My wife and I spent last week in Virginia, where we toured the homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The faith of these two giants of American history in many ways speaks to the significance of faith in America today.
George Washington spoke of God in his speeches and writings 147 times, the divine 95 times, heaven 133 times, Providence over 270 times, used other titles for God some 95 times, and alluded to over 200 biblical texts. He believed strongly in divine providence: When deciding whether to accept a second term as president, Washington told his dear friend Edmund Randolph, “As the allwise disposer of events has hitherto watched over my steps, I trust that in the important one I may soon be called upon to take, he will mark the course so plainly . . . that [I] cannot mistake the way.”
He was deeply and consistently committed to a life of prayer. His contemporaries remarked on his daily practice of prayer; as one said, “he is known to have observed stated seasons of retirement for secret devotion.” He wrote more than 100 prayers in his own hand.
Washington’s wife, stepchildren, and grandchildren all affirmed that he was a Christian. John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington’s biographer, agreed: “He was a sincere believer in the Christian faith and a truly devout man.” And he frequently and consistently called himself a Christian. His was a faith of deeds and words, integrity and compassion, inclusion and grace.
By contrast, Thomas Jefferson stated, “I am a Christian, but I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished anyone to be, sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others, ascribing to him all human excellence, and believing that he never claimed any other.” His Jefferson Bible removed all references to miracles, preserving only Jesus’ ethical teachings and ending with his crucifixion and burial.
While Jefferson did not affirm an orthodox personal faith, he recognized its value in American culture. When he became president, he frequently worshiped with the congregation of Christ Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. He explained: “No nation has yet existed or been governed without religion. I, as the Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.”
He authorized federal support for military chaplains and Christian missions to the Indians. He attended Sunday services of Christian worship in the Capitol building, and designated space in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia for chapel services.
Last week’s National Day of Prayer continued a tradition dating to our first president. But America needs more than a day of prayer—it needs a people of prayer. (Tweet this) It deserves our intercession this day and every day. In his first inaugural address, our nation’s first president stated: “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.”
Do you agree?