What did George Washington and Abraham Lincoln believe about God? I know that many try to paint them as deists or as modern-day evangelicals, but really both men were pretty tight-lipped about their personal beliefs for most of their lives. As much as I would like to be convinced that they were “born again believers” as I would define it, I must confess that the finer points of their theology (as in a conversion experience) remain a mystery.
However, both men did give us a very descriptive outline of some of their beliefs in their personal and official papers. Their Thanksgiving Day Proclamations outline for us a few points in their theology that meant a lot to them, and these truths serve us well today.
1. They believed in divine providence.
Providence is just an old-fashioned word meaning “the protective care of God.” Washington and Lincoln in their later years were not deists. Deism is the idea that God is the creator of all, but now He is disconnected from the universe. He has set up all the laws of nature, but now is letting nature run its own course without divine interference.
It is clear from Washington’s October 3rd, 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation that he rejected deism: “By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation. Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God…” Later in the same article he writes “that we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks — for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation — for the signal and manifold mercies, and for the favorable interpositions of his Providence.”
Lincoln, at the end of his October 20, 1864 Thanksgiving Proclamation, stated: “Now therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which, I desire to be observed by all my fellow citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land…”
Both men believed fervently that there was somebody “up there” in heaven who was watching over them and running the universe.
2. They believed God is good, gracious, and merciful.
Lincoln begins his 1863 and 1864 proclamations by listing the recent blessings upon the country: a booming economy, an expansion of the nation, and except for the Civil War, peace with other nations (he conveniently left out France’s intervention in Mexico at the time). He attributes the good news of the day to the kindness and mercy of God.
Here is an excerpt from the beginning of his 1864 proclamation: “[God is] vouchsafing to us in His mercy many and signal victories over the the enemy, who is of our own household. … He has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while he has opened to us new sources of wealth … he has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war…”
In his own proclamation, Washington designates November 26 as a national day of thanksgiving to God, “that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Both Washington and Lincoln believed that in spite of all the evil in this world, God was superintending over His world, blessing people, and bringing good out of awful situations. He is good to us, even though we don’t deserve a bit of His goodness.
3. They believed we should worship this God.
Both Washington and Lincoln’s addresses were non-sectarian. They understood from the Constitution that America was not to have a state church. (Since Washington actually presided over the Constitutional Convention and knew the authors of the amendments, I think he had a pretty good grip on the original intent of the First Amendment.)
It is interesting that Washington states in his proclamation, “whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer…” He goes on to say that it is the duty of all people to worship God the Creator. He saw no conflict with either Congress’ request or his proclamation.
In his mind, since it was evident that God granted America the miracle of victory over Great Britain, why not actually thank Him and worship Him? Man has a duty to return thanks to the One who granted victory and liberty. Washington saw it as his duty to remind us all of what we naturally should do.
It is also interesting to note that when both Washington and Lincoln urge Americans to pray to God, honor Him, and humble themselves before Him, they do not command anyone. No one has to do any of this. These are not commands from on high. There are no penalties for completely ignoring these proclamations. Citizens have the right to worship … or not.
Washington and Lincoln acknowledge throughout their proclamations that God is over the government. Truth and power do not emanate from an almighty king in the capital city. Truth and power ultimately come from God, not a human political system. Instead, both presidents see themselves merely as temporary servants who are under the authority of the Almighty, and they, like all of us, are accountable to Him.
4. Both believed in sin.
It was fascinating to me that both Washington and Lincoln talked about our transgressions before God and our need to have those sins expunged by Him. Both men believed in the reality of sin — that human beings have transgressed absolute, eternal, truthful standards of right and wrong and justly deserve the wrath of a holy God. They believed in their Thanksgiving statements (and in their other writings) that there was an absolute bar of justice in the universe, administered by a holy God who would not let injustice last forever.
Look at what Washington writes: “…that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” What did he consider our national transgression at that time? I’m not sure … I can only guess.
Lincoln is a bit more exact in labeling sin in his proclamation of 1863: “And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
He calls the civil strife and mass slaughter within our nation (the Civil War resulted in the deaths of some 700,000 Americans) “our national perverseness and disobedience.” Our enslavement of others (and bloodlust to kill one another) was a national perverseness and disobedience to God.
5. They believed in repentance and redemption.
The whole theme of both presidents’ proclamations is the necessity to pray, thank God, and to ask Him for forgiveness. Both men clearly believed that God was active in the universe and heard the prayers of sincere people. Both believed that God would actually answer prayer and bring relief.
Lincoln begs for the end of the war and the healing of the nation. And he does so by asking people to “reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications …” He asks this because he believes that God hears and answers our prayers.
Near the end of Washington’s message he asks the American people to humbly offer “prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of the Universe … to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a government of just, wise, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed — to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness to us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord — to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us — and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”
Amen. Now that’s a pretty good prayer request.