Revolutionary War Historical Article
George Washington: Christian or Deist?
By Dr. D. James Kennedy
Editor's Note: This is the text of the complete unabridged sermon as delivered by Dr. D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photos courtesy of Sons of Liberty Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution, except as otherwise noted.
Reprinted by permission of Coral Ridge Ministries. For More Info: www.CoralRidge.org
Also published under the title "George Washington: Texts That Have Changed Lives."
Text: "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin" (I John I :7b).
Madalyn Murray O'Hare says that George Washington was definitely not a Christian. But then Madalyn Murray 0 'Hare also says that Abraham Lincoln was not a Christian. In fact, Mrs. O'Hare declares that anybody who was anybody was not a Christian.
I believe that it is incumbent upon us in this bicentennial year to consider something of the foundations upon which this land was based and to address ourselves to this question: Was George Washington a Christian? Or is Madalyn right, after all? She says that he was a deist. A deist is a person who believes that God is some sort of an absentee landlord; that He created the world, wound the whole thing up, established natural laws, then went off on a long trip, and just left the thing to run down. He doesn't interfere; not miraculously, nor redemptively, nor providentially, nor in any other way.
Let us examine the matter a little more closely. I would like to remind you that this is not merely an historical inquiry but also an inquiry into the basic principles of the Christian faith. In asking the question: Was Washington a Christian? we would do well to ask ourselves the more relevant question: Personally, am I a Christian? What light does General Washington throw on that question? George Washington was born on February 11. You may say, "Well, he's got it wrong to begin with. Everybody knows he was born on February 22. Today is February 22. This is his birthday!" Right? Wrong! He was born on February 11, but due to a change in the calendar and the method of computation we now celebrate his birthday on the 22nd. He was born, as is well known, into the home of a devout Episcopal family in Virginia. Of humble yet godly parents, he was reared in the Episcopal church.
It will be granted that you can read the life of Washington with great care and you will not discover, as we discovered in the case of Abraham Lincoln, any conversion experience at any time in his later life. However, we see that he was reared in the church as a child and that he was taught by a godly mother. It is interesting to note - and all mothers are called to note well - that his mother made the practice, not only of reading the Bible to him daily, but also of reading to him from certain moral and spiritual books. One in particular bears in its well-worn pages the name of its owner, Mary Washington, Contemplations Moral and Divine, by Sir Matthew Hale. It inculcates the very virtues of the Christian faith in all sorts of axiomatic forms.
It is interesting to compare this book with the clearly demonstrated character of George Washington in his later life. We see that his life is almost a reflection of this book. George Washington was described by one of his contemporaries as a man whose character was "the wonder of the world." This is remarkable, especially when we live in a time when many seem to be intent upon destroying everything America stands for - intent upon debunking and destroying the lives of all of those men and women who were used by God in the establishment of this country. Regardless of what somebody two hundred years later might think, those who knew him said that his character was "the wonder of the world." The question inevitably comes to our mind: What was the cause of such a character as that? Was it caused by Christianity? By Christ? Or was it not? Was he a deist, as Mrs. O'Hare proclaims?
He was a remarkable young lad in many ways. It was impossible for me to come to one passage of Scripture that seemed to have the greatest influence, that exemplified his life. However, there are two passages that I think stand in some way in stark contrast that I would like to call to your mind. In the one we have the words: "Add to your faith virtue." I was struck as I studied this man's life, particularly his own writings, by the fact that Washington seemed to make an enormous effort throughout all of his life to add to his life every form of Christian virtue, which no doubt is why his character was described as "the wonder of the world." Even in Britain during the war there were no calumnies against the character of Washington, which is a remarkable fact, something that Hitler did not enjoy in this country during the second world war.
There is no doubt of the fact that Washington was quite religious. He went to church regularly. One reads in his diary over and over again, "On Sunday - went to church." As he traveled as a soldier and a statesman he attended church in the forenoon in such and such a place. In the evening he again attended church in such and such a place. We read, "Fasted all day."
He was a man of famed honesty. Thomas Jefferson said that his justice was the strictest of any man that he had ever known of . . . that no personal friendship nor animosity in any way seemed to have any relationship to his meting out of justice. He was against all manner of vice. Before his soldiers he inveighed against profanity, gambling and vice of every sort, and his statements concerning these matters are something which are very interesting to read in this day of lax living.
