Incredibly, those who were integral to the beginnings of America, who participated in the founding of the country, were familiar with this biblical principle and repeatedly articulated the principle in their organic utterances. They fully recognized that the critical principles of freedom they expounded are rooted in the “unalienable rights” that are inherent in the creation of human beings in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Hence, they frequently intermingled their verbal pronouncements with allusions to the Christian principles that are indispensable to national survival. Indeed, while they opposed coercion pertaining to religious belief, they nevertheless viewed Christian morality and submission to Bible teaching as “the glue” which holds the Republic together.
As one simple proof, consider just one Founding Father whose qualification to witness to this truth is seen in the fact that he is the one and only individual to go down in American history as the “Father of our country.”2 He had served as a Colonel in the French & Indian War where he was the Aide-de-camp to the British General Edward Braddock, also serving as Commander of all Virginia forces. He then served as a member of the State House, Justice-of-the-Peace, and delegate to the 1774 Williamsburg Convention in his home state of Virginia. He then became a member of the Continental Congress where he was unanimously chosen Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army throughout the American Revolution. After the termination of the War, he became President of the Constitutional Convention, where he signed the Constitution. He was then unanimously elected (twice) to be the first President of the United States. Declining a third term, he was appointed Commander of the U.S. Army. Here, indeed, was a quintessential Founding Father who accurately represents the tone and tenor of the Founding Era while demonstrating the delicate interweaving of freedom and Christian reliance upon God.
While serving as the Commander of military forces during the Revolution, he repeatedly reminded the members of the military of the critical need to remain in good stead with God and Christ while performing their duties. Neglecting to do so would inevitably result in their defeat. Consider the following 10 instances of official General Orders issued from 1775 to 1781 by this premiere Founder to the entire Continental Army.
1. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Cambridge, July 4, 1775The General most earnestly requires, and expects a due observance of those articles of war, established for the Government of the army, which forbid profane cursing, swearing and drunkeness; And in like manner requires and expects, of all Officers, and Soldiers, not engaged on actual duty, a punctual attendance on divine Service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defence.
According to this eminent Founder, Christian church attendance and supplication directed to God were necessary to military success and the founding of the country.
2. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Cambridge, July 16, 1775The Continental Congress having earnestly recommended, that “Thursday next the 20th. Instant, be observed by the Inhabitants of all the English Colonies upon this Continent, as a Day of public Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer; that they may with united Hearts and Voice unfeignedly confess their Sins before God, and supplicate the all wise and merciful disposer of events, to avert the Desolation and Calamities of an unnatural war.” The General orders, that Day to be religiously observed by the Forces under his Command, exactly in manner directed by the proclamation of the Continental Congress: It is therefore strictly enjoin’d on all Officers and Soldiers, (not upon duty) to attend Divine Service, at the accustomed places of worship, as well in the Lines, as the Encampments and Quarters; and it is expected, that all those who go to worship, do take their Arms, Ammunitions and Accoutrements and are prepared for immediate Action if called upon. If in the judgment of the Officers, the Works should appear to be in such forwardness as the utmost security of the Camp requires, they will command their men to abstain from all Labour upon that solemn day.
In keeping with the directive of the Continental Congress, Washington instructed the military to confess their sins to God and engage in religious observance of a day in which God was to be supplicated and Christian worship attended to.
3. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Cambridge, November 14, 1775On the occasion of the invasion of Canada, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery captured Fort St Johns on November 3, 1775. Washington marked the achievement by issuing the following statement:
This moment a confirmation is arrived of the glorious Success of the Continental Arms, in the Reduction, and Surrender, of the Fortress of St. Johns; the Garrisons of that place and Chamblee being made Prisoners of war. The Commander in Chief is confident, the Army under his immediate direction, will shew their Gratitude to providence, for thus favouring the Cause of Freedom and America; and by their thankfulness to God, their zeal and perseverance in this righteous Cause, continue to deserve his future blessings.
It is self-evident as to whom Washington gave credit for military success.
4. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Cambridge, November 28, 1775Having reduced Fort St. Johns to submission, General Montgomery proceeded to Montreal, where he was equally victorious. Washington’s General Orders note the event:
An Express last Night from General Montgomery, brings the joyful tidings of the Surrender of the City of Montreal, to the Continental Arms—The General hopes Such frequent Favors from divine providence will animate every American to continue, to exert his utmost, in the defence of the Liberties of his Country, as it would now be the basest ingratitude to the Almighty, and to their Country, to shew any the least backwardness in the public cause.6
Washington viewed military successes as “favors” from God.
5. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Cambridge, February 26, 1776All Officers, non-commissioned Officers and Soldiers are positively forbid[den] playing at Cards, and other Games of Chance. At this time of public distress, men may find enough to do in the service of their God, and their Country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality.
In complete harmony with the Christian worldview, Washington viewed gambling as a vice that would sap the morality of the soldiers and hamper their participation in the war.
6. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, New York, August 3, 1776That the Troops may have an opportunity of attending public worship, as well as take some rest after the great fatigue they have gone through; The General in future excuses them from fatigue duty on Sundays (except at the Ship Yards, or special occasions) until further orders. The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish, and wicked practice, of profane cursing and swearing (a Vice heretofore little known in an American Army) is growing into fashion; he hopes the officers will, by example, as well as influence, endeavour to check it, and that both they, and the men will reflect, that we can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our Arms, if we insult it by our impiety, and folly; added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense, and character, detests and despises it.8
Observe that Washington understood that Christian morality must prevail throughout the military ranks if they were to have God’s backing and blessing. He was referring to the practice of taking God’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7). Further, the General expected the troops to attend Sunday morning Christian worship service, which he again addressed the next Spring.
7. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Morristown, April 12, 1777All the troops in Morristown, except the Guards, are to attend divine worship tomorrow morning at the second Bell; the officers commanding Corps, are to take especial care, that their men appear clean, and decent, and that they are to march in proper order to the place of worship.
If such instructions were issued in the branches of military in our day, not only would they be viewed as archaic, superfluous, and of no value, they would be declared a violation of separation of church and state and subject to court martial or other legal action.
8. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Morristown, May 26, 1777George Washington’s concern for the deleterious effect of unchristian behavior among the troops was so great that it prompted him to issue a “Circular Letter” to his Brigadier Generals, impressing upon them his expectation that they would suppress such behavior and promote church attendance among the soldiers. The Brigadier Generals consisted of William Smallwood, Anthony Wayne, John Philip de Haas, William Woodford, Peter Muhlenberg, George Weedon, Thomas Conway, Philippe Hubert Preudhomme de Borre, and Charles Scott.
Let Vice, and Immorality of every kind, be discouraged, as much as possible, in your Brigade; and as a Chaplain is allowed to each Regiment, see that the Men regularly attend divine Worship. Gaming of every kind is expressly forbid, as the foundation of evil, and the cause of many Gallant and Brave Officer’s Ruin. Games of exercise, for amusement, may not only be permitted but encouraged.
9. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Valley Forge, May 2, 1778In Washington’s mind, Christianity was of such supreme importance that he placed it above all other pursuits in life. He admonished the Continental Army:
The Commander in Chief directs that divine Service be performed every Sunday at 11 o’clock in those Brigades to which there are Chaplains—those which have none to attend the places of worship nearest to them. It is expected that officers of all Ranks will by their attendance set an Example to their men.
While we are zealously performing the duties of good Citizens and Soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of Religion. To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labours with complete success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of Gratitude & Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.
According to this masterful military man, being a Christian was more important and stood higher than being a soldier or patriot. In fact, it is the highest glory a person can experience. The success which the Continental Army experienced—according to the Father of our country—was to be attributed to the God of the Bible—the Supreme Author of all good.
10. GENERAL ORDERS—Head Quarters, Before York, October 20, 1781As the war drew to a close, Washington again reminded the men of the divine connection that watched over them.
In order to diffuse the general Joy through every Breast the General orders that those men belonging to the Army who may now be in confinement shall be pardoned released and join their respective corps. Divine Service is to be performed tomorrow in the several Brigades or Divisions. The Commander in Chief earnestly recommends that the troops not on duty should universally attend with that seriousness of Deportment and gratitude of Heart which the recognition of such reiterated and astonishing interpositions of Providence demand of us.
ConclusionThroughout the prosecution of the war, Washington manifested his deeply held conviction that the favor and assistance of the God of the Bible was the ultimate key to military success. It is self-evident that God was never far from his mind in his life and death military deliberations. Did he represent the general tone and tenor of Americans? He absolutely did. The organic utterances of the Founders en masse are riddled with such indications.12 Today, our nation, together with its military, increasingly fails to give the God of heaven due respect and to seek His favor. The majority of Americans do not even attend church worship on Sunday mornings anymore.13 The “glue” that held us together is rapidly dissolving. If George Washington were alive today, what would he think about our massive moral and spiritual decline? What would he say to us?
As if speaking to us from the grave over two centuries later, here are his sobering thoughts expressed several years after Independence was achieved—anticipations that ought to alarm and haunt us:
I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that Agency which was so often manifested during our revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.