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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 8, 2015

 In the Hands of a Good Providence: The Faith of George Washington

Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 8:26-30

              “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  So said Henry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, elegantly and memorably, in the eulogy he offered for George Washington upon his death on December 12, 1799.  George Washington was born to Augustine and Mary Bell Washington on February 22, 1732.  He was raised in an Anglican household typical of eighteenth century Anglican families – Washington grew up familiar with the Bible, as his later letters and speeches would show, he had absorbed the stories, language and practices of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

             Washington’s father died when he was a boy of eleven, which changed the course of his whole life.  Joseph J. Ellis says in his masterful biography that “Washington didn’t go to school, instead, he went to war.”  Formally, he never got past an elementary school education, being trained instead as a surveyor.  Yet like Abraham Lincoln, who also had little formal education, Washington would go on to become one of the greatest leaders this country ever knew.  As his birthday comes this month, I thought it would be good to pause and reflect upon “the Father of our country” and especially upon his religious faith.

             Mary V. Thompson worked much of her life as a docent, than a curator, and finally a research assistant at Mount Vernon, Washington’s magnificent home on the Potomac River near our nation’s capital.  In 2012, Connie and I spent the weekend of Washington’s birthday as the guests of Florence Davis, a Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the group of women who have done such a magnificent job of restoring and running this important national historical treasure.  When asked about Washington’s religious beliefs, as a docent, Mary V. Thompson was told to answer that he was a Deist, which other Founding Fathers, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, may in fact have been.  But as Thompson grew in her mastery of Washington’s papers and legacy, she grew suspicious of this answer.  So she engaged in an intentional study of Washington’s faith, looking through writings, family Bibles and books, and witnesses who left a record of what they knew of Washington.

             It was not an easy task for a number of reasons.  First, Washington was a quiet man all his life, many described him as taciturn.  John Adams once said, “Washington has the gift of silence.”  (A gift Adams lamented that he never had!)  Washington did not talk much, and even less about himself.  He also felt pained over his own lack of formal education.  Ellis, in his biography of Washington, His Excellency, says, “It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute.  Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior.”

             Then there is the business of separating the man from the myth.  Ellis says that the Parson Weems story of young George, the hatchet, his father and the cherry tree is probably not true, but part of the mythology attached to “the Father of our country.”  It is what C.S. Lewis would have called a “true myth,” in that it points to Washington’s integrity, which was unquestioned among all who knew him.  Indeed, the real difference between Washington and Jefferson may have been that Washington could be honest with himself about his own political ambitions and the dangers they held.  Jefferson feigned a disinterest in politics, creating in secret endless political maneuvering.  In his biography of Thomas Jefferson, The American Sphinx, Joseph J. Ellis finally concludes, “Jefferson kept secrets from everyone, including himself!”

             There have been all kinds of “untrue myths” about Washington’s religion.  For years some called him a Deist.  He most assuredly was not.  There are another group of myths that make the opposite claim: One says that he was immersed as an adult by a Baptist chaplain during the war, another that on his deathbed he took last rites from a Catholic priest.  Neither is true.  His step-grandchildren, who had nineteenth century conversion experiences, speak of him as an evangelical Christian, but there is little evidence for this, either.

             Ellis, who has no feel for the importance of religion, said, “At best, Washington was a lukewarm Episocopalian.”  Ellis concludes, “Washington died as a Roman stoic rather than as a Christian.”  I think he says this because Washington made no deathbed confession in 1799, but I could not disagree more with this assessment.

             Washington was raised in a Latitudinarian Anglican home.  They were also called Broad Church or Protestant Anglicans.  They were strongly influenced by rationalism.  They studied the thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church, a great statement of Christian orthodoxy, but they said five beliefs mattered supremely: (1) the existence of God the Creator, (2) the revelation of God’s Word, (3) the atonement and resurrection of God’s Son, (4) the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and (5) the church universal.  There is no reason to believe that Washington doubted any of these tenets.  He wrote, “In religion, my tenets are few and simple.”  He never had a dramatic conversion experience, and faith in the eighteenth century, apart from the first Great Awakening, which touched a small percentage of the colonies, was less personal and less emotional than it would become in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

             Above all, Washington was a Churchman.  For twenty-two years he served as a Vestryman for Truro Parish, attending twenty-three of thirty-five meetings, missing usually because he was away serving his country.  As President he attended Trinity Church in New York City and Christ Church in Philadelphia regularly.  His secretary, Tobias Lear, describes a typical Sunday when Washington was President:

             “While President, Washington followed invariable routine on Sundays.  The day passed very quietly, no company being invited to the house.  After breakfast, the President read aloud a chapter from the Bible, then the whole family attended church together.  Washington spent the afternoon writing personal letters, while Mrs. Washington frequently went to church again, often taking the children with her.  In the evening, Lear read aloud to the family some sermon or extracts from a book of a religious nature and everyone went to bed at an early hour.”

