George Washington was a devout man of prayer and his prayers played a major role in America’s amazing birth. Robert Lewis, Washington’s nephew, lived with him and served as his secretary while Washington was president. Lewis said he accidentally witnessed Washington’s devotions morning and evening and that he was kneeling before an open Bible. Lewis believed that praying with an open Bible in front of him was a daily practice for Washington.
Washington was influenced in this regard by his mother. When he was leaving home as a young soldier, she exhorted him, “Remember that God is our only sure trust.” She also urged him, “My son, neglect not the duty of secret prayer.”
He would also have been influenced by the Great Awakening for it was at its height when he was a lad. That the Awakening had a peculiar impact on Virginia was confirmed by the Princeton scholar, Charles Hodge, who in 1839 said of the Great Awakening, “In no part of our country was the revival more interesting, and in very few was it so pure as in Virginia” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 131).
Washington’s Prayer Journal
In April of 1891, several of Washington’s descendants, including Lawrence Washington, Bushrod Washington, and Thomas B. Washington, sold a collection of his personal items at auction in Philadelphia. Among the items was a little book filled with daily prayers in Washington’s handwriting when he was in his twenties. Entitled, Daily Sacrifice, these prayers are deeply devotional and evangelical in nature. For example, the first entry reads, in part,
Let my heart, therefore, gracious God, be so affected with the glory and majesty of Thine honor that I may not do my own works, but wait on Thee, and discharge those duties which Thou requirest of me (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 132).
The following Monday morning, his prayer reads,
Direct my thoughts, words and work, wash away my sins in the immaculate blood of the Lamb, and purge my heart by Thy Holy Spirit . . . daily frame me more and more in the likeness of Thy Son Jesus Christ.
Also, of note is his prayer:
Bless, O Lord, the whole race of mankind, and let the world be filled with the knowledge of Thee and Thy Son, Jesus Christ (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 132).
Commenting on this prayer book, Professor S. F. Upham, of Drew Theological Seminary, wrote,
The “Daily Prayers” of George Washington abound in earnest thought, expressed in simple, beautiful, fervent and evangelical language. They reveal to us the real life of the great patriot and attest his piety. None can read these petitions, which bore his desires to God, and often brought answers of peace, without having a grander conception of Washington’s character. The prayers are characterized by a deep consciousness of sin and by a need for forgiveness, and by a recognition of dependence upon the merits and mercies of our Lord (Hyatt, 1726:The Year that Defined America, 132-33).
Providentially Spared by God
During the time he was keeping this prayer journal, Washington was recruited by the British General Braddock to be a guide for the British in their trek through the wilderness to take Fort Duquesne from the French and Indians. Braddock recruited him because of his knowledge of the ways of the wilderness and the American Indians.
Washington had acquired this knowledge in his work as a surveyor of wilderness territory. However, he found his advice for traveling through the wilderness and dealing with the Indians ignored by Braddock who considered him a young, upstart colonist.
But when an ambush occurred and Braddock himself was wounded, Washington took charge and organized an orderly retreat while at the same time putting his own life at risk, rescuing the many wounded and placing them in wagons. During this time, two horses were shot out from under him and his clothes were shredded with bullets.
He emerged unscathed and gave glory to God, saying, "I was saved by the miraculous care of Providence that saved me beyond human expectation." From that day, his reputation for bravery and leadership spread among both the English and the Native Americans.
He Forms a Praying Army
On May 10, 1775, the Continental Congress asked Washington to become commander-in-chief of the ragtag Colonial militias and to transform them into an army that could face the mighty British war machine. Washington accepted the call and immediately began to instill in the Colonial troops a sense of the importance of prayer and faith in God
Washington issued an order stating that each day was to begin with prayer led by the officers of each unit. He also ordered that, unless their duties required them to be elsewhere, every soldier was to observe “a punctual attendance of Divine services, to implore the blessing of heaven upon the means used for our safety and public defense.”
He also forbade profanity, swearing, gambling and drunkenness and expressed his desire that, “Every officer and man will endeavor so as to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 114).
