SAN JOSE, April 30, 2015 — On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office to become the first president of the United States of America. There are many points concerning Washington’s effort to express his sincere thoughts to his country on this occasion that are not that well known. One of the most significant may be his very direct effort to offer gratitude to the “Almighty Being who rules over the Universe.”
As he delivered his first inaugural address, some record Washington, as he spoke in a low voice, as sometimes inaudible. But the weight of his words offered genuine depth and included his personal gratitude to God. He said:
…it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes: and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success, the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either. No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.
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This sincere expression by Washington of his recognition of a Creator is offset by revisionist historians who depict Washington as a deist, as some of his associates were deists. But this is intended to shade Washington’s personal faith into the realm of the intellectualization of God as an impartial creator of the universe. However, as pointed out by Alf Mapp, Jr. in his book The Faiths of Our Fathers, other scholars credit the Father of the nation as a “warm Deist” in that Washington likely saw the universe governed by absolute law, yet he had the belief that the Creator intervened in the affairs of men. This mystery with respect to Washington’s religion somehow perplexes those who write of his life. Mapp attempts to do more justice to Washington’s personal belief system in his book.
The attempt to identify Washington as a deist leads to a controversy regarding whether he prayed or, as most deists of his day, viewed prayer as a waste of time. Today, images of the general praying at Valley Forge are controversial, and ideas that he prayed or did not tend more to be a reflection of his biographers than of the man. How could one know? It is something that is a very personal reality. Yet, in Washington’s own words, as he delivers this essential speech, he admits his own “inferior endowments” and offers gratitude to “that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States.”
Such impassioned expression of recognition of God’s interaction in human affairs goes well beyond the realm in which those learned scholars want to imprison Washington. One may be able to read and look again and again at his words, but there is more there than a detached intellectual perception of an impartial ruler of the universe. But even more than this, Washington is almost offering a public prayer in his inaugural address that ”His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States.” Yet again, as he closes his address, he expresses a similar sentiment as he seems to call upon God’s blessings and to secure them for the people of this new nation that so many had been willing to sacrifice their livelihoods and their very lives:
I shall take my present leave: but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication that, since He has been pleased to favor the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness, so His divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.
Washington’s inaugural address, delivered right after reciting the oath, was indeed an expression of his faith. In reality, this very first swearing-in ceremony and inaugural address of George Washington established the tradition, and subsequent presidential inaugurations have not changed much. Unfortunately, the nation has changed quite a bit since the days of Washington and the founding generation, and as Americans lose touch with their heritage, they lose connection to their roots as a people. Much of this erosion and disconnection from the nation’s heritage can easily blamed upon cultural amnesia, as historian David McCullough observes. But some of it is manifested in calculated and deliberate attempts to loosen Americans’ grip upon the founding values, especially any connectedness to God.
Within the nation today, one of the two major political parties has attempted to remove God from its national platform as an extension of who the people are and their pseudo-sophistication of their contemporary perceptions of reality. Today, the self-serving prophets of atheism have seized the initiative and manipulated current socially acceptable perceptions of who and what George Washington was as well as what the framers intended. This is a dangerous path, one that acknowledges no religion or genuine personal faith. This runs seriously counter to the foundation of the United States as a nation based upon the Judeo-Christian traditions, even counter to most faiths. Washington’s words should indicate, and his life should demonstrate, his personal testimony to America’s connectedness to God.
More than the first president, Washington was a leader of the people who fought to create a nation that was intended to establish freedom for the people – even the people who could care less whether their neighbors were willing to fight and die for such freedom. Washington was the embodiment of the idea and impulse a people who created the foundations for the Land of the Free. A grateful people held him in high esteem, and in their gratitude, elected him to the position of president of the United States of America. As he shared his words, and became that president, he sincerely offered his gratitude to the One whom he knew had helped him lead, despite his “inferior endowments from nature,” and helped him become the father of his country, despite being “unpracticed in duties of civil administration.”