George Washington Bethune was born into the devout and wealthy family of Divie and Joanna Graham Bethune of New York City on March 18, 1805. His father was a highly successful merchant of Huguenot extraction and both his parents had been born in Scotland. George was privately tutored at home, attended school in Salem, New York, and entered Columbia College in 1819. In January 1822, upon the re-opening of Dickinson College under President John Mason, Bethune came to Carlisle and enrolled and graduated in June 1823. He then studied theology at Princeton and served briefly on a mission to seamen in Charleston, South Carolina in 1826 before being ordained in the Second Presbytery of New York in November 1827.
A Calvinist, Bethune joined the Dutch Reformed Church and took up his first pastorate in Rhinebeck, New York. He remained there until 1830, when he moved to Utica for four years, and from there, thanks to growing reputation as an eloquent preacher, to the First and Third Churches in Philadelphia, where he served for fifteen years. In 1850, he returned to his home city, taking up the reigns of the newly organized "Reformed Dutch Church on the Heights" in Brooklyn Heights for nine years. His reputation as preacher, author, and activist was by this time very strong. He was offered in turn the chaplaincy of the U.S. Military Academy, the chancellorship of New York University, and the provostship of the University of Pennsylvania, but turned them all down to concentrate on his own varied work.
A student of literature, Bethune wrote or edited several well regarded books, including an edited collection of The British Female Poets, with Biographical and Critical Notices (1848). His own poems, Lays of Love and Faith came out the same year. In 1847 he edited the first edition in the United States of Izaac Walton's The Compleat Angler, adding an introductory history and an almost complete bibliography. Although an avid fisherman with a collection of more than 700 books on the subject, he was forced to publish this book anonymously, in keeping with Calvinist ideas about the suitability of such a hobby for a clergyman. Bethune was also an accomplished musician in his own right; his verse for more than a dozen hymns are still in use to this day.
He was an outspoken Democrat in politics, opposed to slavery but unsympathetic to abolitionism, although he did urge his fellow Dickinsonian President James Buchanan to suppress pro slavery propaganda in the southern states. Bethune was in fact a leading voice in the American Colonization Society overseeing the experiment in Liberia. His last public appearance before leaving for Europe in April 1861 was a fiery oration at the huge meeting in Union Square, New York in support of patriotism and adherence to the Union. He had retired from his position at Brooklyn Heights due to poor health, and was about to embark upon a second trip to Italy in order to restore his failing health. However, George Bethune died at age 57 on April 28, 1862 of a stroke in Florence, where he had been residing for some months with his wife, Mary Williams, whom he had married in November 1825.