225 years ago (April 30, 1789), George Washington, the first president under the Constitution, was sworn in with his hand on a gigantic open Bible. He leaned over and kissed the book.
Many today say he was not really a Christian. But what does the evidence show? And why does it matter?
Let me answer the second question first. To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson: A nation that doesn’t remember where it came from doesn’t know where it is or where it is going. In that same speech, Wilson said we were born as a Christian nation. I would add, because of that fact, people of all faiths or no faith are welcome here. But we should honor the faith that helped shape the country.
The rest of this column deals with the first question. A few years ago I had the privilege to co-write a big, thick book (1200 pages) with Dr. Peter Lillback on the faith of Washington, carefully sifting through the evidence. The book demonstrated and documented that he was a devout 18th century Anglican and not a Deist, as some revisionists say.
Recently, I visited Mount Vernon, the home of our nation's famous first president. I was thrilled to see that the bookstore carried many copies of our book.
George and Martha Washington’s red-roofed estate sits on a hill overlooking the Potomac River and is perhaps the most famous and visited home in America. If you know where to look and what to look for, you can see many reminders of Washington's devout faith.
At Mount Vernon, they have a re-creation of George's pew from Pohick Church, which is in Lorton, Virginia. This box-shaped, red brick Anglican church was not only where Washington attended weekly services earlier in his life, it's also where he served as a Vestryman---an Anglican version of an elder and a deacon rolled into one.
Other replicas from Pohick Church at Mount Vernon include miniatures of the cross and two sections of the “reredos.” The reredos (pronounced RARE-uh-doss) was a large plaque often placed behind the altar in colonial Anglican churches with the words of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles' Creed, with its affirmation of the Trinity.The congregation would arise and recite these things together. There were reredoses in the churches regularly attended by not only Washington, but also Patrick Henry, James Madison and, even, Thomas Jefferson.
I personally have seen reredoses in churches in Williamsburg, Alexandria, Philadelphia, New York City (at St. Paul’s Chapel), and Providence, Rhode Island. There are many churches in the East where it can be truly claimed, “George Washington worshiped here.”
At Mount Vernon, you can see Washington's "chariot"---the red horse-drawn carriage, with which he would routinely travel several miles (in muddy roads) to Christ Church in Alexandria in the last several years of his life, where his funeral was eventually held.
Washington is buried on the grounds of Mount Vernon. Behind the sarcophagi of Martha and George are the words of Jesus from John 11 written in stone.
It says: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."
As to his faith, Nellie, his granddaughter whom he and Martha reared, said that to question his Christianity, you might as well question his patriotism.
Washington said that only by the hand of God was he able to accomplish what he did. He referred to God (as “God”) some 100 times in speeches and letters. In addition, he used many respectful terms for Him (the great governor of the universe, the invisible hand, etc.) in Baroque (i.e., decorated) custom, similar to many other Christians of his day. Dr. Lillback notes he also referred to Providence (a fancy name for God) some 270 times.
I could go on and on, but our 1200-page book documents the case thoroughly.
Even though April 30, 1789 marks the beginning of our nation under the Constitution with Washington serving as the first president in that way, we actually had another first president, not well known to most of us.
In 1781, the first president was sworn in under the Articles of Confederation. His name was John Hanson, and I’ve seen a memorial to him in a Lutheran church in Philadelphia---honoring him as our first president. As was often done, there was “A Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving” issued by John Hanson, president of the Continental Congress, on October 11, 1782.
The Articles was our nation’s first Constitution, but it was so unworkable the founders met in the summer of 1787 to amend them, but they decided to start all over. Hence, the Constitution.
I believe America has been blessed by God. But as Washington warned us in his First Inaugural Address, how can we expect His continued blessings if we disregard the rules of right and wrong that heaven itself has ordained? Rules such as the Ten Commandments seen on the reredoses.