(CNSNews.com) — At the close of the American Revolution in 1783, Gen. George Washington composed a circular letter to the governors of all the states urging them to imitate “that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion.” He was, in fact, asking the governors of the nascent United States to imitate Jesus Christ. Indeed, Washington told the governors that if Americans failed to imitate Christ’s “example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
In “Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country,” scholar Michael Novak and his daughter Jana Novak have illuminated the religious life and sentiments of America’s first president and preeminent Founding Father.
The book is based on a careful and thorough reading of Washington’s own writings, both personal and public. These words, consistent the length of Washington’s life, paint an unmistakable picture of a quiet, reserved, yet steadfast Christian.
Novak, who won the 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, visited CNSNews.com recently to discuss “Washington’s God” in an episode of “Online with Terry Jeffrey.” Here is a transcript of the conversation.
Terry Jeffrey: Welcome to Online with Terry Jeffrey. Our guest for this episode is Ambassador Michael Novak. Novak served President Reagan as ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and as ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
He is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. He has taught at Harvard, Stanford, Syracuse, State University of New York, and Notre Dame. He has written numerous books, including the “Universal Hunger for Liberty,” and the one we are going to talk about today, “Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country,” which he co-authored with his daughter, Jana Novak.
Ambassador Novak, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us.
Michael Novak: Hi. How are you, Terry.
Jeffrey: In your book, you write about--I know there are a couple of apocryphal events that people believe happen, or some people believe did happen in regard to George Washington and his religious experience. But in your book you write about a couple of very real experiences that I think affected his life. One was in July 1755, when as a young officer he went with General Braddock’s British army towards where Pittsburgh is today. What happened on that march?
Novak: Well, you have to remember that Washington had already explored that territory by himself and was one of the most famous men in America by that time because he wrote a diary that was published in Europe. So, anyway, he had unsurpassed knowledge of that area from having trekked through it so many times. And Braddock had him with him. And Braddock was marching along toward Pittsburgh two miles a day, because he insisted on clearing the trees and building a road. He didn’t have scouts up on the hills or anything. And Washington kept telling him: You can’t fight like that here.
Jeffrey: And these are British lobster backs with redcoats on?
Novak: They are great troops out in the open. They can get in rank and lay down a curtain of fire—you know, one and then another and then another. They can stop anybody.
Jeffrey: But here they are sort of crawling through the Appalachian Mountains, through dense forest, trying to move their wagons?
Novak: To make a long story short, Washington finally persuaded him to break his unit in two, and send a faster group—1,200 men—ahead and let the rest of the army come on slower, and then bring up supplies as they needed them. Well, it happened that there was a spy party, a scouting party for the Indians—French and Indians--and they caught sight of this smaller group of Braddock’s men, before Braddock and Washington’s group did. And they were surprised. They weren’t looking for them exactly. They thought they were back with the army. And they laid into them. And, soon, every officer fell--every officer on horseback was shot off his horse. Washington was shot off his horse twice, ended up the day with four bullet holes in his jacket.
Braddock was wounded, seriously wounded. Then they slowly began to retreat--finally they ordered a retreat--and slowly began to retreat.
At a certain point along the way, Braddock died. And Washington then, in effect, took over—though he was a colonial. He ordered Braddock buried right in the middle of the road, and had all the wagons go over it on their way out of the woods, so there would be no sign of a fresh grave. Because he was afraid the body could be dug up and scalped and so forth.
Jeffrey: You say there were four bullets that actually pierced Washington’s clothing?
Jeffrey: But they didn’t hit his body?
Novak: No. And later there was an Indian chief of a small band who lived there who later reminisced about that battle with Washington and some of his colleagues, too, and said how he himself had 17 clear shots at Washington and couldn’t get him.
Jeffrey: And Washington wasn’t a small target.
Novak: No, and Washington was not a small target. He was one of the biggest men out there—at six-foot-three, six-foot-four, something like that. And he thought he must be protected by a greater power from that day forward. And he so told his men.
Jeffrey: A pagan Indian believed that?
Jeffrey: What did Washington believe?
Novak: You know I think Washington deep down thought that might happen. He thought—I am answering to the great man part. He certainly thought he was protected by Providence. In fact, he wrote after words to his brother that he had heard there was a report out that he had been killed, and even a report about what his dying words had been. And he said he would like to step forward and say that never happened: My horse was twice shot out from under me. I had four bullet holes in my jacket. But by the hands of a Good Providence I am here.
Jeffrey: Washington thought he had been protected by God on that day?
Novak: Yes, that’s not the only time in his life. Later, he said twice later, that no man in America had a greater reason to rely on Divine Providence than he did.
