THOUGHTS ON WASHINGTON
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”
Introduction: “Who but an infidel does not see the hand of heaven in raising up and qualifying a Washington for the several important stations he so ably filled?” (from a sermon preached on July 4, 1806, in Charleston, S.C.)
Our beginning thoughts on Washington are grouped under three headings:
I. THE MEMORY
George Washington is the most honored man in American history, and justifiably so. Without him there would have been no:
*Independence from Britain. He must be given the credit, under God, for our winning of the Revolutionary War. In recognition of this fact, Congress in 1976 promoted him to six-star General of the Armies so that he would rank above all other American generals.
*America as we know it. He could have been King George I, but refused the honor. He allowed us to become a land of the free. Washington had no offspring; the people of his day rightly said he was the father only of his country.
*Constitution. Often the only thing that held the Constitutional Convention together was the calm and cool head of its presiding officer, George Washington.
*Presidency as we know it. He graced the office as its first occupant, and gave it the strength and dignity it possesses to this day.
*Lincoln as we knew him. The character of our 16th president was heavily influenced by Parson Weems’ famous biography of Washington.
Washington is universally counted as America’s number one hero. He was a man of sterling integrity who, as he once said, “always had walked a straight line.” Ambition and self-restraint always seemed to be properly balanced in his life. He was patient and understanding of others, had a high sense of justice, and was endowed with a compelling sense of duty, often leaving his beloved retreat at Mt. Vernon for service to his country.
No other American has been held in such high esteem by his contemporaries and successors. His name is found anywhere you travel in the nation he fostered. Named in his honor are 257 townships, 121 towns, 32 counties, 10 lakes, 8 rivers, 7 mountains, a state, and our nation’s capital city.
There’s no doubt about it. Americans hold in reverence the memory of Washington. But their veneration of him is clouded by . . . .
II. THE MYTHS
Though Americans venerate Washington, they have trouble distinguishing the real from the legend. our first President’s memory is shrouded in a cloak of mythology. Two myths are especially dangerous when it comes to trying to understand the life of Washington. Both need to be refuted.
Washington’s contemporaries and immediate successors almost conveyed deity upon him. Parson Weems built for Washington’s memory a stairway to divinity. George’s honesty (the cherry tree) and strength (coin across the Rappahannock) were super-human.
He grew to be larger than life, more than a mere mortal. A famous sculpture of Washington, now on display at the Smithsonian, has him seated on a throne, and dressed as a Greek god. His mother’s grave marker bears the inscription, “Mary the mother of Washington,” which to me smacks too much of “Mary the mother of God.”
Washington was a great man, but he was just a man. There were frailties and shortcomings in his life. And our purpose in these messages is not to exonerate him, but rather to exonerate God, who blessed our land through the life of Washington.
B. HIS DEISM
My secular schooling led me to believe that Washington was a Deist. By that term, we mean one who believed that God created the world, then left it on its own, and no longer has any dealings in human affairs. In other words, a deist rejects the manifestation of divine power in the Old Testament and scoffs at the idea of God becoming a man.
My recent studies have led me to the firm conviction that Washington was not a deist. It is true that he used the deistic phrase “Divine Providence” when referring to God. However, he usually used it in a way which implied the very opposite meaning given the phrase by deists. Washington spoke of Divine Providence as taking an active role in the affairs of men. To him God protected, delivered, gave victory, and was worthy of constant praise and Thanksgiving.
But probably the most important factor that distinguished Washington from deists was his belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. When he was about twenty years old, George filled 24 pages of a little manuscript book with prayers written in his own hand. The following three excerpts will give you the essence of these prayers:
“Remember that I am but dust, and remit my transgressions, negligences and ignorances, and cover them all with the absolute obedience of Thy dear Son, that those sacrifices (of praise and thanksgiving) which I have offered may be accepted by Thee, in and for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered upon the cross for me.”
“Wash away my sins in the immaculate Blood of the Lamb, and purge my heart by Thy Holy Spirit . . . . Daily frame me more and more into the likeness of Thy Son Jesus Christ.”
“Thou gavest Thy Son to die for me; and hast given me assurance of salvation, upon my repentance and sincerely endeavoring to conform my life to his holy precepts and example.”
These are not the writings of a deist. They are more like the thoughts of a devout Christian. And that’s exactly what Washington was–an outstanding Christian layman who loved God and served Him as a faithful Episcopal (Church of England) churchman.
Actually, George hardly had a chance to be anything but devoted to God. His early life and character were strongly molded by the domineering and overpowering personality of Mary.
III. THE MOTHER
George once said, “All that I am I owe to my mother.” That was probably true, whether George liked it or not. When George was only 11, his father died. And even before then, his father was usually away from
home on business. Mary was the parent who raised the children.
There can be no doubt that, as far as America is concerned, the hand of God was in the death of George’s father. Had Augustine Washington lived, he probably would have sent George away to England for several years of schooling. That’s what had happened to Lawrence, George’s older half-brother, and it was also Augustine’s plan for George. Had such a thing happened, the result would have been a commission in the British military for George. But that was not God’s plan. He had to save George’s talents for another country’s armies. After Augustine’s death there was no more discussion of sending George to school in England. Mary was not too overly concerned with culture and intellectual achievement. To her, moral training was of supreme importance. The schooling George would receive under Parson James Marye in Fredericksburg would be better than all the colleges of Europe combined.
Also, Mary wanted to keep the children together at home. In fact, she never did willingly cut the apron strings. She was over-protective and tried to dominate her children’s lives even after they were married and gone. She always ran her household with a strong hand–too strong.
George developed moral character and personal fortitude from his home life. However, he also developed a desire to escape its rigors. At the age of 14 he tried to go to sea. However, no sooner had he left than she received word from her brother advising against a seaman’s life for George. He told Mary that on a navy ship George would be treated like a dog.
She immediately took off to catch George and reached his port of departure just in time. The ship was anchored in the river and George’s baggage was already aboard. But there was no stopping Mary. Not even the Royal British Navy could stop her. She had come for her son, and that was that! Soon after this she gave George a pocket knife with this motto inscribed on it: “Always obey your superiors” (probably a reference to herself).
Nevertheless, Mary Washington did have many redeeming qualities. For one thing, she always prayed without ceasing for her son. In her later years she daily went to her favorite place in Fredericksburg to read her Bible and pray.
At this prayer site, wide rocks shaded by trees jutted out over a peaceful valley. She spent countless hours at this “Meditation Rock” during the Revolution praying for her son and the American cause. At her own request, she is now buried at her special place of prayer.
Mary also did more than just pray during the Revolution. She spent much time knitting socks for the Continental Army. She once said, “An old woman can’t do much in time of war. But at least I can knit.”
After the war, Marquis de Lafayette returned to America for a visit. In 1784 he stopped in Fredericksburg to see Mary. Here he claimed he learned from whom George had inherited his loftiness of spirit, his pose, and his remarkable character. The Marquis later said that Mary Washington was “the only Roman matron of her day.”
In 1789 George was elected President. He made a quick trip to see his 80-year-old mother before leaving for his inauguration. It was their last meeting. As he left, he asked for her blessing on him and his new task.
This man, who could have been king, knelt humbly before his mother and received her blessing. It is appropriate that the last act between these two was a religious one. It revealed in microcosm the essence of their relationship.