The providence of God was something in which he believed strongly. When he went off to war his mother commended him to the providence of God and instructed him not to forget the matter of private prayer. One time during the French and Indian War, his brother received the rumor that he had been killed and had given a dying speech. So Washington wrote a letter to his brother to correct this. He said: "I take this very opportunity of contradicting the first and assuring you that I have not yet composed the latter. But by an all-powerful dispensation of providence, I've been protected beyond all human probability or expectation, for I had four bullets through my coat, two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions all around me."
He committed himself so much to the providence and care of his God that his life was an astounding example of it, so much so that it seemed that he was impossible to kill. In fact, the Indian chief who was the head of the Indian nations that were engaged in that war against Washington and in the French and Indian War, years later gave this testimony. He said, "I am chief and ruler over my tribes. My inf1uence extends to the water of the Great Lakes and the far blue mountains. I have traveled a long and weary path that I might see the young warrior of that great battle. It was on that day when white men's blood mixed with the streams of our forest that I first beheld that chief. I called to my young men and said, 'Mark you tall and daring warrior. He is not of the red coat tribes. He has an Indian's wisdom and his warriors fight as we do. Himself is alone exposed quick. Let your aim be certain and he dies. Our rif1es were leveled - rifles which but his knew not how to miss. T'was all in vain. A power mightier far than we shielded him from harm. He cannot die in battle." This wise warrior chief had instructed all of his Indian warriors to level their rifles at the leader. They put four bullets in his coat, shot two horses out from under him, but were incapable, though they virtually never missed anything, of shooting Washington. He believed in the providence of God and continued, constantly, to inculcate such a belief in his soldiers.
Washington was elected to the vestry of his church which is comparable to being a Presbyterian elder. He attended faithfully upon the meetings, which are recorded in his diaries. Sometimes he rode for miles at night in the dark to attend. One time he rode many, many miles to attend a vestry meeting, and the meeting was not held because a quorum did not come. So he returned the long journey to his home. I think that all church officers could learn something from that.
He was a man who in some ways might be considered austere yet he was a man who was very compassionate. His step-daughter was dying and Washington had been away on official duties. He returned to see how frail she was and how worn out his wife was with her care. Washington, looking at the feeble child, fell on his knees at her bedside and with a passionate burst of tears prayed to Almighty God that the child might be spared. One writer said that upon the wings of that holy prayer her spirit ascended. When he arose and looked upon her pale and placid face, Washington made these statements. (Notice how unlike Lincoln's in his similar situation they are. When Lincoln's child died he was almost bereft of his senses. That was before Lincoln came to accept Christ. But Washington apparently had some deep consolation.) He said. "The sweet. innocent girl entered into a more happy and peaceful abode than she had met with the afflicted path she had heretofore trod." And he commended her to the mercy of God. When a French statesman visited this country he asked at the Continental Congress which one was George Washington. The man said "He is the man on his knees when the Congress goes to prayer."
Washington was, in many ways, ahead of his time. . . a hundred years before the Civil War he had said, "I never mean, unless some particular circumstance should compel it to possess another slave by purchase. It being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country might be abolished by law." When he was inducted into high office after the victory was obtained, he appeared on the balcony clothed in dark brown with the familiar white silk stockings and dress sword at his side - American clothing in every way. At that time the Bible was on a purple cushion which was held out. He placed his hand upon it and was solemnly sworn into the office by Chancellor Livingstone. And when he finished being sworn in, he bent down and reverently kissed the Bible. That was the first act of the first President of our country. In his first inaugural address he made, among others, these statements: "It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the counsels of nations and whose providential aid can supply every human defect." He further said, "We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained."
All of these things are evidence of his virtue and his religiosity. . . but was he really a Christian? One thing we know: he was not afraid to die. Shortly after being elected to the Presidency, he was taken very seriously ill for six weeks. He thought that perhaps he would not recover and asked his doctor to tell him straightly what his chances were. He said not to flatter him with vain hopes, that he was not afraid to die and therefore could bear the worst.
To his other virtues he added the virtue of his respect for the Sabbath. He would give the day to the Lord. It was for him the Lord's day. Even while President of the United States he not only attended church on Sunday, but refrained from all official business on that day. He would not even allow visitors into the Presidential mansion on the Lord's day. The only exception was a Mr. Trumbull, who was one of the most pious and godly men in America at that time, with whom he was wont to have discussions in the evening before retiring.
