quinta-feira, 7 de junho de 2012

George Washington: The Christian

By  Nathaniel Darnell

When we speak of the Christianity of George Washington, we should clarify both what we mean and what we do not mean. We do not mean that George Washington was a modern-day evangelical. He did not shop at Family Christian Bookstores. He did not attend Wednesday evening church. He did not listen to Steve Green or Michael W. Smith. He did not have fifty Bible translations to read. He did not listen to Christian talk radio.

We also do not mean that he was an evangelist or pastor. He was not a Billy Graham, a Dwight L. Moody, or a C.H. Spurgeon. He wasn’t even a Jonathan Edwards, a George Whitfield, or a John Wesley-—contemporary evangelists to him.

A Man of His Times

George Washington, while an extraordinary man of his times, was still a man of his times.

He grew up in a time when the Anglican Church dominated the British colonies in America. Like a good Englishman, George’s father raised him to attend church every Sunday. [1] Churches in those days were austere and raised money by leasing pew boxes to the wealthy in the community. In the Anglican Church, the King held the position reserved for the Pope in the Catholic Church.

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Yet there was an increasingly Reformed Christian contingency in the Anglican Church known as the Puritans. Isaac Watts, George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Newton were among the preachers of this group. This group stood against the idolatrous imagery of the Catholic Church, which had seeped into many Anglican Churches. They stood for sola Scriptura, the Scriptures alone. They stood for salvation by grace through faith alone.

The Puritans in the Established Church of England proclaimed the truths of the total depravity of man resulting from Adam’s fall into sin. They proclaimed the sovereignty of God over every area of life. These two doctrines flew in the face of the current political system of Britain, and they would have a profound impact on Washington. He would make reference to these doctrines repeatedly throughout his life.

George Washington grew up in this religious setting. A world slowly awakening to the inconsistencies between the accepted ecclesiastical and political order and the truths rediscovered from the Reformation.

He knew that it was taboo in his day for any person holding elected political office in the British colonies, especially in Virginia, to attend any church other than the official Church of England. Even Patrick Henry, who was probably the most out-spoken Christian of the founding fathers, favored Presbyterianism but still attended an Anglican Church. [2]

Washington focused his education on preparing to be soldier, a farmer, and a statesman. Not a parson. With what he knew about the Bible, he knew that he could apply the Scriptures in normal, everyday life as a soldier, farmer, and statesman.

Freemasonry appears to have been new on the scene in the American colonies during the life of Washington. The lodges of Freemasonry provided a new place for many politicians and farmers of that time to socialize, but little is known about how Freemasonry was practiced in the colonies.

Washington became involved for a while with Freemasonry. But during a correspondence with a concerned pastor, Washington stated that he did not believe the lodges of America had adopted the false doctrines of the Illuminati that English lodges followed. Furthermore, he wrote that he had not personally visited a lodge more than once or twice in a period of thirty years. [3]

While a man of his times, Washington demonstrated his Christian faith in three ways: (1) His confession of Christ; (2) His confession of other foundational Christian doctrines; (3) The fruits of the Spirit in his life.

Confess Christ

Although it is impossible for us to know the heart of another man, the Bible provides us with some tests upon which we may evaluate one’s spiritual condition. In John 4:2–3, the Apostle John provided us with one of these tests when he wrote:

“Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.”

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Similarly, in Matthew 10:32, Jesus Christ said, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.” Likewise, in Luke 12:8 Jesus said,“Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God”.

So the first test the Bible provides us for whether someone is a believer is whether they confess Christ.

Throughout his lifetime, Washington wrote and said many things that were recorded by historians. Several of those quotes either explicitly or implicitly confess the Lord Jesus Christ, and they are an evidence of his genuine faith. Below are a few examples.

• Washington’s Commendation to the Delaware Indian Chiefs

While encamped on the banks of a river, Washington was approached by the Delaware Indian chiefs who desired that their youth be trained in American schools. Washington commended the chiefs for their decision, saying:

“You do well to wish to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention.” [4]

This is an example of Washington making an explicit confession of Christ. He could not be accused of playing to the crowd because his audience was a group of pagan Indians who had no reason to be impressed by his recommendations of Christianity.

