by Michael Novak and Jana Novak
In 2012, the British people voted George Washington the greatest enemy Britain ever faced. We found Washington a startling choice – until we saw that it was his character they admired, his steadiness in both his defeats (many) and his victories (few), his ability to keep his ragged band of troops inspired, and in the end, the startling magnitude of his achievement.
To hear Washington himself tell it, his army owed its endurance in the field to a firm reliance on divine Providence. Often in his daily orders to his troops, Washington spiritedly reminded them: “The liberties of our people now depend, under God, upon the valor of your arms.”
Under God, for there was no way in the annals of common expectation that his ragged army could have won victory over the best army and navy in the world, ably led, and in insuperable numbers.
"For Washington, Providence was not a doctrine to be believed, but a fact that had been experienced."
When he was in his 20s, he almost died three times during his official scouting trips to the Ohio Valley wilderness for the governor of Virginia. He wrote his brother after one incident, “I now exist and appear in the land of the living by the miraculous care of Providence.” Near Pittsburgh in the French and Indian War in 1755, two horses were shot out from under him, his coat bore four bullet holes, and he was the last officer sitting upright on horseback. The best of the Indian sharpshooters had clean shots at him, and normally they didn’t miss. Their chief marveled later, “A power far mightier than we shielded you.”
Later, during the War for Independence, Washington saw a steady stream of clear signals that Providence was looking out for his men. He noted after one engagement: “We must be thankful, as I truly am, for this instance of Divine favour.” And after another, “I shall most religiously believe, that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the eyes of our enemies.”
Washington expressed his trust in Providence most clearly in his almost daily “General Orders” to his beloved troops. He directed that colonels or commanding officers of each regiment must procure chaplains, arguing that only religious practice among the men reduced vices injurious to morale, and tempered exultation in victory and despondency in defeat. Sometimes he assumed his personal voice: “The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”
More than once he rebuked them: How could men implore the aid of Providence, and then in daily actions violate His will?
“The General” (as he was affectionately known) had learned to rely on Providence from the prayer books his mother read to him. In later years, no religious subject so engaged his mind. He collected particularly illuminating sermons on the workings of Providence, sent to him from chaplains and men in the field, and he later published them as a book.
In statements both private and official, General (and later President) Washington emphasized that the blessings of Providence have so abundantly been “experienced” by the American people, that no people in history has a greater duty of gratitude to “a gracious Providence.” For Washington, Providence was not a doctrine to be believed, but a fact that had been experienced.
In official documents, he pointed out concretely many “signal mercies” during the preceding months, flashing out like lighthouse beacons: The chance interruption by an American patrol of Benedict Arnold’s courier, carrying secret plans of a fateful betrayal to the British, for example. The sudden arrival of a fierce storm over Boston on the night the British marines were to disembark and overwhelm Washington’s positions. The signal arrival of a captured munitions ship just when bullets were in shortest supply.
After each such visible blessing, the General urged his men in the field and all citizens to redouble their prayers and their efforts to live holy and devoted lives, so as to be worthy of so many blessings, and to ask the Lord to continue them.
At the start of the War of Independence, the Americans had no national army or navy, and no ammunitions factory on their side of the ocean. Yet after reflection, they declared war on the greatest of all military powers at the time. That they did so with “a firm reliance on Divine Providence” was their hidden ace.
Even though their British foe might pray to the same Providence, the Americans saw liberty as the purpose of God’s creation – better, its condition. Like the name of their capital city, Philadelphia (“The Love of Brothers”), the Americans held that God created the world for friendship with each of His human creatures. Thus, the Almighty, who might have created men unfree, fit only for submission, instead created them free. The Governor of all things wanted the friendship of free women and free men, not those coerced – men and women erect and willing, not supinely submissive. “If friendship, then liberty!” William Penn had taught them. That was the motive behind the Liberty Bell.
No Bible-lover, Tom Paine agreed wholeheartedly: as between “that robber George III” and those willing to die for their own liberty, Providence could not support the King against the colonists, without being unfaithful to His own purposes.
In his private letters and his public statements – and not merely “public,” but official statements, uttered in his role as commander-in-chief and later president – Washington seldom missed an opportunity to give praise to Providence, and to beg God’s continuing favor on this nation.
As Lincoln wrote, we need “another Washington” today. We need a “New Birth of Freedom.” We need the help of Providence. It has been ever thus.