Jeffrey: That was 1755. Twenty-one years later, George Washington is the commander of the Continental Army. The British have come to New York. They’ve had the Battle of Boston. The British evacuated there. Washington brings his army down, and he makes a stupid move. He places them on Long Island.
Jeffrey: Across the East River from Manhattan.
Novak: That’s right.
Jeffrey: What happened then?
Novak: Well, what he forgot is the British had the ships. They had 300 some ships in New York harbor, and they just out-flanked him, up the bottom of Long Island, and landed inland and then pressed toward Washington’s troops from the other side from where he expecting. And he didn’t catch wind of it until the last day. He found this column marching down on him to roll up his flank. So he gave orders to buy and steal every boat they could locate on Long Island, and he started getting his men off—some barges--and get his men off. And he had good New England men to take the ships over. They were from Marblehead and were very good at handling the boats. So, all night they labored to get the men across. Daylight came and only half the men were off. They had kept the fires going down the line, so the British didn’t know they were evacuating.
Jeffrey: So they are sitting ducks on the water—to the British Navy.
Novak: They were sitting ducks. And a huge fog rolls in, a thick yellow fog. You could only go by keeping your hand on the shoulder of the fellow in front of you onto the barges. But the fog lasted for between five and six hours, almost until noon time. By the time it lifted, they were all gone. So Washington, again, took that as a sign of a beneficent Providence.
I want to point out, though, he didn’t always think Providence was beneficent, because in that earlier case with Braddock, his line of reflection went like this: This is how Providence works. This tiny accident to this small group--discovering us when they didn’t expected to--and they won an incredible victory they never even dreamed of, and there are other times when it looks like success is yours and it is taken away by a small little incident.
Jeffrey: At one point, he actually quoted Alexander Pope, did he not, that “whatever is, is right”?
Novak: Yes. Washington didn’t have a formal education but he read widely. He maybe felt self-consciously about his education. He collected some 900 books in his own personal library, a lot of them on agriculture--every aspect of agriculture that he could possibly read to improve his orchards and his other crops and his vineyards.
Jeffrey: This was a man who not only was familiar with the practical science of agriculture but also with 18th century English poetry.
Jeffrey: We know that Washington understood there was a God who cared for him as a young man when he was serving as a colonial with the British army. How was he raised? Was he baptized a Christian, for example?
Novak: Yes. He was baptized. His mother was a very devote Anglican. He came from a line including Anglican preachers, back into their roots in England. After he was dead—now, he didn’t have children of his own---but Martha’s children went on to produce yet another Anglican divine. So, he was a member of the Church of England all this time.
Jeffrey: From birth.
Jeffrey: He was baptized as an Anglican?
Jeffrey: His early education--would he have been taught some form of catechism?
Novak: At his mother’s knee--and she was an imperious woman. Practically as soon as he could, he moved out of the house. I mean, she had the face of the Statue of Liberty in New York. She was one of those women who are severe. She knows where she’s going, she knows where you’re going.
Jeffrey: He didn’t get along with her very well.
Novak: No, not real well. But he did in a certain way adore her. Because he took very seriously, she gave him from a very early age a set of prayer books and readings, and the meaning of faith and so forth. You can see little under linings. You can still see the copies up in the Athaeneum in Boston, where all his books ended up. A group of good citizens in Boston bought the books before the British could buy them.
Jeffrey: So, quite literally, as a young boy, George Washington was reading religious books and learning about his Anglican faith--
Novak: He was—and about Providence. He collected sermons on Providence, too. There were many given during the war, and he collected them. This was maybe the theme of religion that maybe most grabbed his imagination because of its immediacy. You know, even today, Terry, tests have been done of different American elites, and the ones who are most religious in the sense of having a sense of Providence—these small little things that can turn events--are athletes, the military and businessmen. The least religious, I don’t have to tell you, are journalists and lawyers--
Jeffrey: And some politicians.
Jeffrey: So, George Washington as a boy was trained in an understanding of a particular expression of Christianity, and this happened to be the Anglican denomination that he learned from his mother and from attending church also.
Novak: Great historians, like Joe Ellis, describe him as a lukewarm Anglican. But, hey, that’s what an Anglican is supposed to be. It’s against the Anglican middle way to show too much enthusiasm.
Jeffrey: In terms of his public expression?
Novak: Well, yeah, but even you are supposed to be self-contained, and keep it private, and not show too much fervor or devotion, even if you feel it—even if you feel it very deeply. Let the river run deeply inside, but nobody else should know
Jeffrey: He wasn’t trained to be an Evangelist.