He retired every night at the same time in his fantastically disciplined life. He would take his candle and, promptly at nine o'clock, retire to his study. Many did not know what he did, but a nephew who lived with him for twenty years followed him one day and shortly after his uncle had entered the study, he quietly opened the door and found Washington kneeling before a chair with the candle, and there in the chair the open Bible. From nine until ten o'clock every night, with perfect punctuality, he would spend that time in prayer and the reading of the Word, even as he did every morning and night when he was fighting the Revolutionary War. And he called all of his soldiers together each morning for prayer. He would arise at four o'clock in the morning and return to the same study, the same candle, to the same Bible and to the same prayer. Thus he began each day.
There was no doubt that he was a man not only of tremendous virtue, but also of tremendous piety. Yet it is still possible to say that he may not have been a Christian. Though he stood for every Christian virtue, though he opposed every unchristian vice, he still may not have been a Christian. I should say that there was one blemish that was charged against his character. He was accused of profanity, of swearing, which is a very strange accusation. The accusation was made by a very impious man who did not understand Washington's views. He commanded that all profanity and cursing should be punished very severely. It was punished by twenty- five lashes without court martial on the first offense in the Army of the Revolution. A little different than the army that we know today. But, was he guilty on this one occasion which is supposedly a blot on his character? It is striking that in today's world where profanity is found on most every television program and every film and in almost every book, that here one man should have this single blot charged against his character.
Was he really guilty? The occasion was during the French and Indian War; one of his companies had been led out by an officer by the name of St. Clair to a battle with the Indians, and the report had come back to Washington by a Mr. Lear telling him that the company had been ambushed and had been almost totally destroyed. Washington said this: "It's all over, St. Clair is defeated, routed, the officers nearly all killed, the men by wholesale, the route complete - too shocking to think of - and a surprise in the boot." He got up from the couch and began to pace back and forth. He was in tremendous anguish over the death of all of his officers whom he knew so intimately. . . all of these men whom he loved and cared for. He was in great anguish of soul and he walked over to the door and said, "Here, here on this very spot I took leave of him and I wished him success and honor. 'You have your instructions,' I said, 'from the Secretary of War.' And, I had a strict eye for them and will add but one word: 'Beware of a surprise.' I repeat it: 'Beware of a surprise. You know how these Indians fight us.' He went out with that as my last solemn warning blown into his ears. And yet, to suffer that army to be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked, by a surprise, the very thing I guarded him against. O God! O God! He's worse than a murderer! How can he answer to his country? The blood of the slain is upon him. The curse of the widows and the orphans, the curse of heaven." And that is the one great blot on the character of our first president. The ungodly man who reported it could see it as nothing but profanity, not realizing that in the reverent soul of Washington it was a cry in anguish to his God.
Did he countenance cursing? On one occasion he invited a number of officers to his home for dinner. As they were eating one of them uttered an oath. Washington dropped both his fork and his knife on his plate and a stillness filled the room. He said with his characteristic dignity and deliberation, "I thought that we all supposed ourselves gentlemen." It struck like an electric shock and had the desired effect upon these officers. It was the same Washington who in his parting address said, "Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to hope that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principles." Yet Mrs. O'Hare would have us to believe otherwise, having helped to remove religion from part of our national life.
At the end of his life he was taken very ill. He suffered for a long while very severely, having great difficulty breathing. He said to Dr. Craik, "Doctor, I die hard but I am not afraid to go." Several people stood around his bed. When he looked and saw the tears welling up in their eyes he reached out his hand and said, "No! No! Do not do that!" To his wife, his last words, as he grew weaker and weaker, were, "Tis well." He folded his arms decently on his breast and then breathed out his final words: "father of mercies, take me to Thy self." "We were all fixed with grief," his wife said. She rose from her knees beside the bed and said, "Is he gone?" "I could not speak," said another who was there. She could see that he was, and she echoed his words: "Tis well."
