Air University Review, July-August 1976

The Religion of George Washington

a Bicentennial report

Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Edwin S. Davis

He was not Saint George--the revisionist historians have convinced us of that. Yet there is ample evidence to show that religious faith was a deeply significant force in the life of the general who became our first President.

While some may consider religion a private matter only, George Washington saw it as more. For him it was a subject of demonstrated interest and public expression. As General of the Army he showed clearly that religious faith and military command can be joined. Indeed, for him there was a vital connection between the two.

Washington recognized the need for religion in the military and demanded chaplains for his troops. Roy J. Honeywell's History of the Chaplaincy of the United States Army traces the federal chaplaincy in this country from legislation enacted by the Continental Congress on 29 July 1775 in response to Washington's request that chaplains be provided for the Continental Army.1 Then, the chaplain's corps was augmented as a result of Washington's general orders of 9 July 1776, when the Army was quartered in New York City. These orders directed that:

The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure for chaplains accordingly, persons of good character and exemplary lives. To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religions 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 so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest rights and Liberties of his country.2

On the day these orders were issued, Washington had received from Philadelphia the resolution of the Congress declaring that "the United States of America" were "free and independent . . . and absolved from all allegiance to the British crown." So it was in the same orders which increased the chaplain's corps that Washington informed his troops of the Declaration of Independence and directed that:

The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective parades at six o'clock, when the Declaration of Congress, showing the grounds and reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice. The General hopes that this important event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of this country depends, under God, solely on the success of our arms.8

The phrase "under God," so much a part of our nation's tradition and so familiar as part of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, was used by George Washington when he learned that the United Colonies had declared themselves an independent nation.

The ninth of July--the day Washington received news of the Declaration of Independence--was significant to him for still another reason, as seen in his letter to an old comrade, Colonel Adam Stephen:

The anniversary of the 3rd and 9th of July I did not let pass without a grateful remembrance of the escape we had at the Meadows and on the banks of the Monongahela.4

So the records show that these thoughts were in the mind of Washington on the day he learned his nation had declared its independence: gratitude to Providence for having twice spared his life in battle, and the realization that now he faced even greater trials. Significantly, he noted that these events and the destiny of the new nation were "under God."

The faith in God expressed by the first great American general was that of a man who had been introduced to religion at an early age. On 3 April 1732, when George Washington was less than two months old, he was baptized in the traditional manner of the Church of England (to become known later in America as the Episcopal Church). The Washington family Bible recorded that two godfathers and one godmother stood with him.5

George Washington was reared in a religious home. His father was a vestryman in the Truro Parish Church, and his mother was staunchly religious. The young Washington's earliest known signature--written probably at the age of eight or nine-was inscribed on the title page of a book of sermons, perhaps placed in his hands by his mother.6 Because of the family's close association with the Truro Parish Church, it is more than likely that young George took catechism lessons from the Reverend Charles Green, rector of the parish.

After his marriage, George Washington, like his father before him, served for a considerable time as vestryman in Truro parish. Later he served in the same capacity in Fairfax parish. He is recorded as having served on the building committees of Falls Church and Pohick Church--the latter edifice, being built from plans which he drew,7 still stands today.

Thus, on 15 June 1775, when Colonel George Washington was elected General and Commander in Chief of the Army of the United Colonies, he had been for many years an active vestryman and respected leader in his church. However, during the turbulent days surrounding the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, there is little recorded evidence of Washington's making reference to religion other than in a letter to his wife written eight days after he became Commander in Chief in which he said, " I go trusting in that Providence which has been more bountiful to me than I deserve. . ."8

In his speech accepting the appointment of Commander in Chief of the Army, Washington made no reference to God. But soon thereafter, on 5 August 1775, the matter of prayers and church services appears in the general orders issued from Cambridge. These orders directed that "the Church be cleared tomorrow and the Revd. Mr. Doyles will perform Divine Service therein at ten o clock."9

Not only was George Washington a man of religion, he was one who respected the religion of different faith groups. His magnanimity, even toward the enemy, was manifest during the early part of the Revolutionary War when he ordered Colonel Benedict Arnold to take command of a detachment of the Continental Army and move against Catholic Quebec. The first article of the instructions reads:

You are immediately, on their march from Cambridge, to take command of the detachment of the Continental Army against Quebec and use all possible expedition as the winter season is now advancing and the success of this enterprise, under God, depends wholly upon the spirit with which it is pushed.10

And the 14th instruction reads:

As the contempt of the religion of a country by ridiculing any of its ceremonies, or affronting its ministers or votaries, has been deeply resented, you are to be particularly careful to restrain every officer and soldier from such imprudence and folly, and to punish every instance of it. On the other hand, as far as lies in your power, you are to protect and support the free exercise of the religion of the country, and the undisturbed enjoyment of the rights of conscience in religious matters, with your utmost influence and authority.11

After the Colonies had won their independence, it was a matter of special pride to Washington that the American Republic guaranteed full religions liberty to all, especially to such persecuted groups as the Jews and the Quakers. In a famous letter to the Hebrew congregation at Newport, Rhode Island, in August 1790, he wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it, on all occasions, their effectual support. . . . May the Father of Mercies scatter light and not darkness on our paths, and make us all, in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.12