• Washington’s Supplications in His Prayers

On April 21-–23, 1891, several descendant relatives of George Washington sold a remarkable collection of Washington’s personal belongings in a Philadelphia auction. Among them was a manuscript book written in Washington’s handwriting entitled “Daily Sacrifice.” One of the prayers Washington had recorded in that book read:

O most glorious God, in Jesus Christ my merciful and loving Father, . . . remember that I am but dust, and remit my transgressions, negligences, & ignorances, and cover them all with the absolute obedience of thy dear Son, that those sacrifices which I have offered may be accepted by thee, in and for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered upon the cross for me; for his sake, ease the burden of my sins, and give me grace that by the call of the Gospel I may rise from the slumber of sin into the newness of life. . . . These weak petitions I humbly implore thee to hear accept and ans. [sic] for the sake of thy Dear Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. (emphasis added) [5]

Dozens of testimonies have been recorded in history books by people who attest that they heard Washington pray similar prayers with such piety and devotion.

• Calling for “Christian” Behavior

Washington directed those under his command to behave as “Christian” soldiers. In so doing, he implicitly demonstrated his own assent to Christianity. If Washington did not think Christianity a good thing, he would not have referred to it as an ideal.

In an order to his soldiers, Washington wrote: “The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.” (emphasis added) [6]

In a letter to Colonel Benedict Arnold on September 14, 1775, Washington wrote: “Prudence, policy, and a true Christian spirit will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors without insulting them.” (emphasis added) [7]

• Referring to Christianity as “Our Blessed Religion”

When writing a letter to the governors of the states at the end of the War for Independence, Washington referred to Christianity using the possessive “our” in the phrase “our blessed religion.” If he himself were not a Christian, he would have said “your religion” or “some people’s religion.” But he referred to it as his religion as well.

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would . . . most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which are the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. [8]

Proclamation of Foundational Christian Doctrines

Throughout his lifetime, rather than in one concentrated sermon, Washington commented on the truth and application of various doctrines of Christianity in his personal experience. Here are a few examples.

• The Divine Inspiration of Scripture, the Identity of God, & the Lordship of God

“It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” [9]

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In this quote Washington linked God to the Bible. By so doing, he made in clear that when he spoke of “God” he was speaking of the God of the Bible, not the gods of other religions. Second, he was pointing out the wisdom of the Bible is for all the world. Third, he was affirming that the principles of Scripture have modern application to civil government, for it was in the context of civil government that he spoke.

Believing in the Bible, Washington took care to ensure his step-children each had Bibles. In October of 1761, Washington ordered “[a] small Bible neatly bound in Turkey, . . . [and a] neat small Prayer Book” for his stepchildren John and Patsey. [10]

• The Sovereignty of God, & the Effectiveness of Prayer

In a letter written to Joseph Reed during the war, General Washington wrote:

“If I shall be able to rise superior to these, and many other difficulties which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it, . . .” [11]

Writing to Major-General Armstrong on March 26, 1781, Washington’s words were:

Our affairs are brought to a perilous crisis, that the hand of Providence, I trust, may be more conspicuous in our deliverance. The many remarkable interpositions of the Divine government in the hours of our deepest distress and darkness, have been too luminous to suffer me to doubt the happy issue of the present contest; . . . [12]

In his first inaugural address, President Washington proclaimed:

No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency. [13]

In the first Thanksgiving Proclamation, President Washington wrote:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God — to obey his will — to be grateful for his benefits — and humbly to implore his protection and favour: And whereas both Houses have, by their joint committee, requested me ‘to recommend to the people of the United States, a DAY OF PUBLIC THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness . . . [14]

• The Holiness, Wisdom, and Goodness of God

When sending a circular to the major and brigadier generals, from the Camp at Cambridge, September 8, 1775, Washington asked for their recommendations and proposed an attack on the British at Boston. “The success of such an enterprise depends, I well know, upon the All-Wise Disposer of events, and it is not within the reach of human wisdom to foretell the issue.” [15]

Thanking a pastor for a sermon he preaching, Washington wrote: “[I]t will ever be the wish of my heart to aid your pious endeavors to inculcate a due sense of the dependence we ought to place in the all-wise and powerful Being, upon whom alone our success depends.” [16]

In an order issued at Valley Forge, May 5, 1778, Washington wrote: “It having pleased the Almighty Ruler of the Universe to defend the cause of the United American States, . . . it becomes us to set apart a day for gratefully acknowledging the Divine Goodness, and celebrating the event, which we owe to His benign interposition.” [17]

By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them

Another test the Bible gives us for evaluating whether someone is a true believer is his fruits. That is, his actions, habits, or lifestyle. In Matthew 7:15-17, Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.”

