Friday, April 30, 2010

George Washington's Inaugural Sermon

On this day (April 30) in 1789, George Washington took the oath of office to become the first President of the United States of America under the newly ratified Constitution of the United States.

**See "Facts About George Washington's Inauguration" over at The American Revolution & Founding Era blog.

After taking the oath, Washington delivered a speech, a custom each President has since followed -- a speech that we know as the Inaugural Address. A portion of Washington's First Inaugural could accurately be described as a "sermon."

That portion of the speech follows:

"Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence." defines as Sermon as follows:

1.a discourse for the purpose of religious instruction or exhortation, esp. one based on a text of Scripture and delivered by a member of the clergy as part of a religious service.
2.any serious speech, discourse, or exhortation, esp. on a moral issue.
3.a long, tedious speech.

I have to chuckle at #3. Hopefully, my congregation wouldn't describe MY sermons that way. :-) And whether one wishes to think of Washington's first inaugural as "long" or "tedius" is for another discussion.

While the overall purpose of the inaugural address wasn't "religious instruction or exhortation," the portion provided above was definitely included for that reason. Washington clearly wanted to weigh in on a "moral issue" (see description #2 of Sermon) and was very much interested in providing some "religious instruction" (see #1).

The religious portion of Washington's Inaugural was not overtly Christian. In fact, it was broad enough to appeal to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian, Deist, and even some Freethinking audiences. But it would NOT have appealed to atheists, what few there were at the time. And its content certainly doesn't resonate with atheists or agnostics today, try as they might to ignore this part of Washington's speech.

George Washington clearly and unmistakably staked out monotheistic tenets in his Inaugural Address. He unequivocally embraced the existence of God, humbled himself before God, emphasized the crucial importance of prayer, and declared that the American people were "bound to acknowledge and adore" God.

These words were no mere rhetorical flourish. They reflect similar themes echoed in other speeches and writings, including his Thanksgiving Proclamation (which he would issue later that same year). What's more, Washington's sentiments were agreeable to the overwhelming majority of the American people and the vast majority of its leaders. The American people of the eighteenth century had no objection to and little discomfort in expressing their belief in, love for and dependence on God. That some do today is not, in the opinion of this author, a sign of progress.

**See "Dependence on God: An American Tradition" (a previous post here on American Creation).

Other than perhaps Thomas Paine, no American Founding Father would've even considered opposing the religious content of Washington's First Inaugural. In fact, some Founders such as John Jay (Washington's first appointee to the Supreme Court) would go even further.

Washington's Inaugural Address is clear evidence of what the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once said: "We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."


J. L. Bell said...

Under the broad definitions offered above, I think this post qualifies as “sermonizing.”

bpabbott said...

I like the way Washington approached religion. He made great effort to avoid theological doctrine.

Using terms like "Great Author", "Providence", etc accommodates a broad audience which certainly includes (as Brian nots) Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian, Deist, and even some Freethinking. As Washington's public theological expressions contain little substantive characterization of God.

Consider the thoughts of James Thomas Flexner, the late Washington biographer.

"That he was not just striking a popular attitude as a politician is revealed by the absence of of the usual Christian terms: he did not mention Christ or even use the word 'God.' Following the phraseology of the philosophical Deism he professed, he referred to 'the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men,' to 'the benign parent of the human race.'"
-- James Thomas Flexner, describing Washington's first Inaugural Address, in George Washington and the New Nation.

For me, Washington's theological expressions are often more easily associated with fate or luck with the theological expressions of his present day peers. Although, admittedly, Washington's expressiveness is much more poetic and inspiring.

... no doubt many theists see that differntly. But that is what is attractive above Washington's theological expressions. He was remarkedly skillful in casting a net that even encircled the religious passions of societies outliers.

For an atheist to take offense, I think he must infer that which Washington was careful not to imply.

Brian Tubbs said...

@Ben - Thoughtful comments. I think GW was a little more religious than you say, based on his repeated references to God and Providence, but I agree he tried to express himself in ways that were UNITING rather than divisive.

@J.L. - Contributors to this blog write commentaries ALL THE TIME. When I do it, though, it's called "sermonizing." I guess only non-Christian opinions are welcome here, at least as far as folks like you are concerned.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I'm usually the one who complains about faith "commercials," and I don't think this crosses any lines. it's a very important part of religion and the Founding, Washington's first day on the job. And right after this, Congress [with one or two exceptions], went over to St. Paul's Chapel for a prayer service.

What strikes me about this passage is that the usually impassive George Washington seems genuinely moved by this historic event, perhaps feeling the hand of God more strongly than any other time in his life. I cannot think of another occasion where he's so open on the subject of the Almighty.

Magpie Mason said...

So help me God, that's a great post! Thanks for that.


