In his Farewell Address, after serving two terms as America’s first president, George Washington warned that there are two things—religion and morality—that are “indispensable to political prosperity.” We should note that when Washington, or any of the Founders, use the word “religion” the word “Christianity” can be substituted. “Christianity” and “religion” were synonymous to them. And while they were tolerant of other religions, they were not “religious pluralists” in the modern sense. They derived their morals and values from Christianity. This is borne out by the fact that a recent, ten-year study project to discover where the Founders got their ideas for America’s founding documents revealed that, by far, the single, most-cited authority in their writings was the Bible (Eddie Hyatt, America’s Revival Heritage, 62).
Two Great Pillars for Human Happiness & Political Prosperity
Interestingly, the two things Washington said are indispensable for the success of the republic—Christianity and morality--are the very two things that are under increasing attack, and the two things that so many of our political leaders seem hell-bent on removing from the public life of this nation. In this same Farewell Address, Washington refers to Christianity and morality as the “great pillars” of human happiness and “firmest props” of the duties of citizens. He said;
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 labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. 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 and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Although Washington was not outwardly zealous in his faith like a George Whitefield or a Jonathan Edwards, there is no question that he was a devout Christian whose faith was obvious in both his private and public life. Virginians tended to be more formal and reserved in their faith than their counterparts in New England. Whereas New England had been settled by Separatists, Puritans and Baptists who were vehemently at odds with the religious and political powers-that-be in the Old World, Virginia had been settled primarily by loyalist Anglicans (Church of England) who were more settled and accepting of the religious status quo. This is why Anglicanism was, for a time, the official state church of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Nonetheless, with more and more interaction between Virginia and New England and with the impact of the Great Awakening, Virginians tended to take on the more intense and devotional character of New Englanders in their faith, and this is seen in the faith of Washington.
Washington A True Christian Statesman
Upon assuming command of the American Revolutionary Army in 1775, Washington immediately began bringing a much needed discipline to the ragtag forces, and this included a moral and religious discipline. For example one of his first orders forbade profanity, swearing and drunkenness among the troops. The order also stated, “He [Washington] requires and expects all officers and soldiers, not engaged in actual duty, a punctual attendance of Divine services, to implore the blessing of heaven upon the means used for our safety and public defense.” For a time, Washington stayed in the home of a pastor from which he issued his orders for each day after morning prayers. One of the orders directed the troops to observe a national day of fasting and prayer on July 20 “exactly in the manner directed by the Continental Congress.”
Henry Muhlenberg, pastor of a Lutheran church situated in the area of Valley Forge where Washington and his troops were camped during the winter of 1777-78, was able to observe many of their activities. He wrote, “Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each and every one to fear God.” Muhlenberg went on to say, “This gentleman does not belong to the so-called world of society, for he respects God’s word, believes in atonement through Christ, and bears himself in humility and gentleness” (Benjamin Hart, Faith & Freedom, 293).
Washington A Devout Christian
That Washington was devout in his faith was confirmed by Isaac Potts, a Quaker, who also lived near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, when the Continental Army, led by Washington, was wintering there under much duress. As a Quaker, Potts was a pacifist who opposed the war until he had a life-changing experiencing while riding through the woods one day during, perhaps, the bleakest period of the war. He said;
I heard a plaintive sound as of a man at prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods and to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, and the cause of the country, of humanity and of the world. Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home and told my wife I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before, and just related to her what I had seen and heard and observed. We never thought a man could be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington (Eddie Hyatt, America’s Revival Heritage, 67-68).
It was Washington who began a tradition, and demonstrated his respect for the Bible, by choosing to be sworn into office with his hand resting on a Bible. It was Washington, who immediately after his inauguration, proceeded along with Congress to St. Paul’s Chapel to participate in a worship service and to ask God’s blessing on his administration and the nation. It was Washington, who upon reflecting on his life and role in the formation of a new nation, wrote, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
Washington obviously saw no conflict between his faith in God and his duties as a soldier and a statesman. He, in fact, saw faith in God as a necessary component for success in these areas. This was also true of even the most nonreligious Founders, such as Franklin and Jefferson, who believed that the morals and values derived from Christianity were vital for the health and success of the nation. They, therefore, desired that Christianity be promoted and taught in the public arena. This is why Mark Hall, Professor of Politics at George fox University, has said;
America’s Founders did not want Congress to establish a national church, and many opposed establishments at the state level as well. Yet they believed, as George Washington declared in his Farewell Address, that of “all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Moreover, almost without exception, they agreed that civic authorities could promote and encourage Christianity and that it was appropriate for elected officials to make religious arguments in the public square. There was virtually no support for contemporary visions of a separation of church and state that would have political leaders avoid religious language and require public spaces to be stripped of religious symbols.
“Unpatriotic” According to Washington
It is obvious that a serious fundamental change has been taking place in our nation that involves the removal of the two pillars--Christianity and morality—that Washington said are indispensable for the success of the nation. Who can deny this is happening when prayer and Bible reading have been outlawed from the public schools, when the Ten Commandments, crosses and Scripture verses have been ordered removed from public facilities, when nativity scenes are no longer allowed in public squares and Christmas trees are now called holiday trees? Who can deny that the two pillars of which Washington spoke are being attacked when religious liberty is being attacked from the highest echelons of government?
What would Washington think of a commander in chief who remains silent when a government bureaucrat orders that Christian prayers cannot be prayed at a VA cemetery, and when the Walter Reed Army Hospital bans the Bible from its premises? (both orders were rescinded after firestorms of protest). What would Washington think of a presidency that seeks to force privately owned businesses to provide services that violate their conscience and religious convictions. What would Washington think of self-serving politicians on both sides of the political aisle who refuse to take stands on moral issues for fear of jeopardizing their political careers?
What would Washington think of churches and ministers who capitulate to popular culture and refuse to take a Biblical stand on moral issues. “Silence gives consent,” is a maxim affirmed by Thomas Jefferson who said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
In this same Farewell Address, Washington told us what he thinks of those who would undermine the two pillars of Christianity and morality. He said, “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.” In other words, any pastor, politician, government official, educator or entertainer who would undermine the influence of Christianity and morality in America is, in the words of our Founding Father, “Unpatriotic.”
Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt is an author, historian, and ordained minister. He is the founder of the the Revive America Project and presents Revive America events throughout the nation. His books on Spiritual awakening and Christian history are available from Amazon and from his website at http://www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.