April 8, 2006


Was George Washington a Christian?: A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: a review of Washington's God by Michael and Jana Novak (Al Zambone, Books & Culture)

The Novaks' central argument, following several chapters recapitulating Washington's life, is based upon Washington's incessant appeals to and observations of the ways of Providence. This is something ignored or dismissed by many biographers, which is foolish; Washington used "Providence" so often that it can be characterized as one of his three ruling ideas of how the world works or should work (the other two, I believe, are "West" and "Union"). His idea of Providence was that it was the intervention of an all-powerful and all-merciful God in the events of mankind. This Providence was often seen as working the near-miraculous, such as in the Continental Army's escape through night and fog from Brooklyn past the British fleet. Washington's "Providence," the Novaks convincingly demonstrate, is not impersonal fate; moreover, Washington does not view Providence as always being on his side. While he often describes Providence as benevolent and God as merciful, his favorite description of Providence is "inscrutable." Providence is not the leader of America's team; It does what It does, and is not always understood by a humanity that is being done unto. In the face of Providence, Washington is both thankful and resigned. Indeed, Washington's very last words as he died, "'Tis well," reflect the most important belief of his life.

For Washington, Providence had a personality. Thus it is difficult, as the Novaks further argue, to describe Washington as a Deist in the classic 18th-century sense. Many if not all Deists would accept the concept of Providence in general terms, as the overarching care of the Creator-God for the world that He had established. However they would be quick to deride any idea that this God would intervene in the world using anything that seemed even vaguely miraculous; in theological terms, they denied the need for special providence. Washington, however, often appeals precisely to special Providence. Moreover, as in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Savannah, Washington identifies that special Providence as being none other than Jehovah, "who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors" and whose "agency has lately been conspicuous, in establishing these United States as an independent nation."

First Inaugural Address of George Washington (New York City, April 30, 1789)
[I]t 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 councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow- citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence.

It would only be improper to omit for a Judeo-Christian.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 8, 2006 6:06 AM
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