by STEVE FARRELL
George Washington, perhaps more than any other Founder, saw the hand of God everywhere: early on in his life, in the French and Indian War, in the American Revolution, and in the establishment of the American Government under the US Constitution. And, judging by the volume of quotes he made on this subject, George Washington was not afraid to make his thoughts and feelings known.
It never fails. Write a column in defense of the religious foundations of the United States (my recent article “Paine’s Prophetic Dream”) and out of the woodwork come all manner of denunciations.
One letter, typical of many others, told a whopper of a fib regarding George Washington. The writer sent me a quote from the Father of Our Country that was published online at an “Inspirational Quote Site” (I found the site). The publisher failed to reveal the source — he had good cause — nevertheless, he sent it out to his subscribers as the “inspirational quote of the day” and directed its recipients to circulate the quote far and wide across the Internet.
I suppose nonbelievers have no problem engaging in the same kind of missionary labors they find so appalling in Christians — And they do a good job — Their efforts reached right into this writer’s home, in mass!
According to this unidentified source, George Washington once said: “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
The problem is, Washington never said it; and not only are these not Washington’s words, but never was there a statement more out of character for a man than these ascribed to Washington. George Washington, perhaps more than any other Founder, saw the hand of God everywhere: early on in his life, in the French and Indian War, in the American Revolution, and in the establishment of the American Government under the US Constitution. And, judging by the volume of quotes he made on this subject, George Washington was not afraid to make his feelings known.
From Washington’s “Farewell Address,” we read:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect & to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private & public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the Oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure — reason & experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.’Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of Free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric. “Promote then as an object of primary importance, Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” 1
This is the real George Washington. Religion, said he, is a critical factor, both in the establishment and perpetuation of our laws. The connections between private and public felicity, and morality and religion are numberless. Religion is a necessary spring from which popular government sprang; it is the foundation of the fabric.
Thus, government — in Washington’s view — should not stand neutral as regards religion, nor embrace a secular approach (as did the French; his comment was directed against the French), nor a communist approach (which would abolish religion in private affairs as well); no, rather, he felt a proper understanding of the nature of self-government requires that government ought to “promote,” religious and moral principle as “an object of primary importance,” especially in institutions of learning, that public opinion in future generations might continue to be enlightened.
Yes, “the Enlightenment” that Washington was firmly attached to was not the European secularist model — And note this: promoting religion was not about force, not about creating a national church, but about protecting free religious expression in the schools for the sake of securing an enlightened electorate. Without this security, free government would fall under the weight of its own folly.
This was typical Washington.
Besides, the magnificent Farewell Address, at every turn, Washington fearlessly spoke his mind about God’s hand in securing our liberties and the need to humble ourselves before him.
In a letter dated, September 28, 1789, he wrote:
“The man must be bad indeed who can look upon the events of the American Revolution without feeling the warmest gratitude towards the great Author of the Universe whose divine interposition was so frequently manifested in our behalf. And it is my earnest prayer that we may so conduct ourselves as to merit a continuance of those blessings with which we have hitherto been favored.” 2
Again he wrote:
“The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.” 3
That God’s protecting hand was on the side of the American soldier, was no doubt in part, because their leader was ever encouraging his soldiers to act like Christians.
In a general order dated, July 9, 1776, General Washington writes:
“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 endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”
To help encourage such faith and fidelity to Christianity among the troops, General Washington procured Chaplains “of good character and exemplary lives” over every regiment.
It was in the same order that he referred to “his Country” as being “under God.” 4
On a number of occasions, Washington requested that the troops refrain from gambling and profanity. His reasons for these requests are noteworthy:
On, February 26, 1776, he writes:
“All Officers, non-commissioned Officers and Soldiers are positively forbidden playing at Cards, and other Games of Chance. At this time of public distress, men may find enough to do in the service of their God, and their Country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality.” 5
And again on August 03, 1776 we read:
“The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice heretofore little known in an American army, is growing into fashion. He hopes the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it, and that both they and the men will reflect that we can have little hope of the blessings of Heaven on our arms if we insult it by our impiety and folly; added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense, and character, detests and despises it.” 6
Washington understood that men must meet God half way; that prayer was not enough, that actions proved faith, that righteousness exalts a nation.
After the war was over and Independence won, Washington reflected on June 11, 1783, in a letter to John Hancock that America seemed “peculiarly designated by Providence” for “a display of human greatness and success” and “a fairer opportunity for political happiness than any other nation has ever been favored with.”
He then listed the blessings of Heaven that combined in a manner never seen since the world was:
“The Foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of Mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind after social happiness have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages, and Legislators, through a long succession [of] years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our Forms of Government, the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on Mankind and increased the blessings of Society; At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely Free and Happy, the fa[u]lt will be entirely their own.” [my emphasis]
There are many things which can be said about George Washington. To claim that he saw no connection between the establishment of our free government and the Christian religion is not one of them. These few examples, among so many others, establish the point.
- Washington, George. “Farewell Address.”
- Fitzpatrick, John C., editor. “The Writings of George Washington from the
Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799,” New York, Sept. 28, 1789.
- Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of George Washington, 12:343.
- Fitzpatrick, “The Writing of George Washington from the Original Manuscript
Sources, 1745-1799,” Headquarters, July 9, 1776.
- Ibid. Headquarters, Cambridge, February 26, 1776.
- Washington’s Order on Profanity 3 August 1776.
- The Papers of George Washington, Washington to John Hancock, 11 June
Steve Farrell, “God and Washington.” The Washington Dispatch, 7 July, 2003.
Steve Farrell writes for Washington Dispatch and is the author of Dark Rose, an inspirational novel critics are calling “a modern classic.”