This Tuesday, Dec. 14, marks a big date in America’s history. It was on that the day in 1799 that our first president and the commander in chief of the Continental Army departed to Heaven.
Unfortunately, America’s founders are being overlooked, distorted and trashed among public academia, so too few students are learning about the real person, power and place Washington had in our history. There’s no way we would have our republic without him.
Washington’s contributions were many, to say the least, but let me summarize just a few.
According to Encyclopedia Virginia and history.com, on Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was born to a family of middling wealth in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the second son from the second marriage of a colonial plantation owner.
In 1752, at 20 years of age, Washington joined the British army and served as a lieutenant in the French and Indian War. History.com explained, “After the war’s fighting moved elsewhere, he resigned from his military post, returned to a planter’s life, and took a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.”
In 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow, and adopted her two children (she had two other children, but they had passed).
In 1775, at 43 years old, Washington became the commander in chief of the Continental Army and, in 1783, led America to victory over the British after eight years of war.
As far as his political career, Washington served as a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia from 1759–1774. He was also a member of the first and second Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775. But while others were signing the Declaration of Independence, Washington was already on the battlefield fighting for independence. As the president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, however, Washington was the first signer of the U.S. Constitution.
In 1789, Washington became the first president of the United States of America. He was unanimously elected by the 69 presidential electors to serve his first term from 1789 to 1793. He was then again unanimously elected for his second term from 1793 to 1797. He declined a third term.
What’s little known about George Washington is just how sincere his Christian faith and service were. Encyclopedias and internet sites, however, say virtually nothing about it. If comments are made, they are few and most relegate Washington to a deist, one who believed in a generic Divine Watchmaker who created the world then stepped back for it to take its natural course.
But the truth is there’s much more to his faith and practice than most know. In the midst of his military and political careers, he led a devoted Christian life through his service and attendance at five different churches, depending upon where he was at the time in the Colonies and the war.
If anyone knows about the real faith and practice of George Washington, it is the historians at his now national park of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. In the museum and educational center there, one particular video display, which plays on a continuous loop for visitors, highlights some great points about his religious life and belief.
Mount Vernon’s official website describes the video display as “shown on the wall above the reconstructed church pew in the ‘Gentleman Planter Gallery,’ where visitors learn about the role religion played in Washington’s life and his encouragement of religious expression.”
The short video presentation is flanked by displays of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer on the walls right next to it. The footage explains the following, with the voice of an actor as George Washington every time quotations appear below. It opens with the words:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” [A quote from Washington’s farewell address as president]
Then there’s a slight pause with the words on the screen “George Washington and religion.” Then the narrator proceeds with the following paragraphs:
George Washington was raised in the Anglican Church, the official church of Virginia and the other southern colonies. As in other Virginian families of this period, he appears to have received his spiritual education from his mother using the family Bible and other religious works at the time.
He was a member and vestryman of Pohick Church and Christ’s Church in Virginia. When he married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, it was in a Christian ceremony. At Mt. Vernon, their family home, the couple was known to say grace at meal times, and they provided a religious education to Martha’s children and grandchildren.
As president, Washington acknowledged the presence of a Divine hand in the fate of the nation by promoting the celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving: “I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
During the Revolutionary War, General Washington encouraged the religious convictions of his troops and asked the Continental Congress to support payment for clergymen of many faiths [or Christian denominations] to tend to the spiritual needs of the men. “While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the hearts of men, and to him only in this case are they answerable.”
Washington believed that political and religious freedom went hand-in-hand, and he encouraged the new republic to embrace religious tolerance: “[For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that] every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
Washington tried to set an example by worshiping with different sects [mostly Christian denominations]: Presbyterian, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists. In a famous letter to Touro Synagogue, he made it clear that religious tolerance in a new nation was not for Christians alone: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone shall sit [in safety] under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
It is clear in Washington’s writings that he was a deeply spiritual man, with a strong belief that a benevolent power was acting in his life and in the founding 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.”
Wow! Does all that sound like it could have come from a deist, who doesn’t believe God intervenes in the affairs of men? If only other presidents and government officials were as religiously devoted as Washington!
Though his leadership and placement in the Revolutionary War prompted sporadic attendance at times, one former pastor at his Pohick Church did state that “I never knew so constant an attendant at church as Washington.”
Dr. George Tsakiridis, Ph.D, professor of religion at South Dakota State University, wrote for Mount Vernon: “Washington is reported to have had regular private prayer sessions, and personal prayer was a large part of his life. One well-known report stated that Washington’s nephew witnessed him doing personal devotions with an open Bible while kneeling, in both the morning and evening.”
For Washington’s extensive use and quoting of the Bible, please see “Bible” by Dr. and Professor Daniel L. Dreisbach, D.Phil., J.D., at Mt. Vernon’s official website.
It’s no surprise that the Washingtons celebrated Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.
Mount Vernon’s website describes: “Religion played a significant part in the observance of the holiday at Mount Vernon as the Washingtons frequently attended church on Christmas Day. In 1770, for example, Christmas fell on a Tuesday. After going to nearby Pohick Church in the morning, the family returned to Mount Vernon for dinner. Similar patterns were followed in 1771 and 1772, when Dec. 25 fell on a Wednesday and Friday. … [Christmas] was an important celebratory and religious event at the Mount Vernon Estate.”
I am certain those precious Christmas memories were a great and personal encouragement to Washington during the years he was away from Mount Vernon fighting the Revolutionary War, and especially was the case during the battle for Trenton and the bitter-cold Christmas at Valley Forge.
No man is perfect, and that included George Washington. He himself confessed: “We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals.” Remembering that was likely the key to his humility, service and mercy to others. Maybe his own struggle to receive the Eucharist (Communion) after the war when he attended the Anglican Church was born from his wrestling with his own humanity and possibly even the human toll that incurred when sending men into countless battles.
In 1797, after winning the Revolutionary War and serving two presidential terms in office, Washington finally retired to Mount Vernon at 65 years of age, but he would only enjoy his rest for two years.
On Dec. 14, 1799, George Washington died of a severe respiratory sickness. His beloved Martha died only three years later, on May 22, 1802. They were married for roughly 40 years. Just prior to her own death, Martha destroyed nearly all of Washington’s letters to her, though three did survive.
In his will, he humbly and simply referred to himself as “George Washington of Mount Vernon, a citizen of the United States, and late President of the same.”
At first, the Washingtons were laid to rest in an inconspicuous unmarked brick tomb at Mount Vernon. But their final resting place is in a crypt there that bears the title of him whom refused to be king. The engraved words over the tomb make known the title by which people knew Washington best back then – not as president but general.
The inscription reads: “Within this enclosure rest the remains of Gen. George Washington.” And over the door of the inner tomb is inscribed these large words from Jesus Himself in the Gospel of John (11:25): “I am the Resurrection and the Life, sayeth the Lord. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.”
Washington’s good friend Henry Lee probably summarized his life, leadership and legacy best in the eulogy for the father of the United States: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
And so he remains, or should remain, always. God rest and bless his soul.
(For more on the monumental figure of George Washington, I recommend the amazing book, “Sacred Fire,” by Peter Lillback and Jerry Newcombe)
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