Brad Hart said...

Good, solid post, Bran and very appropriate given the occasion. I always appreciate the fact that you keep me up to date on the historical events of a given day, and this is a big one!

Yes, Washington's speech is/was/should be considered a sermon, and good for him! I don't see any problem with a leader expressing such feelings (then or now). Religion is a fundamental component to our heritage and Washington knew it.

I have mentioned before that I have been trying to learn Mandarin Chinese over the past couple months (kicking my butt BTW). Anyway, when learning another language one cannot help but pick up some history along the way. One thing I have learned is that Mao, as a part of the revolution, removed any references or memorials to Buddhism. Now, China wasn't founded as a Buddhist nation, but Buddhism has played a role in its past. Removing it was akin to discarding a valuable component of Chinese history. It's only been in recent years that the Chinese people have tried to salvage that part of their heritage.

Such is the case with America. I will be the first to proclaim, loud and proud, that we are NOT a Christian Nation. With that said, who amongst us would be STUPID ENOUGH to ignore the MASSIVE influence that Christianity had on the founding? Who is STUPID enough to say that Washington didn't, at the very least, care about Christianity in a general sense? I believe he most certainly did, and your post is evidence of this.

And no, for the record Brian is NOT preaching here.

So help me God!

bpabbott said...


I agree with Tom, you've not crossed any lines.

But, to be fair, I do infer a proselytizing nature/tone to your posts, and am surprized you are apparently unaware of it.

Back to GW, I realized that you find GW's words more religious than I do. I find it inspiring that he was so apt at connecting to individuals with such varied world views. It is no wonder that GW is a the center of the culture wars ...

... Each side is quick to see him as one among them.

The sly fox exercised great disciple in keeping the details of his theological opinions private. He never wavered, and took the truth with him when he departed this life.

I wonder what this great man would think of those who seek to frame his theology as their own. Essentially, what would he think of those who seek to reveal what he so carefully kept secret.

Explicit Atheist said...

George Washington wrote his inaugural speech before the Bill of Rights was written into the constitution. In those days blasphemy was a crime in every state. Furthermore, atheism was routinely considered to be blasphemy.

Such laws remained in effect and were continued to be enacted after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. The courts invariably have held such laws to be valid and constitutional. Laws against blasphemy were upheld on the grounds of maintaining public order and decency.

Although no one here is calling for atheism to be a crime, the underlying argument that atheism is not a matter of personal conscience and an exercise of individual liberty protected from government intrusion is essentially the same. Atheists are relegated to an outsider status on the grounds that merely defending the reasonable and sensible notion that gods are fictions and do not exist is somehow too much of burden on believers to justify monotheism escaping overt support from US laws.

In Massachusetts the General Court had enacted a law titled, "An Act Against Atheisme and Blasphemie," under its Province Laws of 1697 which declared:

"That if any person shall presume willfully to blaspheme the holy name of God, Father, Son or Holy Ghost, either by denying, cursing or reproaching the true God, his creation, or government of the world; or by denying, cursing or reproaching the Holy Word of God, that is the canonical Scriptures contained in the books of the Old and New Testaments; names, Genesis, Exodus,. . . Jude, Revelation; every one so offending shall be punished by imprisonment not exceeding six months and until the find sureties for the good behavior by setting in the pillory, by whipping, boreing through the tongue with a red hot iron, or setting upon the gallows with a rope about his neck."

The General Assembly of Maryland had passed a law in 1723, which prohibited any one from "wittingly, maliciously and advisedly, by writing or speaking, blaspheme or curse God, or deny our Savior Jesus Christ to be the Son of God,. . shall, for the first offense, be forged through the tongue, and fined twenty pounds sterling..." On a second offence the offender was to "be stigmatized by burning in the forehead with the letter B, and fined forty pounds sterling." For the third offence the offender was to "suffer death without benefit of the clergy."

A Pennsylvania act of 1700 provided:

That whosoever shall willfully, premeditadly and despitefully blaspheme or speak loosely and profanely of Almighty God, Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the Scriptures of Truth, and is legally convicted thereof, shall forfeit and pay the sum of ten pounds, for the use of the poor of the county where such offense shall be committed, or suffer three months imprisonment at hard labor as aforesaid, for the use of the said poor.

In Delaware, a law passed in 1741, required that one guilty of blasphemy was to be "branded in his or her forehead with the letter B, and be publicly whipped on his or her bare back, with thirty-nine lashes well laid on."(36) The General Court of Connecticut, in 1750, enacted a law that required the death penalty for any person guilty of blasphemy.

In 1838, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts decided the case of COMMONWEALTH verses KNEELAND, in which it had convicted an editor of a newspaper for writing, printing and publishing a libelous and blasphemous article denying the divinity of Jesus Christ and words critical of the Holy Scriptures. In deciding on the constitutionality of the statute against blasphemy, the court held that such legislation is not repugnant to constitutional guarantees of "religious freedom" or involving "liberty of the press."

