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Gen. George Washington and the Continental Army rely on God in the American Revolution

October 11, 2019

The Prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Friberg, 1999, copyright permission.  In one revolutionary war story, some inhabitants claim to have seen and heard General George Washington praying alone in the woods and in his quarters while wintering with his troops at Valley Forge.

When the early American colonies sought to gain freedom and independence from Great Britain during the American Revolution in the mid-late 1700s, many colonists believed that their cause was just and, therefore, that God would favor and help them in the war.  Indeed, many found moral strength and courage to fight because of their faith in and reliance on a providential God as found in the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition.  One prominent American Founder who demonstrated remarkable faith, humility, and courage throughout the war was George Washington, the Commander General of the Continental Army.  Washington’s belief in God and the American cause affected his practices and actions in the war and his leadership of America’s colonial army.  Ultimately, his faith-filled leadership impacted the outcome of the revolution and the founding of the new nation of the United States.

Washington Taking Command of the Continental Army Just before the Siege, July 3, 1775, by C. Rogers, 1832.

General George Washington demonstrated a strong reliance on God’s protection and guidance throughout the Revolutionary War, believing that God looks favorably upon nations that uphold freedom and justice.  Such faith strengthened Washington and his troops to endure the trials of war.  As his small, ragtag militia of colonists fought against the powerful British military, Washington often impressed upon his troops the need to rely on God for assistance.  For example, in the first major battle after the United States declared its independence, the Battle of Long Island in New York in 1776, Washington encouraged his troops to trust in America’s cause and God’s aid.  He exhorted, “Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the cause, and the aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions.”[1]  On another occasion, in the winter of 1777-1778, when Washington and his troops were encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, they faced a severe lack of supplies, starvation, exposure, and disease.  During this time of hardship, Washington called on his army chaplains to hold a church service for his men on a day of public thanksgiving and fasting.  He directed, …

The March to Valley Forge, December 16, 1777, by William Trego, 1883.

Chaplain Rev. Israel Evans delivered the sermon at the service held on December 18, 1777.  When Washington later wrote to Evans to thank him for ministering to his troops during that trying period, he again pointed out their reliance on Divine Providence for success, saying, “[I]t will ever be the first wish of my heart to aid your pious endeavours to inculcate a due sense of the dependence we ought to place in that all-wise and powerful Being, on whom alone our success depends.”[3]  In a 1779 letter to his cousin, Washington reiterated his faith and trust in Providence in the revolution, writing, “I look upon every dispensation of Providence as designed to answer some valuable purpose, and hope I shall always possess a sufficient degree of fortitude to bear without murmuring any stroke which may happen.”[4]  Clearly, throughout the war, Washington steadfastly trusted in God to sustain him, his men, and America’s cause for freedom.

Further, in accordance with the Continental Congress and his own religious convictions, General Washington enforced religious and moral discipline in the Continental Army in hopes of procuring God’s blessings and the continued support of the people for the American cause.  With regard to religious discipline, he advised his troops to be attentive to their duties to God.  For he, like Congress, upheld the view, in line with covenant theology, that God is moved by the prayers and faithfulness of men.  To win the revolution, he and his army needed to prepare not only militarily but spiritually in order to gain the “favor of Divine Providence” and victory.[5]  With the support of Congress, he thus ordered the appointment of military chaplains, daily officer-led prayer, and Sunday rest and church attendance to enable the troops to develop and maintain spiritual fortitude and morale.  He explained,

While we are duly performing the duty of good soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion.  To the distinguished character of a Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian.[6]

In addition to enforcing religious discipline, Washington thought the troops should exemplify good moral conduct in order to best represent the American cause in the eyes of God and the people, upon whose support they depended.  To address the troops’ conduct, he forbid cursing, swearing, offensive oaths, profanity, blaspheming, gambling, and drunkenness.  He essentially banned any conduct that he thought might offend God or colonists.[7]  He instructed his troops,

The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary, but especially so in times of public distress and danger.  The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.[8]

Washington directed his army to practice such religious and moral discipline in hopes of securing and maintaining the favor of God and the people for America’s fight for freedom.

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, June 28, 1778, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851-1854.

What is more, Washington often led his troops to offer thanksgiving to God for sustenance during the trials and successes of the revolution.  Notably, he and his men gave thanks to God during their difficult stay at Valley Forge.  During their encampment, he encouraged his men:

The signal instances of Providential goodness which we have experienced, and which have almost crowned our arms with complete success, demand from us, in a peculiar manner, the warmest returns of gratitude and piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.[9]

Similarly, Washington and his troops also offered thanks to God for the favorable events and successes of the war.  For instance, immediately following the decisive American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, the final battle of the revolution in 1781, Washington again recommended that his men attend a church service and reminded them to offer gratitude for God’s assistance.  He instructed, … 

Washington also directed his army chaplains to “render thanks to Almighty God for all his mercies,”[11] to thank God for granting victory to the Americans.  Evidently, throughout the war, in both low and high moments, Washington acknowledged the important role of Providence in the outcome of the war.

General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army by Charles Willson Peale, 1776.

