George Washington, Saint

June 2, 2004 | 12 comments
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Clayton Cramer weighs in to the perennial debate whether the Founders–in this case, George Washington–were really believers. He brings together some interesting Washington quotes. Some of them are fascinating glimpse into the personality of the man. From a general order against cardplaying–At this time of public distress, men may find enough to do in the service of their God, and their Country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality. From a general order passing on a Congressional proclamation of a day of fasting–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. These make the spine tingle.

In a sense, Mormons needn’t care what Washington thought, unless they are constitutional scholars wrapped in the intricacies of original understanding and original intent. After all, the primary purpose of these arguments is to capture the cultural high ground in the war between religion and the secular, something like “I’m sure your position is a reasonable one, though you disagree with me AND WASHINGTON!” But we Mormons have already captured this ground to our own satisfaction. Every Mormon school child knows that Washington and other Founders came to Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple and had their work done, so yes, Washington is on our side and boy is he ever, thank you very much.

On the other hand, this literal episode of baptism exemplifies the way that Mormonism baptizes the American Revolution, the Founding, and the Constitution. Washington’s beliefs are of interest to us not just as an exercise in competitive self-satisfaction but because Washington is a saint, a saint in the ordinary sense which means that he is a brother with us and of interest as family, but also a Saint in the more Catholic sense, as someone to be looked up to and admired. It would not be unthinkable for a Mormon to find the Imitation of Washington as a profound step to the Imitation of Christ.

Lately George Washington has become something of an avenue to Christ for me. I had previously been unable to draw any inspiration from the man. Like Christ is, sometimes, he was surrounded by so much respect and so much argument that it was hard to find the flesh and blood underneath. Heroic episodes like his speech before the Society of Cincinnatti–’Gentlemen, I have grown grey in your service, and now I find myself growing blind’–hadn’t much power to move when I couldn’t feel that is was a man who did them. But that’s changed lately. Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing had something to do with it–Fischer treats Washington with warm respect and treats his critics with silence and indifference. More, I would say, was the reading of Madison’s Notes on the Convention. By the end of it, men like Madison, Wilson, Morris, Franklin, Patterson, Ellsworth, Martin, and Gerry have emerged as real friends to the reader. They’re bright, earnest, kind, talkative, angry at times, conciliatory at others, and always hoping against their better judgment that the Convention will succeed. Washington hardly says a thing. The reader is hardly aware of him. But these men you’ve come to admire are very much aware of him. At the end of every session, Washington rises to walk out and they all stand and wait in silence until he has left. When they wrangle on the Presidency they can only agree on one thing, that Washington will be the first and that he will do his duty. When, after the final draft has been printed Washington asks to propose his first change (that the floor for representation be 30,000 people instead of 40,000) they accept in unanimously and without debate. Madison writes that one day, a secret interim draft of the Constitution having been distributed prior, Washington stopped on his way out and picked up a copy lying on the floor. I hope, he said, that gentlemen are not so careless as this. He then left. Madison writes that the delegates were mortified. Each one hurried back to his own lodging to hunt for his copy, fearful that he had been the one to disturb the Great Washington. I’ve felt at times, reading the Notes, that sense of spiritual communication that D&C 50 talks about. I’ve felt what a weasel I am compared to a man like Washington, and how much I have to aspire to. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last.

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12 Responses to George Washington, Saint

  1. William Morris on June 2, 2004 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for the reminder, Adam, that sometimes hagiography has a lot of truth in it.

    And you know, as un-historical and romanticized and over-stylized and corny as it is, I still am moved by the framed print of Friberg’s “The Prayer at Valley Forge” that my grandparents gave me when I was eight or nine.

  2. Gary Cooper on June 3, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    Oh, Adam, when you speak of George Washington, you speak of the apple of my eye! I have been an admirer (a near worshiper, really) of Washington since my very early college years, when I first began reading anything about the man. To me, he ranks right there with Abraham as an example of the faithful, but with much heavier burdens (his life was spent without the Fulness of the Gospel, which was not yet restored).

    It’s one of the symptoms of our age’s “littleness of soul” that Washington, once revered as no American had ever been or probably ever will be again, is now either completely ignored or utterly denigrated. That doesn’t and won’t ever hurt this noble man, who now enjoys the blessings of the Restored Gospel in paradise; we only hurt ourselves and our children by ignoring what we can all learn from his example.

