Finding Washington’s Faith

American Icons, People
on February 19, 2007

George Washington often is depicted as a Deist, viewing God as a remote creator who abandoned his creation. But most people know little about the Christian faith that guided and sustained the Father of Our Country, says Peter A. Lillback, author of George Washington’s Sacred Fire, a new biography based on 15 years of research into Washington and his writings.

Lillback, a Presbyterian pastor in Bryn Mawr, Pa. (pop. 4,382), as well as the president of Westminster Theological Seminary and the nonprofit Providence Forum, an organization committed to preserving American’s spiritual roots, spoke to American Profile about Washington, born 275 years ago on Feb. 22.

AP: Why is Washington so often regarded as a leader without Christian faith?

PL: It’s been so often said that Washington didn’t partake of communion. Yet I discovered the evidence is that he communed in Virginia, New Jersey and New York. After he took the oath of office, he went down a few blocks to a two-hour worship service, and Mrs. Alexander Hamilton recorded that she knelt in communion with him after the service was over. (There also has been) the argument that he did not use the Bible and was not Bible-serious. But we know on Inauguration Day he used a Bible to take the oath of office. It came from the local Masonic order, and they still have that Bible to this day. There are 200 different examples where Washington alludes to or cites the Bible. He calls Scripture “Holy Writ.”

AP: What was his basic personality?

PL: Shy, non-self-disclosing and remarkably gracious and polite. He had a reserved dignity. And he was not a public speaker. One of the writers of the inaugural address said, “He stood trembling before his people with his notes in his hand.” There are some incidents where he was overcome by stage fright. Someone made the observation, “There was never a battle in which he stood in terror, but there are speeches where he could not stand up without trembling.”

AP: Were his teeth really wooden, as we sometimes hear?

PL: They were not wooden. The story is that his (false) teeth were made out of animal bone or tusks. But how did the (wooden teeth) myth get started? According to one version, Washington loved to drink port (wine), and port can stain your teeth. He said, “My teeth are becoming so stained you could think they were wood.”

AP: Washington’s image today is quaint at best. We mostly see him as a talking dollar bill in a TV commercial for a President’s Day sale. How did he become such a largely forgotten hero?

PL: I suppose because of the spirit of political correctness. In seeking to correct the oversight of people that belong in our story as Americans, we’ve thrown out some of our white male founders. We don’t know them anymore. In a 2005 poll of college seniors, President Bill Clinton’s job performance had a much higher score of approval than George Washington’s. How many public school rooms have a picture of George Washington anymore? Fifty years ago, every school had a picture of him hanging up. He’s as faceless as the monument that’s been given to him, and that’s tragic.

AP: What would he likely think of our modern-day presidents?

PL: Washington advocated peace through strength. He would have loved Ronald Reagan’s idea of a really powerful navy and strong army. On the other hand, part of his farewell address gave the warning, “Avoid entangling alliances.” So he would have had a lot of problems going back to the (President Woodrow) Wilson era, when America got involved in European conflicts and worldwide issues. He wouldn’t have wanted us to be involved on the international stage. But he would have been enthralled with George Bush’s commitment to liberty. He would have looked at the debacle we’re in right now of fighting terror, and he might have said something like, “You have to have people who are loyal to the government. Have you been letting immigrants into your country that are not loyal?” And he probably would have criticized every administration that allowed us to be dependent on international oil.

AP: What do you think his ultimate legacy is?

PL: His legacy is this country. His personality, his commitment and his resolve kept the army together. It was understood even in his own lifetime that if they could get him to give up, the war would be over. Imagine being defeated outside of Philadelphia. An enemy army has taken the capital city, and you’ve retreated, having lost two battles. You have to take care of your soldiers, and there’s no place to go but the wilderness. And you have a letter sent to you by people in Philadelphia who had been loyal to you, saying, “Let’s end this, before there’s any more bloodshed.” But Washington had the courage to stand strong and not give up, even though he said in one of his letters, “You can tell where the soldiers have walked, not just by their footprints in the snow, but by the bloodstains that are there.” Men were dying of exposure and starvation. Weeks would go by when they wouldn’t eat anything but flour and water. So there would be no America if there weren’t the character of Washington that was utterly resolved to accomplishing the job he’d been given.

AP: He had to have had faith just to survive Valley Forge.

PL: That’s right. There was nothing there. They had to build houses for 10,000 soldiers by chopping down trees, finding mud and putting them together. And he promised his men, “I will not leave my tent until you all are under roof.” His headquarters were there, but he didn’t live in them until he finished shivering with the very last soldier. You’ve got to love a leader like that.