The air was crisp and clear when George Washington stepped onto the balcony at Federal Hall, in New York City, on April 30, 1789. Wearing a dark-brown suit and white silk stockings, he graciously bowed to acknowledge the crowd of well-wishers. Robert Livingston opened the bible. Washington placed his hand upon it and began, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” then pausing briefly, he added, “So help me God!”
This account of Washington’s inauguration has been recorded in history books, recounted in literature, and depicted in movies. It is the reason why modern presidents conclude their oath of office with the divine petition, “So help me God!” However, recently some historians have challenged the account. Apparently, there is no eye-witness record of Washington uttering the phrase. The first documented account doesn’t appear until 1854, some 65-years after the event. Additionally, these historians assert that Washington was a stickler for protocol, and it is unlikely that he would amend the Constitutional oath, with a personal petition to the Almighty. Given the lack of evidence to either prove, or disprove the account, it appears that the story of “So help me God,” is destined to remain in historical limbo, somewhere between folklore and fact.
Over the past couple of decades, there as been an effort to reinterpret and secularize George Washington. Modern historians have described him as a lukewarm Episcopalian, and a man who was not deeply religious, or particularly ardent in his faith. They propose that because there is no mention of Jesus Christ by name in any of Washington’s writings, he was not a Christian, but a Deist.
An examination of the historical evidence is enough to discredit these re-interpretations. George Washington was without doubt a Christian. He was a member of Pohick Parish near his home at Mount Vernon, and while President regularly attended services at Christ Church in Philadelphia. The extent that Washington adhered to the doctrine and dogma of his faith is unknown, but he apparently did not receive communion. His adopted daughter describes him as a devote Christian, and Robert Lewis, his nephew and private secretary regularly witnessed him kneeling to pray, reading the bible, quoting scripture and writing prayers.
Washington was an intensely private man who adhered to a strict code of civility and behavior. He never discussed politics or religion in conversation. However, his public and private papers are full of references to God. He frequently appealed to the Almighty during our struggle for independence, and earnestly believed that divine intervention helped win the American Revolution. He issued a Presidential Proclamation assigning Thursday, November 26 as a day of Thanksgiving to recognize “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good, that is, or will be,” and told the Chiefs of the Delaware Indians that, “You do well to wish to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people… “
If there is so much evidence that Washington was a Christian, why is there an on-going debate about his faith? There are those that claim that it is a deliberate attempt by secularist to re-write our history in order to negate the importance of religion and faith on the nation’s founding, and complete the job of removing God from all our public institutions. Conspiracy theories aside, it is most likely the inability of modern historians to understand the impact of faith on our first President.
Today’s historians cannot understand Washington because they’re looking at him through the secular perspective of arrogance and cynicism. Modern politicians compartmentalize their religious beliefs and political philosophies. In this era of the Politics of Personal Destruction, politicians routinely abandoned morality and values for expediency and votes. Academia and the self-proclaimed intellectual elite scoff at the notion of a higher moral authority, and stand ready to ridicule anyone who believes in the Creator. Any business or civic leader, who formulates a policy or position based on religious principles, runs the risk of being attacked and vilified by the media. Faith has become a political liability in the secular arena of public discourse.
Washington like most of the Founding Fathers was a man of great faith. He ardently believed that there was a creator, a God who actively participated in and influenced the lives of men. He understood that there is a higher moral authority that will one-day hold us all accountable for what we do and fail to do with the life he gave us. Secular historians cannot understand George Washington because they are either unable, or unwilling to accept this truth.
This country was settled by people seeking freedom OF religion, and not freedom FROM religion. That tradition was very much alive at the time of the American Revolution. Washington and the Founding Fathers understood the significance of their undertaking. They set out to create something new and unique in human history; a nation predicated on the divine truth that all men are created equal. They succeeded in securing our independence because they believed in the divine nature of their cause, and had the faith and courage to risk everything.
Washington and the other Founding Fathers were men, just like any other men; ambitious, petty and jealous. They were separated by regional and religious differences, and had their own personal agendas. However, they were able to put those differences aside, doubt a little of their own infallibility, and create the miracle at Philadelphia, because they understood that one day, they would be judged not only by history, but by God Almighty.
It is said that actions speak louder than words, and perhaps that’s true. We may never know what Washington actually said at his inauguration, but we do know what he did. Eye-witness Eliza Susan Morton Quincy, wife of Harvard President and Congressman Josiah Quincy wrote, “Chancellor Livingston read the oath according to the form prescribed by the Constitution; and Washington repeated it, resting his hand upon the Bible. Mr. Otis, the Secretary of the Senate, then took the Bible to raise it to the lips of Washington; who stooped, and kissed the book.” The crowd then shouted “Long live George Washington!”