    Now, look at me, and the reverential language I’m using here. A great many people, even in the Church, would be very uncomfortable listening to anybody being described in such heroic terms. Why is that? (You might have given me an idea for my next post at doctrinal.net, Adam). In any case, for those reading here who haven’t had the opportunity to explore George Washington the man beyond what you learned in high school (if anything), let me summarize some high points:

    1. The man was burdened with an extremely intense, emotional nature, which he labored mightily his entire life to keep in check. He did this so well that many who knew him never realized just what intense emotions he struggled with. It would slip out, though, in some of his writings, and on a few occasions when he let his emotions display and get the best of him. He lived his entire life in fear that, first because of his large size (6′ 3-1/2″ tall and at least 220 lbs, very muscular and barrel-chested, and known for being very strong), and later because of his political and miltary positions, that he might unjustly harm some other person because of some petty foible on his part (what a far cry from today’s politicians).

    2. He was a learned man, mostly self-taught and home-schooled by his father and older brothers, but never attempted use such learning to dominate or intimidate or in any way make someone else feel inferior to him.

    3. He consciously strove to treat all men as his equals, though clearly they were not. He did this *not* because he was immune to pride, but precisely *because* he knew that he was in fact susceptible to being prideful.

    4. He consciously never sought to lust for power, as Adam pointed out in his reference to the “Cincinnatus” incident, again because he recognized his own secret sin in wanting it.

    5. He was ever striving to mold his life and actions according to a set pattern of leadership he had learned as a child from his reading of the Roman and Greek classics. This constant struggle to maintain a higher standard than the norm made him seem an anachronism even in his own day, but he was loved for it. Is there a lesson here for the Saints, striving to follow the in the steps of Jesus, at a time when the Gospel seems “out of place” and “anachronistic”?

    6. Absolute bedrock honesty and integrity, to a fault. (He even refused to treat some lifelong friends as anything other than ordinary citizens once he was president, offending some of them.)

    7. One final point. We know from Wilford Woodruff that not only was the temple work done for Washington, but that he wss also ordained (by proxy) to the office of high priest (as also was Benjamin Franklin, John Wesley, and Christopher Columbus). Normally, we ordain deceased men to the office of elder, preparatory to doing their endowment and sealing work. The fact Washington is now a high priest may say something about what tasks the Lord has him doing in the spirit world.

    I must say that I love the “Father of Our Country”, so much so that I’ve wanted to name my children after him (but that didn’t work since they are both girls). To me, he forms the perfect oppostion to the image of David in the Old Testament, a man of similar temperament and talents, but whose pride led to his downfall. Washington knew his Bible, and would have been conscious not to follow that poor example. We would do well to follow Washington’s.

  3. Adam Greenwood on June 3, 2004 at 4:47 pm

    Wow, Gary.
    I confess that I’m also agitating to name a son George Washington Greenwood, or maybe George Washington Carver Greenwood and kill two birds with one stone, but like you I have two daughters, and and future sons will probably have to be given names that satisfy my ancestors.

  4. Gary Cooper on June 3, 2004 at 6:02 pm

    Adam,

    I wasn’t actually thinking “George Washington Cooper”, but rather “David Washington Cooper”, after both Washington and David W. Patten (another hero of mine, the first apostle martyred in our disoensation). Also, I thought this would make a nice contrast for my son (“you can be like David of the Old Testament, and blow it, or like Washington, and live…the choice is yours,”) but while *I* might think that profound, it’s always possible a son might think, “Dad, you’re a geek! A scriptural geek, but a geek nonetheless!” Children….

  5. lyle on June 4, 2004 at 10:29 am

    Adam…so do you want to know what some of my dates have thought about my proposal to have 12 children named after the twelve apostles of each dispensation…and satisfy the ancestors? :)

  6. Eric James Stone on June 4, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    This post inspired me to dredge up an essay I wrote in 1999 about my choice for “Man of the Millennium.”

  7. Jeff Lindsay on June 5, 2004 at 10:56 am

    I believe that George Washington was one of the finest and noblest men to ever walk the earth, and feel that his example should be held up repeatedly in our schools and churches if we are to instil morals, true patriotism, and civic responsibility in our people.

    An interesting page, “The Mystical George Washington,” begins with an eye-witness account of his marvlous prayer at Valley Forge, and then provides a variety of links exploring the religious nature of George Washington. I think this may be a helpful resource. (Isn’t the painting of Washington’s prayer at Valley Forge in some of our temples?)

    An interesting witness of Washington’s religious nature, at least in his youth, is his prayer journal in his handwriting, written around the age of twenty.

    Truthorfiction.com examines an e-rumor about the religious sigificance of statements on the Washington Monument, and finds most of them to be accurate. However, the “Washington’s Prayer for America” has been altered in a somewhat misleading way. Nevertheless, his actual words (from a letter to the governors of the 13 states upon his retirement) did convey a strong faith in God. He prayed that God “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, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”

    I am also touched by the story of God’s protection of George Washington during the French and Indian War – a story that has led some to refer to him as bulletproof.

