the trick. He didn't look very presidential in his remarks.

      I know a fair amount about them after having a paper published on them for the 225th anniversary of one of the attacks in 1778. I've spoken with several of their descendents, outside Syracuse, as well as historians from Canada who are part of the reconst.ituted Butler's Rangers.

      September 30, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • captain america

      All your blather did not answer the issue of a known enemy in the American heartland,or name the nations without cheating.This casts doubt in your historical credentials.It appears you are looking to throw rocks at America and willing to go to any lengths to do so.

      October 1, 2011 at 7:09 am |
    • AGuest9

      I'd love to see YOUR credentials, "Captain". Since " George Washington was in the midst of a life and death struggle that would become the United States of America", it seems even more foolhardy to place nearly half of the Continental Army under a Maj Gen and march them up into New York while he was busy engaging the British!

      November 6, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • AGuest9

      "The five nations later six still thrive on there ancestral homelands."

      I would HARDLY say that they are thriving. Also, please don't accuse me of lack of knowledge on a subject in which I am well-versed when you are incapable of proper grammar.

      November 6, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  15. kimsland

    This letter of Toleration was reprinted in George Washington, WRITINGS 766, (Rhodehamel ed., The Library of America 1997).
    This is not some newly discovered and uncovered news or anything.
    Why is CNN belief writing these old stories? It's written like it has just been uncovered or something?

    By the way when has any christian tolerated someone elses different belief? All christians consistently say is that if you don't praise their lord you're going to hell.
    That's tolerance?

    September 30, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Nonimus

      The tolerance is that they don't send you there immediately, I'm guessing.

      September 30, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • W247

      The tolerance is that you are not FORCED under penalty of immediate death to become a Christian.

      September 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • AmazingSteve

      Just penalty of eternal, horrible, made-up torture

      September 30, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Sean

      @ W247

      Unless you are Gay, Black, Mexican, Muslim … need I continue?

      October 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  16. JohnR

    A great and important statement of the SECULAR intent of the founders.

    September 30, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Uncouth Swain

      That we all should get along, regardless of faith or the lack thereof.

      September 30, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Sean

      @Uncouth Swain

      It says nothing about getting along. It’s a statement about not forcing your religion on others / not forcing others out of their religion. That does not require getting along.

      October 21, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  17. Brian

    "From who and at what price is unknown" should be "From WHOM and at what price is unknown".

    September 30, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  18. SPA Knight

    Doc,
    I don't understand how this letter that expreses religious freedom somehow diminshes the fact that our country's founding is based on Christian values?

    September 30, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      They ARE'NT "Christian" values. The fact that many of the values are the same does not mean said values originated with or are exclusive to Christianity.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • BRC

      Actually it was founded on principles of respecting personal freedoms, empowering and putting responsibility on the populous (being a citizen means something), removing ultimate power from any single individual, limiting state based control in personal life, and the recognition and enforcement of a just social contract. All of those principles existed (in some form or another) long before Christianity. They are shared (sometimes) by Christianity, so there are parallels, but not necessarily derived from Christianity.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Lee

      For one thing, religious freedom is not a Christian value. It is a western value.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Linda

      Yikes. Because it honors all faiths. . . get the Jewish reference?? The letter was to a synogogue? Perhaps you mean this country was founded on values rooted in Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths, where in some places and at some times in history there was a respect for another's way to God. Perhaps you mean that the value here was respect for the different paths and the separation of the church from the workings of the government. This was a historic and dramatic experiment in separating the government from religion and extended protections for all faiths or to those who practiced no faith. This wonderful, daring, experiment in separation of church and state freed this country from the tyranny of one religion laying claim to God's word expressed through the government. This country wasn't founded to be a Christian country but founded by people who were certainly influenced by it. You DO know that Jefferson and Madison were Deists and not Christian, right?
      As Christians, Jews, Mulims, Buddhists, or those of no faith .. we should be celebrating it and not trying to change it into a history that claims only our faith as legitimate or as the entire basis. When we do that we've missed the point entirely.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Free

      Lee
      Religious freedom use to be a Roman value until the Christians took over. Then the burnings began.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @SPA Knght
      "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—"
      – Treaty of Tripoli – 1797

      What this letter does is reinforce the principles on which your country was actually founded.
      That you consider freedom of and from religion to be a Christian value is just fine – but your country is intended to be secular – and secularism is not a Christian virtue, is it?

