Friday, February 22, 2013

Providence and America's Indispensable Man

The religiosity of our founding fathers has become a hotly debated topic among people today. Some claim the founders were not dissimilar from today's evangelical Christians. Others claim the founders were atheists, agnostics and deists, who rejected any notion of a personal God.  I do not claim to be an expert, but I believe I've studied the founders enough to say with confidence that both of these assertions are false.  For one, it's difficult to make generalizations about all the founders.  Today when we talk about the founders, we are usually referring to the six most well known leaders of the American Revolutionary cause:  George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

In reality, the founding fathers included a much larger group of men.  There is no set definition of a founder, but generally it is meant to include the delegates to the second Continental Congress who signed Declaration of Independence, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, as well as key figures like John Jay, Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine.  None of these men could be described as evangelical Christians. Some were fervently pious, religious men, but they were also men of the Enlightenment who, after seeing the corrupt interchange between the church and state in Europe, were extremely critical of religious authority and hierarchies.  They believed in the ascendance of knowledge, science and philosophy to propel society forward.

It would also be a mistake to discount the religious convictions of the founders.  Many of their beliefs were unorthodox, but in no way comparable to atheism or agnosticism (Thomas Paine may have been an Atheist).  It is common today to refer to the founders as deists.  Enlightenment era deists believed in a clockwork universe; one in which God created everything, wound the clock so to speak, and the universe from then on ran independently as the laws of nature took over.  One of the distinctive features of deism is the idea that God is not a personal God, and does not involve himself in human affairs.

But the founders, even the most religiously skeptical like Jefferson and Franklin, steadfastly believed God was playing an active role in the founding of America.  Their writings are filled with references to the hand of providence in shaping the new republic. Many saw America as the new Israel; the "Promised Land" for His chosen people. When designing the nation's seal, Jefferson wanted images of the Israelites being led to the promised land.  Franklin proposed an image of Moses parting the Red Sea.  George Washington ardently believed in the role of providence, not only in building the young nation, but in his own life.  Here's a story that may explain Washington's conviction.

In 1755, during the French and Indian War, Washington was a 25-year old Colonel of the Virginia Militia under the command of British General Edward Braddock.  On July 9, as Braddock's forces approached Fort Duquesne, the British came under attack from both sides.  In what came to be known as the Battle of Monongahela, the young George Washington, who was suffering terribly from dysentery, rode fearlessly across the battlefield trying to rally his shaken men who were under a hail of gunfire from all directions.  Keep in mind that Washington was 6'3"-6'4" at a time when the average height was around 5'5"-5'6."  On horseback, he was a huge target.  When Braddock was shot and killed, the British forces fell apart and began to flee.  Amid the chaos, and despite having two horses shot from under him, Washington gathered some men and formed a rear guard to protect the retreating forces.  When it was over, the young colonel, with four bullet holes through his coat, emerged completely unscathed, the only officer on Braddock's staff to survive the battle.

James Craik, a physician in the Virginia militia and friend of Washington's, said of the young colonels exploits:
I expected every moment to see him fall. His duty and situation exposed him to every danger. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him from the fate of all around him.
Colonel Washington, writing to his brother, describes the events:
Dear Jack: As I have heard since my arriv'l at this place, a circumstantial acct. of my death and dying speech, I take this early oppertunity of contradicting both, and of assuring you that I now exist and appear in the land of the living by the miraculous care of Providence, that protected me beyond all human expectation; 
A few weeks later, Rev. Samuel Davies preached a sermon in Hanover County, Virginia entitled Religion and Patriotism the Constituents of a Good Soldier.  To illustrate the "martial fire" spreading across the country, he singled out Washington in an eerily prophetic way:
As a remarkable instance of this, I may point out to the public that heroic youth, Colonel Washington, whom I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a manner for some important service to his country.
Prophetic?  It gets weirder.

Washington's stepgrandson, George Washington Parke Custis writes in Recollections and Private Memoirs of George Washington of another amazing story.  In 1770, Washington led an expedition to survey land in the Ohio Territory.  One day, while resting in camp near the junction of the Kanhawa and Ohio Rivers, they were approached by a party of Indians.  Among them was a great chief who claimed to have been in command of the Indians fifteen years earlier at the Battle of Monongahela. Upon receiving word of Colonel Washington's visit to the area, the chief immediately set out to meet him. According to Custis, Dr. Craik, who was with Washington on the expedition, related to him the chief's words as he addressed them to Washington:
I am a Chief, and Ruler over many tribes, my influence extends to the waters of the Great Lake and to the far blue mountains. I have traveled a long and weary path, that I might see the Young Warrior of the Great Battle. It was on the day, that the White Man's blood, mixed with the streams of our forest, that I first beheld this Chief; I called to my young men and said, mark yon tall and daring warrior, he is not of the Redcoat tribe, he hath an Indian's wisdom, and his warriors fight as we do, himself is alone exposed. Quick, let your aim be certain, and he dies. Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for him, knew not how to miss. `Twas all in vain, a power mightier, far than we, shielded you. He cannot die in battle. I am old, and soon shall be gathered to the great council fire of my fathers, in the land of shades, but ere I go, there is a something, bids me speak in the voice of prophecy--Listen! The Great Spirit protects that man, and guides his destinies--he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn, hail him as the founder of a mighty Empire!
Given his experiences, one can hardly blame Washington for his faith in providence, or the men and women of his generation for seeing the hand of God over America.  Today we regard all of the founders and extraordinary men, but Washington may have been the one indispensable man of his generation, and perhaps in all of American history (Lincoln has a case). Without him, the whole American enterprise would have almost certainly failed.  It's remarkable to think a matter of inches determined our nation's fate.

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