Excerpt from Church and State: Religion and Politics
By Dr. Jim Denison
George Washington became president of a nation still bitterly divided by its War for Independence. When the Revolutionary War started on April 19, 1775 with “the shot heard round the world,” at least a fourth of the colonists supported England. Patriots and Loyalists maintained tensions and bitterness for years after the conflict was ended.
It is a surprise to many to learn that Washington became president of a nation which was still not sure it was a nation. In April, 1507, Martin Waldseemuller, professor of cosmography at the University of Saint-Die, produced the first map showing the Western Hemisphere. He called it “America,” after Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine merchant. But from the very beginning, it was a question much argued whether the country which emerged on these shores would be one nation or many.
The Declaration of Independence dropped the word “nation” from its text, with all references made to the separate states instead. Its final heading reads: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” The resolution which adopted the declaration states, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Many felt that independence did not create one nation, but thirteen. Interestingly, the word “nation” or “national” appears nowhere in the Constitution. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson warned soberly that “a single consolidated government would become the most corrupt government on earth.” New England threatened secession at the end of Jefferson’s first term over his economic and political stances. His response: “Whether we remain in our confederacy, or break into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I do not believe very important to the happiness of either part.” And he added, “Separate them if it be better.”
Washington also became president during a time of enormous conflict regarding the role of the church in the state. Protestant ministers cried out against “foreign Catholics” and warned of the dangers of electing “papal loyalists” to public office. “No Popery” banners flew in parts of New England. Following the constitutional decision to avoid any state supported church, many were concerned that the nation’s new leadership not endorse a particular denomination or faith tradition.
Despite such concerns, our first president made his personal faith commitment clear. He was a lifelong Episcopalian, worshiping regularly at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. He rode ten miles to church (two or three hours on horseback) whenever weather permitted, an example which both shames and encourages us today. John Marshall (Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington’s biographer) described his as a “sincere believer in the Christian faith and a truly devout man.” He believed in God the creator, arguing that “it is impossible to account for the creation of the universe, without the agency of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being. If there had been no God, mankind would have been obliged to imagine one.”
He trusted God as his helper. Washington encouraged his troops during the Revolutionary War: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own . . . The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army . . . Let us therefore rely on the goodness of the cause and aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions.”
Immediately following his first inauguration, President Washington and other officials rode to St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street and Broadway for a religious service. However, since most of the crowd could not fit into the sanctuary, the president suggested that they walk seven blocks to hear prayers offered by Episcopal Bishop Samuel Provoost, just named Chaplain of the Senate. This was the only time a religious service has been an official part of a presidential inauguration.
On October 3, 1789, General Washington issued the first thanksgiving proclamation in national history:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor . . . Now, therefore, I do recommend . . . that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are now blessed . . . And also 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 and other transgressions . . . to promote the knowledge and practice of one true religion and virtue.
On March 11, 1792, he wrote: “I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that Agency which was so often manifested during our revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.”
In his farewell address (September 19, 1796), President Washington made clear his belief that religion is indispensable for the morality essential to America:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would 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 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. ‘Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.
And yet our first president was a firm supporter of religious freedom. Writing to a general convention of the Episcopal Church in 1789, he stated, “The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States, of worshiping Almighty God agreeably to their experiences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights.”
About the Author
James C. Denison, Ph.D., is a subject matter expert on culture and contemporary issues. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, a nonsectarian “think tank” designed to engage contemporary issues with biblical truth in 2009. Dr. Denison writes a cultural commentary available at www.denisonforum.org/subscribe. His free daily commentary is distributed around the world to 85,000 subscribers in over 200 countries.