      September 30, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Cosmos42

      No, this country was founded on Enlightenment values. If it were founded on Christian values, we'd still be burning witches.

      September 30, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      @ l e e . . F o r . .o n e . .t h i n g , . .r e l i g i o u s . .f r e e d o m . .i s . .n o t . .a . .C h r i s t i a n . .v a l u e . . .I t . .i s . .a . .w e s t e r n . .v a l u e . . . n o . .i t . .i s . .n o t . .a . .w e s t e r n . .o r . .e v e n . .a . .h u m a n . .v a l u e . . .T h e . .i n t u i t i v e . .v a l u e . .i s . .t o . .e x t e r m i n a t e . .t h e . .c o m p e t i t i o n . . T h a t . .i s . .w h y . .t h e r e . .w a s . .a . .h a l o c u a s t . .a n d . .m a s s . .g r a v e s . .w h e n . .a n . .o p p o s i n g . .f o r c e . .i n v a d e s . .G r e e c e , .M a c e d o n i a , .B o s n i a , .Y u g o s l a v i a , .S l o v a k i a , .P o l a n d , .R u s s i a . .A f r i c a ) . . . . . .M a n . .m u s t ...l e a r n .t o . .b e .c i v i l i z e d .a n d .t o l e r a n c e . .i s . .o n e . .o f . .t h e . .t r a i t s . .o f . .c i v i l i z a t i o n . . . .A t o m i c . .w e a p o n s .a r e . .m e r e l y . .e v i d e n c e . .o f . .o u r . .w i l l i n g n e s s . .t o . .e x t e r m i n a t e . .o n e . .a n o t h e r . .( b u t . .l e g a l l y ! )

      September 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Lee

      Clyde. It may be a religious value to exterminate the competi tion, as dictated in the Bible and Koran, but here in the enlightened west, we have respect and empathy for people of all religions, races, nationalities, etc. Don't project your sick value system on all of humanity.

      September 30, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • steven harnack

      Didn't your head just about explode when you read the bit about America putting forward "liberal policies"?

      September 30, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Barry G.

      Well said, but I fear that many are loathe to acknowledge this point and make this concession.

      September 30, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  19. Lee

    I am forever grateful that our founding fathers so decided to create a secular government. The unfortunate Christian recently convicted in Iran is a clear example of what happens when a nation does not have religious freedom.

    September 30, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Nonimus

      Hear! Hear!

      September 30, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  20. Doc Vestibule

    Another blow to the fallacy that America is a nation founded for and by Christians.

    September 30, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • William Demuth

      Very true.

      This was quite an informative article.

      It is a high water mark for the blog!

      September 30, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Yup...proof positive that America was founded as a nation with secular govt. and freedom of religion for all. Whether that be Christian, Jew, Muslim or no religion at all. Gonna love to see how the knuckleheads try to rationalize this into their twisted view of history.

      September 30, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • f

      America was founded on "Judeo-Christian" values. No one ever said we are a Christian country. where you even get your crappy wrong information? Kieth Olberman? Al-Jazeera? We were NOT founded on Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, or Hindu values. Those groups were not around in America yet.

      September 30, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • sao paco

      @ f
      Too bad we weren't founded on Buddhist beliefs. We would be way less warlike and judgemental.
      I will stick to the secular, reasoned values that the founding fathers espoused simply because I wouldn't force religious beliefs on anyone.

      September 30, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Da King

      Doc, almost all of the founding fathers were Bible believing Christians, that's why all are welcome and free to believe what they want. Christopher Columbus came here to spread the good news of the Bible. G.W was a born again Christ follower, also. You are not a blow to this movement. You are just among the lost majority.

      November 20, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Advertisement
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.