Each year our nation recognizes the third Monday of February to honor the Father of our Country and first president, George Washington.
Like most people, I refer to the holiday as President’s Day. But I discovered through a little research that the federal holiday is officially called Washington’s birthday.
In honor of George Washington’s birthday, I wanted to share some information about him and his convictions that the government must rely on the Christian faith for moral guidance.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Virginia. His father died when he was 11 years old. So instead of attending a grammar school in England as his father planned, he was educated at home. At age 17, he was appointed a surveyor for the new frontier county of Culpeper.
He served in the French and Indian War in 1753 at the age of 21. Washington continued to serve his country as the commander of the Continental Army, the president of the Constitutional Convention, and as the first elected president of the new United States.
He died on December 14, 1799, at his home, Mount Vernon.
His Views on Church and State
Both of Washington’s parents descended from a line of churchmen and taught the Christian faith to their children. This instruction influenced him. A quiet and reserved man, he tended to be private about his spiritual life, but many pieces of evidence demonstrate that he was a Christian.
Washington attended churches of several denominations throughout his life, but he belonged to the Episcopalian church. Many knew him as a man of prayer, particularly during the Revolutionary War.
The first order that General Washington gave after taking command of the Continental Army stated:
“And in like manner he [the General] requires and expects of all officers and soldiers, not engaged in actual duty, a punctual attendance on Divine service, to implore the blessing of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.”i
He also arranged for chaplains from various denominations to serve the army.
When being sworn into office as President of the United States in 1789, George Washington added the phrase “so help me, God” to the proposed inaugural oath—the very phrase that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently sought to abolish.
Religion Preserves Government
In his Farewell Address, Washington demonstrated his understanding that religion was needed to preserve a nation.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports…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.
“It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”ii
Christian morality is the foundation on which the US. Constitution was laid. When that foundation is attacked, as it has been for the past several decades, freedom crumbles except when the friends of liberty defend it.
When discussing the Bill of Rights with the Virginia Baptists, Washington said that “no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”iii
Author John Eidsmore in his book Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, explained that George Washington, who was directly involved in the creation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights “saw the First Amendment not as a prohibition of every interaction of church and state, but only those activities which constitute persecution or spiritual tyranny.”iv
To better understand this issue of spiritual tyranny, one must be familiar with the history of the state churches of Europe and the spiritual domination of their rulers, especially during the Reformation. But I must save detailing that part of history for another time. In sum, when a Catholic sat on the throne, the Protestants lost their heads, and when a Protestant sat on the throne, Catholics lost their heads.
The Founding Fathers, through the First Freedom, religion, disallowed the practice of rulers dictating the faith of American citizens. Under the US Constitution, all can worship as they please without fear of governmental interference. (For a discussion about the “separation of church and state,” which is out of the scope of this post, see this Wallbuilders article.)
In closing, George Washington and the other Founding Fathers understood that the relationship between church and state is somewhat like a modern-day one-way mirror: Biblical morality is permitted and even desired to influence the government, but the government is not to control the church.
In Washington’s words, “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.”v
iEidsmoe, John. Christianity and the Constitution: the Faith of Our Founding Fathers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001, fifth printing, quoted on p. 116.
iiIbid., quoted on p. 119.
iiiIbid., quoted on p. 123-24.
ivIbid., p. 124.
v“Spurious Quotations.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. ”https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/spurious-quotations/. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.