Wednesday, May 20, 2015

George Washington (1731-1799) : The Spiritual Life of the Father of our Country by Chris White







“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place”
--Acts 17:26

Men are made for their times and those times shape the destiny of the man.  As Matthew Henry the great English Bible commentator says of this verse, from our perspective the times are changeable, from God’s perspective they are set because they are based on the eternal counsels of his will.

I believe there is a reason George Washington came on the scene when he did and led our nation as its first president.  It wasn’t just good timing and blind circumstance, it was the hand of Providence guiding a man and a nation to His specific destiny.  
Crossing the Delaware (without lifejackets!)

Washington is a huge figure in American history and much has been written of his leadership both as General of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States.  In terms of accomplishments, few American presidents share his stature.  He led us through the dark days of the Revolution where an ill-equipped, part farmer, part slave and lower class army took on the Britain which was a super-power nation at the time.  When the war was finished, Washington took the helm as leader of a fledgling nation and led us through the stormy period of passing and ratifying a constitution with 13 disparate states who all had different agendas and in many regards differing conceptions of how our nation should work
Washington portrayed as Roman Senator


Of course Washington had help.  He was surrounded by a well-known fraternity historians call our “Founding Fathers.”  These men were brilliant and some were arguably far smarter than Washington himself.  But keen intelligence is not always linked with great leadership in the same person.  In fact, one study done at U.C. Davis suggests that some of our smartest presidents, with a few exceptions, were actually quite ineffectual leaders (to see article go to :  http://www.businessinsider.com/the-15-smartest-us-presidents-of-all-time-2015-3).  The greater strength of Washington was his integrity, fortitude, and inner resolve to make the best decision possible as opposed to what is politically expedient and will build his personal legacy.

But greatness aside, there is another measure of George Washington that I would like to discuss in this article; that is, what is known about the spiritual life and orientation of our first president?  Some have suggested that Washington was a deist much like Franklin or Jefferson and that certainly would be in keeping with the times and fashion of his social class and the company he kept.  Others have conflated references to morals and religion Washington made in his letters and speeches and have equated him with a Bible-toting evangelical.  I think there reason to believe that George Washington had a true Christian commitment and this was a long standing fact in his life.  However, he was sensitive to his position as a leader in both the military and new government and spoke of religion in such a way as to be positive but inclusive and respectful of all people and their right to hold their own religious commitments.    

According to a historic timeline, when George Washington was born, the earliest sparks of the First Great Awakening were happening in New England.  By the time Washington was 15 years old, the evangelist George Whitefield was the most well-known man in America and revival in all 13 colonies was in full-flower.  It is said that George Whitefield recognized America’s destiny before the American people did and his evangelical movement sowed the seeds of democratic thought that later germinated into the Declaration of 1776.
George Whitefield


I wonder if the Washington family, aristocratic plantation owners in Virginia and members of the Church of England, were touched by this revival as so many other Americans were at the time.  They had to be aware of it, as a young man in his mid-thirties named Benjamin Franklin (who would later be a colleague of their famous son in the Revolution), was Whitefield’s publicist and made it his mission to keep him in the news as much as possible.  In any case, George Washington was affected because the Great Awakening set in motion among the colonists a movement towards independence that would dominate the majority of his adult life.

Many of the stories later generations (including my own) learned about Washington came from an Episcopal clergyman named Mason Locke Weems.   Weems published an immensely popular biography of Washington just 3 years after his death that attributed every virtue in great measure to Washington.  Washington was extraordinarily honest, brave, wise, and had incredible physical prowess.  It is in a later printing of this book that the story of the chopping down the cherry tree appeared with young George unable to tell a lie to his parents.  Even though little was based on more than fiction, Washington was considered a demigod within a couple of decades of his passing.  However, if Washington really could not tell a lie, he was the first and last president in American history to possess that extraordinary skill!


Parson Weems was not intent on deceiving people through lies about Washington but cashing in on a hot publishing trend of his day.  Very popular (in terms of sales anyway) were books for young people that focused on instilling virtue by telling stories of great people (much like the Roman author Plutarch did in his famous Lives).  Washington was a great person in life and a cherished hero of the founding generation and so the perfect subject for such a book.  There is no evidence of the cherry tree story or Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac actually happened, but their inclusion is to point us to the fact the George Washington was a honest and strong person who could be trusted.

In his early twenties Washington lived an exciting life doing various military exploits with a measure of success.  He also was learned the work of land surveying and did this with his brother a number of years.   But eventually he married and married well which increased his wealth and landholdings.  He married a woman named Martha Custis who was a widow aged 27.  George was 26 years old at the time and she nicknamed him the “old man”.
Martha Custis Washington

It is also well-known that Washington loved another woman named Sally Fairfax all of his adult life.  This love was never consummated and was kept very secret, but there are love letters from him to her that span his life to the end.  This is an inconvenient fact when writing about the spiritual measure of a man as loving someone who isn’t your wife is truly a violation of God’s 7th commandment.  On balance, it should be acknowledged that all people are sinners even if they are Christians which is why we need a Savior in the first place.