             Washington stood when he prayed rather than kneeling, as many Anglicans do.  Some have made much of this, but it may have been because he was six foot, four inches, and simply wasn’t comfortable kneeling!  It is also true that he attended church less frequently when he returned from serving as President, and it seems that at some point he stopped taking communion.  These are all fairly uncontested facts, with evidence to support them.  So what then did Washington believe?

             More than anything else, I want to argue that Washington believed in the Providence of a good God.  He first appeared in history in 1753 with the brutal killing of the French leader Jumonville, by a group of Indians, while it is likely Washington watched, perhaps in horror as they took scalps.  By 1755 he was a Colonel, serving under General James Braddock, who was marching his troops, European style, to attack Fort Duquesne.  They were ambushed by the French and Indians, and Braddock was killed, leaving young Washington in charge.  As fine a horseman as America had, Washington rode heroically through the battlefield, gathering the troops back together, somehow barely avoiding getting killed.  Two horses were shot out from under him, and four musket ball holes were left in his coat.  A legend was born.  The Reverend Samuel Davies, the great American Presbyterian preacher, wrote of the Massacre at Monongahela, “I may point out to the public that heroic youth Col. Washington, who I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a manner for some important service to his country.”  Davies was prescient in 1755, and Washington probably always believed from that day on, that Providence, with a capital P, his favorite name for God, had saved him that day for a larger purpose.  Providence was a common seventeenth and eighteenth century name for God.  It was the belief that “all events were controlled by God.”  (Mary V. Thompson)  When Washington was inaugurated as President on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall, in New York City, he took his Masonic Bible, and opened it to Genesis 50, the text we read today.  He placed his hand on that open book, opened to where Joseph says, “You meant it for evil, God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Then he leaned over and kissed the open Bible.  That was hardly the act of a Deist, or of someone who did not revere the Scriptures.

             In one of the first biographies of Washington, in 1804, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “Without making ostentatious professions of religion, he was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man.”  His stepdaughter, whom he raised, said, “He was not one of those who act or pray ‘that they may be seen by men.’  He communed with God in secret.  He was a silent, thoughtful man.  He spoke little generally, never of himself.”

             But shortly after taking office as President, Washington came down with a fever and grew deathly ill.  To his physician Dr. Samuel Bard, with his wife and others present, he said, “I am not afraid to die and therefore can bear the worst.  Whether tonight or twenty years hence, makes no difference.  I know I am in the hands of a good Providence.”

             Do you know this?  Do you know that your life is in the hands of a God of Providence and Grace?  Washington apparently stopped taking communion after leaving public office.  Mary V. Thompson thinks this may be because of the moral anguish he felt increasingly over the issue of slavery, and his growing conviction that it was wrong.  I wonder this as well, for in his last will, he freed the one hundred twenty-four slaves he owned outright, upon the death of his wife Martha.  He wrote that he hoped and prayed for “a gradual emancipation,” fearing both slavery and the abolitionists who were so adamant about its needed destruction.  I think he hoped others would follow his example, but they did not.  The great Methodist Francis Asbury once visited Washington unannounced at Mount Vernon, something many people did.  He wanted to gain Washington’s signature for an abolitionist petition.  Washington expressed his support for the abolition of slavery, but could not sign his petition, believing it was something that would cause great trouble.

             In his famous farewell address, the first draft written by Alexander Hamilton, when he laid down his office after two terms, tired of political sniping, just as he had laid down his sword at Annapolis after the war, Washington wrote of “the benign influence of the Christian religion” upon this nation.  I pray still for the same, for we need the influence of Jesus and His Church more than ever, to be “a moral leavening agent in our society,” as Reinhold Niebuhr said the Church was called by God to be.  As Washington once wrote, “Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”  Only Jesus can save us from our sins and from ourselves.

             We will close today with two questions from the Heidelberg Catechism that deal with God’s Providence.  May we all learn to be “patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and to trust our faithful God and Father for the future.”                 


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