Novak: No, not at all.
Jeffrey: He was trained to be a devout Anglican.
Novak: The best argument that he isn’t an Evangelist is that he soon created the largest still in all of North America and sold more whiskey than anyone else.
Jeffrey: Which was perfectly in keeping with his religious beliefs.
Novak: Yes, it was.
Jeffrey: And he attended church?
Novak: Well, he did. He attended church. In fact, he attended two. There was the Christ Church in Alexandria, not so very far from where we are filming this—wonderful little church. And then one out closer to Mount Vernon, but still about seven miles from his home, where they went. They didn’t go every Sunday, but then there wasn’t a minister there every Sunday. The minister came about every second Sunday. And that is almost the frequency with which they attended there. He would drive Martha. Or she would go in the wagon, and he would go on his horse.
Jeffrey: And later he eventually became a member of the vestry of that church?
Novak: Yes, when they decided to move the church and build a new one, he was the layman who, in a sense, took as much charge of the move as anybody else. Because he was the kind of man, his pastor said, the kind of parishioner you really hope for, that takes the responsibility and is regular in his service.
Jeffrey: He was deeply involved in the management and the affairs of his personal parish?
Novak: Of the church, yes. And lots of little gifts to the church--to both churches--to help their altar embroideries and things of that sort.
Jeffrey: Thanks to the Supreme Court over the last 70 years, and the modern liberal understanding, we have this view of separation of church and state that, I think, is quite different from what George Washington had. You, in your book--
Novak: Well, let me put it this way: He certainly didn’t want the state—well, I have to be careful: Because in Virginia there was an established church.
Jeffrey: Right, which was the one he belonged to.
Novak: Yes, it was the one he belonged to. But so did Madison, and Madison and Jefferson were two of the chief instruments of disestablishing the church. And that was fine with Washington. But he did believe in the importance of religion. He didn’t want the state to do what the church should do, or the church to do what the state should do. But he didn’t think a government like ours could survive unless the people had the qualities, the virtues, the character, which Judaism and Christianity tried to develop.
Jeffrey: Which, of course, he discussed in his Farewell Address. But before we get to that: You have in your book a number of orders he issued when he was general of the Continental Army. Let me just read you one. This was a general order of May 15, 1776.
Novak: He had to write that out by hand.
Jeffrey: He personally wrote this?
Novak: Yeah. The orders were written out—he may dictate them to his aide, but a permanent record is kept of those. So, you can always trace what happened day by day through these
Jeffrey: And there is no doubt that these are legitimate orders that Washington is giving to his army.
Jeffrey: Let me read you one from May 15, 1776, that you have in your book: “The General commands all officers, and soldiers, to pay strict obedience to the Orders of the Continental Congress, and by their unfeigned, and pious observance of their religious duties, incline the Lord, and Giver of Victory, to prosper our arms.” So, he’s actually ordering his troops to practice their religion?
Novak: Yeah. And he’s even giving an order about their inner life—that they should do it with sincerity, unfeigned. His idea here was a very simple one, that, look, if you don’t have a munitions factory on this side of the ocean, you don’t have an army, you don’t have a navy, and you are facing the greatest army and the greatest navy in the world with a bountiful supply of munitions coming over in these great ships, you better have faith in Divine Providence, because you’re really outmatched. As they argued in the Continental Congress, a number of the representatives: This is a foolish war for us to get in. How can we beat a power that nobody in Europe can beat?
But Washington thought and others thought that there are special advantages here and great disadvantages for the king. We think the king is on our side—I’m paraphrasing their thoughts—and maybe if we could only awaken him. We’re his subjects. We don’t belong to the parliament. If only he could awaken to what it is we want, and what we are doing. We’re not rebels. We are a united force wanting to remain loyal to him but with the rights of Englishmen, full rights of Englishmen. We don’t want Parliament to treat us like slaves. Of course, they never got through to the king. But that is the way they approached it, anyway.
Jeffrey: But here you have in this one year of 1776, Washington’s army escaping in this mysterious fog from Long Island back to Manhattan.
Novak: By the way, it doesn’t have to be a miracle.
Jeffrey: It doesn’t have to be.
Novak: If you’ve ever lived on Long Island, you get a lot of those fogs. But the timing was exquisite. That’s one thing that Washington believed about Providence: It wasn’t necessarily miraculous, but events conspired together to bring about a surprising thing.
Jeffrey: And at that very same time, this same general is telling his troops in orders that he thinks there might be a connection between their religious life and their virtue and how they live and whether or not the American cause succeeds.