Pinky said...

When a comparison is made between the American Revolution and the French Revolution as experiments in self-government the major difference is readily apparent as were the outcomes.
The French had no experience in self-government; whereas, the Americans did have that experience--generations of it.
Some of the Founding Fathers were well equipped to be leaders in that Grand and Noble Experiment as they had been involved in the self-government of the Colonies.
I think it would be very edifying to all of us if one of the leaders here, at this site, were to provide us with a serious paper on the subject of America's experience with self-government that led up to the Rebellion against the English tyrant.

Brian Tubbs said...

I agree that the right of people to NOT practice religion MUST be protected. Moreover, I agree that atheists shouldn't be singled out, persecuted, ostracized, etc.

But the US government can't be value-neutral on EVERY thing, nor can society.

We agree, I hope and assume, that the US government should take a position AGAINST racism and AGAINST bigotry.

Likewise, the Founders saw no contradiction with religious freedom in the US government taking a position FOR monotheism and, in fact, basing some of its moral assumptions in a monotheistic framework.

Brian Tubbs said...

Explicit Atheist refers to the "reasonable and sensible notion that gods are fictions."

Since we're in the comments section, I hope I can respond to that, because I'm not comfortable letting that assertion go unchallenged.

First, there are definitely "reasonable and sensible" reasons to dismiss polytheism and the paganism of the pre-Enlightened world, such as in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome.

But to group ALL religions into that umbrella is MUCH too broad a characterization.

It's okay if we disagree on the question of whether a Supreme Being exists or if we differ on the nature of such a Being. But to assert or imply that it's intellectually unreasonable to believe in such a Being is, in my strong opinion, quite unfair.

Frankly, if you'll pardon what has become a cliche -- I genuinely think it takes MORE faith (not less) to be an atheist than it does to be a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Pantheist, Deist, etc.

I respectfully don't see it as being "reasonable or sensible" to hold that the universe is timeless (meaning that it is characterized by an infinite regress of events and happenings) or that it sprang into existence out of nothing and without any causal agent.

But again, whether we agree or not, I think the Founders were consider this worldview question SO foundational that it would be impossible for society (including society's government) not to take a position on it.

bpabbott said...

Brian, nice comments today.

Re: "[...] to hold that the universe is timeless (meaning that it is characterized by an infinite regress of events and happenings) or that it sprang into existence out of nothing and without any causal agent."

Just as a point of clarification, science's understanding for the universe doesn't require an infinite regress, or that the universe sprung into existence out of nothing.

In rather simple terms, two hot topics for science science are (1) the mechanism by which space expands (what is dark energy), and (2) how matter and energy behave when there is so little space that the concept of time and causality become distorted (i.e. the pre-big bang universe).

My atheism is rooted in a genuine desire to understand things for what the are, and in a modesty to acknowledge when that sometimes I haven't a clue to where to begin.

Pinky said...

Heh heh. Not a clue?
It tis a curious thing.
I got a kick out of the bumper sticker the first time I saw it.
Life's a bitch--then you die.
It would be nice otherwise.
It is amazing, on a bright summer's day, to sit on the side of a hill and consider the wonder of it all.
No wonder the ancients came up with their stories.
But, sitting on a giant chrysanthemum? That's a little much.
And, maybe that's the point?
I think what bothers me most about religionists is their inability to consider any alternatives. It's enough to turn anyone into an atheist.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ben, I would love to discuss that more with you. Perhaps you could post an overview of the cosmology/science stuff on your blog - Ben's Place? Then, if you'd be willing, I'd love to carry on a discussion with you there.

Pinky, I agree that Christians or "religionists" (whatever their faith) who refuse to "test all things" (as Paul encouraged the church in Thessalonica to do) tend to do more harm than good and tend to drive more people toward atheism. I just hope YOU agree that there ARE some Christians who HAVE considered other alternatives and who have settled on Christianity after much thoughtful and fair-minded reflection.

Pinky said...

Oh, yes, oh, yes, Brian.
You are one of them.

bpabbott said...


I appreciate your interest. However, I'm presently making an effort to avoid the rhetoric that surrounds so many discussions regarding religion and/or politics.

While there are many atheists who are arrogant enough to make implicit/explicit statements regarding the motives or rationality, of theistic belief ... I am not one of them (at least no longer).

The reason I commented following your remark was to allow this atheist to speak for his atheism (I don't speak for other atheists).

My present intention is not to criticize. I hope to encourage a genuine and honest dialog regarding all topics, with the exception of theological examples of a personal nature, which I intend to (rationally) avoid.