    Finally, I think every Latter-day Saint and every American ought to review the words of Washington’s Farewell Address. A helpful summary is available at EarlyAmerica.com, with links to the full text or images of the original.

    In his Farewell Speech, his words about the danger of entangling foreign alliances convey prophetic wisdom and have become critically important for our day, where we find ourselves entangled in the wars and perplexities of many nations, and find our own national sovereignty eroding through international and multinational alliances (UN, NAFTA, the misnamed Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Coalition for war in Iraq, WTO, involvement with the IMF, etc.). Here is what Washinton said:

    Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

    The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

    Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

    Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

    It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

    Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

    Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; . . .

    My, how far we have departed from those wise principles. Now both Republicn and Democratic administrations seems to spend half their energy and half our money in advancing entangling foreign alliances and having us fight foreign wars, while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone, friend or foe, to enter.

    I also value his warning about tinkering with the Constitution:

    Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown.

    I believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired. It is not broken, and does not need to be altered to deal with problems like gay marriage or excessive spending, where other Constitutional checks and balances are entirely adequate if only they were enforced (e.g., Congress can limit the scope of the judiciary, or judges who overstep the duties of their office in order to overthrow our soicety can simply be impeached).

    I am greatly saddened to see some conservatives and LDS people calling for a Constitutional Convention (“con-con”) in order to deal with gay marriage. If the movers and shakers of our country today were wise and selfless people like George Washington, perhaps we could hold a Constitutional Convention and come away with something better. But with the debauched people that hold sway today, and with the utter lack of Constitutional restraint among our politicians, the dangers are great if we step back to rewrite the Constitution. I urge us all to say no to a revised Constitution, and to honor that marvelous legacy left us by George Washington, our own modern Moroni-Mosiah-Benjamin-Alma rolled up into one.

  8. lyle on June 7, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    Adam: Maybe we could work on it together; but I’ve already began a similar tribue to the only Founding Father of our Country to live in die in these latter-days…

    Ronald Reagan,
    Latter-day Founding Father

  9. Mike Bennion on June 27, 2004 at 1:26 am

    George Washington presided over the birth of a nation and Constitution that acted as mid-wife for the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the latter days. If there was a sacred building on the face of the earth prior to the Kirtland Temple, it would have to be Independence Hall. And the Liberty Bell could figuratively serve as the “veil” of that temple. It is interesting that the bell cracked and it’s voice was stilled the same week that the Mormon Pioneers crossed the Mississippi River on the Ice on the way out of the boundaries of the United States of that day. The Bell has only been rung twice since that day. Once on APRIL 6
    1917 (note the date) when the U.S. Entered WWI.
    And the 2nd time on June 6, 1944, D-Day. Note the inscription on the bell from the Book of Leviticus, “Declare Liberty throughout the Land to all the inhabitants, thereof.”
    A couple of other Incidental Dates: Sunday, April 6, 1862, General Albert Sidney Johnston, Commanding General of the Confederate Forces of the Army of Tennessee, (and former U.S. commander of the army sent against the Mormons in the 1857 “Utah War”) died at the battle of Shiloh, Rebelling against the nation who sent him against “rebelling” Mormons. April 6 Mahatma Ghandi harvests salt from the ocean in India in contravention of then existing British Law. He thus embarked on a mission that culminated in independence for India. This is reminiscent of Joseph Smith’s prophecy in the 87th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. The prophet fortold of a war that would begin with the rebellion of South Carolina, (this was on Christmas Day 1832 when South Carolina was talking nullification) over the slave question. He then went on to say that the South would seek an alliance with Great Britain. That Great Britain would later seek alliances with other nations (i.e. 1914) and then war would be poured out on all nations. He then said that after many days slaves would rise up against their masters who are marshalled and discipline for war. (independence in the face of colonialism) This makes the April 6th dates more interesting.

  10. Eric James Stone on June 2, 2004 at 11:33 pm

    Man of the Millennium
    Over at Times & Seasons, Adam Greenwood has a post in which he discusses his admiration for George Washington. That reminded me of this essay I wrote back in 1999, so I figured now was a good time to recycle…

  11. Eric James Stone on June 2, 2004 at 11:52 pm

    Man of the Millennium
    Over at Times & Seasons, Adam Greenwood has a post in which he discusses his admiration for George Washington. That reminded me of this essay I wrote back in 1999, so I figured now was a good time to recycle…

  12. Christopher Carpenter on October 7, 2005 at 6:51 pm

    I like your blog. It is a very interesting one. Revelations of John: http://www.pouloyiannis.gr/2003_10_01_itstories_archive.html , rare pieces questioned for a long time

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