Gary Scott Smith
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College, is a fellow for Faith and the Presidency with the Center for Vision & Values, and is the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006). This article is from V & V, a website publication of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania.
On July 9, 1755, the "most catastrophic" day in Anglo-American history, Colonel George Washington was traveling with General Edward Braddock's army toward Fort Duquesne when they were ambushed by Indians and French hiding in the woods. In the ensuing massacre, hundreds of British soldiers, including Braddock, were killed or seriously wounded. Perched on their horses, officers were perfect targets. One after another, they were hit. Bullets ripped through Washington's coat, knocked his hat off, and killed two of the horses he rode.
Rumors circulated that Washington had been killed. On July 18, he wrote his brother from Fort Cumberland:
As I have heard since my arriv'l at this place, a circumstantial acct. of my death and dying Speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting both, and of assuring you that I now exist and appear in the land of the living by the miraculous care of Providence, that protected me beyond all human expectation.
Two weeks later the colonel wrote to Robert Jackson, "See the wondrous works of Providence! The uncertainty of Human things!"
Preaching to a volunteer company of militia, Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies declared:
As a remarkable instance [of military ardor] I . . . point . . . to . . . that heroic youth, Colonel Washington, whom I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a manner for some important service to his country.
And so began the stories about Washington's faith in God and divine selection to lead the American people.
Although the religious convictions and practices of many presidents have been ignored, Washington's have been closely scrutinized and endlessly debated. Some authors have portrayed the Virginian as the epitome of piety, and others have depicted him as the patron saint of skepticism. The fact that Washington said almost nothing publicly or privately about the precise nature of his beliefs has evoked competing claims that he was a devout Christian, a Unitarian, a "warm deist," and a "theistic rationalist."
One point, however, is not debatable: Washington strongly believed that Providence played a major role in creating and sustaining the United States. In public pronouncements as commander in chief and president, he repeatedly thanked God for directing and protecting Americans in their struggle to obtain independence and create a successful republic. Arguably, no president has stressed the role of Providence in the nation's history more than Washington.
The Virginian planter was a giant even among the remarkable generation of America's Founders. His powerful physique, athletic prowess, stately bearing, personal magnetism, and incredible stamina impressed his contemporaries. More significantly, because of his exceptional character and extraordinary contributions, he has been deemed indispensable to the success of the patriot cause and the new republic. Risking his reputation, wealth, and life, he commanded an undermanned and poorly supplied army to an improbable victory over the world's leading economic and military power. He presided over the convention that produced the United States' venerable Constitution. For nearly a quarter of a century (1775-99), Washington was the most important person in America. As president, he kept the new nation from crashing on the shoals of anarchy, monarchy, or revolution.
Washington firmly believed that God controlled human events. In both his public and private writings, he repeatedly discussed how God providentially helped the United States win its independence against incredible odds, create a unified country out of diverse and competing interests, establish a remarkable constitution, and avoid war with European powers that still had territorial ambitions in North America. Because God created and actively ruled the universe, Washington insisted, people must revere, worship, and obey him. Although members of his staff wrote most of Washington's public statements, he oversaw the process, and therefore they expressed what he wanted to convey. Furthermore, Washington routinely used similar language in private letters he wrote.
Throughout his life, Washington appealed to "an all-powerful Providence" to protect and guide him and the nation, especially in times of crisis. Throughout the War for Independence, he asked for and acknowledged God's providential guidance and assistance hundreds of times. He told Reverend William Gordon in 1776 that no one had "a more perfect Reliance on the alwise and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have, nor thinks his aid more necessary." "The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous" in the war, the general asserted in 1778, that anyone who did not thank God and "acknowledge his obligations" to him was "worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked." After the war ended, Washington declared, "I attribute all glory to that Supreme Being," who had caused the several forces that contributed to America's triumph to harmonize perfectly together. No people "had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs," he wrote in 1792, "than those of the United States."
Scholars and ordinary Americans will continue to debate the precise nature of Washington's faith, but clearly it became deeper as a result of his trying and sometimes traumatic experiences as commander in chief of the Continental Army and the nation's first president, and it significantly affected his understanding of and his actions in both positions. *
"In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened." --George Washington