Still, someone might say, "Well, he was religious, but there are many people who live good lives, who are virtuous, who are religious, who are pious, and yet they still have never come to a real acceptance of Jesus Christ. They are trusting in their own good works; they are trusting in their own virtues." This was the very essence of Pharisaism. It is the religion of millions in America today. Is it true of Washington? Well, let me let him answer that in his own words. Perhaps the most precious collection of all of Washington's writings are in a little diary of prayers that he kept. He started them when he was twenty years old. He called them his daily sacrifice. These prayers perhaps reveal more about him than anything else. If a person is truly a Christian he knows that he is a sinner and he is not trusting in his own righteousness, but rather he trusts in the merits and the blood of Christ. Was Washington trusting in these? Or was he trusting in his own goodness? Listen to his own words: "Pardon, I beseech Thee, my sins, remove them from Thy presence, as far as the East is from the West, and accept me for the wonder of my character which is the marvel of all of the world"? No, that is not what he said! "Accept of me for the merits of Thy Son Jesus Christ." Sunday evening: "I have called on Thee for pardon and forgiveness of sins, but so coldly and carelessly, that my prayers are become my sin and stand in need of pardon. I have heard Thy holy Word, but with such deadness of spirit that I have been an unprofitable and forgetful hearer." He says again. "Cover my sins with that absolute obedience of Thy dear Son that those sacrifices which I have offered may be acceptable by it to Thee, in and for the sake of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, offered upon the cross for me. 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 from the dross of my natural corruption. Increase my faith in the sweet promises of the Gospel. Thou gavest Thy Son to die for me," said Washington. He said, "That my sins that pass over my head, my sins and my iniquities are heaped up against me. If I should cast up an account of my good deeds done this day, how few and small they would be. But if I reckon my miscarriages, surely they would be many and great. O Blessed Father, let Thy Son's blood wash me from all impurities and cleanse me from the stains of sin that are upon me. Give me grace to lay hold upon His merits," he said "that my soul watch for the coming of the Lord Jesus. Let my bed put me in mind of my grave and my rising from there on my last resurrection. O Heavenly Father, so frame my heart that I may ever delight to live according to Thy will and command that holiness and righteousness before Thee all the days of my life. Look down upon Thine unworthy servant who prostrate myself at the footstool of Thy mercy and confessing my own guiltiness and begging pardon for my sins. What Thou hast done for me, what more would Thou hast done for me or what could I have done more against Thee. Pardon me," he said, "for the blood of Thy Son, Jesus! Christ." He says, "I humbly beseech Thee to be merciful to me in the free pardon of my sins for the sake of Thy dear son, my only Saviour, Jesus Christ." "George Washington is not a Christian," said Mrs. O'Hare. "Pardon my sins for the sake of Thy Son, my only Saviour, Jesus Christ," said George Washington.
You be the judge! For myself, I think that there is no question that here is a man who had a faith in the Redeemer, and added to that faith a virtue that made his character the wonder of the world. And the tragedy today is that there are vast millions of people in America whose lives could not hold a candle to the virtue and righteousness of Washington and yet, unlike him, they trust in their own supposed goodness, the filthy works of their own self- righteousness, and do not trust in the merits of Christ and in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, I think the other passage which really reaches down into the heart of the matter and describes the secret source from which this character flowed are those words of the Apostle John, when he said: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
PRAYER: O God, our Father, we've seen that this man who first headed this state was indeed a humble servant of Thine, who trusted in the righteousness and redemption of Christ. May we ask ourselves at this time if that is where our faith is placed; if we have turned from the works of our own hands and the deeds of' our own lives and have trusted in the perfect righteousness of Christ and in His precious blood which was shed for our forgiveness. Grant that we, like Washington, may trust in Thee. In His name we pray. Amen.
About Dr. D. James Kennedy
Photo used by Permission of Coral Ridge Ministries
Dr. Kennedy holds the following degrees: A.B., University of Tampa; M.Div., cum laude, Columbia Theological Seminary; M.Th., summa cum laude, Chicago Graduate School of Theology; D.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; D.Sac.Lit., Christian Bible College; Ph.D., New York University; Litt.D., California Graduate School of Theology; D.Sac.Theol., Southwest Baptist University; L.H.D., Campbell University.
Dr. Kennedy is recognized as one of the leading Christian statesmen of our time. His rational, straightforward, and fearless use of the Word of God has brought him into national prominence.
Dr. Kennedy's vision is a ministry which leads an individual to a life with Christ and provides instruction in the application of Scripture to every aspect of the life of the individual, the Church, the school, and the government.