General Washington demonstrated a strong reliance on God as Divine Providence for protection and success during the American Revolution which he believed was a just cause.  His view of God as Providence, largely drawn from the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition, impelled him to act and lead the Continental Army with humility, courage, discipline, and endurance.  Because of his convictions, Washington led his troops to practice religious and moral discipline and to regularly offer thanksgiving to God during the war’s trials and successes.  Such practice, he thought, would help them to secure God’s favor and the people’s continued support for the American cause.  Ultimately, Washington and his troops courageously fought a powerful military, overcame the trials of war, and miraculously won the revolution.  At the war’s conclusion, as Washington resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief, he prayed for God’s continued protection and blessing over the nation, reasserting his long-held principle and practice of reliance on God for the nation’s success.  He spoke, “I consider it as an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them to His holy keeping.”[12]  As Washington’s faith shaped his leadership, it also helped to shape the founding heritage–the exceptional history, culture, and values–of the United States of America.

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[1]  George Washington, General Order, Orderly Book, July 2, 1776, quoted in The Writings of George Washington:  1776, vol. 4, ed Worthington C. Ford (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889), 202 (footnote).

[2]  George Washington, General Order, Orderly Book, December 17, 1777, quoted in The Writings of George Washington, vol. 12, ed. Jared Sparks (New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1848), 402.

[3]  George Washington to Rev. Israel Evans, Valley Forge, March 13, 1778, in The Writings of George Washington, vol. 5, ed. Jared Sparks (Boston:  Russell, Odiorne, and Metcalf, and Hilliard, Gray, and Co., 1834), 276.

[4]  George Washington to Lund Washington, Headquarters Middlebrook, May 29, 1779, in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1871-1873 (Boston:  Published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1873), 56, 136.

[5]  George Washington, General Order, Orderly Book, February 27, 1776, quoted in The Writings of George Washington, vol. 3/ 1775-1776, ed Worthington C. Ford (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889), 440-441.

[6]  George Washington, General Order, Headquarters, Valley Forge, May 2, 1778, in Revolutionary Orders of General Washington, Issued During the Years 1778, ’80, ’81, & ’82, ed. Henry Whiting (New York:  Wiley and Putnam, 1844), 75.

[7]  See George Washington, General Order, July 9, 1776, Orderly Book, May 26, 1777, Instructions to the Brigadier-Generals, December 17, 1777, Orderly Book, Oct 20, 1781, quoted in The Writings of George Washington, vol. 12, ed. Jared Sparks (New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1848), 401-2.  Washington’s July 9 Order stated, “The honorable Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a chaplain to each regiment, with the pay of thirty-three dollars and one third per month, the colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure chaplains accordingly, persons of good characters and exemplary lives, and to see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect.”

[8]  George Washington, General Order, Orderly Book, July 9, 1776, quoted in The Writings of George Washington, vol. 12, ed. Jared Sparks (New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1848), 401.

[9]  George Washington, General Order, Headquarters, Valley Forge, May 2, 1778, in Revolutionary Orders of General Washington Issued During the Years 1778, ’80, ’81, & ’82, ed. Henry Whiting (New York:  Wiley and Putnam, 1844), 75.

[10]  George Washington, Orderly Book, Oct 20, 1781, quoted in The Writings of George Washington, vol. 12, ed. Jared Sparks (New York:  Harper & Row, 1848), 402.

[11]  George Washington, Orderly Book, April 18, 1783, quoted in The Writings of George Washington, vol. 12, ed. Jared Sparks (New York:  Harper & Row, 1848), 402.

[12]  George Washington, Resignation of Commission, December 23, 1783, quoted in James Thacher, Military Journal of the American Revolution (Harford, CT:  Hurlbut, Williams, & Co., 1862), 348-349.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The People’s Rule
2.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims
3.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
4.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation
5.  Who Were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
6.  The Pilgrim’s Mayflower Compact as Covenant
7.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
8.  The History of Thanksgiving Day in America
9.  A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans came to America
10.  How the American Puritans were like the Bible’s Israelites
11.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
12.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
13.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War

14.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
15.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
16.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
17.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
18.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
19.  The Unalienable Right to Pursue Happiness
20.  The American Social Contract
21.  The American Right of Revolution
22.  America’s Founding Philosophy:  God as Supreme Judge, Lawgiver, and King
23.  America’s Founding:  “With a Firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence”

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 11:  A Government and People Encouraging Voluntary Prayer, Fasting & Thanksgiving, p. 254.  MS-HS.

A Government and People Encouraging Voluntary Prayer, Fasting, & Thanksgiving….

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the early Americans’ (including the Continental Army and Gen. George Washington) reliance on God during the American Revolution for strength and victory,  Students consider the influence of Christian beliefs and the Bible on early Americans and their worldview, conviction, and courage during the war and on their value of thanksgiving to God.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1, 7.2, 7.19-7.23, and pp. 236-239.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related articles/videos (see above).

Activity:  Resolution/Proclamation Chart
Review the Continental Congress resolutions and proclamations on prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving foun in Chapter 7 and in the handout, “The History of Thanksgiving Day.”  Consider the Bible-based or Judeo-Christian ideas and/or Bible verses reflected in the bold words and phrases of these proclamations.  In the left column of the table, select and write 5-10 of these bold words and phrases.  In the right column, identify and describe the Bible-based principles/ideas and/or Bible verses alluded to or reflected in these words and phrases.  Use a separate sheet of paper as needed.  Discuss.  See the “A Government and People Encouraging Voluntary Prayer, Fasting, and Thanksgiving” chart found at the end of chapter 7 (pg 242) in the Miracle of America reference book, or in the “Support Resources” section of the Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, p. 389.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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