George Washington was not so much an intellectual, but was knowledgeable in many ways mainly in practical things.  He was a man of action more than a man of ideas.  This is not to say he didn’t grasp philosophical ideas.  He most certainly did and lived by them.  Washington just wasn’t the “ivory tower” intellectual type.

In keeping with his proclivity for the practical, as a young man he copied long passages from a book written by Jesuit priests called Rules for Civility.  These aided him as he moved upward in Virginia society.  Some of the maxims found in his personal notebook included: it is bad manners to clean your teeth with the tablecloth following a meal and keep a proper distance from people to whom you are speaking so you don’t shower them with your spit.  Some very good wisdom indeed!

Washington was raised Anglican, and then migrated to the Episcopal church after the revolution.  He was baptized and served on the board of trustees of his church in Virginia.  He was also known to attend religious services once a month which was considered quite regular for the times. More often than not, it was weather making the roads impassable or illness preventing one from leaving their bed that caused an absence from church.  Washington possessed devotional books of sermons in his library and would read them to his family on Sundays.  When Washington was at church he did not participate in communion like his wife Martha did but rather slipped outside the service and got the carriage ready to take his family home.
Washington Attending Church


Jared Sparks, a well-known American historian who compiled and read nearly every extant document of Washington believed it was impossible to accurately give the measure of the man without considering him a Christian believer.  Sparks also corresponded with Washington’s granddaughter Nellie Custis-Lewis who was raised by George and Martha when her mother and father died suddenly during her childhood.  Custis-Lewis gave unequivocal testimony of her Grandfather’s faith and religious exercises which she witnessed a great deal during her formative years.  Her presence in George and Martha’s lives was before and during his presidency which adds weight to its value in giving the measure of this man.


When Washington was general he was quick to attend religious services with the Continental Army.  He was also known to pray privately in his officer’s tent.  The kneeling Washington at Valley Forge is likely to be an inaccurate painting that takes an accurate measure of the man.  Washington very much sought the guidance and favor of God in prayer during the Revolutionary war.  He also would have prayed in private as to not make a public show of his religion.  He probably didn’t kneel in prayer as that was neither the custom of his day or something a person of his social standing would do.  Prayer was usually done standing up with the head uncovered (more in the Jewish tradition).
Washington at Valley Forge


Interestingly, Washington issued orders which forbade all cursing and swearing in his army.  He did this because he wanted divine favor on his undertaking and felt it might be withheld if his troops were blaspheming God in the heat of battle.  That might seem quaint or even a bit superstitious today, but it reveals that Washington possessed reverence for God based on his inner faith.

Later when the congress was deliberating on the presidency and what it should be, it made it a stronger office in part because they had their eyes on Washington to occupy it and they knew they could trust him with power.  I think it is very telling about Washington that when monarchy was suggested to him after winning the war, he rejected it immediately and completely.  Equally so, his example of laying his power down at the end of two terms, a tradition that only later became law, shows that in him was the heart of a public servant and not someone with an inner hunger for power over others.

When Washington took the Presidential oath of office, he did so with his hand on the Bible and then bowed down and kissed the Bible according to recorded accounts of the event.  He also is the one who added “so help me God” to the oath of the Presidency.
"..so help me God."


Washington did read the Bible and often quoted from it in his personal and public correspondence.  In his high office he also often referred to Christian virtues as the backbone of our freedom.   It was Washington who wrote:  reason and experience forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.  What a shame that today there can be no discussion of a national morality with regards to our liberty.  True liberty has classically been defined as the freedom to choose to do the right thing without coercion.  American liberty today is largely what the Bible would call licentiousness or ‘doing what is right in our own eyes’ without regard for the moral law of God.  American presidents (and most public officials) get queasy about the subject of morality because the only objective standard of it is based in religious belief and practice.  George Washington had clarity on this because he knew and practiced his religion.

Something else I believe speaks to the spiritual core of Washington was his view on slavery.  It must be remembered that African slavery was legal and commonly practiced in all the colonies and states in this time.  If you could afford them (and most people couldn’t) then you owned them.  Although Washington was a slave-owner himself, from 1770 onwards he slowly committed himself to the abolition of slavery.
Mt. Vernon was kept by slave labor


Something Washington did which set a tone for the next generations was to free his slaves upon his death.  It was actually his desire they be set free earlier, but it would be to their hurt and to his wife’s in her old age.  But he knew and believed that slavery was inconsistent with the Constitution and did by example something the nation would not do until they were forced to by the tragedy of the Civil War.

If Washington was merely a warm deist who saw the utilitarian value of religion in promoting civic virtue, it is still hard to ignore the Christian spirit that seemed to be present within him.  However, it would be even harder to believe a man who sought to live with great integrity would feign Christian faith when in fact, he didn’t have any.
Washington was simply a devout man who just didn’t make a lot of public statements about his own religious beliefs.
Washington with family on Sunday afternoon


Personally, I would rather see a President live out his faith in his personal and public life through his actions rather than his words than to be very vocal about his faith and yet live and govern as if he were an atheist.  America could use another George Washington.

1 comment:

  1. Great Article! Please write more on this subject!

    ReplyDelete