Novak: Yes. How can they expect to have God bless America, how can they expect it, if they don’t live worthy of God? It’s empty words.
Jeffrey: Somehow, Ambassador Novak, I don’t think they are teaching this image of George Washington in our public schools today.
Novak: By the way, the used to until well into the 20th century. Washington was regarded by the vast majority of writers as a very religious man. It’s only as the 20th century went on that the balance of reporting tipped the other way.
Jeffrey: There has been a revisionist understanding of George Washington as modern liberalism and its antagonism toward religion has progressed?
Novak: But even Madison and Jefferson, both men were far more religious than the normal university professor is today.
Jeffrey: Even though they would have been on the religious left in terms of the spectrum of their day?
Novak: Well, Jefferson particularly was as much of an outlier. You take the 100 top Americans of the time, all those who signed the Constitution and the Declaration and a few others besides, Jefferson was the far most to the left, or to the right, whatever you want to call it, outside the consensus. He couldn’t even count on moving Virginia with him all the time, let alone Massachusetts and the other states.
Jeffrey: And he ended up being a rival of George Washington in many ways.
Jeffrey: At the end of the war, General Washington in 1783 wrote a circular letter to the states that you wrote about in your book.
Novak: Yes, a lovely letter.
Jeffrey: Let me quote from it: “I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
Novak: Now, I wonder who the Divine Author of our religion is?
Jeffrey: Who is He?
Novak: Any hint there about mercy and charity and love for one another, humility. There’s a few clues there as to just who it might be. It is not Thor.
Jeffrey: It’s not Thor.
Novak: It’s not Zeus.
Jeffrey: Well, it’s clearly Jesus Christ.
Novak: Of course it is.
Jeffrey: And he’s asking--This letter went out to the governors of the states?
Jeffrey: And he’s asking them to imitate Jesus Christ?
Jeffrey: This is the Founding Father, George Washington.
Novak: But that’s where he was. He later said to Delaware chiefs—To understand this, you have to see that because the Americans were various. Some were a new group, just beginning to form and grow large, the Baptists. Many were Anglicans, but many in New England were not Anglicans, they were dissidents from the Anglican Church. They were Puritans, the Church of Christ they later became. There were Presbyterians. There were Methodists—or beginning to be Methodists. And they all spoke of God a bit differently. And, thus, Washington, he’s the first one, even in his twenties, to govern a body of four hundred men from the frontier--rough people, unchurched usually because there were no churches out there--and he had to find some way to bring them together in psychology and moral and discipline. And here he would find nothing else that would work as well as Christian religion. So, he asked the assembly of Virginia to send him a chaplain for each unit. And throughout the war he kept that up. Every day they had to pray together. He thought that was extremely important.
Jeffrey: This common Christian faith was binding America together as a nation.
Novak: There were some reasons he gave why he liked his faith, why he found it so helpful to him. It’s not that it was an instrument for him, but it was reality, a greater reality, to which we paid deference and in return sought the help of that Providence. We may not get it. To be on the side of Providence is not necessarily to be on the side of the winners in the end.
Jeffrey: And Washington willingly accepted suffering when it came?
Novak: Oh, gosh, he took defeat after defeat after defeat and he still didn’t lose his trust in Providence. I was about to say that Providence is with you in defeat, so you shouldn’t be cast too low. And Providence is with you in victory, so you shouldn’t get to uppity. You shouldn’t let it go to your head. You should come down to the ground again. You should try to find your balance, your ballast, and try to do the will of God. He believed, as all the Americans believed, that God has to be on the side of liberty because the reason God created the world at all is so that somewhere in it there would be women and men who could freely accept his call to walk in friendship with him. That is the whole point of the universe. You may think it’s crazy. But that is why they thought they had a chance to beat the British.
Jeffrey: One the thing I found remarkable about this circular letter: I assume that he sent this out to the leaders of the states. This is the general that led their armies, he’s asking the political leaders to imitate Christ. And if they imitate Christ, we will be a happy nation. But we can’t hope to be a happy nation unless we do. The people who received this letter did not take this as odd or unusual or some sort of--
Novak: No, it’s the way one governor talks to another.
Jeffrey: In 1783.
Novak: Yeah, it’s not necessarily what they would expect from a leader on the battlefield, but on the other hand it’s not unexpected either.
Jeffrey: Later that decade they made this person the first president of the United States.
Novak: In a way you can look at that Circular Letter as the last Farewell Address—you know, from his service in the military. Well, that’s not quite right, he’s just giving a report to Congress.
Jeffrey: But it’s at the end of the hostilities, really.
Published on CNSNews.com March 31, 2009