At one point, during a particularly difficult part of the war, Washington and his men were quartering at Valley Forge. Rev. Henry Muhlenberg (1711–1787), pastor of a nearby Lutheran Church observed Washington’s activities. He wrote, “Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each 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. It appears that the Lord God has singularly, yea marvelously, preserved him from harm in the midst of countless perils . . . and hath hitherto graciously held him in His hand as His chosen vessel (Hyatt, 1726: The Year thatDefined America, 115).
Although it was a grueling seven years of war, numerous answers to prayer occurred protecting Washington and his troops and giving them victory when victory seemed impossible. For example, in the early part of the war, Washington and his 12,000 troops were trapped on Long Island by a British army at least twice that size. With their backs against the East River, it seemed there was no way to escape.
During the night the Americans prayed and scoured the area for boats of any kind that would take them and their armaments across the East River to Manhattan. As dawn approached, it was obvious they had not achieved their goal. However, at that point a heavy fog rolled in and remained until the army and all its cannon had been moved across the river to Manhattan.
As soon as they were safely across the river in Manhattan, the fog lifted. At this point, the British were amazed to see that the colonial army had disappeared, as if into thin air. This was just one of the many “signal interventions” of which Washington and author of Federalist 57 made mention (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 125).
His “Earnest Prayer” for America
That Washington was a devout person or prayer was confirmed by Isaac Potts (1750 – 1803), a Quaker who lived near Valley Forge where the Continental Army, under Washington’s command, was wintering. One day, during this—one of the bleakest periods of the war—Potts was riding through the woods when he came upon Washington during a time of private prayer. For Potts, this was a life-changing experience. As a Quaker, he was a pacifist, but his encounter of Washington in prayer caused him to rethink his view. 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 (Hyatt, 1726: The Yearthat Defined America, 115-16).
Along with Washington’s prayers, the Continental Congress issued no less than fifteen calls for days of prayer, fasting, and repentance during the war. Their prayers were answered and on October 19, 1781 General Cornwallis surrendered his entire British force to Washington.
With the war now over, Washington issued a letter of resignation as Commander-In-Chief to the Continental Congress. He then wrote what could be described as a pastoral letter, dated June 14, 1783, to the governors of the various states. The letter included his “earnest prayer” for the governors and their people. It also includes his desire that all Americans would follow the example of Jesus Christ and says it is the only hope of America being a “happy nation. He wrote,
I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens . . . to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another . . . and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without a humble imitation of His example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 120).
He Deals with Slavery
Washington was born into a world where slavery was the norm and he inherited a large plantation with numerous slaves. However, as I have shown in my book, 1726, the Great Awakening unleashed a powerful anti-slavery movement throughout Colonial America and it obviously had an impact on Washington. The black scholar, Dr. Thomas Sowell, has said,
Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century–and then it was an issue only in Western civilization. Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other American leaders. You could research all of 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there (Hyatt, 1726: The Yearthat Defined America, 90).
Confronted by the inconsistency of Christian faith with slavery, Washington set up a compassionate program to completely disentangle Mt. Vernon from the institution of slavery. Those slaves who wanted to leave were free to do so. Those who chose to remain were paid wages, and he began a program to educate and prepare the children of slaves for freedom. He declared,
I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 103).
His Prayer Life as President
Washington delivered his first inaugural address on April 30, 1789. It was filled with references to God and the Bible. At the close of the ceremony in New York City, he and Congress proceeded to St. Paul’s Chapel where they participated in a worship service.
Washington’s desire that America would be a praying nation was obvious in his Proclamation of a Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving issued on October 3, 1789, shortly after he became president. After declaring it being the duty of all nations to “acknowledge the providence of Almighty God and obey His will,” he gave a reason for this special day, saying,
That we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national sins and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all people, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.
May We Follow in the Footsteps of Washington
Washington’s sacrificial service, his bravery in battle, and his profound leadership, endeared him to the hearts of America’s founding generation and he was twice elected unanimously to serve as President of the new nation. The founding generation said of him, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He was also called “the father of his country.”
As we celebrate President’s Day, let us reflect on the key to George Washington’s greatness and pray that God will raise up a generation that will follow in his footsteps.
This article was derived from Dr. Eddie Hyatt's latest book, 1726: The Year that Defined America, available from Amazon and his website at www.eddiehyatt.com. He is the founder of the "1726 Project" whose purpose is to reconnect America's severed roots out of the Great Awakening.