In similar vein he wrote to the Philadelphia Quakers:

The liberty enjoyed by the People of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreeable to their consciences is not only among the choicest of their blessings but also of their rights. . . . I assure you very explicitly that in my opinion the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with delicacy and tenderness.13

As Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the fearful and uncertain days of the Revolution, Washington's firm belief in freedom of religion did not mean freedom from religion so far as his troops were concerned. In January 1777, the Army established its first permanent encampment since the siege of Boston at Morristown, New Jersey. One of the first matters Washington attended to was providing for regular Sunday worship for his men. On Saturday, 12 April 1777, he ordered that:

. . . . all the troops in Morristown except the guards, are to attend divine worship tomorrow at the second bell; the officers commanding the Corps, are to take special care to have their men clean and decent, and that they are to march in proper order to the place of worship. 14

Similarly, at Middlebrook, on 28 June 1777, Washington's orders were as follows:

. . . that all Chaplains are to perform divine services tomorrow and on every succeeding Sunday, with their respective brigades and regiments, where the situation will possibly admit of it. And the Commanding officers of corps are to see that they attend themselves with officers of all ranks setting the example. The Commander in Chief expects an exact compliance with this order, and that it be observed in the future as an invariable rule and practice. And every neglect will be considered not only as a breach of orders, but a disregard to decency, virtue and religion.15

Following the grueling campaign of 1777, when the battle-weary troops were on their march to Valley Forge, Washington issued orders for the observance of a day of thanksgiving:

Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgment to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the General directs that the Army remain in its present quarters and that the Chaplains perform divine services with their several corps and brigades, and earnestly exhorts all officers and soldiers whose absence is not indispensably necessary, to amend with reverence the solemnities of the day.16

No chapter in American history is better known than that dealing with the rigorous experiences of the poorly equipped Continental Army at Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1777-1778. And few paintings are more familiar than that of General Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge. The incident was related by the Quaker Scotsman, Isaac Potts, at whose home Washington had stayed and who claimed to have witnessed the event. Some historians have gone to great lengths to relegate the story to the status of the cherry tree legend made famous by Parson Weems.17 For our purposes here, however, arguments over the actuality of this particular occurrence are irrelevant in light of the evidence that Washington was a man of prayer. A further example of this comes in the words written to his soldiers at Valley Forge on 2 May 1778, after the terrible winter had drawn to a close.

While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of patriot it should be our highest glory to add to the more distinguished character of Christian. The signal instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labors with complete success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of gratitude and piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.18

On 18 April 1783, eight years to the day from the beginning of hostilities at Lexington, Washington ordered a cessation of the fighting. Along with his stipulation for the reading of the proclamation, he requested that, ". . . the chaplains with the several brigades... render thanks to Almighty God for his mercies, particularly for his over-ruling the wrath of man to his own glory and causing the rage of war to cease amongst the nations. "19

In concluding his military career with an address to the Congress upon resigning his commission on 23 December 1783, General Washington spoke in characteristic fashion by saying:

I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them to his holy keeping.20

Of course, it was not the "last solemn act" of his official life--the Presidency lay in the future. And in that high office, just as in the command he was giving up, he showed that his religious faith and his official duties could be joined.

Our first general and our first President saw this Nation as "under God." If after 200 years we were called upon to report back to him, his first question might well be: "How is that legacy faring?"

United States Air Force Academy

Notes

1. Roy J. Honeywell, History of the Chaplaincy of the United States Army (Washington: Office of the Chief of Chaplain, Department of the Army, 1958), p. 37.

2. John C. Fitzpatrick, editor, The Writings of George Washington (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), vol. V, p. 245. (Hereafter cites as Writings.)

3. Ibid.

4. Francis Rufus Bellamy, The Private Life of George Washington (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1951), p. 216.

5. Joseph Dillaway Sawyer, Washington (New Work: The Macmillan Company, 1927), vol. I, p. 61.

6. Ibid, p. 74.

7. Ibid., pp. 249-50.

8. Writings, vol. III, p. 301.

9. Ibid., p. 403.

10. Saul K. Padover, editor, The Washington Papers (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1955), p. 125.

11. Ibid., p. 127.

12. Ibid., p. 411.

13. Ibid., p. 12.

14. Writings, vol. VII, p. 407.

15. Ibid., vol. VIII, p. 308.

16. Ibid., vol. X, p. 168.

17. For a pertinent discussion of the topic, "Did He Pray at Valley Forge?" see Rupert Hughes, George Washington, The Savior of the States (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1930), pp. 270-98.

18. Writings, vol. XI, pp. 342-43.

19. Ibid., vol. XXVI, p. 334.

20. Padover, p. 262.


Contributor

Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Edwin S. Davis (M.Div., Emory University; M.A., Auburn University) is a Protestant cadet chaplain at the U. S. Air Force Academy. An ordained minister of the United Methodist Church, he held pastorates in Tampa, Florida, prior to entering the Air Force in 1963. Chaplain Davis has served tours of duty at Dow AFB, Maine; Wasserkuppe, Germany; Eglin AFB, Florida; Phan Rang, Vietnam; U-Tapao, Thailand; and Andrews AFB, Maryland. Chaplain Davis is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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