On July 4th we celebrate our Freedom – our independence as a nation. It is that freedom that allows us without fear of reprisal, without fear of hostile action from our neighbors, and without fear of being jailed to gather for worship.
Nearly 250 years ago, men like George Washington led this country to independence. In the intervening years much has been debated about the faith of our founding fathers and much lost with respect to our religious freedom. I thought it interesting to examine the religious freedom we have from a historical perspective.
Based on revisionist history, we are now to believe that the majority of our founding fathers were at best deists, but certainly they were not Christians. A Deist is someone who believes that God created the world and that was it. Since creation, God has not intervened, nor will He. Creation was the first and last act of God. Christ therefore is not divine and God is not active in the salvation of the world. Let me be clear: you cannot be a Christian and hold to a deist theology!
George Washington’s life of faith has been at the front of much of the scholarly debate as to the religious roots of this country. George Washington was the General of the Continental Army, the president of the 2nd Constitutional Convention, and the first President of the United States.
Let’s begin by setting the record straight about the Continental Congress: 28 members were Episcopalians, 8 were Presbyterians, 7 were Congregationalist, 2 Lutheran, 2 Dutch Reformed, 2 Methodists, 2 Catholic, and 3 were Deists (including Benjamin Franklin). Thomas Jefferson who was also a deist was not a part of the Second Constitutional Convention, nor did he take part in the writing of the constitution.
It must be understood that unless one makes it a matter of constant public confession, the record of one’s faith must be found in their recorded deeds and words.
Washington’s stature leaves us with much information about his life that is recorded both first and second hand. Washington was a baptized member of the Episcopal Church as were his parents. Like his father, George served as a lay leader in the church. As a student, Washington was well versed in the Bible and other religious books of the day. It was said of Washington that he was “never interested in theological issues; he had absolute faith in the omnipotent power of God. Washington’s religion was one of complete and quiet trust in his Creator.” (Wilbur)
Bishop William White who frequently preached before Washington, wrote in a letter dated November 23, 1832,
“I knew no man who seemed so carefully to guard against the discoursing of himself or of his acts, or of anything pertaining to himself; and it has occasionally occurred to me, that when in his company, that (if a stranger to this person) were present, (that person) would never have known, from anything said by (Washington), that he was conscious of having distinguished himself in the eyes of the world. (Washington’s) ordinary behavior, was not such as to encourage intrusion on what might be on his mind.” (Eidsmoe)
Washington’s silence on matters of religion was in large part due to his reserved nature. There are also three distinct reasons that he would have appeared “quiet” with respect to matters of his faith. First, societal beliefs prevailed that theological issues were a personal and private matter. This was in part due to the fact that voicing the wrong opinion in matters of faith could land you in jail or at war.
Second, public officials in the newly formed United States had a duty to remain neutral on doctrinal matters in order to avoid a split amongst the states based on religious issues. There were Episcopalians in the South, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, Baptists in Rhode Island, Reformed in New York, plus Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Unitarians, Universalists, Jews, Deists, and others found throughout the nation.
Thirdly, there was a widely held belief that government did not belong in religious matters and as a public servant Washington would have remained silent on these matters. On the other hand, it is Washington who added “so help me God” to the oath of office. Washington did regard himself as a spiritual leader and spiritual example to the nation and people of all denominations regarded him as such. He was a great protector of religious liberty. The phrase “free exercise of religion” as quoted in the first amendment is largely attributed to Washington. He stated in an address to the United Baptist Churches in 1789 that “every person may here (United States) worship God according to the dictates of his heart.” In an address to the Quakers in 1789, Washington further expressed his concept of religious liberty:
The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States, of worshiping Almighty God agreeably to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also their rights.
Washington was also known as a man of prayer. The pictures of Washington praying at Valley Forge are not of myth, but rather they are recorded by many as first hand observations. It is a matter of record that Washington had a habit of beginning everyday in quiet devotion and prayer and ended each day in the same manner. His prayer habits included the practice of saying grace at the table. There is a story of this action that I particularly like.
It was Washington’s habit to ask a clergyman to lead in prayer if one was present. If not, he led in prayer at the table. On one occasion at Mount Vernon, Washington asked a clergyman who was dining with them to lead in prayer and then, apparently out of habit, proceeded to say the grace. Martha interrupted, “My dear, you forgot that you had a clergyman dining with you today.” Washington then replied pleasantly, “My Dear, I wish clergyman and all men to know that I am not a graceless man.” (Boller)
The matter of Washington’s faith was even debated in the years following Washington’s death in 1799. Washington’s upbringing, actions and words indicate that he was a Christian. Those that knew him well concluded the same. Chief Justice John Marshall, Washington’s biographer, ally, and friend wrote “without making ostentatious professions of religion, he was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man.” (Marshall)
Fellow Virginian, James Madison said “that he did not suppose that Washington had ever attended to the arguments for Christianity, and for the different systems of religion, or in fact that he had formed definite opinions on the subject. But he took these things as he found them existing, and was constant in his observance of worship according to the received forms of the Episcopal Church in which he was brought up.” (Sparks)
Nelly Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, wrote to Jared Sparks, another biographer of Washington, in 1833 and queried, “Is it necessary that anyone should certify, “General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity”? (And if so) may we (as well) question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottoes were, “Deeds not Words” and “For God and My Country.” (Johnson)
Jared Sparks, whose twelve-volume collection of Washington’s writings made him the best-informed biographer of Washington in the 19th Century (1834-1837) wrote of him:
A Christian in faith and practice, he was habitually devout. His reverence for religion is seen in his example, his public communications, and his private writings. He uniformly ascribed his successes to the beneficent agency of the Supreme Being. Charitable and humane, he was liberal to the poor and kind to those in distress. As a husband, son, and brother, he was tender and affectionate. If a man spoke, wrote, and acted as a Christian through a long life, who gave numerous proofs of his believing himself to be such, and who was never known to say, write or do a thing contrary to his professions, if such a man is not to be ranked among the believers of Christianity, it would be impossible to establish the point by any reasoning.
So we celebrate our freedom thanks to men like George Washington. And in spite of those who would seek to revise history, some facts cannot be changed:
a cross was erected at the Jamestown settlement,
the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock did give thanks to God for their blessings,
Thomas Jefferson did make plain references to God in the Declaration of Independence,
early Congress did call for the President to proclaim days of prayer and thanksgiving,
and Christian faith and religion played an important role in the lives of the early American settlers and in the founding of the American Republic.
No rewriting of history will change the fact that this country was born in part to provide a safe haven for Christians to worship freely without government control and/or fear of reprisal by others or the government. But, as you celebrate the freedom you have as a citizen of this country remember also to celebrate the real freedom you have as a citizen of God’s kingdom.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1NIV
The grave is empty!
Sin has no hold on our lives!
Death has no sting!
The battle is won!
The penalty for your sins was paid!
You are free!
You are free to live!
You are free to worship!
You are free because of Christ. You are held slave to nothing. Nothing!
God loves you and nothing can separate you from that love.
So celebrate this week and everyday the freedom you have through Jesus Christ!
And then ask yourself this question, when my life is over,
what evidence of my faith will remain to have let others know that I too was a follower of Jesus Christ?
George Washington Biography Sources:
Paul F.Boller, Jr., George Washington and Religion, 1963
John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, 1987
William J. Johnson, George Washington the Christian, 1976
John Marshall, The Life of George Washington, 1804-1807
George Washington, George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, 1746 (reprinted 1988)
Stanley Weintraub, General Washington’s Christmas Address, 2004
William H Wilbur, The Making of George Washington, 1970