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The Apostle Paul expounded upon this metaphor in Ephesians 5:9 when he wrote, “For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth.” Paul used it again in Galatians 5:21–23, writing: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”

James 2:14–18 adds, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.”

These passages show us that a person of genuine faith will demonstrate the fruit of good works from the Bible in his life. When we look at the life of Washington, we see a man whose life exemplified a close adherence to the commands of Scripture.

We could speak of his church attendance, his participation in communion, his donations, his prayers, his self-sacrifice, his standfastness, his treatment of his slaves, or his faithfulness in paying his debts. We could cite how he applied the Law of God as the General of the Continental Army, forbidding profanity, drunkenness, adultery, and sodomy. We could reference his many writings of humility and thanksgiving to God for his blessing. We could observe his submission to authority and his lack of greed for power particularly at the end of the war with Britain.

If I had a book, I probably would cite all of those marks of Washington’s behavior as evidences of the Spirit of God in his life. However, here are a few special examples that are worth highlighting.

• Bringing Chaplains into the Continental Army

Today we take the practice of having chaplains in the military for granted. But in the War for American Independence, Washington was not just following the crowd when he executed the practice of chaplains in his army. He and the Continental Congress set the precedent.

In his orders, requiring chaplains to serve the army, Washington wrote:

The Hon. Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-three Dollars and one third pr month—The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives—To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger—The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country. [18]

• Leading in Scripture Reading and Prayer

At times, when Chaplains were not available in the army, Washington was known to fill in the gap. “I have often been informed by Colonel B. Temple, of King William County, Virginia, who was one of his aides in the French and Indian War, that he was ‘frequently known Washington, on the Sabbath, [to] read the Scriptures and pray with his regiment, in the absence of a chaplain;’ and also that, on sudden and unexpected visits to his marque, he has ‘more than once, found him on his knees at his devotions.’” [19]

• Fasting for God’s Blessing

Washington personally fasted before the Lord, and led those under his authority to so as well. On June 1, 1774, Washington recorded this in his diary:

“June 1st, Wednesday.—Went to church, and fasted all day.” [20]

On May 15, 1776, Washington issued the following order to his army:

“The Continental Congress having ordered Friday the 17th instant to be observed as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God, that it would please Him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions, and to prosper the arms of the United Colonies, . . .” [21]

• A Life-Long Testimony Observed by Others

Jared Sparks was the most voluminous biographer on the life of George Washington, compiling twelve volumes on the writings of Washington. Sparks wrote:

To say that he [George Washington] was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty. Of all men in the world, Washington was certainly the last whom any one would charge with dissimulation or indirectness [hypocrisies and evasiveness]; and if he was so scrupulous in avoiding even a shadow of these faults in every known act of his life, [regardless of] however unimportant, is it likely, is it credible, that in a matter of the highest and most serious importance [his religious faith, that] he should practice through a long series of years a deliberate deception upon his friends and the public? It is neither credible nor possible. [22]

Sparks went on to illustrate:

I shall here insert a letter on this subject, written to me by a lady who lived twenty years in Washington’s family and who was his adopted daughter, and the granddaughter of Mrs. Washington. The testimony it affords, and the hints it contains respecting the domestic habits of Washington, are interesting and valuable.

Woodlawn, 26 February, 1833.


I received your favor of the 20th instant last evening, and hasten to give you the information, which you desire.

Truro [Episcopal] Parish is the one in which Mount Vernon, Pohick Church [the church where George Washington served as a vestryman], and Woodlawn [the home of Nelly and Lawrence Lewis] are situated. Fairfax Parish is now Alexandria. Before the Federal District was ceded to Congress, Alexandria was in Fairfax County. General Washington had a pew in Pohick Church, and one in Christ Church at Alexandria. He was very instrumental in establishing Pohick Church, and I believe subscribed [supported and contributed to] largely. His pew was near the pulpit. I have a perfect recollection of being there, before his election to the presidency, with him and my grandmother. It was a beautiful church, and had a large, respectable, and wealthy congregation, who were regular attendants.

He attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles [a one-way journey of 2-3 hours by horse or carriage]. In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition [sickness]. The afternoon was spent in his own room at home; the evening with his family, and without company. Sometimes an old and intimate friend called to see us for an hour or two; but visiting and visitors were prohibited for that day [Sunday]. No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother.

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o’clock where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, “that they may be seen of men” [Matthew 6:5]. He communed with his God in secret [Matthew 6:6].

My mother [Eleanor Calvert-Lewis] resided two years at Mount Vernon after her marriage [in 1774] with John Parke Custis, the only son of Mrs. Washington. I have heard her say that General Washington always received the sacrament with my grandmother before the revolution. When my aunt, Miss Custis [Martha's daughter] died suddenly at Mount Vernon, before they could realize the event [before they understood she was dead], he [General Washington] knelt by her and prayed most fervently, most affectingly, for her recovery. Of this I was assured by Judge [Bushrod] Washington’s mother and other witnesses.

He was a silent, thoughtful man. He spoke little generally; never of himself. I never heard him relate a single act of his life during the war. I have often seen him perfectly abstracted, his lips moving, but no sound was perceptible. I have sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits. I was, probably, one of the last persons on earth to whom he would have addressed serious conversation, particularly when he knew that I had the most perfect model of female excellence [Martha Washington] ever with me as my monitress, who acted the part of a tender and devoted parent, loving me as only a mother can love, and never extenuating [tolerating] or approving in me what she disapproved of others. She never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties; and she and her husband were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian. She had no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity [happiness in Heaven]. Is it necessary that any one should certify, “General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity?” As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, “Deeds, not Words”; and, “For God and my Country.”

With sentiments of esteem,

I am, Nelly Custis-Lewis[23]

George Washington’s adopted daughter, having spent twenty years of her life in his presence, declared that one might as well question Washington’s patriotism as question his Christianity. Certainly, no one questions his patriotism; so is it not rather ridiculous to question his Christianity?



[1] E.C. M’Guire, The Religious Opinions and Character of Washington, p. 40 (1837).

[2] William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches, (originally published in 1891), chapter 1.

[3] The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931), Vol. 36, notes 7–9. See link to first letter here, and link to second letter here.

[4] George Washington’s Speech to Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779, in John C. Fitzpatrick, editor, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. XV (Washinton: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), p. 55.

[5] W. Herbert Burk, Washington’s Prayers, p. 13 (1907).

[6] The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931), Vol. 5, p. 244-245, July 9, 1776 Order.

[7] Jared Sparks, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. III, p. 86 (1834-1837).

[8] Sparks, Vol. VIII, pp. 440–452.

[9] Walker P. Whitman, A Christian History of the American Republic: A Textbook for Secondary Schools, (Boston: Green Leaf Press, 1939,1948),42.; Henry Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1927, 1965), p.18; Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History: The Untold Story (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, Publishers, Inc., 1993), p.58. This particular quote attributed to Washington has fallen under special scrutiny because some have pointed out that there are a few quotes (including this one) attributed to the founders which meet the academic standards of scholarship, but adequate evidence has not yet been found for them to meet the higher standards of legal proof. This becomes particularly problematic when attempting to use them in a court trial over a case involving Establishment Clause jurisprudence. However, historians have acknowledged that the evidence supporting this quotation meets academic standards—indeed surpasses the same academic standards used to support quotes attributed to Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, or even Shakespeare.

[10] C. M. Kirkland, Memoirs of Washington, pp. 198-199 (1857).

[11] David McCullough, 1776, ch. 3, page 79.

[12] Sparks, Vol. VII, p. 462.

[13] The First Presidential Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789.

[14] The Massachusetts Centinel, Wednesday, October 14, 1789, Number 9, of Vol. 12.

[15] Sparks, Vol. III, p. 80.

[16] Sparks, Vol. V, p. 276.

[17] Colonel John Whiting, Revolutionary Orders of General Washington, Henry Whiting, editor, p. 77 (1844).

[18] The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931), Vol. 5, p. 244-245, July 9, 1776 Order.

[19] Mason L. Weems, The Life of General Washington, p. 182 (1808).

[20] M’Guire, p. 142.

[21] Sparks, Vol. IV, p. 26.

[22] Sparks, Vol. XII, pp. 399-411.

[23] Id.

Other Books on Washington’s Faith:

• Peter A. Lillback & Jerry Newcombe, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Providence Forum Press (2006). Available for sale at Vision Forum.

• William J. Johnson, George Washington the Christian (1919, reprinted Christian Liberty Press, 1992).

• Tim LaHaye, Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., 1987), p. 103.

• William Jackson Johnstone, How Washington Prayed (The Abingdon Press, 1932).

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